Dawen was alone in the kitchen of Daggers Drawn when the strumplet came in to get more mead. Wiping her hands on a dirty apron, she motioned the young girl over.
“I can help you get out…” she whispered over the noises of the soldiers in the main room. The girl looked at her, puzzled. Dawen tried again. “Don’t you want to go home?”
“Look,” the girl began. There was ice in her voice. “I can’t run away. The soldiers are everywhere and they’ll catch me. If I try, they’ll whip me or worse.”
“What about your parents? Don’t they miss you?” Dawen asked hopefully.
“Do you think my father wants a fourteen year old trollop in his house? If he did, I never would have left. Please, just leave me alone. Please…”
The girl’s voice cracked, melting away. Taking a goblet in each hand, she returned to her customers and captors. This was the fourth girl Dawen had approached tonight. The conversations were depressingly consistent.
Dawen pondered the girl’s words as she washed the night’s final dishes. Most of the strumplets had left in the tow of laughing soldiers or followed them upstairs. She hated that the rooms were rented hourly, but since the soldiers came, the owner had not been able to make a living any other way.
“I need to talk to you.” The quiet voice came from behind her. A strumplet stood alone, her slender fingers fidgeting with her buttons. Her face looked much older than her body. Part of that was makeup, but most was what paint couldn’t cover: weariness, fear, and despair. “I heard you can get me out. The girls are talking about you and said you might be able to help. Will you?” Her tired eyes held only the faintest gleam of hope. But it was there.
“I’m closing in half an hour,” Dawen whispered, cheered that the night’s efforts seemed to be paying off at last. “Meet me out back and I’ll take you somewhere safe.”
The strumplet was hiding in the darkened alley, only revealing herself to Dawen once the doors were locked. Dawen motioned to her and then held her hand as they walked. The girl cuddled up close to her, perhaps out of loneliness, or maybe she was trying to make it look like she was with a customer. Dawen smiled at the thought. She had never been with a man, much less a woman. No one who knew Dawen would be fooled in the least. Still, she hoped they would not meet anyone until they were safe in the White Temple.
“Tell me how you got here,” Dawen said, trying to make conversation. The night was quiet and dark, and even though the streets were usually safe, she didn’t like walking them any more than she had to. The silence was making her jumpy.
“I left home a year ago,” the girl began, haltingly at first, but more steadily as she gained confidence. “My dad died in the wars when I was 10. A couple years later my mother remarried. He was an old family friend, and my sisters and I thought everything would be fine, that he would take care of us and we could eat regular meals, like before. But after some time, he ra…he started doing things to me at night, and to my older sister, too. So I ran away.” Her sniffles echoed and she pulled tighter into Dawen’s side.
“When I got here, I met a woman who said she would help me. She worked for the captain. And she said the soldiers could always use someone around, someone young. I didn’t know then that…” Dawen’s fingers were white from the girl’s grasp when they finally entered the quiet temple.
They sat together on a cold bench while the moonlight painted their twin shadows on the white stone floor. Though the temple was always open, Dawen knew there were few rectors here at night. Still, she hoped to find one she knew. The girl continued talking, occasionally stopping to lick her lips.
“We can’t leave,” the girl said. “If we try, they beat us. Sometimes they do anyway. Some of the soldiers…tie us to beds and whip us or cut us. They pay us for every time we…every time we sleep with them. But it’s not much. It’s not worth it. There are always new girls and the old ones disappear. Some of the girls try to run away and are caught. The soldiers make us look at their dead bodies. They say, ‘she just danced to death’, and they all laugh at us, warning us not to try to leave…”
Dawen hushed the girl when her own rector approached them. She had always considered the kindly old widower something of a grandfather; he had known their family for years and had been a dinner guest in their home many times. She asked him to sit down and explained how she wanted to help the strumplets escape, a plan which thus far consisted of Dawen bringing them to him. The rector looked very worried as he she spoke; occasionally he even looked behind to be sure no one else was listening. But when he looked into the girl’s eyes, his expression changed. He stood up straight and extended his hand to her.
“I will take care of her,” he said to Dawen. He smiled at her, and leading the strumplet away into the darkness, he left Dawen alone in the temple. As she walked home, Dawen hoped that she would see the girl again, when all this trouble was past.
The next day, Dawen and her father loaded two bodies onto their flat-topped wooden cart. They were surrounded by footprints: those of a young girl and those of the heavier bare feet of the rector.
* * *
It was dark as Dawen pulled the door of Daggers Drawn shut behind her. The back streets were quiet. Cold wisps of fog threatened to melt into a shower, though the moon fought to brighten the cobblestones from between heavy clouds. Dawen heard the echoes of her guilty sniffles bounce off the stone buildings. She had been crying all night but hoped the customers though it was only on account of her rector. She put the key in her pocket and turned, jumping as two soldiers stepped into the ragged moonlight.
“Don’t scream,” the larger one warned. Pale light glinted off his naked sword.
“So this is the one who’s been harassing our trollops, eh?” his comrade said, pulling her face roughly up to his. “What’s the matter, little girl? Don’t you want us to have any fun? Maybe we’ll have a little fun with you, instead.” He kissed her sloppily on the mouth and laughed.
His teeth shone yellow in the moonlight and his breath smelled of garlic and mead. He moved his hand to her dress, grasping it by the collar, ripping it open and down. Dawen heard her needlework tear and saw her buttons spinning in the moonlight, falling slowly in front of her to the street. Her keys clattered away on the wet pavement. Her heart beat loudly in her ears.
The soldiers ignored them all as their heavy hands removed their belts.
She felt the cold air on her body and saw her buttons between the muddy stones. There were three of them by the soldier’s foot.
The larger soldier grabbed her hair in his hand, holding her up while she fought to reach his eyes with her claws. The smaller soldier brought his hand back and then whipped it forward. Fire erupted from her bare stomach. He brought the belt back again. The fire spread to Dawen’s back and legs as she tried to scream through the thick hand over her mouth. She heard the lashes and the soldiers’ heavy breathing. She smelled her own blood. She needed to scream, to free the fire that sought escape through her lips. She bit down heavily on the fingers that trapped it within her. They pulled away briefly and her scream burst out. She heard it leave, heard it echo down the alley until it was gone. Then she saw the fingers curl beneath white knuckles.
Light flashed behind her eyes as the fist hit her. She collapsed to the wet ground – the ground where her buttons waited. She reached for one. Through her tears, she saw the soldiers drop their armor to the pavement, heard them snicker, felt one push her onto her back. The stones felt cold and slimy; warm blood ran down her cheek. Hands pressed heavily on her shoulders. She turned her head to the side, away from the hot breath, away from the hungry eyes. Her fingers curled around a button. There was another one by the other soldier’s foot, but she couldn’t reach it. His boot pressed it into the mud as he approached her. The rain fell on her briefly as the soldiers exchanged places, but it washed nothing away.
“Don’t forget your pay, trollop,” the shorter one laughed as he dropped a single copper coin onto her exposed skin.
“C’mon,” his comrade urged him, “let’s get out of this rain.”
The booted footfalls had faded away, as had the moon. “Four,” she counted quietly, “where is the fifth?” If she could just find it, just sew it back on, everything would be fine. Her fingers dug in the mud between the wet cobblestones while the cold rain fell on her back. Finally they curled around something familiar, something she sought desperately. She sobbed, alone, in the darkness. Everything was going to be fine.