Two days. After only two days, Scarlet knew they’d never survive. Not without help, anyway. And she had no one to seek assistance from.
It took the better part of four hours to row to a part of the shoreline not occupied. The sun had already begun to rise before she and the other two row boats put to shore. They picked the blackest part of coastline, one with no signs of fires or lanterns.
The girls took turns rowing, switching off at short intervals. Scarlet herself had to be relieved several times. Her boat led the other two and often seemed to be pulling them, having found rope to lash the three boats together lest one got separated.
They weren’t as far from the burning vessel as Scarlet would have liked before the alarms sounded. But they’d been far enough. No moon that evening, like ghosts they passed unnoticed by the other vessels anchored in the harbor.
Scarlet had led them to the northern side since it was closest. She dared not take them beyond the point or the water break and avoided the open sea. Her preference would have been to do so and find a cove beyond view of the bay. The girls rowed admirably and uttered not a word of complaint. They’d been given a new chance at life. They weren’t about to wish for their old one.
The black patch turned out to be a small stream emptying into the bay. Though shallow and rocky and not deep enough to paddle, they could disembark and push the skiffs upstream laden as they were with bags of gold, sacks of food, and chests of clothes. It took all of them to drag one craft, the youngest offering her services despite being told to stay in the boat.
About forty paces inland, the stream ascended rapidly in a series of waterfalls and cataracts. After pulling the boats ashore, they all huddled together and slept.
When Scarlet awoke, she surveyed their surroundings. She had a small view of the bay shielded by the many pines and furs lining the stream. Some outcroppings of rocks provided some shelter from the elements and kept them slightly hidden from view from above the waterfall. She leaned against a boulder, easing her head against the hard surface. She breathed in the blessed fresh air not mixed with damp or mold or piss or vomit. Or the stank of male body odor.
When she lowered her head, she caught a whiff of herself and gagged, her own thin and dirty shift full of the smells it had soaked up from the ship. The only time she’d been allowed to bathe – which was nothing more than a wiping down with a damp rag by one of the crewman – was when the crew prepped her to receive a client.
Scarlet dug through the chest of clothes and found a clean white shift belonging to the mistress. Stripping off her dirty one, Scarlet stepped under the falls. As the frigid water rushed over her skin, she shuttered. Not from the cold. For the first time in many years, she cried. More than cried. She sobbed loudly, though none could hear due to the sound of the water crashing against the rocks. Her knees grew weak. Not fighting it, she dropped to the stream bed and sat with her knees pulled to her chest until no more tears escaped, her cheeks now wet from only the fresh water.
Now shivering from the cold, Scarlet dressed in the clean shift. Amid the chest of clothes, she found a crimson dress. She refused to wear it. She’d find her own. Instead, she opted for a simple dark blue dress with a modest cut at the bodice and simple drapery in the skirted portion allowing for ease of motion.
Pouring some rum mixed heavily with the fresh water from a barrel into a wooden chalice, Scarlet returned to her boulder to lean against it while she contemplated her situation.
The rum and water went down easier than expected. It wasn’t simple sailor’s rum. As she drank, the brown-haired girl and the eldest of the lot next to Scarlet stepped out from behind some bushes. She straightened out her shift and brushed her hair with her fingers. Her focus on untangling her strands she still managed to amble easily over the rocky stream despite not being shod.
The young girl came and leaned her back next to Scarlet, her attention now on her clothing.
“Well, damn,” said the girl, plucking at it. “I ripped my dress.” She breathed a soft sigh of annoyance while playing with the ripped fabric torn in other places. Scarlet couldn’t remember the girl wearing anything else but the ratty shift. She’d grown into quite the attraction young woman and had filled out well, giving her the appearance of being older than she was. Scarlet knew her true age. She’d had to steel her emotions toward any of the girls to keep from breaking each time a crew came for one of them.
“We have gold,” said Scarlet. “You can buy another one.”
“Is that what we’ll use it for, to buy nice things?” said the girl, not looking up from the tear, as if uninterested in the conversation.
“In part. If you walk around the countryside in that horrid thing, you’ll attract unwanted attention.”
“Maybe.” The girl absently stroked her hair again. “What would you use the gold for?”
Scarlet sighed and shrugged. “To go away. Somewhere far from here.”
The girl stopped stroking her tresses to eye Scarlet. “Really,” said the girl. “What about the captain?”
“I haven’t forgotten about him, if that’s what you mean. Right now I’m in an advantageous position because he thinks I’m dead. Soon he’ll forget about me. I have time to wait.”
“Maybe. He won’t forget about the gold. We took some. Not all. He’ll want it.”
“Let him dive for it. We were in the middle of the harbor. It’s too deep. He’ll die trying.”
Scarlet rolled her eyes, letting out an exacerbated sigh. “Maybe, maybe.”
The girl shrugged. “He might die. He might pay someone else to dive. He’ll be watching to see how many bodies are dredged up. He’ll be suspicious if no girls are found, though it would keep him from having to explain their existence to the port authorities.”
“If he’s watching for our bodies, I’ll know where to start my search for him.” Scarlet pushed away from the boulder, tossing the remaining contents of the cup into the stream. “May the gods bless you on your way.”
“Just like that,” said the girl, still looking at her own tresses, “you’re going to leave us.”
“I...” Scarlet looked away. “What’s your name?”
The girl thought a moment before deciding. “I am Carmine.”
Scarlet eyed her. “Really?”
“You are Scarlet. I am Carmine. That little girl over there is Rose. The one beside her is Coral. That other one is...”
“I get it,” said Scarlet. “We’re all a shade of red. But you shouldn’t be. We’re not a school of fish. A large blob of red will never survive. In this case, there is not an advantage to having numbers. It’s dangerous. You must separate and go your individual ways.”
“Maybe,” said Carmine. “We could. I might survive. You’d survive. The others won’t.”
“Neither would we survive together. Even now, this large group will draw attention. We are in danger if we move, and danger if we travel.”
“The gods damn you with your maybes, Carmine! There is no help for you out there. An orphanage? A religious sect or church? They are some of the worst. Their holy ways are the most dangerous and hypocritical. They use their faith to justify their evil. At least with the godless, I know where they stand. It’s best if the girls cast their lots in with the gods.”
“Like you did?” said Carmine. “I cried out to the gods many times. They are either deaf or uncaring. I’ll cast my lots with people, however evil they are before I trust my fate to the gods. There will always be men and women like the mistress and her captain. But there will always be men like that Skamsen.”
“If the gods sent him, he is gone now.”
“Maybe they sent you to us.”
Scarlet scoffed. “A bit cruel, don’t you think?”
Carmine shrugged. “Maybe. But maybe it was necessary.”
“Damn you, Carmine,” said Scarlet. She inhaled heavily through her nose, trying to swallow her anger. “I’m sorry. You are young and don’t know what you mean.”
Carmine continued untangling her matted strands.
“I can’t protect any of you,” said Scarlet. “We aren’t safe, not even here.”
“We’ll be ok for a few days.” In answer to Scarlet’s unspoken question, Carmine said, “I scouted a bit this morning. Two hundred paces north and east live a fisherman and his wife. No kids that I could see. Not even a dog. The old man rose early to fish off the rocks nearby. A road sits further beyond that. The rocks surrounding us are too steep and jagged to fish or live on. The only real threat was a couple of thieves residing twenty paces from the top of the waterfall.”
“Was? Did they leave?”
Carmine shook her head as she fidgeted with another tear in her dress. “One of them got up to take a piss – by the way, don’t drink or bathe in the stream...”
“Too late for that,” said Scarlet.
“Anyway, he stepped to the edge and saw everyone down here. I watched his face. His expression changed from misery and hopelessness to lascivious hunger. I recognized that horrid curl of the lips as his desire welled within him. He began whispering for his companion who still slept. When the man turned, he saw me standing there. His grin grew wider. I smiled coyly and beckoned him closer. When he stooped over me, he tried to speak. He couldn’t. I rammed my dagger up through the underside of his jaw and ripped the blade sideways. His severed throat gurgled as he dropped to the leaves. His friend died in much the same way. I buried them beneath the leaves and their lean-to shelter.”
As if her tale had reminded her of something, Carmine lifted the bottom hem of her dress and drew out the dagger from the sheath strapped to her inner thigh. She knelt and washed the blood from the blade.
Scarlet thought Carmine jesting until seeing the blood on her dagger.
Carmine rose and after drying the blade, returned the dagger to its place. She leaned back against the boulder and continued fussing with her dress as if washing blood from a dagger a completely normal and regular occurrence for a fourteen-year-old girl.
Scarlet stared at the young girl, not knowing whether to scold her or praise her. Carmine spoke as if reading her thoughts. “I’m never going to be a slave again. Ever. I’d rather die.”
The sound of the waterfall seemed to grow louder as neither Scarlet or Carmine spoke for several minutes. Several more of the girls had awoken. After standing and stretching, they hiked up their skirts and squatted to relieve themselves not more than a foot from where they’d been sleeping.
Scarlet’s mouth opened in horror, as if what the girls were doing more shocking that Carmine slitting the throats of a couple of vagabonds.
“Hey, Coral. Rose,” said Scarlet. They girls looked in her direction. “Don’t piss where you sleep. For the sake of the gods go to the bushes or in the stream.”
“Yes, mistress,” they both said, and duck walked into the stream to finish their business.
Scarlet ran her hands through her hair and grunted.
Carmine grinned, though she didn’t look up. “ You probably don’t want to do that.”
“Don’t tell us what to do if you’re not going to stay.”
Scarlet spun toward her. “What do you want from me, Carmine? What is it that you think that I can do for you that you can’t do for them or that these girls can’t do for themselves?”
Staring directly into Scarlet’s eyes, Carmine’s lower lip quivered as she said, “Don’t abandon us.”
Scarlet had to look away from Carmine’s pleading and desperate gaze.
“Give us a week. Or three days,” said Carmine, fighting a sniffle. “Just stay long enough to help us figure out what we should do. Help give us direction, a plan. Don’t abandon us. Not now.”
Damn. Damn. Damn Carmine. And damn the gods.
“Three days,” said Scarlet. “And I am not to be called mistress by any of them. You will do as I say, or I will leave.”
“As you command, Scarlet,” said Carmine, leaving the boulder to stroll toward the camp.
“Carmine, I’m only staying because you asked me to, because I owe you for your kindness two years ago.”
Carmine seemed confused, her eyes squinted as she tried to work it out. “You don’t owe me.”
“Yes, I do. All actions have consequences and debts.”
“No, my lady. Only the evil ones have debts. If good required debt, they would cease to be good. Don’t stay because you feel indebted to me.”
“I’ll stay for my own reasons, Carmine.”
Carmine nodded and walked away.
The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. Scarlet assigned menial tasks to the girls, having them take inventory of everything they’d brought with them. She established a perimeter around the camp and had Carmine show the girls the boundary. Scarlet climbed to the top of the waterfall. Carmine showed Scarlet where the dead men lay.
As she and Carmine dragged the dead men away from the stream to bury them, Scarlet asked how Carmine had avoided getting any blood on her dress. She explained it simply, as if explaining how to defeather a hen. Stand opposite where the blood will spray, she said. She’d learned it from the captain and mistress who had used her a few times to assassinate clients who either didn’t pay and instead threatened to reveal to the Empress the truth of their operation. Being so young and tiny and a female, none suspected her involved with the mysterious deaths of the wealthy lords and merchants. And none checked under her skirts to see if she had a hidden weapon. Carmine said she always had the dagger with her, even on board the ship.
Scarlet and Carmine buried the two men as best they could without proper digging tools, hoping it was deep enough to bury the stench as well.
Scarlet used their camping spot as a post, assigning two girls at a time to keep watch.
The second morning, Scarlet chanced making a fire, spreading out several branches above it to divert the smoke. They’d seen smoke from others throughout the previous day. If any saw theirs, it wouldn’t be remarkable. She cooked the salted beef before it went completely to rot.
By midday, several of the girls had fashioned dolls and played as if the last few months or years of their lives hadn’t been a living hell. By that evening, the majority of their food stores had been depleted, their water rations gone. They had no pots to boil water or cook vegetables, no skillets to cook the eggs that had survived the short voyage from ship to shore.
From her perch atop the waterfall, Scarlet gazed down at their meager encampment. The girls bedded down for the night whispered to each other from the few blankets they managed to bring. Most needed to share.
Scarlet recognized the soft footfall of Carmine as she drew close. She’d fashioned a brush from some twigs and busied herself straightening her hair.
“We’re not going to make it. We need more food,” said Scarlet.
“I know. But we have coin aplenty. We’ll figure out a way to be safe going to market. We can probably do that for a couple weeks.”
“You can’t stay here for a few weeks, Carmine. You must know that. You’ll be lucky if this calm lasts for one week.”
“At least one more day, Scarlet.”
“I know. One more day. Hopefully, we’ll decide on a course of action.”
They didn’t decide anything, for on the third day, fate decided for them.