Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Far, far away, in a land that knew not the taste of salt in the air, nor the kiss of ocean waves upon its shores, another young girl, blonde of hair and blue of eye, was on her way to town. This other girl's name was Tara, and she was deliriously happy, so much so that she was wriggling in her seat to keep from leaping in the air.
For she was spending the day with her Pappa, you see, and Tara did so love to spend time with her Pappa. She loved bringing a rare smile to his usually dour face, and she adored to make him laugh. She lived for those times when her Pappa would abandon his stern demeanor, lift her high in his strong arms and spin the both of them about, until they would collapse, dizzy and breathless with laughter.
Today did not seem like it was going to be one of those days, for Tara's Pappa was sunken deeply inside his own thoughts this morning as he sat slumped on the seat of their rickety cart. His weathered face was frozen into a mask of abject misery, and nothing Tara tried seemed capable of lifting his spirits.
Tara didn't notice this too much, for even though she was a caring and empathic child, her excitement this day was too great to be contained. She was on her way to Town! The town that fostered such excitement in the young girl was nothing special in the greater scheme of things, and likely did not even warrant a place on the maps of their land. But to Tara's immature mind, Town was the greatest place in the world, well deserving of the capital letter her mind always assigned to it.
Tara and her family lived and worked on a farm far out from Town, and as such, rarely visited. In point of fact, Tara only got to go a couple of times each year, and these trips were always the highlight of her year. Such was the sense of delight that Tara enjoyed that she also hadn't noticed her Momma's tear-stained face when she had said goodbye this morning, nor the desperate nature of her Momma's hug. Tara's Pappa had almost needed to pry his daughter loose from his sobbing wife's arms.
So that was the way father and daughter traveled to town, swaying in the cart as it followed the rutted track to town, one sunken in morose silence, the other smiling brightly and singing a happy tune.
Dressed in her best dress of cornflower blue, with a much-cherished ribbon in her hair, Tara felt like a princess from one of the stories she loved to read so much, on her way to a ball or a feast where she would find her prince. Tara wasn't so sure about the prince part; the only boy she knew of a likewise age to herself was her brother, who was typically dirty, smelly and loud. No, Tara much preferred the idea of finding another princess, with whom she could play, and laugh, giggle and whisper secrets.
Tara knew she wasn't a princess. She knew that she and her family were 'poor', even if the concept of wealth didn't mean much to a young farm girl. But Tara didn't mind; she didn't need fancy dresses, or expensive toys. She already had everything she wanted.
On a sudden impulse, she leaned over and hugged her father, ignoring in her happiness the way he stiffened briefly before sagging despondently. Nor did she notice the tear that trickled down his cheek.
Tara's Town was, properly speaking, a village that lay in the center of a patchwork quilt of farms, and served as a central meeting and distribution point for the inhabitants of the local surroundings. Besides a scattering of houses, it also boasted a single inn, a small blacksmith's workshop, and a small mill beside the creek that meandered alongside the village. A simple log palisade surrounded the town, to discourage any of the rare raider bands that sometimes visited these lands.
The track led straight down from the line of low, rolling hills that ringed the village to the north, so Tara was both surprised and confused when her father turned the cart off the main track and onto a faint path that led along the hill's summit.
"Pappa?" she queried. "Aren't we going to town?"
"Not just yet, dear heart," replied Tara's Pappa, his voice catching and breaking. "I need to see some men first."
Tara shrugged with a carefree smile, and turned to watch the path of a fluttering songbird. "Okay Pappa."
The cart carrying father and daughter rattled along the path, little more than two thin lines worn into the grass. It followed the ridge for a spell, weaving between small stands of birch and alder trees. By a worn granite boulder taller than Tara, the path turned away from town, and followed a gentle slope downwards into a small dell ringed by sky reaching pine trees.
A rough camp had been erected in the clearing there. A couple of heavy wagons and a line of hobbled horses stood on one side, and a row of canvas tents and a larger pavilion stood on the other. In the center of the clearing was a high fenced enclosure with a padlocked gate. Around it stood a handful of brawny, bored-looking men, leaning on spears, with cudgels in their belts.
Tara craned her head, peering this way and that as she sought to discover what the enclosure contained, but the fence was high and thickly woven, and easily thwarted her attempt. She turned to her Pappa, a myriad of questions bubbling at the tip of her tongue, but her father's expression was so miserable that the words froze in her mouth.
Dashing away tears with one calloused hand, Tara's father rounded on her and swept her into a crushing embrace. Confused, Tara still returned the hug enthusiastically.
"Gods, I love you Tara," he passionately whispered. "You do know that, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Tara replied curiously. "And I love you too Pappa."
Choking back a sob, he abruptly released Tara and hurled himself off the cart in a frenzy of movement. Hurrying around the cart, he almost yanked Tara off the cart, but set her down with exaggerated care. His behavior was starting to worry Tara now, and her brow was furrowed as her father led her halfway towards the pavilion before pausing.
Turning to his face his daughter, Tara's father dropped to his knees beside her, placing a hand on each of her shoulders. His face was twisted by some great conflict, and his lips were working wordlessly, searching for words that didn't want to come.
Finally, they did. "Tara ... this isn't what I wanted, you have to believe that. I never wanted this for you."
"Pappa?" Tara asked, confused.
Her father continued regardless, apparently unwilling to explain. "I don't have any choice, dear heart. This was the only thing I could do ... and you're strong Tara. Stronger than you know. You can survive this, I know you can!"
"Survive what, Pappa?" Tara asked, her voice low and frightened now.
He hugged her again, so tightly it was as if he never wanted to let her go again. "No matter what, dear heart, always remember that we love you."
Then, forcing himself upright, Tara's father led her the rest of the way to the pavilion. Two men met them there beneath the hanging canvas. One was tall, broad shouldered and rough faced, the twin of those men guarding the enclosure. The other man was short, with receding, slicked back hair and a pinched expression. Tara would not have been surprised to see oil freely dripping from him.
The oily man gave Tara's father an insincere smile, three gold teeth winking at them. "You came then," he noted, sounding mildly surprised. "This her then?" he asked, indicating Tara with a nod of his head.
Tara's Pappa nodded curtly, as if he couldn't trust his voice, and the oily man stepped closer to her, crouching down to study Tara's face. Reaching out, he took hold of Tara's jaw by the hand, blatently ignoring the way the Tara tensed at the violation of her person space. He turned her head one way, then the other, before forcing her mouth open to study her teeth, as if she were a horse he was considering buying. Tara didn't resist; she was too off balance and confused to even consider the idea.
"Nice," grunted the oily man, his appraisal completed. "She'll do nicely all right." Rising to his feet, he met Tara's father's downcast gaze head on, and held out his hand. After a long moment's hesitation, Tara's Pappa reached out his own trembling hand, and shook the oily man's.
"Done then!" announced the oily man, pumping their conjoined hands up and down a single time before releasing. Retrieving a coin pouch from within his leather vest, he handed it to Tara's Pappa with the chink of coinage. "The agreed upon price. Pleasure doin' business with ye."
Tara's father hesitated, licking his lips in apprehension as his gaze flickered back and forth between his daughter and the pouch in his open hand. "She ... she won't .... be mistreated, will she?" he asked in a quavering voice, eyes hooded and haunted.
Lips curving slightly, the oily man shook his head. "Nay, far from it. Likely enough, she'll have a better life than you could ever provide for her."
To Tara, bewildered and scared, his eyes screamed liar, but it seemed her father wanted to believe the lie, for his head jerked in a spasmodic nod. Taking a final, tortured glance at his daughter, Tara's Pappa turned and strode away.
Faintly, beneath his breath, the oily man muttered, "And if ye believe that, you're a damnable fool."
Tara made as if to follow her father, but the other man clamped his hand painfully on her shoulder and pulled her to a halt. "No you don't, poppet. You belong to us now."
"What?" squeaked Tara. She looked after her retreating father. "Pappa? Pappa, where are you going?" she begged, panic rising. "Pappa? Pappa, come back! Pappa!"
Her father continued walking, shoulders hunched, flinching every time Tara called for him. She screamed his name, and her father broke into a clumsy run ... away from her. Behind her, the oily man gave a nod, and his companion dealt Tara a heavy slap to the back of her head that laid her flat in the dust.
"Don't make it harder on him, lass," advised the oily man lazily. "If your father tries to change his mind, he'll find the price ta buy ye far higher than what we paid for ye. And ... well, lets just say that if money weren't an issue, ye wouldn't a' been sold in the first place, eh?"
Tara stayed down, lying in the dust, and watched as her father leapt aboard the cart and spurred their broken-down old horse to a canter. Tears welled silently in eyes as she watched her father abandon her, feeling cold and numb inside.
Standing above her, the second man grunted in satisfaction at Tara's apparent acquiescence, and looked to his companion. "What's the tale there then, Davos? Ain't often ya see one o' these sheep-shaggers out in the territories willin' ta sell his own sprats."
The oily man, Davos by name and slave trader by occupation, shrugged. "Ahh, tis the usual tale, Ponx. Poor harvest or suchlike leaves the stupid bugger unable ta pay his taxes, dunnit. So he's faced with a choice, see? He can see hisself sold ta pay the debt, and his whole family ta boot, or he can sell yon fair little skirt hisself, and earn enough silver to buy him and his another year."
The other man, Ponx, let out a hearty guffaw. "Never thought the taxman would do the likes of us any favors, eh!"
Davos grinned like a weasel, or some other small rodent. "That's the gods own truth, me friend. Now then, strip the wee bint down, I wanna see the rest of her."
Tara found herself hoisted upright, and before she could emit the slightest sound of protest, her dress and small clothes were torn clean off her body, leaving her naked and vulnerable before the two men's measuring, dispassionate gaze. Tara cringed, and tried to cover her nakedness, but Ponx slapped her hands away and forced her to stand straight, head back and arms at her side.
Davos nodded happily. "Aye, she's a fine piece of virgin ass, and she'll earn us a pretty penny at market. Now, get her in chains and put her in with the rest."
Ponx dragged Tara away by one arm, uncaring if she could keep up with his long stride or not. All the while, Tara looked back helplessly at the rising cloud of dust that signified her father's progress, and wept.
He had never even looked back.