Read an Excerpt
Dar walked alone down a mountain path, bent beneath a load of ﬁrewood. The trail she followed hugged steep rocky walls that blocked the morning sun, so the air and ground still held the night’s chill. Nevertheless, she walked barefoot and wore only a tattered, sleeveless shift with a rag to cushion her shoulders. Dar moved quickly to keep warm, but the sound of a distant horse stopped her short. None of her neighbors owned one, nor did anyone in the tiny village beyond the far ridge. Only strangers rode horses, and strangers often brought trouble.
Dar listened. When the hoofbeats died away, leaving only the sound of wind in bare branches, she continued homeward and arrived at a hollow devoid of trees. Its stony ground had been prepared for spring planting. At the far side of the hollow lay the only building–a rude hut, built of rocks and roofed with turf. The horse was tied nearby. Dar was considering leaving when her father’s wife emerged from the low building with a rare smile on her face. The older woman called out. “You have visitors.”
The smile heightened Dar’s wariness. “What kind of visitors?”
Dar’s stepmother didn’t respond, except to smile more broadly. She moved aside, and six armed men stepped from the dark hut followed by the village headman, whose air of self-importance was subdued by the soldiers’ presence. Dar’s father came after him. Last emerged Dar’s two little half sisters, looking frightened. All watched Dar carry her load over to the woodpile. She set it down, then asked her stepmother again, “Thess, who are these men?”
“King’s soldiers,” replied Thess.
“Why are they here?”
“There’s a levy for the army,” said the headman. “Our village must provide two.”
“Then they’ve come to the wrong place,” said Dar. “My brothers are dead, and Father’s too old.”
“It’s not men they want,” said Thess.
“I’m no ﬁghter,” said Dar.
Thess laughed humorlessly. “Then you’ve fooled me.”
“Not all who serve the king need ﬁght,” said the headman. He turned to one of the soldiers. “She’s the one.”
“Father, what’s going on?” asked Dar, already guessing the answer.
Her father looked away.
“This was his idea,” said the headman.
“It’s for the best,” said Dar’s father, his eyes still elsewhere.
“Best for her,” said Dar, casting her stepmother a resentful look. “She’ll be pleased enough to have me gone.”
“I’ll be glad for some peace,” retorted Thess. “Always the proud one, you.”
“Unlike some, who’d tup a man for a space by his ﬁre.”
“You’d be a wife, too, if you weren’t so willful.”
“She’s best suited for the army,” said the headman.
“I’ll determine that,” said the soldier in charge. Though he was the youngest, his helmet and arms were ﬁnely made, and his armor was metal, not leather. “Murdant, see if the girl’s ﬁt.”
The murdant, a man half again the age of his ofﬁcer, slowly circled Dar, taking in her sturdy grace. He thought her old to be unmarried, perhaps two dozen winters. Though unkempt, she had pleasant features– large dark eyes, a delicate nose, russet hair, and full lips–making him surmise it was her temperament that had kept her single. As if to conﬁrm this, Dar stood with a deﬁant expression, ﬁsts clenched at her sides.
“Show me your teeth,” said the murdant.
Though Dar realized the murdant was unlike some suitor who could be scared off by a show of temper, she pressed her lips tightly together. The murdant only grinned, then roughly pinched her cheeks with his thumb and foreﬁnger to force open her jaws. He got a quick glimpse into Dar’s mouth before she struck a blow that he easily warded off. “She’s got her teeth and the rest of her looks sound enough.”
“She’ll do,” said the ofﬁcer.
The headman bowed. “Tolum, we always fulﬁll our duty to the king.”
The ofﬁcer regarded him disdainfully. “This spinster’s no great sacriﬁce.”
Thess entered the hut and returned with a small bundle wrapped in a threadbare cloak. “I’ve gathered your things,” she said, handing them to Dar.
The tolum mounted his horse. “March her to our camp and be quick. I’ll be waiting.” Then he rode off.
The murdant addressed the other soldiers. “You heard the tolum. Move!” He turned to Dar, who clutched her bundle with a stunned look on her face. He had seen that expression before. Her people have given her up, he thought. She has nowhere to turn. Still, he doubted her deﬁance was extinguished. “You ﬁxing to give us trouble?”
Dar shook her head.
“Then come along, we have to catch up with a horse.”
Dar turned to bid farewell, but her family had disappeared into the hut.
At ﬁrst, only the tread of the soldiers’ booted feet broke the silence. Dar walked blank-faced among the men, considering what to do. To buy time, she trod as though her feet were tender, hoping to slow the pace. Dar knew the path would pass a steep slope that was covered with loose rock. They won’t expect me to scramble up it barefoot. Dar was certain she could elude the soldiers, whose armor would encumber them, and escape into the heights above.
Dar tried to imagine what she would do afterward. I can’t go home. The headman would declare her an outlaw, and Dar was certain no neighbor would risk sheltering her. She would have to go far away, and that was her dilemma. In the highlands, a woman without kin had no rights or protection. To dwell anywhere, she would have to beg some man’s leave, and Dar had no illusions what price would be exacted. She recoiled at the thought.
When the soldiers marched past the rock-covered slope, Dar made no escape attempt. Having weighed her options, she chose what seemed the lesser evil–an uncertain fate with the army. The path turned away from the tumbled rocks and headed into a valley. As Dar trudged toward a new life, she thought of the one she was leaving.
She would miss her half sisters but little else. Her relations with her father had been strained ever since her mother’s death. This day’s betrayal was only his latest. Life in the stone hut had consisted of hardship, visits from unwanted suitors, and the barbs of a spiteful stepmother. Dar tried to cheer herself with the thought that she was abandoning these afﬂictions; yet she already suspected they would be replaced by different ones.
As the marching warmed the soldiers, their tongues loosened. “Do ye think the tolum will get himself lost?” asked one in an accent foreign to Dar’s ears.
“Even he can follow hoofprints,” said a companion.
“And his horse has sense,” said another, “even if he lacks it.”
“At least he listened to the murdant today,” said the ﬁrst soldier. “This one came easy enough.”
“That’s ’cause she’s like you,” said a soldier with a grin, “worthless.”
His companion regarded Dar. “You worthless?”
Dar’s face reddened. The soldier leered and answered his own question. “Well, you’re good for one thing.”
“Unlike you, Tham,” said the murdant. The others laughed.
“At least my mum cried when I marched off,” said Tham. “I saw only dry eyes today.”
“Not like yesterday.”
“Aye,” said the murdant. “Get one that won’t be missed–that’s what I told the tolum. Hey birdie, will you miss them?”
Dar remained silent.
“Maybe she’s happy to be gone from that dung heap,” said one of the men.
“Sure,” said another. “It’s fun being a soldier.”
A soldier laughed. “Especially if you’re a woman.”
“I’ve heard no talk of war,” said Dar. “When did it begin?”
The murdant grinned. “For sooth, you’ve lived under a rock. Kregant’s been at war since the day he was crowned. Soldiering’s been steady work.”
“What’s the king ﬁghting over?”
“Whatever he wishes. I just follow orders.”
“And what will I be doing?” asked Dar.
“You marched all this way to get a cook?”
“The tolum’s commander wanted mountain girls. Said they’re tough.”
Dar regarded the murdant and the others. They bore the look of men who lived hard. It would take a strong woman to serve with them, she thought. Yet a glimpse at the murdant’s eyes warned Dar he wasn’t telling all the truth.
“How long will I serve?” she asked.
“Not long,” said the murdant, his gaze ﬁxed elsewhere.
For a while, the route was familiar to Dar. It crossed the valley, climbed the far ridge, and followed it. By noon, they left the ridgeline and descended into a winding valley Dar had never visited. At the lower altitude, the trees had already leafed out. The marchers halted by a stream for a brief meal before moving on. By early afternoon, they reached camp. The tolum paced about the clearing where his horse grazed. Several soldiers stood nearby. One was tending a small ﬁre. A short distance away, a blond-haired woman sat with her back against a tree, facing away from Dar.
“You took your time,” said the tolum.
“The girl’s barefoot, sir,” said the murdant. “She slowed us down.”
“That’s no excuse, Murdant!” The tolum shot Dar an irritated look. “By Karm’s tits! How can you not own shoes?” Then he took the murdant aside, and they talked in low tones. Afterward, the tolum returned his attention to Dar. “Lie on your back.”
“You don’t question orders,” said the murdant. “Soldiers who do are whipped. Now, lie down.”
Dar obeyed. The murdant nodded, and a large soldier walked over, straddled Dar, and sat upon her chest, pinning her arms with his knees. Another soldier grabbed Dar’s ankles. A third knelt down and gripped her head between his knees like a vise. From the corner of her eye, Dar spied another soldier approaching. He bore something in his hand that glowed. She fought to free her arms, but the man on her chest shifted more weight to his knees until the pressure was excruciating. “Don’t struggle,” he said.
Dar grew still, and the soldier on her chest eased up a bit. By then, the fourth soldier stood over her, and she could see that the glowing object was a brand. Its end resembled a ﬁve-pointed crown outlined in ﬁre. As it came closer to her face, Dar closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. An instant later, she felt a searing pain on her forehead accompanied by the smell of burned ﬂesh. Dar fought against crying out, but failed. The men released her, and she sat up. The pain was intense.
The murdant tossed her a water skin. “Pour water on it,” he said. “It helps.”
The water eased Dar’s pain just enough so she could control her voice. “I came without resisting. There was no need to do that.”
“All women in the orc regiments are branded, lest they run away.”
“Orc regiments!” said Dar, her pain momentarily forgotten as she recalled the nightmare tales.
“Correct,” said the tolum, “and a branded head bears a bounty. To keep it on your shoulders, you must stick with your regiment.”
“What do orcs want with women?”
“I have no idea,” said the tolum. “I ﬁght alongside men, not monsters.”
“They have women wait on them,” said the murdant. “I’ve seen it often.”
“You also told me I’d not serve long,” retorted Dar. “This brand betrays that lie.”
“Aye, I spoke false,” said the murdant. “But now that you’re marked, I have no need.”
“We’re done here,” said the tolum. “Chain her to the other girl and move out. We must return by the morrow.”
A soldier went over to the tree where the woman sat and pulled her to her feet. Then Dar could see that the woman’s ankles and wrists were bound and an iron ring was locked around her neck. Attached to the ring was a long length of heavy chain from which dangled several bells. The soldier removed the woman’s bonds, but not the iron ring. Using the chain, he led her closer to Dar. At the far end of the chain was a second ring, which he locked around Dar’s neck. “You’ll wear this till you reach your regiment.”
The chain wasn’t overly burdensome, but Dar saw how it would hinder an escape. The belled links were noisy, and, off the road, they would tangle easily. She approached the stranger at the other end, who appeared several years younger. Dar’s fellow captive was well dressed by highland standards; her clothes were clean and almost new. She also wore shoes. She turned to gaze at Dar. Beneath the angry brand on her forehead, her eyes were red and puffy from weeping.
Despite her pain, Dar tried to smile. “I’m Dar.”
“Leela,” replied the woman in a nearly inaudible voice.
“Move out,” commanded the tolum, who had mounted his horse. He urged his steed forward, setting a brisk pace for the soldiers and women that followed.
Dar gathered up the links of chain so it wouldn’t snag on something and so she could walk next to Leela. When they were side by side, she saw tears ﬂowing down Leela’s face.
“It’ll be all right,” Dar said.
Leela stared ahead, oblivious. Dar gently touched her arm without getting a response. The girl’s face was emptied of every emotion except sorrow. Its desolation made Dar wonder how Leela’s parting differed from her own. The bundle that Thess had prepared was an indication. At lunchtime, Dar had inspected it. Within the worn cloak were a spare undergarment and a shift even more ragged than the one she wore. Dar’s footwear and good shift were missing, as were the beads her mother had given her. Leela’s garments bespoke a loving send-off, one that made Dar both envy and pity her.
Soon, the tolum’s pace had Dar panting, and she gave up trying to start a conversation. She trudged along, concerned only with keeping up and her own misfortune.