Living among dangerous men had sharpened Amar’s senses. A gentle noise out of place was enough to rouse him from sleep.
He opened his eyes and watched the firelight bounce on the females carved into the stone wall. Faint steps tickled his ears. The footfalls were very light, as if from small feet on a small body. Amar was always expecting Lax Ar Fu to send a man to kill him. Amar was surprised that it had already taken so long. He was sure that he was not overhearing Urlen who had retired to a small adjoining room. Urlen would not be creeping about his chamber in this suspicious manner.
The person came closer and then paused. Amar pictured first in his mind how he would move his body and then he acted with maximum swiftness. He estimated where to strike so as to cut flesh but not give an immediately mortal wound. He intended to talk to this intruder.
Pushing himself up and spinning around, Amar expected to see one of his fellow Kez, but the sight of the princess shocked him. How had she eluded her guards and every warrior in the ruined temple? Was he dreaming?
Then she removed her headdress. What madness could prompt this wanton display?
And she was lovely. Unprepared for the sight of the female, Amar found himself vulnerable to her forbidden appearance. Her dark eyes and high cheekbones radiated a striking confidence. Her tender youth aglow with ripe feminine allure struck his unguarded spirit. Amar had thought himself permanently hardened against such a thing, but a tremor of temptation rippled through his body. Amar fought back the surge of feelings. He did not want them.
Uncovered and consciously aware of how she was snagging him with her beauty, she told him that she would speak with him. It was not a request for an audience, but an announcement of what she expected.
Amar returned his sword fully to its sheath. Casually, he looked around the chamber for other threats. Perhaps this female was a distraction for another assassin, but they seemed to be alone.
“How did you get loose?” Amar asked. His men had been slovenly in their guard duty. Then with a nip of panic, he wondered if the prince was still captive, but he did not rush to check. Ulet was wounded and beaten. He could not get far, and Amar was too intrigued by the princess kneeling before him to remove his attention from her. What man could ignore this extraordinary visitor? This princess was meant to placate the war hunger of the Temulanka King, and she had come to him.
Demeda ignored his question. She spread her hands in a friendly gesture, and Amar noted quickly the little burns on her wrists that explained how her bonds had been removed. She was crafty and unafraid of a little pain.
“I have come to ask for my brother’s release,” she said.
Amar was glad to know that the prince was still in his custody. He said, “I admire your loyalty to your brother, Princess, but do not trouble yourself. Your father will pay the ransom and he will go free.”
“But he is hurt. Let him go. I offer myself as his ransom,” Demeda said, and even though she was determined to be brave, she quivered inside with fear of the unknown. She had done it. She had offered herself to this dangerous rogue. She expected him to promptly seize her and do what a man could do.
Having been raised to believe that her body was coveted by all men and therefore must always be guarded, she was surprised when he only stared at her with confusion.
“Has the prince told you to do this?” Amar asked. He could not imagine that it was her idea and perhaps her brother was despicable enough to offer his sister’s maidenhead to outlaws.
Demeda shook her head. “No, Ulet knows nothing of this. I offer myself to you if you will return my brother to his people.”
Amar smirked with contempt. “Foolish girl. How could you expect to enforce such a bargain?”
Demeda had to think for a moment. She wanted to answer intelligently, which was difficult because she was making things up as she went.
“I can hope that I can please you enough that you will grant my request,” she explained.
Still quite disbelieving, Amar walked around her and examined her thoughtfully. Demeda’s fear spiked when he stopped behind her. She wondered what this killer might do.
She stood up and faced him. His mesmerizing dark eyes were waiting for her. Demeda felt a startling attraction to him. She realized that she had been attracted to the very thought of him since he had first approached Chadenedra. He was the notorious dro-shalum, and he looked like pure freedom.
Suspicion clouded his face. “You have come to me for some reason besides your brother,” Amar determined.
Demeda’s brash facade faded because he had guessed her heart. She supposed that she should tell him. Regaining her courage, she said, “Amar, I wish to be free. That is why I offer myself to you. Without my virginity I won’t be accepted back.”
He simply stared at her, amazed and not really understanding.
Demeda continued, “I don’t want to marry the Temulanka King. His tribe is the enemy of my tribe and the thought of it makes me sick. I won’t do it. When you took me tonight, you saved me.” She reached out to him, but he withdrew a hasty step as if her touch would strike him dead.
“Demeda. My name is Demeda,” she interjected.
Amar scowled, upset with himself for allowing his female captive to unsettle him. He should call for his men and have her put back in her cell, but he did not do it.
“You must be mad,” he decided. “I’m not going to touch you nor let any other man touch you. Lax Ar Fu wants your ransom. I’m not going to throw away that gold just for the pleasure of breaking you in.”
“I know you aren’t going to let any other man touch me,” Demeda agreed with purring pleasantness. She did not understand how he was resisting her. Perhaps a virgin was not as appealing as she had always been led to believe. Maybe if she was an experienced woman she would know how to properly seduce him. Still, it was an amazing thrill to try. It made her feel powerful. She had never in the most liberal daydream imagined that she would fling herself at a notorious outlaw. She liked it.
Demeda continued, “Amar, no one will know if my honor is intact before paying my ransom. You risk nothing. I will even help you make twice as much on my ransom. Tell your scribe to write on my behalf to the Temulanka King. I will personally ask him to ransom me because I am officially his. If he calls himself a man and a king, he must save me or otherwise my tribe will blame him for letting me be taken by outlaws on the border of his domain. It is his duty to pay the ransom if he truly wants the peace treaty. It’s the only way to prove that he was not behind this abduction.”
Amar raised his eyebrows, impressed by her devious cleverness.
Demeda continued, “My demands of my future husband will resound through our lands. He will be shamed and the treaty doubly threatened. He will pay just to save face.”
Amar considered her idea. It might actually produce a double ransom, or at least increase the chances of receiving a ransom for her at all. But the greatest appeal of her proposal was that it would increase the tension between the Sabar’Uto and Temulanka even more, which was precisely what Amar wanted.
“I like your idea. I will have Urlen write it in the morning,” Amar said.
Demeda smiled. She was beginning to be less a victim and more a conspirator in her abduction, but she needed more. She grabbed his hands. He tensed and a cold emotionless wall descended over him like a falling portcullis, which actually encouraged her. He was trying very hard to ignore the closeness of her body.
“You must promise me that no matter who ransoms me or if no one does that you will not turn me over to either tribe. I don’t want to go home or go live with the Temulanka. You have shown me a third path and I will follow it!” she declared.
Her bizarre passion intrigued Amar. Why would a woman, especially of her privileged birth, want this? Other lawless women lived outside society and even among the Kez, but they were of low birth. He supposed she could become like them, but she could not possibly know what that life would be like.
Her fingers traced the edge of his leather bracers. Amar touched her hands lightly, and the contact made him tingle. He had thought that he had put aside such feelings. They were only weakness and he needed to be strong, but Demeda had awakened him with a sharp crack from the whip of temptation. Amar tentatively reached for her body. His lust had been dormant, not dead, and, as a bulb must swell and flower in the spring rains, he allowed himself to feel desire. He touched her shoulders and then ran his hands up her neck. She shuddered and Amar saw fear flash in her eyes. This was truly something of which Lax Ar Fu could be jealous. This sweet cup of triumph could only be sipped from once, and perhaps it was fitting for Amar to indulge in one more spoil from his successful raid on the Sabar’Uto caravan.
“No bargains. No promises,” Amar said. And then he said her name, speaking it purposefully as if casting a spell. “Demeda, if you would be with me, then do it because you want me and nothing else.”
Demeda knew she must not throw away her one rare treasure without gaining his promise – whatever it might be worth, but she had gone too far. She was not in control. The power she had been playing with consumed her in its fire. His hands were on her, and the hot harness of youthful instinct yoked her body. Demeda nodded weakly. She would be with him just because she wanted him.
Amar touched her breasts. Gently he found the nipples beneath the fabric and rubbed them until they popped up like mushrooms after a rain. He bent in for a kiss. They brushed their lips together. Their movements were hesitant and slow. When their tongues met, he pulled her clothing off her shoulders and shoved her loose tepa onto the floor.
Demeda gasped as his movements grew stronger. His passion drank deeply of her body. She had imagined what this would be like many times, but her fantasies had not prepared her for the intensity of the experience. A hungry pleasure flowed through her body and she could only let the feast proceed. She was not sure what to do, but Amar steered her steadily toward their coupling. His hands massaged her breasts and moved down to her hips. He pulled all of her clothing off. Cool air breezed through her legs and she shivered despite the heat blushing her skin.
“Touch me,” he commanded with his face in her neck.
Demeda obeyed. Amar was muscle and metal. Her own brother’s armor separated them, but she forced that weird coincidence from her thoughts. She located the waistband of his pants and slid her small hands into his clothing. His erection startled her. Amar chuckled at her virginal reaction and slid a hand between her legs. Warm, wet, willing, she could not help but press against his caressing fingers that sought out her most sensitive places. She moaned and her breath came in stuttering wisps of air and then she cried out.
Amar grabbed her by the buttocks and swung her around onto the altar. He mounted her and abandoned himself to the pleasures that they were sharing. Her soft female body encased his hardness, and he descended into a thoughtless place. It was like the bliss of battle or being near Onja, but it was hotter and kinder. The sensations were almost alien to him at first. This had been the world of Gendahl. A thing that other men indulged in, but not Amar. Yet, he was taking her and letting himself revel in the possession and passion.
After climaxing, he pulled Demeda into a sitting position on the altar and hugged her. Petting her tousled hair, he nuzzled her face with kisses and murmured her name.
She was sweaty and tears streaked her face. The fierce strength of Amar’s embrace had been both frightening and wonderful. A feeling of inescapable submission had consumed her, but now it was passing. She suspected she might never fully understand how that moment of helpless craving could make her feel good.
Amar looked over her shoulder, and Demeda felt him tense. She turned to look as well. The doorway to the temple’s inner sanctum was crowded with Kez warriors, all of whom looked rather bemused.
She realized that her cries must have roused them, and they had rushed to investigate. She had to wonder how long they had watched, and then she cringed with embarrassment. She buried her face against Amar’s armor.
His hand massaged her neck, reassuring her. “Go check the prince. See that he is well guarded,” he said
“Yes, Amar,” someone said and the men left.
Amar returned his attention to Demeda. He carried her off the altar and lowered her onto the single blanket that he had been sleeping on earlier. Taking off his armor and the rest of his clothing, he descended upon her fully naked now.
She touched his face and ran a hand along the shaved side of his head. “Amar,” she said and kissed him.
Amar began to kiss all over her body, prowling inexorably lower with his lips. Demeda noticed the pink dawn strike the tops of the ruined columns and walls as she lay back with him between her legs. Then pleasure tipped her toward oblivion, a marvelous oblivion that had never experienced before. Arching her back, she cried out, not caring if every man in the area heard her. She knew they were all thinking about her anyway, so let them hear. She was with Amar and none of them could touch her. The world could not touch her. She had escaped her fate.
Amar raised himself onto an elbow so he could look down on Demeda. The midmorning sun had driven the dramatic mystery from the temple’s crumbling inner sanctum. The ruins appeared like the sleepy half-memory of a dream as the daylight brightened the foliage vining among the old stonework.
He ran a hand along Demeda’s body, cupping her breast and then toying with her belly button. She was soft and a little thin. A woman whose bloom had just opened its first petals.
Amar felt sated, but he was not quite sure if he liked the feeling. He derived more energy from wanting and craving. But he did not regret his indulgence. Demeda had shown herself to be extraordinary in many ways. Although he considered her strange, he admired her daring, and he had to admit that she had impressed him by slipping past all his Kez warriors in the night, which reminded him that some reprimands were in order.
“Get your clothes,” he told her while reaching for his own.
Demeda watched him dress. The sight of his hard young body intoxicated her. She could not imagine giving up her virginity to a finer man. She hoped that she would never forget the tenderness that she had extracted from his fierce flesh.
“Urlen,” Amar hollered as he put back on his new armor.
Expecting company, Demeda finally snatched at her flimsy gown and the remnants of her robe. She wished that she could have been abducted before she had undressed for the night.
Urlen hustled into the sanctum with a water jug. He handed it to Amar and said that it had just been drawn from the spring at the base of the hill. Amar quaffed a big drink, rinsed his teeth, spat, and then drank.
Demeda thought he was the most delightful picture of an outlaw as he spat on the floor of a place that had once been sacred. She then forced herself to meet Urlen’s curious gaze.
Urlen removed a piece of dried fish from his pack and offered it to Amar, who gladly started chomping on the chewy flesh. Between mouthfuls, he told Urlen about the message that Demeda wanted to send to the Temulanka King. Urlen smiled at her audacity.
With the fish quickly eaten, Amar grabbed his belts and slapped his blades back into their proper places. He scooped up the water jug and handed it to Demeda. Briefly, he looked into her eyes as if he might say something, but, without another word, he walked away.
Demeda resisted her urge to run after him. She clearly was not invited, but she did not know what to do with herself.
Urlen helped her past that awkward moment when she began to wonder what destroying her life might mean for her. He cleared his throat in a bureaucratic manner and slipped closer to her.
“Welcome to our club,” he said.
His amused attitude allowed her to smile back. Such a strange thing to smile at this man who could see her face. Kicking aside an unwelcome wave of shyness, Demeda asked if her brother was all right.
Urlen nodded but did not mention the round of torment Ulet had suffered that morning as the other Kez had teased him about what his sister was doing with Amar.
Urlen opened his bag and rummaged out a stale chunk of bread for her. “Not exactly royal fare,” he apologized.
She accepted the torn loaf that clearly had forsaken freshness. She was very hungry. As she ate, Urlen turned to business and reviewed with her what she wanted to say to the Temulanka King. He offered a few suggestions to embellish the shame she was trying to inflict on the man who should have been her husband.
Urlen added, “We’ll also need to send a few copies to others besides the King. The Temulanka council of war chiefs will need to hear of this and I think the high priest of Jayshem’s temple in the Temulanka capital should be notified. Oh! I know, you will appeal to them for help because you’re such a good and pious virgin.”
Demeda’s eyes widened with shock. She was not used to any of this. She was chatting with a man about manipulating the political players of the Temulanka Tribe. Urlen’s criminal nonchalance was a marvel to behold.
Rubbing his hands together, Urlen invited her to join him while he wrote. He had found a nice spot outside the temple that provided an excellent view.
Demeda hesitated. “Where is Amar?”
“Well,” Urlen stalled. He felt like he should advise their lovely captive in some way, but what could he say? Tell her not to get too attached to the murderous villain she had been fornicating with all morning? He chose to say only that Amar was a busy man.
Demeda looked down at her tepa that was still on the floor. The discarded lump of fabric summed up how trampled she felt. She reminded herself to be brave. She still had her chance to make a new life whatever it might be. As the stale bread she had just eaten indicated, not everything on this course would be as pleasant as Amar’s embrace.
“I should check on my brother. He is hurt,” she said.
Urlen plainly saw her dread for that unpleasant reunion. “Would you like me to go with you?” he said.
The offer brightened Demeda, and she decided that she liked Urlen.
Demeda took the water jug with her. Outside the chamber where Ulet was kept, she noted two Kez attentively on guard. Their cut lips dripped blood, and she realized that Amar had just punished them for failing to guard her properly the night before. Demeda imagined Amar striking his underlings, and fear of him fluttered against her heart.
I must never let him see me afraid of him, she decided.
Ulet looked terrible. The gold beads on his clothes had proved too tempting for his captors, and he had been stripped to his under garments. Demeda pitied his swollen face, but his ugly scowl showed that he already considered her as good as dead.
Despite his obvious scorn, Demeda resolved to show herself to be the better person. “I’ve come to clean your wounds, Brother,” she said.
Ulet cringed. “Don’t touch me, whore,” he snarled.
The coarse word stabbed her, but she hid her hurt. Demeda kneeled beside him and bent over his face. “Shame on you, Ulet. Don’t judge me. You were taking me to whore with your enemy so you could have peace. If you can’t be nice, don’t talk to me,” she scolded him and started to ease the crude dressing off his buttock.
The damning truth of her cold words blunted his sharp tongue. Ulet would never admit it, but he knew that he had done far worse by her than she had by him.
After a few tense moments with Urlen looking on, Ulet finally attempted conversation again. “You’ll get no ransom now,” he said.
Demeda wiped his wound and applied a fresh scrap of bandage over it. “That does not concern you any more,” she said.
With a growl, Ulet accused her of tricking him. “You made me write that ransom note on your behalf and then threw yourself at that outlaw.”
“I did not trick you,” Demeda said.
“They’ll all rape you,” Ulet spat.
Demeda murmured that she doubted it, and her quiet disregard for her disgrace stymied her brother.
As Demeda finished tending Ulet, she asked Urlen if her brother could have food. Urlen said that he would see to it. Demeda stood up, glad that the strained meeting was about to conclude.
Allowing herself a final triumph, she said, “You should have listened to me when I told you to go back. Because of your mistake, I am free of you. And when you get back to your father, tell him I am free of him now too.”
Feeling like the queen of all Gyhwen, she spun around and walked out of the chamber. The guards shifted uneasily as she passed them with Urlen in tow, but they did not stop her. Apparently, their reprimand from Amar had not included any new orders to restrict her.
The Kez remained at the temple hideout for another two days. A couple times a day, Kez scouts came and went after speaking with Amar. Demeda mostly kept to herself or chatted with Urlen. She saw Amar very little. He kept a strict physical regimen of running, other exercises, and weapons practice with his closest warriors. But at night when she went to sleep in the inner sanctum of the ruins, he would come to her. Demeda loved having him to herself. This mysterious man whose name was fear among many tribes took her in his hard unyielding arms and poured his passion into her. Sometimes he was fierce and other times he was gentle, savoring every line and curve of her body. On their third night together, he led her down to the spring at the base of the hill. They bathed and made love beside the cool waters, and Demeda felt like they were the only people in the world. The moon glowed above the hilly forest that sang wild songs. A lantern set on the rocky edge of the spring cast its yellow rippling glow across the pure waters. Demeda arched her head back into the water to wet her hair and slick it back from her face. She then floated her breasts so that the nipples just barely poked out of the water. Amar swam over to her, slipped beneath the water and came up between her breasts. He rose to his feet and his shoulders and hard chest passed before her eyes as he wrapped his arms around her. They kissed and Demeda ran her hands along his splendid chest until she clasped the small pouch around his neck. His hand instantly intervened and he stopped kissing her.
Demeda apologized. “I won’t take it,” she said.
Amar loosened the pouch. He took out the crystal orb and Demeda gasped lightly when she saw its blue radiance glowing upon his palm. The light inside the smooth orb moved lazily. Amar lowered it below the surface of the water and it illuminated the water down to the pebbly bottom and cast shifting blue light over their naked bodies.
“What jewel is this?” Demeda asked.
“Not a jewel. Onja made this crystal with her hand,” Amar explained.
“Onja? She is the rys that Urlen told me about?” Demeda said.
Amar nodded. Demeda asked if she could touch the crystal and Amar gave it to her. When its light dimmed in her hand, she realized that its power was especially attuned to Amar.
“What does it do?” she asked.
“It helps Onja contact me,” he explained.
“Does she do it often?” Demeda said.
“Not of late. Onja has gone back to her people, but she will come back. She has a purpose for me,” he said, and Demeda noted his dreamy expression when he spoke about Onja. Jealousy flashed in Demeda, but she forced it away. She was with Amar now and his rys patron was far away.
Handing the crystal back to him, she thanked him for showing it to her. As he returned the orb to its pouch, Demeda tried to keep this rare spurt of conversation going.
“Urlen told me your tribe was destroyed? Which tribe?” she said.
When he told her that he had been born to the Lin Tohs Tribe, she said that she had never heard of it.
“And you never will,” he said.
Demeda suddenly started to grasp what it was to be an outlaw. It was to be without a tribe, and in Amar’s case, he had no tribe to go back to. Demeda had no tribe to return to either. She started kissing him again and they returned to the blanket spread beside the spring where their bodies joined late into the night.
After they dressed and were hiking the trail back up to the temple, Demeda pulled him to a stop. With her hand still in his, she noted the moment, hoping she would remember it always. Even in their short time together, she had learned that his leadership position among the Kez meant a great deal to him and left little time for her.
“Amar, are you really dro-shalum?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered readily and tugged her up the trail.
His chilling candor startled Demeda, yet she smiled. Her life had never been interesting before. Now it was dangerously unpredictable and it made her feel alive.
They next morning, they left the temple hideout. Demeda rode behind Amar and enjoyed the act of traveling with her head uncovered. She noted the curiosity, interest, and sometimes lust in the eyes of the other Kez, but no one spoke to her rudely or touched her. She supposed that her association with Amar accounted for their restraint.
Ulet was in the middle of the line of warriors, and she was glad for the distance between them. Riding was painful for him because of his wound, but the Sabar’Uto prince suffered his captivity bravely. He refused Demeda’s help and looked after his hurts himself now.
Demeda could feel the great wedge of disgrace that she had jammed between them. She also understood that Ulet was incapable of grasping her reasons for what she had done. How could he fathom that she might want to make a decision for herself? Demeda refused to believe that she was causing any harm in discarding her supposed duty. The tribes would inevitably war. Her marriage might have delayed a war, but not prevented it forever.
The Kez traveled their secret trails through the hilly forests between the domains of the Sabar’Uto and the Temulanka. Wary of warriors from either tribe, they frequently sent scouts in various directions. After their first night of camping in the forest, Demeda noted how carefully the Kez broke their camp. Ashes from campfires and horse apples were scattered, and everybody took care to limit signs of their passing.
On the second night, they did not light any fires. Scouts had reported a Sabar’Uto search party at the mouth of a nearby canyon. Amar had Ulet gagged in case he might decide to start yelling.
Without any fires, the evening shadows gathered ominously. An instinctive fear of the dark assailed Demeda. She had never been so exposed to Nature with the cold ground beneath her and the inhuman presence of the trees around her. The spirit of Gyhwen was strong in the night, and she was but a single small creature cowering upon the face of a powerful world.
Loneliness oppressed Demeda as well. Since leaving the temple, Amar had not lain with her or barely spoken to her. She worried that he was done with her, and that thought was terrible. She needed his protection.
At least Amar had given her a deer skin, and she wrapped herself in it now. The night air was growing chilly and a drizzling rain started. She pulled the skin over her head to create a crude tent over her body. Demeda clung to her courage. She could not go back to her old life and she did not want to. Despite her brave resolve, quiet tears flowed with the raindrops on her face.
Nearby Amar and Urlen were chatting softly, but she could not catch what they were saying. She envied their quiet conversation. They sounded like friends. Thinking of Mallah, the pang of friendship lost strummed the strings of her soul. With nothing else to do in the wet dark, she slumped to the ground and yielded to fitful sleep.
It was still dark and raining harder when Demeda recognized the touch of Amar’s hand on her face. For a delighted instant she hoped that he was going to lay with her and keep her warm, but he commanded her instead to get up.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I want to move on while it’s still dark. A Sabar’Uto war party is close. The rain will help cover our tracks,” Amar explained.
Demeda was glad that he was taking such care to avoid her possible liberation by her tribe. Part of her then thought of Ulet, who was suffering, but his freedom would be bought in due time.
The Kez rode all night and pressed on into the next day until Demeda was nearly delirious in the saddle. Her body had been through more in less than a week than it had experienced in her whole life. She could feel herself getting stronger, which never would have happened in her former life.
Demeda catnapped during the few breaks the Kez took that day. She never bothered to ask where they were headed. She would not have recognized any destination anyway.
After taking a particularly rough trail up a ridge, the group stopped and Amar dismounted. As he walked back to Demeda’s horse, he signaled discreetly to Kym.
Amar helped Demeda off her horse and led her over the crest of the ridge. The rest of the Kez stayed behind. The land was steep and she relied on Amar’s help to keep from stumbling. Her tattered slippers offered scant protection from stones. Finally they skidded to a stop along the edge of a ravine.
Holding her hand as he usually did, Amar tugged her along at a quick pace until they reached a rope bridge across the ravine. The thick but weathered ropes and sticks that comprised the bridge blended with the dusky granite of the ravine. It would be easy not to notice the bridge, especially how it was positioned in the shade of two large trees overhanging the ravine.
Amar tested the bridge with his weight and then scampered across it. He turned and beckoned Demeda, who eyed the bridge doubtfully. The stream in the ravine below splashed around boulders, and Demeda hesitated.
Don’t let Amar see you afraid, she told herself and hurried across the bridge. Amar continued along a narrow trail. A trio of goats crossed the path and Demeda guessed that someone lived nearby.
The dusk was gathering when they reached a grass and moss covered stone cottage built into the base of a rocky hill. A woman stood in front of the cottage and she waved. Her dark hair was held back by a green headband, and a leather tunic that only went halfway down her thighs was all that she wore except for sandals.
After days among only men, Demeda brightened at the prospect of female company. She was used to almost exclusively being with women and their absence had created a jarring emptiness. When another woman wearing a green cloth dress came out of the cottage, Demeda was even more excited. She needed some female companionship and she hoped that she might at least be able to get some more clothing.
By the time Amar and Demeda reached the cottage, a third woman approached, apparently returning from foraging in the forest. Her basket bulged with fresh spring herbs and greens. She was older with streaks of gray through her hair and lines on her brown face. Bright confident eyes twinkled from her broad face that commanded a big curvy body.
The women assembled to greet Amar. They bowed to him while eyeing Demeda with strong interest.
“I need a favor,” Amar said.
The older woman responded saucily, “I lay awake at night hoping to hear those words from you, Amar.”
He ignored her flirtation and introduced Demeda. Then he bade the other two women to take Demeda into the cottage so that he could speak alone with the older woman.
The two younger women beckoned Demeda warmly and ushered her into the modest cottage. She looked back questioningly but followed politely.
Inside the cottage was dark, but it smelled fresh, spicy even. Low beds made of small split logs piled with furs and brightly dyed wool blankets ran along two sides of the single room, and a large hearth, table, and benches filled up the rest of the cottage that was stuffed with jars, baskets, bags, and all manner of clutter, familiar and strange.
The two women introduced themselves. Their accents were difficult for Demeda but she managed to learn that the woman with the green headband was Mei and the one in the green dress was Luci, who was missing a front tooth, but had a happy smile all the same.
They brought Demeda a cup of water, which she accepted gratefully. Mei and Luci were eager for conversation, but the low voices outside distracted Demeda. Her intuition flashed with warning. Putting down the drinking cup, she rushed out.
Amar and the woman appeared to have just finished speaking. The older woman took Demeda’s arm as if to put her back in the cottage, but Demeda shook her off with a willful yank and confronted Amar.
“Are you leaving me here?” she demanded.
He looked uncomfortable. He glanced at the sunset that was a yellowish pink hot spot through the trees.
“I think you will be safest here,” he said.
“I am safest with you,” she countered.
Amar frowned thoughtfully. Demeda wondered how the man, who could hold her so passionately, at times even tenderly, could be so reluctant to speak with her.
Amar seemed to accept that Demeda was not a woman that he could drop off without an explanation. Based on her behavior so far, he judged that she would come after him if he could not convince her to stay. But explaining his actions annoyed him.
“Demeda, I go to Lax Ar Fu, Overlord of the Kez, to present my captive and await his and perhaps your ransom,” he said.
“Why can’t I come?” she said.
Glancing again at the sunset, Amar said, “Word has reached me that Lax Ar Fu is unhappy with what I have done…with what we have done.”
Demeda softened her stance. She had not even conceived that her actions could trouble him. He was the dro-shalum.
Amar continued, “My Lord thinks I have overstepped myself by deflowering a female captive of such importance. And I suspect he is jealous. I leave you here so he is not tempted to hurt you to spite me.” Amar reached out and touched her hair. “I think it best that Lax Ar Fu not to see what he has missed. Bringing you to him will complicate matters for me. I can show no weakness to Lax Ar Fu.”
Demeda laid her head on his chest. She was the weakness of the dro-shalum. Amar wanted to make sure the Kez Overlord did not seize her. She was grateful for the sign that Amar actually possessed some true feeling for her. Demeda also considered that she must strive not to be a source of problems for Amar.
“I understand,” she whispered.
Amar allowed himself a sniff of her hair and then detached himself from her, without even a kiss. He told her that within two or three weeks, he might know if a ransom was coming for her, and he would send for her then.
Outrage drove off Demeda’s fatigue. “I will not be ransomed! You won’t give me back!” she declared.
Amar was not used to someone speaking to him like that, but he did not lift a hand to punish her. Dispassionately, he said, “The ransom is important and you will be presented for it. Whether you go with them remains to be seen.”
“I won’t!” Demeda sounded like a petulant child.
“Perhaps in a few weeks you will reconsider,” he said gently.
Demeda shook her head. Maybe Amar was being kind to give her a second chance. This life she had cast herself into certainly had its hardships. “Amar, I would be expected to kill myself if I went home,” she said and imagined with wrenching distaste how her own relatives would bring her a cup of poison.
“Still, I will send for you,” Amar said. “This is about the ransom and flexing our muscles with your tribe and the Temulanka. I must attend to that.” He turned.
Demeda took a step after him, but then crushed the pathetic clinging display that she was about to make. Amar was not attracted to weakness and she sternly told herself not to blubber after him. Everything he had said was spinning through her mind. He was leaving her here for safety’s sake. She was in danger.
“Amar, wait,” she called. “When you send for me, how will I know that it is you and not Lax Ar Fu?”
He stopped and looked back. Surprise highlighted his face. “A good point,” he admitted. After a moment’s thought, he reached into a small pouch and brought out a silver chain with an amulet of a hawk carved from amber. He had Demeda examine it so that she could recognize it again. “If I can’t come myself, the men I send will bear this token,” he said.
Demeda nodded and handed it back to him. “What if no ransom comes?” she whispered fearfully. “Will I ever see you again?”
If Amar worried about the continuation or discontinuation of their relationship, his face gave no hint of it. Gesturing to the cottage, he said the women frequently camped with the Kez and wintered with them. “Stay with them and learn from them,” he said. “And our paths will cross again.”
With that he jogged into the forest, rushing to rejoin his Kez warriors. Demeda slumped to her hands and knees and started to cry. She tore at her hair and the weeds and grass. The older woman came out to her with a light blanket, wrapped it around her shoulders, and took her inside. She introduced herself as Bo Tah and murmured many sympathies to the distraught teenage girl now in her care.
Eventually, Demeda’s sobbing subsided. She had cried for more than just Amar’s departure. She had cried for everything. For her lost family. For Ulet, who still suffered captivity, and for all her fears of an unknown future.
Bo Tah, Mei, and Luci were very kind to her. They heated water so that she could bathe and they gave her fresh clothing. The homespun cloth felt foreign against Demeda’s royal flesh, but she was grateful to have something more substantial to wear.
The women fed her a good meal of rabbit stew. They stayed up late into the evening questioning their guest and Demeda did likewise as she developed an ear for their accent. She had never even guessed that women lived outside the total control of male society. Mei and Luci had sad stories of escaping abusive husbands after being married off very young. Mei had been forced to leave behind a baby boy that she had not seen for five years, but fleeing had been the only way to save her life.
Bo Tah had a different history. She had never been married she said. At the age of twelve she had left her village and gone to live in the forest with an older woman, now dead, who had taught her everything she knew.
All three women cavorted with the Kez and other outlaws. Sometimes they even took lovers. Their relationships seemed to come and go. The Kez warriors, Bo Tah explained, were not supposed to permanently tie themselves to women. They had lovers, children too, but the relationships never came before service to Vu.
Bo Tah noted Demeda’s disappointment when she said this, so to make her guest feel special she commented how Amar had never been interested in a woman before Demeda’s appearance. With Mei and Luci confirming, Demeda learned that Amar, since coming to the Kez the year before, had shunned women. None seemed to interest him in that way, despite an active interest from almost all women who encountered him. The news did make Demeda feel special. She had seduced Amar when others had failed, but it was not exactly reassuring to know that Amar’s affections were constantly tempted.
At last Demeda fell asleep in a bed. She slept soundly, and for the next week she went to bed early and slept late each day. She was astoundingly tired. Since the abduction she had barely slept at all. She needed to renew herself after the radical transformation that had claimed her life.
During this time, her blood came to her, and she was glad to be in the company of the women and have access to rags and clean water. Amar had been right to leave her in this place instead of continuing to drag her cross country in a night gown.
The coming of her blood proved that she was not pregnant, and Demeda was utterly grateful for that fact. In her times of passion with Amar she had thought little about pregnancy, but she could not be so foolish in the future. Demeda did not want to have a child. Not after she had escaped the bitter confines of her arranged marriage and begun to truly know the world.
One morning while Mei and Luci were out milking the goats, Demeda asked Bo Tah if any way existed to avoid pregnancy.
Bo Tah looked up from the bread dough that she was patting into loaves beside the hearth and chuckled. “All us wild women know about that,” she said.
“Then it can be done?” Demeda pressed excitedly.
“More or less,” Bo Tah said and started patting another small loaf. “We will teach you.”
Over the next week, Bo Tah, Mei, and Luci instructed Demeda about her body. They explained how to count the days between her blood so she would have a good chance of knowing when she was fertile or not fertile. Demeda was amazed by the information. She had never heard of such things. Her ignorance then angered her. She had lived among many women her whole life and no one had ever told her.
Bo Tah became uncharacteristically grave and said that civilization broke off women from their natural knowledge. “Some of us still know, but we’d be killed quick if we went to town and started telling every farmer’s daughter and wife what she needs to know. In the world of men with their plows and smithies and wars, our best use is havin’ babies,” Bo Tah said.
Demeda was shocked and troubled. This was a great deal to think about and she was sure to contemplate Bo Tah’s statement for a long time. Although excited about what she had learned, the other women had emphasized that tracking one’s fertility could be imprecise. Nature did not like her system to be gamed, and women were meant to have babies. Demeda also realized that she might not always be in a position to refuse sex. She could not imagine refusing Amar, and the grim fact remained that any man could force himself on her.
Timidly, she inquired about this problem and Bo Tah explained that a brew of special herbs made the blood come and reverse a possible pregnancy.
“It’s best to keep those herbs on hand. We’ll show you how to gather them in the forest. The main ingredient is just blooming this time of year and we’ll be gathering it through high summer.”
Demeda repeatedly thanked the women for the knowledge that they shared with her. The knowledge would help her navigate the rest of her life. The women were glad to help her. Bo Tah told her that no woman should be refused this knowledge, but then she cautioned Demeda to be careful in its sharing if she ever rejoined civilization. Such women were often killed.
Demeda settled into a routine with her new companions. Burying her royal snobbery, she did the chores assigned to her. As Amar had recommended, she was learning from the women. Demeda eagerly studied with her sisterly tutors while awaiting Amar’s return. Despite her fear of the ransom, she was impatient to move past this simple existence in the forest. She had come to know high excitement at Amar’s side and she wanted more.