Bosta refugees brought a new reality to the Droxy settlement. Isolated on the fringe of civilization, the people of the settlement had not concerned themselves with the conquests of the Atrophane Empire. Their general opinion was that the Atrophane, who lived in palaces and built monuments, could not possibly be interested in the crude farming settlements carved out of the edge of the Wilderness.

But this assumption dissolved as weary beaten Bostas plodded toward the Droxy fortress for the second day straight. The refugees passed through the village of Wa Gira on their way and a panic had started. Many villagers were filling carts and planning to abandon their cluster of cottages and seek shelter in the Droxy fortress as well.

In front of a lowly shack at the end of the lane stood a young woman clutching her infant son. The spring breeze blew through her curly light brown hair, which gently brushed the head of her dark haired child. Her green eyes were wide with fear and uncertainty.

She had spoken with many of the passing Bostas and their reports had been terrifying. The young woman had no idea what to do. She had never experienced a foreign invasion. Occasionally bandits plagued the villages around Droxy or clans skirmished over land disputes, but otherwise life was peaceful around Droxy, except of course for her life.

“Miranda!”

She turned toward the man who bellowed her name. Coming up the road from Droxy, he struggled against the crowd of refugees. He was barrel-chested and thick limbed with a disheveled shock of black hair drooping close to his eyes.

The sight of her master brought Miranda no relief. She considered the arrival of Barlow an enhancement of the crisis. He had been in Droxy for three days, and Miranda had assumed he would stay there. Mostly she hoped he would never come back.

Puffing from his brisk hike back to Wa Gira, Barlow stomped up to her.

“Get inside,” he ordered and pushed her at the door.

She stumbled a bit and her shoulder hit the door. The baby began to cry from the jostling, and Miranda tried to quiet her son as she entered.

“I am sorry, Esseldan,” she murmured.

“Where is Elendra?” Barlow demanded.

“In the back,” Miranda replied, referring to the lean-to portion of the shack where she slept with her children. Barlow stayed in the sturdier front room, but Miranda shunned his bed except when forced.

“Get out here,” Barlow snarled and a six-year-old girl shyly peeked around the doorway. The dazzling dark eyes of the little girl carefully watched her father, but she did not come out.

“She will learn to do as I say no matter how much you let her run wild,” Barlow warned Miranda, who made no comment.

Looking around the sparsely furnished shack, Barlow cried, “And why is nothing packed? I came all the way back here to get you.”

Unimpressed by his concern, Miranda said, “Where are we going?”

His eyes flashed with anger. He despised her questions, but no amount of intimidation ever slowed her sharp tongue for long.

“Droxy, you stupid bitch,” he snapped.

She stowed the pain of his cruel words deep in her heart, and the hurt did not show on her face.

“Why go there? Everyone has said the Atrophane broke through their fortresses, and their walls were larger than Droxy,” Miranda said.

“Do not try and be clever, Miranda, because you are not. Now shut up and pack!” Barlow yelled.

At that moment, the thought of going to Droxy disturbed Miranda as much as the abstract threat of the Atrophane Horde.

“I was not trying anything,” she defended. “Droxy will not save us.”

Barlow seized her arm. Miranda shifted Esseldan into her other arm and held him away from his father.

“We both know why we are going to town,” Barlow hissed.

Miranda glanced at her daughter, who monitored the exchange from a safe distance. Lowering her eyes, Miranda stopped arguing.

When they arrived in Droxy shortly after nightfall, the fortress town was thronged with refugees and local Droxy peasants. Added to the press were the mustering soldiers and the landowning vassals of Lord Doamir.

“Barlow, are you going to join the defense?” Miranda asked sarcastically.

In retaliation he swung at her, but she halted her stride just in time to avoid the back of his hand. Missing her, Barlow contented himself with a vicious scowl.

He had arranged accommodations for Miranda and the children in a stable stall behind a tavern. The miserable shelter did not surprise her, but she contained her comment about not wishing to inconvenience the horses. She would see more of Barlow’s temper soon enough.

Thankfully he departed quickly into the tavern. Exhausted, Miranda plopped down on a bundle of hay and let Esseldan breastfeed. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves after she noticed her hand shaking. That morning she had been planting the crops that would allow her and her children to subsist through another year without any help from Barlow. Now her small field and garden were abandoned to the Atrophane Horde.

Miranda tried to imagine what the Atrophane invasion would be like. She grasped that it was a much larger thing than the local disputes. All her life she had heard the reports about the Atrophane Empire growing in the east. But the grand stories of conquerors living in opulent cities had never seemed to apply to her life.

“Mama, what is happening?” Elendra finally asked. The little girl could be extraordinarily tolerant of disruption, but the quaver in her voice revealed true fear.

Miranda’s green eyes regarded her daughter sadly. Even Elendra can tell this is worse than usual, Miranda thought.

“The Atrophane Horde has come to conquer our land,” Miranda answered bluntly.

Elendra understood this truth less than her mother did and simply said, “When can we go home?”

“I do not know,” Miranda whispered. Normally she would try to comfort her daughter, but Miranda was too overwhelmed to muster any bright words. From her seat in the stable she could look up the alley beside the tavern and see the crowd of refugees in the fortress courtyard. All day she had seen the trauma on the faces of Bostas, and in her heart Miranda knew Droxy was a deathtrap.

“Mama, can I have some food?” Elendra asked.

Gesturing to their bundle of supplies, Miranda answered, “Yes, but remember we have to make it last.”

They ate their meager supper of bread and dried fruit. Miranda wished she was outside the dirty town so she could forage for fresh greens in the woodland and meadows. Years of economic neglect from her master had made Miranda skilled at gleaning food from the land, but there would be nothing to brighten their meal tonight.

Spreading out the blankets, Miranda took some solace in the fact that the straw in the stall was fresh. She tucked her children snugly into the corner, and then stepped out for a moment alone. A chocolate brown mare in the next stall hung her head out and Miranda petted the velvety nose of the good-natured animal. The softness beneath her fingers calmed her thoughts and her mind drifted back to a distant day.

Miranda remembered being a child on a farm south of the Bosta territory and sneaking rides on the work horses. Her father would become angry when he caught her riding, but the exhilaration and freedom of sitting high on the horse had always been worth the risk. After a brief wish to have that feeling again, Miranda pushed away memories of better moments. She belonged to Barlow now.

Miranda patted the horse one more time before joining her children in the stall. Weariness pulled Miranda quickly into sleep, but her fears knew no rest. In her slumber she heard a rumble in the hills, and she imagined a heavy spring thunderstorm heralding the heat of summer.

Suddenly she was in the courtyard of Droxy with her children, and the walls of the fortress loomed around her like a dark and dirty canyon. A booming sound shook the stone walls like pebbles, and Miranda fell screaming to the ground, desperately clutching her children. The screams of people flew around the courtyard like a distressed flock of birds.

Miranda jumped up and started running. Moving was difficult as if weights were tied to her limbs. Each step seemed to take a tortuous amount of time, and after managing a few, Miranda realized she no longer held Elendra’s hand.

Horrified, she looked back and saw soldiers swarming around her shrieking daughter. Black armor clad the strange attackers, who wielded black swords. Blood and sweat streaked their distorted faces. One swung wide with his obsidian blade, felling Elendra. The girl’s blood sprayed in an arc as she toppled to the cobbles.

Her little body made one gruesome twitch, and she gurgled one mouthful of blood before her life lifted away from a growing pool of red.

Flames consumed the fortress on all sides, and the apish soldiers seized Miranda when she rushed crazily toward her daughter. Esseldan was torn from her embrace, and a soldier thrust a pike through the tender body of the infant and flung him into a fire.

Screaming, Miranda watched her son sail through the smoky air into the greedy flames. Darkness seeped over the hellish scene and Miranda felt cold air against her skin. The sinister heat of the war flames dissipated and the soldiers released her arms. She sat up screaming, but the fact that it was a nightmare brought her little relief.

Her children stirred next to her, and Miranda lay back down before they woke up. Sweat cooled on her face in the mild spring night, and it felt blissful after the terrible heat of the flames. But with the noises of the refugee packed town around her, she experienced again the acute emotion of the nightmare. The Atrophane Horde was coming and Droxy would be crushed. The Atrophane were going to kill people in the process, and maybe even her children.

Miranda tightened her arm over her children until they fussed from the grip. Murmuring for them to go back to sleep, she accepted the gravity of the danger. They needed to hide outside Droxy. The fortress would be the target of the Atrophane Horde, and Miranda reasoned that the countryside would be safer.

She hated Barlow for forcing them to come to Droxy. She knew concern for their safety did not motivate him. Bitterly, Miranda hoped that when the Atrophane came they would capture Barlow and make a slave of him.

This pleasant concept almost brought a smile to her lips, but then the back door of the tavern burst open, startling the horses in the stable. As if her hateful thoughts had summoned him, Barlow stood silhouetted in the lamplight of the doorway. The tavern sounds leaked out into the night, and Miranda remembered who was really the slave.

“Miranda!” It was Barlow’s drunken drawl. “Come here.”

Briefly she touched the heads of her children to remind herself that they depended on her utterly. Then she rose to face her master.

“There you are. Wonderful.” He skidded down the steps in a flurry of clumsiness. The luck of the drunken kept him from falling.

“Leave me alone, Barlow,” she snarled.

He grabbed her wrist. “Now, now, my dear. Come along with me.”

“I said leave me alone,” she persisted and struggled to be free of him.

Laughing at her defiance, which he had proved futile many times, Barlow pulled her into the tavern.

“I’ll have none of your attitude tonight,” he warned.

Immediately inside the back door was a stairway and Barlow dragged her up a few steps before she managed to stop him.

“No,” she hissed, while clawing at his hand on her wrist.

He turned and leaned into her face. Miranda could smell the wine on his breath and see the cold look in his eyes.

Barlow growled, “Now my little girlie, you’re gonna go up into that first room or I’ll beat you to DEATH.”

He had prostituted her before, but Miranda always made it difficult. By making him struggle she gained some satisfaction from the fact that he had to work for the money a little bit.

Barlow clamped a hand around her throat and dragged her roughly up the stairs. On the dark back stair no one noticed his rough treatment of her. No one ever cared how he treated her anyway.

Reaching the top, Barlow pinned her to a wall and whispered, “I mean it, Miranda. You’re gonna do this because it’s what you’re for. Give me trouble one more time, and I’ll sell Elendra.”

Miranda winced. This was the threat that controlled her the most. Barlow pushed her down the hall. The pain in her throat warned her not to lash out at him. Her children needed her healthy and strong, and if she did not obey, Barlow could cripple her. Intoxication always sent his temper into uglier places.

“Get in there,” he barked, drawing back a menacing hand.

Primarily just to get away from him, Miranda darted into the room and slammed the door behind her. The solid wood felt good against her back because it held Barlow out. A candle burned on the windowsill, and she saw a man sitting on the bed. Sometimes the men were rough and nasty, like Barlow, and even when she could control the situation, she was always afraid.

Cautiously the figure on the bed rose and walked up to her. He was a soldier. Miranda recognized the brown uniform of Lord Doamir’s militia. His short sword was still buckled around his waist. The soldier was young, not even Miranda’s age.

Hesitantly he reached out and touched her face with a shy gentleness.

“You are very pretty,” he whispered, leaning closer.

Miranda realized she was trembling and tried to steady herself. She had learned it was best not to show fear.

The soldier took her hand. “Come sit,” he invited, prying her off the door.

Woodenly she moved with him and sat down on the edge of the bed. His kindness disarmed her. He unbuckled his weaponry and slid out of his tunic. He began to untie his shirt collar but stopped because she did not follow his example.

“I do not want to be here,” she confessed.

A puzzled expression crossed his face. Obviously he thought he had purchased the company of a willing woman. Checking his sense of urgency, the soldier sat next to her, and with a tenderness unfamiliar to her, took her by the shoulders.

Softly he said, “I—I go to war tomorrow. I go to face the Atrophane Horde. Give me, lady, a last night of pleasure. I won’t hurt you.”

Miranda now saw the fear in his eyes that mirrored her own. In his features she could see the boy that lingered in the man, and it saddened her that he had to go face death. Suspecting that she may soon have to face death as well, Miranda agreed with his request for pleasure. He at least was going to defend the settlement and he had already shown her more kindness and respect than Barlow ever could.

He happily embraced her and kissed her boldly. Miranda awkwardly accepted his passion and gradually let it take hold of her. Barlow had always forced himself on her from a young age, an ordeal she avoided as much as possible, but this was different. She suddenly desired this stranger, whose young body seethed with excitement.

The young soldier kissed down her neck and between her breasts, loosening clothing as he went. A stray hand pulled away garments until he told Miranda to finish taking off her clothes. He lay back on the bed and removed his remaining garments. The last of the candle light danced on their strong young bodies. Still a little voluptuous from her recent pregnancy, Miranda fell nakedly into his arms, thrilling at the heat of his body. They enjoyed each other several times. Miranda obliged him willingly, thankful to know that there could be pleasures between a man and a woman.

Very late into the night the soldier was satisfied and slipped into a peaceful sleep. He had given her a few more coins in gratitude. Poverty motivated her to accept, but she would have to be careful. Barlow always beat her if he discovered her extra gifts. Miranda lingered by the soldier a moment more to savor the glow of her ecstasy. Such a thing would probably not happen again for a long time, if ever.

Finally she kissed him and wished that he would not die. She knew it was time to leave. The children had been unattended much too long, and she understood that it was not her place to stay. Despite their primal employment of each other, he was not her lover, only a paying customer. Miranda mostly regretted that Barlow received most of the money instead of her.

Slipping from the bed, Miranda sorted out her clothes in the dark. While she dressed, he did not wake, but that was fine.

What would I say anyway, she thought sadly.

The tavern had grown quiet, and she rushed down the stairs, eager to return to her children. She almost tripped over Barlow, who had passed out on the bottom step. She longed to kick him, but waking him would not be worth it.

Returning to the stable, she was relieved to see the children snuggled in the stall where she had left them. She cursed Barlow for forcing her to neglect them, and she cursed herself for not being capable of resisting Barlow. Drained by the night’s events, she sank into the straw. She recalled her brief pleasure with the young soldier, and then tucked away the memory where it would not distract her too often. Her satisfaction tonight had been a lucky accident, and she sternly warned herself never to hope for such things.

A couple hours remained before dawn, and she dropped into a deep sleep. Harsh dreams cruised her mind again. The young soldier approached her, and at first she was glad and felt desire for him.

He held out his arms to her and cried, “Help me! Please help me.”

Now a terrible wound opened on his head, and blood ran down his face.

“Mama, what is wrong with him?”

Miranda looked down and saw Elendra holding her infant brother. They both looked small and helpless.

The soldier collapsed and Elendra asked, “Will I die like him?”

A gash opened on Elendra’s forehead and blood dripped onto the baby. Unable to bear the horror, Miranda opened her eyes. Convulsively she hugged Elendra and petted her forehead, trying to convince herself that her daughter was unharmed. The girl murmured and snuggled deeper into her mother’s arms.

Miranda knew that Elendra trusted her automatically but feared that her daughter’s faith was misguided. The nightmares shattered any hope she might have had in castle walls, and the petrifying images warned her to take her children farther from the Atrophane Horde. Hiding inside a fortress that they would surely attack seemed preposterous.

A cockcrow bounced harshly off the fortress walls as the sun rose with the promise of a hot muggy day. The back door of the tavern banged open and Miranda heard a disturbance that sounded like the barkeep kicking Barlow out. Their arrangement was obviously for him to sleep outside.

Cringing, Miranda considered her problems doubled now that Barlow was up and around. No doubt he would rent her out again tonight, and anger rose inside her like a demon. She jumped up to face him as he came around the corner. His stringy black hair hung over bloodshot eyes, and he smiled at her acidic gaze.

“Up so early, Miranda?” he chuckled. “Better get your rest. We’ll need more money.”

Miranda’s lower lip trembled with bottled rage. Ignoring her, he grabbed their bucket and wandered away to get water. Disgusted that she had been unable to confront Barlow with a single word, Miranda sobbed with emotion. In her despair, she decided something had to change.

It had never happened before, despite years of cruel domination, but this morning murder sprouted in her heart. Tonight she would not let Barlow control her, and he would not profit from making her a whore.

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