It was dark and cold. She was lying down, that much she could tell, but she wasn't sure what she was lying down on. It cushioned her like a soft pillow, but it held her in an iron embrace. She could not see anything, could not feel anything beyond the strange soft yet firm medium she lay on or in. And there was cold. Ice cold that soaked into her bones, beyond the point of shivering. To the point where there was nothing for her body to do but accept the cold. It felt so natural. So she lay and froze and nothing else in the world mattered.
Then the heat came. It started by warming her skin, causing little pinpricks of feeling to begin to return to her body. They shot through her extremities and up her spine like barbed worms raking their backs along her nerves as they climbed through her. The inside of her nose tingled, her ribs felt as though they were being bitten by a million little ants. She tried to shift a little, to relieve the discomfort, but the iron was still holding her motionless. She felt like a dead weight, a dead body that was slowly beginning to warm up.
It was a slow process and she was helpless to do anything about it. Slowly, she became aware of the fact that she could feel her heart beating. It was a steady whooshing, in and out, that rang in her ears as if it were thunder. The beat filled her entire body, making it throb from her scalp to her fingertips. Everything felt as if it were swelling then shrinking as the blood flowed in and out. It was a strange paradox of feelings; alternately making her feel calmed and soothed from the steadiness of it, and on fire with life and impatience as it grated on her nerves with its persistence.
She lay and thawed and nothing else in the world mattered.
The scavenger picked his way through the sharp needle grass on the dunes. This was his second day on the job, after having been caught with his hands full of stolen plums. He shouldn't have tried for the plums. They were too expensive, too easily missed. Bread would have been easier to escape notice with and would have filled his children's bellies more adequately too. But something about the way the plums had lain in their neat pyramid, their dark skins gleaming in the hot sun, had caught his fancy and he had had to take some.
Now, he was short a little finger on his left hand and the hand itself was swathed in bandages as he scrounged the shoreline. He had been given the opportunity to work off his crime in scavenging, and earning his freedom in the sales of whatever he found. He realized now that the sentence was just the court's way of getting rid of the petty criminals for a long, long time. There was nothing on the shore besides sea glass and garbage that had washed up from the river's mouth down the shoreline from the city. Nothing of any real value. To earn one's freedom from sea glass sales would take years. The scavenger was without hope. He was never going to get out of here, or at least not until he was old and gray. And on top of it all, he was hungry. They didn't provide meals to the scavengers. At least they did in the salt mines.
He gingerly skirted a pocket of crab holes, mincing a little, and struggled up a dune, away from the scattered group. Maybe he would have a better chance away from so many other eyes, many of them far more experienced than his. The sun was beating down on him, causing the sweat to drip from his eyebrows and the tip of his nose. His stomach growled angrily and his bare toes were burning from the hot sand. He trudged up the slippery slope wearily. And stopped dead as he reached the top.
She was thawing slowly, but there was a spot on her stomach that was thawing faster than the rest. A line, running from her navel to her collarbone, if that's where those things were, was growing hotter by the second. She tried to ignore it and continue floating thoughtlessly, but it persisted in niggling its way into the outskirts of her awareness. Then it suddenly thrust itself fully into her consciousness as pain erupted from the spot, both fire and ice at the same moment.
She roared awake, a scream ripping its way out of her throat. Every muscle in her body contracted and she jerked convulsively. For a brief moment, her eyes opened and the white light of the sun burned into her retinas, then exploded into a blind blue as her eyelids dropped closed again. Her mind reeled and rebelled against the intrusions for one fraction of a second, then she collapsed into complete unconsciousness once more, where there was nothing, not even the cold or the laying down.
The scavenger jumped back with a startled yelp as the woman beneath his knife suddenly came alive. She arched her back and a thin whine came out of her nose, which turned into an ear-splitting shriek, then fell back into stillness. He didn't dare touch her again. He had thought she was dead the first time, but she hadn't and he wasn't going to risk it again.
She was one of the pale skins from across the sea and he had been trying to get that skin to sell. They were one of the hated races and if they weren't used as slaves, the noble ones' skins were sometimes used to bind expensive books or make kings' boots. The skin alone would have made the scavenger rich beyond his wildest dreams as a pickpocket. But this one was alive, or at least had been alive a moment ago. If she still was, he would be even more rich. Because of the war, the hated races were valued as slaves because they were hard to get and were a favorite way of the upper classes to thumb their noses at the enemy. The scavenger looked down at the woman and the bloody cut he had left behind with his knife at the beginning of an inexperienced skinning job, then turned and ran for his supervisor's tent down the beach. She was going to make him a free, wealthy man one way or the other, but he would like to have the extra money that a live hated race would bring.
The next time she awoke, there was no gentle lead up to consciousness, no gradual warming of limbs and body. One moment she was cocooned in safe emptiness, then she was suddenly awake in a frantic whirl of motion and sound and light above her. There were faces thrust before hers then pulled away, and a constant annoying whine of a high, thin voice was yammering on and on. She didn't understand any of the words and she lay, uncomprehending what was happening to her. Then her stomach started hurting again and her knees came up to her chest as she curled into a ball.
But they wouldn't have it. Rough hands grabbed at her body and pulled her flat on her back again. There was a horrible scraping and tugging at the hot line running up her torso and she writhed as best she could in the restraining hands; her body trying to shake off the pain. But it followed all of her movements, constantly there, spiking in intensity and then lulling into submission at irregular intervals. All of her muscles were contracted into tight knots and her jawbone ached as she clenched her teeth. She wanted to float back into unconsciousness again, to die, anything to get away from it.
But there was no escaping it again. The rough hands worked all over her, exploring the hot line on her stomach, pulling at her eyelids, folding back her lips and probing her mouth. Finally, her nerves ceased working out of exhaustion and she lay, fully awake, in a state of numb tenseness. It wasn't comforting as the emptiness had been, but rather just as horrible, if not more, as the constant pain. There was no feeling at all and she couldn't tell what was happening to her. She opened her eyes, but the light still burned them and dark spots still danced in her vision, so she could not make anything out clearly. The voices burrowed their way into her ears, but she did not understand them. She lay, unfeeling and uncomprehending and a thin, high moan came steadily from between her lips without her even realizing it.
The scavenger stood anxiously by as his supervisor and the supervisor's men examined the woman and tended to her. She had been nearly drowned, they said, probably in a storm. The wreckage of her ship, along with the bodies of many more of the pale skins, was cast up all along the shoreline. She was the only survivor and he had found her. The other scavengers were hurriedly skinning the others, but he had found the live one. He had wheedled at the supervisor and had settled for far less than his starting asking price, but it was still more money than he had ever dreamed of as the supervisor relented and wrote out the tablet that he would take to the moneychanger's booth for his payment. The scavenger held the tablet disbelievingly in his hands. He didn't understand any of what it said, but he knew the power it contained. He was a free man. The pale skin wasn't anymore, but better her a slave than him. At least she deserved it. All of those pale skins should be put in chains or used to cover a book of stories of the heroes of his people. Stroking his bandaged and dismembered hand, the scavenger watched as the pale skin was taken away, and then he turned on his heel and walked to his new life as a wealthy man.
They carried her into a dark room and laid her down on something that was just hard and nothing else. It didn't embrace her or cushion her, just created several pressure points on the bones of her back. She lay on the hard thing and stared up at the darkness that was above her, only partially aware of the tears that were running from her eyes into her ears or the fact that her nerves were beginning to recover and the first twinges that marked the entrance of feeling once more were beginning to touch at her gut.
A tall man came in and stood over her and she realized for the first time that those around her were the tan skins. They were one of the hated races and she had fallen into their hands. Had she been in a more concerned state, she would have fallen into hysterics. There was nothing to look forward to for her. At best, death. At worst, slavery. It was the way the hated races were treated back in her own country. They deserved it. It was the way it had always been. But she wasn't in a concerned state and so she lay quietly as the tall man looked over her once more as the rough hands had – examining her teeth and feeling her arms and legs with judgment. When he was done, he left and she closed her eyes to meet the pain that was slowly seeping into her, but which was coming faster and faster as the moments ticked by. She drew in a breath, but her lungs wouldn't inflate all the way and so she coughed. The one cough turned into another and another until she was wracked with coughs and wanted to curl into a ball once more. But her body wouldn't cooperate and so she lay and coughed and shook gently with her body's pain and nothing else mattered.
A/N: Yay me! I am doing National Novel Writing Month!
Yes, what you see before you is the product of hogtying your inner editor and suspending him/her over the rapid plot bunnies for the entire month of November. This is exactly the way it came out in free thought, with no editing whatsoever and an excess of padding sometimes to make word count (50,000 words is the minimum goal here). So if you want to point out all the little run-on sentences, plot holes and whatnot, you're probably going to be here for a while. If you feel so inclined, go ahead and do so, but you have been warned. Really all I want here is your generic review that I usually despise ("OMG! I love this! Update soon! I 3 Red soooo much!" type thing) to encourage me and make myself feel better. This is for myself more than others, but I'm sending it out to encourage my fellow writers. Fan my ego, people.
In case it isn't already painfully obvious, this is pretty much the story of Red and Quina from my on-hold (possibly permanently so) project "Ocean of Fire." I loved them so much and they were so underused in later drafts that I just had to get their story down on paper. So they became the subject of my first-ever NaNo novel! Yay me!
So yes, enjoy this rough and tumble novel straight from the brain onto paper. Just understand that, with editing, this can be so much better.