Mirabelle Westminster folded the bottom of her apron before using it to lift the lid off the pot. Steam wafted from the boiling liquid, momentarily driving away the cold biting her cheeks. Her two daughters toddled toward a lump of blankets, sipping their cups of soup. Her four-year-old holding her two-year old sister’s hand.
Dipping her hand in her pocket, Belle wrapped her fingers around the warm metal. Under her lashes, she glanced to the left. A bitter wind shook the hyde tents but no one emerged. To the right, a handful of women tended their breakfasts or piled rocks higher to protect the meager flames.
No one paid her any attention.
She dipped the metal cup into the pot, netting bits of the floating green herbs before pulling it out. Through the clear broth, she spied chunks of wild onion, potato and carrots. That should do, Nattie. Belle looked toward the edge of camp.
As if feeling her gaze, a grizzled woman rose from her pile of rags. Dirty fingers clutched a threadbare blanket around her shoulders. Her emaciated frame formed hard angles and bumps under the cloth as she walked. Pale blue eyes surveyed her under matted salt and pepper hair. Nattie paused ten feet away.
Belle nodded and held the cup out to her.
Nattie hunched lower in her covering but shuffled closer.
“You’re not supposed to feed her.”
Belle jumped before turning so the speaker stood in her peripheral vision. About time Ann woke up, did her fair share of the work. Slamming the lid on the pot, Belle straightened. Aches strapped around her back and across her distended belly. She set her free hand on her spine as Nattie reached for the cup.
“I could tell our husband.”
Ann always wanted to tell their ‘Vider. The girl seemed enamored of the brute. Belle tightened her muscles to stop the shudder. Weakness should never be shown. Never. “Then do so.”
Nattie sipped the brew while her attention darted between the two of them. A spark appeared in her faded blue eyes before it flickered out.
There but for the God’s eternal grace. Belle scratched the stretched skin through her patched dress. The baby shifted at her touch. Then again, maybe her future was shivering in front her.
Ann stomped closer and held her palms to the fire. “You think I won’t just because you’re pregnant.”
Belle clamped her lips together. The girl needed to learn her place. Belle had only to answer to her ‘Vider or the head Provider.
“You’re right.” Ann sighed and raked her fingers through her tousled dark brown locks. “I won’t because…” For a moment, fear blazed in the girl’s eyes. She scanned the camp before shifting closer to Belle. “Because I think I’m pregnant too.”
Two of his tributes pregnant? Her ‘Vider should be strutting like a cock through camp. Belle eyed their tent. And yet, the brute still slept. Turning slightly, she raked Ann from head to feet.
At sixteen winters, the roundness of childhood hadn’t left the girl’s apple cheeks and her overlarge breasts didn’t disguise her narrow hips. Ann set her hand over her rounded belly. The girl’s stomach didn’t appear any larger than when she’d arrived two months ago.
But then Belle hadn’t shone for nearly four months after her bleeding time had stopped. Her ‘Vider had finally stopped raping her at seven months, when Nattie had said she’d lose the baby. The brute had wanted his seed and had used other tributes to fulfill his needs.
Nattie laughed, flashing black teeth in red gums. Bits of white potato clung to her tongue. The neighbor woman behind her shuffled backward.
Straightening, Ann fisted her cotton skirt. “What’s so funny!”
Belle shifted in front of the older woman. Only a handful of people in the village hit Nattie anymore, most feared her craziness was contagious. But Ann was new. Things tended to change when new blood mingled with the old. And it usually wasn’t for the better. “How long has it been since your monthly blood-letting?”
“Two weeks.” Licking her lips, Ann glanced at their tent. “Our ‘Vider took me at least ten times during my bleeding time. He says he wants a strong son and that’s the only way to get it.”
Conceived in blood, bathed in blood, and sustained by blood that was the ‘Vider way. Belle hated it with everything inside her, prayed daily to be delivered from this hell. “Have you told our ‘Vider of your suspicions?”
Nattie’s cackling died when she raised the cup to her lips. Tapping on the bottom, she shuffled away to the thump of metal.
“No. I don’t want him to turn his attentions to you.”
The brute had never turned his attention off Belle. Despite having a girl willing and able to do anything he wanted, their ‘Vider sought Belle out four or five times a week to bathe his ‘son’ in his seed.
“I’ve heard we’re heading into lean times. I plan to make him pick me over you if it comes to that.” Ann finger-combed her long honey-colored locks. The wind picked up the strands and lifted them from her shoulder.
The hair on Belle’s nape rose. The girl learned quickly and had adjusted to life as a ‘Vider’s personal property all too easily. Pregnancy was as close a guarantee to living another day as female tributes received.
But it wasn’t an absolute.
With the birth of her sixth child, Belle knew the ‘Viders would value her over the girl. Especially since four of them still lived. Especially since the new head Provider had been watching her so closely. “Who says we’re heading into lean times?”
“Everyone.” Ann shrugged and crouched by the fire. She held her hands near the flames before rubbing them together.
“I’ve been with the ‘Viders ten winters, I have never encountered lean times.” God help her, she prayed they would happen. Practically offered her soul for them to happen. But there was always another village to demand tribute from, then when the townspeople balked at yet another offering, the ‘Viders raided and took what they wanted.
“But ‘Vider Stake offered his sister-wife to the congregation.” Ann daubed at the saliva at the corners of her mouth before breaking a branch in half and feeding it to the fire. “Why would he do that if we were not in the lean times?”
Sister-wife. The girl was delusional. They were nothing but property to be used and abused as their ‘Vider saw fit. Everyone learned that lesson sooner or later. Most had only minutes to digest it before their lives ended.
“Mandy was sacrificed because she had not carried a child in the four years she’d been here.” Even Nattie’s herbs couldn’t overcome the sterility left by her breeder’s cancer. If ‘Vider Stake had learned that the woman knew of her barrenness when she’d been claimed, her death would have been prolonged and painful.
A lesson for everyone to learn.
Ann wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked. “I’m sure I’m pregnant.”
Belle swallowed the lump in her throat. Her daughter did that when she was scared. But Ann wasn’t her daughter; she was a rival. A deadly rival. “I would wait for a new moon before telling our ‘Vider.”
Ann’s brown eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“He doesn’t like to be disappointed.” Hated it just as much as he hated everything else. Belle tugged her tattered sleeve over her scarred wrist. He’d found out she was pregnant the day before she miscarried. That lesson, he boasted, had toughened her up enough to carry their five children to term. She stroked her belly.
And the sixth looked like it would make it, too.
“I’m going to have a boy.” Ann jumped to her feet. Her top lip curled. “I’ll never bear any stupid, weak girls like you.”
Keeping her gaze down, Belle stirred the coals under the pot. Girls were a blessing. They didn’t have to become warriors. And so far, her youngest two hadn’t wanted to learn the Warrior Way. Please, God, let them never want to.
“Maybe I’ll ask to be trained as a ‘Vider. I can do it.”
Belle bit her lip. She shouldn’t help the girl, shouldn’t but… she was so young. “I wouldn’t ask if I were you.”
Ann’s hands fisted at her side. “I’m not weak like you. I’d be a good ‘Vider. The best.”
The hyde snapped. From the corner of her eye, Belle watched her ‘Vider saunter out. His green gaze skimmed Ann to land on Belle. Blunt fingers trailed down his coarse, woven shirt and he adjusted himself through the dark blue trousers. Her attention shifted to the white stripe amongst the brown and her stomach cramped.
That patch had been her first time weaving human hair into cloth.
Her dead parents had provided the material.
Ann skipped to his side and plastered herself against this chest. “I have something to tell you.”
Pushing the girl away, he focused on Belle’s stomach. “Later.”
Apparently, this morning’s bump and grind hadn’t sated his appetites. She added another twig to the fire. Her skin tightened around her frame. She could get through this once more. She had to. From the corner of her eye, she saw the other women scurry away from their morning fires.
Ann stumbled a few steps then found her footing. Running, she caught up with him and latched onto his arm. “But it’s such good news, I–”
He punched her in the face.
Blood poured from her nose and her head snapped back. Ann blinked, raised her hands and stroked the crimson. “Why? I–”
Oh, God, the girl didn’t know enough to back down. Belle swallowed the bile in her mouth and turned her attention to the pot.
“Mirabelle!” He shouted. “Watch!”
Vision blurring, Belle turned. Think of your daughters. Their soft black hair when you brush it.
Her ‘Vider spun on his heel and kicked Ann in the stomach.
Gasping, the girl doubled over.
“You are not to speak unless I let you.” He slammed his clasped fists on her back.
She fell face first into the dirt.
Belle tuned it out, disappeared into her memories. The sound of flesh pounding dissolved into her father’s laughter. Her mother chopping vegetables fresh from the garden. The girl’s sobs disappeared in the crackle of fire as her brothers added wood. A world before the ‘Viders found her village.
Before she’d been offered as tribute.
“Now stand up.”
Belle blinked at the magic words. The lesson was almost over. She prayed the girl got the message, memorized it. The next one would be worse. Far worse. Although they were enemies, Belle didn’t know if she could stand by and do nothing. Which meant, she too would be punished.
Ann pushed to her hands and knees. Strings of blood drizzled from her mouth. Snot bubbled from her nose.
“Faster!” Leaning over, he grabbed Ann’s hair and jerked.
She arched her back. Reaching up, she grabbed for the strands imprisoning her.
“You are nothing but tribute.” Batting her hands away, he punched her in the stomach again.
She drew her left leg up for protection before throwing up blood and a tooth.
“I’m nothing.” Ann held her stomach and coughed.
“Now go get me some meat and don’t come back until you have some.” He pushed her away.
Ann stumbled and fell into the dirt. Crying she pushed to her feet and crawled toward the holding pens.
Belle opened her mouth then snapped it shut. Only two unclaimed tributes remained in the paddock. There would be no meat until tonight and maybe not even then. Since the Turning, the crowning of a new head Provider always followed a Blood and Body supper. Yet, this time might be different.
“Mirabelle.” Her ‘Vider licked the blood off his knuckles.
Holding her stomach, she hastened to his side. Her heart drummed in her ears and she ran her tongue over her dry lips. She could get through this. Just one more time piled on a lifetime of one more times.
“Such a weak thing you are.” He caressed her cheek, smearing the warmth on her flesh. Moving lower, he fondled her breasts before setting his hand on her stomach. “It is why the ‘Viders were given dominion over your kind. To lift the chosen few up to great heights.”
She bit her lip to still any rebellious words. Her father, mother and brothers hadn’t been weak. They were good people, loving people. Gentle people. They did not deserve to be enslaved.
Pinching her chin in his grip, her ‘Vider pressed his lips against hers. His slimy tongue slipped into her mouth.
She fought the urge to gag at his foul taste. Oh God, not this! She’d only managed to survive because ‘Viders never kissed.
He pulled away. His eyes were dilated and his breathing ragged. “Like that? It’s called kissing. I shall do it when you please me. Such as when you are carrying my son.”
Saliva pooled in her mouth. Please turn away soon. She needed to spit. Maybe eat some dirt to get rid of the taste.
He released her and strolled to the fire. With his bare hands, he shoved the lid off the pot and pushed it to the ground. “What have we here?”
With his back to her, Belle spit and wiped her face with her apron. Gah, she could still smell him.
He peered inside the pot and frowned. “No meat, I see.”
She shuddered. She never ate meat. Not once she realized her friends, neighbors and family were being slaughtered and carved up for dinner. The ‘Viders considered four-legged animals unclean.
“If that is not my son in your belly, I will require you eat it at every meal.” Leaving the campfire, he joined her by their tent. “I have enough daughters to bind my enemies through blood, I need warriors for our clan.”
Belle wrapped her arms around her belly. She could not give birth to another savage that would destroy and terrorize. This had to be a daughter. “Ann thinks she’s pregnant.”
Oh, Lord. She was just as bad as the ‘Viders to sacrifice the girl that way.
He laughed, bass notes in a funeral dirge. “So she said. But it is just as well, I was beginning to tire of her.”
What did that mean? Belle’s eyes locked with his.
“The bitch is good for a time, but she is rabid. Any seed sown in her body would sour and cause discord amongst the ‘Viders. I will offer her up for tonight’s ceremonial dinner.”
Mother of God! Her pregnancy couldn’t protect her from these animals.
He gathered Belle’s hair into a ponytail and wrapped it around his hand. “I think you should weave a new shirt for me with her hair. I do not think you’d want her next to your parents’s strands.” He stroked the white patch on his left breast before dragging her toward the boulders fifteen minutes walk from camp. “Would you?”
Tears pricked her nose. “No.”
“Our sons will be given tribute when they return from their hunting party. I shall instruct them to take a female to help you.” He tugged on her hair. “But don’t get too attached and do not name our food.”
Over her shoulder, she watched the soon-to-be crowned head Provider stride into their camp. The bald-headed woman glanced their way before turning back to warm herself by the fire. Seven braided scalps hung from her belt.
Belle squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She could do this. She had to.
Releasing her, he shoved her.
She stumbled over the uneven ground before stopping next to a low shrub.
“Now, strip. I have something else I wish to teach you. Something you’ll enjoy more than kissing.”