Chapter Fifty-Two – A Narrow Escape
The camp slowly stirred as the warmth of the rising sun of late summer added to the uncomfortable heat in the pit coming from the depths of the volcano. The selection began when the men were brought out of the pit and driven at sword point to the square at the centre of the camp. Meral sat on her throne on the raised veranda of her living quarters with her feet resting on Shaila’s naked back, where she lay face down, secured by the chain and cruel collar. She gave a signal for the men to be dragged before her one at a time. Each berserker male was stripped by the guards and presented for inspection. If they were worthy to become breeding stock, they were led away to the iron pen on the far side of the square, opposite Meral’s quarters. If not, they were put back in the pit to be fattened up and eaten later by her hungry female berserkers. Goran, Max, and Tihke were chosen as breeding stock and released from their chains inside the iron pen.
That night the female berserkers dined on one of the latest batch of unfortunates who had failed the selection process. Meral chose the meal for that night when she spotted an overweight youth. He was despatched with a blow to the head from a war hammer, crushing his skull, and his carcase was taken to the kitchens and expertly butchered. The best cuts of meat were reserved for Meral. She forced Shaila to eat the morsels she was given. The berserker cannibals cheered as Meral made her swallow each revolting mouthful, punishing her when she tried to refuse by jerking viciously on the chain holding the studded collar around her neck. After the women had eaten their fill, hungry eyes looked towards the iron pen. It was time to satisfy their other needs. The door to the pen was opened and the first few males were dragged out for Meral to select a mate. As she looked them over, she spotted Max standing at the back of the pen. He was dragged out after the others were returned to the relative safety of the pen. When Meral had had her fill of him, he was turned over to the next senior berserker female warrior and so on, down the line of hierarchy. Eventually Max was finally thrown into the pit with the rest to be fattened and devoured, completely exhausted by the constant physical ordeal. Over the next few weeks, each of the males in the pen was treated in a similar fashion. Eventually, it was Goran’s turn.
He was led from the pen and bathed in perfumed water before he was taken to Meral’s quarters. He stood naked in the main room of her home, in chains, surrounded by four female berserkers. Meral entered and walked over to him. She walked slowly around him, casting her evil eyes over his body, prodding him with her finger.
Nodding to one of her berserker guards, she led the way to her bedroom where the guards roughly pushed him down onto her bed and secured him by his arms and legs with the chains. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the guards. Meral sat for a long time staring at Goran as he lay on his back imprisoned by the chains. “Where do you come from?” she asked, as her eyes travelled the length and breadth of his naked body.
“Gilgama,” Goran replied. “Why?”
Meral’s eyes flashed with anger at the mention of the place that had caused her so much pain and torment. “What is your name?” she hissed into his ear, caressing his body with the razor-sharp blade of her dagger.
“Goran, son of Kalma, son of Khan,” he said. Meral flew into an insane rage when she heard the name of Kalma, her tormentor. She screamed with anger as she slashed Goran’s chest. The guards burst into the room.
“Mother, stop, please stop!” A young berserker warrior stepped between Goran and Meral, knocking the sharp dagger from her hand. She threw her arms around Meral and held her close, wiping away her mother’s tears of anger. Goran was dragged back to the pen and thrown inside. He remained in the pen for the next few days, ignored by Meral as the rest of his fellow captives were taken one by one. He was sitting in the only patch of shade at the back of the pen with his eyes closed, when the strong scent of sweet flowers filled the air. “Goran, please wake up.” He opened his eyes and turned to see the same beautiful young woman who had intervened on his behalf, crouching on the other side of the bars of the pen.
“What do you want, berserker bitch?” he snarled.
“Please don’t be angry. My name is Talia, daughter of Meral, queen of our tribe. I was the one who saved you the other night, remember?”
“Forgive me, princess. If I’d known I was in the presence of royalty, I would have cleaned myself up,” he sarcastically replied.
Talia held his gaze for a few brief moments. “Goran, Meral wants to kill you to revenge the loss of my brother, Merak, when berserkers stole him from her.”
“What are you talking about? Are you telling me I’m next on the menu?” he asked, still angry.
“No! She intends sacrificing you to the god in the volcano. You’ve got to escape! Please, Goran, I’m not like mother. I don’t eat flesh, and I don’t like what she is doing to you or my tribe. She’s mad and I’m afraid of her. I can help by using my position in the tribe to get you away from here. But there is a condition,” she continued. “Please take me with you. When my mother finds out that I’ve helped you to escape, even though I’m her daughter, she’ll kill me whether we succeed or not. Please, let me help you.”
Goran looked deep into Talia’s eyes. Apart from the fact that they were hazel-green and not black, she was the perfect younger version of her mother. Behind her beautiful face and nubile body lay an inner beauty and strength. In the deepest recesses of his mind, somehow or other he knew that he could trust her. Despite the obvious physical attraction between them, his sixth sense convinced him she would lay down her life to protect him.
“Alright,” Goran said. “I’m sorry for what I said. Find out what you can and come back tonight when the camp is asleep. I’m not leaving without my friends. Be careful; see if you can release Shaila from your mother’s clutches and bring her with you. She is the nearest thing I have to a sister.” Talia briefly touched his face and took his hand in hers, kissing its palm, then she smiled as she nodded her agreement before vanishing behind the pen.
That night after the berserker women were asleep she freed Shaila. The two young women stole silently towards the pen and Goran. Next, they went to the pit and watched as Goran lowered himself down to search for Tihke and Max. He found Max but Tihke was missing. Max whispered that he had last seen Tihke being dragged away in the direction of the kitchens. He was on the menu for tomorrow night. They found him naked, trussed up like a turkey on the cold kitchen floor with his hands and feet securely bound together behind his back, surrounded by mountains of unpeeled potatoes and other vegetables. Goran couldn’t resist picking up an apple lying nearby and stuffed it into Tihke’s mouth. They all laughed quietly at the spectacle lying before them. “Just as well they weren’t planning to stuff you as well,” Goran smiled, playfully stroking Tihke’s rear with a stick of celery with a wicked twinkle in his eye.
Once Tihke was released, he angrily clouted the side of Goran’s head. As far as he was concerned there was nothing to laugh about, especially when he had come so close to being the main course for these barbaric females. The very thought of it sent shivers up and down his spine as they crept out of the kitchens and headed for the fence.
Talia had retrieved their weapons and managed to hide them and some food in the thick thorn hedge that marked the upper boundary of the camp. They followed her silently as she steadily climbed the steep sides of the volcano. “Why are we heading up there?” Max asked when they were out of sight of the camp.
“Because it’s the last place they’ll look for us. We’ll be safe inside the crater. We can hide there for days if need be,” she said, as they continued to climb. “There are some old lava tunnels I used to play in when I was a child, inside the outer crater, left over from previous eruptions. They’re warm and dry and have pools of fresh water.”
Next time – Chapter Fifty-Three