“Why aren’t you worried, Jacey?”
Jacey turned from the tent’s entrance and smiled at Adela. She still wore the mask of worry that she put on ever since Jacey almost left with her baby.
Jacey smiled faintly. “I don’t think there is anything to worry about yet.”
“Why is that?”
She shrugged. “Heddwyn Borut was not known to be ruthless five years ago. Just quick and effective and brilliant.” Jacey smiled slightly. Her father had often scolded her for listening too much to the Targoian war stories instead of serving customers. But Jacey loved the stories and loved to secretly pretending with her friends what it would be like to be courted by a Targoian officer. Aldroa rarely went to war, however, and many of them acknowledged that the Targoians were too tall for them. At least, too tall for everyone except maybe Jacey.
“And how do you know that?”
“My father owned an inn along Calcurt road, a popular trading road. We saw many Targoians, long before they began fighting with Ketekey, on their way to trade. Even after the war began, the Targoians kept coming and I heard many stories. Heddwyn Borut was a favorite among many, since, as a blacksmith’s son and short at that, many doubted he would succeed much in the army. But, he became a common name everywhere within two years from his enlistment.”
“I haven’t seen anywhere here that’s short,” the boy, Jared, said from the corner.
“The man with the red sash, he is. I’ve never been able to look that easily in the eyes of one of them.”
Jared gave her a look of skepticism.
“Do you really think they’ll sell us?” Adela asked.
Jacey paused a moment and nodded. “Prisoners of war are considered as slaves, yes. If he doesn’t need slaves at his house… then we are sold.”
Adela’s face paled and she tightened the hold on the child. Gently Jacey rested a hand on her arm.
“Don’t worry. If she was perhaps five years, then there may be cause to fear. But they will not separate the two of you until she is much older.”
“I wish I knew I could believe you.”
“You can. Even if I haven’t been in Aldroa for five years, they cannot change that much. Targoians, even during the war with Sheflet, never separated the mother from her child. This war with Ketekey will not change nothing.”
Adela sighed wearily.
“In a few days they’ll be sending us over the mountains. Until then, you should rest and get your strength back. They don’t often provide horses.”
“And what about Nate?”
Jacey winced and looked away.
“What is it, Jacey? Tell me.”
Those people back there, although not her countrymen, she cared about. She had lived there three years now. And no one could wish the slaughter on them that had happened. But she could not bring herself to tell Adela about her husband.
Jacey rose quickly. “I’ll see if I can get us some water.”
“Jacey!” Adela grabbed her skirt. “Tell me!”
Jacey paused at the tent’s doorway and looked back. “He–” She paused and then twisted the truth as much as she dared. “He will have a long road to recovery before he could even consider rescuing you.”
Adela’s face crumpled and Jacey stepped outside.
Surprisingly, no guard stood at the door or stopped her as she made her way through the camp. Jacey doubted that meant she could escape. Determined, she kept her head high, so as to cause them to think she knew what she was doing. She had seen a stream on the way in, so she knew where the water was and walked right to it.
The stream bordered the edge of camp. Even as she stood on its banks, she saw no guards stationed anywhere. Still, the wilderness that stretched beyond looked to be filled with only brambles and tall grass and though flat, not very hospitable. Even as she stood watching the grass sway in the wind, the possibility of freedom did not tempt her. She knew water was scarce out there and the chance of finding a road even scarcer. Perhaps that was why no guards blocked her way. Only a fool would run.
Large buckets rested along the edge of the stream. With no apparent labels, Jacey presumed they were more of a communal use. She picked the smallest one she saw, although that one spanned two feet across. She kicked off her shoes and slipped her feet into the cool water. It lapped gently around her ankles and though it held a nip of fall in it, felt wonderful after a long day of marching. Halfway across, she pushed the bucket under the water and filled it halfway. Even halfway full, she had to practically drag it ashore. Before she left, she splashed some water on her face and arms to wash away the dirt. If only she could change her clothes as well, she knew she would feel a hundred times better.
With a grunt, she began to half drag, half carry the bucket back to their tent. The size made the heaviness awkward to position. The bottom of her skirt, now wet from wading, clung to her legs, impending her movement even further. But she worked determinedly, ignoring the glances of the soldiers, or worse, the muttered jests that bordered on insulting spoken in a language they didn’t think she knew.
A booted foot stepped in front of her, forcing her to straighten and look up at none other than Commander Borut.
“Few non-Targoians dare to attempt to move those buckets while they are full,” he said. He spoke softly, but not threateningly.
“Well, it isn’t full,” Jacey said, putting a hand on her hip and absently brushing her hair out of her face. “I’m not foolish enough to think I can move that.”
“I see. So you are only trying to bring water?”
“What else would I be doing?”
His eyes flicked past her towards the range of grassland.
Jacey shook her head. “I would rather wait until I know there is a road nearby. Besides, you aren’t foolish enough not to place guards around the camp, even if I can’t see them.”
“And what do you know of me?”
“More than you may think.”
“Is that so?”
“And yet you do not even know my name?”
“A commander in charge of less than fifty men can only be Heddwyn Borut.” Surprise flickered across his face. Jacey grinned.
“Then what else do you know about me?”
“To show you all of my cards would put me at a disadvantage I think, considering that you are now my master.”
“That notion does not seem to bother you.”
He said it as a statement, for indeed, it was. Jacey paused a moment though. Rumors were that Targoians could sense the actual emotion of people. Jacey could never get any of them to admit it for her, although based on how some of the merchants she encountered treated her, she highly suspected it was true. Now she recalled that one of their skills also involved the ability to tell if one lied, one she desperately wished was not true.
“Although Ketekey claims they do not have slaved, bond servants are practically such for the seven years they work for the master. As such, I have already been a slave for five years and I might actually have a better chance at freedom being that I am Aldroian, whom you are not at war with,” she explained simply.
Commander Borut nodded. “Then perhaps I should warn you your chances of gaining freedom on the grounds of your Aldroian birth are small. You cannot prove your Aldroian citizenship and even if you could, you would need an escort home and I doubt any of your relatives would dare venture over the mountains.”
Though he only said that, she had the distinct feeling he wished to tell her more. Instead, he picked up the bucket.
Jacey sprang back to give him room. “I can make it the whole way.”
“And let my men mock you while you do?” He shook his head. “I should have seen to this earlier.”
She quickened her step to catch up with him.
“I will tell you that you will only be here for two days, or until another squad meets us. Then, you will be escorted to the capital and I say little in what happens to you.”
“You aren’t bothered asking questions, are you?”
“I am sure if I overstep you will inform me.”
He nodded slightly. “I have an accountant who handles my estate. Though he may inform me if I need, say, a stableboy, for the most part the decisions are left to him as to who stays and who goes. I live there for only about two months out of the year.”
“As such, it is within the range of possibilities that you can be sold for such a sum that keeping you would not be worth it.”
Jacey frowned. “What do you mean?”
He shook his head and set the pail by the tent’s entrance. “Never mind. It would do better if you don’t worry about it.”
Jacey nodded slightly and began to pull the bucket into the tent. Commander Borut turned and began to walk away. She blinked a moment as she caught a reflection of herself in the water. Her light hair, not quite blond, but not brown either, shone in the sun’s light and her dark blue eyes seemed to reflect that her head knew the truth, even if she hadn’t wanted to admit it yet.
Suddenly, she pushed herself up and ran in front of him. “No. I have to know.”
He blinked at her again. “Pardon?”
“I need to know what you mean.”
His frown darkened.
“See, up to this point I haven’t thought much about what will happen beyond the next couple days. I haven’t thought that–that it might be worse than being a bond servant. His children did not make it easy but as for him, it was fair enough. And now–I know the legends of you from five years ago. I know that although you may be fierce in battle, another side of you comes out when you are not fighting that–that causes you to carry a pail of water for someone who probably doesn’t deserve it. I know you expect your men to be honorable, even as a lieutinut, not just to country but to people and property as well. I didn’t think that I had much of anything to fear, because it would not be much worse for me than these last five years.
“And yet you understand that you may very well be sold.”
He frowned slightly. “Many Targoian would consider you to be very beautiful.”
She blinked. “NOnsense.”
“’tis not. Slenderness is rare, and shortness, to a point, is more favorable to being tall. You happen to be nearly perfectly short. Add that to your grace and you have a very dangerous combination for a young female slave.”
Jacey blinked. She had always hated her height. But grace? “What grace?”
“Many women would look very awkward dragging a bucket of water.”
Jacey bit her lip. His face was as blank as if he just told her that the sky was blue.
“I am sorry to inform you if what will likely be your fate so abruptly, though are there are many ranges of possibilities, from a merchant’s mistress to an inn girl.”
Jacey glanced quickly to the ground, for she could not bear to have him see her cry. Of all the possibilities she had thought of, this was not one of them. “Thank you.”
He nodded slightly but did not move away. Jacey turned and walked back to the tent. Mechanically, she helped Jared shove the bucket inside and then sat in the corner, staring at the wall.
Adela sat next to her and put a hand over hers. “What is it?”
Jacey shook her head.
“Please. Did they–”
“No. They did nothing. It’s just–” She swallowed. “He says he expects I will be sold once we reach the capital. That he has no use for someone as pretty as me. And if I am….”
Adela squeezed her hand.
“You can’t even understand, Adela.” Jacey looked at her. “It is custom–tradition–belief–what you want to call it–in Aldroian that once a woman and man sleep together they are married. It doesn’t matter if they just met or if they have been courting for a year and just had a marriage ceremony. They are not married until that night and they are married on that night. I can’t–I can’t change that. Not even after seeing it different in Ketekey.”
“Maybe that won’t happen, Jacey. Maybe… you’ll be bought by someone for some other reason.”
Jacey shook her head. “I can handle doing any household chore but that–I cannot handle that. Not unless we were to truly be married. And giants don’t marry non-giants.” She sighed and closed her eyes. Everything was falling apart. If she did not do something now, she would break into a million pieces and cry. “You need help washing the baby.” She pushed herself up quickly. “Let’s do it before Jared–” She looked at the boy kneeling next to the water. “Jared is going to be a stableboy.”
“How do you know?”
Jacey shook her head. “I just do. Come, let’s wash her before Jared dirties all the water.”