Friday, October 08, 2004


Day Sixteen

The morning seemed less windy and warmer, so Memree managed without the sweater as soon as we'd finished breakfast, and didn't object when I added a red rubber ball-gag to the ensemble. At least, to be strictly accurate, she didn't object for long! It would save her from having to be sure to say the right things when we met our hosts-to-be, and I reminded her about the perils of looking free warriors in the eye.

We walked on across the grasslands, casually - I knew we were being watched, and from close by, but I didn't actually see any of the warriors until, without any fuss, they appeared. One moment we were alone, walking through a shallow, scrubby valley and thinking about a lunch stop, and the next moment we were surrounded. My fieldcraft isn't bad, for a town-based girl, but I'd heard nothing - now suddenly two Churmuk warriors stood in front of us, and another two behind.

"You stand on Churmuk land, intruder. I am Natella, chief warrior of the blue faction", the taller woman in front of us said. She had blonde hair, and wore a metal headband with a blue star embedded in it at the front; otherwise, all four women were dressed the same, with short plate-mail kilts, sturdy calf-length boots, and shiny metal breastplates, which appeared to have been individually made to follow every contour of what was underneath - the effect was of naked breasts transformed into brass, which was a little offputting at first. "Your name, woman?"

"I am Charol", I told her, consciously keeping my hand off the hilt of my sword, and ignoring the crossbow bolt one of the women had aimed at my navel. "I was hoping to claim Churmuk hospitality for myself and my slavegirl."

Natella stepped forward, looking less than friendly, and drew her sword from its sheath in a way that she must have practiced, with a flourish. "Our wagons are for warriors", she informed me, clearly confident that that wasn't a role a non-Churmuk woman could aspire to. "To be guest rather than captive, you must prove yourself!"

I gave her what I hoped looked like my friendliest smile. "With pleasure, Sera - if you will give me a moment to prepare."

I led Memree to one side, and knelt her on the grass. "Keep your back straight, and watch," I told her. "It's just as well you're gagged, I don't want any distractions." I winked at her.

One of the Churmuk warriors moved to stand next to Memree, and stroked her hair, which I took to be a good sign. I gave her a nod of thanks, and drew my sword slowly, turning to face my adversary. "Now I'm at your service, Natella."
Our swords crossed lightly, a mere formality. I held my shiny new weapon a little low, not using its balance properly, and Natella smiled. "We have few guests, Charol - but many captives."

"Sounds like a fun place to visit." She lunged, and I parried, letting her blade scrape along mine hard enough to strike sparks. We clashed again, and I twisted my blade, tapping her lightly on the breastplate before retreating. "How far do we need to take this, warrior?"

"Not far" - and she lunged again. I stepped aside, but she stopped short, and our blades clashed again.

"Nicely done, sera", I said, in a suitably friendly manner, moving back as she regained her balance.

"You are a worthy opponent, I think," she began - and without warning high-kicked me in the stomach. I began to fold, and lost my hold on my sword. She gave a little yell of victory, and I had to roll aside as the sword came down where my neck had been - I kept rolling, to get clear. It looked as if Natella had something to prove.

"It looks like captivity for you and your pet, then!" Her voice was shrill, gloating.

I sat back, leaning on one arm, and watched as she picked up my sword, and walked forward confidently. I put my weight onto that arm, tensed - and, when the range was right, kicked both my legs out at her, catching her just below the breast-plate and generally giving her what she'd given me, only with added interest. Both swords went flying - she hit the ground butt first, and very nearly bounced. Before she'd managed a new breath, I'd got my sword to her throat, my face close to hers.

"My compliments on an excellent match, sera," I said, with a warmth that was not entirely genuine. "Are we finished now?"

Our eyes met. This was one unhappy lady, but to show her feelings would make matters worse, before her sisters-in-arms. "Put your weapons aside, warriors", she said at last. "The woman Charol and her chain-girl are guests of our clan, and under the protection of the Churmuk."

It was mid-afternoon when we topped a rise and could see the Churmuk camp spread out before us. They'd obviously been there a while, and intended to stay some time longer. Wide pathways radiated from a large and ornately decorated central tent - or perhaps pavilion would be a more appropriate word for such an impressive creation. Between the paths, each in its own grassy patch, were the covered wooden wagons the Churmuk used as homes, while outside a circular roadway there were corrals for horses, oxen, and a few sheep, plus a few fairly large huts or cabins.

The warrior who'd stood beside Memree during the fight had stayed with her during our walk, helping her when the ground was uneven; in fact she seemed to have adopted her. That one was called Fran; the other two, who stayed closer to Natella, were Jerri and Talia. Natella in turn stayed close to me, and I led Hengist.

Closer to, the muddiness of the paths became apparent, and the muddiness of the small, naked girl-children at play. The wagons were brightly and intricately painted, generally... though the one we were approaching was painted a solid blue.

"This is your guest wagon, sister," Natella told us, breaking a silence that had lasted some minutes. "I'll leave Fran to show you and your girl the ropes."

The other women left, and Fran helped us unload Hengist, and stow everything inside. The wagon itself was surprisingly roomy, with a heap of cushions in one corner, some neatly folded blankets, a wooden chest fastened against one wall, a broom of bound twigs on the floor, and a slave-whip lodged on two hooks behind the door.

"The chest holds guesting-clothes, and things suitable for your girl, too", Fran told me, watching Memree inspect our new quarters. "If we leave her to sort things out, I'll take you round the camp, and we can get your horse stabled, too."

I looked at Memree, in her slavegirl costume. "You get this place spotless, or I dust your bottom for you, understand?"

Memree nodded, then moved to stand by the broom, head bowed.

"She's a pretty little thing, sera -- is she a war-prize? A morsel like her would bring a high price, I'm sure."

"Oh, she's just a regular slave...a wilful, disobedient little baggage -- more trouble than she's worth, sometimes." I patted her rump lightly, then turned away, following Fran down the four wooden steps to the ground, and closed the door behind me.

My tour of the encampment didn't take long. We left Hengist at the stables, and walked round the outer ring. The oxen were smelly, the sheep looked bored, and we saw a group of male slaves who looked thin, muddy, and too tired to appreciate the shapeliness of their escort. They had heavy fetters on their ankles, and equally sturdy chains hobbling them.

"If these are the only men in camp, surrounded by beautiful women, I'd have expected them to look a bit happier", I commented.

"They're off-limits to all free warriors", Fran told me. "And it's weeks until the next trade-fair, where we get a chance to associate with suitable men."

"No chance of borrowing one for the night - not that they look very exciting to me, that is." It seemed unlikely, but it would be an ideal way to talk to Kreston... though he didn't appear to be in this particular bunch.

"It's not worth the risk -- get caught and any of us would be sold to a male to be used as a baby machine", Fran said. "And you could hardly expect one of them to keep quiet about it, could you?"

The only slaves in the main encampment were female ones, usually dressed in rags or less, carrying water, laundry, food, or whatever was needed. Some weren't even chained; as long as the horses were well-guarded, there was nowhere they could go.

A group of Churmuk warriors was in one paddock, practicing swordwork. "Do you want to join in?" Fran gestured to the gateway.

"One good swordfight a day is enough for me, I think," I told her. "Besides, I think we should go back and check on Memree."

"Let's get something to eat first, then we can take it back with us."

Fran led the way to where about half an ox was being roasted on a spit over an open fire. An older warrior was in charge, and cut us thick, juicy slices onto simple metal plates. The meat smelled gorgeous, which reminded me how long it had been since my breakfast. Risking scorched fingers, I picked up my top slice and took a healthy bite, then nodded my appreciation enthusiastically.

The warrior smiled, and added another piece to my plate. "A healthy appetite -- that's what I like to see, sister", she commented.

We walked off, chewing. Fresh air and woodsmoke had worked their magic on meat that, if served in a tavern, I'd have eaten without comment. As it was, this counted as the highlight of the day so far.

Back at our wagon, Memree had unpacked the appropriate items from the saddlebags, and made some sort of effort with the broom and cushions to make the place look more inviting. The daylight was starting to fade, now, and Fran lit an oil-lamp and hung it on a hoot on the wall. "Tomorrow evening there is to be an assembly, a feast", she said. "As a guest of the Churmuk, you are invited... and your girl could look quite stunning, if she's displayed as your trophy?"

"That would make a good impression, you think?" I sat down on the cushions carefully, still holding my plate, and pulled Memree down beside me. I unbuckled the ball-gag.

"A memorable one", Fran assured me. "Especially with you as her captor." I let the compliment hang in the air. I'd known that Memree might be an object of sexual desire here, among all these warrior women, but I'd not thought that I myself might be in that category. For some reason, this made me feel a little uneasy. "If you've no suitable clothes, I can lend you some", Fran added. "And I could be your escort, if you like...?"

Well, I'd already annoyed Natella, by not letting her vanquish and either kill or enslave me; it seemed a good idea to encourage an ally here as well. It wasn't as if Ashil had managed to produce much information about how the Churmuk conducted their affairs, in any sense of the word. "Well", I told her, doing my best to sound enthusiastic about the idea, "Memree has told me how much she likes dressing up..."

I patted the cushions encouragingly, and Fran sat down beside us. I fed Memree some meat with my fingers, and ate some myself. Fran was eating too - I noticed Memree staring at her plate, and sure enough, Fran passed a prime piece of the roasted ox straight to Memree's mouth.

"No begging-eyes, Memree, or you'll have earned a spanking", I warned her.

"Sorry, Mistress - but the meat is very tasty, and it has been a long day..."

I laughed, and fed her some more - and Fran gave her some more, too. After a while, Fran left, taking the empty plates, and promising to return in the morning... and while Memree lies back half-buried in warm, soft cushions, I've been writing all this up. All this work I do for you, my Librarian-Mage - I do hope you exist!

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