Ada is in the captivity of the bandits. She does not know how or when she came there, and often wonders about her past. The bandits sack a small farm out in the country and capture Lora, a hard, angry, resentment-filled young girl who never cries or shows any signs of affection, and has forgotten how to love.
Silence filtered through the shadows at the forest edge, breaking gently as it was dispersed by the hushed and ragged breathing that seemed to emanate from the trees themselves. The moon above shone with a sickly waver down through the tangled branches, any substantial light it might have given blocked off by broken clouds. The air moved slightly, stirred by the sudden lifting of a gloved hand in signal. As though taking a deep breath before a plunge into cold water, the trees shuddered. Many heavy-shod feet crept stealthily forward.
Situated in the center of a rolling field on the borders of the wood was a small farm. It glowed with love and happiness. The moon, half hidden behind clouds, smiled down upon it. A man, tall, young, and strong, left the barn, taking care that the latch fell securely in place across the door. The sheep and cows shifted softly in the darkness inside, chewing their cud and settling down to sleep. As the man walked towards the farmhouse, the door before him opened, spilling a shimmer of warm, golden light onto the ground. A young woman stood framed in this light, a baby on her hip. She handed the child to the man and, laughing, kissed him on the cheek. As the couple turned away from the dark night, the chatter of young voices, one fast and excited, the other more reserved, rang out into the stillness and two more children ran to hug their father as the door closed behind him.
Back in the forest a low whistle split the silence, and part of the forest seemed to break away, melting into the field. A band of men slowly, craftily made their way toward the warmly lighted farmhouse. Now that they had stepped from the arching shade of the wood, the dim light from the moon caught at their features. Each man bore hard lines of cruelty slashed across his face like old scars. Hate, bloodlust, and greed flickered from their eyes. Like a pack of wolves they circled the house, closing in on their prey.
~ ~ ~
Walking, stumbling, falling. Forced up again; walking. The monotony of the days was unbearable, like the whip lashes that often curled around her legs. Surely there use to be more to her life than this? There must have been. But what, how did the story go? It was her tale; she of all people was the one who could tell it. But she couldn’t remember. Those days were long gone, passed over like a short, sweet fall by the impending winter…
Huddled in the damp, mold-ridden moss in the shadow of a rotting oak, Ada let her gaze travel up to the night sky. The stars were hidden behind fold after fold of cloud, like a gray burial shroud hiding the meaningless, empty black coffin that was the reaches of the universe. The branches of the trees seemed to reach down broken fingers towards her, lacing across the sky. Shrinking back against the tree trunk, Ada tried to calm her fear. There were few forests in the windswept land of Nalednem, and she hated each and every one. She shuddered, from cold as well as the fear creeping through her heart. In the small clearing before her, no fires were lit. Men from the band of raiders sat in the shadows of the trees around the edge. Without turning her head to look, she knew their eyes were on her. They always were.
Suddenly a cry echoed into the clearing, breaking the silence and starting all the men to their feet. They recognized Morald’s voice, a huge, menacing man and the chief of their band, and moved quickly into action, tying packs over the backs of a few ill-kept ponies and removing all trace of their presence from the ground. One of the raiders shoved Ada towards the nearest pack animal, locking the chain around her wrists to its pack. Then they moved off, as quietly as the muffled hooves of the horses and the cloth-bound metal buckles would allow. The dark sky above them began to glow red.
Coming to the edge of the forest, the men paused, staring down at the sight in the field below them. A small house, engulfed in flames, was burning slowly to the ground. Men swarmed over the yard, each holding a blazing torch and a sharp knife or club. The smoke from the fire floated to where Ada stood, spooking the ponies and stinging her raw throat, irritating her incessant cough. Left nearly alone as most of the men around her went down to join in the night’s revelries, Ada watched with eyes clouded, unfeeling and uncaring.
In the yard between the house and barn, a young man stood facing the raiders. He held an old gun tightly in front of him, as though to block the raiders’ advance. He had fired the last shot and it now hung useless in his hands. His wife stood behind him, eyes wide with shock. She did not seem to realize what was happening, and held tightly on to the baby in her arms as though it would save her family. The other two children huddled beside her. The raiders were circled around them, cutting off all escape. As Morald began to advance upon him, the young man shouted at his family to run. The woman remained motionless, frozen by fear and horror. One of the children turned and ran, slipping between the bulk of two raiders and into the barn. Laughing, one of the men slammed the door behind him and dropped the bolt across it while throwing his torch up onto the thatched roof. The building was soon ablaze.
Shouting, Morald brandished his torch. The game was up. Instantly, all laughter ceased. The raiders became one mass, cruel, heartless, and terrible, intent on their victims, eyes filled with an inhuman light. Ada watched as their circle closed in and overpowered the man, flinging away the useless gun. For a few moments they fought over his body, each trying to get in a blow or a slash with a knife. Their hands were stained with blood. The woman screamed, her voice ricocheting into the sky unheeded then suddenly cut off. The roof of the barn collapsed in a tornado of sparks. The last child, a young girl, stood beside the bodies of her parents, stiff and defiant, holding only a clasp knife in her hand. One of the men advanced upon her and she lashed out, making him jump back with a growl. Morald signaled again, and three men broke out of the circle and came at the girl at once. She struggled, but could not match the grown men with only a small knife. She soon joined her parents on the ground, senseless from a blow to her head. Tossing the child over his shoulder, Morald shouted in triumph to his men, who began picking up the valuables they had stolen from the house before lighting it ablaze, and stuffing them into sacks. The charred remains of the house and barn, lit by the rising sun now that the flames were fluttering to exhaustion, lay like a black wound in the center of the green field. The fiery red hue cast in the sky by the burning buildings was replaced with the blood red of dawn.
~ ~ ~
Ada’s mind whirled confusedly. The glimpse she had had of the young children at the farmhouse had awoken the sharp pain of forgotten memories again. Why could she not remember her own childhood? Surely she had not always been in the company of the bandits. She had once been a little girl, carefree and playful. She had once had a mother and father, a home, maybe even siblings. A sister, a brother. Surely she had once been loved? She could not remember. Her mind was clouded and she had no memories of life before her captivity. There was nothing behind her, only months of enslavement…and then a void.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the raiders, their lust for blood and destruction appeased for the moment. Morald laughed as he dumped his “loot” on the ground. The small girl moaned slightly. Unlocking the chain that held Ada to the packhorse, Morald smiled cruelly. “Here you are, darling,” he snarled, making the term of endearment hideous, “this is yours to look after. Wake it up. Make sure it stays alive. I want to sell it for a good price, so don’t play too hard and mess up its pretty little face.” He leered, gave the small girl on the ground a sharp nudge with his iron shod boot, and turned back to examine the other stolen goods with his men.
Ada stood staring down at the girl at her feet. She looked young, no more than eight or nine. Too young. Taking a canteen of water from the packhorse nearest her, Ada moved automatically to wet a corner of her worn and tattered dress. As she began unfeelingly to wipe the blood from the girl’s face, Ada’s thoughts drifted away. Who was this child? Why did the raiders want her too? Just another soul to sell. Another handful of coins. Money and greed were all that mattered. Ada wondered why the raiders still kept her and fed her, why they had not left her for dead by the side of the road weeks ago. A month ago, or maybe more, they had stopped at a town, tried to clean her up and sell her. But she had been too weak, too pale, too thin. She could hardly do more than walk alongside the horses, and sometimes even that took all her willpower. The whip in Morald’s hand flicked her back and twined around her ankles more often than it touched the horses. Her relentless, wracking cough weakened her further, and she sometimes fainted from exhaustion, unable to breathe through her coughing. The raiders did not stop. They never did. They just kept on and on, and the horse to which she was chained would have to drag her behind it in the dust. Maybe the raiders only kept her for their own sport, to torment, abuse, and laugh at. And to slave for them, caring for other captives and carrying a pack when the ponies got too tired. She did not know. She did not care anymore.
Suddenly jolted back out of her thoughts by the loud raucous voice of one of the raiders, Ada jumped to her feet and stood tense as a frightened deer. Her long, limp black hair half hid her face, and her eyes, dark and emotionless, glared with dread and loathing at the man before her. He laughed and spat at her. Pulling a key out of his pocket, he grabbed her wrist, shoving her within the reach of the chain that was to bind her to a pony. “We’re moving on, princess,” he growled, spitting again. “Got to get away from here before someone sees the smoke. Wouldn’t want this little one,” he nudged the little girl with his toe, “to get rescued. She looks strong and well fed. She could bring us more money than you ever could, you…” he trailed off into a string of profanity. Picking up the still unconscious girl, he slung her roughly over the horse’s neck and tied her to the pack. “You let me know as soon as she wakes up. I’ll make her wish we’d killed her with the rest.” The raider grimaced mirthlessly and moved on down the line of horses, tightening straps and checking the pack ropes. A lone cock crowed sadly from the smoking, blood soaked ruins of the farm. The horses began to move forward, urged on by the cracking of a whip.
~ ~ ~
The sky turned slowly from the red of dawn to the gray of evening. The sun set behind the maountains, and the cold autumn breeze picked up, ruffling the grass and causing the small string of thin ponies to stamp their hooves against the chill. Ada shivered where she sat chained, far from the edge of the campfire the raiders had lit, with no more than one thin blanket to wrap around herself. She listened to them talk, but heard nothing. Her mind still lay wrapped far away in her mysterious past. Thoughts of the childhood she did not know if she had echoed in her head. Withdrawn into herself, she sat in this way long into the night, hours after the fire burned down and the raiders slept. The strange girl lay, still unmoving, beside her. Ada’s tired mind had already forgotten her.
A slight movement beside her hours later pulled Ada from her thoughts. Glancing down, she saw the girl’s eyelids flicker as she moaned. She watched as the child slowly woke, driven at last out of her state of unconsciousness by the chill of the autumn night. Slowly she sat up, looking bewilderedly about her, not recognizing her surroundings. Then, with a gasp, she seemed to remember something and leapt to her feet, reaching into the pocket of her dress. Her hand stopped, frozen when she found the pocket empty. Slowly, carefully, she drew her hand out and began to search the ground around her, growing more and more frantic.
“It’s not here,” Ada spoke quietly at last, her voice, so long unused, sounding harsh in her ears. Almost like the voices of the raiders, she thought with a shudder.
The girl jumped and whirled around, noticing Ada for the first time. For a moment the two stared into each other’s eyes, sizing each other up. Defiance, suspicion, and anger blazed out of the child’s face, while Ada’s reflected only cold, emotionless emptiness. Finally the girl spoke. “What isn’t here?” she asked softly, distrust flaring in her voice, “And who are you?”
“The clasp knife. The one you were holding. The raiders have it. They have everything,” Ada answered, her voice flat. “Everything.”
The girl looked away, observing the huddled, sleeping forms of the men and the string of pack animals and lowered her voice to a whisper. “You saw the knife. Tell me how I got here. Where is my family?”
Ada looked away, up at the void where the clouds covered the stars again, and did not answer. The child seemed to understand, for a long silence followed, and neither girl broke it. The ponies moved restlessly. Dawn was in the air. Finally, as the raiders began to stir and yawn, the younger girl looked back at Ada. “Who are you?” she asked again.
Confusion spread behind the cold veil of Ada’s eyes. “My name is Ada,” she answered hardly. “I don’t know who I am.”
“Oh.” There was silence for a moment, then the younger girl said emptily, “My name is Lora.”