Aletha had only the vaguest interest in how she had come to this place. She didn't know who these people were or why she had joined their group here, in a dirt-bare courtyard tucked between untidy rooming houses.
It didn't really matter; at least not as much as her cold feet did. Tonight's damp breeze reaching inland from the sea chilled her more than usual. For some reason she now wore only a simple sleeveless shift and she seemed to be missing her shoes, a fine pair of seal slippers given to her by a friend. What was his name? He always found nice things for her. Where was he? Maybe he could tell her how she came to be here, among these strangers, with cold feet and... ah, she remembered that armed man over there in the shadows. A brutish thug who'd been there, at the wharf. He'd hit Shep with his huge fist and then things had disappeared in a strange fog. Maybe he had her shoes. Maybe she should ask about them.
"I'm telling you," a person on her left interrupted her disjointed thoughts, "once you clean her up some she'll be the envy of the quarter."
Aletha turned her head to stare dully at the speaker, a fleshy-faced, malodorous person dressed in foppish garments that might have looked elegant and expensive before he had combined them with a broad-brimmed, feathered hat and a generous application of grease on lapel and sleeves. She recognized him no more than she did the three other men and two women at the table. The others, dressed in more practical fashion, observed her critically, clearly doubting his words.
"She doesn't seem bright," one of the women said. She reached across the table to turn Aletha's hand, revealing a small leaf tattooed on her wrist. Her shrewd eyes examined the girl, seeing toned muscle and supple limbs - uncommon among the wives, priestesses and merchants that made up most of the harbor town's female population. She pushed back the tangled mass of dark ringlets obscuring the slave's face. "Island folk, I'll say. She'll be running off the minute you turn your back, and all the hounds of Harlyn won't find her if she don't want to be found. I've got no use for her." She rose from the table and adjusted her waxed straw hat. "Call on me when you've got something worthwhile to sell, trader. I'm looking for working folk, not wet woods tree-dwellers."
Aletha watched the woman leave the courtyard and enter the tavern, aware that she had failed some sort of test. She wondered if someone would come with water or food; her hunger was making her ill and light-headed.
The man at her side spat into the mud of the inn's yard before turning back to the others. "This one won't ever be anyone's maid," he grinned knowingly.
A very thin, very young man leaned forward to study Aletha more thoroughly. Aletha resisted an urge to reach out and tug on his earrings. The elaborate bone and shell masterpieces hanging from his head just begged to be yanked. She stifled a helpless giggle, noted with obvious distaste. "Well, true, she may clean up fine, but the Jedry woman's right. You've got yourself a simpleton here. She'd better clean up really good if you hope to get anything for her."
Aletha stared without comprehension. Didn't these people realize that she needed to sleep? Just a few minutes would be enough. Her attention drifted to some lively music coming from the direction of the inn's open windows. It would probably be warmer in there. And brighter. Someone in there was laughing; it was the sort of laughter that came easily when people were warm and comfortable. She wondered about the person who had laughed. He sounded kind - no one who laughed like that would deny her their company. If only she had the strength to get up and walk into the tavern!
The trader beside her chuckled at some unseen joke. "Well, now that Jedry's gone, I'll show you what this one's really worth." He shook Aletha's arm, jolting her from her daydreams. She turned half-closed eyes on him. "Huh?"
"Show'em, girl," he commanded.
She frowned. Didn't he know that she was just too damn tired for this? Her head drooped toward him but he shook her again and this time his fingers dug painfully into her arm. "Do it!" he snapped. "That thing with the lamp, like you did yesterday."
The thin man looked nervous. "What are you up to, Tellos?" He backed away when Aletha sat up a little straighter, her expression strained as though she searched for a sound in the distance. She raised her hand, palm turned toward the sputtering fish oil lamp on the table, apparently ready to demonstrate something.
"By the Gods!" The buyer shot out of his chair, earrings rattling in agitation. "She's a Descendant?"
The trader bowed his head as if he had just performed a magic feat of his own. "Indeed. Sit yourself down, you superstitious fool. She's not about to turn you into a rat." He paused for effect, looking around the circle of wary faces. "He's right. This one is the real thing. I've seen it with my own eyes. She's one of them. A Descendant."
"You're mad! A magic user? I want nothing to do with her kind and you'd be well advised to get rid of her. You'll bring ruin on us all." Everyone, including Aletha, watched as yet another potential customer made a hasty exit, fearfully looking over his shoulder as though expecting someone to come after him with murderous intent.
"Are the rest of you idiots as well?" the slaver growled, staring balefully at the remaining group. "This is the best bit of merchandise I've had in years and everyone runs as though the Gods were having a bad day. Can you not see what the likes of her can do for you?"
The second woman at the table stood up. She regarded him scornfully. "Maybe we can, Tellos, but we can also see that you can't keep her drugged like this forever. She's half-dead from your potions already. I don't know how you managed to catch this one but I dare say it wasn't painless, judging from the gash on your face. I'll have nothing to do with this, either."
"Go then," Tellos roared and did not wait for her to leave before turning to the remaining two men. "What of you, then? Start your bidding or go."
"Can anyone bid on this auction?" a new voice made itself heard. Everyone shifted in their seats and peered into the gloom of the courtyard to discover the source of the interruption.
A figure emerged from the shadows and approached the table, moving gracefully but with purpose. He was dressed for travel, armed with curved daggers sheathed near either hand and a crossbow slung over his shoulder, yet he wore no insignia to identify any known mercenary company or clan. In the fitful light of the few nearby lamps they could see that his hair was much darker than was common in these parts and in loosely curling strands hanging to his shoulders. Against his sun-darkened skin, the whites of his eyes seemed to pierce the night. The expression on his face was unreadable.
Tellos scowled at his hired guards who were paid twice their worth to prevent surprises during this transaction. At his signal two of them moved to stand behind him.
The stranger did not even spare them a glance. He tipped his head toward the tavern. "The man in there told me you might be selling what I'm buying," he said, an oddly inflecting accent in his speech.
Tellos put his ire aside and grinned, having read the quality of the mercenary's clothes and weapons. "She ain't cheap," he said. "Virgin, most likely." "Do I look like I run a brothel?"
Aletha barely followed all of this. None of this seemed to have anything to do with her, really. She was reminded of late evening gatherings she had attended as a child where adults talked and argued, happily or not, their words without meaning and of no interest to the little girl huddled sleepily among them. Of course, the adults on those long-ago evenings had been kind and comforting. These here today didn't seem to like her very much. But maybe this newcomer was a little friendlier. She watched silently as he swung a long leg over the bench to sit by her side. He nodded benignly to the others but his expression changed when he looked into her face. Why was he angry with her?
"What's your price?" he said.
"By Dazai's beard, she's a rare find, and you can bet your boat on that. Worth a small fortune if you take her East. There isn't a warlord who doesn't own a witch or two, or covets one. You look like you've seen a few battles on this moon; you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I have urgent business southwards and so I'm forced to let her go for a pittance. Nath here opened the bidding at five long counts." Tellos jerked a thumb across the table. The man called Nath looked up in surprise but whatever comment he had was quickly swallowed.
The stranger sneered. "I could buy the Grand Priestess for that. Two."
Aletha did not follow the bidding. The edges of her vision were gradually turning gray and an annoying numbness had begun to plague her feet and hands. She slumped in her seat, craving sleep.
The mercenary gripped her arm to keep her upright. Roughly, he grasped a handful of her curls to turn her face to the light. Ignoring her weak struggles, he cupped her chin in his hand as if to examine her features more closely. "What proof do you have of her talents?"
Aletha's eyes widened in surprise when a peculiar sensation began to radiate from his hands. The power of his healthy body seemed to enter her weakened one, making her stronger and more alert as if she had received the drink of water she craved so much. Things began to swim back into focus. She was able to see the faces of those around her and feel the hard bench on which she sat. The voices were clear now and their words had meaning. Her senses sharpening, she heard the sound of some nocturnal bird and the creak of leather when the stranger moved. Not caring how he managed to heal her tired body, she leaned closer to him, greedy for more.
He took a quick, hissing breath and released her. When he lowered his head to search his pockets for the required crystal, Aletha saw through the strands of hair that hid his features that he had squeezed his eyes shut as if her illness had somehow drained into him.
"By the Gods..." she murmured, shaking her head to rid herself of the fog in her mind.
Tellos turned abruptly to peer into her no longer glazed eyes. He stood up and hauled her to her feet. "Well, sir," he said. "It's obvious that you don't have a fair offer. I will give you time to think about this opportunity. Let us meet again tomorrow. It's late and the rain returns."
Aletha tried to pull out of his grasp but he had pinched her fingers in a painful lock, unseen by the others. She knew that more pain would come her way if she tried to escape. The stranger looked up and waved a hand in a careless gesture. His smile was a friendly one but Aletha saw a weariness that had not been there before. "Until then." With fluid grace that seemed out of place on someone of his size, he rose from the table and sauntered back to the alehouse.