The next day, Maeryn pulled a chair out onto the balcony that had become her refuge. There was something soothing about watching the ocean glitter in the sunlight. Lemus left for the city just after sunrise and she hadn’t seen him since. She felt safer when he was gone. He was so unpredictable. She tried to shake the thoughts out of her head and think about more positive things, but it was difficult. She kept thinking about Adair and why he had abandoned his family.
He didn’t abandon you, or anybody else for that matter! That’s not the kind of person he is.
She was worn out by the emotional drain of wavering between bitterness about her situation and worrying about the safety of Adair. She closed her eyes to picture Adair’s face. It came instantly. His deep brown eyes, strong jaw, his dark hair…
Abruptly, the sound of screaming jolted her from her thoughts and the vision of Adair vanished. She listened for a second and realized that it was coming from the courtyard on the other side of the house. Maeryn jumped to her feet, and hurried through her bedroom and down the stairs, following the screams. She knew somehow it was related to Lemus.
* * * *
When he heard the screaming, Kael was watching a grasshopper cling to a blade of grass on the side of the cobblestone road, just outside of the wall which surrounded the hilltop estate. He knew it was Ajani as soon as he heard it. Though the slave boy hadn’t ever screamed about anything as far as Kael could remember, he knew his voice well. Kael immediately rose to his feet and ran between two guards who were standing at attention on either side of the entrance into the courtyard. Once inside, Kael darted across the gravel landscape and headed for the garden. He took the short flight of stairs at the entrance in two leaps and skidded to a halt. What he saw on the other side of the garden made his body go weak with fear.
Lemus was crouched over the crumpled body of Ajani who was lying on his side, trying to shield his face. The screaming had stopped but the dull thud of Lemus’ fists pounding the body of the child underneath him was even worse.
“I’ll teach you to talk back to me,” grunted Lemus between excited breaths.
“Stop it,” screamed Kael, but Lemus didn’t listen. He just kept hitting Ajani who had stopped moving. “Stop it,” he yelled again in the loudest voice he could manage, but Lemus didn’t even seem to know he was there.
The paralyzing effects of fear quickly gave way to empowering feelings of anger. I have to stop him! He ran back down the steps and turned right, reaching the supply shed in seconds. He threw open the doors and stepped inside, looking for anything that could be used as a weapon. Seeing a pitchfork leaning against the wall, he grabbed it and ran back toward Ajani as quickly as his little feet would carry him.
When Kael reached Ajani, there was an eerie silence. Lemus was standing with his head pointed toward the sky, facing away from Kael. His arms hung limp at his sides, blood dripping from his knuckles. Ajani was covered in blood and lay on the ground unmoving.
Rage welled up inside Kael and he ran at Lemus, holding the pitchfork in front of him.
Lemus continued to stare at the sky until the last second when he turned and jumped to the side.
One tine of the pitchfork punctured his right thigh and he yelped as Kael kept charging, driving it into his leg. When it hit something hard, Kael let go and took a few steps back, realizing what he had just done.
Lemus yelled at the top of his lungs as he grabbed the gardening tool and angrily ripped it from his leg. Without pausing, he gripped the shaft with both hands and lurched forward, swinging the handle at Kael.
Kael wasn’t fast enough to dodge it but put his hands up to guard himself. The thick wooden handle crashed into his forearm and then his face, breaking through the useless defense. Kael felt his head thrown to one side and his feet lifted off the ground before his whole body hit the dirt.
* * * *
Maeryn screamed as she saw Kael’s tiny body thrown to the ground. “What are you doing?”
Lemus turned toward her and then looked to the guards just coming in through the gate. He ignored her as if she hadn’t said anything at all. “Put that brat in restraints,” he ordered the guards.
The two soldiers ran to Kael’s limp body and each grabbed an arm.
Maeryn came down the steps from the house. “Don’t you dare touch him,” she shouted.
“Stay back or you’ll be put to death as well.”
Maeryn stopped dead in her tracks and turned to Lemus, who was now standing with a bloody pitchfork in his hand, looking as though he was waiting for an opportunity to use it. It took her a second to realize what he had said. “…as well?”
“Any attack on an Orudan soldier is punishable by death.” He threw the pitchfork across the garden and it clanged off the stone building.
It was only then that she realized what had happened. She saw the body of Ajani lying in the dirt, the blood running down Lemus’ leg, the pitchfork, and her son being dragged away.
“But he’s just a child,” she pleaded, tears now running down her face.
Lemus repeated himself. “ANY attack is punishable by death.” It was a law well known throughout the Orudan Empire, but no one had ever heard of it being applied to a child. Of course, no child had ever attacked an Orudan soldier.
“But…” she began, not really knowing how to argue the matter.
Lemus pointed his finger at her and spoke loudly over the sound of her voice. “You are both under my custody and therefore my property. If you wish to join your son in death, by all means, keep talking.”
“NO!” Maeryn screamed with everything that was in her. She felt panic take over her mind and body, telling her to run after Kael. He needed her protection, but she knew that Lemus would kill her. She began to shake with frustration, overwhelmed with emotions that she couldn’t act on. The internal conflict was too much and she felt her knees start to wobble.
Another pair of guards entered the courtyard. “Go fetch me a doctor,” Lemus said to one of the men. “And you, give me a hand.” The other soldier quickly ran to his aid, throwing his arm around his superior and helping him limp his way out of the garden.
Maeryn’s knees gave out and she collapsed in the dirt. Her sobbing drowned out everything around her.
She lay in the garden for some time, in a trance, vaguely aware of what was going on around her. Someone must have taken Ajani away because he was gone by the time she gained enough strength to lift her head. She remembered one of the slaves offering to help her and she shooed him away, but she didn’t remember how long ago that had been.
Maeryn feebly climbed to her feet. The drag marks from Kael’s feet ran next to her and she traced the path with her eyes. They led toward the courtyard and disappeared around the slave quarters.
She started moving. Her eyes were still crying, but she was disconnected from them. When she came to her senses, she found herself in the kitchen. At some point she must have decided to kill him. She was holding a butcher knife and wasn’t sure exactly how it came to be in her hand. It felt comforting there, resting heavily in her clenched fist. She felt powerful, unlike the past couple of weeks. She looked at the long blade and the idea to kill him made sense. Adair is dead. Kael will be executed. I’ve lost everything now! If Lemus ever intends to get rid of me, I should at least take him with me. I won’t be able to do it during the day. He’s too strong for that. No, I’ll wait until he sleeps. Of course, she would be executed as soon as they found out who did it, but it seemed a fitting end to everything that had occurred in the last few weeks.
“There are better ways to get back at him, Miss.”
Maeryn turned around to find Zula standing in the corner of the kitchen. This slave woman was in charge of the whole house and had been with their family for several years. Maeryn hadn’t heard ten words from her in the entire time she worked for them and it was strange to hear her speak now.
“I know what you feel, Miss. If you kill this man, you will be put to death. That would not be enough punishment for what he has done.”
“You don’t understand,” Maeryn countered, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. As soon as she said it, she regretted her words. Although she wasn’t his mother, Zula had raised Ajani from a baby.
“I understand better than you, Miss,” the dark skinned woman shot back. “I have seen more trials in my life than you will ever see, even if you were to live ten lifetimes.” As Zula spoke, her intense dark eyes fought back the tears that had every right to spill down her face. There was an incredible strength in her that Maeryn had never noticed before, but when she spoke again, her words were softer. “You are a strong woman who has lived an easy life. But that has changed. You will see how the rest of the world lives now.” She paused. “There are better ways to get back at a man, especially one of such power.” Zula turned around and started to walk out of the kitchen.
“He’s going to kill him,” Maeryn cried after the slave woman. Tears began to run down her face again and she suddenly felt embarrassed for crying in front of a woman who had seen so much heartache. “Did you see what he did to Ajani?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did,” the dark-skinned woman said flatly, turning back to Maeryn.
Maeryn wiped the tears from her eyes. “How can you just stand there as if nothing happened?”
“…because it is useless to do anything about it, and I have had much practice pretending nothing has happened.”
A moment of silence followed as Maeryn considered Zula’s words.
“Before your husband, I had another master. He was a cruel man.” She paused, unable to speak what she was thinking. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but her eyes never faltered. “There were many things he did to me, and the others. There was nothing we could do. That was my whole life until I met your husband. After a while, you learn to hold it in.”
“But why should I hold it in?”
When Zula continued, her voice was almost a whisper. “Because it’s a gift. It’ll make you stronger than you ever thought possible. It’ll make you smarter. It’ll build inside you until the moment comes when you find a way to make him suffer in such a way that it repays all of the things he’s done to you.”
It was clear that she was speaking directly out of her past. Maeryn was at once intrigued and scared.
“You are a strong woman, Miss,” Zula said, her voice now sounding normal. “Don’t let him break you.” Zula turned and walked away, the conversation ending just as abruptly as it had begun.
Maeryn was speechless. Not only had Zula spoken as eloquently as any educated woman, but it was unheard of for a slave to speak so boldly to her master. She risked her own safety in order to share the honest truth. It was a much-needed message. And she’s right. It’s not enough to kill him while he sleeps, especially when I would forfeit my own life in the process. No! There is more that can be done. I won’t give Lemus the power to destroy my life.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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