Just shy of midday, the sound of several horses entering the cobbled courtyard drifted up to Sanna's chambers where she lay languidly in the summer heat, a gentle breeze stirring the fine gauze drapes around her bed. She knew who it was without getting up to see – her brothers, returned ahead of the main army from the war in the North. Eager for the news they doubtless brought of their victory, she rose and hurried down to the great hall, where her father and her sisters were already assembled. She waited patiently with them as her two brothers entered, and her interest grew when she saw what they dragged between them. A man, ragged and half naked hung limply from her brother's strong arms, his red curls hanging down his back in a tangled mess. They flung him to his knees before the king their father, and stood back proudly for his praise.
"What's this ?" the king spoke softly, though his tone was of iron, cold and hard. Alexios, the older brother, stepped forward and bowed.
"Oberon's Captain," he said. Sanna gasped. Oberon was the King of Carne, the enemy in the North. If they had captured his Captain……
"And what news of Oberon ?" demanded the king. Alexios shrugged.
"He still lives, though we've forced him to go to ground. It won't be long now before he surrenders, I'll warrant." He looked very pleased with himself, and aimed a kick at the Captain. The king irritably waved him back and away from the prisoner.
"Assuming he puts much value on his captain's life, not long at all," he agreed, with a stern look at his sons. "What is this man's name ?"
"Since we don't care, we didn't ask," sneered Alexios. He glared at the prisoner. "What's your name, dog ?"
The red-haired prisoner made no reply, and kept his head bowed low. He left arm hung at an awkward angle and Sanna realised it must be broken. The livid bruises made her wince.
The king rose, and descended the dais to stand before the prisoner. He bent, and grasped the man's chin in his hands, forcing his head back. His lip curled.
"This is a mere boy !" he exclaimed, "do you think I am a fool ? This is not Oberon's captain ! Worthless wastrels, how dare you think to deceive me ?" He glared round at his sons, who faltered and took a step back, unsure of what to say. They had certainly not meant to deceive the king.
"We are sure this is Oberon's captain, father," Alexios protested, "he looks young, yes, but do not all the folk of Carne look younger than they should ?"
"This is not he," snapped the king. "or do I look less intelligent than I should ? This can be nothing more than a foot-soldier, or a spy. Execute him !"
The prisoner's head snapped back up at that, and a hiss of breath escaped his lips, swollen and bruised from the beatings his captors had dished out. Sanna stared, and two ice-green eyes locked onto hers in desperation as her two brothers grabbed his arms and dragged him up, ready to cart him out to the courtyard for what would be a violent lynching. She found herself rushing forwards, her hands clutching at her father's sleeves. He tried to shake her off, irritably, but she clung on, her voice frantic in her ears.
"What if they're right ? What if he is Oberon's Captain ? He could be valuable, don't, don't…"
"Are you saying we should keep him alive ?" demanded Alexios, rounding on her with his black eyes flashing. She quailed, ever afraid of his temper. She nodded, struck mute by the anger in his expression. Her father looked down at her, amused.
"Far be it from me to refuse my youngest daughter," he smiled unpleasantly, "Therefore, my dear, I will indulge you. You may keep him."
She stared up at him, uncomprehending.
"K-keep him ?"
He chuckled. "A slave from Carne, how exotic, wouldn't you say ? Perhaps you might even teach him manners and civilisation."
She stared at the prisoner, who stared back, shocked. He landed at her feet as her brothers flung him from them. He struggled to rise, standing awkwardly on one leg while the other threatened to buckle beneath him. Through the layers of grime and blood his face creased in pain, and she wondered what on earth she was supposed to do with him.