They came in the night.
I was in bed, half-asleep, when the door to our cottage crashed in. I heard yellin, and the sounds of fightin: dishes breakin, heavy thuds against the walls, wood splinterin as it connected against somethin or someone. Now fully awake, I cowered in the corner of my bed, gatherin the blanket up to my chin.
The curtain to my room was ripped away, and a dark figure blocked the light from the other room. Light that was much too bright fer the middle of the night. Then I smelled smoke, but not the kind from our fireplace that was used fer cookin and warmth. Somethin was burnin.
The figure crossed the room as if knowin I was there. I managed a squeal before thick arms wrapped around me and hoisted me head-first over a wide shoulder. I hammered my fists at a leather-covered back, my legs kickin but meetin only air.
As I was carried out of my home, I saw my parents lose their fight with two men. Their screams bled into my own until the cracklin of fire covered the sound. I increased my strugglin, but the arm around me held fast. And then we were outside.
Chaos surrounded us. Burnin. Pillagin. Killin. I didna know if the screamin that filled my head was my own anymore.
My captor mounted a horse. My body jarred against his as he swung me down and seated me on the saddle so I was facin forward. Fer the briefest moments, I stared at my village...or what remained of it. Every buildin was on fire. Men on horseback galloped through the smoke and flames, their images flickerin as if in slow motion. Most of em were not alone on their mounts.
The horse beneath me snorted, the reins jerked, and then we were facin the other direction. With another jerk, we galloped off into the darkness, the thunderin of hooves below and behind us on the dirt road fillin the night.
Who were these men? Why did they kill my family? Why did they burn my village? What did they want? And what would become of me now?
The only sure thing was that everythin I had known was gone.
When my throat had gone raw from screamin, silent tears coursed down my cheeks. The steady rhythm of the horse, and the warm body behind me eventually lulled me to sleep. I fought it off as long as I could, but I was exhausted. Even if I could escape, there was nothin to go back to now.
Sunlight warmed my face. I slowly pried my eyelids open. I was sittin on the ground, leanin against a tree trunk. Nearby, men with thick-soled shoes that laced up their calves, kilts made of unfamiliar tartans, and leather vests that covered their broad backs and chests roamed around, packin up a campsite. Apparently we'd stopped and I'd slept through the night.
I arched my back, groanin at the stiffness I suddenly felt. I raised my hand to brush my hair out of my eyes and choked back a gasp at seein my wrists bound together. The end of the rope was tethered to a stake they'd driven into the tree trunk.
"Eat! We're movin soon." A gruff voice barked at me. A lump of bread was shoved into my hands.
I blinked up at the man towerin over me. The sun blinded any possibility of seein anythin above the mountain of muscles that bulged beneath his vest. He stood still fer a moment, and then he turned and barked orders at the other men.
The bread was dry and tasteless, but I ate it anyway. I didna know when I would get my next meal. It would be stupid to not take advantage of what had been generously given to me.
From where I sat, I couldna tell if there were any other captives in our group. We'd heard of the men who travelled the land conquerin kingdoms, but I'd never heard of them kidnappin lasses. The elders in my village had always thought we were beyond bein attacked. We owed no allegiance to any one ruler, therefore our neutrality usually meant there was no concern of threat. Apparently we'd all been wrong.
I was yanked out of my daydream and onto my feet. The rope was removed from the tree, and I was led toward a grazin horse. Strong hands lifted me into the saddle. The end of the rope was wrapped around the horn, and a man settled in behind me.
The pungent smell of animals and unwashed men filled my head. There was nothin to see but trees around us, horses and riders before us, and clear sky above. The sound of rushin water could be heard through the foliage, but I couldna tell from which direction it came. It wouldna have mattered as I didna even know where we were.
We rode most of the day, stoppin only once fer the horses to drink from a stream. I counted three other lasses but none that I recognized. The men musta attacked other villages and be travelin in multiple groups, spreadin out to wherever we were headin.
The other lasses stared at me, but none of us made any attempt to speak. We camped at night, and I was secured to a tree trunk again while I slept. In the mornin, I was givin another chunk of bread—my only food since the previous day—before we mounted up and moved out once more.
Three days later, instead of campin at night, we kept ridin. I drifted off to sleep, the moon bright overhead. But I was dragged back to consciousness with the sound of hootin and hollarin. I blinked and stared as we approached a castle, the stone fortress risin high into the night sky. From our distance it looked cold and menacin.
A hard knot settled in my stomach as we rode closer. This was my new home. There was nothin to go back to. And I wondered if I would survive much longer to miss what I once held dear.
Through the haze in my head and the cacophony of whimpers around me, I heard a clankin sound unique to irons bein locked. Over and over again. It echoed until I wasna sure if twas still happenin or just in my head.
Upon our arrival at the castle, we had met up with another caravan who had already dismounted with their two captives. Both lasses appeared younger than myself. We were marched down to the dungeon, shackled in separate cells, and left to await our fates.
I lost count of the days and when the other lasses came. There were five of us now in my cell. I discovered we were all from different villages. None of us knew who our captors were or why we had been taken, but we accepted that we had nowhere to go back to if we ever left this place.
The room was tall and wide. We were arranged so that even with the slack of our chains, we couldna reach each other despite bein able to stand or walk in a small area. What cruelty these men had bestowed upon us that even the comfort of another human's touch was made impossible.
We only talked at night when the guards didna make their rounds. Even then, twas difficult because it seemed like every topic made at least one of us cry or feel depressed from our memories. I often wondered what had happened to the other lasses from my village. My cousins, my friends, my peers. Were they in another cell? Another castle? Or were they even alive?
Tonight, a fog blocked the moon from the barred window high up in our cell, makin the air dark and damp. The ground beneath me was hard dirt covered in hay that did little to keep the chill away. I felt it down to my bones, and my whole body shuddered. Twas partly from anger and fear, but mostly twas from exhaustion. Somethin deep inside of me just wanted to give up.
I tried adjustin my body to get comfortable despite the metal grippin my ankles and wrists, rubbin my skin raw. I groaned and slumped back against the stone wall. No matter what I did, it would just be another restless night.
A loud slam of iron against stone made all of us gasp. Loud, male voices reached our ears, followed by the soft cries of lasses from another cell. The cries escalated into horrible screams.
I curled into a tight ball, wishin I could disappear or die. Their pleas fer help filled my head long after they had stopped. And the tears tricklin down my cheeks made me even colder.
I was still imaginin what had happened to those lasses when light peeked through the window. Twas mornin, and I hadna slept at'll. Again. It wouldna matter. I had nothin else to do but sit and rest all day anyway.
We were brought our first meal around mid-day accordin to the sun's brightness, and ate our hard bread and watery soup in silence. But I could see the question in everyone's eyes. They hadna slept either, wonderin what had happened last night.
The day passed in the usual way, the five of us dozin or starin at each other or up at the window. A guard brought us our evenin meal that consisted of the same bread and soup as the noon meal had been. As every meal we'd had every day since we'd been brought here.
Afterwards, although we appeared relaxed, layin around like we were a bunch of lazy females preenin on ourselves, I felt apprehension in the air. My own muscles tightened, and I clenched my jaw, prayin fer...somethin. Anythin.
The light had grown dim outside when we heard the men enter the dungeon again. Once more, we heard a cell door open. And the whimpers. Then the screams. The thought of not knowin what evil was happenin to em made my stomach turn over, threatenin to expel my recent meal.
The next days passed in much the same way. We ate our two meals and lay around in silence until the night crept back, leavin us sick with worry. And we were not disappointed as yit another cell door was flung open and the screams of its inhabitants filled the night.
Each day that mornin broke without our door bein opened, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. I had no idea how many cells were in the dungeon, but eventually, it would be our turn. I dreaded it, and yit the waitin was just as much torture as not knowin what was happenin.
I had dozed off in the most uncomfortable way, sittin upright against the cold stone wall with my heavily-chained hands restin in my lap. My dreams had been of a warm, dry bed, but suddenly, I was cold and damp again. What had jolted me awake?
Aye, I heard screams. They had become a natural part of the night. But there was somethin else. Somethin different that separated tonight from the others. I closed my eyes again and concentrated.
My ears sifted out the new sound among the expected: gruntin and slappin sounds. Animalistic. They made me shiver. The fact that I could hear em now meant the men were closer to our cell. How long until whatever torture they wielded fell upon our hopeless souls?
My answer came two days later. I had found a little rest at twilight again, as impossible as it once had been. The sound that ripped me from my pleasant dream was our own cell door bein unlocked and yanked open. Slammin against the wall and echoin into the darkness. I froze and stared.
At first there was nothin to see. But torchlight appeared, pullin hulkin forms out of the shadows as they entered. There were six of em. And five of us lasses.
The torchbearer stood in the open doorway, his flickerin light makin the room dance. A bulgin mass of muscle moved toward each of us. Whimpers and the sounds of rattlin chains and feet scufflin in the hay and dirt broke the otherwise silence.
I had vowed to be strong. To accept my fate. A man in a mud-spattered kilt and hairy legs as thick as tree trunks towered over me, his face hidden in the shadows much like my captor had been so many days ago. I closed my eyes, not wantin to see any longer. Whatever would happen was out of my hands.
He grabbed my upper arms and yanked me to my feet. My legs wobbled, especially when I got a whiff of his body that stunk of musty ale so strong I was surprised he was still upright. With a growl, he spun me around, forced my chest against the wall, and pulled my hands behind me by their chains. I sucked in my breath at the feel of my breasts and cheek pressed to the cold stone.
A booted foot kicked at the insides of my bare feet, separatin my legs. One large hand pressed my hands into my back. When his other hand lifted my skirt, I finally lost control and let a whimper escape.
"Aye, not so tough are we lass?" His fetid breath against my ear and cheek made me recoil, but there was nowhere to go. He chuckled low and pushed his hand between my thighs.
I felt his fingers push against my most intimate place and was immediately nauseous. Then he roughly thrust em up inside me. It only lasted a moment, but it felt as if everythin was happenin in slow motion, the brutal act makin me gag. Then time sped up as he quickly removed his hand and shoved me to the ground.
"Ye swore they were pure, Dandridge!" The man growled and stomped toward the torchbearer at the doorway.
I gasped, realizin what he was searchin fer.
He wouldna find it in me. The evidence of my purity had long been stripped away by a wayward uncle who had found me bathin in the river. He had held me down, lowered his pants, and forced his fingers up inside me, breakin that intimate barrier before my father heard my screams and yanked his brother-in-law off. My uncle was cast out of the village, and everyone was sworn to uphold that I still remained a virgin, but the damage had already been done.
I tuned out the men's arguin now and instead focused on the scene before me. My cellmates were all pushed against the walls as I had been, their arms braced behind em. They were screamin. The men behind em were thrustin their hips back and forth causin a slappin sound as their bodies connected flesh-to-flesh, the men gruntin the whole while. The same sounds I'd heard the last two nights.
I closed my eyes and curled into a ball, tryin to block out the reality. What my uncle had done to me had been painful. I couldna imagine the torture these lasses were goin through. And a small part of me felt guilty that I had been excluded.
When the screams faded into whimpers and then rattlin chains, I opened my eyes. The men were unlockin the lasses. Leadin em to the doorway. Handin over small bags to the torchbearer, the contents jinglin with the telltale sound of coins.
The torchbearer stuffed the bags into his pockets and stomped over to me, grippin my chin and forcin me to stare into his eyes that were black and round like marbles. "Ye got lucky, lass. But now yer all alone, and everyone will ferget about ye."
He spat on the ground by my knees and shoved my face away.
The shadows crept back in as he retreated. The door slammed shut into its frame, the sound of the key turnin in the lock. It all sounded like a lid closin on a coffin. The feminine whimpers, masculine voices, and their combined shufflin-stompin footsteps faded into the night.
Everywhere I looked, I saw those poor lasses. Imagined the scene bein repeated over and over again in the other cells before the torture had been inflicted in this vast tomb of a room. I stared at the ground instead, my heart achin. I had only known em a short while, yit they had become my new family. A family that had been ripped from me once more.
I tried not to think about what they had been bought fer, but only one possible solution came to mind. Why else would the men want young, virgin lasses? Albeit, they were pure no longer, but the lasses would most likely be used fer servitude and childbearin. Strappin boys could be molded into loyal soldiers. If they were lucky, the lasses would be wed first, but I was hedgin no bets tonight.
Stillness returned, bringin a chill that made my teeth chatter. Curlin my legs up to my chest, I turned my eyes to the window. Soft moonlight filtered in, tauntin me. Twas a sharp contrast to the hard, stone walls of what I could only imagine would become my tomb.
I wasna sure if I should curse or thank my uncle fer assaultin me. Was it better to die here alone, fergotten, hidden away from the world? Or to be forced into sexual servitude fer the rest of my life? But it didna really matter. I didna have a choice.
Warm, silent tears coursed down my cheeks. Shiverin, I drew the skirt of my nightdress over my knees, the material thin and dirty, the edge tattered. There were rips in the back that had snagged on the rough-hewn stone wall. And now it smelled of that horrible man.
I lay down on the hay beddin that was damp and flattened to almost nothin after my weeks in captivity. Sleep didna come easily. But when it did, twas filled with nightmares—images and sounds that I knew would haunt me forever.
The days blurred together once more. At first, I was given two meals as before, but then they dwindled to just one, and it consisted of a measly round of bread the size of my fist. There was nothin to do but sleep or think. Neither were appealin as they both exposed unwanted memories, like scratchin away an annoyin scab on a wound that only delayed the healin.
Due to the design of my cell, I had no way to reach the window, even when standin up. And while the sense of feelin small and insignificant was probably intentional, what had seemed like a cruel joke at first, later revealed that there were advantages. Even though I couldna get out, I noticed that no animals got in except fer the occasional bird that, on their eventual departure, reminded me of reality like a thorn twistin in my side: I was stuck here.
Takin advantage of the lack of vermin, I dug a shallow hole against the wall to stockpile my meager bread supply. I had every expectation that my meals would become non-existent, and planned to ration my food if needed. I learned to survive on only a few mouthfuls of bread each day, which wasna hard given my lack of activity burnin off any energy that needed to be replaced.
Although I enjoyed my spot by the window, it only became another reminder of my quandary. On mild days, the warmth of the sun shown down on my face and arms. But when the weather was overcast and stormy, there was no way to block the rain. And as the season changed to autumn, those days were more frequent than not.
I developed a fever and a constant chill as a result. It started out very mild, but as time crept on, my health diminished, just like the muscles on my bones. One needed more nourishment than a crust of bread and a sip of rainwater—saved in the soup bowl that had never been removed or refilled—to regain their strength.
I slept more than I was awake now. Barely realizin when the guard brought a meal, which, to my surprise, had remained a daily activity. Someone, somewhere knew I was still here. But it didna matter because I couldna eat. My rations eventually turned hard. What little energy I had left was exhausted when, in a bout of anger, I threw the wasted food across the room where it broke and crumbled to the abandoned spots where my companions had once lain.
I knew I would die here, and I no longer cared. My chest felt tight, my breathin difficult and broken by spasms of painful coughin. I wished the end would come soon, but knowin how Fate played er hand, it would be a long, torturous road fer me.
Consciousness eluded me most days now. Which was a blessin in disguise because I could rest without dreams or nightmares. The times I was awake, I was coherent enough to realize the guard had not brought food as my dish was empty. I wondered how long it had been since he'd been here. Maybe he had given me up fer dead.
One mornin with the heat of the sun at my back and my heart beggin God to finally take me, I heard voices. Male voices. Their conversation was loud and clear.
"I'm not goin down there, Tristan. Tis just more cells. Bloody dungeons."
"His lord has requested we investigate every hall and room. Ye heard im, Godfrey."
"But tis just..."
"Do ye want to suffer his wrath?"
"The cells in the first three halls were empty. Every single one of em. Why not these as well?"
"These doors ain't open."
"Yer a pain, Tristan. A real pain."
"Do ye want to be the one to say, 'My lord, we saw no need' and then have an attack because soldiers were hidin in this here hall?"
"Fine, ye can check em. I'm stayin right here."
"Yer bloody well goin with me. Tis better two against one any day." There was a loud groan of disgust, then metal clanged against metal as a door was opened. Moments later, the door slammed shut. The sound of boots scufflin against hard dirt followed.