~ Fear in the Silence.
The city opened out of the sands like a stone rose. It appeared to the lone rider as a shimmer of domes and white stone on the horizon, something seen in a waking dream, but as the traveler approached it solidified, real and immense. About its walls spread acres of tillage, and little villages clustered about oases where date-palms clattered in the hot winds.
Sud Sicanna existed because of this bounty of underground water in the most pitiless desert of the Harad; it was a hub, trade roads converged on it from north to south, west to east, for if water had founded the first settlement here, trade was its true lifeblood and had made it wealthy.
Vanimórë pulled his tall grey mount and sumpter pony aside, looking through the gap between turban and veil. A train of camels stepped haughtily past, harness ringing, their drivers veiled against the sun, swaying easily to the rocking gait. After a moment, he touched his booted heels to the stallion's side and rode on.
Domes tiled with copper, bronze and silver burned light back at the cloudless skies. In fountained gardens, veiled women murmured as softly as the fall of the water. Below the palaces, great markets thronged and seethed, and in the dusty, narrow streets of the poor, people worked at their humble trades. To Sud Sicanna, the Great War in the north meant little. The sultan had sent troops, but none had ever returned, and the rumors were that the Great One was overthrown. Since no-one here had ever set eyes on their Overlord, or his land of fire and darkness, this meant less. Sud Sicanna would prosper, as it ever had. Strong walls rolled about the city, but the gates were ever open for Sud Sicanna was an old and painted harlot, welcoming any-one who came with coin or goods. Only the priests in their temples were troubled, their chants rising with the smoke of the burned offerings.
Terror choked the girl, gripped her throat with hard hands, his hands, throttling her like a strangler. She clutched at it convulsively with flour-dusted fingers, unable to swallow, to breathe. The rising screams in her mind beat against her skull, demanding utterance, promising peace in the madness that would follow. She felt his eyes on her, as if the dark robes she wore were transparent, knew that he was seeing her unclothed. The smell of him, smoke, sweat, sour wine, seemed to crawl into the pores of her skin, the harsh sound as he scratched his groin, whence his thoughts lead him, pricked out flecks of perspiration on her brow.
A block of sunlight slammed into the dim room as the door opened, and rattled shut again behind her mother, leaving it darker than before. It was one of his rules that the doors be kept closed. He seemed to be obsessed with privacy. She felt his eyes slide from her as as the older woman heaved water onto the table with a thump, and he turned, slouching out of the house. A desultory brush of fetid air passed inside, and her stomach roiling, the girl began to knead the rough dough again. She could see only a pale blur through the tears burning in her eyes.
Kalma poured water into a pan and began to slice goat meat, her eyes flicked up to her daughter, before lowering again, lips gripped together.
There was nothing she could do.
Your husband is your master, her mother had told her long ago, not that any woman of Sud Sicanna need be told that. Please him, obey him. and in a whisper: He is your life, pray to the Lord of the World that you die before he does.
That had been only days before she herself had been cast from the house, for her failure to bear a living son. She had slunk away, weeping, and no-one saw her again. Doubtless she had died somewhere in the alleys of the poor quarter.
In this wealthy, corrupt city, widows invariably ended their days dead of hunger, or were stoned or burned alive if some-one accused them of witchery. Women were not permitted power in Sud Sicanna, and did not own property or money. The best a widow could hope for was to be taken in by one of her children, but often they became little more than slaves in such a household, for they would bring no coin with them, and must work to be so kept.
Kalma had still been pretty at the time of her husbands untimely death, and when his brother had said he would take her to wife, she accepted with relief, though she knew him to be a violent man much addicted to date wine. She had no family, save a daughter approaching womanhood. There was no choice, no woman had a choice, and Chafal treated her much as she had expected, but she had a home, a place. And then her daughter had grown, fairer than her mother, who watched mute and helpless as Chafal's gaze lingered on her.
Kalma knew the first time he had taken her. Her stomach had rebelled, anger had bloomed in her, as she saw her child, eyes blasted with shock, crouching over herself as she moved. The girl had had looked at her mother in entreaty, speechlessly begging for help – and Kalma had turned away as if she saw nothing amiss. The anger sputtered out, the flame snuffed by the constant fear of being discarded. Like her mother, Kalma had borne only one girl-child.
There was no-one she could confide in, nothing she or any could do. Bairi, a young wife of who lived nearby, showed concern at the girl's increasing silence, perhaps because she was not much older. Her questions met with short answers. Times were hard for the poor, Kalma said brusquely, it was always so. Thereafter, Bairi would come across the street when Chafal was gone from the house, bringing honey-cakes and her small son took a fancy to the girl and would clamber onto her lap, which brought a faint softening to her pinched face. Kalma, fearing that the girl would utter incautious words, never let her greet Bairi alone. If this were known, they would be thrown out and stoned, called witches, accused of using forbidden arts on Chafal.
They might be burned alive.
Bairi's husband, Chulai said that Chafal was no poorer than any other in the quarter. He was a sot, every-one knew it. After his days work was done, he enjoyed drinking, gambling and visiting the brothels. Looking with affection and desire on his vivacious wife, Chulai had said: "Adani is fond of the girl, but do not go when Chafal is there, he has always looked too closely at you. I will break the pig's face if he touches you!"
Kalma would have agreed with Chulai. Sometimes she smelled good wine on Chafal's breath, grape wine, such as the wealthy drank, and she knew he kept a locked chest in his workroom. She had been taking him a mid-day meal once, years ago, and seen him bending over it, glimpsed a flash of silver before he had driven her out with a curse. It was more money than a potter should possess, and Kalma could not guess how he had come by such a horde.
He could have dowered the girl for marriage but he would not, begrudging every copper spent on aught but wine and food for his belly. It was too late now. Men wanted virgin brides, and every girl was examined by two older women before marriage. If one was found not to be intact, she would bring dishonor on her father's house. Only if the man responsible came forward, offering to wed, and paying coin to erase the stain, would the girl be saved. Sometimes that happened, but no-one but Chafal had touched Kalma's daughter, and he would raise the cry of 'Witch!' were his lechery ever discovered.
She was pregnant.
Her courses were as regular as the moon, and this was the fourth week that she was clean. She had wondered at the wave of sickness that had swept over her when she should have bled, then there had been cramps, but still no blood. Now the nausea was constant, and she had retched several times. Her hands shook with a faint, continuous tremor, unable to be still, touching her throat, her breasts, which were painful and felt swollen.
There were herbs to abort, if one had coin. Sometimes a woman would use them and call it miscarriage, a brief respite from constant childbearing. The whores of the brothels used them, but she had no money, and even if she had, did not know where to buy them. And she could not leave the house. Chafal sent Kalma to the market, and when they were alone, would have her, pushing her over the table, lifting her skirt, his hard hands spreading her legs. He would pound brutally into her, grunting, while she bit into her mouth, whimpering to hold back the screams of disgust and pain, the sickness of feeling him invade her.
"Whore!" he called her, "You bewitched me, slut-eyes. I could take you out into the street and have you stoned as a harlot, burned as a witch. So keep your bitch mouth closed and I will say naught."
Her mother had always known. That first time, in pain, horrified beyond speech, threatened with death if she told any-one, she had looked at the older woman and watched her eyes slide away. The silent screams had begun then, and only death would end them. And she was dying, each time he raped her, a fragment of her was broken.
Now, even Bairi's friendship had been withdrawn. A week ago, her son had vanished while running an errand to the market. He had taken to skipping across the narrow street to see the quiet girl who held him, and sang to him. Chafal, in an unusual display of tolerance, sometimes allowed him to play with some clay, showing him how to keep it damp and malleable. Adani had been in the house before he disappeared. He had left with a coin from the potter, who told him to find Kalma and ask her to bring back wine, the copper was for a sweetmeat, another uncharacteristically generous gesture.
When he had slipped away, Chafal had come to his niece and taken her on the floor, savage and fast, kneading at her breasts so that tears had run down her cheeks, and she sobbed into the palm he clamped over her mouth. Later he had gone out, and returned late to collapse into wine-sodden sleep.
Bairi was hysterical with fear, and blamed Chafal for sending the boy alone to the market. It was known that sometimes children vanished in Sud Sicanna, and there was no recourse. They were the poor, whom no-one cared about save their own families, and sometimes not even they. It was one less mouth to feed, after all. But Adani was the firstborn child and beloved. He had not been taken for sacrifice, for those chosen for the temple were collected with solemn ritual, the priests flanked by acolytes on foot, beating their drums, pausing at houses where weeping women, and sometimes men, watched as their sons or daughters were taken.
The fate of those who vanished secretly was unknown, but there were many rumors.
The night was warm and windless in the cramped streets of the poor, only in the spacious palaces did a breath of wind from the desert set the wind-chimes singing softly, as if greeting the one who entered the Sultan's palace.
Chafal had gone out at sundown and was not yet returned. The girl lay tense as a slab of stone on her thin pallet, though he had never touched her while her mother was in the house, and if he came back this late would fall asleep at once, open mouth exhaling wine fumes. Her fingers plucked at the rough cover and she wept, her knuckles pressed into her mouth to stifle the sound.
There was only fear now. Since her mother had re-married, there had always been fear of the big, violent man. Everywhere she turned he seemed to be there, narrow eyes on her, lips parted. He told her she had bewitched him, was born a slut, that she wanted him. It was not true, he had always revolted her, but she was disgusted by what he must have seen in her and loathed herself. She wished she were dead, and soon she would be. When his child began to show, he would drag her into the street, denounce her as a harlot, and she would face the condemnation of the people. She had seen it happen: a woman fleeing before a mob until she was surrounded or trapped by an alley or wall, she had heard the thud of the stones, the screams, watched the limp body dragged away, leaving smears of blood. In the oppressive heat she had felt cold and sick at the terror of the pursued woman. Soon that woman would be her; she had imagined it many times, as if to do so would somehow prepare her for the moment – and nothing could. Unless she summoned the resolve to take her own life, she would face the baying crowd, the hurled rocks, feel her bones break, her skull smashed to red pulp...
She had never hoped for much, only to leave this house, leave him. Perhaps her husband would have cared for her, had she married. Chulai loved his wife, it was evident in his voice and expression when he gazed upon her. Not all men could be as Chafal, once they had been merry-eyed, sweet-natured boys like Adani. There might have been some-one like that for her, once. Now there would be no-one. By the time the greater heat came she would be dead.
Heaving sobs wracked her and she curled up on the pallet. There was no mercy in their God, but she prayed to him to die now and be lost in the Dark.
The noise roused her from a half-doze. It was far away, like thunder, yet there was no storm and there was distinctive human quality to it, as if great crowds were shouting or screaming. She sat up and a sickness churned in her stomach. Bolting to the latrine she vomited, then groped her way to the kitchen and washed the bile from her mouth. The noise was closer now, and had resolved itself into many people running and crying out. She heard the slap of sandals, the bang of doors and stood limp and exhausted, wondering if the city were under attack, even though such a thing had not happened in living memory. As she shakily lit a tallow dip, she heard her mother's weary question: "What is it?"
The door was smashed inward and the girl stiffened as Chafal reeled through. He looked drunk, she thought, unsurprised, and then she saw the peculiar pallor to his face and wondered if he were not drunk, but ill. He breathed heavily as he lumbered in and bellowed: "Get up, woman! Go for wine!"
Kalma appeared, winding a veil about her face, smudges under her eyes like bruises in the weak light.
" What is it, husband? " Her voice was rough with trepidation.
"If you get out, you will hear the news yourself!" He dragged her from the doorway of their room and, pushing a handful of coins into her hand, thrust her out into the street.
"Two jugs!" He shouted. "And be quick!"
There were more people running now, voices raised, torches billowing light against the houses, and the girl strained to listen. Chafal kicked the door viciously. She kept her eyes lowered, certain he would approach her, her body clenched in sick anticipation, but after a moment she heard him go through the adjoining door into his workshop.
Creeping to the shuttered window, she listened – and heard screaming. Her hands rose to cover her mouth.
"Adani!" It was Bairi. "Adani!"
"Dead," Suhala the Vintner said, as he took the coins, his shop hastily opened despite the hour and doing brisk trade. "And not Uwath alone. Petreh saw - he is sick. Chafal was there." He glanced at Kalma. "Little wonder he needs a drink." He poured himself one and tossed it back, as some-one said: "Is it true then?"
"True enough, Uwath and at least half a score of his court, and there will be more, it is said." Suhala poured more wine and glanced back as the curtain behind the stall moved and his son came out, pallid and ill-looking, just as Chafal had been. Kalma eased the jugs of wine over her head by their cords, silently waiting as the youth took a clay cup and drank, shuddering. More gathered around, watching him. He gulped,shook his head and his face twisted, words spilling out as if he were vomiting them up.
"He came...from Mordor..." A deeper quiet descended on the crowd. "The palace guard dragged out Uwath and the others, into the great square..." He passed a shaking hand over his face. "He said he was a high servant of the Great Lord, and that...he had found children, in the palace, and punished Uwath..." Again, he drank, but it seemed no amount of wine could touch his horror. "Uwath, the others -- they were spread out , on great tables, and tied down and he...he lead his great horse to Uwath and spoke to it - it seemed to be mad. And it - it - took him..." Turning away Petreh threw up what he had drunk, he was crying. "The screams – I will never stop hearing them."
No wonder Chafal had looked sick, Kalma thought dispassionately.
"He is ruler now, the Great Lord's servant, he said...many things, but that any who touch a child thus will suffer the same fate as Uwath."
One might have expected an outbreak of exclamations, but those gathered were silent, shifting, looking sidelong at one another.
"But Mordor wants our sacrifices, our children," said a puzzled, quiet voice. "It has always been so. What more will this one want?"
"I know not." The youth ducked away into the house and Kalma pushed herself through the crowds. This explained her husband's strangeness, but how had he come to be near the palace? Most of the poor had never even seen it, had no occasion to go there.
"But I heard that he was - killed, the Great Lord," some-one murmured. "In the great battle against the Men from the sea, and the White Demons..."
"Hush!" Suhala warned. "A God cannot die, fool! Perhaps he sent his servant to test our loyalty?"
"The palace guard are with him, I heard that the son of the Captain was found..."
Kalma hurried away. Chafal would be waiting for his wine, but he had given her too much coin in his hurry. She slipped down an alleyway and knocked upon a narrow door.
A bruise stained Kalma's face as she poured the hot tea, and pushed the cup toward her daughter. Chafal had struck her for tardiness, but now he was in his room, guzzling wine in morose, nervous silence. He would drink all night.
"Here," she muttered, and saw the huge, frightened eyes gazing at her, silently pleading for the help Kalma could not give. "Go on now, drink." She turned away, went to the door, but did not dare open it.
Both of them listened to the ululating cries from across the street, Bairi mourning the loss of her son. With a mother's instinct, she was sure that Adani had been one of the children found in the palace.
From Chafal's room came the sound of something shattering against the wall.
"Tell that whining bitch to shut her mouth!" came his goaded roar. It would go no further than curses. He would not confront Chulai, younger and stronger, and as grief-stricken as his wife.
The warped door was slammed open. Chafal stormed through, half falling against the table, the clay cup spilling most of it's contents over the scrubbed wood. They heard him vomiting noisily in the latrine.
"Go to your bed! " Kalma said harshly, reaching for a rag. She had not been able to buy more than one dose of the poison. Nothing to be done... It would have saved the girl, and saved her. Chafal had not lain with her for a year, soon he would cast her from his house, calling her barren and cursed for losing the two children he had got on her, one stillborn, the other dead of a fever. He would throw her out and and keep the girl. Kalma did not hear herself give a hoarse chuckle. Luck was not with her today, but when had it ever been? Had he come from his room a moment later, the tea would have been drunk. There was nothing to be done, but expose the wench, or wait until Chafal denounce her, claiming her a harlot. How long? Two moons perhaps, until the pregnancy showed, maybe sooner, for the girl was thin. The girl, the girl...Kalma groped for her name, realized she had called her the girl, these two years. She was distancing herself, but her terror-sodden mind did not recognize that fact. With the selfishness of survival, she had begun to withdraw from the moment she had seen rape in the young face, when she had known there was nothing she could do. Now she saw a stranger, a rival. ~