Authors: Eva Scott
Klara struggled to focus. How long had she been unconscious? Why was she rocking? The motion made her feel sick. She abandoned the effort to sit up as a sharp pain pierced her skull. Clutching her head in her hands she fought down a wave of nausea threatening to engulf her. Wherever she was it was dark and smelly.
“Oh look,” said a sarcastic voice. “The great heroine awakes.” Someone else snickered.
“Leave her alone.” A voice belonging to a young girl piped up. “At least she tried.” A thin arm snaked about her shoulders, steadying her.
“And lost her freedom in the process. Well done! She’s trouble and she’ll get us all whipped, mark my words.”
“Don’t listen to her,” the young girl whispered in Klara’s ear. “She’s just a bitter, old crone nobody will want to buy anyway.”
“Where am I?” Klara asked.
“On your way to the slave market to be auctioned.”
Klara struggled to stand at the girl’s words. Hands clutched at her. “For Juno’s sake, sit down! She’ll get us all in trouble, I told you!”
Crumpling to the floor, she drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. Slave market! But she was a free woman. How could someone make her slave just like that? And what about Lucius? He would never know what happened to her. Neither would her father.
“I’ve got to get out of here.” Klara tried to stand again but the young girl grabbed her arm in a vice-like grip and would not let go.
“And how are you going to do that?” she hissed. “Arcius saw to you once and look how that ended. He might not be so gentle a second time. Just wait. You never know what opportunities might lay ahead down the road. Perhaps someone kind will buy you.”
“No man will own me!”
“Well, perhaps you might make a decent ladies maid, with a bit of training.” The girl sounded unconvinced and by the snickering in the rest of the cart it would seem so was everyone else.
“You don’t understand. I’m a free woman.” Klara couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice.
“We were all free once. Fact is you’re not free now so you might as well get used to it.”
The unseen woman’s words dropped like stones in Klara’s stomach. Her head fell between her knees and she cried for the first time since Bleda died. She cried for herself, for Lucius and for the family she would never see again. How could this happen? She struggled to make sense of her predicament, giving into the kindness of the young girl who drew her closer in embrace, one hand softly stroking her hair. For the first time in her life Klara surrendered to hopelessness.
Sitting with his back against the wall and his eyes on the tavern door Lucius proceeded to get drunk. He knew it was a stupid thing to do, given his head was on Irnik’s bride-price list, but the desire for temporary oblivion was more powerful than self preservation.
From time to time he stirred his bones just enough to ask a patron if he had seen Klara but no one had and eventually he gave up. The tavern owner said no one matching her description had rented a room in recent days and since she was a striking woman Lucius had no reason to doubt the man’s memory.
The noise in the room had increased to a level which made his ears throb. Rising to leave he was startled when a heavy hand clamping down on his shoulder forcing him back into his seat. Taken by surprise, being unsteady on his feet, he collapsed back on to the bench. Looking up through blurry eyes he recognised his uncle Hetal.
“Well fancy meeting you here, dear boy!” Hetal boomed. “Did you find your little Hun girl?” He slid on to the bench opposite, not waiting for an invitation, peeling his gloves off thick fingers; he then threw them on the table. “She came looking for you. Quite a tasty little dish.”
Lucius blinked rapidly, trying to clear his head. “She’s gone,” he croaked.
“Gone? Gone where?” Hetal indicated to a serving girl to bring more beer. “Last time I saw you, you were heading for Rome as if the hounds of hell were on your tail. Your little Hun went after you in hot pursuit. What happened?”
Lucius waited while the serving girl deposited fresh cups of beer before them. Gripping his tightly he downed the entire contents in one long gulp. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he brought his uncle up to date on his story so far.
“…so I rode out onto the plains thinking maybe she’d make for her father’s camp. It’s the logical thing to do—it’s what I’d have done.” Hetal nodded in silent agreement, taking encouragement Lucius went on. “No one I passed had seen her and it became apparent within a couple of days she had chosen a different course of action. So I came back here, to Aquicum.” He spread his arms wide to indicate the splendour of the tavern.
“Thinking your little Hun would come here looking for you?”
Lucius sat forward. “Bounty hunters, of course. We were attacked by three of them so it makes sense there’d be more. It’s the only reason I can think of as to why she’d come here but where else would she go?” He sat back, dejected. “Perhaps my decision to come to Aquicum was borne of hope rather than logic but logic hasn’t served me well where Klara is concerned.”
“Humph!” Hetal grunted through his copious beard. “You want to think like a woman? That, my boy, is a feat more challenging than harnessing the moon to pull a cart!” Hetal leaned back, balancing his cup of beer on his belly, a deep furrow marking his brow. “This land is not heavily populated so a Hun woman travelling alone would be easily spotted and remembered. After so many days have passed I’m afraid there are only two possible outcomes I can see.”
“And they are?” Lucius asked, impatience tingeing his voice.
“Bounty hunters, as you mentioned, of course. As I said, she’d not be hard to spot out here on the frontier and easy picking for more than one man. Chances are someone has picked her up and is whisking her back to Irnik as we speak.” Hetal took a leisurely swig of his beer.
“The second possibility?” Lucius had spent the afternoon trying to avoid thinking about bounty hunters and didn’t care to begin now. The visions of Klara kidnapped, bound and rough handled by Irnik’s bounty hunters haunted his every moment.
Had he failed her?
This was the question awaiting him at the bottom of every cup of barley beer he drank – and he drank many while searching for the answer.
. There are many on the road right now, all heading for the provincial slave markets.”
“You’re a slaver.” Lucius sat up out of his slump. “Surely you know the most likely destination these slavers would be heading for.”
Hetal shrugged. “Could be the Greek island of Delos. Could be any one of the local towns between here and Rome. The slave business is booming my boy. The demand for good slaves grows with every year.”
Lucius sunk back down in his seat. “Delos,” he whispered. The Greek island reputedly held up to ten thousand slaves. God help her if she ended up there. He stood up again as quickly as he’d sat down.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Hetal growled.
“I’ve got to find Klara.” Visions of her chained, stripped and being auctioned replaced the earlier bounty hunter scenarios. None of which filled him with joy.
“Dear boy, you are in no fit state to go anywhere. Sit down, eat with me.” Hetal gestured for Lucius to resume his seat. When Lucius didn’t, Hetal sighed heavily. “As you pointed out, I
a slaver,” he said. “I have no business to trouble me at present so I will help you find your little Hun.” He spread his arms wide as if in benediction, a beaming smile upon his face. “But first we eat, then we sleep and tomorrow we’ll find her.”
Lucius knew he should feel gratitude for his uncle’s generous offer of help. What he felt actually fell far short. Hetal had a point though, perhaps he could help him. Night was falling and he’d had too much to drink by anyone’s standards. What else could he do but take up the man’s offer?
“Then we are sure to find her, uncle,” he said finally, offering Hetal a weak smile and resuming his seat.
“Good! I knew you’d see it my way. Serving girl! More beer!”
Klara stared defiantly out into the gathered crowd. Another town, another slave market. She’d lost count of the number of days she’d rattled around in the back of the slave cart; it could be two days or perhaps even a week. The faces of the people began to look the same; dirty, mean, leering expressions greeted them wherever they went.
“Gentlemen, our next lot is a fine specimen of a woman. Strong! Look at those legs!”
Why are slave auctioneers always fat bellied men with no necks?
At each slave market they stopped at one or two of the women were sold. The rest of them were bundled back into the cart and onwards they went, to the next town. Her captors held back some of the girls, deeming them too valuable to sell in the provincial markets. Klara’s young Thracian friend, Meda, with her long blonde locks and huge grey eyes, was never put on the stand. Klara, on the other hand, found herself on the stand in every flea-bitten town they stopped at.
“Feel free to come closer and examine her. Bidding will begin shortly.”
Standing with a crudely written sign around her neck she endured the stares and comments of the crowd.
“Well-formed, that one. Not bad looking. Might make a good bed slave.” A grimy looking man read the sign. “She’s going cheap too.”
His companion wiped a snotty nose on his sleeve and sniffed loudly. “I could definitely hump
daily. Look at the tits on her!”
Klara smiled down at the filthy pair. They leered in response and drew closer, just close enough for her to kick out at the man who’d made the comment about her breasts. Her foot caught him square on the chin and he reeled backwards with a surprised yelp.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing? You,
! Control your slave.” The other man yelled angrily at the slavers who hurried to smooth over the situation.
How dare they speak so openly about my attributes as if I were deaf!
She smiled serenely down on the melee as people began to give her a wide berth in favour of other, more placid slaves. As she prepared to take another shot at a too-close patron Arcius yanked her off the wooden stand and half dragged, half carried her back to the cart. She kicked hard and tried to bite him but she might as well be a fly buzzing around his ears for all the notice he took of her.
Once at the cart out of the public eye, he sat heavily on a nearby rock, placed Klara over his knee and proceeded to give her a spanking. He hit her hard enough to hurt but not enough to mark her skin. She yelped at the stinging slaps, knowing the noise encouraged Arcius to think he’d done his job well.
She’d lost count of the spankings she’d received since she’d been captured. They had become part of the routine of a new town. Digging her fingernails into the palm of her hands she endured her punishment, storing up her rage for another, more opportune time. Once finished, Arcius threw her back over his shoulder and deposited her inside the caged cart, locking the door firmly behind her.
“Are you hurt?” Meda crawled across to where Klara lay on her side, nursing her bruised bottom.
“I’m fine, truly. One town closer to Rome,” she said with as much cheer as she could muster.
“Klara!” The young woman’s exasperation was clear, “You know they will do everything they can to sell you before we get to Rome. You shouldn’t provoke them so. Perhaps they’ll sell you to someone kind, someone nice, if you behave yourself.”
Klara’s eyebrows shot up with incredulity. “I know they want to get rid of me before Rome. Why do you suppose they ask so little for me? Why do you think I behave the way I do? No one will buy an aggressive slave who is good for nothing. I don’t cook. I cannot tend to a lady’s grooming, nor will I be very accommodating in bed.”
“But if they can’t sell you before Rome they might kill you instead,” Meda whispered, tears welling in her luminous eyes.
Klara’s heart clenched at her friend’s worry. Struggling to sit up and wincing at the pain, she drew Meda to her in a hug. “Don’t worry so much. I can take care of myself. I will get to Rome. I
to get to Rome.”
“I don’t understand why you want to go all the way to Rome.” Meda sniffed, drawing back to look into Klara’s face. “It’s so far from your own home. Wouldn’t you want to stay closer to your family?”
Klara shook her head. “The only person who can save me lives in Rome. He’s not there all the time but if I can find him, if I can get a message to him, I can gain my freedom again. I know it. I stand a better chance in Rome than anywhere else in the Empire.”
“What if they sell you to a brothel?” This was Meda’s greatest fear, and a realistic one given the girl’s beauty.
Klara smiled gently. “I told you, I’m not very accommodating. I shall probably end up working in a shop carrying heavy loads or out on a farm tending horses. I’m good with horses.” Her mind flicked to her own ugly pony now being ridden by Warty. She’d have it back before they parted ways.
Meda sighed. “I wouldn’t mind working in a shop.”
Drawing the girl closer to her, Klara stroked her hair soothingly. “I’m sure you’ll end up somewhere wonderful where the master and mistress will appreciate all your talents.” Her words sounded hollow to her own ears. Meda’s chances of a happy life were slim but the lie was comforting just the same. The girl sighed and nestled in. At fifteen years of age she had yet to learn the ways of the world and Klara prayed to all the gods she’d ever heard of to protect Meda from every having to learn them at all.
“Now, why don’t you tell me a story while we wait for Warty and the Fat Man to come back?”
Meda giggled, her tiny hand covering her mouth. “You really shouldn’t call them that – they might hear you! Shall I tell you the story from my homeland? About the woman who lived deep in the forest and the mountain troll who loved her?”
Hetal trudged back to where Lucius stood with their horses. He stamped the mud off his boots and cleared his throat as if he had an announcement to make.
“Well?” Impatience buzzed around Lucius’ head like a swarm of mosquitoes. “What did you find out? Do you know where she is?”