Yesabet believed that her life would be spent in service to her mother. She would eventually marry, and then she would have children of her own. Then violence changed those plans.
Yesabet sat at her spinning, daydreaming and singing to herself. She glanced out the window. Frowning, she abandoned her place. “Mother, something is going on,” she said.
“What is it?” Jaana asked. Yesabet's mother tried to sit up but fell back onto her pillows. “What's going on, Yesabet?”
“I'm not sure,” Yesabet said. “It looks like soldiers.”
“What colors are they wearing?” Jaana asked.
“Blue and gold,” Yesabet said.
“That's Lord Fenwyn's men,” Jaana said. “What could he think we've done wrong?”
“I don't know but there are three of them coming in. One has armor that looks better than the rest,” Yesabet said. A few minutes later the calling bells rang.
“Go and see what's happening, Yesabet,” Jaana said.
“Yes mother,” Yesabet said. She gathered her skirts and hurried out the door towards the center of town.
As soon as everyone gathered, Mayor Akers stepped forward. “We are honored today to welcome Commander Nicotera and his men to the village,” he said. “The commander requires our obedience in a certain matter.”
Commander Nicotera stepped forward. “Lord Fenwyn demands that every young woman of marriageable age that is not crippled or sickly come to the keep,” he said. “We are to provide suitable escort but no one is to be spared.”
There were some murmurs and a few unhappy wails. “Commander, I can't go,” Yesabet said, stepping forward. “My mother is ill and I'm the only one left to tend to her.”
“Mattan, Kiefer, assess and deal with the situation,” Commander Nicotera said.
“Yes commander,” Mattan said. “Show us your house, girl.”
Yesabet led them to her home. They entered the house. “Yesabet, what's going on?” Jaana asked, raising herself up on her elbows.
“Lord Fenwyn is calling for all of the marriageable age women to present themselves at his keep,” Yesabet said. “I told them I couldn't go because I needed to take care of you.”
“You don't defy the lord, Yesabet,” Jaana said. “You will go as you're told.”
“We'll take care of everything,” Kiefer said. He drew his sword. Before either woman could respond, he plunged it into Jaana's chest.
Yesabet screamed as her mother fell back onto the bed. She slid off Kiefer's sword. He wiped it on Jaana's body. Yesabet collapsed, sobbing. Mattan seized her arm. He pulled her to his feet and dragged her out of the house.
They got back to the center of town. “Is it taken care of?” Commander Nicotera asked.
“He killed her,” Yesabet said, hysterical with grief and rage. “He killed her.”
“Now she won't be a burden to anyone else,” Commander Nicotera said. “You won't have to worry about her while you're gone.” He gestured to one of the other young women. “Go and fetch what she needs for this trip. I assume you know where she lives?”
“Yes sir,” the woman said. She hunched in on herself and ran down the street. The only sound was Yesabet's crying.
A few minutes later, the other girl came back with a sack. The soldiers forced Yesabet to take it. One of them cuffed her. “That's enough of that, girl. Stand up or be carried. You won't like it if we have to do that.” Yesabet took the things. Her shoulders shook and she continued to cry, though her sobs were muted.
“Is this everyone?” Commander Nicotera asked, looking over the two dozen girls standing in front of him.
“Yes Commander,” Mayor Akers said.
“Then why is that girl standing over there and not with the rest of them?” Commander Nicotera said, pointing at a girl.
“She's not of marriageable age, Commander,” Mayor Akers said. “She's barely passed ten cycles.”
“And her?” Commander Nicotera asked, moving his gaze to another.
“She's nine,” Mayor Akers said.
“I see,” Commander Nicotera said. He looked at his men. “Let's move out.” The twenty four women were herded into a more or less cohesive unit and driven out before the shoulders like sheep.
Yesabet's friend Annukka moved to put her arm around Yesabet's shoulders. Another of the soldiers caught her wrist. “Do not touch her,” he said. “She'll have to get used to this anyway.”
“Her mother was murdered in front of her,” Annukka said.
The soldier backhanded her. “You don't talk back to us. We're only supposed to get you there alive,” he said. “There's nothing saying we have to get you there unharmed.” Annukka fell back, one hand on her cheek.
It took almost a lunar for the young women to reach their destination. There were several stops along the way where more were added to their number. Yesabet wasn't paying attention. All she could think of was the death of her mother. It took the soldiers beating her to get her to bathe, eat, and wash her laundry. Annukka and the others tried to help her but were often driven back by force.
Lord Fenwyn's castle towered over the town that was built up around it. When Commander Nicotera brought them through, everyone stayed in their homes. The young women, who now numbered eighty, were led in through the gate. Yesabet came out of her stupor to look around at the courtyard.
“What are they going to do with us?” someone asked.
“You'll find out when Lord Fenwyn is ready for you to,” Commander Nicotera said. “For now, keep silent.”
The women were led through the massive double doors into the keep. They were taken into the grand ballroom. There were over a hundred women in the room already. It was over crowded and the scent of unwashed bodies overwhelmed Yesabet.
“Why aren't they bathing?” Commander Nicotera asked as he led his group in.
“It takes all day just to bathe half of them,” a man in armor almost as fine as his said. “We alternate days but it's getting critical. I didn't know there were this many women in the holding.”
“We'll have to come up with something,” Commander Nicotera said. “Lord Fenwyn won't want to see them if they present themselves in filthy clothes and unclean bodies.”
“We may have to talk to the mages,” the other man said. “They might be able to come up with something.”
A liveried servant came into the room. His lip curled at the smell. “Commander Nicotera, Lord Fenwyn will see these women in three days.”
“I'll have them ready for him,” the commander said. The servant turned and walked out. “Lieutenant Ahearne, fetch the house mages.”
“Yes Commander,” Lieutenant Ahearne said. He went out of the room.
“Find some place to sit down and wait for further instructions,” Commander Nicotera told the ones who he'd brought in. “No talking.”
Annukka managed to sit next to Yesabet. She didn't speak but she put her arm around her friend's shoulder. The two young women huddled together, trembling and afraid. The soldiers wandered among the women, but none of them paid any attention to the two of them.
It took a few minutes but the lieutenant returned with the mages. “How can we be of service Commander?” one of the mages asked.
“There's too many women and not enough time to bathe them all and wash their clothes,” Commander Nicotera said. “Do you have anything that we could use to speed that along?”
“Not yet but we can make something,” the mage said.
“I'd appreciate your assistance in this, Master Carracci,” Commander Nicotera said.
“Give us a candlemark or two and we'll be back,” Master Carracci said. The mages bowed and left.
The room was almost silent. There was no laughter, no speaking, no crying. There was the rustle of fabric as almost two hundred women tried to get and stay comfortable. Yesabet found herself getting used to the smell. It didn't bother her anymore and she found herself gazing around the room.
The mages returned. They were carrying several things that almost looked like little caps. “What are those?” Commander Nicotera asked.
“These things will work sort of like a bath. You stand them up and put it on their heads. A wall of water and soap runs down them, washing everything,” Master Carracci said. “They'll still be able to breathe. After five minutes, this pulls the water back up into it. They'll be dry and clean when you're done. We have ten caps and they'll work for a sennit. If we need to recharge them we will.”
“Thank you, Master Carracci,” Commander Nicotera said. “Your help is, as always, very appreciated.” The mage smiled as he handed the caps over to the commander and his lieutenant. The soldiers turned to the women while the other two left the room. “Start with these women here. I want everyone washed before the day is over.”
“Yes Commander,” Lieutenant Ahearne said. “Get them to their feet.”
Ten at a time, women were dragged to their feet. The little bits of fabric went on over their hair. There were gasps as the water poured down over them. When it ran back up, they were pushed to the side. It took several candlemarks but all the women were clean. There was a faint floral scent left behind after the last of them were sent back to sit down.
“Bring in their meal,” Commander Nicotera said. “Make sure there's enough for all of them.”
The evening meal was served and after it was over small groups of women were taken to the privy until everyone was done. Blankets were passed out and the women settled down for bed. They used their sacks of clothing as pillows.
Yesabet didn't fall asleep at first. She stared at the wall, her mind tumbling with everything going on. Her mother's death, the forced march from Aldwater, the arrival at Lord Fenwyn's home. She didn't know what was going on. She curled up into an even tighter ball on the cold stone floor. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She felt someone move closer. She turned a little. Annukka's back was pressed up against hers. Annukka glanced over her shoulder and winked at her friend. Yesabet felt a little better. She closed her eyes. It didn't come fast but sleep did overwhelm her.