Friendship between Lora and Ada begins tentatively to form. Ada sees the bandits distributing their new loot among the packs. She sees Morald handling the brooch and is drawn by it.
The morning dawned, cold and gray. Ada sat up with a start, feeling sharply the frigid ground beneath her. Glancing up, she saw Lora standing next to the five packhorses. One of the raiders had already chained her to a pack. Ada got up stiffly, walking as far towards the freshly stirred fire as her chain would allow. The raiders sat grouped around the flames, devouring pieces of thick, hard jerky. They took no notice of the two girls.
Finally, seeing Ada standing there with mute hatred glaring from her eyes, Morald thrust his hand into a bag and drew out two small loaves of coarse bread, tossing them towards her before turning back to the fire with a grunt. Ada picked up the loaves, silently handing one to Lora and inspecting hers for mold before sitting down and beginning to eat ravenously. She looked up a few minutes later and saw Lora standing as she had left her, bread untouched in her hand. Sighing inwardly, Ada shut her eyes, drawing a deep breath, steeling herself. Standing up, she moved beside Lora, hesitating a moment before laying her hand on the young girl’s shoulder.
Lora flinched and drew away, and Ada let her hand fall. For the second time in months, she spoke. “You won’t get anything else until tonight. We’ll be walking all day. You should eat.”
Lora, eyes hard and angry, obeyed, tearing the bread roughly into pieces and eating them quickly. Ada saw a tear fall down her cheek, hitting the frozen ground and disappearing into the grass. By the time she finished the raiders were up, tying the packs securely and fastening the small string of ponies together. Ada was quickly pulled away from Lora and chained to a different pack. Within a few minutes the ashes from the fire were scattered to the stiff autumn breeze and the camp emptied.
~ ~ ~
The small caravan moved on, traveling across a windswept plain, one of the many that covered the land of Nalednem, towards the dark mountains where the sun had set. Slowly, slowly they grew larger, filling the sky with jagged, ice-topped peaks. Morning was drawing to a close when one of the horses stumbled and fell. The caravan stopped as suddenly as it had started, and one of the men at the front turned back along the line of ponies to the one that had fallen. Ada watched from a place back as he struggled to pull the pony back to its feet. When it would not move, he called for Morald. He was unsuccessful at raising the beast as well, and grumbling, ordered his men to remove the pack.
Once the heavy pack was off and the whip applied, however, the raiders were still unable to get the pony to its feet. It lay where it had fallen, hopeless and exhausted to the point of death. Gesturing angrily, Morald ordered his men to open the pack and divide the contents between the remaining four ponies. They did as they were bid, opening the sacks in the pack and distributing months’ worth of stolen goods among the other ponies, which seemed to realize that their burdens were only going to grow heavier and lowered their heads.
Morald bent to pick up the last sack. Before entrusting it to an already overloaded pony, he untied the top, examining the treasure inside. Reaching into the mouth of the sack, he pulled out a grimy fistful of coins, silver trinkets, and other small items of value. Laughing greedily, he let them trickle through his fingers, back into the sack. With a cruelly jovial slap, he retied the bag shut and jammed it into a bulging pack. The lost time and fallen packhorse forgotten, he sauntered back to his place at the head of the small caravan, and at the crack of his whip in the cold air, they moved on. Behind them, the dying pony still lay where it had fallen.
~ ~ ~
As Morald fingered his loot, an electric thrill seemed to pass through Ada’s mind, shocking her into total awareness for the first time in weeks. Something caught her eye and held it, one small flicker of perfect gold among the dirty coins. Scarcely breathing, she stepped forward to the end of her chain, watching ravenously as the gold thing fell in slow motion from Morald’s hand, cascading with the silver back into the sack. As it turned in midair, a sunbeam broke through the clouds and caught it, illuminating the object as though from the inside and causing it to shine brilliantly for a split second. Then it disappeared into the sack and the sun hid again behind the clouds. That one second, however, had been enough time for Ada to realize what the object was.
It was a small golden brooch, and it had caught her attention so completely that she could not shake it from her mind. It looked out of place among the tarnished silver, as though it had somehow been placed there by mistake. That one glimpse of gold among the silver haunted Ada, and the brooch swam in her vision as the caravan moved on, causing her to stumble. She could not forget it, and this frightened her. Try as she might, she could not bring back the blank veil of uncaring hopelessness that had settled over her thoughts before. The brooch filled her head, drawing her gaze again and again to the pony in front of her. It was there, inside that pack. Just a few feet away. She shook her head to chase the thoughts away, but they only came swirling back more insistent than before. A pang of longing accompanied them, as though Ada were reaching for something long lost which dangled now just out of her reach. The brooch…there was something about the glint of the gold…something about the thin oval shape…something…
Ada gasped in pain as a whiplash snaked like a viper across her back. The raider wielding the whip, Morald’s right hand man, snarled at her, cursing. “Get a move on! The ponies have too much to carry as it is, we can’t have them dragging you along as well! If another one falls, you know who’ll be taking its place.” He raised the whip again, slashing another burning rope of fire across Ada’s back.
As the raider raised the whip for a third stroke, a huge hand closed over his, twisting the whip out of his grasp. Morald stood behind him, anger blazing from his eyes. “Cut it, Vance! If you lay another blow I’ll slit your throat. I don’t want the girl dead.” Lowering his voice, he said, “She has to last until we get rid of the kid. She’s got to keep the thing alive. The little girl is worth a handful of silver, young and strong as she is. If she’s on her own she’ll go crazy as this one,” he jabbed a finger at Ada, who flinched, “and no one’ll want her. But after the kid goes…” Morald smiled cruelly. “After the kid goes, you may do as you please with her…she’ll be yours, Vance. Think of the fun you could have…” Morald let his eyes travel hungrily over Ada’s thin form, chuckling softly.
~ ~ ~
Many hours later, long after the sun sank again behind the mountains, the raiders halted their journey, sheltering in a small hollow at the foot of the hills. Ada lay where she had fallen beside the pony she was chained to, her face pressing into the dying grass. Her back and legs ached from the long journey, and the fire of the whiplashes had long since faded, replaced with an ice-cold pain that was almost worse. A flash of gold still floated before her eyes, taunting and beckoning. She reached out for it, only to have her fingers close around air.
Light footsteps and the creaking of a chain brought her to her senses again. She sat up slowly, gasping in pain as her back exploded again into fire. Looking up carefully, she saw Lora standing near her, as close as her chain would allow. She held another small loaf of the coarse bread in one hand, offering it to Ada, while the other grasped a canteen. Slowly and painfully, Ada pulled herself along the ground to the end of her own chain and reached out for the bread.
Ada looked up at Lora, her vacant, expressionless face staring into the hard eyes of the small child. A thin wisp of pity seemed to flutter across Lora’s face, and she dropped to her knees, uncorking the canteen. “Here. Let me,” Lora said roughly, motioning for Ada to turn around. She turned, and Lora began to bathe the lashes on Ada’s back. “I wish I had something to put on these…” she muttered softly, brushing Ada’s dark, tangled hair out of the way. “They won’t heal as fast…you’ll have scars.”
Ada laughed quietly, bitterly. “Scars? Like I don’t have any already?” she asked, shuddered at the pain.
Despite Lora’s rough voice her hands were gentle, easing the burning stripes with cold water. Gritting her teeth, Ada managed to sit still, relaxing again when Lora finished. Her back still hurt and the pain tore at her senses, but it was softer now, more an ache than shooting fire. She stood carefully, brooch forgotten for a moment at last, and looked down at the small girl beside her. “Thank you,” she said quietly.