A new chapter in Yesabet's life has opened. Will it end in death or the possibility of a new life?
Someone kicked her in the ribs. Yesabet opened her eyes. A hand seized her hair and yanked her to a sitting position. Yesabet yelped. “Get up,” a harsh voice said. “It's time for the morning meal. You're not allowed to miss it.”
Tears pricked at her eyes. He slapped her hard before letting her go. Behind her, Annukka sat up before he could touch her. As soon as he was gone, Annukka wrapped her arm around Yesabet's shoulders. Another guard pulled her away and this time it was Annukka who was struck. The morning meal was served and once again the women were reminded not to speak.
The next few days passed in this same fashion. Yesabet watched as women were hit, kicked, suffered from having their hair pulled, and a few were even dragged around the room and moved to the other side. They were forced to eat and punished if they didn't. The little caps were used to keep them clean, and they were threatened if they flinched away from it.
One morning everyone was roused early. The caps were used and the women were required to fix their hair. Most of them didn't have brushes or combs. Those who did shared them out until everyone was neat and clean. “I want everyone to stay silent,” Commander Nicotera said. “Lord Fenwyn is coming. If you speak, you will be beaten within an inch of your life.”
A few minutes later, a middle aged man with two younger than him who looked like they could be mage copies of him in his prime walked in. “Commander Nicotera, is this everyone?” Lord Fenwyn asked.
“Yes my lord,” Commander Nicotera said. “You said everyone within easy distance. We went out two sennits and found everyone we could.”
“Good,” Lord Fenwyn said. He turned to the gathered women. “Welcome to my keep. I know you must be frightened and confused. I hope to alleviate some of that.” He watched them for a moment. “You all know my sons are twins. That means to many that they'll go against each other when I've died and that this land will fall into ruin and chaos. This limits their marriage possibilities. So I've brought you here so they can find wives. They will stay together even after my death, and they need women who will prove to be able ladies.”
Silence met his pronouncement. One of the young men frowned. “Commander, are all of them mute?” he asked.
“No, my lord,” Commander Nicotera said. “They've been told that if they speak they will be punished, so they remain silent.”
“Commander, were you not given the order to bring them back unharmed?” the other of the twins asked.
“We were told to bring them back alive, my lord,” Commander Nicotera said.
“Unharmed should have been implied in that as well,” Lord Fenwyn said. “Please, don't be frightened. I won't let them hurt you. Tell me what you think, what you want to do. Is there anyone who has a complaint to make against my soldiers?”
A few were pushed forward. “I am a widow, my lord,” one woman said. “They threatened to kill my children but my parents agreed to take them in.”
“I see,” Lord Fenwyn said. “Anyone else?” More women spoke of the harsh treatments and violent actions of the soldiers.
Annukka shoved Yesabet forward. “Tell him,” she hissed as Lord Fenwyn looked at Yesabet.
Yesabet swallowed hard. “They murdered my mother,” she said, her voice trembling.
“What do you mean?” Lord Fenwyn asked.
“My mother was crippled and ill,” Yesabet said. “I was the one who took care of her. When I brought it up to Commander Nicotera, he sent two soldiers with me. When they saw my mother one of them killed her while the other dragged me out to join the group. Commander Nicotera said now my mother wasn't a burden on anyone.”
“I see,” Lord Fenwyn said. “Commander Nicotera, I do not appreciate having my orders so grossly misstated. I said to bring all marriageable age women if they did not have prior commitments. Killing their families to remove those is not what I wanted.”
“You told me to bring them all, so I did,” Commander Nicotera said.
Lord Fenwyn sighed. “There are days where I regret listening to my late wife,” he said. “My sons will speak to each of you, get to know you a little. They'll single out some of you and the rest will be sent home.”
“My lord, how are we to get back? We have no food, no money, and no protection,” Annukka said. “We were taken with nothing but our clothes.”
“I'll send you back with an escort,” Lord Fenwyn said. He glared at Commander Nicotera. “Those women not chosen are to be returned to their homes alive and unharmed, Commander. That is an order.”
“Yes my lord,” Commander Nicotera said.
“Stanimir, Stian, take some time and speak to each one,” Lord Fenwyn said. “If it takes you a day or two that's fine.” Lord Fenwyn looked out over the group. “None of you will be punished for speaking out today. In fact, there is to be no more harsh treatment of any of these women.”
“Yes my lord,” Commander Nicotera said.
“You two will have to make a decision soon, so don't dawdle,” Lord Fenwyn said.
“Yes father,” Stanimir said.
Lord Fenwyn left the room. The twins started circulating. Everyone sat down. “You shouldn't have said anything,” one of Yesabet's neighbors whispered. “They're going to kill you for it.”
“Lord Fenwyn protected her,” Annukka said.
“They'll do it when they're taking you home,” the woman said. “Commander Nicotera doesn't like being crossed. They beat my sister to the point where she couldn't walk, and then forced her to do it anyway.”
“I was beaten every day,” Yesabet said. “I didn't want to move after my mother was murdered. They made me. If they kill me at least I'll be with the rest of my family.”
“What happened to the rest of them?” the woman asked.
“My brother died of the flux, my sister didn't live a sennit past her birth, and my father was killed when a tree he was chopping fell the wrong way and landed on him and three other men,” Yesabet said. “It was just me and my mother. She was too sick after my sister was born and she never healed right. Then she got winter fever.”
“Morana must hate your family,” the woman said.
“I look on it as Morana wanted them more than she thought I needed them,” Yesabet said. “All except my mother. She was taken without the Guardians' permission.”
“Jaana was a kind and generous woman,” Annukka said. “I know she's with your father now.”
“Thank you, Annukka,” Yesabet said.
Two days passed. Stanimir and Stian made their way through the women until they came over to the back corner where Yesabet was sitting. They spoke with the others first before coming to her. “I'm sorry about your mother,” Stanimir said. “Why didn't your father take care of her?” Yesabet explained her family situation. “That has to be hard.”
“So what is your name?” Stian asked.
“Can you tell us what you did for your mother? We understand you did everything, but what was it?” Stanimir asked.
“There wasn't anything I didn't do to tend to my mother and our household,” Yesabet said. “After father died I was the only one left who could.”
“With your mother bedridden, how did you bring in any income?” Stian asked.
“I spun wool and wove fabric,” Yesabet said. “I even made clothes for some people, though I did that more for us than anyone else.”
“So you do know how to manage a household and finances,” Stanimir said. Yesabet nodded. “How do you deal with people?”
“I try to treat everyone with respect but I will tell people off if they upset me,” Yesabet said. “Those who thought I should have let the healer kill my mother when she came down with winter fever and spoke about it in front of her I would get very angry with.”
“So do you have anyone waiting for you at home?” Stian asked.
“No,” Yesabet said. “I'm alone now.”
They asked her a few more questions and Yesabet answered them to the best of her ability. They left her after a few more minutes. “That was more than they asked me,” Annukka said.
“Your mother wasn't murdered by their father's forces,” the other woman, who they now knew was named Karenza, said. “They were just being kind to her.”
“Maybe,” Annukka said. “Then again, she has a lot more experience than some of us with running a household.”
“We'll have to see what they're looking for,” Yesabet said.
“It's time for bed,” one of the soldiers said. “Shut up and lay down.”
Yesabet was dragged out of a sound sleep by someone seizing her hair. A rag was jammed in her mouth so she couldn't scream. Hands took hold of her arms and dragged her from the room. She was thrown to the ground outside in a sheltered garden. There was a large pit dug. Several other women were lying near her.
“You should have kept your mouths shut,” Commander Nicotera said. “Now we'll have to tell Lord Fenwyn that you all ran away.”
Someone spat out the rag. “Don't you think he'll notice that it's only those of us who spoke up?” she asked.
The woman was backhanded. “He won't remember which ones of you said anything,” the commander said.
“Stanimir and Stian will,” another woman said as she managed to get her mouth clear. “They spoke to all of us.”
“There are almost two hundred of you,” Commander Nicotera said. “How are they going to recall every one they spoke with?”
Yesabet pulled the rag out of her mouth. “How many of us can you kill before we scream?” she asked.
“All of you, since we won't let you,” Commander Nicotera said.
Several of the women took deep breaths. Hands clamped down on their mouths. Yesabet didn't bother drawing a breath. She screamed at the top of her lungs.
Others followed her example. Commander Nicotera ordered them all silenced, but he didn't have enough men. “Shut them up,” Lieutenant Ahearne said.
“How are we supposed to do that?” one of the soldiers asked. “There's too many and there aren't enough of us.”
“Then slit their throats and be done with it,” Commander Nicotera said.
Yesabet's scream grew more frantic. Three women fell. Yesabet closed her eyes, seeing the knife raised towards her. “What is going on here?” The clear young voice echoed through the garden. The hand holding her let go. “Commander Nicotera, what is the meaning of this?”
“We caught them trying to run away, Lord Stanimir,” Commander Nicotera said.
“Then why is there a grave dug in my mother's garden, three dead women on the ground, and several still screaming?” Stanimir said. “Why weren't these women taken back with the others if they were caught trying to escape? Also, why is it that each one here is among those who raised their voices against your treatment of them?”
“What are you saying, Lord Stanimir?” Commander Nicotera asked.
“The same thing I am,” Stian said. Behind him stood their personal guards. “Commander Nicotera, you will release these women. Now.” The soldiers with the commander let them go. Yesabet and the others scrambled behind the twins. “Take these men into custody.”
The commander and his men were relieved of their swords and taken away.
Stanimir turned to the women. “Return to your places,” he said. “We'll make our decision known in the morning.”
“Yes my lord.” The women made her way back into the great hall.
The next morning everyone woke up and used the little caps to clean themselves up. Yesabet didn't bother fixing her hair, but stood with the others. It wasn't long before Lord Fenwyn and his sons entered the room. “Ladies, you should be relieved to learn that Commander Nicotera and Lieutenant Ahearne have been stripped of their places and are up on charges of murder, along with a handful of the soldiers who supported them,” Lord Fenwyn said. “I will be assigning someone to take their places so we can get you home safely.”
“We've made our decisions,” Stanimir said. The women fell silent. Stanimir and Stian recited names. Yesabet was surprised when hers was called.
“All of you step forward,” Stian said. Yesabet joined the other women moving to the front of the room. “You will be treated as honored guests as we continue to work towards choosing our wives.”
“The rest of you will be returned to your families in safety,” Lord Fenwyn said. “You'll be released in the next few candlemarks.” He turned to Yesabet and the rest with her. “Ladies, I thank you for your courage and your compassion. I hope to get to know all of you better soon.” He turned and walked out, followed by his sons.