As the sun dipped low in the sky, the driver turned the cart of the road to join a camp that had a few other slave carts clustered around a clearing.
I slowly turned around, and then, grabbing the bars of the cart, stood, and peered out at the bustle a few metres away from me. Men were setting up tents and from the center of the camp an enticing smell drifted across, carried by the cool evening breeze, our one moment of relief from the scorching days and the frigid nights. The aroma of meat and rice, mixed with other strong spices caused a wave of hunger to spasm through my body.
I gripped the bars tighter, my knuckles turning white, as I longed for a mere taste of something so good. Every morning or so, they would give us the burnt rice and occasionally a jug of water to pass around. I desperately hoped that tomorrow was a day where we would get fed. I slid down to the floor and clutched my stomach as it protested once again over its unfair treatment. The sun slowly set, as I drifted off to a fitful sleep, filled with pain and screams and fire.
The scraping of the key in the lock woke me the next morning. I jerked upright, blinking my sleepiness away as a man swung open the door, holding a large bowl filled with rice. His face was set in an angry scowl, and his messy hair and unshaven face showed the roughness of his character.
“Come on, come on,” he said, as every person in the cart scrambled toward him and our food. He ladled out food into our outstretched hands, and then stepped back and swung the door shut. I sat back on my heels and tried to resist wolfing down my portion.
Every little bit of coarse and under cooked rice I would savor, to try to trick my stomach into thinking that I was full.
But the second my tongue touched the rice, my resolve failed and soon I was licking every last morsel from my hands. I stared greedily at the people who much more restraint than me and were still eating their portion of rice and sighed, my stomach already wanting more. Oh, what I would do for some meat or some bread.
“I’m hungry” a little boy cried, cutting through my daydreams.
“Not good, Laela,” I reminded myself. “You don’t have time to be daydreaming about food.”
“Shut up. We’re all hungry,” the boy next to me snapped, his beady eyes staring at the child. He lunged towards the child and the small boy shrank back in fear. The boy laughed and slowly advanced towards the child, his eyes glittering with malice. He reached the child and pushed him over.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” he asked the small, shivering lump on the ground, kicking him. “Or are you just going to lie there, crying like a baby? I thought you were hungry. Poor widdle baby.”
I looked around horrified, but all the rest of the people were turned away from the scene, pretending to ignore it. They didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention, and they were right, I should just ignore this boy and his prey like they were doing. I….
“Stop!” a voice cut through the air. My voice. I stood up; my hands clenched in fists at my side. “Stop.” I repeated, my mind running through all the reasons why I should have just minded my own business. “At least if I die,” I thought, “I would have died trying to save someone. It’s not such a bad way to go.”
“Then why are you doing this dumb and totally irrational thing!” my brain screamed at me, “He is twice your size. What were you even planning to do to him.”
It was true. As he slowly turned around and spied me standing there, his face lit up as he saw me. A short girl, with tangled blond hair, her wiry arms clenched in fists at her sides, and her face obscured with a layer of grime really strikes fear into the hearts of her enemies. He obviously thought of me as another mouse and him, a cat, toying with his prey. And he probably was right. I mean, I had seen boys like him before, a bully, so no one dares challenge him. The king of his own little world. A world that had been shattered when the slavers came. And here I was, trying to challenge his authority.
Raina, the goddess of wisdom, was probably looking down on me right now, wondering how a girl could be this stupid. If she even bothered to concern herself with a slave girl’s life at all, that is. I stared at his muscular arms and well formed face as he sauntered towards me and I sighed inwardly. “You might as well go down fighting.” I told myself and gritted my teeth as he loomed over me.
“Whatcha looking at, little girl?” he said, laughing. “Do you feel sorry for the poor hungwy baby over there.”
“No… I mean.” Gods, my tongue always failed me at the worst times. For once, couldn’t I be the girl who always knew what to say?
He sneered at me and then grabbed my arm, squeezing it tight until I felt his fingers leave deep bruises. I drew in a sharp breath of air at the sudden and overwhelming pain.
He squeezed tighter, delighting in my agony, and twisted it back, until flecks of black danced before my eyes and I let myself sag to the ground, with tears welling up in my eyes, and then all I could see was a blur of moving shapes around me.
He let go of my arm and crouched down in front of me, his eyes filled with contempt. I turned away from him, cradling my hurt arm, clenching my nails into my fists as far as they would go, making little half moons appear in my palms. He grabbed my shoulder and wrenched me around to face him, his face delighted as they saw the tears threatening to fall from my half lidded eyes.
“Don’t touch me” I tried to snarl, but it came out in a half yell, half choking sort of sound. He sat back on his heels and laughed in my face.
“And what are you going to do to me if I do? Oh no, I’m so very scared. Help me!” he mocked, his beady eyes staring at me. I let my bad arm fall to my side and slapped him across his gloating face with my other arm. He reeled away from me, his jaw already growing red from the force of my slap.
I scuttled as far as I could away from him, hoping wildly that my manacle would chose this moment to suddenly snap. Or the gods would send down lighting to strike this bully dead. But with my luck, the boy got to his feet, his hand holding the place that I had struck him. I noted with satisfaction that he seemed to be stunned that a mere girl would dare to hit him.
“I swear, that when I’m done with you…” he trailed off, his face so clenched with fury that I could see the veins popping out in his forehead. I suddenly realized that this boy was not completely sane, no healthy person would be so mad.
By now I was standing in a corner all by myself, the rest of the people around me already scattered to the opposite corners of the cart. I narrowed my eyes at him and braced myself to die. He advanced towards me and pushed me.
I fell to the ground, turning my body automatically to shield my bad arm from hitting the ground. I got up, ignoring the fresh wave of agony that shot through my arm and leapt at him, trying to scratch out his eyes. I felt my nails scrape down his face and he flung me off him. I landed hard on the wooden floor, and then my arm commanded all of my attention and so, curling up in a ball, I braced myself and tried to protect my arm from the beating that was to follow.
His kicks and blows fell like rain upon me. I remember hearing someone moaning, him laughing almost manically, and with one last kick to my jaw, I felt merciful darkness pull me down, into its cool embrace, where there was no pain anymore.