Terror and helplessness jangled over Demeda’s nerves like dueling tom cats.
She sat in the canoe with her hands bound, flowing through the darkness. Warriors sat in front of her and behind her. The landscape was only a rocking black netherworld where water gurgled against unseen banks and men shouted, increasingly in the distance.
Demeda was pretty sure that Ulet was in one of the other canoes. She called out to him and received his reply.
“Not a sound from you!” hissed the man behind her. He prodded her menacingly in the back of her head with his paddle.
Demeda did not call out to Ulet again. It was enough to know that he was there. Terrible fear made her tremble like she had just been pulled from a freezing lake. She and Ulet were hostages. Her best guess was that they had been kidnapped by the Temulanka.
Lifting her bound hands, she started to tie shut the face flaps of her tepa. As she knotted the last tie, she realized the utter futility of the act. The covering was meant to protect her femininity from undeserving eyes, but what possible protection could her cloth sack offer now? Demeda hated the headdress anyway, but she left it tied out of habit.
The shouting voices from the bank faded. The rushing waters carried her and her brother away from help in a matter of moments. After weeks of being drugged, the extreme reality and peril of her situation flung her mind into a startling wakefulness.
The canoe hit rocks or a submerged log. The man in front of Demeda let slip one curse word. Demeda wanted to grab the edges of the canoe for stability, but with her hands tied she flopped to one side and caused the canoe to rock even more precariously. The abductor behind her leaned forward and grabbed her. He pulled her back and her head landed in his lap. With her body centered in the canoe again, he paddled furiously. Water sprayed onto her face as his paddle went from one side of the canoe to the other.
She awkwardly wiped her face with her bound hands and looked at the man, but it was too dark to discern his face. He continued to struggle with the current and gave her no more regard than a sack of summer squash.
Still quaking with shock and fear, Demeda accepted that she was abducted. She had been stolen from the camp and was already beyond reach of rescue. Naturally she worried that the strange men meant to rape her, but, as a female hostage, she would be completely worthless if ravished. If they raped her she would be considered dead and no ransom would be paid.
Freshly educated in how much compassion her father had for her, Demeda suddenly worried that he would assume she was raped and refuse to ransom her. Then she would be consumed by the strange men for certain. Grasping for a way to survive, she told herself that she would have to make sure that she kept her abductors entirely aware that her maidenhead was truly golden.
Ulet, however, had no such protection from abuse. His danger could be dire, and Demeda resolved to try to help him if she had the chance. Their captors, especially if they were Temulanka, might put Ulet to many tortures. She recalled some servants’ gossip from years earlier about the eyeball of a hostage being sent to his family.
Demeda feared for Ulet. Already they had been harsher with him than her. She recalled the man who had caught her and tied her. In retrospect she wondered why she had not resisted, but now that she thought about it she knew why. What difference did it make if she was being abducted or delivered to the Temulanka King? Either way she was a captive. And if these strange men raped her, what difference would it be from suffering the lust of her enemy’s leader? That brave thought floundered as she grimly imagined being raped by many men. All the fears of male aggression that had been built into her mind her whole life erupted like a winter plague in a damp town. Her tepa was a useless protection.
She hoped that her father would pay her ransom on the chance that she remained unmolested because she was with Ulet and important to the Temulanka treaty. But ransom would not buy her freedom. No freedom of any kind existed for her. Unexpectedly this dismal realization summoned her courage. A brave bit of ambition germinated inside her. The abduction represented her only chance to experience something outside the strict task of being a treaty bed prize. Because she could not stand her paralyzing fear, Demeda decided to find a way through this crisis. Her abductors would only expect withering fear from her, and she would see if she could do better.
She heard voices from another canoe and sat up. Her canoe was moving toward a light on the shore. All the canoes jostled together along the bank. Splashes and sloshes indicated that men were going ashore. Then the two men with Demeda got out, and one of them hauled her over his shoulder and waded onto the bank. Her heart hammered against his strong back.
As soon as her slippered feet were set on the cool mud, short leather straps were tied around each of her arms. One man pulled her by a strap while the other held the second strap from behind.
Demeda called out to Ulet again. She heard a muffled reply. Then a man tersely gave an order and another man stuffed her tepa in her mouth and tied the loose fabric behind her neck.
She was hustled up a steep bank. Her feet often slipped on the wet and rocky trail, but her handlers lifted her by the straps. Her tender body was soon throbbing with exertion to which it was unaccustomed, and her breathing became ragged. Demeda soon lost track of even her fear as she simply struggled to keep moving. Her chest and her legs flamed with pain and she wanted to collapse.
Finally, they reached the top of a ridge. The moon had risen and its wedge of light showed her the curving ribbon of the creek far below. She could barely believe that she had hiked to such a height so quickly.
Demeda decided to give into her shaking legs. There was no reason that she should not inconvenience her captors. When they tried to lift her back up, she let her legs remain slack. The straps dug into her arms like vengeful tourniquets as they dragged her.
After a short distance, the big man behind her grumbled something and picked her up. Demeda was grateful to be carried. After a few moments of rest, she reached around the man’s waist and grabbed the handle of his sword. With her wrists lashed together, pulling the sword free proved difficult. The man turned in a circle comically as he reacted to her attempt to take his weapon. He rolled her off his shoulder and she yanked the blade free. Demeda hit the ground swinging.
“Ow!” he cried as he belayed his attempt to take back the sword.
Another man on the trail behind them opened his lantern. He laughed when he saw the teenage girl scrambling across the ground with his comrade’s sword.
Demeda radiated the vicious energy of a cornered animal, and the men regarded her carefully. Another man came forward with a spear and poked at her hands and tried to make her drop the sword.
She hacked at the spear but she was unskilled, and the man used his spear to trip her. Demeda fell sideways and crashed into a bush that gave way beneath her and sent her skidding down the steep slope.
She screamed beneath her gag before a small tree caught her across her stomach and stopped her fall. Sitting up, she pressed her face against its rough bark, fearful that she was about to fall down a cliff.
Someone grabbed her ankles and pulled her back up on the trail. Stones and pine needles poked her body, and her robe and flimsy gown were pulled up to her waist. She felt the chill night breeze on her exposed bottom and finally cracked into hysterics.
Thrashing and crying she fought at anyone who touched her while shoving her clothing back in place. A crowd of men had gathered and they were laughing at her embarrassment.
“Where’s my sword?” demanded the man who had been carrying her and the other men roared with more laughter.
The noisy mirth drew their leader into the lantern light. Demeda recognized the man who stalked back down the trail as the one who had bound her hands. He had a young face set in hard lines, and the laughter hushed upon his appearance.
He took in the scene quickly and Demeda succeeded in finally righting her clothing. While she was at it, she loosened her gag before someone yanked on one of her straps and she dropped her hands.
The leader confronted the man who had been carrying Demeda. “You can’t carry a girl?” he asked.
The man dropped to one knee. “Forgive me, Amar,” he said.
Demeda became perfectly still as she realized that she was looking upon the dro-shalum. Amar of the Kez had taken her and Ulet. She had naturally imagined him as older. Demeda thought that it was strange that his youth should command such solemn authority over these men. Her brother was young and shown respect and obeyed, but not like this. The men around her feared this Amar not because of his station but because he was the curse demon. Kings withered in his presence, and now he possessed her.
Disgust flitted across Amar’s face. He waved dismissively at the man who knelt before him and approached Demeda. She quailed back a step. He grabbed both straps on her arms and yanked her toward him. She fell against his chest. His net-like armor of small bronze plates poked through her thin clothing. Demeda looked up into his eyes and glimpsed a wild disregard for all of society that opened a gateway to a world unimagined.
Amar turned away and pulled her along like a surly farmer that has caught an errant donkey. She scrambled along behind him to the head of the line. A few more warriors carried lanterns and in the light she saw Ulet. Their eyes met briefly as she passed him. Blood smeared his chin and one of his eyelids was puffy, but at least he was on his feet.
Demeda trudged behind Amar. The trail started descending the other side of the ridge, and the trees blotted out most of the moonlight. Several times she had to reach out and touch Amar to catch her footing in the dark.
The moonlight returned like a smile when they entered a meadow. Here many saddled horses awaited the Kez. Amar lifted Demeda easily onto a horse. His strength impressed her. When he had been running with her over his shoulder she had been too terrified to think about it, but now that she was set on the course of an unknown fate, she could notice details better.
Amar started tying her hands to the saddle. Rubbing her chin against her shoulder, Demeda managed to loosen her gag enough to speak. She dragged her unwanted knowledge of the civil dialect out of her head, and said, “Do not tie me. I’ll ride where you say.”
His fingers did not pause in the knotting and he did not respond. But, once his knot was complete, she felt his finger moving along her left hand. She realized that he was tracing her tattoo, checking again to see that she was a princess.
Then he got on another horse and started quietly giving orders. Demeda was assailed by the wish that he was still touching her hand. The pressure of his finger still lingered on her skin. She had never known such a sensation, and the undertow of pleasure that swept through her body confused her utterly.
Her ride through the darkness passed like a feverish blur. She was sweaty and thirsty, and her mind swung between terror and excitement. Her very limited world had been smashed like a mold being broken away after the poured bronze has cooled. Demeda felt utterly exposed, but her fear flirted with the concept of liberation. After long weeks of rage about the diplomatic marriage, Demeda regarded the cords digging into her wrists as threads of freedom, unless her father ransomed her, her virginity was confirmed, and the marriage proceeded as planned. Demeda pondered the dismal irony that her only hope was the ransom, which she dreaded just as much if not more than unknown alternatives.
Demeda did not bother calling out for Ulet again. She believed that he had to be on one of the horses in the line of Kez riding the trail. They rode at a steady pace, apparently knowing where they were going. She would glimpse some lantern light ahead of her and behind her as the riders made sure they were on whatever secret trail they were using. Men on foot occasionally ran by her horse going to the head of the line and then to the back, presumably relaying messages.
The trail began to steadily incline. Demeda noted that the lanterns dimmed and then they emerged onto an exposed ledge cut into a high hillside. A light wind fluttered against Demeda’s tepa and robe and was cool around her ankles. The moon had set and only starlight streaked the wispy dark veils of trailing clouds. The trail curved around the hill, taking them higher, and then she saw lights on the hilltop. Two torches blazed like captured meteors at the base of a jagged dark bulk that dominated the hill like a set of horns on an old bull. The torches marked the entrance to a ruined stone building whose origin Demeda could not guess. If she were still in Sabar’Uto land or had passed into the Temulanka Domain she did not know, but clearly this place had known no master except Nature or outlaws for a long time. Warriors stepped out of the shadowy ruins. Demeda heard a few soft words exchanged as her horse was led inside the crumbling courtyard. Against the starry sky she saw pillars that no longer had a roof to hold up and broken walls. More torches burned within the old structure, revealing vine-covered stone friezes with strange designs that she did not recognize. Swirls in many conflicting directions were carved into the pillars and walls along with grotesque beasts and naked people. Demeda had never imagined that artisans would put their hands toward making such lewd and bestial imagery. With her eyes so wide that they hurt, she considered anew what her possible fate might be.
A man came to her and cut her free from the saddle but left her wrists bound. He pulled her to the ground. He was not Amar, which disappointed her. She wanted a chance to speak with him. Although Demeda had no idea what she should say, she decided that she had to try and assert herself with the infamous Amar if she was going to influence her situation at all. Her whole life had always been dictated by others and it was audacious for her to dream that it should be otherwise, but with her situation so desperate, she had to try. Perhaps she could even find a way to help Ulet.
The Kez hauled Demeda into the ruins. The roof had long ago fallen in and the ground was rough with debris upon which she often stumbled. She was tossed into a small chamber. She put out her bound hands to stop her fall and was relieved to crash into Ulet who had jumped up to get her. A single torch burned in the corner of the chamber and two Kez remained on guard outside the entrance.
“Demeda,” Ulet breathed. He held her face tenderly with his bound hands and caressed the fabric of her tepa as a toddler touches a favored blanket.
Demeda pressed against him and sobbed a little. For a moment it was relief enough that they were reunited.
“Have they hurt you?” he asked urgently.
“Not really,” she said and heard him sigh shakily. He was possibly more worried about her virginity than she was.
Then Demeda noticed that Ulet was leaning against her and favoring one leg. She asked if he was hurt. He sank back to the floor and told her about the arrow.
Ulet lay on his left side as he allowed Demeda to tend him. After opening her headdress so she could see better, she brought the torch close and saw the bleeding hole in his flesh through the torn clothing. Because her hands were tied, she had Ulet help her tear the sleeves off her robe to make bandages.
“Water!” she demanded of the guards outside. When they did not respond, she went to the doorway and demanded water again and adamantly stomped a slippered foot as if she had been telling men what to do her whole life and was accustomed to being obeyed.
“I must tend Prince Ulet’s wound. If he bleeds to death you’ll get no ransom,” she added, and this reasoning prodded one of the guards to comply. He left and came back with a wooden bowl of clean water.
Demeda took the bowl and narrowed her eyes at him to silently chastise him for the slow service. Before washing Ulet’s wound, she and her brother drank. Exertion and stress had parched them.
Ulet reminded her to tie her tepa back up.
“What does it matter?” she said bitterly.
“Demeda, do as I say,” he insisted.
His bossiness perturbed her. She was the one helping him, but she had no wish to quarrel over his stupid enforcement of social norms. Demeda secured her face flaps and started washing the wound. She had never done such a thing before. She had to get past her natural squeamishness about the blood. She supposed that her life was going to be very much raw and real from this point forward.
Keeping her voice low, she told Ulet how she had learned that they had been taken by Amar, the dro-shalum.
Ulet groaned. “Maybe the Temulanka paid the Kez to attack us,” he worried.
“Why would they do that?” Demeda wondered. She had no knowledge upon which to base any speculation about such affairs.
“To torment us. To provoke war or make father pay to avoid it,” Ulet answered.
“Do you think Father will pay our ransom?” Demeda asked.
“Of course,” Ulet answered quickly, but then he realized that he had been thinking of himself. He glanced at Demeda worriedly, realizing for the first time the ominous possibility that their father might write her off as loss. He had other daughters. Ulet grabbed her arm. “I won’t leave without you,” he promised passionately.
Beneath her tepa Demeda smiled. She could feel his many apologies for being so cold to her about the marriage. Patting his hand, she thanked him but added, “You take your chance to get home when it comes, Ulet. You’re more important to our people than me. I…I will take care of myself.” When she spoke those words, they summoned confidence within her along with an actual desire to take care of herself. With the sudden potency of revelation, she understood that determining her own course was all that she had ever desired.
Ulet looked aghast. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” he said.
His dismissive attitude annoyed her and she focused on his wound. Demeda cleaned it and bandaged it and then helped him pull his pants back up.
She then considered the edge of his fine plate of body armor and started rubbing the cords that bound her hands against the blunt metal edge. Ulet found his own edge to begin working at his bounds. The going was slow but not hopeless. They would have broken the leather cords except that they were interrupted.
Accompanied by a half dozen outlaws, Amar entered the chamber of his captives. The Kez flowed around the sides of the room and surrounded Ulet and Demeda. The men stuck two more torches into cracks in the old walls. Ulet sat up tenderly and slid an arm around Demeda.
The hot torchlight cast blunt shadows at many angles, and each Kez bore the same hungry expression. The shaved sides of their heads and tightly braided hair made them look like a pack of well-matched marsh hounds.
But Amar did not match them entirely. Although his hair was shaven along the sides, his remaining black hair was shorter and unbraided, and he regarded his captives like a farmer about to bring in a good crop after a season of hard work.
Another man entered the room and stood beside Amar. He was smaller and thinner, conspicuously lacking the brawn and swagger of the warrior outlaws. A tall widow’s peak in his dark hair made his face appear long and thin. The effect was made worse by the shaved sides of his head. He squinted at the young man and woman on the floor.
“I have come to explain to you why you are here,” Amar announced.
“Doing the Temulanka’s bidding no doubt,” Ulet dared to say in a fit of princely arrogance.
Amar looked at the man standing closest to Ulet. He understood the unspoken command and kicked Ulet swiftly in the thigh and then smacked him on the side of the head.
“Stop!” Demeda shouted and started to get to her feet, but Ulet pulled her back down.
“Foolish prince,” Amar scolded. He knew well how stupid young princes could be. “I am just as displeased with the Temulanka as the Sabar’Uto.”
Ulet eyed his captor earnestly, intending now to listen.
Amar looked up to the stars as if seeking the strength to be patient with a difficult child. “Prince Ulet, do you not recall the insult your tribe spat at Vu and his servants this winter?”
“You can’t expect us to give mercenaries money for nothing,” Ulet said.
“I think you’ll find that peace and security are made quite valuable when absent,” Amar said.
“What do you want?” The words were ground out of Ulet by the heavy mill of defeat.
“The same thing my Lord, Lax Ar Fu, asked of you this winter. Your respect for us and an annual retainer to honor Vu. If you had done so, the Kez would have provided security during the delivery of your princess to her marriage. A matter of importance to your tribe that is now endangered because of your disregard for us,” Amar explained.
“No matter what you say it’s extortion,” Ulet complained.
“Extortion,” Amar repeated, speaking each syllable with emphasis. “A fancy word from a fancy mouth.”
A couple of the Kez in the chamber chuckled ominously at the reference to the prince’s mouth, and Ulet shifted nervously.
Pleased by his captive’s discomfort, Amar added that in addition to a retainer, the Kez now needed a ransom for him and his sister.
Ulet tightened his arm around Demeda. “You must not harm her. You’ll get no ransom if you defile her,” he said.
“I know,” Amar said. “And I want to waste no time arranging the ransom. My scribe has come to write the demands of our Lord and send them out to your royal family. Of course I have to prove that I possess you. Normally, we’d take your little fingers as evidence, but my scribe has offered to allow you to write to your king and father yourself to prove your captivity.”
Urlen stepped up. “There is no reason to be unnecessarily brutal. Do you know how to write Prince Ulet?” Urlen asked.
Ulet nodded. He had rarely needed to make letters himself, but he was literate.
Because the princess had no way to communicate her status, Urlen said, “You will attest to your sister’s captivity I am sure?” He looked at Demeda and met her eyes that stared out from her tepa, hardly blinking. The sight of Demeda, captive and cowering, summoned wrenching memories of his lost Isamahlia’s last days.
Urlen shifted off his shoulder his leather bag that contained his new set of writing supplies, but Amar put a hand to his chest.
“A moment, my friend. The Sabar’Uto are in debt to Vu and their prince must begin to pay as soon as possible,” Amar explained, and the other Kez in the room swiftly descended upon the captives.
Demeda was snatched away by one warrior and held in a corner while the rest of the Kez grabbed Ulet by all four limbs. Wounded and outnumbered, he could hardly resist. His armor and boots and jewelry were stripped away and then he was beaten swiftly into a drooling bloody mess that was dumped back on the floor.
The Kez passed his finely crafted boots among themselves and the man on whom they fit the best got to keep them. They did the same with the two jeweled rings pulled from the royal fingers. The valuable rings of the Sabar’Uto prince were soon decorating the hands of two Kez who slept on dirt more often than not.
As this was done to Ulet, a second Kez aided the man holding Demeda and they pried the rubies off her favorite slippers. They ran their hands over her body, searching for more jewels, but she had just taken all her jewelry off to prepare for sleep when she had been abducted. The bold hands of the outlaws slipped playfully around all her curves. Demeda tensed her body as hard as wood in terror of the startling sensations.
Amar inspected the armor taken from Ulet. The chestplate was of solid bronze adorned with silver tracery and padded on the inside with suede leather. He held it up to his body.
“Looks to be a good fit,” Urlen commented.
A rare grin alighted Amar’s face. He was immensely pleased to claim this treasure.
Amar began to pull off his old armor of strung together bronze plates and Urlen helped him. Amar offered the old armor to Urlen, who shook his head modestly, but Amar then insisted in a cajoling way. Urlen reconsidered and wiggled into the clinking vest that hung loose over his shoulders. Although he never fancied himself a fighter, Urlen admitted to himself that the bronze platelets were reassuring as he ran his hands over them. The subdued brown shine of the bronze looked good over his simple black wool garments. He thanked Amar for the gift.
Amar then lifted the chestplate to his body and Urlen adjusted and tied the laces around the back. No one paid any attention to Demeda’s pleas or curses.
Happy in his thievery, Amar thumped his chest. A thick metallic thud attested to the quality of the armor.
“Lax Ar Fu will be jealous of this,” Urlen whispered.
“He can have the ransom,” Amar said without a hint of worry.
Demeda was let loose and she plunged to her brother’s side. She sobbed a few sympathetic comments to him and then hurled insults at the outlaws who had beaten him. She surprised herself with her verbal viciousness, but she mispronounced a couple curse words and the Kez laughed.
Amar informed Urlen that he could now proceed with his letter writing. One Kez stayed in the chamber with Urlen and the rest withdrew with Amar. Two men remained on guard beyond the doorway.
Demeda helped Ulet to sit up against a wall while Urlen opened his writing kit. He unrolled a small rectangle of good parchment selected for this occasion and poured ink into a small bowl and then tightly stoppered the ceramic ink bottle again. He presented Ulet with a choice of three styluses. The prince blearily regarded them before making a selection. With his hands bound, he held the stylus awkwardly. After wiping a sleeve across his bleeding nose and mouth, he slowly started to write. Urlen oversaw the work. Sometimes Ulet would glance at Urlen, who stared at him with a reproachful gaze that warned him not to think Urlen was bluffing about his literacy. He knew what Ulet was writing, and could read it easily even when looking at it upside down.
Demeda watched her brother write their ransom note. She had never been privileged to see the actual act of writing. It was knowledge forbidden to women because writing was for the larger world of men. She was ambivalent about whether her brother was making a good case for her to be ransomed. She assumed that he was attesting to her intact virtue, but she still found no hope in the concept of ransom. It would only take her back to another miserable world. The tortures there were more delicate, but still never ending.
“You didn’t have to beat my brother,” she commented to Urlen as she cleaned blood from Ulet’s swelling face with yet another strip of fabric ripped from her dwindling robe.
At one time, Urlen would have been appalled by the standard methods of the Kez, but his trial and tortuous execution at the Sky Temple of Preem had hardened him. Likewise with his Kez initiation. Very little kindness existed in this world, and he doubted that the Sabar’Uto prince would have treated a captive any better.
“We won’t have to worry about him being able to escape for a little while after a good beating,” Urlen explained dispassionately.
Demeda frowned and returned her full attention to Ulet. She pitied him. Even in all her rages over the arranged marriage, she had never wished such a misery on him.
“Done,” Ulet muttered with terrible exhaustion and dropped the stylus on the cracked stone floor.
Urlen grabbed the parchment and read it over quickly. Satisfied, he thanked Ulet with habitual politeness and gathered his writing kit.
“This message and the formal demands of the Kez will go forth in the morning,” Urlen said as he stood up.
Ulet did not respond. He slid down the wall and curled painfully into a fetal position. He was sure a few ribs were cracked and each breath hurt him worse than his pummeled pride.
Urlen and the other warrior in the chamber departed. They took all but one of the torches with them. The remaining torch was almost burned out. In its wavering light, Demeda could barely recognize her battered brother. Ulet, so handsome only a few hours ago, had been reduced to a battered wretch. He had already slumped into a troubled sleep, but Demeda could not rest, not even as her body tightened painfully with fatigue and overexertion. She might never have another chance to act to help Ulet or explore the unknown possibilities of this new situation. Moving slowly so as to stay quiet, she checked on the guards outside the chamber. They were sitting against pillars with their heads resting on arms folded across their knees, obviously asleep.
She slipped over to the sputtering torch. Pulling her wrists apart as much as she could, she held them to the flame. There was no way to avoid burning herself and she clenched her teeth against the intense pain. The burning leather gave off a dirty smell, but the bonds did not last long against the tiny flame, and she soon broke free.
The leather cords had gouged her soft skin, and the burns stung but she forced herself to ignore them. Actually freeing herself gave her an exhilarating rush of excited satisfaction. Her free hands seemed like the greatest accomplishment in her whole life.
Demeda went to the doorway. She hugged the stone walls and wished that she was a spider that could walk along the wall unnoticed. The old stone pressing against her cheek was craggy and still wet from the recent rains that had soaked into the mossy crevices. The odor of decay crept up her nostrils.
Demeda eyed the sleeping guards for a long spell. One of them snored a few times before shifting his head and quieting. Behind her, Ulet moaned and muttered but neither of the guards reacted.
Convinced that they were soundly asleep, Demeda took a tentative step outside the chamber. She felt like a mouse that knows an owl patrols the sky. Holding her breath, she put her foot down slowly with each step. As she silently snuck past the first Kez, nervous terror coupled with potent excitement threatened to make her cry out, but she forced herself to focus on moving slowly, carefully, and as quietly as possible.
After passing the first guard, she wanted to dart away, but her instincts advised her to remain slow. Her slow creep across the ruined temple would not stir the senses of the sleeping Kez, but a rushing female flitting through the dark would.
And it was dark. As she passed the second guard, she could not see where to go. She reached out blindly until she felt the cool round stone of a column. Shifting herself carefully around the column, she reached out and found a wall. Demeda moved along the wall until she found the gap of another doorway. She stuck her head through it. Torches revealed the inside of the temple’s main chamber. A few dwindling campfires glowed on the floor with men sleeping around them. Apparently the Kez felt very safe and secure in this location. Demeda noted no one awake. They were all very tired after their daring attack on the Sabar’Uto diplomatic caravan.
She studied the scene for quite a while, but observed no movement among the men, except for the normal shifting of sleep. She did not spot Amar, but she supposed that he slept in a separate area as befitted a leader.
Demeda saw another large gaping doorway on the other side of the room and some firelight was coming from that chamber. She started across the main chamber. Staying low and near the walls, she skirted the clumps of sleeping men until she reached the next doorway. Clothed only in flimsy sleeping garments and tattered slippers, she padded as stealthily as a cat. Demeda slipped through the doorway. Crouching with her back to the wall, she looked around.
This had once been the inner sanctum of a temple. Now open to the sky, half of its columns had fallen down. Two statues were crashed against each other before an oval stone altar where a bright fire burned within a stone dish. Long centuries of weather had blurred the stone faces of the statues, and vandals had long ago stripped the place of any valuable materials. One alabaster eye still stared out from a statue, and it startled her. She regretted her sharp intake of breath, and hoped that the sound had not been louder than the soft snap of the fire.
Demeda crept across the room. When she reached the leaning statues, she pressed her body against one. Perhaps the stone figure had once represented a god, but now it only hid her in its cold embrace.
Slowly, she looked around the statue. Along the back wall overlooking the altar relief carvings of every phase of the moon arched across the cracked and vine-covered stone wall. Stone carvings of naked women danced beneath the moons. Time had broken off some of the full breasts and nipples, but the women’s curving hips and uplifted arms still waved at the moons.
Beneath this ancient scene of mysterious worship lay Amar beyond the altar where once ancient rites were performed. Demeda was sure that it was Amar because she recognized his hair and the familiar straps of her brother’s stolen armor across his back.
Apparently, even the dro-shalum allowed himself the vulnerability of sleep. For a moment, Demeda questioned herself. To approach this rogue was foolish. She might startle him awake and cause him to plunge a blade through her heart. She would have to keep a bit of distance. Still moving carefully and quietly, she ducked beneath the statue and slipped toward the altar. Despite her fear, this might be her only chance to speak with the Kez leader on her brother’s behalf. Her daring confrontation seemed far more desirable than slinking back to her holding cell.
Demeda touched the altar. She imagined grisly sacrifices made on the thick stone slab. Her flesh rose into goose pimples as a profound realization swept through her. Now that the pure terror of the abduction had peaked and plateaued, she understood that her life would never be as it had originally been meant to be. Demeda was about to do something radical of her own free will and she did not know what the consequences or results would be.
She stepped forward, studying the man on the floor. His body was lean yet well-muscled with the threatening potential of a senshal. And like that predatory cat, he was stronger than the larger prey that he stalked and brought down. Amar was death in the night and yet as alluring as soft speckled orange fur that begged fingers to caress it.
She paused, remembering the reach of his sword. She wished that she could see his face. What did this young Kez look like in sleep? Was his face soft and carefree?
Amar sprang to his feet and spun to meet her. He was pure animal in that moment, defensive as a baited bear. But his wild eyes registered who had entered his chamber and his sword stopped halfway from its sheath across his back. The sight of any other person would have surely drawn the blade the rest of the way out and into flesh.
Demeda fell to her knees. She would show him submission, even as she slaughtered her fear with newly found courage conjured from all her past rages and desires. It was time to find a new way in the world or perish in the quest.
She was proud of her steady hands as she untied her tepa. She exposed her face and drew the headdress back onto her shoulders while shaking free the long glistening black tresses of her hair. Never before had she exposed her mature female face to a man outside her immediate family. The night air was cool on her hot face that burned with defiance of all that a highly ordered society had stamped on her mind.
“Amar, I would speak with you,” she said.