Mistress of the Sword
Chapter 8: Accused and Condemned
Shailaja put as much distance between herself and the three brothers as she dared the first day after her escape. She had little fear that Lahn would try to follow her; expecting that he would be too busy caring for his injured brothers. Mounted on Halvar she made much better time that a man on foot could in any case, especially one who had no food. Whatever the case, she saw no more of her former captors and made good time through the mountains.
She gave little thought to the men who had captured and abused her other than to wonder at her own stupidity in being so easily taken prisoner once again. She felt nothing but contempt for the three men who had waylaid a fellow traveller and used her for their own purposes. Killing all of them would not have satisfied her. Leaving them to die of possible cold and starvation did. If the gods saw fit to let them live then so be it, but she was finished with them.
In a strange way, the three
brothers had actually helped her.
She now had their mules and all of their
gear. She should be able to sell
off her acquired possessions for a good price in the first town she came
to and it relieved her of the problem of what to do with
Halvar. Now that she no longer
needed him in order to pay for her passage across the
Within a quarter of a moon she was well on her way out of the final pass. It was then that she parted with Halvar. She had no wish to take him into the warmth of the lowlands or to turn him over to someone who might not take proper care of him. It was a sad parting as she had bonded strongly with him, and he with her. But there was no other choice and she sadly gave him his freedom. However, she knew it to be for the best and tried to put the best face on it. Although she knew that the chances were small, she held out the faint hope that someday she might return and find her faithful mount.
Turning away from where she had left Halvar she trekked steadily down the pass and reached the warmer elevation of the coastal plains in two more days. Here the landscape changed, the forest thinning, to be replaced by small farmsteads. It occurred to her that the mules she led might be recognized by someone friendly to the three brothers. After all, this was territory that they probably passed through every year on their way to the mountains. It was possible that they had friends or even relatives among the farms she was passing and she had no wish to run into complications created by being caught in possession of their property.
As a result she stopped along the way and unloaded the mules and then carefully sorted through the gear. She decided that she needed only what she had brought with her from Lorholm along with the few seasonings and tools she had not had time to take with her when she fled her home. The rest, consisting of bulky equipment like large tents and heavy traps, she decided to leave at the first village, along with one of the mules.
It did not quite work out the way she had planned. But she did not discover her error for several days. Having reloaded the mules she headed out on the road once more, and later in the day came upon one of the wilderness farms similar to those she had already passed. She was alerted to its existence many heartbeats before she saw it, but not with the usual sounds common to a farm. Instead she heard a woman screaming in fear.
It was like nothing she had ever heard before; a chilling cry of absolute terror and despair, and it spurred Shailaja into instant action. She regretted that she was now on foot. Had she still been riding Halvar she would have kicked him into a gallop and charged toward the sound of the scream. However, she still had her feet, and grabbing her bow and a quiver of arrows she broke into a run, her long legs carrying her rapidly toward the spot where she had heard the sound.
It came from just down the road ahead of her and it took only a few heartbeats before she rounded a bend in the road and came upon a small farmstead. It was typical of the small farms she had passed in the last few days. Cut out of the woodlands around it; it consisted of a few acres of stony soil and a log-built house and several farm buildings. Shailaja knew about farms. She had spent part of her childhood working on her familys lands and she took in the chicken shed, byre, and pig pen at a glance. But it was not farm buildings she was interested in. What caught her attention was the frightening scene occurring in front of her.
Five rough-looking men had the farmer and his family at their mercy. The farmer had apparently tried to protect his wife and daughter and was lying on the ground, blood streaming from a nasty cut to his head. One of the ruffians stood over him a heavy wooden club in his hand while the others struggled with the two women.
It wasnt much of a contest. One of the men held the girls arms behind her back while one of the bandits stood in front of her. He had already torn open the girls crude dress, revealing her small, pointed breasts and was in the process of tugging at the rest of the garment in an attempt to strip her. The girl, who Shailaja guessed was about the same age she was, struggled frantically, but was greatly overmatched in strength by the two men attacking her. She made no sound but desperately fought to break away from the man who held her.
The same could not be said of the mother. It was her screams that had brought Shailaja on the run and she continued to scream even as she battled against the remaining two men. Two small children huddled behind her, their cries blending with hers. Even as Shailaja watched one of the men dealing with the mother drew his fist back and struck her to the ground.
Shut yer face, ye screaming bitch, the bandit roared. Ill give ye something to scream about soon enough as soon as Ive had a run at yer daughter.
The mans words filled Shailaja with rage, but not so much so that she forgot her training. She continued to run forward, and reaching a low stone wall in front of the cottage vaulted it and landed just a dozen yards away from the man standing over the downed farmer. The man pinning the girls arms behind her gave a shout and the man turned, club in hand just as Shailaja drew her sword.
Using her bow might have been more effective, but she guessed that if she did that the men would scatter and she did not want that to happen. She also feared that if she started shooting arrows one of them might hit a member of the farm family. As a result she had left her bow and quiver on the other side of the wall and stood facing the bandits, sword in hand.
All five men were facing her now, the one who had been holding the girl having pushed her behind him, but not before giving her a good slap on the face that left her dazed. The man holding the club took a step forward. Shailaja noticed that the other four men were similarly armed, the only edged weapons being heavy knives which they now had in their other hands.
Well, what we got here? the man with the club asked. Looks like another piece of tit offering herself up. Put down that sword, girl and well only fuck ye. Resist and well do a bit more than that.
Shailaja wasnt worried about anything any of the five men might do to her. Her only concern was that there might be more than five of them and that someone might come at her from behind. But she had seen no one else on her way to the farm and guessed that if there had been more than five men they would be with the others. After all, the pleasure of raping the mother and the daughter would be too wonderful an opportunity to pass up.
It is you who should put down your weapons, Shailaja answered. I am a warrior of Kaltara. Surrender and your lives will be spared.
Here that boys? the man laughed. We got us a warrior. I never heard of no girl warriors, but I guess theyll move their asses just as well as them that aint.
The mans insulting words and careless manner angered Shailaja, but she would not be goaded into attacking. She noted that even as the man spoke the others had spread out in a semicircle and were ready to come at her all at once. She realized that she would have been better off attacking rather than giving the bandits fair warning. Now they were on their guard and although they were poorly armed, she knew that a club could break an arm or a skull as easily as a sword.
Doesnt look like shes going to do what shes told, Jeb, said the man farthest to Shailajas right. Guess were going to have to take that sword away from her.
Shailaja could wait no longer. The men had closed to within a few paces of her, leaving her only the choices of fighting or jumping back over the wall in retreat. She was not about to run, however; she taken more than enough from men who thought that they had a right to use women any way they wished. Her mind made up she attacked.
She feinted first, darting toward the two men on her right, her sword describing a deadly arc. As she had guessed the two men jumped back out of the range of the sweeping blade. At the same time the two men on her left and the man directly across from her stepped in on the attack, their clubs raised.
Shailaja let the strength
of her swing and the weight of her blade carry her
around. Turning in a complete
circle she came about in a crouch and found herself facing the two men on
her left. Too late they realized
their danger. Her unexpected
agility and the speed of Shailajas movements caught them
As the man called Jeb brought his club up to guard against the blow the edge of her blade lopped off his hand at the wrist. He screamed horribly, and fell back clutching the severed limb. Shailajas blade was hardly slowed by the strike. She continued the sweep of her sword, striking the club of the next man with such force that the edge bit deep into it and almost tore it from his hand.
With a twist of her wrist Shailaja tore her sword free and stepped into the space where the screaming bandit leader had once been. The move allowed her to face the man who had blocked her blow. Before he could retreat she stepped toward him and continuing the motion of her blade drove the point of her sword into his chest.
As the man fell she pulled her blade free and then immediately attacked the remaining three men. So quick had her movements been that they were still strung out in a line, one behind the other, allowing her to take them one on one. She showed no mercy, using all of her considerable skills against her poorly trained opponents. Several quick movements of her sword penetrated the next mans guard culminating in a downward stroke that cut through the mans neck and the shoulder and almost passed through his body. As he fell she gave his body a kick, knocking the dead man into the feet of the next man in line. He stumbled, waving his club frantically in front of him, while Shailaja drove straight forward and plunged her sword into his chest. That left just one man. He backed fearfully away from her, babbling incoherently. No doubt he was trying to surrender, but Shailaja wasnt listening. She knocked aside his clumsy attempt to defend himself and took off his head.
Shailaja then whirled back to the man named Jeb. He was still screaming, gripping his severed arm at the wrist in an attempt to stop the bleeding, but there were no more living or uninjured opponents. The entire battle had lasted only a few heartbeats. Four men were dead and one was shrieking in pain.
For an instant, Shailaja considered finishing off the bandit leader, but her sense of honour would not let her kill a wounded and defenceless enemy. Lowering her blade she stepped to the first man she had killed and wiped her sword clean on his shirt before sheathing the weapon.
Stop that screaming, she commanded. And hold out your arm. Ill stop the bleeding.
Surprisingly, the bandit leader did as he was told even though he continued to whimper. Pulling off the belt of one of the dead bandits she wound it around the stump and pulled it tight, shutting off the flow of blood. She handed the end of the belt to him. Hold that tight until it stops bleeding on its own. Now get out of here before I change my mind about not killing you.
She knew by rights that she should probably have handed over the bandit to what passed for the law in this part of the world, but she was rather vague on what authorities existed in this wilderness area and did not want the burden of having to shepherd a prisoner while continuing her journey. She watched as the man walked unsteadily out to the road and then moved out of her line of sight. She then turned to see about the farm family.
This bunch has been preying on us farmers fer the last year, the girl said. She seemed to have recovered from the blow and stood facing Shailaja, her hands clutching her torn dress across her breasts. Ye ought to have killed the last one too.
Shailaja found it interesting that the girl seemed undisturbed at the carnage around her, but suspected that she was controlling herself only with difficulty. She nodded her agreement. Youre probably right, but I dont think hell be bothering anyone for awhile. She turned her attention to the mother and the father.
The older woman had also recovered, and ignoring her bleeding nose was helping her husband to a sitting position. Shailaja went to them and noted that neither seemed badly hurt. I have some medical supplies. Ill get them and be right back. Before any of the farm family could answer she turned and vaulted the wall. Picking up her bow and quiver she headed back up the road and found the five mules where she had left them grazing calmly at the side of the road. Retrieving her medical pack, she hurried back to the homestead. Once there she administered to the man, cleaning and binding the cut on his forehead. His other injuries were minor, consisting of just a few bruises and Shailaja decided that they did not require further attention. The same was true of the mother and the daughter, both of whom had been manhandled, but required little in the way of treatment.
While she attended to the farm family she learned their names. The farmer was called Gorb and his wife, Berri. The daughters name was named Bluebell and the two boys were called Sam and Hab. They were quite in awe of Shailaja and a little frightened. Gorb barely came up to Shailajas breasts and both women were even smaller. Nevertheless, as she examined their wounds they began to realize that she wanted nothing from them.
Thanks be to Teloch, Berri cried. Had you come along just a few heartbeats later my Bluebell would have been ruined by those brutes. Then where would she be.
Shailaja merely nodded her agreement, but she couldnt help wondering what the farmers wife would have thought if she had known how many times Shailaja had been ruined.
Shed have no hope of good marriage, Berri continued. Shes already had back luck twice. Her first betrothed was killed when a tree he was falling kicked back on him, and her second got drunk the day before the wedding and fell in the creek and drowned.
It was a sad story indeed and explained why Bluebell was still unmarried at the ripe old age of eighteen springs. There was little Shailaja could do except murmur sympathetically.
We cant thank yer enough, Gorb said. It must be as Berri says. Ye were sent by the gods to help us. I am afraid we cant offer ye much more than our thanks, but perhaps ye could stay the night and share the evening meal.
Shailaja could do little more than agree with this request. There were still several hours of travel time ahead, but she was not in that great a hurry and wanted to give Farmer Gorb some way of showing his gratitude. As a result she stayed for supper and accepted the offer of being allowed to sleep in the barn.
She had to spend a good deal of the meal fielding questions as to what a warrior of her skills was doing in so remote an area, but she managed to deflect most of them. Fortunately, the family was too much in awe of her to question her too closely and she was able to pass herself off as an adventurer out to see a bit of the world.
The meal she shared was peasant fare, and in truth she would have been better off eating form her own supplies, but she did not want to insult her hosts, who were doing their best to show their appreciation for what she had done. And Berri did serve up a delicious blackberry pie at the end of the meal which showed that there was perhaps something to her name.
Are there many outlaws about? Shailaja asked by way of conversation.
Some, Gorb answered. Not as many as there used to be. The Wardens been sweeping most of them up pretty good, but these are some he missed.
The Warden? Shailaja asked.
The Warden of Fellem, Bluebell chimed in. A mighty warrior who strikes terror into all lawbreakers.
Fellem be the main town hereabouts, Gorb explained. And the Warden be in charge of it.
Shailaja nodded her understanding and switched the conversation to matters closer to a farmers heart, namely that of crops and livestock. In this way the conversation drifted off until it was close to dark. Since Farmer Gorb and his family rose early, she had no difficulty taking her leave and retiring to the barn
She awoke early, the crowing of the rooster helping in that regard, and joined the farm family for a meal of porridge. It was time to move on and she knew that her hosts had probably strained their resources in feeding her. However, before she left she divested herself of a good deal of the gear carried on the mules and left one of the mules as well.
Gorb and his family were overjoyed at the unexpected bounty, but Shailaja knew that they needed the gear much more than she did and she was planning on getting rid of it later. She felt much better at doing it this way.
Leaving the farm family standing in the farmyard, their arms raised in farewell she headed off down the road. Gorb had told her that Fellem was a few leagues down the road and she might make it by evening.
His estimate turned out to be right. A day later she entered the first village she had seen since leaving Lorholm.
It was a motley collection of peasant huts numbering about four dozen in all and surrounded by a wooden stockade. Its hilltop location and the stockade seemed to indicate the presence of some danger and she supposed that it was to protect against bandits, although the crude palisade would have been more effective against wild animals than human predators.
Approaching the open gate she saw that before it there was a single guard. He was armoured only in a brass-studded leather jerkin and a pot helmet and carried a halberd. Eyeing her warily as she approached, he said nothing until she was almost upon him.
Hold, girl, he ordered. Who are you and how did you come by those mules?
The greeting was certainly not friendly and Shailaja was heartily tired of being addressed as girl, and so she answered perhaps without thinking.
I am Shailaja of the Kaltara and I acquired these mules from three cowards who drugged and attempted to force themselves upon me. She did not think it necessary to add that her captors had succeeded all too well in having their way with her.
In retrospect it might have been more prudent to determine the guards relationship to the three hunters who had shamed her before making so bold a statement. But it had never been in her nature to prevaricate, a characteristic that had gotten her into trouble on some occasions.
Those belong to the sons of Belehm, spoke the guard. I know their markings. You will come with me.
He finished his last statement with a flourish, lowering the halberd to a threatening angle and pointing it at her chest. She sighed, realizing her mistake in telling the truth and in not seeking out a larger town where the brothers might have been less well known. She had no wish to kill the man in front of her, who no doubt thought that he was only doing his duty, but she dared not turn her back on someone armed with so deadly a weapon.
You know that I am a Kaltaran warrior, she said, as she drew her sword. Put away your halberd or I will have to take it from you.
I see a girl dressed in mans clothing, the guard replied. You are not like any warrior I have ever seen.
It annoyed Shailaja that in spite of the fame of Kaltaras warriors, so many refused to believe that a woman standing a head taller than the average man and of martial bearing was not to be taken seriously. This man had no excuse, as he claimed to have met Kaltaran warriors before. She could only suppose that he was being deliberately stupid and she was in no mood to debate with him at the end of a long day spent on the road. She stepped forward, and with a simple movement, entangled his weapon in hers and then pulled it from his grasp.
She caught the halberd in her left hand and twirled it like a toy. I have demonstrated the use of a sword, she said. Would you like a demonstration of the use of a pole-arm?
The guard stared at her in stunned surprise and then began a slow retreat through the gate, never taking his eyes from her. Her best plan of action would have been to turn back the way that she had come, but a certain stubbornness and the fact that she had been looking forward to staying the night behind walls kept her where she was. Besides, she had done nothing wrong. It was the brothers who had set upon her, not the other way around. She stepped after the guard, following him through the gate with the intention of attempting to give him the truth as to what had happened in her meeting with the brothers.
She had gone no more than two steps before something very heavy landed upon her head. The blow drove her to her knees and broke her hold on her sword and the halberd. She tried to reach out for her blade, but the guard darted forward and kicked it away. Then, before she could rise he heaved himself upon her.
Like the three brothers, he lacked her height, but he was a big man and probably outweighed her by fifty pounds. His weight bore her to the ground, where she struggled to escape his arms, which he had wrapped tightly around her.
Shailaja fought poorly, still dazed from the blow on the head. There were any number of ways she could have fought him off, and had not she been befuddled from being almost knocked unconscious, she would have used them.
It looks like you need help Palnelt, spoke a voice from just above her. There was movement that Shailaja vaguely recognized as someone descending a ladder and then someone sat on her legs.
I think we have her, Chern, Palnelt replied, but best we make sure. She took the halberd from my hands as if I were a raw recruit.
Let us bind her then. She will make a fine showing as we lead her to the House of the Warden.
The words spurred Shailaja to greater resistance, but a pain so intense that she almost fainted struck her in the centre of her skull. Whatever had hit her had hit her hard. In spite of the pain she struggled to resist as she felt her arms being drawn behind her back, but it was to no avail. Leather thongs encircled her wrists, and then they were pulled tightly together. After that her captors had little trouble holding her, especially as they were joined by several others from the village.
Who is she, Palnelt? a womans voice asked. And what has she done?
She claims to be a Kaltaran warrior, Edila. But I think she is little more than a thief and murderer. She has the mules of the Belehm Brothers and some of their gear. She gave some foolish story about being set upon on the trail. But what I can tell you is that she is most quick with a blade.
Bitch, Edila spat. We will hang her.
Most assuredly we will do that, Chern pronounced. But first she must have a trial, and we must take her to the Town Wardens house for that.
A trial, yes, someone else said. We will have a trial and then we will hang her.
Lets get her up, Palnelt suggested.
Willing hands pulled Shailaja to her feet where she stood swaying uncertainly. Her vision was so blurred she could see nothing distinctly and a wave of nausea swept over her as she tried to move.
My, shes a big girl isnt she? Edila said. Better keep a firm grip on her.
She felt several more willing hands upon her, pulling her forward. She fought down the urge to vomit and steeled herself against the pain. She let them drag her forward, willing her head to clear, and then she struck out.
She swept Cherns feet from under him and then shifted her attack to Palnelt, driving her knee into his groin. He doubled up in pain, collapsing to writhe in the dust of the street. With the two men who held here most strongly taken out, she twisted to her right, breaking the grip of two others. Suddenly she was free, and then the weakness of her plan became more than evident.
She stood in the middle of the village, surrounded by at least half its inhabitants, many of whom were armed with axes, rakes, shovels, and other implements. With her wrists bound behind her she was hardly in a position to retrieve her sword and even making a run for it seemed out of the question. However, she put the best face on it and tried to bluff her way out of the predicament.
Who is in charge here? she demanded. Release me at once or prepare to face the wrath of a warrior.
There was a moment of confusion in the crowd facing her. And then some in the crowd recovered.
What wrath? Edila asked. You are hardly a threat with your wrists bound. We could beat you to death where you stand.
There was a murmur of agreement and several in the crowd stepped toward her. Shailaja assumed the best defensive position she could, but she could not look in all directions.
At that moment Chern got to his feet. I see that I should have dropped a bigger rock on you, he declared. Surrender now or be beaten into surrendering.
I will not, Shailaja shouted defiantly. Ive done nothing wrong. You will release me at once.
Edila, who seemed to be something of a town leader, had a better idea. Stone her, she screamed. Stone the murderer.
Shailaja realized that she might have been better off taking out the old woman. Several of the villagers took her advice, picking up stones from the street. It was fortunate that the street was unpaved or she might have suffered greatly. As it was, only a few missiles were thrown before Palnelt regained his feet and his composure.
Hold off, he ordered. We dont want her dead. She must be properly tried. And she might have accomplices. She must be questioned so that we know who they are. He had regained possession of his halberd and moved toward Shailaja with the weapon at the ready. As weak a warrior as he was, he was still more than match for her while her wrists were bound and the crowd was at his back.
Still, stubborn pride would not allow Shailaja to give up, and she waited defiantly as he moved toward her. At that moment someone else in the crowd took the opportunity to come to his aid. From behind her there was movement and suddenly she was struck in the back of the knees. She did not know what weapon was used; probably it was a broom or some other household item, but it did the trick, causing her legs to buckle so that she fell to her knees.
The crowd moved quickly then, swarming around her, and she received not a few blows before Palnelt was able to intercede. Stop. She must be taken to the Town Warden for questioning.
That seemed to settle the crowd a little and they backed off, but not before additional ropes were tied to her arms and neck. She was then hauled to her feet and forced to proceed as before.
Shailaja had to admit that she was probably a pathetic sight. Dragged forward by the rope around her neck and held by two other ropes on either side of her that were attached to her arms; she was at the complete mercy of the crowd of taunting townsfolk who dragged she toward the House of the Town Warden. The wounding of her warrior pride could not have been much greater, but it was about to get worse.
The procession arrived there eventually. The House of the Town Warden was not an imposing building, but it was the largest in the town. It was a two story affair, constructed of heavy timbers and was the only house in the town with a raised porch, which was reached by a stairway of six steps.
Standing on the porch was a rather large man. He might once have been a fine figure, but many years of good food and probably good drink had fattened him up. He had a long black beard that he wore braided and tied with a red ribbon and was dressed well, in trousers cut from fine cloth with a shirt of the same material. He wore gloves with high brown boots to match and a wide leather belt. About his neck he wore a heavy gold chain on which was imprinted the clan sign of the Deer. Shailajas eyes widened a little at this, as he hardly appeared to be a Kaltaran warrior. It was to this personage that she was presented by the eager townsfolk.
This is the one who claims to be a Kaltaran warrior? he asked, as Shailaja was dragged up the steps to stand in front of him.
Yes, Yagos, Palnelt replied. But we think she is more likely a thief and murderer. She had the mules and gear of the Brothers Belehm when she tried to enter Fellem.
It that so? Yagos said, looking at me.
No it is not so, Shailaja replied. It is true that I had the mules of the Brothers Belehm, but I did not kill them although they deserved death and more. It was they who set upon me and used me against my will. I took their mules by way of retribution, leaving them to survive on their own.
Lies, shrieked Edila. A mere girl could not overcome three strong men. The harlot must have waylaid them and used her body to lull them into carelessness before she killed them.
Enough, Yagos replied. We will not try her here. She must be properly questioned first. Bring her into the House of the Warden.
Shailaja was pushed and pulled forward and through the doorway of the building and found herself in a hallway from which led several doors. She was taken through the first door to the right and entered what appeared to be some sort of office of modest size. It contained a large desk; several carved wooden chairs, and a number of draperies upon the wall. Across the room was another door. Behind the desk was a large wardrobe containing what she did not know.
Yagos seated himself behind the desk and Shailaja was pulled forward by Palnelt and Chern. Now, girl, he said. You will tell your story. And it had better be convincing. Theft and murder are hanging matters.
Will it make any difference what I say? Shailaja asked. So far my words have received nothing but scorn.
You must admit that your tale is somewhat lacking in credibility. For a mere girl to overcome three strong men is simply not credible unless you used your feminine wiles to gain their trust and then slew them while they slept.
As I have stated, she replied. The three brothers still live. Or at least they did when I left them.
Your last statement seems to indicate some doubt, Yagos observed.
It might, she replied. I left arrows in two of them.
So, Yagos said slowly. You admit to murdering them.
I admit no such thing. The wounds were not fatal and were inflicted only after I was rendered senseless with a vile drink called spahr and then robbed of everything I owned, including my virtue.
To her surprise Yagos laughed along with Chern and Palnelt and two of the other men thought necessary to serve as her escort.
Spahr, Yagos roared when he was able to stop laughing, I can see how a cup could put a mere girl under. A woman should always avoid strong drink.
Shailaja turned red with anger, remembering that it had taken much more than a single cup of spahr to render her senseless, but it would have been useless to protest to the braying jackasses before her and so she stood silent.
Look, Palnelt jeered, she blushes with shame.
And she has confirmed her guilt, Yagos pointed out. She admits to murdering the Brothers Belehm. That it was done under the influence of spahr cannot excuse such a deed.
I was under no such influence, she shouted. I punished them as they deserved.
Enough, Yagos said decisively. Through her own words has the girl convicted herself. Take her to the cells.
This was no trial, Shailaja protested. I have not been allowed to tell my story.
Yagos dismissed her complaint. You will be given time for a few words just before we hang you. Take her away.
Shailaja was dragged from the room under her four man escort and back out into the entrance hall. There Chern stopped to light a candle and set it into a lantern. Then he led the way to a side door on the right of the passage which opened on a wooden stairway. The four men muscled her down the stairs and into what was obviously little more than a stone-lined storage cellar. Barrels of preserved foods and other oddments were stacked in neat lines and against one wall there was a large wine rack. Next to that were several large hogsheads of ale. However, against the farthest wall of the cellar, there were two sets of shackles. This apparently constituted the cell in which she was to be placed.
Shailaja struggled against her fate, but this time her captors were not caught off-guard. As she attempted to lash out at them with her legs, they drove her to her knees and then dragged her face-down across the cellar.
Hold her, Palnelt commanded. She must be properly chained.
Held in the kneeling position by two of the men, Palnelt attached the shackles to her wrists. Then he untied her wrists while the other two men pulled on the chains, spreading her arms out to the sides.
Why they chose to chain her in this fashion Shailaja had no idea, but her captors seemed mightily pleased with their work. Stepping back they stood around her in a semicircle and surveyed their helpless captive.
A most fetching girl, for all of her height, Palnelt mused.
Indeed, it seems a shame she is fated to face the end of a rope, Chern observed.
I think it only proper that we give her a proper send off before that event, Palnelt leered. I am sure Yagos will see his way clear to that.
Let us go for now, Chern said. She is secure enough.
There was general agreement among them and they left, taking the light with them.
As they climbed the stairs Shailaja tested her chains. There was no give in them and they were set low into the stone wall, making it impossible for her to stand. Her arms were pulled to either side, giving her a choice of continuing to kneel on the dirt floor or assuming a sitting position. Neither position was particularly comfortable, but by now the fatigue of the day and the abuse she had received was beginning to take its toll. Her head still ached agonizingly and she was very tired. She was also hungry and thirsty, but there was nothing she could do about that.
She settled down to wait, not having much choice to do anything else and mulled over the latest turn of events. It seemed that since her flight from her homeland she had blundered from one disaster to another. It should have occurred to her that this close to the mountains, that the Brothers Belehm would be well known, but she had marched up to the gates of Fellem with their mules trailing behind her without a thought that they might be recognized, or that those who dwelt within might be much more sympathetic to those who had waylaid her than they would be to her. It seemed that she was simply too naïve to survive outside her homeland. With these thoughts in mind she slumped in her chains, the weariness of her body overwhelming her mind and for a time she slept.
What woke her was the sound of the door opening at the top of the stairs. It was followed by heavy steps on the stairs and the movement of the faint light of the lantern moving toward her.
Five men presented themselves; Palnelt, Chern, Yagos, and the two others who had acted as guards. She had learned that they were called Sten and Kellern. After her experience with the three brothers she had little doubt as to what they wanted and the first words out of Yagos mouth confirmed her suspicions.
You have been found guilt of murder and face death, pronounced the man she knew as the Town Warden. Such a fate for one so young and attractive is a sad thing and we are here to make sure that your last hours are spent in a manner that will give you enjoyment.
You mean to take me against my will, you mean, Shailaja retorted. I see little enjoyment in that.
It will be as pleasurable
or unpleasurable as you wish it to be,
Chern stepped forward with a basket. Shailaja could smell the odour of fried chicken rising from it and her stomach growled and her mouth watered at the prospect of being fed.
I see that I was right, Yagos smiled. Palnelt will loosen your shackles so that you can eat and drink. Enjoy it, it will be your last meal.
Shailaja moved from the sitting position in which she had slept as Palnelt moved to adjust her chains. He did not release her, but let the chain slip through the heavy ring in the wall that held it so that she could move her left arm enough to feed herself.
While she ate her hosts settled down to wait, pulling up crates and barrels to sit in a semicircle about her. They also broke open the small barrel they had brought with them. She immediately recognized the distinctive tang of spahr.
Yagos waited while Chern filled every cup and then held one out to her. Since you expressed a liking for this, it is only fit it be part of your last meal. Dont worry, a single drink wont put you under, it will just relax you.
Shailaja ate a few more bites of chicken and then took the cup. Without comment she tilted the cup and threw its entire contents down her throat, and then handed back the cup. It was not a single cup of this that was my undoing, she boasted. I will have no trouble matching you drink for drink.
Yagos laughed. A woman after my own heart. Alright, girl, drink on. He tossed back his own drink as he finished speaking, as did the other men. It gave her a faint hope. As long as she was chained she had little hope of escape, no matter what her captors did to her, but if she could use the strength of spahr against them it might give her a chance.
She ate another few mouthfuls of food and then raised her cup to her lips. This time she sipped more slowly as if already affected by the strong drink, although in truth, in spite of its fiery taste she felt little affect.
Grinning Yagos and the others downed their cups in a single gulp. Stronger than you thought isnt it, girl? Yagos mocked.
As if angered by his comment Shailaja finished her drink and then held out her cup for more. I will match you drink for drink. We will see then who is the girl.
Yagos and the others laughed, clearly thinking that she was outmatched. She finished the food they had brought her and the contest was on.
Several cups of spahr later Shailaja was truly feeling the power of the drink, but she was not the only one so affected. All of the men were laughing at the silliest of comments, foolish grins splitting their faces. It appeared that her plan might actually work if she could coax them into a few more cups of the heady drink. However, the relaxing of their inhibitions had an adverse side effect.
Chern rose to his feet and lurched toward her. Enough of this drinking, he slurred. We came here to put ourselves between the girls legs, not to drink with her.
I see, Yagos grinned, that the girl is playing a bit of a game with us. He moved off the barrel he had been sitting on and stood before her. Did you think to drink us into insensibility and then find some way to escape? He raised his cup and drained it. We will finish this contest, but not until we have taken what we came here for. He turned to Palnelt. Tighten the chain on her arm. It is time to examine our prize.
Shailaja tried to resist as Palnelt shortened the chain, but was unable to prevent her arm being pulled back to where it had been. Arms spread wide and helpless, she could only kneel before her captors while they moved upon her.
Stretch her out, Yagos ordered.
Shailaja kicked out as four men converged on her, but they caught hold of her legs and held her while one of them, Kellern she thought it was, rolled a large barrel beneath her. She was quickly arched over it, her arms held over her head while Kellern and his partner, Sten kept her from falling off. Thus held, she could do nothing as Yagos, Chern, and Palnelt began a much more interesting investigation.
In spite of the large amount of spahr she had consumed she had not drunk as much as the first time, and she struggled desperately as the three men began to loosen the ties on her clothing. She succeeded in doing little more, however, than exciting her captors.
Thats it, girl, fight, Yagos taunted. I want to feel that body move beneath me. His fingers were at the ties of her shirt, loosening them one by one. He parted the cloth, revealing the curve of her breasts; now concealed only by her breast band. He wasted little time with it, using his dagger to cut through the cloth rather than fumbling with the knot between her breasts.
That was well worth the effort, he grinned, staring at her quivering breasts.
Im going to love sucking on those, chimed in Palnelt. Shes got tits to rival Selene.
Shailaja felt a surge of anger at his words. She was heartily sick at having her breasts and body compared to the goddess of the larger moon, but something else happened as the rest of her clothing was removed. It began as a faint but unmistakable tingling in her nipples that was more than just a reaction to the cold air of the cellar. It continued as a warming of the centre of her body as her boots were taken off, and it surged through her like a wave as Yagos lips found her nipples and sucked them to the hardness of green blackberries.
A low moan of desire escaped her lips; one that deepened and lengthened as the ties to her breeches were removed and Palnelts hand cupped the mound at the apex of her thighs.
Something warm, wet, and familiar stirred at her core. No doubt part of it was due to the strong drink, but she could not place all of the blame on the spahr. Once again something rose within her, a sensation spurred on by the very helplessness of her situation. It was a feeling she could not hide from her captors.
You burn, dont you, girl? Yagos taunted, his lips no more than inches from Shailajas. Lets taste that sweet mouth of yours. He gripped her hair and tilted her head so that he could bring his lips to hers, but she was not as far gone as he thought. Instead of a kiss Shailaja sank her teeth into his lower lip.
His inarticulate cry of rage was muffled as he fought to pull his lips free without tearing off the one she held. Fortunately for him, Chern came to his aid by driving his fist into her belly. The blow knocked the breath from her body and freed him from her grip.
Red haired, harlot, Yagos cursed, his words slurred by the injury to his lip. Blood streamed down his chin, blotting on his fine shirt. He moved toward her, fists raised. Arched across the barrel there was no way that she could prevent him from taking his vengeance. He struck her several times, driving his fists into her well-muscled stomach and then leaning forward to strike her face. Only Palnelts intervention saved her from a severe beating.
Wait, Palnelt said, placing a restraining arm on Yagos arm, lets her see to that cut first. We can punish the bitch later.
And she will be punished, Yagos growled. And most severely.
It took a few moments for Palnelt to attend to Yagos and then they both returned.
The latters tongue caressed his swollen lip and he glared down at her. That was most foolish. Now you will be made to suffer for your stupidity.
I doubt you can do much more than hang me, Shailaja retorted.
You will hang just as well without a nose or tongue, Yagos replied, taking out his dagger.
Hold, Palnelt said, are we not forgetting why we came here? I for one would prefer to have use of our captive before she is mutilated. Let us enjoy her first and then if your anger still persists we will punish her later.
You have a point, Yagos agreed. We will do as you say. But the bitch has forfeited any right she had to gentle behaviour on our part.
Shailaja was greatly encouraged by the fact that Yagos seemed to think taking a woman against her will was gentle and fought harder than ever against the men who held her legs, but Kellern and Sten kept their grip on her. Arched backward she could only struggle helplessly as Palnelt and Yagos resumed their positions on either side of her.
Once again their hands found her body, stroking, fondling, and caressing. This time, however, she felt no ignition of her inner heat. Instead she felt nothing but revulsion and fear, her body leaking sweat as she battled fruitlessly to escape.
Her fear must have shown as Yagos loomed over her. Not so defiant now are you, bitch? You are very much going to regret your act of defiance.
He moved between her legs, which had been drawn wide by Kellern and Sten, and ran his hands up the insides of her thighs. His attempt to excite her, however, was wasted as she continued to struggle; however, the sight of her heaving breasts and the writhing of her body no doubt excited him. With a muttered imprecation he changed his tactics, pinching the insides of her thighs and then moving to her breasts. Placing his hands on the barrel to either side of her hips he leaned over her. So you like to bite do you?
He leaned farther forward, his mouth seeking her nipples. Shailaja winced in pain as his teeth closed on first one then the other. Such pretty little buds, he commented as he raised his head before lowering it again to savage each nipple until she gasped in pain.
He was panting heavily when he finished, obviously aroused by this act of cruelty. Stepping back he fumbled with the ties on his trousers and produced his ready member. Lets see how well you handle this.
He moved his fingers to her petals and parted them. For all your reluctance, I note that you seem more than ready, Yagos commented. Then before Shailaja could reply he thrust quickly into her.
As he had observed, in spite of her reluctance her early arousal had prepared her for his entry, and he penetrated her deeply. Nevertheless, she let out a cry at the sudden intrusion. A little larger than you are used to no doubt, he jeered.
In truth, Yagos was making no idle boast, as was proven by her gasp of pain and the further arching of her back. She had known only four men, but none could match him and she was used hard, Yagos making not the least effort to be gentle. It was a painful session, intended to make her pay for her act of defiance. By the time he was through with her there was no doubt that the memory of his taking her would last more than a just a few turns of the glass.
Palnelt took her next and then Chern; and finally Kellern and Sten. None was as large as Yagos, but one on top of the other they had her gasping by the time they finished with her. It was a session entirely without pleasure, at least for Shailaja. All of the men seemed to enjoy it well enough, however.
When they were finished, she lay helpless, her body covered with the stink of their use and the many bruises that inevitably accompanied such harsh service to others. But her time of pain and shame was not quite at an end. First, there was the matter of the punishment which Yagos had decreed.
Turn her over, he ordered, as Sten, who had taken her last, stepped back from her exhausted body.
To carry out the command was a simple matter of changing the shackles from one wrist to the other. The action was performed by Palnelt and Chern, both of whom kept a tight hold on her to prevent a repeat of her defiance.
Shailaja was turned so that now she lay face down over the barrel, her ankles held as before while Yagos moved behind her. All of the men had replaced their clothing with the exception of Yagos who had not yet replaced his belt. He slapped it idly into his hand indicating the use he had planned for it while Shailaja was secured in the punishment position he had chosen.
I know this makes little sense, considering that you will hang on the morrow, Yagos said, but I cannot allow any woman to commit such an act of defiance unpunished. You have been given several hours of pleasure and now you must face a shorter interval of pain.
Yagos knew full well that there had been no pleasure in what he and the others had done to her, but it mattered not so far as he was concerned. He was intent on punishing her and punishing her hard, as Shailaja soon found out.
He moved to the side where he could swing the belt more freely and strike at the tempting curves of her buttocks. The first blow when it came shocked her in spite of the fact that she had received similar treatment at Shebs hands. It was delivered with the full strength of his body and the crack of the leather across her bottom sounded as loud as a drovers whip. The blow forced a pained gasp from her lips, but nothing else. Nor did the next blow or the next elicit any response.
As when Sheb had beaten her, her stubbornness no doubt earned her a more savage beating than if she had simply screamed for mercy. But begging for mercy it was something Shailaja could not do, and she endured blow laid on top of blow until her backside was so aflame with agony that the slightest touch would have been excruciating. Finally, exhausted from his efforts, Yagos ceased the punishment, leaving her panting like a horse that has been run until it is blown. During the entire session the only sound she had made was that of her harsh breathing and the loud gasp she had made at the first blow. It was a further act of defiance that Yagos somehow found admirable.
He moved to where she lay sprawled across the barrel, her jaw clenched against the flaming agony in her backside and placed his hand in her hair. Raising her head he looked into her tear-filled eyes. So, perhaps you are a warrior after all. But tomorrow you still hang. So saying he let her head drop and without another word departed the cellar, the others following.
Needless to say, Shailaja spent a night filled with pain. In too much agony to even move, she remained where she was, slumped over the barrel and awaited the day of her execution. With no way of judging whether it was day or night she simply lay there, waiting for the sounds of footsteps upon the stair.
When they finally came it was the same men who had used her so vigorously during the night, minus Yagos. However, it would have taken no more than one of them to deal with her. She lay exactly where they had left her, in too much pain and too exhausted to move so much as a muscle. Or so she thought. Palnelt and his companions had other ideas.
Get her up from there and get her dressed. Try to make her look somewhat presentable, Palnelt ordered.
In spite of her best intentions Shailaja could not help releasing a moan as she was moved. Compared to the beating Yagos had administered, Shebs beating was minor. Even the slightest movement was excruciating. However, the four men paid no attention to the fact that it felt as if every inch of skin had been removed from her buttocks. She was taken from the shackles, dressed and then forced to her feet. Chern even combed her hair, although he made no attempt to braid it. Doesnt matter if its braided or not if youre hanging, he pointed out.
Then her hands were tied behind her back; quite unnecessarily considering the fact that she was able to offer not the least resistance, and she was marched up the stairs, her agonized body protesting every step of the way.
Yagos was waiting at the top of the stairs. Shailaja tried her best to hide her pain, but she fooled no one, least of all the man who had punished her so severely. Excellent, girl, he said. Now it is time for your final performance. As a matter of fact it is a bit past time and the townsfolk are getting impatient, but it never hurts to keep them waiting. They appreciate the show all the more.
Shailaja noted that his words were somewhat slurred, due no doubt to the severe swelling of his lower lip. She took some slight satisfaction that she had left her mark upon him if only for a little while.
She was taken through the
door of the House of the Warden and held on the raised
porch. From there she could look
upon what appeared to be the entire
Yagos gave a little speech; the usual thing about justice being done and the gods seeking just retribution, and then she was pushed forward under escort, Chern on one side and Palnelt on the other. They were wearing what she supposed was their best ceremonial dress, which meant both wore what she had first seen them in with the added difference that each now wore a heavy cloak. Given the fact that it appeared to be about , and that it was a warm day, they must have been quite uncomfortable, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as Shailaja was.
Head held high, she tried to hide the pain, but every step was sheer agony. The pain of being so heavily used by five men would have been enough, but with the added anguish of the beating she had to fight hard to hold back the tears of pain. The ordeal was made worse by the fact that the execution was not to be held in the village, but outside the palisade. She saw why shortly after they passed through the gate. Several hundred yards from the town was the cemetery.
Once youre hanged, Edila informed her cheerfully, youll be cut down and beheaded and your head will be hung over the gate. Your body will be buried in an unmarked grave. The old woman seemed quite keen on the event, having even brought along her knitting in case Shailaja took too long to die.
There was no scaffold, only a very large oak over which a rope was tossed while Shailaja watched. There wasnt even a drop, the preferred method of execution being to place the rope around the neck of the condemned and then haul her into the air and watch while she choked to death.
We pull on the legs of those who deserve a quick death, Edila grinned. But in your case well just wait you out.
Shailaja reflected, as she stood beneath the tree, that things had not gone particularly well for her since her decision to flee her homeland. Even her death was to be a long drawn out ordeal. Strangely, she suddenly felt very calm at the prospect of her life ending. She would die as bravely as she could, and she hoped with a minimum of kicking. As Palnelt placed the rope around her neck, she raised her head to take one last look at the sky and the sun. And then the noose tightened.