The muscled lady held my Iphone so the glass of the screen caught the sunlight, examining the way the sun refracted off its black metallic surface.
“What’s this then?” She averted her attention from the phone and looked down at me, her small rheumy eyes full of accusation. In my periphery, I could see one of the other men rifling through the contents of my pack.
I stood in front of her, sweat beading around my neck, even though the early morning was still dark and cool. I kept my hands held straight up in the air, per the instructions of the woman, which were now starting to ache.
“It’s…it’s….”-I struggled to find the best way on how exactly to describe a modern day smart-phone to a gang of medieval bandits- “a rock. A skipping rock. I picked it out this morning, my friend here was going to show me how to skip it across the lake.”
I was telling a half-truth. In a world without charging cables, my phone was about as much use as a shiny black stone.
Ko’sa, standing beside me with her hands in the air as well, frowned. “That rock would make a crap skipper. You need to pick out ones that are as round as they are flat. When you throw that one it’s going to wobble like a fish missing half its tail fin.”
I had to stop myself from reaching over and thumping the girl on the back of her tiny blonde head.
“Shut up,” the giant woman said. She tossed the phone to her associate, who was now busy peeling an orange he had found in Ko’sa’s pack and popping bits into his mouth. “You ever seen anything like this?”
He looked down at the sleek device, his brow knitting into crease lines as the cogs turned in his head. After a second, his eyes lit up. “I’ve seen one of these before: this is Outsider shit!” He looked like he had won the lottery. “This stuff sells for a ton in the Capital market.” He handed the phone back to the woman. “We’ll be eating well for the next week, Cecilia.”
Cecilia ran a hand through her tight dark braids and stowed the phone in a large burlap sack with the rest of their plunder. “That will be for the Prince to decide. He may deem that the money would be better spent on things that do not involve you stuffing your face.” She shot a look of disapproval at the half-eaten orange in his hand and pointed at our packs. “We done here?”
He nodded. “The rest is shit. Nothing worth its weight.”
“Good.” She rounded back on me with the reflexes of a panther, her dark brown eyes boring into me like black holes. Before I knew what was happening, a thick gloved hand was wrapped around my throat, her fingers cold and heavy as steel, crushing my larynx in a vice grip. She lifted me up into the air by my throat, as I flailed around wildly.
“You think it’s funny lying to me girl?”
I tried to speak, but my vocal chords were pressed together so tightly that only a muffled gurgle came out.
“Do you want to know what I did to the last man that lied to me?”
Again I tried to beg, focusing all my energy into producing any sort of noise. I managed a squeak, soft and pathetic like a mouse caught in a trap.
Ko’sa took a step forward. “Please miss, we didn’t have no idea what that thing was. Bet she nicked it off a stand in our village market before we left. She was born simple: doesn’t know any better. I told her to go find a good, flat skipping rock and she comes back with that.” She punched me playfully on the arm as I continued to gurgle and winked at the giantess squeezing the life out of me. “Leave it to our Jill to make a mess of things.”
Cecilia looked at Ko’sa with measured skepticism, then turned back to me, writhing in the air. “Is this true? What she is saying?”
I tried to nod as best I could, but my head felt like it was filled with helium and ready to pop off and fly into the air at any second. For a second she held firm, the world growing darker around me, and then the steel fingers relaxed their grip, and I fell to the ground in a heap, my hair falling over my face in mats. I remained on the ground, shaking violently, and began to gasp for oxygen as if the world was in danger of running out. After several moments my breathing steadied and I began to compose myself. I wiped a thin rope of saliva from the corner of my mouth and pushed the brown veil of hair back behind my ears, keeping my eyes fixed to the ground the entire time. I could still see the shadow of the woman towering over me, but dared not look up.
She spat and I saw the puddle of frothy white bubbles land on the ground next to me. “Get out of here. Quickly, before I change my mind.”
Ko’sa grabbed my arm and helped me to my feet, and together we hurried off down the road towards the city.
“You okay?” Ko’sa asked, once we were a safe a distance away.
“Yeah,” I whispered, my voice was hoarse and brittle. It cracked if I tried to raise it past its lowest volume.
“Scary buggers, them,” she said. “I understand where they come from though; the feeling of being on the losing ends of things, even though there was never no war to lose. Must be crummy, to be cast away from your kingdom without anyone wanting to fight for you. That’s all they want really; the fight they never got.” She paused and looked over at me, her eyes coming to rest on my throat. “We can probably stop in the National Forest and find some aloe on the way. I can make you some tea to drink before we enter the city.”
I rubbed my sore throat and nodded. “That would be lovely. Thanks.” I stopped walking for a minute. “Hey Ko’sa, why are you doing all this?”
“Doing all what?”
“Helping a stranger like me. Keeping me alive. You wanted to run away back at the camp, when I was falling behind.” She raised a hand to protest but I pressed on. “Don’t deny it, I could see it in your eyes. But you didn’t though. Why?”
She sighed. “Fine, you got me Miss Jill. There is something I want from you. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve getting picked up by your throat again, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
I raised an eyebrow. So far, I had proved about as useful as a pile of dung. What could this girl possibly want from me?
“Well? I’m listening.”
“Patience miss, we’ll get there soon enough.”
“Yeah, you’ll see. The funeral isn’t until twilight, and we’ve got some time to kill. In the meantime we’re going to make a detour before we enter the city.”
“So…where are we going?”
She smiled at me, her grin almost devilish, then took off at a skip down the road past me. “Maybe if you weren’t so slow we’d already be there. Come on, you’ll see.”