"Fill your mind before you empty your mouth."
― Habeeb Akande
Anna sucked in sweet fresh air through a small opening at the bottom of her prison's door. She listened to crickets and peeper frogs, wishing she was back in her cottage with her parents and little brother. This tiny, dark, stone cell only revealed a slice of daylight when someone brought her meal and changed her water bucket and privy pot. Even then, she was told to turn away and not speak.
After the door closed, darkness again descended, and Anna felt for her food bowl. Food was surprisingly plentiful and varied. One day it was a small round loaf of bread, a slab of ham or chicken, or a mug of thick barley stew with a bun and berries. It was more than her parents could provide. She wondered why do they feed me so well if I'm a prisoner?
After three days of captivity, the hope of rescue faded. She'd heard no familiar sounds of people, goats, or even raucous roosters.
She recalled how a loud thud woke her the night she was taken. She'd sat up in bed, listening, then dismissed it as cats fighting on the roof again. Then she smelled a rancid body odor. As she lay back down, a man grabbed her, pressing his large, rough hand against her mouth and nose.
She couldn't breathe, much less cry out. It happened so quickly. He covered her with her quilt and took her out of her cottage into the night. He wound a rope around her and dumped her into a cart. She listened to his climb up to the seat and horse hooves clomp, then felt the cart move. Anna struggled and screamed but soon realized it was of no use. She tried to keep track of the length of the journey, but sleep overtook her.
Once Anna heard faint morning birdsongs, then everything went dark again. It was hard to breathe through the quilt, and the binding restricted her movement. He carried her into this dungeon, or whatever it was.
Why was this happening? Her parents weren't rich or powerful, and most families could barely provide food and clothing for their own. Why would anyone want to take her, and where?"
One minute she'd dreamed of celebrating her fifteenth birthday celebration. The next, she was a prisoner in a cold, dark cell.
The first night she was pushed to the ground, flat on her face. A candle flame danced around the walls, but whoever brought it told her to lay face down and close her eyes. She still smelled his sickening sweat. "Don't yer move," a husky whisper warned as she felt the quilt lift off
"What'?" Slap! The side of her face was like it was on fire, and her ear rang.
"Shut up!" the whisper grew harsher, more of a growl.
He tugged on her long, red-gold braid and sliced it off so close to her scalp she felt a trickle of blood run along the side of her neck. She was wearing only her thin nightdress, and her feet were bare. Even though it was summer, it was cold against the hard dirt floor. The candle went out, leaving only its smoky tallow scent, then total blackness. A breeze of fresh air washed over her as she listened to the door close and braced shut.
She tried to think about who would do this to her and why, but nothing made sense. Aside from common gossip that ran through her village like a fire brigade, her neighbors got along very well. The villagers had occasional disagreements but always resolved peacefully. Anna's father was the local blacksmith; they weren't wealthy, so why her?
Anna felt around inside her confined space, feeling stone walls., with no windows, which meant it was probably a storage hut. She had her quilt, a water bucket, and the privy jug. She paced the space with four long steps in each direction. It smelled musty with a hint of freshly sheered wool, although no fleece remained.
She heard people call her name the first two days but from a distance. The stone walls blocked her screams for help.
On the fourth night, she was told to face away from the door, then felt a cloth hood cover her head. It smelled like grain and was rough against her skin. Sharp stones pressed into her feet as he pushed her forward, then lifted her into the cart again. This time, she heard others climb in with her. Anna listened as a younger girl cried softly, then a heavy boot stomped on the wooden cart, and the weeping stopped.
The scents and sounds soon told Anna they were riding into Devil's Forest, which villagers avoided. She smelled the damp decaying leaves and pine branches. She'd heard legends of the forest monsters all of her life. Some people said they were just stories to keep kids from wandering off and getting lost. But others told of people disappearing in that area. Devil's Forest was a treasure trove of mushrooms, berries, and wild roses hips, and people foraged along the edges but never strayed from the road.
She shivered with fear, hunger, and cold as the cart stopped, and she was pulled out and told to stand still. She heard other footfalls around her, and it seemed she was one of two other captives. Her feet sank to her ankles in mud, then someone grabbed her arm and told her to walk. She smelled wild onions, mint, and even earthworms, as large cold drops fell onto her neck between the cloth sack and her nightdress. Dense foliage slapped and scratched her, and her shoulder ached as she was pulled along.
She counted fifty steps from the cart, then smelled a cooking fire and roasted pork and root vegetables. Hunger and thirst slightly stifled her fear. Voices and music from fiddles and drums became louder. The other girl began weeping again, but nobody quieted her because no one cared. This brought another layer of dread to Anna's heart.
Firelight flickered through the sack, and she smelled food. She was told to stop. Her captor spoke Anna's language with an unfamiliar accent. "Here's them, as promised."
A woman spoke this time with an unfamiliar accent, "Give us a look. Uncover 'em, Son."
Someone removed the sack, and through blurry vision, Anna saw a group of men and women in silhouette against the fire. She heard a whimper to her left and someone stifling a sob. She looked toward the sounds, and a girl about her age with short-cropped blonde hair wept and shivered. Another girl stood stoically silent near Anna and had black hair, blood smeared across her neck and jaw.
A tall, young man carried a torch and looked each girl over. He had a long and shaggy beard and mustache. His dark eyes reflected the torchlight. "They'll do! "
An old woman stepped beside him. She had opaque white eyes set into pale, wrinkled skin. Anna flinched as the woman leaned closer and sniffed her like a dog might. She squeezed Anna's arms with a rough, bony hand. "Goodly fed." She nodded to her son, and he tossed a leather pouch to someone behind the captives.
He said, "Thank ye' It's easy to find the best ones in a village. I dress as local and keep to myself and listen. Churches with proud mothers gossiping and bragging fer their girls' beauty, hopin' fer' a mate.
Anna lifted her hand to the back of her neck, and no beautiful locks now. She fought off tears and hugged her quilt closer.
"Hair grows back, and we need proof they the ones ya' described. You can take the braids to sell but do it far from 'ere. We'll dress 'em as boys and keep; 'em tethered in a covered cart back ta' j the mountains. We'll keep 'em; we have guards and traps for fools lookin' for 'em."
The man asked, "I see yer young lassies' ere. Why yer need these three?"
"Nosey are ye? Some died of fever last winter, and we need fresh blood. Long ago, we took babes and blamed it on the fairies. But babes are too much trouble."
He continued, "This the first time yer hired me, is why I ask. No folks come for 'em?"
The old woman cackled, "Oh, some try. We go back to the mountains."
"Aye, I got that one with a devil mark on 'er, like ye' said?"
"The mark shows a past life."
Anna turned toward the girl he'd pointed to and realized the red splotch covering half of her neck and jaw wasn't blood. She'd never seen either of them. Where had they come from?
"Yee eat and stay the night if yer won't, sir."
"Thanks, ye, smells good, and I'm sore weary."
Anna and the other two captives were told to sit where they'd stood. The old woman said, "Don't worry, dearies, we clothe ye'. We take 'em from laundry lines, so they might even be yers own kin's!" Anna bit her lip at the thought that they'd been so close yet never seen. She tried to see her more clearly, but the darkness and smoke prevented it. The people at the firelight's edge were larger than her tall, muscular father. The men had long hair and heavy beards, making it impossible to see their faces, and the women wore long shawls pulled up that hid their faces.
A young boy brought the girls' plates of roasted rabbit, boiled potatoes, and bread crusts. Anna and the dark girl gobbled it up, but not the fair one.
The old woman stood over them. "Eat up, be strong fer yer future mate. "
The men laughed and made crude remarks, but the old woman held up her hand, and they fell silent.
"Do what yer told. No fusses. No runnin' cuz! Will be the death of ye' or yer family. Yer kin was so braggy and gossipy, they were sellin' ye' and never knew it." She laughed, then led them to a pile of straw. "Stay here for now."
Anna asked to relieve herself, and a guard took her to the edge of the camp. She stepped behind a giant oak, and her foot bumped into something large and soft. The faint moonlight revealed a dead man who smelled like her abductor. She stifled a scream, covered him with her quilt, and returned to her guard.