Author's Note: This prologue has gone through a significant revision. You can see hints of the original in it, if you've read it before. But the original was close to three years old, and three years worth of character and plot development, not to mention changes in my own writing, sort of called for it. If you're looking for the original prologue or preferred it, drop me a PM and I'll link you to it. Cheers.
Riley had every right to be afraid. Maybe some would have thought her less for it. Some would have encouraged her to be brave. Few would have blamed her for it.
Strange then, that she wasn't.
She stood, one among dozens of other captives, fifth in line. They were positioned so they had a perfect view of the platform outside Aurelius Phoenix' office. A perfect view so they could watch as each of them was auctioned off. A crowd of armoured men murmured in front of them, heads tilted as they picked out potential favourites from the line-up of slaves. She wasn't oblivious to the stares, much as she wasn't oblivious to the heat beating down on them. But the sweat clinging to her skin didn't matter. The way the men were looking at her didn't matter. It was hard to see much that mattered anymore.
She kept her head down, unblinking, stare vacant. It was easier that way. To just go through the motions, just wait your turn. Easier than seeing the misery that was around her, easier than remembering two weeks filled with it.
She guessed it was two weeks anyway. She'd lost count of the days after Noah died.
She blinked. Stupid. Stupid of her to think his name. Had it been two weeks? She tried doing the math but the days blurred together in her mind, unable to separate one hour of torture from the last.
Two weeks, though. It was strangely humbling. A bitter sort of melancholy welled up inside of her, the closest to emotion she'd allowed herself in days. To think that two weeks ago her biggest worry was whether to call or fold in a poker game. In a post as boring as Camp Searchlight, what else was there? Stupid. Foolish. A simple scouting mission had changed that. Because of her. Because she didn't listen. Because she was bored.
They paid the price for her boredom. Noah more than her. It was funny, in a way. She had thought, in the beginning, that the worst they could do to her was rape. That was what the NCR taught her, what was drilled into her and the rest of the women in basic. But she was wrong. They made sure of that, bringing her out every few hours to stand in front of him while he suffered at their hands. He'd been given the cross, and the whip and the stone. And she? She'd been made to watch. And every cry, every protest, every struggle that she gave them they took out on her partner. It took her two days to stop fighting. Two days when she stopped listening to Noah's simple request that she 'be strong'.
She should have stopped on the first.
Noah died on the fifth.
Centurions were walking up and down the line now, barking instructions for the upcoming auction. The words muffled in her ears, vague shouts that meant nothing to her.
Two weeks. Two weeks of little food, sparse water. Two weeks of abuse at the hands of her captors. And when they grew bored of abuse, when their interests took a different turn, women were dragged from the cage, and what was drilled into her in basic suddenly became a real threat.
It didn't take long for Riley to be chosen. She was one of the youngest there, and stripped of fatigues, wearing only a flimsy piece of cloth that barely covered anything. She had fought and kicked and screamed and bitten, her rage and grief giving her fuel for a fire she still had within her, and only because there wasn't anyone left they could punish for her disobedience.
She was wrong about that, too.
Her gaze lifted now, eyes resting on the girl ahead of her. She didn't know her name. Hadn't bothered to ask or care. But she should have. She should have cared. When Riley's resistance had gained actual purchase, when her nails drew blood and her teeth found skin. She should have cared.
Because instead of trying to wear Riley down, they started taking the girl instead. She left and returned with dead eyes each time, her once pretty features slowly drawing into tense hollows.
At first, Riley was grateful. Better her than me. But, seeing her slowly deteriorate over the days and knowing it was because of her was gut-wrenching. She was army. The girl was civilian. There was a shame there in knowing that this stranger, someone she should have been protecting under normal circumstances, was suffering instead of her.
The girl was ahead of her in line now, and Riley felt a ridiculous urge to apologise to her. It was stupid. She hadn't said a word to this woman, though the other woman had tried her first few days there. She'd found out Riley was a soldier and assumed that meant she had a plan. But she had no plan at the time. No will to do anything because of Noah. She'd ignored the girl's crying, her pleas, and look what had happened.
She had no plan now, either. Speaking now would do nothing just as it did then.
Nothing was going to get them out of this so what was the point in saying something now?
Riley shook herself, bringing herself back out of her wallowing. Up on the platform, a middle-aged woman was being auctioned off. She stood, shaking. Her hair was clean, her face free of dirt. Like the rest of them, she was forced to bathe that morning. Under heavy scrutiny and leering eyes, guns with safeties off and dogs on loose leashes if they had any notions of running, they all stripped and bathed in the river, washing the grime from their bodies so as to be 'presentable' for bidders.
Most of the captives, Riley included, actually took great joy in it – it being the first time they'd felt clean in weeks. Her blonde hair shone in the sun, her skin and nails free of dirt. Their captors had even been generous enough to give everyone freshly cleaned clothes.
Aurelius Phoenix called out something in Latin, and the woman was stripped of those clothes. She was made to parade twice, back and forth, across the platform, and told to spin once. She did as they said, finishing with a lamely executed turn. She faced the crowd stiffly, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle.
Riley didn't understand what Legion coin was worth, but the woman sold for five Aurei.
One by one they were led up to be sold. A man sold for three Aurei. A shaking child after him for eight. Longevity, Aurelius kept selling. Next was the girl. Riley took a pained breath, watching as the girl she failed allowed her clothes to be removed.
Her blood froze as the girl made her slow walk across the platform, eyes focusing on the small bump between her hips. Bile rose in her mouth as guilt mounted.
"Starting bid of ten Aurei!" Aurelius announced. "Hale and healthy, and a proven breeder. Do I hear ten?"
A bidding war started. It didn't help that the girl was pretty. 'The girl'. Riley had no name for her. Most of the captives hadn't wanted to bond. Those that came in alone often stayed that way.
The girl lowered her head and began to shake, her fear renewed while men bid for the right to have her. Bids went up to twenty, and Riley fought back tears while she watched the girl slowly break down on the stage.
She couldn't watch anymore. She looked away, instead focusing on the cliffs surrounding the Cove. For the hundredth time she cursed the bottleneck entrance to the area, cursed the cliffs above them. If she had any sort of opening for escape at all, she wouldn't take it. Not that way.
Bids hit twenty-five and Riley shut her eyes, just in time to hear the crack of gunfire echo across the canyon. Her head snapped up, frantically looking for the source. Instead, her eyes fell on the stage. The girl stood, eyes wide, for a mere second. Blood blossomed and poured down her left breast, and then she crumpled to the ground.
Riley stared, stunned. Around her, a growing commotion sounded in her ears as Legion soldiers sprang into action. She was shoved aside and back as they tried to find the shooter, and it took her a few moments before she realised that in the panicked disruption and the rush to fortify the camp, none of them had thought to watch the remaining slaves. They were forced back towards the shoreline, many of the slaves took to hiding behind buildings, afraid of being the next target.
What sort of gunman targeted unarmed slaves?
She felt something stir within her as more and more Legionaries left the general area, fanning out towards the cliffs and far-reaching buildings.
On auction day, slaves weren't required to wear the collar or be bound, because it made stripping them more difficult. The path to the river was free. She could swim. She'd always been a strong swimmer. But would her weakened state let her make it?
She swallowed. Noah would have wanted her to get away.
Seconds ticked by. She was losing her window. Blood pooled and dripped off the platform. She couldn't save the girl. She couldn't save Noah.
She could save herself.