With grateful thanks to my editor, snooper.
Only one shot was fired and the attack was over in less than five minutes, but it was the most violent event she had ever witnessed. Young Henri, the boy soldier assigned by the Ministry to accompany her, was the victim of the single shot. It splattered blood and brain matter all over her, stunning her into total immobility. For the entire attack she stood there, staring at the gore covering her clothing and feeling the warm trickle of urine running down her legs. The soldiers worked methodically, moving from house to house with practiced ease, sweeping from one edge of the village to the other. As they passed her, an enormous man pointed at her and yelled. A smaller man trotted over and knocked her to ground with indifferent violence. He placed a foot on her neck, pinning her face to the earth. Those villagers that had fled discovered other soldiers awaited them, the net to the beaters of the first.
The small soldier kicked her to her feet and pushed her roughly towards the center of the village where the soldiers were herding the people. When they arrived, he kicked her legs from beneath her, forcing her to kneel with the rest of them. The enormous soldier yelled a few commands and soldiers hurried to obey. Some began searching the houses, others scurried off in multiple directions with purposeful looks. The leader began to speak to the villagers in a firm tone. She understood none of what he said, but the villagers seemed resigned.
When the man finished speaking he began to walk through the crowd pointing to villagers. Subordinates followed him, hauling those he selected over to a separate area. She barely registered being selected and half-dragged to the other group or being herded over to a pile of goods and being handed a large sack of rice. She and the others were marched out of the village, through the fields, and into the jungle. The moment when she crossed from the sunlit fields into the darkness of the jungle was when it all caught up with her and she screamed and fell to her knees, vomiting and shaking uncontrollably. The soldiers were unsympathetic and solved the problem by kicking her until she rolled to her feet, picked up the bag of rice and followed the column deeper into the jungle.
They marched through the day, stopping once a sunset to be given a drink and to have a rope attached to their waist; the entire column of baggage carriers were tied together in this rudimentary coffle. When this was done, they marched again. The night was something she would never forget; a hell of sweaty, blind exertion marked by periodic falls to the ground, either from losing her footing or being dragged down when the person in front of or behind her fell. Close to dawn the column stopped and a few shouts were heard from the front. After a few minutes, much longer than it usually took to get someone back on their feet, the column started forward again. In a minute she stumbled over the reason for the delay: a corpse.
When dawn broke the column came to an abrupt halt. The coffled porters stood in abject exhaustion, too tired even to find the willpower to fall to their knees. The leader of the group came over and undid the rope securing her. Knocking the sack of rice from her numb grasp he dragged her behind him. They came to a man seated on a rock and peering at a map. He looked up as they approached and, even through the haze of terror and exhaustion, she noted that he was not black. The white man looked at her with exasperation and asked something of the black man. He in turn launched into an explanation that ended when he tossed her satellite phone, from the Land Rover she realized, into his lap and turned and walked away.
The white man looked at her for a long moment before speaking, "Sind sie Deutsch?"
"American," she mumbled, "I'm American."
"You have been well and truly fucked by fate, my countryman. My name is Robert Taliaferro. I can tell you this because you're supposed to be dead. I told them to shoot anyone who might be trouble. Do you know why you are still alive?"
She remained mute and shook her head.
"You're alive because I have no intention of dying of AIDS. So while my merry band of murderous boys has raped their way across a fairly broad swath of this God-forsaken country, I have been celibate. And because I like being able to sleep at night without having my throat cut I haven't insulted them by telling them that I don't want to contract some disease from the women they offer to share. I have told them that I only fuck white women. So when they found you, they brought you to me. They reasoned that you were as good as dead, so I could have a little fun with you before they actually shot you. What I should do is rape you and cut your throat. I find myself unable ... no. Unwilling. I won't sink quite that low. So, you have two options. You can die now or you can come with me and probably die later."
He squatted down next to her and took her chin between the fingers of one hand, lifting her face until her eyes met his. He searched for and, finally, found a spark of comprehension. His next words were low and barely audible.
"I swear to you by what little I hold dear that if you choose to die now it will be painless. If you choose to come with me I will bring you out with me or I will die in the attempt. But if you come with me you'll do anything I say, and you'll hop to it. Do you understand?"
She nodded weakly and he shook her head sharply.
"Do you understand?" he demanded.
She nodded again, this time with vigor.
In a daze she tried to look around her, to avoid his eyes. But his hand held her chin, not permitting her to look away, and his gaze transfixed her. She tried to speak and croaked instead. Taking a deep breath she tried to bring some sanity back into the situation.
"My father is rich. He'll pay you a ransom. Call him on the ..."
His hand seemed to move slowly but it still struck her with blinding force. She staggered, off balance, and felt herself falling. He dragged her upright with his hand in her hair, surprised at the feeling of satisfaction that he felt. He shook her roughly, twice, and leaned in close to her, his face an inch away.
"Ransom doesn't matter, girl. Daddy can't help you. You live or die on your own strengths and luck out here. Which will it be?"
She felt the warmth replacing the sting on her cheek and the pain in her scalp. In her stomach she felt a knotting that had nothing to do with fear. She looked back into his eyes, suddenly irrationally furious at everything and this man in particular.
"I'll live," she declared.
Robert nodded slowly as he assessed her. His fingers remembered the soft feel of her skin and he idly wondered what the rest of her flesh would feel like. He released her hair and sheathed his knife in his harness. By the look in her eyes he guessed she hadn't seen him draw it.
"Okay then," he responded, "Don't make me regret giving you a choice."
Robert closed his eyes for a moment and shook himself. He reopened his eyes and looked about him, appearing to suddenly take conscious notice of the circle of men.
"Kiu attentas la perimetro? Kiu attentas laj portuloj? Laboru! Jam nun!" he ordered.
The men, chastened, hurried back to their duties. Most of them were not real soldiers, and never would be, Robert knew.
"You've made your choice," he said, "We'll try to live with it. Lie down there, next to my pack. We're going to get moving in an hour. Sleep until then."
She nodded absently and fell asleep before she hit the ground. Robert gave her a long look and went back to the tasks at hand.
After an hour, he shook her awake.
"Wakey, wakey. The nightmare is back. Time to march or die."
He took in the condition of her arms, scraped raw from holding the sack, and sighed. He took her shirt off, leaving her in a cotton T-shirt and bra. Ripping the shirt in half, he used the two pieces of fabric to pad the shoulder loops of a makeshift rope carry-pack. He lifted the rice sack and seated it in the carry pack. He ran a finger over her lips and noted that they were dry and cracked. He took his canteen out and poured a small amount into her mouth. He capped the canteen and handed it to her.
"Small sips. Let the water be absorbed by your mouth," he ordered
He pulled out a small fabric wrapped bundle, extracted a small brown bar of jerky and put it into her other hand.
"Small bites. Chew it until it's all gone, and then take a sip of water. Monkey, water, monkey, water. Repeat until it's gone. Understand?"
Her nod was, he judged, the only response he was going to get. He lifted on the rope pack, pulling her to her feet and leading her back to the coffle.
"You're at the back of the coffle today. Don't fall. Focus on one foot in front of the other. It's a long walk, but you get to sleep and rest at the end of it."
One of the soldiers tied her back into the coffle and, a moment later, they were off. Robert watched the line of bearers walk off and then went over to consult with the leader of the force he was leaving behind to ambush any pursuers. N'Dele had a bloody streak that meant he sometimes failed to run away at the right time. Robert meant to break that habit, one way or the other.
When he was sure that N'Dele understood him, and the sincerity of his threat, he took the rear guard and set out after the column. Despite the heavy pack each soldier wore, they soon caught up. Robert caught sight of ... he didn't even know her name he realized. But she was gamely keeping up.
The march went on through the day and into the night with a short break every hour. The bearers were mindless automatons at this point, and the soldiers weren't much better. Around two in the morning the column arrived back at the base camp. Robert ordered the quartermaster to get the new 'dependents' to a place to sleep and to collect and inventory the goods. He personally went over and grabbed her from the coffle, dropping the sack and the rope carrier to the ground. She was, he judged, well into the shock stage of exhaustion. He passed by the mess hall and grabbed some food. She didn't even fall down when he stopped pulling her, just stood stock still, staring at nothing.
He led her to the covered platform that was his home and sat her down on the hammock.
"Open your mouth," he ordered.
She was too far gone to comply, so he used his fingers to force her mouth open and then put a chunk of banana in. She chewed it slowly and swallowed. He repeated the process, alternating sips of water with a little salt in it, until she had eaten two bananas. He unlaced her boots and removed the bloody socks. He swung her up into the hammock and pulled the mosquito netting closed. Satisfied that she was asleep, he sat down and cleaned his weapon with meticulous care. When that was done, he walked around the camp looking for anything amiss. A few of the soldiers were already having a party. Three of them were gathered around one of the dependents, drinking and taking it in turn to rape the woman.
He returned to his platform and stripped off his clothing, hanging it on a hook in one of the roof support poles. He carefully covered his rifle and hung it on the pole where the head of the hammock was tied. Then he crawled into the hammock next to her.
Her screams awoke him sometime in the darkness. He sat up and grabbed her legs. The knots of the cramps had pulled her ankles all the way up to her ass. He roughly massaged the muscles, hitting the largest knots and forcing them to relax. He continued massaging the calves and thighs of her legs, delighting, despite the situation, in their smoothness. He would have to find some way for her to keep her legs smooth he decided, marveling, even in his exhaustion, that he could think of such trivialities in the midst of this much danger. Her screams tapered off into low moans and whimpers of remembered pain. He lay back in the hammock and pulled her against him, hand idly stroking her spine as they both fell back into slumber.
He awoke, despite his exhaustion, just before first light; the habit of a lifetime of soldiering.
He was conscious of two things: the soft woman lying next to him, the first one in a very long time, he realized, and a painful erection. He considered his options and sighed, resigning himself to the task at hand. It would, he thought, be difficult enough for her. He could make it easier, in a way. And he hated that a part of him was delighted at the thought. That part of him gleefully pointed out that he was rationalizing. He shrugged off the mental conflict and got on with the task at hand.
Getting out of the hammock he unbuttoned her shorts and tugged them, and the panties under them, down her legs and off. He dropped them on the floor. He pulled on her legs, turning her crosswise in the hammock so that she lay on her back, legs spread and dangling off the edge. He stepped between her legs and reached down with his hand, caressing the folds of her sex.
A few minutes of this and she was wet. He inserted a finger, testing to ensure that she was well lubricated. He went to his rough chest and pulled out an ancient condom. Slipping it on, he stepped back between her legs and inserted himself into her. The heat of her took his breath away and he paused, fighting the tightness in his chest. He began to stroke back and forth into her, slowly. His free hand fondled her breasts through the thin T-shirt and bra. As she began to stir he brought his hand up to her mouth. Her eyes flew open and she opened her mouth to yell. His hand clamped down and she bit it, hard. He ignored the pain.
"A rape. Nothing you can do but survive. This is the reality right now. You made your choice. Live with it."
Robert grimaced at the pain lancing through his hand and up his arm as she screamed into his hand, teeth tearing the flesh of his palm. He reached down with his free hand and took one of her labia between finger and thumb, savagely pinching the tender flesh to send lancets of pain through her body.
"No screams, damnit. You made your choice," he hissed.
Slowly, tears in her eyes, she quieted but for a few whimpers and Robert released the pressure on her, but not the grip. His fingers remained, a reminder of the pain that could return to chastise her should she again behave counter to his wishes. He removed his bloody hand from her mouth dropping it down to her belly and pushing it up and under her shirt and bra. Roughly he pushed them up to her neck and shoulders, exposing her small, finely-formed breasts to his view. His callused hand rubbed the breasts leaving a small trail of blood on them. Fingers pulled gently at the tiny nipples, teasing them to erection.
"Moan," he commanded, nodding at the passersby that had stopped to watch the activity in the hut, "We have an audience. Moan like this is the best thing you've ever felt. Loudly. Wrap your legs around me."
Fingers gently tweaked her labia, reminding her of the penalty for disobedience.
She lifted her legs, hesitantly, but she wrapped them around him. He nodded and pumped slowly into her, reveling in the feeling of her soft flesh wrapped tightly around him, grasping at him each time he pushed in. She moved her hips against him, surprising him and forcing a gasp from deep in his chest. Tentatively she moaned, and the world didn't end. She moaned again, a little louder. His hands flew to her hips pulling her back against him, impaled to his full length, as his body suddenly convulsed. A sharp cry of pleasure was strangled by the contraction of his throat. He shot into her repeatedly, a year's worth of abstinence releasing itself in moments. He held her against him, using her to steady himself until his legs no longer felt weak and then released her, pulling out and stepping back. He looked down at the condom, wet with her lubrication and blood.
"I will be damned," he muttered, "A virgin. Huh."
He removed the condom, tossing it into a wicker basket on the floor, and took his rifle from the hook, hanging it over a shoulder. He looked over at the woman, sitting on the hammock attempting to cover herself. The bloody T-shirt again covered her chest while her legs were crossed and her hands covered the juncture of her blood streaked thighs. A question suddenly drifted across mind.
"What's your name, girl?"
Trembling in fear and shame, she raised her eyes from her crotch to look blankly at him.
"Sa ... Sara," she whispered, "Sara Elizabeth Harman."
She stared perplexedly at him for a moment and then returned her gaze to her body. She whimpered in frustration as she tried to cover herself. It was an impossible task; her shirt was a tiny thing that barely covered her upper body, the kind of thing adolescent girls buy to make themselves feel like grown-ups. Her lips moved soundlessly in prayer as her hands tugged at the shirt, trying to make it stretch farther than it could possibly go.
She lifted her knees to her chest in an attempt to supplement the shirt, her arms wrapping around her legs. Leaning back in the hammock it only brought the swollen folds of her sex into view, damp with her blood, moisture and sweat. She reached back to brush some hair out of her face and stared in horror at the small clump of bloody flesh she found there.
"No," she whispered, "No. No, no, no, no, no, noooooo!"
With an unoccupied moment to think, the enormity of the situation was washing over Sara again. Robert grunted in disapproval. She was going to have to wait until later to grieve. He would have to keep her busy or she could go catatonic with shock. He took a grasp of her hair and pulled her out of the hammock. She would have fallen to the floor but for his grip and it took her a moment to find her feet as he pulled her head and body upright.
"Quiet," he ordered in a polite and soft voice.
She took no notice but sobbed louder as she began to slip deeper into her misery. His free hand darted out, striking her sharply in the solar-plexus. She doubled up under the blow, breath stolen from her body, and dropped to her knees. Robert cursed and hauled her to her feet, yanking on the matted hair in his grip.
"Up!" he commanded.
She struggled to her feet, gasping for air. When he judged she was steady he released her and began picking up articles of clothing and thrusting them into her arms. He pulled on his pants and motioned for her to follow him. Her breath ragged, she complied.
He walked down one of the paths to the supply point, ignoring the looks of passers-by. They weren't looking at him, he knew. Many of the boys had never seen a blonde woman before, and most of them had never seen a natural blonde. They watched Sara as she walked, trying to cover herself with dirty laundry, hoping to catch a glimpse of her fair pubic patch.
"This is the path to the supply point, Sara. You will be walking this path many times. Remember it."
The supply point, like all the common facilities, was dug partially into the ground and covered with dirt and camouflage to help mask the thermal signature. Along the outside wall was a niche filled with cans and rags. He reached down and grabbed one of the cans, turning to balance it atop the pile of laundry in Sara's arms. He stuck his head into the building itself and ordered the woman working there to find a dress for Sara. A question sent the woman scurrying to the pile of loot from the raid where a few minutes of rummaging produced an expensive leather backpack. He thanked the woman and motioned for Sara to follow him.
He continued down the path, eyes flitting from point to point searching for anything out of place. A group of soldiers were already drilling at hand to hand combat on the cleared space that served as the 'parade ground'. He chuckled, for the umpteenth time, at the thought of having George's sociopathic killers perform a pass in review out here in the middle of the jungle. Another group, including many of the young men 'recruited' from the last raid, was gathered around a chalkboard in an instruction pit getting language instruction. One of the hand to hand combatants, obviously a newer man, turned his head to watch Sara and was rewarded by a kick to the groin by his more experienced partner.