Those first weeks with the strangers were excruciating. I walked between them, snow soaking into my boots and chilling my feet. My body did not want to heal from the torment I’d put it through. The food the strangers ate was tasteless.
They called themselves Naha, Shuri, and Abrisin. Naha was the eldest, or so I assumed, for she directed the others and they followed her bidding. She had spoken to Auntie, made the deal with her to sell me. Shuri was the man. He was in charge of our food, and I wondered if that was why it tasted so bad. But he did keep us fed, and he often took special note of how I reacted to the dishes, and tried to change them so they would be better. Abrisin was in charge of my care. She was a gentle soul, and when we stopped each evening she made sure I had a cozy nest near the fire.
And so we went, travelling deeper into the cold. North, they called it. There were no birds or animals that I could see, though Shuri pointed out their tracks. I could not even hear them in my head over the whispers of my traveling companions. Their lives were so loud that I wondered how they could ever travel in silence, which frequently we did.
I was not in their care for long. There was a storm one night that threatened to bury us in our camp, so Naha decided that we would press on to the town they knew was near. We’d not stayed in a village or town since setting out from Auntie’s. In the town, we arrived at an inn. The innkeeper told Naha that the rooms were full, on account of the festival of fire. He said that we were welcome to stay in the common room, for reduced price. I think Naha was ready to brave the storm in search of another inn, and certainly we would have followed her, but she looked down at me, weary and shivering, and agreed to the innkeeper’s terms.
The common room was full with people in a similar situation to ours. Some of them looked as we did – weary travelers who just needed a place to stay for the night. Others looked fierce, as if this was their first time among civilized folk. Naha ushered us to a corner out of the way, and Abrisin settled me in a cocoon of blankets. She smiled down at me, stroking my hair, and told me that all would make sense when I made it to the Citadel. And then Shuri warned someone not to come any closer.
I think those memories I chose to lose, for there are only flashes of what happened. Warm blood on my face, Abrisin’s back as she stood to protect me, her weight as she fell on me. And then someone dragging me out of my nest, and a grinning face with a cracked front tooth.
The innkeeper did nothing as they drug me from the place. The other travelers did nothing. Perhaps they thought that since I did not scream or cry, I was in no danger. I was too afraid to scream or cry or even fight. Perhaps I thought it the way of things, to be passed from one keeper to the next. The big man who had me in his grasp was wild. His hair tangled with itself and the beads strung through it. A gold ring shone from his ear. His fingernails were torn and dirty.
Out in the storm he loaded me up on a horse and swung himself up after me. I’d never been on a horse. When he spurred the beast into movement, I clutched the arm around me, terrified of falling. We rode out into the night. The storm closed around us.