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His vision swam before him in a lazy, heated shimmer. The leather knots that bound his wrists to the pommel cut into his skin. Lady, he murmured, his lips moving soundlessly, give me some sign that You still hear me.
Over and again he repeated the plea, until it was as formless as air. Give me some sign. One voice, desolation in an ocean of sand and sun; the goddess did not hear him.
Erred had stopped measuring the days since the foreign raiders ambushed his escort and seized him; his recollection was blurred by flashes of noise and blood that he quickly suppressed. From the green hills of his homeland, he had been carried on a march that now brought him to a wasteland with few discernable landmarks and seemingly no end. Two weeks might have passed, or a month. He did not know, did not think to ask and did not to care.
Other captives, ragged and parched, were chained together and made to walk across the sands, and when they dropped, their corpses were left for the vultures. At night, Erred shut out their stifled sobs and groans as their captors sported with them. Peasants were cheap profit, fit only to be laborers, the raiders told him, and if a few expired from thirst or a bit of amusement there were always more where they came from.
No one touched him. He was sequestered from the other captives in a tent where he was given food and drink and water to wash, though his ankles were hobbled to limit his movement. In a broken variation of his tongue, his captors intimated that he would fetch a high price where they were going. He should be happy, they said, as he would not be worked to death like the others, but would go to the house of a wealthybuyer and enjoy luxuries ordinary slaves only dreamed about.
Erred was not told precisely what that implied, but they did not need to tell him what he had understood from the moment they cornered him among the corpses of his guards and torn away his veil. At first they thought he was a woman, but when he punched one of the men in the face they quickly realized the mistake they had made. And when his pale hair spilled loose from its ties and they saw that he was a beautiful young man, they knew what a prize they had taken.
He tried to rise, to shake off the rough hands that grasped him, but a backhand to the face sent him sprawling to the grass. Two raiders pinned him down while another began to undo his belt. Erred struggled even harder, despite the hand that seized him around the throat and threatened to cut off his air. He felt a third pair of hands tear at his clothing, and a heavy body sat on his legs when he tried to kick his unseen attacker.
Then, it ended. The weight pinning his lower body slumped to the side. Shouting ensued in a tongue he could not follow, and the men who had held him down withdrew. He was still choking and gasping when one of the raiders, probably the leader, dropped his veil into his lap and gestured for him to cover his head.
His would-be rapist, his leggings down to his knees, lay facedown on the grass in a spreading pool of his own blood. The other men were not looking at him, but at the curved blade in their leader's hand, which he wiped clean on the dead man's clothing. Erred heard him say something to the raiders; he had learned enough of the eastern tongue from the eunuchs of the Blue House to understand that his captors were not to touch him. The rest of it, he could not translate except for the word that meant slave.
Panic seized him, but he clamped down on his fear and forced himself to meet the man's eyes. "I am a talevé, servant and lover of the Lady of the Waters, and I am a kinsman to the prince of Altarmë." He spoke slowly, enunciating his words in the coldest voice he could muster. "I am no man's slave."
Slowly, the leader bent to him and, murmuring a phrase that might have been an apology, struck him across the face. Orders were given and Erred, his face stinging from that blow and the earlier one, was pulled onto the back of a horse and bound to the saddlebow. Just before they left, the leader returned with a moist cloth and dabbed away the dirt and blood on his face, most of which did not belong to him.
"You no argue now, eh?" the man said. "We go and you be quiet."
The raiders traveled by night, avoiding all roads and populated areas until they were through the Haban Pass and safely in their own lands. Erred watched behind the gauzy silk of his veil as the lush green of his homeland turned to mountainous paths. Then, beyond the mountains where they stopped in a village to exchange their horses for camels, the land became a scorching expanse of desert where the sands stretched for endless miles and one day melded seamlessly into the next.
Once, while they were still in his land, he tried to run. A sentry quickly ran him down, bound him with cords and, taking care not to injure him, returned him to the camp. His captors made clear that while he was valuable property and could not be marked, there were ways of punishment that did not leave scars. Then they lashed him to stakes driven into the ground, pulled off his shoes and beat the soles of his feet with withes until he passed out. The skin was not broken, so skillfully had the blows been dealt, but he could not walk again until they were well into the desert.
Numbed by heat and sun, he began to wander in his own mind. He wondered why the Lady had not intervened on his behalf, why it had taken a mortal's sword thrust to stop the man who would have raped him and intimidate those who would have taken their turn next. It was sacrilege to lay violent hands on him, even to attack his escort. The only conclusion he could draw was that he had somehow displeased the goddess, and that this was his punishment.
There would be no rescue, he knew that. He and his escort had been attacked two days from the nearest village, and he would not have been expected back in Altarmë for another six days. Only then, when his party failed to appear, would the city garrison--at the request of the House of the Water--ride out to search for him. By the time they found the corpses, scavengers and decomposition would have left little by which to identify the bodies. No one would suspect that his body was not among them.
"And your people, they don't fight," said Orneb, the leader. The man's accent was so thick that Erred could scarcely understand him. "They won't come for you. They never come for their people."
Erred was numb to the man's taunts, even to the sniggered references to what would become of him. It no longer surprised him that he was destined for a stranger's bed, though the part of him that was not deadened by the heat and the hopelessness of his situation railed at the sacrilege of being touched against his will. But, in trying to escape he had played his only hand and lost, and there was nothing else he could do.