It was no more than mid morning, but the heat was already so intense that it made ripples in the air above the lines of new plants in the field. We'd been moving up the furrows between the lines, pulling out weeds by hand, sweating heavily despite the short, thin rags we wore as clothing. Our guards sat or stood at one side of the field, suffering more than those of us who worked in the field despite the small amount of shade they'd found. Even leather armor is difficult to bear in heat like that, and some of the guardsmen had leather reinforced with small amounts of metal.
I stopped for a moment to straighten up and stretch my aching back, using the opportunity to glance around. The other women working with me were at least two strides behind in their respective rows, which meant they couldn't afford to take the time to stretch. How well we did our jobs was judged by the work speed of the fastest of us, and any woman who didn't keep up was beaten when we got back to the city. It didn't matter whether it was lack of food and general strength that caused the lagging, or pain from a previous beating. Any woman who didn't keep up was punished.
I raised my face in an effort to find the least, smallest breeze, but the heat ripples in the air must have been too heavy to move. They had used men to plow the field, but planting and weeding was done by women - an arrangement the guardsmen preferred. If there had been male slaves in the field instead of female the guardsmen would have had to be alert, not to mention spread out on all sides of the field. Male slaves had a tendency to try escaping, but female slaves…
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand, then bent again to the plants on my left before glancing over my shoulder to the far side of the field. All the guardsmen were
there, waiting for us to finish the rows we worked and then return toward them by way of the next two rows. I'd done just that in the last three fields I'd been put to weeding, but only because those other fields had been too close to the city. This field was no more than ten strides away from the edge of the forest, and this time I meant to escape or die in the trying.
I kept casual watch over my shoulder as I pretended to pull weeds, and saw exactly what I'd hoped to see. One or two of the guardsmen had noticed me when I'd stretched, possibly thinking about the noon rest and mealtime, but their attention had drifted away even before I'd bent to the plants again. No sense in picking a slave for the noon time until the officer had picked
his. That was another reason guardsmen preferred female slaves to male - or at least it was a reason for most of them.
I counted another ten heartbeats just to be certain and then, still bent over, I scuttled toward the near edge of the field. The hot brown dirt under my bare feet gave way to wild grass and creepers and an occasional root from one of the short bushes, but I ignored the change and just kept going. I had ten strides to cover before I was into the forest proper, and the distance doubled when you scuttled rather than strode.
I had covered about half the distance when I heard the shout, but I still didn't look back and I certainly didn't stop. The shout had come in a woman's voice, and the next instant other female voices rose to join the first. One of my sister slaves had reached the end of her row a bit sooner than I'd expected, had straightened and looked around, and had seen me. If she hadn't yelled she and the others would have been punished for the escape I attempted, whether or not I succeeded. If I was recaptured I alone would be given punishment, so they were understandably anxious to see me retaken.
But not as anxious as I was to get away. I continued running bent over, ignoring the thudding of my heart and a frantic desire to straighten up and run at full speed, knowing the guardsmen must already have their bows in their hands. With the amount of distance between us they had no hope of catching me on foot, but arrows fly faster than men or women run. If they had a clear target they could get me in the leg, leaving me alive to be taken back to the city for punishment. It would be far better for me to stay bent over and risk a shaft in the back, one that would end my life before I could be returned to the city. A third escape attempt brought slow death to a slave, and I had already tried twice before.
I wasn't far from the treeline when I heard a distant shout, low and garbled but clearly in a male voice. I waited an instant and then scrabbled to my left, changing position without changing direction. That shout had undoubtedly been one of the guardsmen, ordering the women in the field down flat, which meant their arrows would soon be in the air. If they couldn't see me well enough, if they only shot at where I'd
My half-prayer to the gods was answered in the same way it had been tendered: half way. I heard nothing of the twang of bowstrings, but suddenly there was a swarm of angry insects in the air to my right, tearing into the ground and trees in whistling fury. That would have been fine, exactly what I wanted - except for the single shaft that flew too far to the left. It went by me just as the others did, but as it passed it sliced open the back of my right shoulder, nearly making me cry out with the pain. A moment later I was into the treeline, but I hadn't gained the position without cost.
Once I was deep enough into the trees I could straighten up, but I couldn't slow down despite the burning pain in my shoulder. And under no circumstance could I stop. I had already left a smear or two of blood for the guardsmen to find, and even with the broadleaf I held to the wound I would be leaving a trail they could follow if they really wanted to. I had to get as far away as I could as quickly as I could, and count on the devastating heat to keep them from following very far.
I changed general direction every fifty paces or so, but still kept heading deeper into the forest. The air was a bit cooler there under the trees but gasping it in set my lungs aflame, the flood of sweat drowning me adding to the fire rather than quenching it. What that salty moisture felt like going into the wound is best left undescribed, but as I ran it certainly wasn't unfelt. The leather brow band I wore kept some of the flood from my eyes, but the rest blurred my vision and hung my hair in strings down my back.
After ages and eons of running, the time finally came when the god Ahainel took back the breath and strength-of-limb he'd lent me. I would have had to stop even if the guardsmen had been right behind me, but as far as I could tell they weren't. I wanted to lean on the tree I stopped near, more than that I
to lean on the tree, but I couldn't afford to leave any more traces of blood than I already had. I shook my head to clear my vision as best I could, then looked around while I gulped in air. A small thicket of leaves and branches began not far ahead and to my right, so I forced myself into motion again.
After no more than three paces inside the thicket, I had to get down on hands and knees to go any farther. That is, I had to get down on half-hand and knees. My left hand still had to hold the broadleaf in place over the wound, and my right arm wasn't really up to supporting me while I crawled. It took a lot of effort to keep going that way and my progress wasn't very rapid, but eventually I reached a spot where I could simply lie down.
And maybe pass out for a short while. I opened my eyes to the feeling that time had gone by, but it was still daylight and there were no sounds of pursuit. I lay face down in the grass of the thicket, my left arm under my chest, my right arm at my side, my entire body aching so badly I thought for a moment that I was coming around after a whipping. I knew what
felt like well enough, but wasn't prepared to know it ever again.
Even if I had to die to make it so. As I lay unmoving in the grass I could hear the scream of a furred hunter in the distance, a clear warning for all to keep away from the kill it had just made. Those who hunted in the forest shared only with their own, but were willing to take as prey anyone or anything unable to defend itself. It was one of the things that kept most female slaves from running, and my chain sisters weren't entirely wrong. As long as you stay alive you always have the hope of getting free somehow, but some of us reach the end of hope sooner than others.
I forced myself over onto my left side in the grass, trying to ignore the presence of the heavy metal collar locked closed around my neck. I'd worn that collar for almost two full seasons, close to a complete cycle of the sun god's travels through a portion of his domain, and could no longer bear its weight and what its presence made me. By birth I was still Kenoss, and Kenossi aren't known for making quiet, obedient slaves.
"Which would have helped if they'd believed I was Kenoss," I muttered, trying to work myself up to real movement. I had the heavy black hair of the people I'd been born among, but none of those in the city had ever seen or heard of a Kenoss with eyes as light as mine. If I'd had the usual dark eyes they would have offered me to the Morsee or cut my throat, but they never would have put me on the market square for sale. Among the Morsee, traditional enemies of the Kenoss, I would have had the chance to prove myself worthy of freedom; sold in the city, I was expected to prove nothing but what a good slave I was.
I made a very rude sound and struggled into a sitting position, fighting off the dizziness sent by Dakko to befuddle me. I may not have looked like others of the Kenossi, but I'd survived every Trial throughout my childhood and not simply by luck. There hadn't been another Life Seeker with more skill than I, and if I'd remained with my people -
remained with my people, not after the Whispers had seen me during the Trial of Passage. Whispers, we children had always called them, for the way no one ever spoke about them out loud. They'd watched me perform during the Trials, seen me qualifying easily, and once all the festivities were over they'd …
me to be trained in their ways. I hadn't wanted to go, but I hadn't been allowed to refuse.
Getting myself up on my knees let me look around a little more easily, but it also told me what a meager amount I had left in the way of strength. It had been far too long since the last time I'd had anything decent to eat, and the work I'd been put to hadn't been easy. I needed time to rest and heal, time to recover from too long a fight against what they'd tried to make me, but I was still too close to that city. I had to keep going until the horrible place was a long way behind me, and only then would I be able to stop for a while.
I had something of a struggle getting out of that thicket, and once clear I had to rest briefly before going on. The wound in my shoulder wasn't all that serious, but it was still bleeding and didn't seem interested in stopping particularly soon. I couldn't see the wound very well, but I didn't need to see it to know it was there. The blazing pain of it announced its presence clearly, but I couldn't do more than put a fresh broadleaf over it before going on.
In a strange way the running I'd done earlier had been easier than the walking I did now. The thought of guardsmen right behind me had allowed me to overcome privation and pain, enabling me to use every shadow of strength my body possessed. Simply walking through the tangled forest allowed me to reach almost none of that strength, and it came to me suddenly that the Whispers - the Inadni - would have found nothing of surprise over the matter. I could recall being taught something about that, in preparation for the Higher Mysteries, not long before I'd walked away from the Inadni for good…
I shook my head to clear away the stilted mold my thoughts always fell into when I remembered things about the Inadni. They used the old-fashioned modes of speech of their founders rather than modern accents, and that was only one of the things about them that had annoyed me. We in the outer world had come quite a way since the founding of their order, a lot farther than I had gone through the forest, but the Inadni made no attempt to reconcile the two worlds, choosing instead to reject all progress and advancement. They were fools, the lot of them -
I stopped very still when the scent came to me, and a tick later I didn't need the scent. The big cat stepped out of the bushes that had hidden her until now, her entire bearing showing contempt for the prey that stumbled along through the forest. If the guardsmen had found the traces of blood I'd left, this could be one of the reasons they'd decided not to follow. Why make the effort to run down a troublesome slave when the denizens of the forest who scent her blood will do it for you? Fresh blood will usually attract one of the big cats, and the nose of the brown, spotted female not far from me twitched with the scent.
I said, "I give you greetings, Sister. Can you tell me if there is water not too far distant from this place? I brought nothing with me in my escape from those of the Cursèd Place, not even all of my blood."
"A bit of blood is small payment for the recovery of freedom," the cat answered automatically, startled by the way I'd spoken to her. "You are one of those, then, who speak the tongue of the Strong and Victorious. I now find little wonder in their having been unable to hold you. You are one of us rather than one of them, and that despite the crippled and grotesque form you wear. The water you seek is near for a healthy hunter, not so near for one such as you. Come, I will lead you to it."
She turned then and moved off to my left, but her pace was slow in deference to my "crippled" condition, and she glanced back over her shoulder to make sure I was keeping up. I followed after as quickly as I could, smiling to myself in relief that I'd found a female rather than a male. Females were used to accepting the limitations of cubs with only a small amount of the impatience of males, which meant I might survive the forest after all. The language of the Strong and Victorious was one of the first things I'd learned among the Inadni, but I didn't intend using it more than I had to. The words were harsh for a human throat, especially a human throat that needed water so badly.
The female had exaggerated the distance to water just a little, a ploy for greater effort she might have used on cubs as well as cripples, but I still only just made it. The hardest part was going downhill toward the stream, a stream I wasn't even able to detect until I had worked my way down a good portion of the steepness. I'd been silly enough to think that going downhill would be easier than walking a flat stretch, but by now my balance was just about gone, my right arm was nearly useless, and my left hand had all it could do to hold the broadleaf over my wound. Going down that steep a slope almost did me in, and that despite the number of small trees available to hold to.
The big cat had talked to me quite a bit as we'd walked through the forest, telling me that lack of fear was one of the ways her kind recognized my kind, but while I went down the slope she was silent. I hadn't been afraid when I'd first met her because I'd been trained not to be, but right now even I could smell the fear that mixed with the sweat of effort and pain that poured out of me. If I slipped going down it would certainly be all over for me, the treacherous terrain just about guaranteeing that. All that effort spent in escaping slavery, just to have it come to nothing because of some landscape…
But it didn't come to nothing. The stubbornness that the Inadni had always found so unacceptable kept me from giving up or surrendering to the fear, and I finally made it to the bottom of the slope in one piece. The big cat grinned as she watched me from a few feet away, amused by not needing to stay out of my path any longer. The short distance to the edge of the stream was full of stones, but at least it was level.
I had to take a moment to catch my breath even if I
burning up from lack of water, but after that moment I was able to stumble to the edge of the stream and go to my knees in front of it. The stream bank was low at that spot, making the water easily accessible to the animals of the forest, which meant I had no trouble using my left hand to bring some of it to my mouth. I wanted to gulp the liquid, wanted to drain the wide, swiftly running stream from bank to bank, but even as I was now I knew better than to try. I had to drink slowly, or I would soon wish I'd never made it to the stream.
She-cat crouched next to me to lap at the water herself, her sense of concern satisfied by having given me first chance to drink. She was very close to me, at least as close as she would have been to a helpless cub, and I clearly remember feeling appreciation for that. She was trying to protect someone who couldn't protect herself, and it wasn't her fault that the effort turned out to be the worst thing she could have done.
The other she-cat must have been stalking us, confused about why my own cat hadn't already taken me down, probably deciding there was something wrong with my companion. A decision like that would have encouraged the newcomer to also decide to steal my cat's prey, and that was just what she tried. Voicing a growl of warning to stay out of her way, the newcomer launched herself at me in attack, that being our first indication that she was around.
I began to turn from the stream immediately, but the she-cat beside me moved with the speed of the gods, launching herself into a counterattack meant to keep me from harm. Unfortunately for me she was much too close, and when she turned that fast her large hunter's body struck me, knocking me into the stream.
I had enough time to hear the screaming fury of the two cats coming together in battle, and then the water closed over my head, cutting off awareness of everything else. Or almost everything else. The water wasn't as cold as it might have been, not with the windless heat of the air above it, but the chill was enough to touch my wound with greater pain. In spite of that I struggled to regain the surface where I'd be able to breathe, and found the effort almost beyond me. I was exhausted nearly to the point of the end of my strength, and the stream current was even faster than it had looked from the bank.
After a time that seemed like eternity my head finally broke through to the surface, but it was no more than a partial victory. The stream had me firmly in its grip, carrying me downstream at a speed that would have been very satisfying if I wasn't more than a step short of drowning. Hearing nothing of the sound of fighting cats told me they'd been left far behind, and that was another thing to curse the whim of the gods for. My she-cat would very likely have been willing to hunt for me until I healed, but now I was back to being alone again.
If I lived long enough for it to make a difference. I choked on some stream water and spat out some, horribly aware of how soon I would no longer be able to keep myself afloat. My left arm worked alone along with the feeble kicking of my legs, but only to keep me from going under. I wasn't all that far from the stream bank, but the distance might as well have been leagues. I simply hadn't the strength to fight the current to reach the bank.
And then I saw the dead tree up ahead, fallen half on the bank and half out into the stream. The tree was nothing but bare branches sticking out like the stiffened hand of a corpse, but if I could clasp that hand I just might be able to avoid becoming a corpse myself. The stream obviously intended to sweep me right by the tree, but I couldn't allow that to happen.
If the distance had been more than the body-length it was, I wouldn't have made it no matter how determined I felt. One-handed I fought the stream current in an effort to reach the end branches of the tree, and the first one my hand closed on snapped off with a sickening abruptness. I scrabbled around trying to reach another branch before I was carried past the tree, my heart thudding wildly, and when the second branch
break under my frantic grip I wasn't sure I believed things would stay like that.
It took the passage of a long string of ticks before I was able to calm myself enough to breathe more easily. I had a weak grip on the tree branch, and being downstream of the tree meant I couldn't afford to lose that grip or I would be immediately swept away. The current was a good deal less with the tree there to slow it, but my meager strength was also less after all the struggling I'd done. I'd have to get to the bank without delay, or -
I heard the sound of a small splash behind me and to my left, the direction the stream bank was now in. The splash was closer than the bank, much closer, and hearing it let me suddenly remember an earlier splash I'd been too frantic to notice at the time. Without bothering to turn to look I immediately let go of the branch I'd worked so hard to get to, but it was already too late. Just as I let go an arm closed around me, the arm of whoever it was who had swum toward me from the bank.
"No!" I screamed with the fury of insanity, refusing to accept the fact that I'd been recaptured, trying to fight my way free again. My own efforts and the stream's had carried me
from the city! I couldn't be recaptured, I just couldn't!
But I was. The thick arm around my waist had no trouble retaining its grip, and expending the last of my strength like that sent me down into bitter blackness.