Chapter 14: A New Nurse
Maiala lay still and quiet in the deep shadows of the ravine while she watched the men pass. If they saw her, they'd beat her.
She might have been a useful extra set of hands, but lately as the wasteland expanded and the great river's poison ate more of the ocean's harvest she'd become more of a burden. A skinny girl slave wasn't as useful as a sturdy boy, and the other use for girls
well, if it was that or food even the most lustful man would choose food.
If there'd been anywhere she could go, Maiala would have run. The Ruborian Desert was as secure a cage as anything physical, and the waste was worse. Villages like Cliffsedge were few and rare: there weren't many rivers, and most of them were poisoned by the waste.
Why her mother had dumped her here
Well, that was easy enough. Cliffsedge was the closest Ruborian village to what was left of Evernight Forest, making it the obvious place for a dying, half-mad elf woman to leave her unwanted brat with its sire's people, and never mind that no-one there would want an elf.
The men moved out of earshot, so Maiala rolled out of her hiding place to start her day's work.
They didn't work her too hard, really. Mostly she got to tend the village sheep, although since she'd shown a knack for healing she'd get called to any injured villagers to tend them. The sheep were easier to deal with. No matter how dumb they were, they trusted her and let her feed them whatever she'd mixed for them, or paste foul-smelling poultices over injuries.
Apart from that, keeping the sheep from straying too close to the sands and the sandworms was her main concern.
She climbed to the top of the ravine with agility she'd got from her elf mother, her dark skin and hair her Ruborian sire's gift stark against the light red stone. At least she didn't have magic. That meant when the Empire had come with their Sentinels she'd stayed instead of being hauled off to the Arena where everyone died. Although sometimes Maiala wondered if she'd have been better dying. She wouldn't always be hungry, and have every mouthful watched like she was starving someone's baby.
There was a ship on the ocean, and it was making for the cliff-side dock.
Before Maiala could decide whether she should give the alarm, she heard bells ringing, warning villagers there'd be visitors. They weren't ringing the danger warning, just the alert, so whoever had spotted the ship didn't see it as a threat.
That left her free to stay with the sheep.
If she was lucky, the ship might have food to trade with the villagers, and there'd be enough over she'd be able to eat her fill.
Maiala's stomach tightened when she saw the chieftain and his guards approaching. The only reason she didn't run was that there was nowhere to run. She'd die in the desert.
She dropped to her knees and bowed her head, hoping this didn't mean another beating, or worse.
"On yer feet, brat. Jorm, get your boys to watch the sheep."
She clenched her teeth so she didn't start begging. If the chieftain set someone else to tend the sheep, what did he mean to do with her? She didn't dare look up.
The guards weren't any worse than usual when they fetched her to the village: rough, but not kicking or beating her for the fun of it. That only made Maiala more afraid.
They took her not to the village, but down the narrow goat-trails to the cliff-side dock, where a harsh voice attached to armored boots said, "It's a cursed part-breed."
The chieftain sounded almost respectful when he said, "The brat's been tested by Sentinels, sir. Knows potions and poultices, too, the simple things, not filthy magic." He spat on the ground to one side.
A heavy hand caught in her hair and pulled her head up.
Maiala stared up at the pale skin of an Imperial soldier, a Centurion.
He sniffed. "It'll do. You, men, wash it down and get it clothes. Secure it once it's cleaned and decent." He let go, turned to leave. "You, give the man his payment."
Maiala almost cried out when she heard the chieftain scream. A dying scream. She didn't dare look, or move.
More screams, and men with swords moved past her. She heard them cursing as they climbed the goat path.
"Head up, slave."
Maiala obeyed, biting her lip on the whimpers trying to escape her throat.
A skinny man with pale skin and a scar running across his missing right eye lifted a metal collar and locked it in place around her neck. He wasn't rough, and he took the time to make sure her hair didn't get caught in it.
The length of chain attached to the collar wasn't reassuring.
Men threw buckets of water they'd pulled from the ocean over her, drenching her and washing most of the dust and sandy soil from her body.
"Savages," the skinny man muttered. "No decent folk would let a slave run around naked."
Screams drifted down from the village, leaving Maiala to wonder whose idea of decency she liked less. She shivered.
Someone handed the man a piece of coarse cloth the color of the desert sands. "You ever wore a tunic, slave?"
She shook her head. "No, Master."
He cackled. "Oh, I ain't your master, slave. That'd be Centurion Lucius. You watch your step with him, slave, or you'll be bent over a barrel getting your back flogged raw." He showed her how to wrap the tunic and tie it so it stayed put. "He killed a good sailor for 'insolence'. I ain't wanting t' see him take at a little thing like you."
Maiala swallowed. "Th
thank you, sir."
The man shrugged, and said, "Ready to sail, lads. Reckon we're casting off once t' soldiers are done." He took the chain attached to Maiala's collar. "Come on, slave. Need t' get you on board before t' Centurion comes looking for you."
She followed the man, without protest, although her stomach knotted painfully. He might be kind enough in a rough sort of way, but he wouldn't risk himself for her.
He led her the length of the ship, then down a steep ladder and through a rank-smelling dark space to a barred door. He opened that and fastened the free end of the chain to a heavy ring attached to a beam almost as thick as she was tall.
A little light leaked through from gaps between the planks forming the roof, enough that Maiala could see her prison was simply a bare little room with some barrels and crates, and three small, cloth-wrapped bundles.
"Aren't you done yet, man?" The Centurion's voice made Maiala jump.
"Just finished, m'lord." He nodded to Maiala. "There's food and drink there. Pot's in corner leave it by the door and someone'll be in each day to empty it and get more food if we've got it."
"Thank you, sir."
He scurried away, and the massive form of the Centurion filled the doorway. "Decent, at least. Have you ever tended children, slave?"
"Some, Master." Maiala stared at the rough wooden floor under her bare feet.
"You keep the brats alive, or it's your hide at stake." He closed the door and barred it.
Maiala swallowed, and blinked until her eyes cleared. She couldn't see any children
She took two unsteady steps to the little cloth bundles and knelt beside them, gently pulled the wrapping aside.
Three pairs of glowing eyes stared at her with impossible intensity.
For a frozen moment it was all she could do to breathe, then she realized that the glowing eyes belonged to three infants, not one of them older than a month.
One babe had wisps of red hair and pale skin, another golden tan skin with a shock of dark brown hair, and the third was white-blond with delicately pointed ears. All were male, she discovered when she unwrapped them and removed what had to be horribly uncomfortable soaked and reeking rags.
Well, the first thing was to get the little ones cleaned and fed.
Maiala went for practicality and dropped the rags into the pot. One of the crates was filled with rags: enough that she needn't try to wash used rags, which was just as well because water was something she didn't have much of.
There was food for her, and old, vinegary-smelling wine, and rags. Nothing she could legitimately give newborn babes.
She wiped all three with a clean rag, and added it to the ones in the pot. It was
unnerving, the way the little ones watched, as if they understood she was helping them.
Once Maiala had the babies wrapped again, she wondered how she could feed them. There'd be no milk on the ship, and she couldn't
she didn't dare tell Centurion Lucius she had no milk. He must have asked for a wet nurse for the babes, and been given her.
She sank to the floor, the babies in her arms, and shuddered.
The whimpering of a newborn roused Maiala from her dazed state. The little part-elf had his face screwed up, part way between whimpering and preparing to cry properly.
She rocked him gently, murmuring, "Shush, little one. I know you're hungry. I just don't have anything but rancid wine to give you."
He wriggled, successfully freeing one arm and using it to pull her hair, hard enough to hurt.
Maiala winced, then blinked. Something tingled through her body, responding to the baby's touch and his need. She could feel his hunger as though it was her stomach that cramped painfully, her throat that was dry and sore. It woke the old need in her, the need to stop the hurting whenever something near her was hurt.
That was how she'd learned which grasses to use for poultices, and how to mend things. Maiala didn't know how it worked, just that it did, and the helpless and injured knew it though villagers never took long to go back to their old ways after she'd treated them.
Now the need focused inside her body, as if it somehow knew that the way to mend the babies was within her body. Fierce pain ran through her chest, so bad she doubled over, trying not to harm the little ones, then
How it happened Maiala couldn't have said, but she
In a kind of daze, she lifted the part-elf to her breast, and leaned against the wall of her prison while he nursed. It hurt, but it wasn't a bad kind of hurt.
The part-elf finished, and slid back to sleep, letting Maiala lift one of the other two to feed.
"So, what brings you here, little one?" she asked, more to keep herself from sleeping than because she expected any answer from the infants. "Those are fine swaddlings you have, yet you lie alone in a locked cabin in a ship. Is there a mama who wonders where you are, perhaps?"
The red-headed baby regarded her with wide amber-gold eyes. His dark-haired
brother yes, all the babies had something similar about their appearance, in addition to the glowing eyes blew bubbles.
Kaff stood in the practice arena, thankful there weren't any minions watching. He was going to get pounded so bad.
Gnarl had called him down here when he finished in the private quarters. That was bad enough, but having all the tribe leaders there, and Mortis, made Kaff's heart sink down to his toe claws.
Master wanted him to learn, Kaff reminded himself. Pounding him into the stone floor of the practice arena wouldn't teach him anything.
"I want to see how you handle yourself, Kaff," Gnarl said. "Gloob, you start. First blood or submission."
So Kaff stood facing Gloob, the horde leader and brown leader. Gloob had all his armor on, shiny gold-plated stuff looted from the Imperial Palace and adjusted to fit. All Kaff had was himself.
He watched the bigger, older minion carefully. Gloob was fast, and smart, too. He had to be, to be horde leader. Any minion could take the position by beating him in a fight, and he fought off challenges most days. Usually left the challenger needing blues, too.
Gloob shifted a bit, his claws getting tighter around his sword, then he darted forward.
Kaff jumped at Gloob, getting his whole body inside Gloob's reach so he'd have to do something awkward to get him with the sword, and scrambled up the older brown's body, climbing onto his shoulders. He pushed his claws in through the eye slits of the shiny helmet.
Gloob head-butted the floor.
Kaff let go just in time to not get the wind knocked out of him. His claws scraped down Gloob's armor, making horrible screechy noises while he scrabbled for a better grip on something.
"Hold!" Gnarl's voice froze Kaff as effectively as Master's would. "Not quite what you planned, youngster, but you scored."
Gloob bounced to his feet, grinning. "Need to sharpen toes, make better scratches."
Kaff blinked. While he'd been struggling to get hold of Gloob's armor, his toe claws had managed to score deep furrows down the back of Gloob's legs. The wounds were half-closed already.
"Me sharpen," he promised, half stunned that he'd come out of a fight with Gloob intact... even winning.
"Good." Gloob slapped him on the back hard enough that he staggered. "Me not go easy next time."
If that was going easy, Kaff didn't think he'd like going hard. He'd been lucky.
"Blaze, you're next. Try not to set him on fire." Gnarl sounded like he was having fun. He probably was. Probably had bets on all of this, too.
Kaff wished he'd had a chance to make a few bets, although he'd have just lost one because he'd never have said he could come out best against any of the horde leaders.
Blaze had seen how he did things, too, and so had Stench and Drizzle, the blue leader. They'd be watching for the handful of tricks Kaff had learned from watching practice bouts.
No matter how many tricks he had, he was still not much more than a newborn minion, and all of the tribe leaders had been with the horde for ages... Gloob had even been with the old Master, the one that was a God now.
Blaze was tall for minions, rangy and stronger than most reds, too. He'd decorated his horns with bits of shiny stone so they glittered in the light.
He started with fireballs, throwing flame as fast as Kaff could dodge and Kaff could dodge pretty fast.
Well, Gnarl hadn't given him any rules, and all the horde leaders were standing in the practice arena, so... Kaff dodged another fireball and ran at Gnarl, leaping over the old Minion Master so he was behind him.
That stopped the fireballs. Blaze wasn't going to flame Gnarl.
Mortis laughed, and so did Gloob and Stench and Drizzle.
Kaff caught his breath a bit, then with Blaze running towards him, and Kaff keeping Gnarl between him and the red leader, he bounced up over Gnarl with a, "Me sorry Gnarl," and ran at Blaze. If he was fast he might not get burned so much.
He collided with the red leader before Blaze could throw the next fireball, so all he got was a blast of hot air, then it hurt because all red minions were mostly on fire anyways. That didn't stop Kaff clawing at him as fast as he could while Blaze burned wherever his claws touched.
"Hold!" Gnarl sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "You fight like a green, Kaff. Dirty." He sounded as though he liked that. "I think that one's a tie."
Kaff picked himself up. He had burns all over, now, sore spots that would be fine tomorrow, but Blaze had some scratches too.
Drizzle said, "Me not fight. Me seen plenty." He trotted over to Kaff and rested his hands on the worst burns.
It stopped hurting right away, and Kaff's skin healed up as good as new. "Thank you."
Drizzle's grin showed sharp teeth. "Me think Kaff win if me not in water. Then Kaff drown."
Kaff shuddered. Water was nasty. It felt all wrong on his skin.
Stench giggled. "Me play now?"
Maybe there were worse things than water, after all.