Secrets within secrets...
NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE
BY RIE SHERIDAN ROSE
The little girl sniffed, dragging her hand under her dripping nose as she cowered against the damp wood of the slavers’ holding pen. Her face was streaked with dirt and tears. Greasy blond hair hung about her thin shoulders. Her torn dress was spattered with filth. She had lost her shoes on the forced march from the village.
The raid was three weeks past now, and the air held a hint of frost. She drew her scabbed knees up under the ruins of her skirt, trying not to shiver. It would be another cold night.
A steady wind blew in off the sea, carrying with it the odor of salt and dead fish. The stench turned her stomach. Her last meal had been a raw potato two days ago—the slavers were not punctual with feeding times. But the pen was almost full now. It would not be long.
A loud scuffle broke out beyond the sturdy gate of the pen, and the flare of several torches drove back the darkness. She shaded her eyes against the sudden glare. There were guttural shouts in the harsh tongue of the slaver beasts, and the sound of a blow on flesh. A grunt of pain was followed by a burst of musical language she had never heard before and a strangled cry as a whip snapped. A dark figure stumbled into the pen, and she scrambled backward as the newcomer fell into the spot where she had been sitting.
Coarse laughter rang in the night, and the gate slammed shut with a hollow clang. She heard the snick of the lock snapping shut and sighed. One step closer to the ship.
The prone figure in the muddy slime groaned, and she crept forward, ready to bolt. Sometimes a new one had a morsel of food they were willing to share or a bit of news. Besides, he looked hurt, and a few men were still strong enough to bully the weaker captives.
“Sir…” she whispered. “Sir, are ye dead?”
There was a weary chuckle, followed by a cough and another groan.
“Not yet, my lady.” He caught his breath with a gasp. “Damn their eyes. They will rue this day!” He crawled over to the nearest wall, sitting with back braced against the pen’s sodden planks. “Curse it, what a nasty place this is.”
“Ye’ll get no disagreement there. Are ye bad hurt, sir?”
Even in the dim light shadowing his face, she saw the flash of his dazzling smile.
“Not so bad I can’t heal it, child. I will be fine.”
“Ye’re a healer, sir?” Her voice bloomed with hope.
“Some say so. Some whisper other things. My name is Ravenwing, lady. And what might yours be?”
“I ain’t no lady. Just the miller’s girl. Me name is Daerci Miller. Me da was kilt defending the village, and me mum is terrible sick. D’ya think ye could help her, sir?” Daerci gulped. “I-I got no money, but I-I could give ye…other things,” she mumbled, glad that the darkness hid her face. She could feel the blood staining her cheeks with crimson fire.
“How old are you, Daerci?” the stranger asked, an odd tone to his voice.
“I be just gone eleven, sir…but I’m strong…” She could not go on. She felt her lip trembling, and she did not want to blubber like a babe. She knew what the slavers meant for her. Her mum had told her to do whatever it took to stay alive, but she could not bear the thought of that future. At least this way she would have her own choice in the matter. And it would be for a decent reason.
She swiped again at her dirty face, smearing the tears through the grime. The restless shuffling sounds of her fellow prisoners only made the situation worse, and she was painfully aware how much she needed a bath.
“Come here, child,” commanded Ravenwing, his voice gentle.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Daerci knelt beside him. Biting her lip until she tasted blood, she raised a trembling hand to the lacing of her bodice.
Ravenwing caught her hand in his.
“But ’tis all I have, my lord,” she moaned, her words a broken whisper.
He folded her into his arms, pulling the ragged remains of a cloak about them both.
“And you shall keep it, my dear. Save that coin to spend on one you love.”
Daerci sobbed against his chest, clinging to him tightly.
“But me mum—she says…she says….”
Ravenwing held her in his arms while she sobbed, and the warmth of him made her feel safe even in this insanity. It struck her as odd, even as she relished the haven.
“Hush, lamb. All will be well. Sleep now.” He murmured something she didn’t understand, and her eyes fell closed of their own accord.
* * * *
But all was not well.
When Daerci awoke with the sunrise, she smelled oranges. She lay wrapped in Ravenwing’s cloak, her back against the sturdy wall of the pen. The stranger was gone, but a peeled fruit was tucked in the crook of her arm.
Yawning, she rubbed her eyes, clambering to her feet. She had left her mother alone all night. What if the fever had soared high again, making her cry out for relief? Who would have bathed her temples with moisture coaxed from the wood of the wall? Who would have sung her back to sleep?
Unable to resist the temptation, Daerci bolted down half the orange, forcing herself to stop and bundle the rest into the stranger’s cloak for her mother. She wove through the huddled prisoners to the corner for which she had kicked and clawed to win possession. Its relative safety made it a prime location, and she had defended it daily. Only a vain search for food had sent her from her mother’s side the previous evening. Hunger made her do strange things, but she prayed it would not prove costly.
As she neared their spot, Daerci began to run, scooping up a stone from the noxious slime of the pen. A man was bent over her defenseless mother.
“Leave her alone!” Daerci screamed, and flung the rock at him.
He turned and caught it in one hand. In the growing sunlight, she saw he was tall and graceful, clad in mud-spattered black breeches and a flowing white shirt. His dark hair fell across his brow and brushed the top of his collar. She knew him at once.
“Oh!” she squeaked, covering her mouth with her muddy hand. “I beg yer pardon, sir!”
Ravenwing dropped the stone, brushing the slime from his hand with a grimace of distaste.
“No offense taken, my dear child. You did well.” His face grew somber, and he held out his hand to her. “Come here, Daerci.”
She went toward him reluctantly, knowing in her heart what he was about to tell her. She ignored the proffered hand and dropped to her knees beside the still form.
“She’s dead, ain’t she?” she asked flatly seeking only confirmation. One look at her mother’s twisted features, with their frozen rictus of pain, was enough answer.
Ravenwing hunkered down beside her, draping an arm around her thin shoulders.
“I am sorry, my dear. I got here too late. I couldn’t help her.”
“‘Tis probably better this way. She were too weak for the sea, and three months gone with child. The slavers would probably have kilt her anyway.”
She felt his arm tighten across her shoulders but dared not look at him. She could feel the tears welling in her eyes, eyes her mum had always told her were like two sunlit emeralds. She’d never seen an emerald…
Oh, by the Flames, what was she to do now? The tears spilled over the dam of her willpower and cut through the dirt on her cheeks.
Ravenwing gathered her to him once more, holding her until the floodgates had closed. When her tears were reduced to hiccuping gasps, he dried her face with the hem of his cloak.
“Would you like to be free of this place, Daerci?”
“Anything is better than what them beasts want me to do. But what would I have to do fer you?” she asked.
“Be my companion. Share my road.” He quirked an eyebrow. “Perhaps learn a new trade.”
Her green eyes narrowed. “What kind of trade?”
“How are you at picking locks?”
“I ain’t never tried.”
“Then it is time you learned.” He took her hand and led her back to the gate, producing a slender lockpick from somewhere within his clothing.
“Why ain’t you doing it?” she asked, suspicious.
“The lock is iron. I cannot touch it.”
“I’ll tell you all in time,” he replied, his voice tinged with exasperation.
Daerci flinched. She knew that tone well. It had usually preceded a cuff from her father.
Ravenwing hastened to reassure her.
“I’m sorry, child. I haven’t time for stories now. When we are well away, I will tell you all.” He handed her the lockpick. “Will you try?”
Daerci stared up at him. There was something about his eyes she trusted. After all, what was the alternative?
“I’ll try,” she promised with a sharp nod of her head.
Taking a deep breath, she slipped the bit of metal into the keyhole, waiting for instructions.
(Follow Daerci and Ravenwing’s adventures in The Luckless Prince)