Sunday, 7 May 2017

Mistress of Gor Chapter Nine

Chapter 9: We are attacked before dawn. Now everything changes

I reclined on a pile of soft velvet cushions and stretched my hand towards the silver bowl of sweet dates that a slave-girl belonging to Lady Sareena was holding before me.  A silken pagoda had been erected for the richer members of the caravan, a place in which we could eat, drink and converse in luxury. Captain Arturius sat to my right; a tall, young, broad shouldered mercenary captain, whom the caravan had employed to guard us all during the long journey to Patashqar. He was, I suppose, rather dashing and handsome. He was certainly strong.

“Lady Felicia, truly my caravan is blessed with your presence. It is rare that I get to conduct the passage of a Lady of such refinement, such grace, such intelligence and, I am sure, beauty…” remarked Paulo, the caravan Master.

I laughed, flattered by his words and attention. “You are bold with your flattery Sir, but you mean well,” I said, in good humour as I reached for another candy stuffed date. It felt good to be the centre of attention among men for once. Seremides sat nearby, watching me with a grim expression as he always did. The others assumed he was my bodyguard for the journey to Patashqar, and of course he did indeed serve such a function, but in addition to that he was my mission Handler and, when we did eventually reach the great gates of Patashqar, my subordinate for at least six months while I undertook my primary mission and then set about establishing a spy network within the city.  

“I propose a toast to the Lady Felicia of Corcyrus, and all the other fine ladies who travel with us!”  Paulo raised his cup of white ka-la-na, prompting the other men of the caravan to follow suit.  There were a number of other High Ladies apart from myself; Lady Olivia, Lady Sareena, Lady Sarai, Lady Carina, Lady Ameera, Lady Sakkara and Lady Rosalin. I raised my veil slightly and sipped my own ka-la-na.

Amongst the free men at our table sat a Taharian bandit, or so he seemed to be to me.  He was a nomad, a member of the desert tribes, of which I understood there were at least four warring tribes in the area; simple barbarians who fought each other incessantly, relying on light kaiila cavalry in the main for their border wars.  He was slightly shorter than the average warrior of Corcyrus or Ar, but broader, and heavily scarred about the face. He was dressed in cured leathers and wore a number of short bladed knives at our table.  None of the other men carried such weapons to dinner.  Paulo employed this bedouin, Kargan by name, as a guide across the Taharian sands.

“I understand sir,” Lady Sareena was addressing the Caravan Master, Paulo, “that we have entered the bandit steppes, and that it is a wild and dangerous land?”

“Yes Lady, the sands around here are home to many nomad tribes, but the danger to us is minimal,” replied Paulo happily.  “Firstly, we have the services of an excellent guide,” he indicated the Taharian bandit.  “Secondly, we are guarded by a company of kaiila cavalry from Kadesh.  And perhaps most importantly, I pay tribute to the Pashas of the local tribes to pass safely through their lands. Tribute I might add, that accounts for a portion of your passage fees.”

This seemed to be news to Lady Sareena.  “Sir, “ she exclaimed, “I am somewhat displeased to discover that I am effectively paying tribute to barbarian warlords. I hardly think that is necessary. As you say, we have a company of cavalry to guard the caravan. These so-called Pashas of the desert are nothing more than brigands! Their irregular bands of horsemen – or should I say mounted rabble - cannot possibly pose a threat to the trained cavalry of Kadesh.”

I raised my cup to my lips, parting my veil again as I listened to this exchange. “We only encourage their delusions of importance by offering them a safe passage fee.”  Lady Rosalin nodded beside Sareena.  Lady Sarai however seemed unsure.

The desert bandit stirred from where he sat.  He reached for a tender slice of roast bosk, lightly spiced in the Tahari fashion, and coughed to attract our attention.  “The noble Lady has never been to the Tahari before, has she?” he asked.

“No, I have never travelled this far.  The climate does not agree with me.” There was much polite laughter around our table at that off hand remark.

Kargan chewed the succulent steak. “With due respect, you know nothing of my people, nor of the other desert tribes. These… brigands, as you call them, obey strict codes. They are proud men.”

“So you say.”  Sareena turned to Paulo.  “These ‘Pashas of the desert’,” she laughed at the very word, “are good for nothing more than milking kaiila and fighting one another.  I for one am not scared of them!”                    

Kargan watched Sareena's slave-girl as she knelt close to Sareena's  velvet cushions.  “May I speak to your slave, Lady?” he asked Sareena.

“If you must,” she replied.  “But I should warn you that she is a stupid girl, barely capable of conducting a gentle conversation.”  The other free women laughed alongside her, relishing the witty exchange of words.  Sareena smiled, gesturing towards her pretty little slave.  “Please, indulge yourself…”

Kargan smiled back.  “Girl, I have a question for you.”

“Master?”  The girl looked up, regarding the nomad with more than just passing interest.

“Does your Mistress have pretty legs?”

“Yes Master,” she replied without hesitation.

“Describe them,” said Kargan as Sareena glared at him.

“They are long, smooth and shapely, Master, with excellent calves.  They are very feminine.”

“How dare you,” hissed Sareena.

“Please forgive me, Mistress.  This one was commanded to speak.”

“You will be beaten for this, Emma.”

I must have looked up, a little startled at hearing that. It was my T-girl name from Earth. I was suddenly reminded that here on Gor the name Emma, along with many other Earth girl names, was considered a slave name. 

Kargan replaced his paga cup on the table.  “The kajira was only doing what every slave must do: answering a Master truthfully without hesitation.  She has done nothing to earn a beating.”

“Well, bandit, I think I shall be the judge of that, not you.”  Sareena turned to face the slave, Emma.  “I will have you switched well tonight, pretty one.”

Kargan was not pleased.  He looked at Emma and said “Girl, that was not my intention.”  Emma lowered her head and replied “Yes, Master,”  as the man returned his attention to Sareena.  “Your fine cavalry from Kadesh will not be able to defend you if my Pasha chose to attack this caravan.”

Now Sareena laughed again.  “Then you are a fool if you believe that, bandit.  At the first sight of your fellows, our warriors would gallop to engage them.”

Kargan grinned, chewing his meat between yellow teeth.  “And the nomad riders would turn and run as your warriors approached.”

“Ha!  Cowards… I would command our heavy cavalry to pursue you, to run you down!”

“Of course you would, for you are a woman, and you know nothing of war.  Soon your heavy kaiilas would grow tired, they would slow, and then our lighter, nimble kaiila would turn.  We would encircle your men and fire arrows from our saddles, remaining out of reach of your lances. Your cavalry would be cut off from their lines. And then, when they were all dead, we would come back to collar you.”

Sareena seethed with rage, not knowing what to say in reply.

“Do you know how to sew and cook?” asked Kargan.

“Of course not, sleen!  What do you mean by that…”

“Only that, in a desert camp, branded and collared, you would have to learn quickly or be beaten.”  He smiled.

Sareena turned to Paulo.  “Sir, I am offended by this desert sleen.  I wish him to be removed from this dining tent at once.”  She smiled and added, “I can detect the unmistakable smell of kaiila sweat, and it does not come from either you or me.”  Lady Rosalin clapped her hands, delighted with Sareena's finely crafted insult, though Paulo seemed troubled by this.

“I am sorry Kargan…” he seemed to have respect for this nomad.

Kargan growled and spat out the remains of his meat.  “It is no great matter,” he replied to Paulo, though his gaze remained firmly on the Lady Sareena.  “Another day always beckons.”  Now he rose and faced the table.  No one spoke.  Then Sareena gestured towards him.

“Go, barbarian,” she cried, dismissing him imperiously with her white gloved hand.  “We are finished with you now.”

Of the entourage of Free Women travelling within the caravan, the Lady Sakkara was riding to Patashqar for an arranged 'marriage' within her caste. She would be Free Companioned to a man who sought to better himself in terms of social connections, and he believed that Sakkara’s name (she was a daughter of the influential Ashwan family of Kadesh) would ensure that certain doors were open for him within the courts of the Sultan. Portraits had been exchanged in the past, no doubt painted in the most flattering lights possible, and Sakkara it seemed was convinced that this Free Companionship would provide her with the match she longed for.

“Milo Assante is a great man, Felice,” she would say to me. “He practically has the ear of the Sultan, or at the very least his inner circle of advisers, which is much the same thing.”

“How wonderful.” I smiled, knowing that her expectations were probably born out of wishful thinking.

In turn Milo Assante offered security and money to the third daughter of a large family. Her needs would be catered for and maybe there would be love of a sort, though it was also quite possible that Milo might simply bed her the once for appearances sake and then return his attentions to his harem of slave-girls. If he truly was a rising star in the city of Patashqar then it was a given he owned a cloistered harem of some kind. 

Sakkara showed me a small portrait of Milo that she carried amongst her possessions. The picture was of a noble looking man in a well cut tunic, with a stern expression on his face. He had short hair, receding at the temples and if the painting was anything to go by, he had the muscles and physique of a gladiator.

“He’s of the caste of Warriors?” I asked, bemused by the powerful looking build that made Seremides look rather ordinary in comparison.

“Oh, no. Milo is a Magistrate,” replied Sakkara cheerfully.

“Oh.” I gazed again at the heavily muscled portrait and wondered just how much artistic licence had been employed by the painter in question.

“Although we have never met, we have maintained such a wonderful correspondence from afar since our fathers arranged the match.” Sakkara carried with her too a box of polished and perfumed Tur wood containing all the letters she had received from Milo since the courtship had begun. “He says I have the most beautiful eyes he has ever seen, and he feels they contain such wisdom, dignity and charm.” She was referring of course to her own portrait that Milo would have received. I suppose she had not been veiled when she sat for the painting, as she was effectively being marketed by her father as a commodity for Free Companionship. While I couldn’t verify precisely how accurate Milo’s picture was, I suspect the artist who painted Sarai hadn’t had to take many liberties with her representation as she was a striking beauty.

“Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together.”

“Perhaps you can attend the Free Companionship ceremony? I have no friends or family living in Patashqar so my side will be unrepresented. Oh do come, please, Felice.” She placed her hands over mine and smiled at me beneath her veil. Out here in the shifting sands of the great desert she seemed keen that we would be Best Friends Forever.

“That is very kind of you. I’d be delighted to.” It might after all prove a useful event at which to make some contacts with high ranking members of the Patashqar elite. Like Sakkara, I too would start off not knowing anyone within the city, though I would in time speak with Kurgus’s existing contacts there. “We'll keep in touch when the caravan arrives. I'll be taking temporary lodging with... um, friends, but will of course be purchasing a suitable town house once Seremides can make formal enquiries on the state of the market.”

“You must make sure it has a pool, and a Garden of Contemplation, Felice. And of course high walls.” She laughed softly.

“I think the high walls are a given,” I said, laughing too. I held her hands and gazed into her eyes. The Lady Sakkara wasn't exactly Lady Jacinta in the friendship stakes, but in a strange city she might be a welcome ally against boredom.

This was one thing in particular that I loved about being a woman on Gor – the ability to pass perfectly as a woman myself and therefore to have female friends who regarded me as their own sex. Trite as it may sound, I longed for a circle of girlie friends with whom I could spend the afternoons in the shade of a garden, sipping wine, swapping gossip and talking about the latest imported cloths in the market place. Women on Gor do have wonderful clothes, actually, even though they are forced to bare little to no skin. The outer gowns themselves can be made from strikingly beautiful material, and beneath those gowns there is much scope for wearing all manner of fashions provided the outer gown itself does the job of protecting a woman's modesty. I would probably have to wear a plain black haik when out on the streets, but beneath the haik I could wear the most beautiful dresses and underslips imaginable. It was an exciting prospect. I was going to do so much shopping once I had a town house of my own. There would be racks and racks of dresses and gowns and robes. And of course in the privacy of my own high walled garden, with my friends in attendance, we would be able to discard the stiff brocade outer gowns and relax intimately perhaps in our lighter gowns cut scandalously to just below the knee.      

When I used to live in London, back in what I now think of as my T-girl years, I was all about the clothes. Women's clothes mesmerised me. I couldn't walk past a shop front window without guiltily gazing at the mannequins displaying fabulous dresses, floppy layered outfits and little cocktail frocks. I would grow weak at the knees, imagining how heavenly it would be to be a petite 5 feet five inches tall girl in strappy 'fuck me heels' with great hair and be able to dress like those mannequins all day, every day. I hated male clothes, male fashion. It was boring, ugly, and I didn't feel comfortable dressed that way. But put me in a dress with a short hem line, give me some strappy heels to wear and I'd feel so happy. I used to spend hours on a rainy night, sitting at my computer with a glass of wine at hand, just window shopping on the Internet, looking at outfit after outfit on the various retail sites. I'd catch my breath and feel a bit dizzy whenever I spotted the 'perfect' dress and the feeling of exhilaration when I'd see it was still in stock in my size was profoundly moving. There would always be a head rush as I quickly clicked and put the dress in my shopping basket, always with the ominous words 'Low Stock left – hurry – buy now' warning me that my size was about to sell out.      

And then there would be the thrill a day later when the precious package arrived by Next Day delivery, and how my hands trembled as I opened the heaven sent box. I'd undress quickly in the privacy of my bedroom, casting my jeans and T-shirt aside, put on a wig from one of my wig boxes and slip the dress over my body to try it on. I had a good eye for what styles suited me, and what sizes to buy in certain preferred brands, for girl sizing was always a minefield with no two labels the same. And oh, the sheer bliss as I gazed at myself in the mirror, knowing that the dress would soon look stunning once I had makeup on.

Yes, I was all about the clothes. 

I slept well enough that night, my slumber assisted by the many cups of ka-la-na I had enjoyed with my meal. My tent was large, sumptuous, ornately furnished, and large enough to stand upright in. Seremides of course did not share it. He had a tent of his own close by.

Curiously I dreamt again of the beautiful Miss Elizabeth Anna Bentley, formerly of Park Lane in London, she with the stunning reddish brown hair. I dreamt I was walking through a market place in Corcyrus where I suddenly saw her chained on a mat where a slaver was displaying his wares. She was in amongst three other girls, part of a display coffle and she, like the others, was obviously for sale.

"Buy me," she said to passers by, as she lifted braceleted wrists in supplication, exposing the soft palms of her hands, for girls on sale are often commanded to attract and entice possible customers. "Buy me and I will give you pleasure in the furs, kind Master," she said to a man who passed by without even looking at her. 

How helpless she looked. How vulnerable, and how desirable. Surely she was the most beautiful woman on Gor? Even more beautiful than I.

In my dreams I approached the slave merchant and casually enquired, "how much for the girl with the reddish brown hair, third on the chain?" For quite obviously, Miss Elizabeth Anna Bentley of Park Lane in London did not deserve to be kneeling on a slave mat in a marketplace, pleading to be bought under threat of the lash. I would buy her. I would free her. We had after all been captured on the same night by Udumi. She would, I'm sure, have done the same for me. 

My dream ended far too soon, for I awoke far earlier than I had expected in the early hours of the morning before dawn, to the sounds of men shouting, and animals stampeding outside.  I yawned, stretching in my bed, confused by the commotion from the camp.  There was the sound of more shouting, closer now to my tent, and the sound of steel clashing upon steel.  It was unless I was mistaken, the sound of men fighting.  I sat up suddenly, aware now that hundreds of hooves were thundering through the camp.  The hour was still early, maybe the third ahn – it was hard to tell.

The flap covering the entrance to my tent swung open as Captain Arturius limped in, the left side of his body soaked with blood. In the dim light of the two slow burning oil lamps I saw his left arm hung broken at an unnatural angle as if crushed by a mace, his eyes were glazed over, and his sword was missing from its scabbard. I knelt between my thin cotton sheets, pulling them up over my body for protection.  “Arturius…” I whispered, still half asleep. “What...”

“The camp…” he fell suddenly, pulling the tent flap away with his hand. I could see from where I lay that the wound in his side was severe and he wasn''t likely to survive it.  Again I heard the sound of scores of kaiila galloping past. We were under attack, but by whom, and why? I climbed from my bed with the white cotton sheet wound loosely around my body and crept quietly across the thickly woven rugs that lay on the floor of my tent. Arturius lay before me, but I was afraid to touch his bloodied body.

Beneath the sheet I wore nothing more than a sleeveless under gown of sky blue silk that came half way down about my calves.  Scurrying to my trunks, I seized an outer veil and held it to my lower face with both hands.  It would not be possible to pin it in place as I was not wearing a hood, and I feared I did not have the luxury of sufficient time to dress myself.  Stepping carefully around the Captain’s body, I peered through the hole in the tent fabric, clutching the veil to my face all the while.  What I saw made me tremble. Barbarian horsemen, numbering in their hundreds, were charging through our camp, taking advantage of surprise before the first rays of the sun began to rise.  Here and there our dismounted cavalry stumbled from their tents, sleepy, on foot, only to be swiftly cut down by lance or bow. We were being butchered!

Gorean men often celebrate the ‘glory and nobility of war’ in epic tales of martial heroism and anecdotes narrated by the light of campfires, or in back street paga taverns, but I have never found war to be either glorious or noble. War is and always has been brutal, savage and cruel, where butchery is the order of the day. I have grown to hate violence in the time I’ve been living on Gor, because it is almost always the remit of men, and therefore the means by which the strong subjugate the weak. When a Gorean man wants something, he takes it at sword point from those who do not share his Homestone. This is the way Gor has always been and it will never change so long as the restrictions the Priest Kings place on the development of technology hold sway, for this is a world where a strong sword arm can make you the Master of your own destiny, and what man of Gor can resist that notion?

It is easy to forget the equalising effect modern weapons provide. Had I a gun – a small pistol for example – I could reasonably point it at a man who is superior to me in size and strength, and by simply squeezing the trigger, I could kill him outright. My obvious inferiority in all forms of physical prowess would not be a debilitating factor, and he would therefore have good reason to be wary of me, but in a society where fighting is conducted with swords, then brute strength and skill matter. You have to look your enemy in the face, get close to him, beat down his own sword arm with yours, and risk taking a wound in the process. All that requires a considerable degree of courage and confidence in your ability with a blade. If you don’t know what you’re doing, a sword fight against a strong experienced warrior is likely to be over in seconds, with you losing your life in the process.

The fighting that took place that night was savage and swift. Much of it took place in the dark, with only the flickering fires of torches embedded on poles to illuminate what was happening around me in the camp. The tribal raiders had the advantage of shock surprise that they exploited to the full, riding swiftly through our camp on kaiilas, to trample and slash anyone they found fleeing on foot. They fought with razor sharp scimitars which they swung down to the left and right of their mounts. I do not know why our sentries had not sounded the alarm. Had they been paid in Kadesh to betray us? Had they been surprised in the night, their throats quietly slit? I find that last prospect hard to believe for it would be difficult to find them all, let alone kill them quietly, in the darkness. The simple answer is I do not know why the alarm wasn’t sounded until it was too late for us.

Around my tent I could see men were running in panic, for they knew they would be given no quarter. Any man on his feet was a viable target and I saw dozens cut down that night, some screaming and pleading for mercy, others standing firm with their backs to tents, slashing wildly with whatever weapon they had managed to find. I saw several brave ‘last stands’ but in each case they were exactly that. I saw a man cut down in the back as he tried to run. I saw another man drop to his knees with a thrown javelin from a rider who simply raced past, drawing a second javelin from a holster strapped to his kaiila. I smelled urine and shit from unarmed men who had voided their bowels involuntarily as they were butchered where they stood. I saw a man staggering across the camp, clutching his stomach where entrails seeped out between his fingers.

I was probably in shock for it made no sense at all to simply stand there in the ripped doorway of my tent, staring at the butchery that was taking place around me.

It was over, I thought. The last five months had been a complete waste of time. All of Kurgus’s grand schemes would come to nothing. I would never reach the Dreaming City of Patashqar. I would never establish myself as his local agent, build a network of contacts and spies and I would never find this slave-girl Erin and secure the precious co-ordinates from her subconscious mind. I would die here it seemed, cut down by a desert blade in the dark, for I had no wish to be taken alive, led into the farthest reaches of the desert at the end of a leash, to eventually be sold and put to work in some isolated village to trample leather skins in a urine pit from dawn till dusk for the remainder of my miserable life. I would fight, for all the good it might do me.

I look back at the events of that traumatic night and realise I had become so indoctrinated in the customs of Gor as a Free Woman that despite the fact that raiders were sweeping through our encampment, I actually took the time to pick up a handful of light veils and wind them quickly about my lower face in place of the outer veil that I would have had to hold with my hands. It seems incredible to me now that six months on Gor had made me so fearful of showing my features without veiling that I risked the time it took to perform such a task while all around me savage horsemen were slaughtering my travelling companions. I hadn’t even thought consciously about it, it had just become second nature to think – men are outside, I must therefore veil my lips. The light was poor in my tent from just the two small oil lamps that burned low, and so it was difficult to make out in the gloom where most of my belongings might be. I had found the lengths of veils more by luck than anything else, for I could not it seems locate my slippers. Somewhere close by would be my robes, and by instinct alone I reached out and found them, neatly folded where I had left them. There was no time to dress of course, for the arrangement of a woman’s robes and gowns is a complex matter and not something that can easily be done in the dark.

A woman screamed to my left. Turning about, I saw a man, dressed in the nomadic garb and leathers of the Tahari raiders entering my tent. In his right hand he held a broad scimitar blade, its edge traced with blood.  With his left hand the warrior pulled a woman along at the end of a leather leash. I recognised the woman: it was Lady Sakkara. Like myself, she only wore her calf length under gown. Unlike me, her wrists were clasped behind her back in slave steel. The warrior saw me, laughed and sheathed his blade, reaching instead to his belt where several sets of slave bracelets jingled together. Now I snapped out of my trance and ran back to the centre of my tent where I picked up the slim stiletto dagger that I was in the habit of keeping beside my bedding each night.  The barbarian raider threw Lady Sakkara to the floor. She lay there, leashed and bound.

“Stay away from me!” I brandished the knife in both hands, pointing it towards the man. “I have a knife…”

Now he roared with laughter and struck his shoulder in admiration three times. “I salute your courage Lady!  Perhaps you will prove to be a more worthy foe than your riders from Kadesh!”  He grinned and drew his sword.  It was heavy, longer than my arm, and very sharp.  His body was dressed in cured leathers over his robes that afforded him some protection against slashing weapons. “Now prepare to die.”  As he advanced upon me, I took a step back, glanced round the interior of my tent and, seeing one of the two oil lamps close by, kicked it up towards the desert raider. It was a poor kick. Perhaps I had thought I might kick it up into his face and while he was beating at the flames, Hollywood style, I would rush in and drive the stiletto knife deep into his heart.

Nothing of the sort happened. The oil lamp flew past his shoulder to land harmlessly on the floor on the far side of the tent. Far from consuming the man in an explosive fireball, the flame had gone out from the kick. I was rubbish.

“I won't let you take me alive!” I began to circle the circumference of the tent, still pointing the stiletto knife as if he might conveniently impale himself on it. “I'll die fighting before that happens.” There was no way I was going to be dragged stumbling across the desert in a slave-girl coffle to God knows what barren sand blasted wilderness, to be sold for a copper coin to some toothless salt farmer.

The man spat on the rugs in derision as he ran towards me suddenly. I slashed with the knife, aiming for his face but he simply smacked the side of the blade away with his full length leather studded left arm; the leather probably worn for just such a purpose. I probably didn't even scratch him. Now inside my guard he struck me in the stomach with this hilt of his blade and I doubled up, all the breath suddenly knocked out of me. The man took my right wrist and prised the hilt of the small knife from my grasp. With a snarl he threw it into the gloom of the tent. His left hand went into my long blonde hair and with a sudden wrench he threw me bodily across the floor. I landed with a thump, crying out in pain.

The warrior seemed now very angry.  “Just slave meat after all… turn quickly onto your stomach, present your wrists behind your back.”

“No...” I tried to rise on all fours but his left boot stamped down into the small of my back and I crashed back to the floor.

“City born bitch!” He kicked me now in the side, and I screamed again. Sakkara was screaming too, seeing what was happening to me. “Stay down!” he snarled at me.

I did as he commanded, more from stunned shock than anything else, and felt bracelets locked about my wrists.  I felt his hands turn me back around to face him.  His hands went to the throat of my thin under gown.  He tore the material apart to my navel, partly revealing my breasts. I struggled as a leather leash was tied around my throat. Then, alongside the Lady Sakkara, I was raised back onto my feet.

“It seems you are taken alive after all, girl.” The raider bent my body back and kissed me hard on the lips. For a brief moment I considered biting him, but was suddenly afraid of what he might do to me then. His breath stank as did his body, which presumably had not seen anything other than a dry sand scrub in ages.

Suddenly there was a blur of motion from the entrance to the tent. I saw Seremides standing there, gazing quickly around, seeking me out. I saw his sword rise as he spied the desert raider and in relief I stupidly cried out his name. Alerted, the desert raider turned, just as Seremides sprang forwards. The raider thrust my body in front of his to take the expected blow and of course Seremides hesitated, pulling back his sword before he  might accidentally strike me. Now I was thrown forward to collide with his body, giving the raider time to spring back, raise his own scimitar and slash at Seremides's head. There was a series of cuts and slashes from both men as I dropped to the ground, almost tripping Seremides in the process. I lay on my belly, hearing steel strike steel, hearing the curses from both men as I tried to make myself seem small. My wrists were locked behind me and in any event, everything I had done had proved useless so far.

The sword play continued for maybe ten to fifteen seconds. I hardly dared move, knowing that to do so might put me within reach of a sword thrust from my frustrated would be captor. Please let me live, I suddenly thought to myself. Please don't let me die out here in the middle of nowhere.

And then the raider screamed as a feint from Seremides drew his opponent's sword in an erroneous move, leaving his guard open to a lethal slash from Seremides's scimitar that opened the man's throat. The raider's body dropped with a thump somewhere behind me and I heard it twitch momentarily before it was finally still.

“We have very little time,” said Seremides as he rolled the man’s corpse away with his boot and cleaned his sword with a red stained rag. “The sentries have either betrayed us or they were next to useless. The camp is being overrun as I speak.”

“Thank you... thank you... thank you...” I cried. Somewhere close by Sakkara was saying much the same thing.

“Are you injured, Lady Felice? Did he cut you?” Seremides picked up the remaining oil lamp and held it above my body. I lay there quite still, on my belly, wrists braceleted behind me, as he examined me for sword wounds.

“No, no, he didn't cut me.” I had been useless. I had been unable to save myself. I squeezed my eyes shut in shame. I had waved a knife at the desert raider and he had just knocked it aside. It seemed I was truly defenceless on Gor without the protection of men.

“Good.” Seremides now hoisted me to my feet and, seeing the front of my slip slide open, exposing my breasts where the raider had slashed it open, he couldn't help but look at me with renewed interest.

“Please don't...” I turned my veiled face away.

“You are alive. It could easily have been worse.”

“My wrists,” I said, flexing them where they were held in slave steel behind my back.

“Do you have the key, Lady?”

“No. Of course I don't have the key! What a stupid question, Seremides! It will be on the raider's person. Find it. Free me!”

The man smiled as he searched the pouches on the raider's belt, ignoring everything there as he looked for the key to the bracelets that Sakkara and I wore.

“Quickly!” I hissed. “More men may come to search the tent. We can't stay here!”

“I have made a similar assessment of the situation,” remarked Seremides as he failed to locate the key. Turning the body over, his fingers explored the man's tunic until he found a small pocket covered by a flap.

“Have you found it?” I was facing away from Seremides so that he couldn't see my breasts. My silk slip was torn down the middle where the desert raider had ripped it, and my left breast was quite plainly visible, as would my right breast be if the torn silk was brushed back slightly on that side. With my wrists tightly locked behind the small of my back I was unable to hold the torn garment together to afford myself some modesty.

“Yes.” He held a small key of the sort used to lock and unlock slave bracelets. Slave bracelets are among the lighter of Gorean chains, consisting of relatively thin cuffs, resembling hoop bracelets perhaps, with five inches of light chain between them. They serve a decorative function on a woman as well as being sufficient to secure her, though the caste of slavers recommend the use of stronger steel restraints for holding men of course.

“Good.” I had turned my head about as far as I could to watch Seremides as he rose from the floor with the precious key. From the sounds of shouting and fighting close to the tent entrance I surmised it was perhaps only a matter of a minute or two before more armed men would enter my tent in search of spoils. “Free me, Seremides!”

“Quiet. I am thinking.” He stared down at the dead raider and began to strip from him the distinctive looking tribal kaffiyeh, that being the head covering – a folded square cloth held in place with an agal – a length of cord.           

“My wrists, Seremides.”

“Your wrists are quite beautiful, Lady Felice. Have no fear on that score.” Now Seremides pulled away the man's equally distinctive burnoose – the loose, billowing robes and while I watched in frustration he began to dress himself into the semblance of one of the raiders.

“I see your plan. They will think you one of them, Seremides.”

“Correct. Dressed this way I may be able to lead us out through the camp  without being challenged. If we can find a kaiila...”

“Then free my wrists, give me clothing, and let us get away.”

“I think perhaps it may seem less suspicious if you remain as you are, Lady Felice. You have the look of an exquisite piece of plunder, one that might perhaps have been taken from a tent, braceleted and led out to be secured in a coffle by a man such as I.”

“At least free my wrists! I am helpless like this!” I struggled against the steel to no avail.

“You seem more convincing braceleted. Have no fear, Lady, once we are well away from the camp I will be able to free you. I have the key after all.”

“This is intolerable! I gave you an order.”

“Your full authority does not come into play until we pass through the gates of Patashqar. Then and only then, do I defer to the full authority of the Free Woman, the Lady Felicia Fonseca Gebara Torres. Until that time we share authority, and in all matters pertaining to keeping you alive, final authority is mine according to Kurgus.”

It was true. Kurgus had been quite clear on that particular point. “My slip is torn. With my wrists braceleted, I cannot hold the front of the garment together!”

“I have noticed. It is a most enticing look. I commend you on your current appearance, Lady.”

“Things will be very different in Patashqar,” I hissed.

“I think the Lady Felicia is incredibly astute in that matter,” said Seremides with a smile. “Things will be very different in Patashqar.” Now he took hold of my right arm by the elbow and steered me towards the torn doorway of the tent. There he saw the Lady Sakkara kneeling in a similar predicament to myself.

“We can't leave Sakkara!” I cried, catching her pitiful gaze. “Bring her with us.”

“She is not my concern, nor should she be yours.”

“I insist! She is important to my mission. She is to be Free Companioned to a Magistrate of the city, and through her I will meet many influential people that it might otherwise take me many months to approach. In decisions of this nature you must acknowledge my authority. She is an asset that will prove very useful in the future once she is Free Companioned.”

“Very well,” sighed Seremides, reluctantly recognising the logic of what I had said. “Follow us, girl, but remain silent or I shall leave you behind.”

“Thank you, Sir,” wept Sakkara in gratitude as she rose to follow.  

We ran through the narrow spaces between pitched tents, avoiding the more spacious avenues that had been reserved as thoroughfares. The kaiila riders were for the time being rampaging through the wider spaces of the camp, and it was only the raiders who had dismounted and were now pillaging on foot that we were at risk of encountering. But as the minutes passed by, more and more raiders were dismounting to mop up the remaining resistance. Certain tents that were of no interest to the enemy were being set alight, perhaps to provide illumination for the plunder and rape that might follow the carefully orchestrated slaughter. From the distance the raiders simply saw one of their own men leading two captured women, partially stripped and braceleted. The deception seemed to be working so far. 

“Stay to the left of me at all times,” said Seremides. “Do not block my sword arm. If we have to fight, we will, but if we can reach a kaiila without being seen, then all the better.”

I was forcing myself to move and not be paralysed with fear. Even so my legs were visibly shaking and try as I might I couldn’t bring them under control. “Please don’t let them take me.”

“If it comes to it and there is no way out, do you wish me to kill you?” We crouched now, keeping low as a group of raiders moved ahead of us, slashing at tent ropes so that the canvas would fall inwards trapping any man or woman who might be hiding within. It was the most sensible way of dealing with people inside a tent who might be armed. Trapped under the falling canvas, their bodies would be easy to spot and, encumbered as they were they could easily be despatched with swift sword strikes through the canvas.

“Oh God, we got out of our tent just in time!” I said as I saw one of the men slash the guy ropes from my enclosure, toppling the structure. The body of the raider within must have been noticed under the tarpaulin, for the raiders immediately moved in and stabbed down several times, oblivious to the fact that their target was already dead, slain by Seremides, and that he was in fact one of their tribe.

“We did, yes.” Seremides watched the raiders carefully. I felt sure that if they made a move in this direction he would probably hamstring the first two from the advantage of the cover. But to my relief they turned and headed in the opposite direction.

“I need to know, Lady,” he said. “I will not be taken alive. What of you? You have a choice. If you wish to live after I am killed, make it clear to them that you are a woman and beautiful. If they are not maddened with blood lust, they should spare you. Or, I can make your death clean and quick if needs be. You need to tell me now.”

“I don’t want to spend my life in some desert shit hole, trampling animal skins in a urine pit,” I said, lapsing partially back into English with the term ‘shit hole’. Seremides was able to grasp my meaning regardless.

“Then if the time comes?” He gazed at me intently.

“Do it quickly then, but don’t stop to give me a choice. The human self preservation instinct is stronger than you may realise, and I may change my mind at the last moment.”

“I understand. You will not see my blade coming for you, if the time comes.”

My attention was drawn to a commotion that was occurring some twenty feet away to my left. It was the guide, Kargan, that had been employed by the caravan owners, and the ladies Sareena and Rosalin. Both ladies wore torn slips, similar to Sakkara and I. They were on their knees with leashes around their throats, their wrists bound. Leather thongs leashed their bound wrists together as a pair. Kneeling beside them was Sareena's slave-girl, Emma, she who had been given my old Earth name. The women had it seemed been taken, bound and left to be added to a capture coffle in a short while. Kargan had come across them as he moved between the silhouetted tents with a bloodied scimitar in his hand.

As I watched, Kargan looked around the camp, seeing tents burning, seeing the camp animals stampeding away, seeing the remains of our soldiers being cut down.  “I think your camp is lost, Ladies.”  He regarded the Free Women's legs, and grinned.  “Your kajira was right, Lady Sareena, you do have pretty legs.”

“Beast!” She cried.  “You must help us, sir!”

Kargan sniffed the smoke in the air.  “I think not. It is time for me to leave before the raiders notice I am not one of their men.”

“No!” Sareena screamed.  “You have been paid to guard us, to protect us!  You must do so!”

“I have been paid to do none of those things.  Paulo employed me as a guide through the Tahari, nothing more.  Your mighty riders of Kadesh were hired to protect you..."

“Coward!” she hissed.  “Coward!”

“Do you wish me to kill you?”  asked Kargan.  The Lady Sareena quickly shook her head.  “I am a man of honour.  I will lay down my life for my Ubar any time he commands it.  I will not lay down my life for arrogant city dwellers such as you.  As for courage… I fought my way to Paulo’s side, intent on saving him.  He has refused to leave the caravan – he will fight to protect your worthless lives.  He will die of course.  The Caravan Master is an honourable man.  I wish he had been born here in the desert, then I could have truly called him my friend.”

“So much for the payment of tribute to the desert chieftains,” sobbed Sareena.  “You have attacked us!”

“No girl, My Pasha has not attacked your caravan – these men are some other tribe, possibly one to which tribute was not paid. There are many tribes in the Tahari.”  Kargan regarded a man in the distance garbed in an Aretai tunic. He was directing a number of the raiders against the last few surviving warriors of Kadesh.

Lady Rosalin suddenly broke her silence, kneeling beside Sareena.  “Please…” she begged, her hands clasped in steel behind her back.  “You could carry a girl upon your kaiila…”

Sareena stared at her friend, stunned.  “No,” she cried, “If you can take a girl, then take me.”

“I would be pleasing to you, Sir,” said Rosalin, “I would kiss you, I would give myself to you if you saved me. Take me, not Sareena."

“Interesting,” remarked Kargan.

“Slut!” hissed Sareena. “Shameless slut!” But now she looked round at the burning tents and the bodies strewn across the ground and she grew even more fearful for her own safety. “Please… don't listen to her! Save me instead of Rosalin. I would be more pleasing. I might even please you in the contrived manner of a slave as gratitude.” Sareena lowered her eyes, afraid of what she had just said.

“Could you, girl?” Kargan grinned, enjoying the spectacle of the two women kneeling in competition with one another before him. “For only a slut could do that.”

“I can be a slut, if you save me. Please don't leave me here! I beg you!”

Kargan considered this for a moment as both girls gazed up with desperation in their eyes. “I would like to, Lady Sareena, but… I have suddenly remembered that my smell offends you. You are sensitive to the stink of kaiila sweat and dung. I could not expect you to undergo such an ordeal, slung over the back of my kaiila. Better that you remain here to be enslaved, but smelling the clean pure air of the Tahari desert.”  He turned to leave.

“No, please!”  Sareena cried, shuffling after him on her knees.  “I don't mind the smell of kaiilas, truly I don't.  Please!”

“Really?”  He seemed unconvinced.  “Show me…”  Kargan indicated a pile of kaiila dung, still relatively fresh, seven feet away.  “Press your delicate little nose deep into the dung, girl.  I want to see whether you truly don’t mind the smell.”

Sareena seethed with rage, but she could not allow herself to be abandoned in the camp, and so she dragged herself towards the dung and, closing her eyes, she pushed the tip of her nose into the disgusting excrement.  The smell would be unbearable!

“Deeper, girl.”

Sareena whimpered as her nose was pushed into the dung.  She felt it on her cheeks, on her forehead.  “Hold position girl.  I imagine you’re holding your breath… I do not think that will last for more than a few ehn.”  He was of course right.  Eventually Sareena had to breathe.  He left her like that, her face in the kaiila dung for three more ehn, before pulling her up by her hair.  He laughed and slapped her bottom playfully.  “Maybe I don’t smell quite so bad after all, aye girl? And now sluts, I must be gone.”

“You tricked me!”  Sareena gasped, traces of kaiila dung on her nose. ”You had no intention of taking me!”

Kargan laughed.  “Either one of you would slow me down.  It will be simpler to buy you for a silver tarsk when you are put on sale in the Oasis of the Thirteen Palms.”

“Beast!  Sleen!”  cried Sareena as she struggled to free herself from the slave steel.

“I think I shall buy you both and have you trained together.  Until then, ‘Ladies’…”  He turned and moved quickly away, keeping low beneath the line of tents.

“Can you see any way out?” I whispered to Seremides. It was apparent now that the animals belonging to the caravan had already been seized and were probably under heavy guard. There was no way Seremides could realistically cut his way through half a dozen armed men, seize a kaiila, lift us over the saddle and make good his escape.

“Over there.” He pointed with his blade towards a raider who had just dismounted from his kaiila, perhaps to begin the looting of some of the nearby tents. For the time being he was alone and Seremides had his eyes fixed on the tethered beast. “Precede me,” he said as he urged both Sakkara and myself on with a push of his left hand. We stumbled forward, looking every inch the frightened captives that we appeared to be. Seremides walked briskly behind us, encouraging our steps with a couple more shoves for dramatic effect. The raider saw us, saw the familiar looking burnoose of his tribe, and relaxed, assuming Seremides was on his side.

“Where did you find those beauties,” asked the raider as he stepped forward, his eyes now on my torn slip, and the sight of my bare breast. Seremides had assumed the man would be distracted by the two of us for just enough time to close the distance. His sword arm shot out and sliced the man's windpipe in a clean stroke. The raider fell without making a sound.

There was no time to waste. Seremides hoisted me belly first over the pommel of the animal's saddle. It was broadly shaped to take up to two girls slung over it with their wrists and ankles bound with leather thongs to rings attached to either side of the girth - the strap that goes under the beast's barrel to hold the saddle. My wrists were of course braceleted behind my back and so he would have to hold me in place as he rode to prevent me from falling. The Lady Sakkara was similarly thrown over the front of the pommel and only then did Seremides mount and take his place in the saddle and stirrups. We would be heavily laden, for the kaiila also carried a satchel hanging from the cantle. Thankfully the sun had not yet risen and we were far enough away from the light of the burning torches to be ignored when we happened to ride away from the camp.

Sakkara and I lay on our bellies across the pommel, Seremides's left hand on our silken rumps to hold us in place as he pulled on the reins with his right hand. And then we were away, riding out into the bleak desert, mere minutes before the sun began to rise, while behind us our caravan continued to burn. Illuminating the night sky. 

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