The sun was high in the heavens, the wind was low, and the plains verdant. It would probably have been a good day to lie in the sun and have her hair braided by her little sisters thought Allaynah. Too bad most of her sisters were either dead or missing, she thought, they would have loved this place. Wearily Allaynah trudged on with the tip of an obsidian spear hovering menacingly close to her naked back. How long had she been marching through the plains? The sun was almost to the middle of the sky, and it had been deep night when she started out. She heard a grunt from somewhere close behind her and the hairs on her back pricked up around the spot she imagined the spearhead was just over.
She knew her captor was getting impatient with her progress, she’d been slowing down for the past hour and had lost her place at the front of the procession and was now starting to trail. She had had nothing to drink all morning. She didn’t want to look at her feet anymore, not since flakes of torn skin had started poking out from around the edges of her feet. Allaynah had never walked this far in her life, looking around her she could see that all the other women from her tribe were struggling with the pace too. All except the painted woman. Allaynah didn’t know her name, or even what clan she came from, but from her green eyes, long brown hair braided in three ponytails, and the patches of fair skin that weren’t marked with paint, thorn scars, and ink, it was clear: she was Paximani just like Allaynah, albeit an eccentric one to have decorated her body like that. Typically only some of the Paximani men had their bodies marked like hers was. She alone was maintaining the steady march. As Allaynah was gazing at the strange painted woman ahead of her the woman looked casually over her shoulder and glared at Allaynah as though she was irritated by the sensation of being watched by her.
Allaynah flinched and tried to look away but the thirst brought on by their long march had weakened her too much, she stumbled and fell onto her knees. Before she could pick herself back up a hard kick struck her in the stomach. The blow winded her and she crumpled over face first into the turf tearing a gash into her chin on a sharp rock. Allaynah felt sick from the pain but she was too tired to care, she lay there limp as a pulse of sobbing passed through her. She knew the sharp edge of the spear must be very close to her heart now. She wondered if getting skewered on that dark sharp stone might hurt less than how she felt now as a small trail of blood flowed out from her chin.
“Pick up the pace you fat filthy pig!” Hissed the woman holding the spear to Allaynah’s back.
While Allaynah and her tribeswomen had been stripped naked and forced to march barefoot all night and all morning, the women escorting them were clad in furs and most wore thick leather skirts that went down to their shins. Their necks were adorned with laces made out of teeth, some of them were from animals, but many of them were human teeth. It was apparently custom among this tribe to collect the teeth of their victims. They had various strips of white paint over their faces and their bodies. These women were of the Bellamani tribe. A tribe of warriors and conquerors. A tribe who had conquered the Paximani and all their lands. The dark tip of the Bellamani spear hovered above the place where her heart was secured within her ribcage. At any moment the spear could plunge through her thin layer of flesh and end her life; at any moment the spears of the Bellamani could all come down at once and end the Paximani tribe.
Why not? Thought Allaynah, look at these women: they are tall, toned, and fit. They showed no signs of exhaustion despite the long march. Her tribe mates by comparison were fat and filthy like pigs. Maybe it was Hain’s judgement? Had the god of war sent the Bellamani to destroy them? She heard her grandmother’s voice ring out inside her head: “Who are you to question a god?”
“You’re right grandmother… who am I to question a god?” she muttered deliriously to her imaginary relative.
There was a small commotion from the Bellamani women at hearing this. Allaynah knew what this meant. She closed her eyes and waited for the spear to be buried in her back.
Instead Allaynah found her whole head and body jerked up and pushed onto her side. She gasped for air and felt the embrace of another body on top of her. She was struggling to focus but realised it was Rosha her teenage cousin who had thrown herself between Allaynah and the spear. Rosha was sobbing dry tears and begging hysterically.
“Please Matriarch, please don’t kill my cousin. Let me carry her on my shoulder. I will make sure she doesn’t slow us down again!”
The Matriarch was a giantess standing at just over six foot tall, she was dressed in the same furs and leathers as her tribal sisters but instead of having just a simple decorated headband like some of the other Bellamani women, she wore a feathered head dress. Allaynah couldn’t identify the bird the feathers had originally come from, she guessed that the Bellamani came from so far away that the animals didn’t look the same anymore. They must have had great birds where they came from to have feathers like that.
The Matriarch came over to where the two Paximani women were huddled together in the dirt and brushed her own warrioress aside with the back of her hand so she could stand over the pair with her hands on her hips as she glared malevolently down on them. Rosha started repeating her pleas for clemency to the Matriarch even as she continued to choke on her sobs.
“Be quiet!” hissed the Matriarch.
Rosha instead went on pleading even more, “Please, I am stronger than I look, I can carry her, there’s no need to kill her. She’ll make a good slave for you!”
No sooner had Rosha started talking the surrounding Bellamani warrioresses took a step back anticipating what was about to happen next. The Matriarch thrust down a long muscular arm grasped Rosha’s elbow and dragged her away from Allaynah who was still regaining her lost senses. Once clear of Allaynah the Matriarch tossed the teenager back onto the dirt and proceeded to land punch after punch across her head, neck, and body. Rosha cried out in pain but this only seemed to encourage the Matriarch to hit her more often and more ferociously.
“I. Said. Be. Quiet!” growled the Matriarch as she beat her. The other Bellamani women looking on were grinning ear to ear watching the spectacle unfold; a couple of them even started chuckling excitedly when a blow landing on Rosha’s lip caused it to burst open spattering a shower of blood all over her muddied body. The beating eventually abated and Rosha through an effort of will clenched her bloodied jaws and forced herself to stop sobbing.
The Matriarch gestured towards Allaynah, “Well, go on, carry her.”
The bruised and bloodied Rosha dragged herself up onto her feet and started to crawl towards her cousin, but it was Allaynah who put her arms around Rosha and helped lift her to her feet. The two women started limping back along the track. The other Paximani women stared at them their faces downcast and sullen, while the bright white teeth of the Bellamani women could still be seen everywhere grinning at the lame woman now carrying her would be helper. Allaynah caught a glimpse of the painted woman from her own tribe and was surprised to see she wasn’t as sullen and downtrodden as the other Paximani women; her face had an intensely fierce expression. Who is this painted woman? Allaynah wondered again.
The Matriarch marched out in front of the group of fifty or so women from the two tribes and addressed them all, “we are almost at my camp. If there are any more delays I won’t be so merciful next time!” as she said ‘next time’ she punctuated her speech by holding a sickle up to her throat and making a cutting gesture with it.
The Paximani women understood the meaning of this and resumed marching on steadily despite their thirst and tiredness. No one seemed to come near Allaynah and Rosha. Even Rosha’s best friend Zayla kept her distance and avoided looking at her as Allaynah was now forced to carry much of the weight of her beaten body for her. Allaynah tried to make eye contact with the other women she recognised from her clan: Triani and Kaybekah, but neither of them glanced up to meet her gaze. Allaynah felt a pressure in her throat as though someone was pressing a thumb on her larynx to choke her. She was thinking about how she had lived her whole life with these women and none of them were even going to offer her any moral encouragement through a sideways glace. But then she caught the eye of the painted woman, and although she didn’t smile, she tipped her head up slightly in a gesture before turning away. Allaynah didn’t understand what she meant by this gesture, but all the same, it was good to at least be noticed by one of her kin.
Wearily the group trudged on across the plain.