The man laughs for a breath, but the laugh transforms into a cough, small droplets of blood forming on his chin. He stares for a few moments, shakes his head, and unsteadily walks through a second interior doorway Martun hadn’t noticed.
“I want to help him, Veldas, but don’t know how.”
“You’ve got a good heart, Martun.”
They search around the store. Veldas finds some canvas, “We should take every water skin we can find. I’d rather throw some away than want for more. That canvas over there will make a fine tent. Why didn’t they take that? And the rope.”
Martun follows along, smiling. Veldas catches him at it. “What?”
“Escaped slave, eh?”
“I told you that. What… oh.”
They both laugh. “You seem so sure of all this, Veldas.”
She shrugs, “I paid attention, I guess. I wasn’t always being beaten or… taken. I’d watch the preparations for a journey, certain that I’d be on one someday. The cooks had tales of walking in the support train behind larger forces, and they loved to talk about the roots and the meats they gathered or hunted.”
“They didn’t even know the treasure they had in their dungeon.”
She blushes fiercely. “Thank you.” She turns away, picking at a few clothes on a stand.
“Are you alright, Veldas?”
A tear hangs from her eye when she turns around, “I’m fine. It’s just… They called me asuta. Thing. They laughed, they insulted. Sometimes, they made me thank them for the things they did to me. After all of that, I started to believe them. If I hadn’t escaped, I would have lost me.”
Martun lays an arm over her shoulders, “I’m sorry.”
She smiles, “It hurts to hear you compliment me. Compliments are weapons. They used them well. ‘Very good, asuta. You’ll make a proper slut yet.’ ‘The lash makes you wiggle nicely, asuta.’”
Martun’s mind is reeling. How could such cruelty exist, flourish, even? She’s such a wonderful companion. “I can’t understand, Veldas. How did you survive?”
She lays her head against him. He knows she’s hiding her face from him. He doesn’t care. “I did what I had—”
“No. How did you survive?”
She looks up into his eyes. Martun’s heart churns from the empty sadness in those glowing eyes, “Did I? I wonder, Martun. At certain moments, I believe them. Even now, I believe them. I should have been whipped several times over for how I’ve been with you. They’d tie me to the table for those outbursts, and you’d have the whip, or the cat… Maker, or the cane.”
“Veldas, you don’t have to.”
She smiles at him, a brief sign of happiness that lights up the store. Then it fades. “I think I do. I’m so scared. I’m afraid of the feelings that will flood out if I let them go. Afraid of never letting them go. Afraid of the punishment, of the pain, of you leaving if you ever find out what I really am.”
She looks up.
“Remember the cry?”
She’s confused for a moment. Martun can still hear her wails and sobs as remembrance dawns on her. She nods.
“Did I leave?”
“Then what are you? What are you…...