“Please don’t give up hope Fel. Negotiations might bog down again like they did yesterday, might even fall apart all together this time.”
I sighed as I wiped the sweat off my upper lip and chin with a piece of ancient and threadbare curtain before going back to crawling along the row of radishes to thin them out while still being gentle enough that the thinnings could be replanted and traded at the upcoming barter market. I looked at my crèche sister and told her, “What little hope I had dried up and blew away on the wind last night when we overheard how desperate the town elders are to get out from under the debt burden they built over the last few seasons.”
Docia looked more pensive than I had ever seen her. She wasn’t a deep thinker normally and it must have cost her to realize the pretty fantasies she had built to deal with her fears we’re nothing but moonbeams and wispies. “We would have starved without the barter from the Kipling traders. Harvests have gone bad for three years now.”
I growled, “It wasn’t a barter deal Docia. They sold our souls to put food in their bellies. Maybe if it had just been food it wouldn’t be like ashes on my tongue but they bought a lot of mead with our bodies to wash away their worries while leaving us to make do then and now with whatever future they’ve sunk us into.”
“No one else would deal with us. Everyone local turned their backs. They didn’t care if we starved or not.”
Still angry I told her, “And no wonder. The Headman started that reckless feud with the Lakesiders for no good reason beyond some stupid, drunken insult that wasn’t even worth noticing. Hiring those mercenaries to do his dirty work was bad but the disease they brought with them was worse. It wasn’t just the Lakesiders and our people fighting for their lives after that, it was forts and settlements for miles in all directions after it got into the water supply. I wish …”
Docia looked around scared. “Hush! Do you want another punishment?! Wasn’t being in the stocks for a week in the snow and ice enough to remind you of your place?”
I snorted, caring nothing if I was overheard or not. “They meant to be rid of me without having to claim the murder. They are only sorry the only thing I lost was a little toe. They would have been happier if it had been my life.”
Docia may have been shallow witted but that didn’t mean she was stupid. “Still, there’s no need to make it worse. If you weren’t always so honest with your opinions …”
A snide twitter from three rows over preceded the question, “What could be worse than being sold like cattle at auction? Oh that’s right, being sold like a bag of fertilizer to be nothing more than a bed warmer like the lowest saloon girl.”
Seeing Docia begin to wilt I stood up to the blonde girl who was gardening in the mud in better clothes than I had ever owned. I told her, “Docia will be a wife so keep a civil tongue in your head Daphne.”
She smirked. “Her maybe. You …” Another scathing twitter then she said, “You are going to be a …”
In a rare show of courage Docia said, “She’s going to be a wife too!”
An older woman, Daphne’s aunt and wife of the current Headman, barked a rude laugh. “Where they’re from they may call it being a second wife but here we know that’s just another word for whore … a mistress to help entertain the husband and keep him satisfied so that the real wife can have some peace.”
As a few other women nodded and murmured their agreement I almost asked if that was why her husband escaped to the town’s saloon every chance he got. But I didn’t. I knew Docia would take some pains for my words and she didn’t deserve bruises on top of her fears just for trying to defend me.
A man dressed in what passed for sec gear in our town road up on a strawberry roan and barked, “Stop your cackling you bunch o’ brainless feather dusters! The elders are calling for everyone to get to the square and it will be two weeks in the stocks if you drag your feet and hold things up!”
Two weeks in the stocks would be a death sentence for some and I watched them scramble away as I limped over the rocky path feeling every sharp pebble through my thin soled moccasins.
“Hurry Fel! I know your foot is sore but …”
“If you’re that eager to meet your fate then go.” At her crestfallen expression I felt like kicking myself; just because I was bitter was no reason to hurt poor Docia. More kindly I told her, “Just go. There’s not much worse they can do to me but there’s no need for you to get into trouble too.”
Reluctantly, as she was a true crèche sister, Docia finally began to jog as I slowly followed trying not to stub my foot on what remained of the old highway. In my great grandparents’ childhood the area had been called Saburbia or some such. I let the old fact slip by without examining it; I didn’t feel much like going over history as the future was more heavily on my mind at the moment. Most would have been surprised if they had realized I even knew any history which was just one of many things I had learned to keep to myself.
Girls did not attend the village school beyond the point where they had learned to read, write, and do basic household sums. Boys got a little more schooling but not much. They were assigned apprenticeships by the time they were ten summers and their masters were expected to train them if they needed anything more. My father taught me at home but was careful to also teach me that it was a survival skill best kept to myself as the men of the town were a different lot from my father who had come from the east on an adventure and then stayed after falling in love with the blacksmith’s daughter.
Finally I reached the town square which was nothing more than an old parking lot that had crumbled to gravel before my mother was born. Clumps of weeds were the only thing that could grow there and those had been trampled during the recent barter meetings and looked even more bedraggled than usual. My luck was in for once and no one noticed I was late. They were too busy watching the drama being played out by Daphne and her aunt as they found out being the niece of the Headman wasn’t protection against “being sold like a piece of cattle at auction.”
The Headman, formerly the one who spoiled Daphne out of all proportion, backhanded her so hard I saw droplets of blood splatter the ground. “Silence girl and don’t embarrass me or yourself further. You serve my purpose and that is all.”
Daphne, brutalized doubtless for the first time in her life, fell silent in shock at the sudden change in her station. The Headman, a wide and loutish sort, said in the sudden quiet, “The deal is done. Six horses, four teams of mules, a dozen brace of geese, and fifteen maids of marriageable age ends our debt.” It was no mistake that the maids were listed last in importance. “All men of the town will put their print in blood on the paper and the Kipling men will do the same. Each settlement will retain a copy so that no man might refute it. Are there any objections?”
The question was merely a formality and everyone knew it. “So be it. I give the maids so named one hour to pack and return here. Should any disobey her family’s life and all their worldly goods are forfeit.”
Even I was shocked at how quickly things happened after that. About half of us had no family at all and even fewer belongings we could call our own, but what we did have was quickly tucked into rucksacks and kept close in hand as we waited in a corded off area for the other girls to say tearful goodbyes to family they would likely never see or hear from again. The only exception to this might be if some could convince a peddler to carry news on their yearly routes and peddlars had been avoiding us like the plague since … well since the plague had come through.
We were herded down the old highway until we went further than I had ever travelled before, even with my father on his yearly hunting expeditions. We were as silent as the men who guided us like sheep and it gave me time to contemplate our new masters. It was strange but the men looked somehow disgusted but resigned at the same time. Finally, the captain stopped and said, “Put them in the wagon. I wish to make Glennings Pass before dusk. No more delays. Let us be off for home.”
The men seemed to get a bit chipper at that so I could tell they were eager to be home, likely as eager as I was for the trip to last forever. I had no idea what was to become of us after we reached our new dwelling place. I contemplated what the travel from this point might be and I wasn’t sure what I expected but certainly a comfortable trip in a well sprung wagon wasn’t part of it though that is closer to what happened than what I feared.
We were three weeks on the road, sometimes walking, sometimes riding when terrain necessitated it, occasionally picking up another wagon of goods with a driver and guard each, when we finally came to what I thought at first was a large lake. Instead I found out it was a wide river. I had heard of the Mississippi from my father but had never thought to see it much less cross it.
The captain, a man whom we eventually learned was properly named Capt. Rob Uhl, addressed us directly as little as possible. That was nothing unusual as most of the men of our town had been much the same. What was unusual was in his own way he was as bad as a nursemaid with a sick babe to tend when it came to our comfort and safety. I hadn’t seen the like since my father died at the hands of the Lakesider that had set our house ablaze with my mother, brother, and old granny purposely trapped inside.
The captain, for all his consideration, treated us as children and tended to expect us to act like them as well. His every word to us reflected this. “We cross by ferry. You will be safe so long as you stay where you are put. If you do not wish the indignity of being tied with the cattle then do as you are told.”
I knew from my father’s stories that the Mississippi could be traitorous and I was no fool. I was told where to sit by the ferrymaster and sit I did. Or at least I did until another ferry passing too close beside us from the opposite bank suddenly revealed itself to be a cleverly disguised pirate vessel.
When a man fell beside me and Docia was nicked by a ricochet I went cold as I sometimes did. Knowing it probably meant my life was forfeit as women in our town were forbidden weapons, I took the bow and quiver from the fallen man and then did what my father’s daughter was taught.
Every arrow I shot found its mark. Each time I thought I had shot my last arrow the quiver would magically refill. It wasn’t until the last pirate fell that I saw it was the injured young man and Docia who were refilling the quiver with arrows. I wasn’t sure what to think of that and was even less sure when a wide-eyed Docia whispered, “He says you’re nearly as good as his aunt … and she is Capt. Uhl’s wife.”
I didn’t like feeling any kind of connection to my new masters but what is done is done and I was nothing if not a realist. I handed the bow and quiver back to the young man and then silently started to help strip the pirates of anything useful before they were tossed onto a raft that was then towed to shore behind the ferry. The pirate vessel was also stripped but it had a huge gash in its side and was soon sinking so was abandoned to its fate. When we reached the dock the ferry operators were thankful enough that the pirates had been routed that they refunded the cost of passage for all persons and goods, a sum even I knew must have been handsomely sized.
At camp that night a noticeably dour Captain Uhl looked around at the wounded then addressed us all. “No loss of life but too many injuries. I would have paid twice the sum for passage if it would have avoided this.” His lips thinned then in what looked like pain as he glanced my way and I prepared myself for the worst.