A stream of shouted gibberish woke Dura from a fitful sleep, and she groaned. Today, another of them would die. She opened her eyes to see several cannibals yelling and gesticulating beside her cage, their backs turned to her. They had found Pica.
The sting of tears pricked Dura’s eyes. Pica, who had shown so much promise as a carpenter’s mate in the shipyard, had slashed her wrists two days ago, overcome by despair. The stench and the flies were so thick in the offal beneath the cages that the death had gone undetected. Now, enraged by their discovery, the cannibals dragged the young woman’s stiff corpse from her cage and began hacking and bashing at it with their knives and clubs as they argued.
“Leave her alone, ya filthy, pig-buggerin’ bastards!” Dura bellowed. The sight of them despoiling the body of her friend set her blood boiling, and she gripped the bars of her cage and rattled it as she cursed them. “Slimy bunch of pox-ridden whores! Let her be!”
The shouting subsided, and curious eyes shifted her way. Ice chilled through Dura’s veins. This is it, she thought. My turn.
Several of the cannibals dragged Pica’s corpse away, while others inspected the now-vacant cage. It didn’t take them long to discover the thin sliver of obsidian that the girl had used to open the arteries of her wrists.
“Oh, there’s gonna be all Nine Hells to pay now,” Dura muttered as the cannibals argued again, pointing at their captives. They moved to the first cage at the far end of the line and made ready to open it.
If the cannibals had one skill, it was handling prisoners. They formed a cordon around the cage, which held a stout fellow by the name of Quada. One opened the cage, then two strong warriors reached in, grabbed Quada’s wrists, and hauled him out. Two others held long bamboo poles fitted with nooses of braided leather, which they slipped over Quada’s head and quickly tightened by pulling on the leather strung through the hollow poles. Quada struggled, but with the two nooses around his neck and two men holding his arms, he was completely immobilized. A woman approached him then, holding out a keen dagger.
“Hold fast, lad!” Dura shouted over the din as she realized the cannibals’ intentions. “They don’t mean to kill ya! Least ways, not yet!”
Just as she thought, the woman simply cut away Quada’s loincloth, his only clothing, and cast it aside. She looked him over, poking and prodding, then nodded, apparently assured that he secreted no hidden blades or tools. To Dura’s relief, they shoved Quada back into his cage, mother naked and panting with rage, but alive.
The next cage held a young woman named Silla. The cannibals repeated their search on her, then returned her to her cage. And so they went down the line. Knowing that it was not yet their turn to die, the captives remained passive, enduring the humiliation and hoping not to call attention to themselves, for this afternoon, someone would be chosen for the feast. The cannibals grew complacent, even seemed to be joking in their harsh language. They didn’t hold the captives as tightly now, and the nooses didn’t choke as they had when Quada fought back.
Dura watched as they worked their way toward her cage, and formulated her plan.
She offered her wrists easily, and didn’t struggle when the nooses were looped over her head. She rose from her permanent crouch in the small cage with unfeigned stiffness and a grimace as a muscle cramped in her back. Pitiless, her captors pulled her up and held her immobile.
Dura was shorter, stockier and more thoroughly clothed than any of her fellow prisoners, and the woman with the knife hesitated. One of the noose-holding men barked some unintelligible words at her, and she snapped a reply. She approached and cut the sleeves of Dura’s shirt from wrist to collar, then from neck to hem. The loose-fitting shirt fell away with a tug, and the woman with the knife hissed in surprise.
“They didn’t know you were a woman,” one of Dura’s fellow prisoners said.
“Figured as much,” she muttered.
Dura wore a thin linen undershirt, but even so, her feminine attributes were obvious. The man holding the noose urged the woman with the knife, and when Dura’s undershirt had been cut away, raucous laughter broke out among her captors. Dura shoved down the shame, replacing it with hot rage, but held her temper in check. She knew that her dwarven body—thicker and more muscular than most humans—must look peculiar to these savages. But peculiar or not, there was little fat on her, and she probably outweighed all but the stoutest of them.
“Just keep laughin’,” she muttered under her breath.
The woman cut Dura’s stout leather belt, slit her wool pants from waist to cuff, then her cotton underbritches. The woman pointed to the dwarf’s crotch, said something and laughed out loud, which elicited even more mirth from the four men. At the moment they were all laughing hardest, Dura struck.
There was a simple trick to breaking the grip of someone holding your wrist, and Dura knew it. She turned her thumbs down and jerked free. At the same time, she snapped a kick between the legs of the woman with the knife. The woman folded, the obsidian blade falling from her nerveless fingers. Then Dura used the only advantages she had: her shorter stature and her weight. Even as the leather nooses came tight around her neck, she flexed hard to keep them from choking her, and dropped to the ground, pulling both noose wielders off balance.
In a flash, she had the knife.
The nooses tightened and a foot glanced off her temple, but the next foot she caught. Lunging up with the blade, she slashed the inside of the man’s thigh. Blood gushed from the severed artery, and he fell. The other man who had held her wrist was reaching for the club at his waist. She was loath to lose her only weapon, but as the man raised his club to strike, she had no choice. She threw the obsidian dagger hard, burying it to the hilt in his gut. He dropped the club and folded up around the injury. Now there were just the two men holding the nooses, and they were prevented by the length of the noose-poles from getting close to her. But they could, and did, tighten the nooses even more.
The world faded to gray at the edges of Dura’s vision; she didn’t have much time. Shouts rang from the jungle, and she knew more cannibals were coming. She brought both hands down hard on one of the bamboo poles. It snapped, but its wielder did not let go. He pulled hard, and his companion did likewise. She tried to break the other pole, but it flexed. The man with the knife in his gut was rising, and she lunged for him, but they wrenched her back, jerking her off her feet. She tried to break the pole again, but her blows were getting weaker as the nooses cut off the blood to her brain.
Gray darkened to black as she clawed at the leather nooses around her throat, but she couldn’t wedge her fingers under them. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, and then she couldn’t do anything at all.
“Not much left,” Camilla murmured as she surveyed her few remaining worldly possessions. This was only the second time she had been back to her rooms since her rescue from Hydra’s lair. The first time, dismay had overwhelmed her at the sight of the pillaged chamber, and she fled, weeping, into Emil’s arms.
The thought sent a shiver of longing up her spine, and she wrapped her arms around herself. It had been four days since her rescue, four days of living in his rooms, sharing his bed, finding solace in his warmth. She felt whole again in his company. But lately, she had felt somehow wrong, like she was a stranger inside her own skin.
The murder might explain her unease, her visions of blood and death. Emil insisted that her feelings were the normal aftermath of her ordeal. He’s right, of course, she thought as she entered and shut the door behind her, I’m sure of it.
Her rooms were less of a shambles than most had been after the pirates pillaged the keep; the furniture was intact and, in the bedroom, the bed still had a mattress and coverlet. Even so, everything of value was gone. She had packed all of her finest clothing and toiletries in the trunk that had gone with Parek; her wardrobe stood empty save for one unfinished dress and a few old pettiskirts. Her dresses had always been her great indulgence, made by her own hands, her own designs. Now, she had exactly two. The deep-red dress she currently wore was clean but showing signs of wear, not surprising since she had worn it since the day she had secreted herself in the dungeon. The other, deep russet in color with a satiny sheen and a plunging neckline, hung in the wardrobe unfinished.
“Well, I can deal with that as long as my sewing kit is still here…” Camilla went to her dresser and pulled open the bottom drawer, smiling as she found the mahogany box that contained all her sewing supplies untouched. She put the box on the bed and took the russet gown from wardrobe, spreading it out and assessing what needed to be done. Hemming, lace or filigree for the neckline, some lacing and loops… About twenty hours of work and it would be fit to wear.
She sighed…twenty hours of respite, her mind and hands occupied in a soothing, meditative task.
She sat tailor fashion on the bed, placed her sewing box in front of her and lifted the lid. The top tray held her needles, threads, buttons and loops in neat cubbies. She selected a spool and a needle, stripped off a length of thread, knotted the end and threaded the needle with practiced ease. A faint scent tickled her nostrils, not unpleasant really, rather like overripe fruit or faint honeysuckle. Of course, there was an entire jungle outside her balcony, and something was always in bloom. She breathed deeply, the scent familiar but evasive.
Lifting out the tray to search for a piece of lace, she started in surprise. Instead of the lace, brocade and lining fabric that she kept stored here, the compartment was packed with white linen.
“What the…” She didn’t remember putting any linen in here. She put the tray aside and lifted the crumpled fabric, holding her hands high to see what it was.
The sewing box crashed to the floor as Camilla flung the bloodstained garment away and skittered backward. She tumbled off the bed, landing hard, panic surging in her veins. She lurched up and backed into the farthest corner of her bedroom, her breath coming in ragged gasps, the heady scent of blood recognizable now, strong, tantalizing.
The bed lay between her and the fallen garment, blocking it from view, and slowly her panic subsided. Is this some cruel joke? she wondered. A vengeful local angry that she had survived the pirate attack, when others perished? Maybe, she thought as she heaved a deep, calming breath, it’s another hallucination.
She edged around the bed until she could see the fallen sewing box, its lid askew from the impact. Bits of lace, brocade, and gold and silver filigree were strewn about like fallen leaves. Beyond it all lay the white nightgown painted with dark crimson streaks of dried blood. Shaking, Camilla shuffled forward and knelt beside the noisome piece of clothing. She tugged at an unstained sleeve to straighten it, and recognized it as her own.
A vision: moonlight…a startled gasp…the taste of blood…
She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the image, unsure if it was a hallucination, a remembered nightmare or a memory. Holding the garment in trembling hands, she examined it more closely. Bloodstains covered the front of the nightgown, thick and crusty at the top, dwindling down near the bottom. Near the hem there was a single, clear handprint. She spread the fabric flat on the floor and put her own hand over the dark red stain.
It matched perfectly.
“No!” Camilla lurched to her feet, holding the stained nightdress out as if it might burn her. Looking around, she spied the sewing box. Kneeling, she folded the bloodstained shift until the stains were hidden inside. Then she straightened the bent hinges on the sewing box, put the nightgown into the bottom, and shut the lid, closing the latch firmly. Camilla put the box back in the bottom drawer of her dresser, and shut it. She remained still for a long moment, her hand against the drawer, looking at the dresser but not really seeing it. Finally rousing, she collected the fallen bits of finery, piled them atop the tray of her sewing box, retrieved the needle and thread, flung the unfinished gown over her arm and fled the bedroom.
She closed the door and looked around the sparse sitting room, the place that for so long had been her refuge. But she couldn’t see the familiar table and chair, the comfortable settee. All she saw was the bloody handprint on the nightgown. Her handprint.
“No, it wasn’t mine!” she insisted as she headed for the door, thinking only to put distance between herself and the incriminating garment. Try as she might to block them, visions of blood and moonlight swam in her mind. “Someone’s playing a sick joke on me, and I won’t believe it! It’s a dream! A nightmare! It’s not real!”
Camilla fled down the stairs to Emil’s rooms and the safety of his embrace.
Dura woke with the hard bamboo bars of her cage pressing into her. Bruised, sore, wheezing and sporting a throbbing headache, she coughed and risked opening her eyes. Still daylight, so she couldn’t have been unconscious too long. She coughed again, hawked and spat, then struggled to her customary cramped sitting position, made even less comfortable for the lack of clothing between her backside and the bars.
“Good ta see you be livin’.”
“Well, that makes one of us,” she said, her voice a hoarse rattle. She turned to see who spoke. It was Quada; their captors had moved the cages around. She grinned and winked at him, and said, “Was hopin’ they’d lose patience and kill me.”
“Na. Dey’re too careful fer dat, though you took down two dat won’t be gettin’ up again.” He chuckled dryly. “And dat woman wit’ da knife, she gonna be pissin’ blood fer days.”
Dura chuckled without much humor. Truly, her plan had been to simply kill as many of them as possible and die trying. She hadn’t accomplished much.
“You got dey’re attention, though. Never seen a dwarf, let alone a dwarf woman, much less one without clothes.” Quada chuckled again.
“Fat lot of good it did,” Dura said, massaging her sore neck. The braided leather had left a nasty abrasion and a deep bruise.
“Well, in a couple of days ya might be wishin’ ya hadn’t done it.”
Quada’s tone had turned grave, and she looked to see him shaking his head. “You impressed dem so much dat you be da next one dey be takin’.”
“Yer sure?” she asked, a cold knot of fear forming in her gut.
“I be understandin’ dem good enough,” Quada assured her, nodding to the milling mass of cannibals, arguing over something. “Dey not happy wit’ Pica killin’ herself like dat, but dey don’t take nobody today. Two days, dey take de next, and dey want you.”
“I thought it was getting better.” Emil paced the floor of his chambers, his face a mask of worry. “Yesterday you said you felt better, whole again, and now…”
Camilla watched him, wringing a sodden kerchief in her lap. She had managed to keep her wits until she reached Emil’s rooms, then the fear had overwhelmed her and she had broken down in his arms. Every time she closed her eyes she saw blood: on her nightgown, in the scratches she’d inflicted on Emil’s chest. She breathed in its thick, heady aroma, yearned for its gloriously sweet taste. She imaged she saw the soldier’s blood drenching the dock and dripping into the warm, salty sea. She swallowed, horrified that her mouth was actually watering. Camilla clenched the kerchief in her trembling fists, wringing it until the embroidered linen tore.
“And I did think I was getting better. I really did. I thought…I thought it was just dreams. And at first it was, but now…” She shifted uncomfortably, trying to concentrate through the pounding in her ears. “Now I’m seeing things while I’m awake, things that I don’t know…I don’t know if they’re real or not!”
“What kind of things?” he asked, not for the first time. Camilla could see him struggling with his own feelings, wanting to help her, but frustrated because she wouldn’t tell him exactly what was wrong. But how could she tell him what she had found in her sewing box? That the visions and feelings were getting stronger, more insistent. Her reluctance was born of fear: fear that she had somehow killed that poor soldier, fear that she was going mad, fear that he, the only man she had ever loved, would turn away her. And fear of what she might do to him if he didn’t.
“Horrible things, Emil,” she admitted as she picked at the threads of the shredded kerchief and sighed. “People dying.”
“Parek? Do you see him?”
Camilla looked up at him, saw in his eyes the hope that the pirate was the source of her distress, because pirates were real, easily disposed of by the law or sword. How could she tell him that her fears were not so simple? How could she look into his eyes and see the loathing that he must feel if she told him the truth? The blood on her nightgown, on her hands, the visions she’d experienced, the things she heard, felt…like Emil’s beating heart.
“I…” she began, but the horror gripped her like a hand around her throat, preventing her from spilling her bloody confession. She had thought the pounding in her ears had been her own pulse, but it wasn’t. It was Emil’s. Even now, eyes wide open, she could feel the blood racing through his veins, but she couldn’t tell him; the words would not come. Instead, the tears spilled down her cheeks. She buried her face in her kerchief and sobbed.
“It’s all right, my dear. I swear to you, it’s all right.” Emil sat beside her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into a protective embrace. His voice thick with worry, he said, “He can’t harm you here. He’ll never harm you again, I promise!”
Camilla’s could feel his heart beating against her shoulder, steady and strong, and so close…Her shoulders heaved with sob after wracking sob. His hand stroking her hair was no comfort, for she wept not out of fear of Parek, as he thought, but in anguish at the lie she let him believe. She could not tell him the truth, could not confide in him, the one man who truly loved her despite all she was, all she’d done, all she’d been…slave, kept woman, whore…monster.
“How can you even stand to touch me?” she gasped between sobs.
“How can I…Camilla.” He touched her chin, pulled her face up to his. “I love you, Camilla, no matter what that bastard Parek did to you. You saved us: Tim, me, Paska, little Koybur…everyone! Without you, we’d all have been taken by those beasts. You’ve got more courage than anyone I’ve ever met, and I love you for it.”
He kissed her, and she tasted the salt of her tears mingled between their lips. He held her tight, and his heart beat against her breasts; steady and strong, and so close. Heat surged through her body, enflaming her desire, carnal and…something else. A void that she needed to fill lest she be lost forever, empty and powerless.
A flashing vision: teeth in flesh, warm salty blood pouring down her throat in a delicious torrent…
With a cry, Camilla shoved him away and scrambled back until she stood with her back against the wall. She heaved air into her lungs, trying to rid her mind of the sweet scent of his blood.
“Emil, no, please!” she begged when he opened his mouth to speak. “I’m sorry.” She turned away, clenching the kerchief so hard that the bones of her fingers ached, and her nails dug into the flesh of her palms. She had been so close…so very close to giving in to the whisper in her mind, sinking her teeth into his willing flesh, rending his skin with her nails.
“No, I’m sorry, my dear,” Emil said sadly. She heard him stand, and he stepped up behind her, placed his warm, loving hands on her shoulders.
She shuddered, wracked with horror and desire, fear…and hunger. “Please,” she pleaded through clenched teeth, shrugging off his hands. “Please, Emil. I need to be alone now. I can’t…I can’t think straight.”
“Then let me help you, Camilla,” he said, his voice thick with tears. “Let me try.”
“You can’t help me,” she said, finally turning to look at him, at his anguished features, at the love so clearly painted on his face. “Not now. Please.”
“Very well.” His shoulders stiffened as if she had just stabbed a knife into his heart. “I’ll go see what Tim’s up to. But I’ll be back, and we’ll deal with this. I will help you, Camilla, whatever it takes. I promise.”
“Thank you, Emil,” she said, her heart breaking at the pain she’d caused him. “I’m sorry.”
Camilla turned away again and heard him leave. To her ears, the soft click of the latch was as clear as a hammer pounding a metal spike into her heart. She heaved a breath as the sound of his pulse receded, and her driving hunger eased. Tears still coursed down her cheeks, and she brought the sodden kerchief up to wipe them away. She stopped, and stared.
The embroidered linen was torn and stained with her blood, but the stains were black and the cloth smoldered as if eaten by acid. Bits of crumbling linen fell to the floor as she opened her hands and stared at her palms. Her nails had lacerated her flesh, and the gaping wounds oozed black ichor.
A memory rose in her mind, as clear as crystal: a hand grasping the blade of a dagger thrust into a table and sliding up the blade, black ichor spilling onto the table cloth, hissing and smoking. Hydra’s blood…
“Oh, dear Gods of Light, no!” Camilla cried softly. Even as she stared in terror, the wounds on her hands closed and vanished as if they had never been.