The Matriarch’s camp was situated in a field not far from a river. It was surrounded by a wall made by binding hundreds of thorn bushes together and dragging the assembled chain of brambles into a perimeter line. The wall wasn’t straight at all and so the camp was shaped more like a splatter mark than a well organised military base. There were only two entries to the camp and each was guarded by at least six of the Matriarch’s warrioresses armed with spears, clubs, and bows. There were no towers overlooking the perimeter, nor any huts. There were several open fires burning throughout the camp interior, around them were clusters of tents made from saplings and animal skins stretched over them. There was something that troubled Allaynah about the things the Bellamani built. Weaving brambles and nettles together to create a wall was something the Paximani never did. On the few occasions they had built walls they had used wood, dirt, and stone; that much she knew. But the foreignness of this wall troubled her. It was like a long thorn studded snake weaving its way into her home. While looking at the wall she vaguely recalled the men of her tribe talking about the challenges regarding the building of walls. She wished she’d paid more attention to what the men had said.
When Allaynah’s group first arrived they were made to wait on the grass just inside one of the camp entrances. Small groups of Paximani women were then escorted down to the river allowed to drink for the first time that day. Allaynah was careful to wash Rosha’s wounds. She found some leaves from a herb that helped wounds to heal faster, but lacking a mortar and pestle she crushed the leaves up in her hands as best she could before applying them to Rosha’s injuries. She would have used her teeth but the same herb if ingested would make one sick. Allaynah was aware that the painted woman was staring intensely at Rosha while the teenager’s wounds were being treated.
“Are you a medicine woman?” asked the painted one.
Allaynah shook her head while quietly making eye contact with the painted woman. The painted woman rose up onto her toes and crept closer to Rosha to peer down at her curiously. Rosha’s face had several gashes on it and one of her eyes was almost completely squeezed shut by the swelling. A large purple lump dominated the right side of her face. She looked up at the painted woman and shivered.
“What is your name, little one?” she asked her voice full of intensity.
“Rosha,” she mumbled awkwardly through her damaged face. Satisfied with this, the strange woman walked away again without another word.
Most of the women took only a few mouthfuls of water to sate their thirst, but Triani was gulping down great mouthfuls of water, far more than she need. Kaybekah leaned over and whispered why was she drinking so much. Triani explained that she didn’t trust that the Bellamani would let them come down to the water whenever they wanted to, so she wanted to drink more water now for later. Impressed with this argument, despite its flaws, Kaybekah started gulping down extra mouthfuls of water too.
Eventually all the captive women had taken turns at the river and were gathered up together in one group surrounded by Bellamani warrioresses brandishing their obsidian spears. Allaynah counted almost two hundred of her tribes women. Although most of them must have come from clans who lived far away from her clan because there were very few familiar faces in the crowd. The Matriarch surveyed them all carefully, she had two of her captains by her side. These women wore similar feathered head dresses like her own but were less elaborate. There was a tall lean one whose muscles protruded underneath her skin as though her skin were unusually tighter than most people’s. Her name was Neelah. Next to her was a shorter woman with a plump slightly overweight statue, her bottom lip was oversized and protruded hanging from her face; her name was Narramar.
The two captains departed from the Matriarch’s side and moved about the captive Paximani women looking them over, often groping their arms, legs, buttocks, and stomachs without asking or warning. They spoke their own language to each which Rosha understood, but most of the other Paximani women couldn’t. Rosha murmured under her breath to Allaynah a translation of their strange tongue.
“They’re talking about splitting us up into two groups. I don’t know why they would do that. The tall one seems to be looking for the strongest women, while the fat one is looking for the prettiest women.”
Narramar walked near Allaynah and Rosha and the pair instantly went quiet their eyes downcast. Narramar kneeled down and grabbed Rosha’s jaw and jerked her head up and from side to side to inspect her facial injuries from the Matriarch’s beating earlier. She looked over to Neelah and excitedly chirped out a phrase Allaynah couldn’t understand but which Narramar obviously thought was funny. Allaynah had been holding her cousin’s hand at the time and felt a surge of tension going through her body at whatever Narramar had been saying. The Bellamani captain stood up and moved onto the next group of women to grope. Allaynah watched until she was out of earshot and asked Rosha what Narramar had said that was funny.
Rosha hesitated as though unsure herself what she had heard, “She said that I was only good for skinning, stuffing with roots, and slowly roasting over a fire.”
Allaynah covered her mouth to stifle an involuntary squeal of terror, but Rosha hadn’t finished, “she also said it wasn’t fair that their men were eating their fill of flesh today without the women folk.”
“I wonder what that could mean?” pondered Allaynah.
“I’m confused, doesn’t it mean the Bellamani men are as skilled at hunting as they are at fighting?”
“But Rosha, she was just talking about skinning, stuffing, and roasting you.”
Instantly the teenager comprehended what Allaynah was getting at and all the colour drained from her face. Allaynah wasn’t sure what her cousin was seeing with her mind’s eye at that moment, but she knew what she could see: Images of her slain brothers and uncles cascading through her mind like a waterfall of disjoined heads. Within moments her hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. What had been the final fate of her menfolk? Were they now being devoured in another camp not that far away from here by a horde of Bellamani men? Were the Bellamani cannibals? Would the same happen to her last remaining Paximani sisters? It took all of her self-controlling to stop herself from weeping, but despite her best efforts she couldn’t stop herself from shaking until several more minutes had gone by. Rosha recovered her composure sooner, being fixated on listening into the conversations of the Bellamani women, she leaned over to Allaynah’s ear to continue her translations.
“Now those two are having an argument, that fat one there, I think her name is Narramar, she says that we’re all too soft and fat to make good soldiers, but their menfolk would certainly find a good use for us. The other one, Neelah, she is saying she can teach us to dig something… archery… clubs… but not spears or swords… she wants us for one season then to prove our worth.”
“Prove our worth? What does she mean?”
“In battle I think. But that can’t be right, what use are women in battle?”
Allaynah gestured to the warrioresses guarding them, “It looks like the Bellamani women fight along with their men. Maybe they want us to join with their tribe?”
“Is that what happens when one tribe conquers another? They make the survivors join theirs?”
Allaynah needed a few moments to think through all that she had heard. She ignored Rosha’s questions and concentrated on her memories of her grandmother. She recalled her grandmother telling her once that if a tribe was defeated all the men, older women, and boys were killed off. The young women and girls were kept as “wives” for the conquering tribe, they were part of the spoils of war. But her grandmother never told her anything about the other tribe eating the dead tribesmen and then turning the women into soldiers to fight for the tribe. Why would the Bellamani do such things? It was clear to her that the Bellamani didn’t have a firmly established tradition on this matter because the female leaders of their tribe were arguing about what to do with them. Now the Matriarch had joined into the argument, Allaynah nudged Rosha for more translation.
Rosha shook her head, “They’re talking too quickly now, I am not sure I am getting everything that they’re saying.”
“Just tell me of what you are certain, Rosha,”
Rosha paused, “I think the Matriarch is saying she would agree to do both, have some of us become warriors, and the others be turned into wives for the Bellamani men, but she has a lot of demands in regards to this, I can’t follow them all. But I think she wants all the “wives” cut after the men have had their use with them. Narramar doesn’t understand why she wants the women cut up, and the Matriarch is refusing to tell her.”
Allaynah had heard enough, “If they ask us to become wives to their men, we must refuse, they won’t kill us or starve us if they need us a soldiers. Nor will be forced to lie with their men. Rosha, let’s spread the word to our sister kin. Tell everyone that if they ask us if we want to stay here and be soldiers, or to be wives to their men, and that we should all choose to be soldiers.”
Allaynah and Rosha started whispering the message to their sister kin on either side of them, who then passed it onto others, and still others, soon the words “soldiers?” and “wives?” could be heard uttered with hushed astonishment throughout the group. By the time the three Bellamani leaders had finished their argument all the Paximani women had been forewarned of what to expect from the Matriarch’s speech. The Matriarch, who spoke the Paximani tongue fluently, stood hands on hips glaring at the captive mass of naked women at her feet. She waited until all the murmuring had stopped before she started her pronouncement.
“Women folk of the vanquished Paximani tribe, your fate is in your hands. Serve your new master the Bellamani well and you may live, betray us and you will be torn to pieces and fed to the dogs. Our warriors are in need of wives, and I have decided that twenty of you may be allowed the honour to share beds with them. But only twenty. Before I start choosing who gets to go I will ask for volunteers. Who here wants to be a wife for the mighty Bellamani warriors?”
Allaynah looked around and felt assured that none of her women kin would ever think to bed any of the men who had just slaughtered and eaten their brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers. However, everywhere she looked in the crowd Paximani women were getting up and moving towards the place where Narramar was waiting for them. How could they do this? Did they not realise they were choosing to sleep with murderers and potential cannibals? And to get up and go with them so eagerly? About fifteen women had made it to the front now, and more were still struggling to get to the front climbing over other women who were quietly pleading with them to stay. Then Allaynah recognised one of the women wading through the group to get to the front.
“Printara!” she cried out at a woman who looked remarkably like Allaynah except her feature were a little older. The woman looked back at her with a face weary with exhaustion. If Printara saw her, she pretended not to recognise her and kept moving towards Narramar. Realising what she meant to do Allaynah forgot the blisters on her feet and pounced over a pair of other women and tackled Printara to the ground. Printara tried pushing Allaynah off and continue walking through to the front of the crowd, but Allaynah held on tighter and than ever; even going so far as to dig her fingernails into the flesh of Printara’s thighs to maintain her grip on her.
“Let me go!” she screamed at Allaynah, but her cries were drowned out by the laughter from the Bellamani women which had also infected some of the Paximani women too. Managing to free a leg Printara aimed and then delivered a powerful blow that sent Allaynah crashing down onto the ground. Scurrying back to her feet she tried to jump the final distance to clear the group but Narramar’s hand was out stretched with her palm showing.
“No more, I have the twenty wives I need. Go back, I may come again to collect some more another day,” said Narramar.
Printara and at least two dozen other Paximani women were forced to walk back into the mass of their women folk having missed their opportunity to become brides of the Bellamani. They all wore expressionless faces showing neither disappointment nor gratitude; except for Printara who turned on Allaynah with her teeth clenched and showing between her gums.
“You worthless little snot ball!” she screamed and started wildly pummelling her fists down on Allaynah, “why do you have to ruin everything for me?” more laughter from the Bellamani women erupted at the sight of the two naked women fighting each other in the dirt.
Triani leaned over to ask, “Who is that woman attacking Allaynah?”
“That’s her sister,” replied Kaybekah.