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Swords & Stones No.1
Published by Mysticalchemist at Lot’s Cave
Swords & Stones No.1
The Journey Begins, © 2017, Mysticalchemist
Cover by Lot’s Cave
All Rights Reserved
All Characters In This Book Are Age 18 Or Older
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to the Lot’s Cave website and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Lot’s Cave Novel
The only empty seat was between two women I vaguely knew, and directly opposite Alexis. My stomach was telling me it couldn’t wait. I took the seat, stone still warm. He started before I’d settled down.
“You look terrible. I bet it was that dream again. She’s not letting you get any sleep.”
“You found a wife then?” The woman to my right said. I think her husband was in politics. She was a few years older than me and heavy with perfume to disguise her toilet.
“He keeps having this dream of holding a beautiful woman.” Alexis answered for me.
“My daughter is looking for a good husband.” A woman further along said.
“Crispina darling.” Alexis said, in the tone he reserved for those in his close circle, “Dan here must be the only single man in the city Aphrodite hasn’t tried yet.”
“You could always go to the slave market.” The woman to my left whispered.
“He’s too proud to buy a slave.” Alexis said, ever alert. “He’s looking for love like the poets. Souls entwined forever. All that sort of nonsense.”
“Don’t let them bully you. I’d adore love like the poets.” The woman alongside said, looking closely at me.
“He’s not a poet, he’s got a thing about owning slaves.” Alexis said.
“We know you haven’t.” A loud male voice said from my right.
“He’s got five that I know of.” The woman alongside me said quietly, then more loudly in Alexis’s direction, “How do you handle that many. Assign them different days?”
“They keep me warm during the cold nights.”
“He gives them numbers and allocates each number to different hours of the night.” Crispina said.
“And the day.” Alexis added.
“One would think with all that exercise you would have lost more of that tummy.” Crispina said.
“They keep me well fed. They know I need my strength.”
“A group of friends are organizing a few weeks at the beach. You should join them.” The woman alongside me said.
“My daughter is going.” Crispina joining in again.
“Your daughter goes anywhere for single men.” Alexis said.
“You should think about it.” The woman alongside said. “They’re leaving the day after tomorrow.”
“Hurry up. It’s a lavatory, not a gossip shop. We’ll have a new Caesar by the time some of you lot are finished.” A gruff man’s voice from the door. It had a result. Within a few moments, everyone had finished and was getting up. Clothes arranged. Alexis was by my side as we left, his arm around my shoulder and his mouth in my ear.
“Seriously now, speaking as your friend and financial adviser, you really need to find yourself a women. Go to the slave auctions. I know you can afford at least two. That villa is much too big for you alone. Two slaves would make it a real home. You might even put on a bit of weight. It’d suit you. I wouldn’t bother with that beach party. With Crispina’s daughter there, you’ll need to buy tickets to get your turn.”
“Why do I need two?” I asked.
“You know women. Well maybe you don’t, but every while they need to sleep outside for a few days. With two or more, one will always be ready for you. Keeping up with them will put more colour in your face than when that women called you a poet. You! A poet.”
We were outside his villa now. He released me and headed for his door.
“Auctions for you. By tonight you could be happy.” Alexis said over his shoulder, his hand on the door latch. As he opened it, I could see a woman inside, waiting his return. I walked the rest of the way to my home, alone.
There was no one waiting behind my front door. Breakfast plate prepared in dismal silence, then eaten mechanically.
“It wouldn’t hurt to look” I said to myself, nothing else planned for the day. I retrieved a handful of coins and prepared to venture out once again.
I knew where it was. Knew, so I could avoid it. I took a back path, past some of the lesser homes. Stepping careful, trying to keep my sandals clean. This area not so safe and peaceful. Children running and fighting and yelling. Animals scattering at my approach. The smell rising the further I venture away from where I know.
“Copper for an old soldier.”
A bunch of rags slumped against a wall.
“Just a copper to help an old soldier.”
Gaze averted. Eyes on the road ahead. Around a corner. There’s more. It was a mistake to come this way. Urchins watching from the shadows. Watching in case I drop my guard. Ready to run past. My coins theirs. Change of route. Move back towards the area I know. It’s not much further. Always the same place. A small square behind the palace, just far enough to be out of sight but still close enough for easy access. I’m early. Preparations starting with the stock still in cages, others inspecting, trying to be first to pick the best. I join them.
“Haven’t seen you here before.”
I remembered the face but couldn’t put a name to it.
“Marcellus. We were in the same class for script. I used to sit behind you.”
So you could stick your foot in my backside I finished for him. “Alexis has been trying to get me to buy a couple of slaves.”
“Alexis. Yes, he’s one of my better customers. Always looking for the best of the best. I suppose you want the same?”
“I’m just looking. Is this your business?”
“Yes. They said at school I’d never amount to much. Ha. I showed them. Look at me now. These are my markets.” His arms swept around for effect. “Great little earner. Even sold one to my old teacher. Charged him extra for the grief he gave me. I won’t do that for you though. You get a good look. Any one you fancy, come back to me. I’ll look after you.”
I was here, I might as well look. There were three cages on wheels arranged in a line with two battle-scarred minders patrolling. The first cage had men, then children, then women. I tried not to look at the children, but I could still hear the crying. The women seemed foreign. From some distant outpost of the empire no doubt. Ragged clothing and not really presented for sale.
“We’ll have them tidied up in a hour or so. They’ll look great then. That one on the back corner. She’s a real looker. She’ll get top coin. For an old school friend, if you took her as is, I could do her for twenty.”
He’d come up behind me.
“No, make it nineteen. Just for you, I’ll cut my commission today only.”
“I’m just looking for now.”
“They all say that the first time. I’ll leave you to look some more. Nineteen. You won’t do better.” He said accompanied by a nudge in my side from his sharp elbow.
I looked at the woman he’d pointed to. Her eyes glued to the middle cage. There was a child at the other end of her gaze. Five or six. A boy by the look. Streaks down his grubby face. He was staring back through red eyes. Hands gripping the cage bars.
I’d had enough. Trying not to run. Trying to blend in. No deviations. Straight to the sanctuary of my home. Retreating to my bed and trying to keep the bile from exploding. I didn’t belong here. I’d known it a long time. I’d made excuses. Turned my head away. But I’d known. I’d always known.
The rugs pulled over, I lay curled, trying not to think. The dream came to me. She was my special one. Every night she came. My fingers felt the silky warmth of her skin as they moved along her side and around her front. So smooth. She always liked me to cuddle her from behind, my arm over her body, holding her to me. The perfume of her hair pleasuring my nose. She started to turn. She always started to turn. I felt her muscles rippling under my touch, her body exerting itself to turn to face me. My pleasure rising with expectation, anticipating her eyes encountering mine. Her lips close for my kiss. Her smile to give me strength to face another day.
Today is different. The dream doesn’t end. Not here where it always ends. Leaving me. Today she keeps turning so I see her face for the first time. She’s looking into my eyes. Not just looking, peering deeply. Searching into my soul. Her luscious lips part.
“Your time has come.”
Every word totally clear in my mind. Engraved as though chiselled in stone. I can’t remember her face, it’s gone, as is she. Only her words remain for eternity.
I lie thinking. Part of me knows exactly what she means. Part doesn’t want to know, but that part is shrinking, letting the possibilities flow. It’s early evening when I finally settle on my plan. I decide to celebrate with supper out.
The best place in town is opposite the palace. The most expensive food, but simply delicious. An outside table for two, me and my dream woman, though I only order for one. I relax, watching the citizenry pass, enjoying the city sights for the first time in ages. My meal arrives, preceded by an aroma that has juices welling inside my mouth.
“My mother said you might be looking for a good wife?”
Food put on hold for a moment. I Know her. Crispina’s daughter. She’s rather pleasing on the eye.
“Can I sit with you a while?”
She moves the chair back herself. Holding her red dress up while she gracefully settles into the seat. Dress rearranged. Arms on the table.
“Would you like something to eat?”
“I’ve had supper, but one of their special sweets would be so nice.”
I wave my hand to attract a waiter.
“The lady will order.”
The waiter knows her well. Order taken and delivered as though they had it ready, anticipating her needs. My eyes surveying her. She did look good. Really good.
“That’s so kind of you.” She said when the waiter had gone. “Mum said you were a sweetheart. She said you’d make a wonderful husband. You do have that big villa still?”
“Yes. I’ve still got my parent’s villa.”
“It must be lonely with just you. A place that big should be filled with people. How many slaves have you got now?”
“No slaves.” I said.
“I heard you were at the markets today looking. I can help you there. If we went together, I’d show you how to pick the good ones. Big muscles. Strong bodies. Good workers. We could get some girls for you too. I could get that villa of yours back to being the centre of the scene.”
“I’m not sure I want to be in the centre of the scene.”
She hadn’t touched her sweet yet.
“Of course you would, you’d want me to be happy too. We’d both be incredibly happy. I think we’d make a great couple. I could sort out your wardrobe to bring you right to the peak of fashion. Make our place the centre for all the important people. You’d like that. Why don’t I come back with you after and we can talk about it some more.”
She finally took a spoon to the dish. A delicate portion raised to her mouth. Spoon held tightly between her lips and then slowly withdrawn, exiting with a small pop. Her eyes locked on mine, watching the effect.
“We’d have a great time, just us two for the night. We could come back here for breakfast, since you don’t have any slaves yet, and let everyone know we’re together. I think mum was right for once. We’d be a perfect couple.”
In that very moment, my mind was held in the grip of her temptations. One night couldn’t be too bad. Only a moment though.
“Maybe not tonight. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow and I need to start early.”
“Work! I thought you had money. I thought you wanted a wife. I can see now why no one’s married you.”
Chair pushed back, she was up, turning her back to me and striding away without a single glance over her shoulder. If she had of looked, she would have seen me smiling. Not at her. Well not completely.
“Thank you.” I whispered to my dream woman. I swear I felt her smile back.
Best sleep in years. Awake at dawn and fully alive with passion in my heart as I set off to find my future. Looking in places I had never dared look before. Walking for miles. Referred from one place to another. Strangers offering advice. Every lead followed until by mid afternoon, I found it.
“Ideal for your needs.” The farmer said.
We were standing alongside a wooden wagon. Not one of those everyday open freight wagons, even though it had the same four wheels. This was a house on wheels. Well it would be with a little more work. The whole wagon covered with a grey cloth fitted over a wooden frame to keep the weather out. Each end had a curtain, and there was a driving seat out front.
“With these curtains closed, you have complete privacy for sleeping, and even better, it’s got a lot of storage underneath for your things.” The farmer said. “See here.” He lifted one of the loose boards that formed the floor of the wagon and I peered into the gloom. Underneath was completely open. “There’s plenty of room here for all your clothes and provisions for a long trip. You’ll find it hard to get a wagon with this much storage anywhere else.”
“I’ll need a horse too.” I said.
“Have I got a deal for you.” He said, eyes aglow. “These will be perfect for your plans. You came at just the right time, any later and they’d been gone. It must be your lucky day. Come and take a look at these beauties.”
I followed him up a rise in the land and could see over a stone wall into an enclosed field. White horses. Pure white. Never had I seen any like this, not that I’d taken much notice before, but these really did look magnificent.
“I can see you’re impressed. You should be, these are a very rare breed. They come from exotic lands far to the east. Magnificent beasts, aren’t they? Picture them pulling your wagon. You’ll be the smartest traveller on the roads. They’ll really turn heads, and the women will love them.”
“You keep saying them. I thought the wagon only needed one horse.” I said.
“It does, but you really should have a spare so you can swap when one gets tired. That way you’d never have to stop in any place that you aren’t comfortable. Two horses are just what you need. You’ll never regret it, and they’ll be happier together.”
“How much for the outfit.” I asked.
“Have you got harness?”
“So you’ll need two sets of harness. Horses. Wagon. Any changes you need on the wagon?”
“It seems fine to me.”
“How about water for the horses, maybe a bowl on one side, and urns on the other. I could have that done in a day. You realise these are very special horses. I can’t let them go too cheaply, but you can see you will have the very best there is, and as a bonus, the mare is in foal, so really you will have three horses. You won’t do better than that anywhere else. Three for the price of two.”
The price was high. Well, I thought it was high, and I’m sure it was, but I agreed.
“I’ll throw in a driving lesson for free.” The farmer said. “And show you how to brush them to make them look even better.”
We agreed I’d return early the day after tomorrow to collect my purchase.
There was still time in the day for more of my plan. I made directly for Alexis’s villa, my knock answered by a slave. Pretty, well dressed, but a slave none the less. She recognised me and beckoned me inside.
“I’ll bring my master to you. Please wait.”
I guessed Alexis had taught her Latin in her time slot during the night.
“What have you been up to, apart from upsetting Crispina’s daughter. We’ve all heard about that. She thinks you’re a peasant worker. At least it’s given us a good laugh.” His words echoing in the marble lined entrance hall.
“I simply said that I had work to do.”
“The only work you can do to please her is on your back, but you would have enjoyed it.”
The echos of his laughter cascading around like a waterfall of mirth.
“I’ve come to ask you to manage my villa while I’m away.” I said as the noise tailed off.
“Manage your villa. You mean rent it out?”
“Exactly. Rent it out for me.”
“You’re only going to the beach for a few weeks, aren’t you.”
“I’m going further than that. I’m setting off to explore the Empire. Not sure how long I’ll be gone.”
“That might be a good option for you. Found some slaves to enjoy on the way?”
“No, I’ve found some horses and a wagon.”
“Horses. You found horses. How would you manage horses. You’ve never set foot on a farm. Slaves. That’s what you need. That’s what travellers use. Get yourself some slaves. I know you were looking. Marcellus will give you a good deal. Tell him I sent you. Tell him that I said to give you only the best. He’ll look after you.”
“My mind’s set. I’m collecting my horses and wagon day after tomorrow. I’ll drop my keys in then, if that’s alright.”
“You certain about this. I don’t want to see you make the biggest mistake of your life. I promised your parents I’d make sure you were good.”
“I’m certain. I have given it a lot of thought. Travel will clear my mind. Give me a new perspective on life.”
“It might just do that. At least you can’t look any more miserable than you have the last few months. I’ll rent out your villa. Friend’s rates on my fees too. I’ll make sure it’s still here when you tire of travel, and come back broke. There’ll at least be some coin for you to start getting back on your feet.”
“Thanks. That’s what I need.”
As I left, I could hear Alexis ordering slaves to fetch different clothes. Preparing for a night out, telling half the city that I was getting horses and a wagon. Adding to Crispina’s daughters report, everyone would now be sure I had gone completely crazy. I didn’t care.
She came to me again during the night, like a hundred times before. I had my arm around her, cradling her close, alert when she turned. Watching her body twist, willing her to keep turning. She does. An arm over my side, her soft hand pressing like fire against my skin, burning a memory. Her face following, eyes again into mine. I peer back, looking to her soul within. Reds and oranges. Fire and embers. Burning heat. I can’t look away. Don’t want to look away. Her voice starts, I can’t see her lips, just hear the words. Hear them with great clarity. Remember them with deep certainty.
“You will never regret this decision.”
I feel her pull me to her as I tighten my grip. She’s pulling me into her. Into her body. We merge totally and then I am alone.
Awake and alone. Looking around at the possessions filling the rooms. Memories. Things my parents had valued. Souvenirs marking events that needed to be remembered. A past given permanence in wood and stone and cloth. A past I was choosing to leave behind. Drifting from room to room. Touching. Remembering. Reliving moments. It became too much. Outside I paced the streets. Surveying the city with new eyes. Places I’d played as a child. Trees I’d climbed. Houses of friends. Businesses I’d dealt with. Memories. Pleasant memories.
A scream brought me from my trance. I looked in the direction. No one else was. A slave being beaten. Nothing to them. Everything to me. The veil broken. I was back in the Rome of today. Caligula the Emperor. Violence a way of life. Pain and hurt and death. My mind now as fixed as the stone under my feet.
Packing and stacking. Taking the rest of the day to decide what things I wanted to take, and then pack the rest in a small room out back that I could lock and leave. Only a small pile remained, clothes, bedding, cooking utensils and food. Still too much for me to carry, I decided I would drive my new wagon back to pick it all up.
The last night in my house was even more lonely than before. Just a rug on the floor for my bed. Sadness and excitement my only companions. Of course I had the dream. She turned to me and smiled as I woke.
I started towards the farm as the sun was creeping over the hills. At least the farmer was up, keen for my coin. The wagon right by the farmhouse and my two horses in a yard close by.
“They’re just magnificent, aren’t they” He waved in the direction of the yard.
“Come and introduce yourself to them. The boy is called Luke and the mare, Lisa.”
The closer I approached, the slower I moved.
“They won’t hurt you. They’re your friends. Show them you’re their new boss. Be confident. Walk up and pat them on their sides. Faster. Closer. Just reach out. They won’t bite. They’re stronger than you. They won’t break. Pat them harder so they can feel it.”
I felt the laughter beneath his breath at my attempts, the prospect of my coin saving the real mirth until I’d gone.
“I’ll harness the boy. You watch and copy with the girl. Don’t be shy.”
The mare’s huge eyes followed my every move.
“Hold it in front, she’ll open her mouth for you. That’s it. Hook up the buckles. Tight. You don’t want them coming off.”
I stroked her side. She felt calm, much calmer than me.
“Leave her for now. We’ll hook Luke up to your wagon. You just watch this time.”
“Now hop up and take it for a spin.”
I did get up. Not as gracefully as I hoped I might.
“I’ll come with you and help. Hold the reins like this. You do it now. Hold them and flick so he knows to go. Pull to turn. You’re getting it. It’s easy. Even a child can do it.”
“While you’re with me, can we go into the city to collect my things?” I asked.
“That’s a good idea. You’ll get a lot a practice that way. You guide him. He’s a good horse. You’ll have no trouble.”
With help, I got to my villa and the farmer helped load my treasures into the wagon.
“One more stop.” I said.
“That’s your holiday home?” Alexis said as I handed him my villa keys.
“There’s another horse as well.” I said as confidently as I could.
I heard him muttering “crazy” as we drove off.
“I think you’re good enough to go by yourself now. You should take extra grain for your horses, and maybe some spare water bowls.”
We finally settled up, including the extras. The storage space underneath the bed was quite full now. I had Lisa on a rope alongside, and no idea what to do next as I drove out of his yard and onto the road.
The horse seemed to have a plan, striding confidently along the road with his mate happy by his side. The steady rhythm of their hooves on the roadway was soothing my tension. When a pleasant looking spot appeared I pulled a rein to indicate Luke to turn off the road. Stopped under a spreading shade tree, I unhooked him from the wagon and let both horses munch grass while I took stock. Some plump, ripe figs made a great snack. Seeing me eating, the horses came close. Huge eyes looking at my hands. Mouths ajar. With a fig in each hand, I held my arms out in their direction. Eager dark tongues swept the luscious fruit into vast open mouths. Both horses looked at me for more. I shook my head. They wandered back to their grass leaving me feeling great. A champion horse handler. A little more rest, then I got Luke hooked back to the wagon and we set off again, not stopping until late afternoon.
What a great day. I felt on top of the world. I had mastered a new skill. The horses seemed to like me, and I felt comfortable with them. Wood gathered for a fire, and a pot set to cook a stew and then two piles of grain laid out for my new companions. When I did get into bed, I felt more relaxed than I can ever remember. A dreamless sleep and waking refreshed.
One day followed another. Blissful, idle travel with no real destination to force the pace and so many new sights and sounds to delight my senses. Even the horses seemed happy to be free from their confinement. We were becoming close friends, them and me. Watching them munching fresh green grass while I partly snoozed under a shade tree. Could life get any better?
My eyes open in an instant, searching for the source of the pain. Heart pounding. Throat tight.
It’s only a woman.
Able to focus now. Her hand poised to strike again. Poke my shoulder. Poke me awake. Not needed now, it retreats to her side. I look upwards. Large brown eyes part hidden by straggly dark hair. She’s staring at me hard, trying to decipher my mind.
“Would you want me as your slave?”
The words decoding themselves slowly. Eyes still trying to assemble the scene. No one else in sight. Horses still grazing near. Wagon intact. What’s this about slaves?
"Mister! I would like to be your slave. Would you have me as your slave?"
She’s impatient. I guess around twenty. Then I’m not good at guessing women.
“I’d be a good slave for you.”
It’s just a head, hands and two bare feet sticking out from a once-white baggy tunic.
My mouth opens for the first time. “I’m not looking for slaves.” I get out through the dryness.
“A rich man like you always needs a slave. I’ll be a good slave for you. I’ll keep your house real good. I can cook too. My mum taught me to cook real good. She taught me everything to be the best ever slave for you.”
“I don’t have a house to need slaves.”
“You don’t need a house to have a slave. I’d help you with your wagon. I like your horses too. I’d help you with them. I’ll be a good slave. I won’t take up much room. I can sleep in the corner. You need someone to help you and keep watch while you sleep in the day.”
She caught me looking at her face, but let me study it more. Hard to tell with that hair. Pleasant rather than beautiful.
“See! You do like me.” Her wide mouth smiled.
Her smile made me smile. She promptly sat down, cross-legged before me, in the shade of this tree, ready to discuss terms. Seeing us together, Luke, the stallion, came near, poking his nose close. She held a hand out for him to inspect. One sniff and he was happy, returning to his mate and snack.
“Your horse likes me too. We’re going to get on so well. I like your horses. They’re so pretty. I’ve never seen horses like those. I’ll help you look after them real good.”
I really didn’t want a slave.
“What’s your name?”
“Sara. My mum says it means Princess. She says I look like a princess. She says one day I might find a prince and become a real princess. Are you a real prince? It would be perfect if you were. Are you?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “No, I’m not a prince. Just a man travelling around the country.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be a real princess, I’m already a princess in name. Do you like my name? I like it. I like being a princess even if I’m not. Do you like my name too?”
“Yes. Sara is a nice name.”
“Do you think I look like a real princess. I know I’m not dressed fancy like those real princesses, but I could dress real fancy if I was a princess. What do you think?”
“It’s hard to tell.”
“You’re just saying that. I know you like me. I saw you looking. I saw your face. You just don’t want to let me know how much you like me. You do like me, don’t you.”
“Why do you want to be my slave?” I asked to deflect the conversation.
“That’s easy. I want to see the world. I want to explore new places. I want to eat new foods. I want to see what its like in the big city. I’d enjoy travelling. I wouldn’t take up much room. I wouldn’t eat much food. I’d stay in the background and enjoy travelling with you. You wouldn’t be so lonely if you had me.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“I’ve made you sad. I see your face. What did I say. I don’t want you sad. You’ll tell me what I said wrong, you will won’t you.”
“You haven’t made me sad. I was just remembering, now why don’t you like living here.”
“It’s alright here but.. I don’t want to be here forever. I want my own life. I want to do things myself. All I’ve done is look after mum’s babies. I’m good with babies. I know everything about looking after them. Now it’s Mary’s turn, she can get good at looking after the babies. I want to be myself for a bit.”
“You speak very well for a country girl.”
“My father came from the big city. He came from Rome. He found my mum here and decided to stay. He taught all us children. He taught us to speak like they do in the city. He told us stories. He told us about things in the city. I want to see those things too. I want to have my own stories too.. I know what it was. I know now. You are lonely aren’t you? That’s it. That’s what made you sad. I see it now. If you took me, you would never be lonely again. That would make you happy. I would make you happy.”
My resolve was weakening. I was enjoying talking with her, with Sara. I had been alone a long time.
“Won’t your family miss you?”
“You should come and see my mum. She’ll be happy for me to be your slave. You come with me now. I’ll take you to her. You ask her yourself. She’ll tell you good. She’ll say she won’t mind if I go with you. You’ll see.”
She sprang up and reached for my hand.
“See. I can help you up too. I’m strong. I’d be a great slave for you. I would. I can help you with all sorts of things. You do want me, don’t you?”
I let her help me up. She kept hold of my hand, dragging me forward. Back along the road then down an unkempt side track.
“They’re our olive groves. The others work there. All but me work outside most of the time. I get stuck inside with babies. I don’t get to see the world much. The olives are real nice. We get some extra big ones too. I like those the best. Sometimes I come and pick the best ones just for me. It’s not really naughty, the others do it too.”
Ahead was a clearing with signs of life. Dirt worn bare around a fire pit filled with ash. Wooden seats and a rickety bench in front of a rough built stone hut. Single doorway, Sara pulling me through the entrance.
“You come through here. Mum’s inside. You can talk to her now. You ask her. She’ll tell you. I know she will.”
Eyes trying to adjust to the gloom. Only one room. Dark dirt floor sucking what light could enter. Animal skins for sleeping. Rough wood shelves covered in clothes. Strong smell of bodies. Sara looking to one corner. A woman, sitting on a stool, one naked child at her breast, two more playing on the floor.
“This man wants me to be his slave. He does really.” A happy Sara told her mother.
Part of me wanted to run from that room. Escape while I could. The other was fixated on the woman, her milk filled breasts had my total attention. Crimson warmth covering my face as I imagined. Eyes slowly adjusting.
“I didn’t ask her to be my slave.” I said, partly returning to the subject of discussion. Glancing up to her deep brown eyes, the same as her daughters’.
“I know.” The woman said. “Sara’s wanted to be a rich man’s slave for a long time now.”
The baby stopped sucking and the woman moved him to the other breast. I glanced again at her eyes, thinking them otherwise occupied. She caught me. I looked down.
“Won’t you miss her?” I asked as drops of warm milk dripped from the recently vacated nipple. My tongue hungry.
“We will miss her a lot, but this has been her dream for a long time. She needs to find a life of her own.”
“How much do you want for her?” I asked as the loose milk drops slid further down, slowly drying on the smooth warm skin.
“I’m not sure we want anything.” The woman said. The baby making loud sucking noises. I looked up again, her eyes on the baby until she sensed my gaze.
Reaching into my tunic, I felt for coins. Clasping what I found and holding them out as I moved closer towards her. My breathing fast and shallow. Looking into her eyes. Fumbling the coins into her open hand. Touching longer than I should. Holding her gaze. Face on fire.
“You’ll be perfect for Sara.”
She’d said it very quietly. A secret whisper. My head so close, her breath warm on my ear.
Backing away while I still had control to do so. She closed her hand over the coins without checking, shifting her attention back to the child drinking her life. Sara raced to the shelves and grabbed a small bag, then came to me and latched onto my hand.
“We can go now.” She said.
“Sara will take very good care of a handsome man like you. I know. It’s her destiny.”
Sara dragging me out through the doorway. I was finding it difficult to walk. Mind racing, thoughts scattered. Sara dragging me still. Dragging me back up the track towards the roadway. If she did not have me weighing her down, she would have been skipping with joy.
“I see you liked my mum.”
Too embarrassed to answer but needing to say something. “She’s a beautiful woman.”
“People say I’m going to be just like her. My boobs aren’t as big yet, but you’ll like them too.”
I didn’t answer quickly. Sara filled the void.
“Will you show me how to drive the wagon? I’d like driving it. It will be great fun. I can drive it. I can, can’t I?”
“I’ll show you.” I said.
“I want to be able to do everything. I want you to show me so I can help you real good. I want to be your best ever slave. Show me how you hook the horses in the wagon. I want to do it myself. I like your horses. They’re so pretty. I can play with them too, can’t I?”
“Yes, you can play with them.”
With an attentive audience, I hitched Luke to the wagon.
“What about the other one? The fat one. Where does he go?”
“He’s a girl. She’s called Lisa. She’s soon going to have a foal so I just let her walk alongside.” I said.
“A foal! A baby horse. I can help her can’t I? I’m good with babies. I’ll be good with horse babies too. What name you going to call the baby?”
“I haven’t thought of a name yet.”
“I’m good at names. I’ll name him. I can, can’t I?”
“We’ll wait until it’s born before we worry about names.” I said.
“I’ll start thinking now so I’ll have a good name ready. I’ll have the best name. I helped name mums babies. I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ll think of the best ever name for him.”
The horse was nearly ready.
“I can sit alongside you, can’t I?”
I nodded, and she flew up to sit on the driving seat. I followed, sitting alongside her and flicking the reins to indicate our start. Luke knew what to do, taking us back onto the roadway.
“Can I drive now? I’ll be good at driving. You can teach me, can’t you?” She asked.
I handed her the reins. It was obvious she had not done this before, so I lent across. My right arm around her back to hold her right hand. My left hand holding her left.
“I like that.” She said, as I held her hands loosely in mine.
I did too. I’d expected her skin to be rough and calloused from the farm. Instead, she felt smooth and soft.
“I never worked much around the farm.” She said, answering my unasked question. “My job was always looking after the babies. I’m good with babies, but I don’t want any of my own until I’ve seen more of the world. Do you want babies?”
The horse walking on. No need of guidance.
I knew the answer. I had dreamed the answer most nights. Promenading around the square with my wife on one arm and my precious daughter on the other. The most beautiful girl in the whole empire. Dressed in the best clothes. Hair in bright ribbons. I said “Yes.”
“You don’t mind if we don’t start our babies for a while then? I want to see the country before I start having our babies. You don’t mind, do you?”
“I thought you were my slave, not my wife.”
“Have you really got a wife already?” A frown appearing on her forehead.
“So I can be your wife too. That’s settled. We’ll have our babies later then.”
We drove on in silence for a minute. Both thinking.
“Can I call you Dad?” She asked. “I know you’re not my dad, but it’s easier to start now before our babies come.”
She was far too old to be my daughter, but it was nice to imagine she could be. I nodded agreement.
“Oh thank you dad! You’ll be the best ever husband for me. Can we have some food now dad?”
I thought back to that stone hut. I couldn’t remember seeing any food, although my sight was distracted a little. She must be starving. I hadn’t eaten since this morning either, so leaving Sara driving, I moved into the back of the wagon, shifting the sleeping rugs to reveal the loose boards that formed the base of the bed and the cover over the wagon contents. Rummaging, I found some figs. They would sustain us until I cooked a proper meal. Sara had been watching me intently. The sight of the figs brought a huge smile. I handed her one and it disappeared in moments. So did two more. Then my two.
“I needed that.” She said. “Any more?”
“We’ll stop in a while and cook supper.”
“Can we please stop for a moment now? I need to pee.”
I showed her how to signal the horse to stop. He did, and she bounded off the wagon to squat alongside the front wheel. I looked down at her. She was not beautiful. Anywhere else, I would not have given her a second glance, but right here, in this moment of my life, her true beauty shone to my heart. She looked up at me looking at her, maybe divining my thoughts, looking into my eyes. She smiled. I smiled.
When she stood up there was just a tiny patch of darker coloured dirt to show for her effort. She was back on the seat alongside me in a flash. I had the reins, and motioned the horse to start again. I let my free arm go loosely around her back to hold her. Instantly I found her snuggling into my side. It was a nice feeling. I added a little pressure to my hold and felt her slender body through her baggy clothes. She nuzzled even further into me, while I let my hand rest on the side of her thigh. We continued on like this for a time without a word, just feeling her body breathe against my side. Heaven.
“Is it time to stop for supper yet?”
“I’m looking for a good place to stop for the night.” I said.
“What sort of a place?”
“One with shelter. A little way off the road, and with grass for the horses.”
“I’ll look too, we’ll find it quicker that way. What about over there.”
“Those trees are good, but the horses don’t like that sort of grass.”
“What sort do they like then?”
“They really like grass that’s soft and plump.”
“You like those things too, don’t you?” She says.
“Mine are soft and they will be bigger like my mum’s when I have our babies.”
“They look fine as they are.”
“You don’t know if they’re soft yet.”
“They look soft.”
She reached for my hand. Gently she held it to her right breast. I couldn’t help but feel.
“Now you know how soft they are.”
“They’re really very soft.”
“I’ll be the best ever slave for you. You’ll never regret taking me. What about over there?” She pointed again.
“Too many rocks.”
“Don’t the horses like rocks either?”
“I worry about breaking this wagon, it’s the only one we’ve got.”
“So it’s ours now? Not yours?”
“I suppose it is.”
“You’re not going to send me back?”
“Oh thank-you dad. I’ll look after our wagon and horses real well.”
“What about me?” I said.
“Oh. Always you first, then the rest.”
“How about we stop over there?” I said as a nearly perfect camp site appeared ahead.
“What do you want me to do with the horses?”
“I’ll show. You just watch for now.”
Sara watching intently as I parked the wagon and freed the horses.
“I make sure there’s water for them.” I said.
“Can I try lifting one of those water jars?”
“They’re heavy when they’re full.”
“I’m strong too. Babies get heavier as they grow. Is it time to cook now? I can help you cook. I can show you how good a cook I am.”
“Can you help me gather some wood?”
“I’ll get the small bits and you can carry the big ones.” She said.
We did, and soon I had our fire kindled.
“I’ll get the pot out and show you where things are in the wagon.” I said.
I moved the bedding rugs covering the rear of the wagon floor, and removed some of the floor boards to reveal the contents of the food store underneath. Sara watched with her hands. Touching. Feeling. Testing.
“I didn’t know you had so much hidden here. What’s in those sacks?”
“That’s grain for the horses. I feed it when they have no grass.”
“What about our food? I don’t see much.”
“I was only planning on food for one. I’ll have to buy more at the next town. We’ll make do with what’s here, we won’t starve.”
“I’ve starved before. It’s horrible. I never want to starve again. You wouldn’t want me to starve either, would you?”
“I hope we both never starve.” I said.
“I hope so too.”
I extracted the metal tripod and cooking pot and set them ready by the fire.
“What are we going to cook?” She asked.
“Bean and vegetable stew.”
“I like that. I’ll help. I know how to make it real tasty. I can cook that every day. I can do that real good.”
The fire was nearly right. I got the ingredients and added water before setting the tripod over the coals and hanging the pot to warm.
“Do you want to try giving the horses some grain as a treat?” I asked.
“Yes Please. I can feed them every day. I can, can’t I.”
“Just get some in your hand and hold it out for them to lick.”
“Won’t they eat my hand too?”
“No, they’re very gentle, they just tickle.”
Sara dashed to the wagon and filled one hand with grain before racing to the nearest horse, Lisa, spilling at least half on the way.
“Just hold out your hand, don’t rush and frighten her.” I said.
“She’s licking my hand. Her tongue is so big. It tickles a lot.”
Luke had come to see what was happening.
“I’ll get some more for him next. He’ll like me to feed him too.” She said.
Both horses got two half handfuls. The ground got the same.
“They like me feeding them.” She said as she came back to the fireside.
“Come and I’ll show you how to rub and tickle them, they like that even more. I’ll do the boy and you copy with the girl.”
“They do like that a real lot.” She said.
“They’re very gentle horses. I consider them part of my family.”
“You’ve got a bigger family now.”
“I have indeed.”
I certainly did have a bigger family. She had grown on me during the day. I enjoyed seeing her excitement over new things. I enjoyed having someone to talk to. I certainly enjoyed touching. We sat by the fire, side by side, watching our meal cook.
“Do you have other women in your life, besides me?” She asked.
“No, no other women now. Just you.”
“Would you want someone like me as your wife?”