They used to say there was a demon in the woods.
They said it came down from the mountains. That it was driven from the fiery hells of the desert pits, expelled from its own kingdom of horror; its body had been scorched alive by the bleeding sands, eyes dyed crimson from the torture of unearthly fires. They said it festered in the midst of the forest, waiting, gnashing its teeth, lighting the darkest, coldest nights with the crazed hunger in its red gaze. It devoured animals and lost travelers; it made the earth shake and the trees to fall, and fire to strike from the sky. Smoke rose from the summits at its approach and the wind moaned in terror.
They used to say it shifted shape, and walked among the people, in the form of a man. His face he never showed, lest the misshapen darkness in it betrayed his true soul; his body bore markings and curses in the language of demons, and his eyes were such a strange shade of brown, they almost looked red.
They used to say, it kept a gate in the side of the mountain.
A gateway to the dead.
"Khes! Get your lazy hide into the barn, or I'll whip you're ass red!"
The girl jumped, dropped the bucket of water, spilled its contents on the thirsty ground. The earth consumed it in an instant; panicked, she picked up the empty bucket, clutched it tightly to her chest, and ran for the barn, bare feet pounding loudly against the dirt. Her hair tried, in vain, to fly behind her as she ran; but it was so tangled through and rarely washed, its potential was all but drowned. What might have been great streaming strands of golden hair – a resemblance of a king's banner, or Rapunzel's braids – was instead a mess of dirty locks, half-covering her downcast set of eyes. Her clothes were torn and patched; she was young, and small, and altogether pulsing with terror as she forced herself to run into the barn, where the herdsman was standing.
When she entered, he tore the bucket from her hands and threw her aside, so that she fell blindly into a stack of wooden crates. A few cattle fidgeted and started at the crash, but the herdsman ignored them, glaring wildly at the empty bucket, face filled with wrath. As the girl was bringing herself to her feet amidst the broken wood, he turned and threw the bucket at her with a cry of rage. She avoided it, narrowly, only to surface in time for the man strike a deafening blow across her face.
"No water, even – you no good, morta-khes – stop lazing around and load up the cart! We're to sell today, and if we lose any sale because of you – khes, faster! You better pray to the Goddesses I don't ship you to Courin Prince to have you – why the hell are you putting the skins there, you khes?"
She had run from him, face red and raw, to lay the skins across the top of the closed milk cans, as she did every time they went to the market; but so ill-tempered and horrible was the cattle herdsman, he found some fault in the process of her loading. In a rage he grabbed her by her once-golden hair and dragged her away from the cart, despite her tears, and ordered her instead to get the mule ready.
She complied, ignoring the tears that were running down her own face. She took down the bridle for the mule in one hand, half-running to the end stall where the mule was kept. On the way she threw her tussled hair back into place, so that it shielded the unusually bright blue of her eyes, and the deformed shaping of her ears; ears that were curved up and pointed, and absolutely abhorred by the people of Courin.
She didn't remember.
The cart was on its side, half lost in the mud, and the mule was prancing about in a panic; she was kneeling in the grime before her master, hands bleeding, the milk scattered around her in still pools, white against the brown earth and living red of her blood.
"Morta…you…punishment, khes, I will make you bleed for this! A whipping, a beating…"
She had sat in the back, with the milk, as the herdsman drove the load up the ten miles to Paoli, the ship-town of Courin, where boats docked in the harbor and people ran shops in the street. A thief had tried to stop them once along the way, but the ferocity of her master terrified him, and he ran. Then he had stopped the cart in the front of the whorehouse and ordered her to drive on to the market, as the girls in red all crowded around him with white smiles and wide, fearful eyes. There had been another cart, she thought; a drunken man, scaring the mule; a woman with yellow teeth and an aged face screaming something horrible to her, and now she was here, lying in the mud, hands torn from where she had tried to grab the edge of the cart as it fell, lead rope ripping flesh as the mule galloped away.
"I don't know…the mule…I couldn't…hold on…."
"Do not dare speak back to me! Remember you're place! Wretch, khes, morta-fui…"
She didn't remember.
He raised the lash to strike her, face like the mask of devils, eyes red and burning and longing to draw blood from her cowering form…
She didn't remember. She could never remember.
She waited a long time for the blow to come. She waited for the cut, the sudden shock of pain, the warm trickle of blood down her back. She waited for it to come, again and again, until the sick repetition of the blows made up her entire world, anguish and misery and tears. She waited…and waited. But all in vain, she waited.
A murmur was going through the crowd. She looked up, terrified; then wondered if he was waiting for her to look up, so he could strike her across the face (he did that sometimes). But she risked it, if only to see the herdsman's wrist trapped in the vice of another man's hand.
The grip held him like iron. The man's palm and arm were wrapped in leather, almost all the way up to his elbow, where the gray edges of his tunic met it. The rest of him was cloaked and hidden, his face veiled by the massive hood and betraying only the edge of his rough chin and the line of his mouth. The herdsman fought him off, flew into a wilder rage, wrenched his arm from the man's grip.
"Get off me, boy –"
"C'amir, khesha," he said it lowly, but fiercely. "C'amir, iv ner kahm lir. Stop, or there will be trouble for you, herdsman."
The herdsman paused; his face turned red. No one had ever dared to speak to him like that.
"You will not dare to tell me, boy, how to discipline my servants – I will beat you –"
"Will you?" his hardly visible mouth suddenly curved into a clever, roguish sort of smile. He laughed lowly as the herdsman's face turned a deeper shade of crimson, and raised his face a little, turning. "It would be a great thing to see from you, herdsman."
One eye, unmasked beneath the shadow of his hood, gleamed out towards the herdsman, steady and unblinking. His cloak fluttered back, though he remained cast in shadow, eyes burning like twin stars, and at his hip the polished hilt of a sword was glimmering. It shone briefly, subtly before disappearing beneath the cloak again; a grave and silent warning. For a moment, neither man moved.
"She is my property, and you have no right to her," said the herdsman unsteadily after a few tense moments. The man smiled again, reached across towards his sword-hilt; the herdsman started, took a step back, began to protest.
With a loud thud the man threw a bursting bag of coins at his feet, spilling over with gold. The man hesitated, misunderstanding. The girl was still crouched in the mud, hands covered in blood, tear-streaked face looking questioningly from one man to the other.
"Consider her free of your ownership," he snarled. He waited for the herdsman to decide between the girl and the money; waited for him to stoop over and pick up the bag, waited for him to grab the mule and walk away, grumbling. Then he turned, with a dark wave of his cloak, and disappeared into the alley.
She didn't hesitate. It was strange thing, to be sure; but servants like her were sold and bought all the time in the market, expected to follow the new master without a word. She was a worthless little trinket that made their lives a small bit easier, if she could only do what they asked. She didn't hesitate to follow the man into the alley. It was expected of her. She had been bought.
He walked very fast. She hoped he did not walk that fast all the time. She didn't think she could keep up, and that would make him angry. She hoped he didn't walk that fast all the time.
She was still covered in mud when she turned the corner, almost running to keep pace with him, as he reached the back door of an inn stable, where he must have been staying. She wondered if he lived in a different country, and if he would bring her there to work. Or maybe he would sell her at the Slave Stage in the square, which seemed more likely, if he was as rich as the bag of gold suggested.
He had taken a black stallion from the stable when she finally caught up. He would probably want her to groom it, or pack it. And if he rode it, she would have to run alongside and keep up. She wondered if he would use a leash on her, as other masters did; one they tied to the saddle to keep their servants from running off. She hoped he wouldn't. She had seen servants dragged on such leashes and she hoped he wouldn't. The horse looked strong and she wouldn't keep up with it.
The blade didn't ring when he drew it; it screamed, deafening, so loud and horrible and high-pitched it made her ears burn. She froze on the spot, hands down, head down, obedient, the edge of the blade pressed lightly against her neck, though slightly offset by her tangled hair.
"I am sorry," she said, haltingly, tears in her eyes. "…I have offended."
She cringed, as if she expected him to strike her, to beat her with the flat of the blade. For a long moment he said nothing, standing still with the sword shining in his fist. He seemed confused, or astonished, as if she was some unexpected (and rather unwelcome) visitor at the door. She stood dejectedly in the street before him, covered in mud, hopelessly tangled hair falling across her shoulders in clumped locks, face streaked with grime, hands still cut and bloody. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice that seemed unwillingly soft, as if he was forcing compassion into his tone.
"You are the girl. From the market. Why have you followed me here?"
She looked up, still terrified, staring at the blade. She clutched herself as though the action would somehow protect her from his wrath; then she looked down at the mud again.
"You bought me."
The words hung in the air for a moment as she waited for him to claim her, to remember the bag of gold he had thrown at the herdsman's feet. She did not dislike him for forgetting her, oh no, not at all; she could not even remember herself, little girl of such small worth; why then would he?
"No…" he sighed, put the sword back in its sheath. She relaxed a little as the weapon disappeared, but did not move from her spot. The man seemed exhausted. "No, little one. I do not own you. I merely freed you from the herdsman's hands. Go and do as wish."
He turned back and took the horse's bridle, to lead it away down to the docks, where the other men were boarding. She watched him walk away, but couldn't get her mind around what he had said. Unable to comprehend it she began after him, hoping he may explain it later. No, he wouldn't; she would have to load his stallion on to the boat soon, and he would go up to the passenger quarters, and she would stay down with the animals below deck.
But when he realized she was following him, his anger flared and he turned, face horrible to behold even beneath the darkness of his hood.
"I said go! Are you a dog?"
She flinched, and he ground his teeth in fading patience.
She didn't remember.
"I am sorry. You can go. You are free. Go!"
She did not move. Beneath his hood she saw him lick his teeth, struggle to keep his temper down, and (as she imagined it) try and resist the urge to strike her.
"What is the matter with you? I just gave you you're freedom!"
Her hands were trembling at her sides, and her wide, blue eyes were hidden, staring down at the ground, obedient but terrified. She seemed to grow very small.
"I do not…want it."
"You do not want freedom?" he seemed enraged by the idea, and the forced gentleness in his voice vanished instantly. He threw down the horse's bridle so roughly the stallion jumped and fidgeted, and he towered up before her, infuriated. "You do not want the one thing that men strive for, bleed for, die for – you cast aside the thing men will litter a field with corpses for? You don't want it? You throw it away as if it was no more than a used rag? You cannot be as ignorant as all that. Do not anger me in this!"
He was huge, terrifying in a way the herdsman had never been. She quivered and shrank beneath him, threw herself down into the mud, whimpering. It caked around her cheek as she stared into the murky brownness, outstretched hands inches from his boot.
For a moment his words hung in the air, as she bowed fearfully before him, begging forgiveness. Then she felt his hand on her arm and she cringed involuntarily, waiting for the blow.
It didn't come. His grip on her arm was firm, but not painful. He was pulling her up to her feet, and taking something from his pocket at the same time. She stared at him, transfixed; for though she could not see his face, his presence was astonishing, like a righteous demon, or the ghost of a king.
"I'm sorry. Do not be frightened."
He extended his hand, and she realized he was holding a rag. Very carefully he wiped the mud from the side of her face, though some of it had already dried and was impossible to remove. Her eyes never left him, not for a second, as he cleaned the grime from her skin.
"What is your name, little one?" he asked. His hood tipped back a little and she could see the gleam of his eyes; a very intense, strange shade of brown.
She didn't remember.
"Khes. The herdsman called me khes…"
"That – that is not a name," he seemed discomforted by the insulting term. "You have a name, and you should not fear to tell me. What is it?
She didn't remember.
"I…I was called khes. I have always been called khes."
"Stop saying that," he said it roughly, before he could stop himself, and she flinched again. His hand was still on her arm, and it had tightened a little in his temper. He released it and bowed his head, so that the shadow of his hood concealed him.
"I am sorry, again, little one," he seemed irritated. "I do no like that word. If the people knew the true meaning of it…I do not care. I will give you a name."
He paused, and she waited, wondering if masters could re-name their servants.
"I will call you Pavaldi, which is little, humble one; not better name could there be for you. But I will call you Ava, so your name will be protected. And you will call me Ríad."