Content Warning for non-graphic sexual abuse of a minor
The morning of Tarlah’s rescue started like many others.
Her client left, tightening his belt as the door swung shut. Tarlah slid off the rumpled bed to begin her familiar, thoughtless routine of rebinding her hair and washing herself. Then she pulled down her knee-length shift and padded toward the window. The floor felt cold, the air chill and damp, with the only warmth to be found either under the skimpy covers or with a client. But that hole-in-the-wall opening on a featureless patch of grey sky brought the only piece of freedom she could reach for.
Tarlah leaped, caught the sill, then pulled herself up and held on with her forearms. She blessed the growth that allowed her to reach the sill at all and stay for more than fleeting seconds. From here she could see the tops of neighboring roofs, pigeons flying, and, off to the right, a pair of jackdaws. A thin, cold drizzle hung in the air; she turned her face toward it, ignoring the mounting pain in her shoulders.
She wept. Some days that made her angry, to have her tears blur the crisp and varied beauty of the clouds, but today’s featureless sky proved ideal for crying. When the pain grew too sharp, she released her grip, slid to the floor, and kept weeping. What felt torn inside hurt far worse than her shoulders. She wanted the freedom to leave the room, leave that building, even leave the village of Springtide if she wished. She wanted to see what others spoke about, like rivers, and forests, and deer in the meadows. Not spend her life waiting for the door to open, waiting for another meal or another client.
If she ran away, worse would happen. She would still have clients, but she might not get any more food. Tarlah drew her knees to her chest, rocked back and forth, and painted the sky in her mind. All its moods, all its colors. Yet those memories only sharpened her yearning, rather than soothing it. So she wept, silently, waiting for the midday meal.
Too soon for eating, footsteps sounded on the stairs. The wrong footsteps. Not one of the women bearing lunch, but Boss, bringing another client. She often had the mornings to herself, but apparently not this one. Tarlah wiped the tears off her face and tried to clear any resentment from her expression, lest it win her a beating. Then she stood at the foot of the bed, clasped her hands before her, and ducked her head. Boss wanted her looking innocent and shy, anything but experienced.
The door swung open. Boss lumbered in first, followed by another man, a stranger. Of course, Boss did not bother to lead up the regulars. Tarlah swallowed. She never knew what a stranger wanted; sometimes they did not seem to know either. Took longer.
“Will she serve?”
“Indeed she will.”
Tarlah did not look up at the clinking of coins, waiting until the door swung closed behind Boss. His footsteps retreated down the stairs, but they were not as alone as the new client might believe.
The man came forward, knelt before her. He lifted a hand as though to caress her face, but stopped a fraction away from contact.
Is someone watching us?
Tarlah heard a voice, but in her head, not her ears. Presumably she heard his voice, though his lips had not moved. Hesitant, she nodded.
“Colder in here than I expected,” the man said, rising. Now he spoke in the normal fashion, but it sounded the same as that other voice: detached, mild. “Let’s get under the covers, warm up.”
Tarlah nodded and pulled aside the thin blankets. She got in first, then held them up for the client. He stretched out beside her, pulling the blankets over to cover them both completely. He did not touch her.
I think I found the spy hole, he said, again in that strange voiceless voice. Is it in the wall opposite the window, about bed height, closer to the door?
“That’s it,” she whispered. She hesitated, then stifled her curiosity. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Answer a question.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
“Do you want to be free?”
Tarlah froze, her heart racing in her throat. In that moment she felt pinned between desperate hope and unshakable terror.
“Boss said someone might say that. Try to lure me away. He said I wasn’t to believe it. That I’s just do business somewhere else or get used for no pay or have my throat cut in some alley somewhere . . . though I’s not sure what an alley is. Please don’t hurt me, sir, but Boss don’t let me leave with anyone.”
“I don’t care what Boss wants, though I fear he’s right with his warnings. But I did not come here to use you or take anything from you or cut your throat in an alley or anywhere else. I came because . . . I think you want to be free, and I can give you freedom.”
Tarlah grimaced, fighting to stifle her welling tears. Some clients liked her weeping, but not all. “I do want to be free, sir. It’s all I want. But I won’t go with you. You’s a man just like all of them, even if you haven’t touched me yet.”
“And there you’re wrong, young one. I am no man.”
The blanket lifted, settled again; he raised an arm to keep it from dropping between them. Tarlah stared, then clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle a cry that might end their privacy. He had changed!
She no longer kept company with a nondescript young man bearing dark hair and a narrow face . . . but the Defender of Life. In her bed! With her! It had to be him: bronze flesh like a Lansender, folded wings like the birds she watched, save far more vivid even in that sullen dimness than any bird. She had a picture in her mind from the ballads she had heard sung down in the tavern, but it did not compare to the creature lying beside her. Hair like gold, yes, eyes like . . .
Tarlah started sobbing. “Take me away! Take me away, Defender, take me away!”
He nodded, swept the blanket aside, and stood. So odd that the chamber still seemed as gloomy and drab as a moment before, because she so expected it to overflow with light. His light.
“Anything you want to bring, young one?”
She shook her head, still weeping. He beckoned her to rise, and then—
Light. So much light, filling her from everywhere, flooding her eyes, her senses. All the world’s sunlight danced about her, and the smell . . . all the smell of life. She fell back, overwhelmed, felt something wet squelch beneath her, but could not care what she lay on. Then she spread her arms to embrace the huge, fathomless sky, both laughing and weeping at once.
“I’m sorry.” The Defender knelt beside her and spread his wings over her to block the sunlight, screening her view. “Too much at once.”
“But I’s free!” She gazed at those feathers, reveling in the way the light passed through them, the rich colors she had no names for. Under those wings lay safety, from a world too huge, too strange, too confusing. “Thank you, Lord Defender. But . . . will you leave me here?”
“Certainly not. I will bring you to Delarun, just over that hilltop. Where you can get decent clothes and better food and learn whatever you might wish. I fear you’re older than you look.”
He nodded. “Take your time. There’s no hurry. No schedule you must follow.”
It took them hours to reach Delarun. She felt vulnerable as a beetle on paving stones beneath that unfettered sky, spinning wildly between exhilaration and terror at the openness of the world around her. Her eyes kept dripping under brightness so foreign to her experience, for never before had she been so engulfed by unfiltered sunlight.
She might not have reached the doorway at all without the Defender. Tarlah knew herself safe in his shadow, even after he took the guise of a man again, grey-haired this time, ageless and kind. He was the Master of Delarun, but that word felt too bitter on her tongue, too close to the Boss who had blighted her days, so he let her call him Arun instead.
More fear pounced at the threshold, even while the terror of depthless sky and endless land vanished behind the security of stone walls and ceilings. For strangers waited, exclaiming over her dirty shift, her waist-length, silken black hair, her bloodless flesh and thin limbs. She knew they were not clients, that the Defender would never let the men use her or the women beat her, but they still terrified her. To her relief, he ensconced her in the kitchen and shooed them all away except the cook, a kindly woman named Yava. She was small-boned and gentle, short hair sprinkled with silver.
“What will make you feel more comfortable?” the Defender asked. “To share a room with others or sleep alone? I know this is a great deal of change, all at once.”
“Can I walk outside whenever I want?”
Yava bobbed her head, smiling. “Of course, dear, and if you want to use the bathhouse, you must. Anytime, even in the middle of the night, if the stars call you. Don’t mind me, either.”
“I-I’ll sleep alone, if that’s all right,” Tarlah said. “It’s what I’s used to.”
“Then this room by the kitchen will be yours,” the Defender replied, “once we’ve cleared away a few things.”
“My junk collects in there,” Yava said with a laugh, “when I’m too lazy to haul it to the storeroom. Latch the door and no one will trouble you.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Tarlah said. “And no one will use me for my food?”
“Never again,” the Defender said.
Yava shook her head, appearing speechless.
“But . . . but how can I earn my keep?”
“Learn first. Find out what sort of work pleases you.” The Defender hesitated. “I never asked your name. I don’t know if you want to keep the name they called you.”
Tarlah nodded. “I’s Tarlah. It’s the only thing of Mother’s I’s got, since she died when I was born. I don’t want to leave it behind.”
“Then we’ll call you Tarlah,” Yava said. “It is beautiful.” She reached out to pat Tarlah’s hand, but Tarlah flinched away.
Tarlah nodded, staring at the floor. This woman would not beat her, surely . . . at least not in front of the Defender. As if in reply to her thoughts, he knelt before her. It felt strange to look into those silver eyes, alike and unlike his true ones.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay, Tarlah. But I will try to visit. Every day when possible, until I know you’re comfortable here. And if you don’t like it, tell me. I promised you freedom, so I won’t trap you anywhere.”
“Th-thank you, Lord Defender,” she said, then realized her blunder. “I mean Arun.”
He gave her a gentle smile. “I know this won’t be easy for you, but I’m sure you will never regret leaving Springtide. Until tomorrow, Tarlah.”
The Defender rose and walked out of the kitchen. Happy cries erupted from the hallway beyond; Tarlah managed to smile as she listened. She would trust him and only him. He was not human; he would not hurt her.
“Can I go outside now?” she asked the cook. Though she feared the huge sky with no bright wings to shelter her, she wanted to be sure she remained free.
“Certainly,” Yava said. “Use this door here; it’s faster than bothering with the main door. And you can probably fit through the window of your room too, I don’t doubt. I’ll clear it now, before you come back in.”
So Tarlah went outside, stayed close to the wall, and inspected her new world. Early spring had arrived, which meant everything smelled of mud. Some sort of plant stems covered the stone walls. Everything seemed alive here, even though the trees growing by the stream did not have leaves yet. Tarlah edged along the wall and around the corner of the building. In a sheltered hollow she found the window of her new room, for she would see Yava through it, bustling stuff away with the help of a pair of other women. The window had panels of a substance clear like ice; when she tapped on it, it felt cool as stone.
One of the women came over and raised the strange, inlaid wooden partition. Then open air lay between them, no barrier. “Welcome, Tarlah,” she said with a smile. Grey sprinkled her curly hair; her frame was strong-boned and broad. “I am Ganil. We’ll have your room ready soon, and fresh clothes too.”
“Th-thank you.” Tarlah ducked her head. She hesitated, caught between fear and daring.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” the woman asked. “I know this must be a bit frightening.”
“What is this?” Tarlah reached up and tapped again on the cool, transparent material.
“Ah, that’s glass. Perfect for keeping out insects and rain and wind.” Ganil smiled. “Would you believe it is made from sand?”
“Sand . . . the stuff by the shore, right? I-I’s afraid I’ve never seen any.”
Ganil shook her head, frowning. “You have so much to learn, Tarlah. So don’t hesitate to ask me anything. I love to teach. I’d love to teach you to read too.”
“Read? Like the hyarmi?” Excitement coursed through her. “So I can learn by myself, and, and . . .”
“And travel the world in your mind without going anywhere. Learn of great deeds from the past, discover the stories ballads come from, get to know people without ever meeting them, find questions you never even knew to—Oh, I can get so carried away. I have such recalcitrant students, sometimes. But I don’t think you’ll be one of them.”
Tarlah shook her head, managing to smile. “I want to learn. Thank you, Ganil.”
“Then we’ll start tomorrow,” Ganil said, grinning. “And you won’t regret it.”
Dinner proved terrifying. Tarlah had eaten her lunch in the kitchen with only Yava and Ganil for company after they cleared her room and she received a long tunic and skirt to wear. But dinner took place in a larger room, surrounded by a larger group than she had ever eaten with. She saw other children there and watched them with fascination. They laughed, chattered, asked questions, got scolded for flicking bits of food at each other, and felt completely alien to her experience. So fearless; so assured. So innocent, yet so wise.
Her ignorance only added to her discomfort. For metal tools lay beside her plate, which her companions wielded with dexterity, but she had only eaten with her hands before. She could not lift the soup bowl and drain it, not with so many watching, all eating primly from tiny scoops on the end of metal handles. So she sopped her bread in her soup and wondered if she could bring herself to ask Yava for practice time. Would they laugh at her? She knew so little!
But she was free. She was free.
The following days brought Tarlah many changes and continual discoveries. Yava and Ganil remained patient and kind. They helped her learn to wield a spoon and knife alone at breakfast in her room, keeping her struggles private. At her request, they cut her long hair to shoulder length, making it easier to manage. She did not have to bind it anymore, so it did not remind her of her past.
They even let her wear boy’s leggings under her girl’s skirt, neither scolding nor asking questions, instead trying to hide their sorrow. She felt safer that way, with cloth all around. If someone tried to use her, it would slow them, and by then the Defender would come. Tarlah could not bring herself to wear shoes, despite the mud or the pebbles and branches that jabbed her soles. Shoes felt unnatural, like cages for her feet. She wanted no cages, only freedom.
And freedom she possessed. She could open her window and creep through it at any hour, then pad up to the lowest terrace in the middle of the night to watch the stars or feel the rainfall. She could leave the dell and crouch at its rim to witness the sunrise and sunset, huge beyond belief in that open land. It only took a few days for the vale of Delarun itself to feel safe, with dirt floor and cliffs for walls. The treeless land beyond still unnerved her, yet she could not resist her fascination with its immensity.
Lessons with Ganil proved the most exhilarating and frightening part of each day. She loved the learning, the curving shapes of the hyarmi letters, the association of sound with form, and trying to draw them with chalk on slate. Yet that class held other students beside herself, and she could not understand them: their teasing, their banter, their moods. How could anyone be sad in Delarun? Or pout or whine? Adults made better company, at least adult women.
The men still terrified her, though none of them, from the Sentinel to the teachers to the gardener, made any move to approach her or trap her. In the end, she had to make an approach, but only of Vannir, because he tended the horses and she wanted to ride. That brought her even more challenges, both from her fear of the openness around her and her disbelief that an animal so much bigger than herself would heed her at all. She acted too timid with them, so they did what they pleased with her clinging to their backs. Yet they never treated her cruelly, and they were not human, so she did not give up.
Each new day brought more experiences, with endless opportunities for learning, watching, and living. Her room felt a sanctuary now rather than a prison, for no one entered it save herself. That meant she had to clean it on her own, but she loved the independence of that labor. Delarun had proven itself a home more wonderful than she could have ever imagined.
Yet she could not sever herself from her old life. Not when it visited her in her dreams.
There the terror lay, that when she woke, she would find herself back in her confinement, waiting for that door to open, small, high window leading nowhere. She would feel hands on her again, careless blows, lust hot and dripping between her legs—
Then Tarlah would wake in truth, trembling and gasping. She would open her window to crawl outside and gaze up at the stars, or else seek the terraces to remind herself that she remained free. Utterly free . . . so long as she stayed awake. She would wait for the dawn after those dreams, and wait for him.
Nearly every morning the Defender came to her, though she saw him only in the form of Delarun’s Master. After a few days, she began to hide from him. She did not want to avoid him, not at all! But she felt so delighted that he would seek her out, regardless of where she went or the trouble it might bring to find her. That he would trouble himself to come to her! Come to her, and take nothing! It seemed a joy huge beyond expressing.
That second day in Delarun he had assumed the hyarmi form, charming her with his soft golden fur and big eyes and the fact that he stood at just about her own height in that shape. She could touch him in that form without any fear, listen, and marvel while he explained what he did. He restored her body from any scars and sickness she had suffered; he renewed her growth after years of too much hunger and poor food.
But after that morning, they simply spoke. He asked about her day, while she asked him the questions she could not bring herself to speak to anyone else. For he was not human, and he would never hurt her or mock her. Those made her favorite times of all, though she enjoyed the reading practice almost as much.
“How’d you find me?” Tarlah asked when the closet door swung open. She had thought it quite obscure, tucked away on the third level, far from Arun’s study.
“Do you mean now, or in Springtide?”
She hesitated, for it had not occurred to her to wonder before. She did not want to remember that village or that room, though it always stayed with her. “Both.”
“I found you here, because I can scry you,” he said, kneeling. “And I do know my way around Delarun fairly well.”
Tarlah giggled at that. She could laugh in his company, though no one else’s. “Because you built it! Long, long ago. Centuries!”
“Indeed.” He smiled at her. “As for Springtide, I went there hunting a dark mage. I walked below your window. I felt your grief, and I thought it might be because that dark mage held you captive. That was not the case, but I’m very glad I found you.”
“Me, too.” She saw that his eyes had gone distant, that he seemed perturbed. “Did you go back and keep looking?”
“Yes, I’ve been back. A few times. And I did find that dark mage, two days later. She is mage no longer.”
Tarlah beamed. Knowing him felt like living in a ballad. She had never met a dark mage and hoped she never would. The stories were terrifying enough. “Then why are you sad about it?”
“You’re perceptive, Tarlah,” he said. “It’s not the dark mage who troubles me, but your former keeper. You probably didn’t know it, but what they forced you to do was against Bivordian law. It is utterly wrong, and the government would stop it if it knew.”
“Them would?” Her mind started throwing images at her. Sneaking out her window, running to the village guard, finding deliverance rather than another user. Why had she never tried? She grimaced and thrust the broken past away. “Then you told them, right? And stopped Boss?”
“I tried to. But I am not a citizen of Springtide. I told them what Boss and the folk working at his tavern had done to you. Then he and all his women said that they never had a girl, that they’re all there working freely because they want—”
“That’s a lie!” Tarlah realized she trembled. “Some, maybe, but some have to work because them’s in debt. And them never get out. I heard them complaining.”
“I’m not surprised. But I make one claim, and they make another, with no grounds for the village elders to choose me over them. Because you could have somehow fooled me, after all.”
“You don’t lie,” Tarlah said, fists clenched with fury.
He shook his head. “But my own beliefs don’t always match Bivordian law, while they know I hate the sort of places men like Boss run. But what troubles me the most is . . .” He hesitated, then frowned. “I don’t want to distress you by making you remember.”
“Don’t stop. I already remember; every night I remember.”
The Defender fixed her with his gaze. “Bad dreams? I . . . should have guessed it.”
“Them’s just dreams. Every day, I’s free and so glad. So, so glad.” Tarlah managed a smile. “You’s answered so many of my questions. Let me answer one for you. Please.”
“Very well, then. Did you have many regular customers?”
She swallowed. “I did. Some was sailors up to north Bivord, so only when them was in port. Others . . . not. Do you want their names?”
A chill flame shone in his pale eyes, foretelling trouble to those men whenever he did learn their names. Tarlah shuddered, staring, then found herself fighting an upwelling of tears. Any number of people had grown angry at her often enough during her life, until it meant little. But never, never had anyone been angry for her. Not even her grandmother, before she died. It made her feel as if she was solid gold, not dirty and soiled and used. Valued. Priceless, even.
“I’m sorry,” the Defender said. “We don’t need to keep speaking of this.”
“No, no, that’s not it. Any more questions? And . . . and why did you ask?”
“No more questions. The reason I asked, Tarlah, is because I don’t want that man finding another girl to replace you. And he might want to, if you brought him enough money. I don’t want to have to keep going back to that room, wondering if I might find another child like you in it. Or . . . probably in a different room next time, with no window. I want to stop him completely and shut that place down, but I can’t. Because they won’t weigh my testimony any higher than that of any other villager. And that is their right.”
“Then . . .” Tarlah hesitated, drew a long breath, loosed the words. “What about my testimony?”
“Yours would settle it.” He frowned. “But I cannot ask that of you so soon. To stand in their court with all the elders, then have a mage touch you and verify your memories. To see your former keeper and hear what he might say about you. It would be terrifying for you, Tarlah. I will not seek it.”
She nodded in relief. The mere imagining felt dreadful enough. At times she found it hard to just sit in the dining hall and eat with the men there, but to get up and testify? To tell them of . . . everything? And then have someone touch her. Too much, far too much.
“I’s glad you tried to stop them, Arun. But let’s talk about something else now.”
So they did, but Tarlah could not forget what he had told her. She still dreamed herself in that room each night, but sometimes someone else lived trapped there with her, someone who wept as she had and yearned for freedom but found none of it.
Once Tarlah’s grandmother had died, no one there had cared for her, no one would oppose Boss on her behalf. So someone like her might fill that cursed room again, with no family and no protector, hidden away by walls and darkness and lies. Believing that she had to earn her keep; believing that her only value lay in being used. No one else would live in that room if Tarlah herself had not been rescued. So was she in some small way responsible for whoever might succeed her? She should stop it; she should!
Yet against all that stood the terror of seeing Boss again, the dread of trying to speak, the shame of answering the questions they would ask, the fear of being touched by a mage, by anyone. It felt too much to face, while the mere imagining quite daunted her.
So spring spread its gentle robe over Delarun, greenness broke out everywhere, and birdsong lightened the air. Tarlah grew less timid around the horses. She worked hard at her learning, memorized the hyarmi letters, and practiced her writing. Ganil praised her quickening dexterity with chalk and ink, which led to new blessing in her transformed life. For the Watcher Feria, one of Delarun’s guardians, heard those praises and began to instruct Tarlah in embroidery.
Learning to write brought joy to Tarlah’s mind, an enticement of even broader freedoms she craved to attain. But she found that embroidering provided a balm to her spirit. That she could make beauty! Her fingers, her hands, herself! It astounded her, so soiled and tarnished as she always felt, that she added to the beauty on the earth, despite what she had endured. She found it wondrous.
So she practiced and she learned, while lovely shapes formed under her careful stitches. Feria made a good and patient teacher, the colors looked clear and bright, and little appeared awry save her dwindling inexperience. Yet Tarlah still felt as if darkness knit itself into her work. Perhaps not seen on the outside, but shot through the core of every thread ran black and bitter shame. How could she do this? Learn to read, learn to embroider, learn to cherish her new home? How could she learn to care for Yava, the cook, and Ganil and Feria, her teachers, even the horses and Vannir, too . . . if just a little. How could she do all this, embracing her new life with wide-flung arms, and yet forget the girl who might be trapped in that room in her stead? How could she?
She could not. Each day spring deepened, the land grew lovelier, and her shame mounted. After all, she could not expect the Defender to remember to search that place every day . . . how many others did he know? How much else must he watch? He had a whole world under his gaze.
That meant she needed to stop her old Boss herself. Because she would never escape her shame if she did not even try.
A few days passed before Tarlah saw the Defender again, as he did not visit so often anymore, since she felt more at ease in Delarun. She sat out on the third-level terrace, enjoying the spring sunlight and practicing her letters, when he came to her.
Tarlah did not let him even open his mouth, for she could not hesitate, lest fear overwhelm her resolve. “I want to testify.”
He regarded her, frowned a little. “I hope you don’t feel you have to do this, Tarlah. You are welcome in Delarun for as long as you wish to live here. There is no obligation.”
“But I must,” she said. “Or . . . or I won’t feel right here, no matter how long I stay. That I’s here, and somebody else might hurt because of it.” She hesitated, looking away. She found it hard to make requests, even of him. The words tumbled out in a rush. “But-but only if you stay with me the whole time. In your real form, so them know who you are. Only that way. Please.”
He knelt in front of her. “I’ll do that. I won’t leave you, and I won’t let anyone there hurt you. Believe me.” He paused. “You are very brave, Tarlah.”
She shook her head. “I’s angry at him and . . . and sad. And afraid. Can we go now?”
“No, I fear it must be arranged first. I’ll go to the village elders today and tell them you wish to testify. I’ll let you know what day it is as soon as I find out.”
Tarlah gulped, nodding. She had not expected to have to wait . . . she had not known what to expect, besides terror. “Thank you, Arun.”
“No, thank you.”
Two mornings later, Ganil helped Tarlah dress for her testimony. She wore a long skirt under her knee-length tunic, long enough to hide the leggings she would not abandon, almost long enough to conceal the bare feet she refused to cover. She had already grown a little during her weeks in Delarun, even become slightly less thin, though her flesh looked as pale as ever.
The layers of clothing made her feel a little more secure, but the best comfort came when Ganil led her into the Master’s study, and she found him waiting there for her. No longer human: beautiful, powerful, and safe.
He came around the desk toward her, piercing gaze intent, gentle. “Tell me if you’ve changed your mind, Tarlah. I won’t force you into this.”
She shook her head and marched forward. The last two sleepless nights had felt like years; she wanted it behind her. “I’s not letting myself change my mind. It is my mind, right?”
“Spoken like an avarii,” he said, with a faint smile. “They’re waiting for us. You won’t feel anything when we Travel.”
Her surroundings changed. No longer the Master’s study with golden sunlight pouring through the tall windows. Now she stood in a windowless room lit by oil lamps which seemed dark in comparison. A dim room, emptier than she expected. Her heart lurched and her throat tightened, for one long gaze revealed what the Defender had done for her.
Five elders sat on high-backed chairs, all unfamiliar: three men, two women. Boss and a pair of his women waited nearby, altogether too familiar, their faces drawn. Another woman stood alone, eyes glimmering with light, hair streaked with silver. No one else. The benches behind waited in empty rows, unseeing.
The Defender had kept out the crowd of gawking onlookers, for her. And he had ensured that a female mage judge her memories, that no man touch her.
Tarlah wanted to weep. She reached out and seized his wrist, partly from fear, but mostly from gratitude. His flesh felt cold beneath her sweaty fingers, as though he had just come inside from winter’s ice. Even the feel of him was not human, which heartened her. Now she had another, like the horses, safe to touch. Safe and beloved.
“This is Tarlah,” the Defender said, voice expressionless. “On the twenty-first of Tryturn, I came in human form to Safeberth Tavern, belonging to this man here who calls himself Boss. After I showed him three silver pieces, he brought me up to a room that had nothing but a wide, stained bed, a small, high window, and this girl in it—whom I was to use for my pleasure, so long as I did not cut her flesh. As you well know, that is against Bivordian law. For she is only twelve years old.”
“We’ve heard this before, Defender,” one of the elders said. “Let her speak for herself; let her convince the mage she tells truth.”
The mage nodded, advancing toward her. Though her expression looked gentle, Tarlah tried not to cringe away, tightening her grip on the Defender until she feared it must pain him.
“I’m Laela. I won’t hurt you, young one,” the mage said. She knelt at Tarlah’s side, lightly placing a hand on her shoulder. “When they ask you a question, just speak the truth and remember. That’s all. You won’t feel anything from me.”
“What is your name, girl?” the same elder demanded.
“M-my name is Tarlah, sir.”
“And do you know these people? What are their names?”
“Yes, sir. That’s Boss. And there’s Sanah and Gerril. Them fed me sometimes.”
“What’s that prove?” Boss said, rising. “Anyone can find out names in a village small as this one!”
“I think you had best remain quiet,” the Defender said, an edge to his words. “Make your defense when the elders permit it.”
Tarlah saw the man blanch, then drop back into his seat, broad face gone pasty. He had knocked her about as he pleased if she ever got in his way, but now he cowered from her deliverer. She nearly smiled. It was worth the fear of coming, just for that!
“I agree, no interruptions,” another elder said. “It’s this Tarlah we’re questioning now, not you.”
“What was your life like?” the chief elder asked. “Tell us about a normal day, if you can, and remember it for the mage.”
This was what she had dreaded. Tarlah shut her eyes and enclosed herself with her memories, to avoid seeing their faces, their contempt, disgust, even pity. They had done nothing for her all the days of her life; now they must learn of what they had disregarded. When she spoke, her voice sounded thin, wavering, and she stumbled over her words at times.
She described the room she seldom left, the women who brought scanty meals and emptied the chamber pot. She told them of the window that provided her only glimpse of freedom and the raucous singing drifting up from the main room that served as her instruction. Then she explained about the clients who came: rarely in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoons, always in the evenings, until the brief remaining hours of night before dawn, bringing another day.
The Defender never moved, leaving Tarlah uncertain whether he felt her memories as well. The mage shifted, released her grip at times, clasped her again lightly, sighed, stifled a groan, and acted increasingly agitated.
“It’s true!” Mage Laela said before Tarlah had quite finished. “Horribly true! No child could concoct memories like this, with such . . .such awful details. There’s no denying this witness.”
An outburst rose in response. Tarlah cringed back against the Defender, then felt his wing half open behind her, sheltering her. The elders all spoke while Boss shouted objections, his women wept, and the mage confronted them, red-faced and angry, upbraiding them all for permitting such horrors in their village.
At length the Defender raised a hand; the elders and Mage Laela fell quiet. “Do you have anything else to ask of Tarlah? Do you have any doubts? Springtide has shown her little kindness in her life, so it would be better if Springtide did not force her to keep dwelling in such memories but do justice to those who wrought them.”
“Yes, justice,” the mage said. “This man, though he hardly deserves that term, should spend the rest of his life at hard labor. Or be sold to Sutherule as a slave, justice indeed for what he did to this girl. And his women—”
“They are not all equally to blame, Laela,” the Defender said. “Tarlah told me that some of them were held there by endless debts.”
“That’s true, elders,” Tarlah said, amazed that her voice scarcely shook. “Them wasn’t all free either. Not all as bad as him.”
She looked at Boss, surprised to see him livid and squirming in his seat. Someone pinned him there with invisible mage shields, as likely Laela as the Defender. Tarlah found it amazing that a stranger would have compassion on her, come to her aid. When all those years before, none had.
“We are satisfied, Defender,” one of the female elders said, after a glance at the others. “And we would beg Tarlah’s forgiveness for our lapse in justice and in vigilance, though we deserve it little enough. You are welcome to leave, Tarlah, and we thank you for your testimony.”
As quick as that, it ended. Or nearly. The Defender brought Tarlah to his study, then left to learn the fate of Boss and Safeberth Tavern. So she sat on the desk and waited, swinging her legs. She savored the quiet solitude after the strain of testimony, drawing deep breaths and trying to convince herself that it really was over.
Faster than she expected, he returned, once again bearing the face of Delarun’s Master. With gladness she heard the verdict: Boss sentenced to labor for his crimes, already taken away by the irate Mage Laela. The elders had freed his women from their positions, and to them the Defender had given silver, to help them start new lives. Safeberth Tavern would be shuttered, until the elders of Springtide became convinced that any prospective new owner would not engage in the same sort of crimes. That room of her suffering would never see such use again.
Tarlah smiled and wept over the news.
“It’s been a hard morning for you and you’ve given a great deal,” the Defender said at last. “You were very brave, Tarlah, even if you won’t believe me.”
“I was afraid, but you made it so, so much easier. I’m so glad I did it.” She smiled. “I can sleep easy now. Be happy here, with no regret. Or shame.”
“I am glad to hear that, dear one,” he said. “Though I don’t want to ask more from you, today may be easier than if we wait much longer.”
“I’ll do anything for you!” Tarlah wiped away her tears. “I know you won’t ask for something wrong.”
“Then let me touch you while you remember your clients, just their faces. I’ll draw pictures from those memories, then see where they lead me. Perhaps I can free someone else.”
“Yes, oh yes!” She seized his hand with no hesitancy, waiting with excitement as he spread out parchment and readied a quill. “I hope you get them all!”
The following morning Tarlah rose, walked to the window, and lifted the sash. Cool, sweet air ebbed inward. She did not crawl through at once, just savored the fact that she stood in Delarun. Her own glass-paned window. Her own room no one else entered . . . until she felt ready to share it with another girl. Meals varied and filling. Teachers patient and wise. Horses gentle and strong. Her own wonderful life, full of learning and potential, security and belonging.
Though her dreams had remained troubled that night, they had seemed distant. Blurred, like the years had blurred her memories of her grandmother. That cursed room would stay empty, or maybe only house travelers in the future. Boss would work without freedom for others as she had once worked for him.
She need no longer worry that someone else might suffer in her stead. She had faced her fear, faced her enemies. She had not done it alone, and she need not bear the challenges of the future alone either. The Defender would always be there; because he valued her life, she need never doubt that she had value, however she might feel.
No, now she stood in Delarun, all of her at last: body, spirit, mind. Past behind her, wholly severed. Shame forsaken and rejected.