The children huddled under the small canopy, breath on each others backs, sheltering from the rain. The children lived a big camp, filled with many waterproof tents, but these children were treated like slaves, and therefore weren't given a place to keep safe. The group of children was amassed from all the families in the camp, taken forcefully from their home tents, and hidden inside the circle of the leader's tents. The children were collected at the beginning of spring, as soon as the frost that collected all over the country defrosted and business would start in Hilma Port again. Every year, the leaders took all children over the age of six from their homes.
Ever since a large epidemic of plague five years before, the population of the camp greatly decreased, forcing the leaders to find another income. They decided to make use of everyone who wasn't needed in the camp, which excluded only the old, disabled, and the children. Realizing these adolescents could make a great source of money, the leaders decided to sell their children as slaves. They would be taken to Port Hilma, and be sold at the slave markets after a month's training for high prices. The children bought at the slave market were often mistreated. Once, a runaway children had come back to the camp, bruised, cut, and hungry, only to be sent back home to his abusive owner. The parents, understanding this, tried to save their children, but there was nothing they could do. The camp was full of single soldiers, trained in the capital, and ready do to what needed to be done.
The huddled kids had been watched their whole life. In their early years they had been either victims of the plague, or had family members who had died from it. After recovering from that terrible trauma, they were then forced into labor in the camp until they were selling age. They went home to their parents each night, but only if they had finished their work before the dinner bell rang. Otherwise they would have to stay until they were done, and then given more tasks as punishment. This system didn't work well for the camp leaders for the first year, because of constantly rebelling parents and spunky children. Then they brought in their warriors who lived in the capital, and the soldiers enforced the rules.
The plague had traveled all around the country, and many people had come to the same horrible conclusion. They would sell the children. Some children stayed in their home country, but many left on ships bound for small and wealthy islands, never to see anyone they ever knew again. At least in Port Hilma there were chances of a passing greeting with someone familiar. Out in the world they were alone.
Equa was the youngest of all the six year olds, but she knew the most. She knew what was happening and what would happen. So she huddled in the middle of the tent, not speaking, ready to escape. Her parents had explained to her clearly what dangers she faced, why they couldn't help her, and what she had to do. She had to escape before she was sold, otherwise she would have to be on the run her whole life. She was repeated their names in her head, trying to hold on the faint bit of hope that managed to work it's way through her fear. The other children were moaning, weeping, shivering. But not Equa. She would be strong. She closed her little eyes, blocked out the wailing in her ears, and slept.
The next morning, the rain had stopped for the first time in three days. And so Equa knew they would be leaving today. She stretched her short arms above her head, and sat still, waiting for the soldiers to come out of their big tents. They came out fifteen minutes later, burly and muscular arms stuffed into their brown tweed uniforms, muskets at their sides. The children immediately shrieked and hid behind the taller ones, who pushed them back in front, all except Equa, who stayed perfectly still and silent. Already, she was the favorite of the leading soldier, because she was obedient, quiet, and respectful.
He smiled at her, then ordered his soldiers to round up the children. They ran frantically, ignorant to the weapons the soldiers were carrying. Equa stared up at Torro, the lead soldier. He smiled again. "You should be glad you are so obedient and mature. You will be a good servant, and you will be treated well, I am sure."
Equa nodded. "Thank you, Soldier Torro."
He started to say something else, when one of the muskets fired. Equa looked to where the sound was coming from. There on the ground, was a little girl, brown curls splayed out, blood gushing from a wound on her thigh. Next to her stood a young guard, cold and stone faced. The musket was still smoking in his hand. At the sound, all the children had stilled, giving the guards an opportunity to grab them. Soldier Torro left Equa's side, and marched menacingly towards the cold soldier.
"Leader Mano told us not to harm the slaves! Now, you will have to carry her to Port Hilma, because she cannot walk on her own!" He growled. Equa thought of Soldier Torro as the nicest of the soldiers, but she wasn't surprised at all at his anger. By now, at the tender age of six, she was numb to the world, and no evil would ever be surprising. The other children, now more fearful then ever before, let themselves be pushed along, whimpering.
Port Torro was a day's walk away, in good weather. The road was full of stones, potholes, and puddles with terrible stench. The road was hard to walk on, and even Equa, the most composed of them all, was stumbling and struggling. As they walked, Equa put more focus into her escape, so much so that she nearly tripped onto Soldier Torro. He chuckled. "I see the roads are hard for you." He put his hand on her shoulder to steady her, and kept it there to keep her from falling and hurting herself.
I can't run if he's holding on to me, Equa knew. How do I get him to stop?
Then the distraction came for her. The little girl who had been shot was moaning loudly. Soldier Torro let go of her, and stormed toward the dying girl. Equa didn't even check to see if anyone was watching, she just ran. Ran towards the grasslands and forests bordering the road, quick as she could move her tiny legs. She remembered what Mamo and Papo had told her, to try to escape to the forest, where the nymphs lived. They would help her. Equa heard footsteps and shouting behind her, but didn't dare look back, not now. Suddenly, she was grabbed from behind. Soldier Torro's big hands clutched her throat. "You were supposed to be the good one. Now we know you really are, a worthless slave who can never escape the grasp if her captors. You will be dragged along behind us from now on," he hissed in her ear.
Equa kept her face straight. She squared her shoulders, kept quiet, didn't even whimper when Soldier Torro beat her again and again. She didn't scream or moan when he tied her up, stinging and pushing into her new cuts. Soldier Torro grabbed a rope from his belt and attached to one the ties around her, then motioned for the group to move on. He pulled her by the rope behind him, and still she didn't cry. She was Equa, and she would never cry again.
They reached Port Hilma by sundown. Even at the end of the business day, there was still people milling around the town, shouting, drinking, selling, buying. No one paid attention to the group of children and soldiers, pushing their way through the jammed streets. They walked into the slave market set up right near the bay, making it easy for ships needing new employees to quickly acquire them. They held auctions, where they would display the slave and their number, based on how well they would work. The boys and girls were separated, each taken to huge rooms filled with dying, hungry, and depressed slaves, drowning themselves in ale. Equa looked down the hallway to where Soldier Torro was talking to the slave master. The soldiers would stay in an inn, then come and collect the money from each sold slave in the next evening.
Equa and the other girls huddled together, Equa for once not caring, she was tired, and she knew they would not be safe if they didn't stick together. The young girls slept horribly, and were forced up at sunrise to the auction, were bidding and rating would begin. As the day went on, more good slaves left rapidly, leaving the sick and weak behind. Many of the girls and boys from Equa's camp were sold, masters wanting young slaves who would be easy to teach and rebelliousness not yet present. Equa was one of the last ones to go up.
She was pulled onto a raised platform, in only a skimpy dress. She was touched all over, looked at intently, and then she was displayed as the masters pulled up her number. She was a 4.6. Equa stood there, face and shoulders set, eyes rebelliously staring the onlookers down. Then the bidding began. People started out with the lowest possible numbers, only raising it as much as needed. The arguing lasted a while, young slaves were in high demand. Equa just listened and watched and waited for the outcome. Then, another man joined the bidding. He was tall, with a long beard, and middle aged.
"40 preks!" He shouted. Many people bidding backed out, his number was higher by at least fifteen preks. The price rose, until only the tall man and a scruffy, beady eyed man remained. The price was now at sixty preks. The tall man shouted seventy five preks, and the beady eyed man sat back down.
"Sold!" Called the slave master. Equa had failed her parents.
Equa pushed off the platform, where she was met by the tall man. "My name is Januel," he said. "Now, follow me."
He led her towards his wagon. "Sit here." He pointed to the front bench. It was covered in burlap sacks to prevent the wood from getting too hot to sit on. Equa quietly sat down.
"What's your name?" Januel asked.
"Hello, Equa. Would you like me to tell you about what's going to happen?"
Equa nodded, uncertain.
"My wife and I, Mara, own a large estate an hour's ride from here. Mara is now pregnant, and she doesn't have enough time or energy to take care of the house anymore. We decided we wanted to get a young girl who is strong willed, quick to learn, helpful, and she will be sweet to our child. I saw you on the platform, and I knew you were the girl we wanted."
"You were glaring at your captors like you thought it would kill them. I saw strength. I also noticed you looked sweet, and you seemed very alert and ready for whatever came."
Januel smiled. The rest of the ride to Januel's house has silent.
When they got to the house, Equa was very tired. Still, she stayed awake and looked around the estate. There was a large prominent house in the center of a well-kept lawn, made of brick and stone. There were wild flowers arranged elegantly around the yard. Behind the house, glowing wheat fields could be seen blowing in the wind, and apple and pear trees were abundant. There was a stone shed next to the house filled with tools, and a stone gazebo with benches and wicker chairs looked towards the setting sun.
Inside the house was room after room, brimming with books, chairs, photographs, and little tokens. The kitchen was very large, onions, peppers, garlic and other produce hanging from the ceiling, next to hooks with draping sausages and little hams and whole chicken waiting to be cooked. There was a cold cheese drawer, and a cupboard full of assorted fresh bread. There was a wine cellar, and baskets of fresh apples near the door. Januel handed one to Equa, enjoying her wide eyed expressions. "You many grab food from here whenever you want," he said.
Next, Januel brought Equa to meet Mara. When Mara saw her, her eyes lit up. "Hi, my dear. I am Mara! Would you tell me your name?" she asked, in a foreign accent.
"Hello. My name is Equa." Equa nodded solemnly at the pregnant woman.
"Oh, dear, no need to bow so. Think of me as your friend, not your elder."
Mara laughed. "May I give you a hug, dear girl?"
Equa looked up and smiled, for the first time since the devastating day she was taken from her parents. She reached over Mara's belly and hugged her shoulders. Mara grasped her tightly. Equa cried into Mara's shoulder, even though she had promised never to cry again.
And from that day on, Equa lived on the estate, treated and loved like one of Mara's and Januel's children. Equa helped with everything that was needed, she was indeed a quick learner, and loved each of her master's and mistress's three babies, two of them delightful little girls, and the youngest, a boy, a scoundrel but sweet all the same. Equa lived in peace and happiness. She missed her real parents but understood why she would never see them again. She grew up on the estate into a beautiful and strong young woman, ready to serve and care for others. She made it her goal to help every slave she met, using her own money to buy them food, care for wounds, and when possible, help them escape back home. She deeply empathized with them, having been there herself as a little girl.
Equa, a strong but naïve six year old was no longer huddling under a canopy, sheltering form the rain; she was the sun, standing tall, knowing who she was and what she had to do for the world.