Often the wind would blow from the east, bringing a taste of the far lands on its breath. When she could, Shalia then stood up on her lonely hill and turned towards the wind, letting it blow into her face bringing, she believed, the scents of her homeland back to her.
Not that she remembered much of her homeland. She had been young when the Northmen rode out of the strange mountainous regions in the cold north to steal her and the other women and children from her village.
They had taken her back north at first. Later, they brought her back south as their lands grew and expanded and those of Shalia’s people grew smaller.
It had been Nasta, the old woman who had bought Shalia up to the peak of this hill one morning when the girl was young and sad, missing a life and people she could hardly remember.
‘Over there,’ the old woman had held out a gnarled and wrinkled finger that shook and twitched as she pointed. ‘Over there. Those were once your lands. That is where you came from.’
Shalia had believed the old woman then, for she saw Nasta had no reason to lie. But Nasta taught her the secrets of the wise woman and the history of the Northmen and their victories against the other tribes. From that, she learnt that most things people tell each other are lies. Many of the potions that the old woman gave to those who came to her were little more than a random collection of weeds stewed for hours in a big pot over the old woman’s fire that Shalia stirred for day upon day.
‘It is not what is in it,’ Nasta said, ‘but what they think it will do for them that matters.’
‘So you lie to them?’ Shalia had always been told that lying was wrong, even before the Northmen stole her away.
‘Not as much as they lie to themselves,’ Nasta cackled.
It was a hard life being first the old wise woman’s slave and then her apprentice. But Shalia was in no doubt that it was a better life than some of the other women and children the Northmen had taken as slaves. Although, like many things in this world where the bad always seemed to outweigh the good, there were some good parts to most lives, sometimes even the most miserable.
Except for the mines, the punishment every slave dreaded. Exile to the mines was the one power the Northmen held over them.
Nasta often yelled at Shalia for wasting so many mornings standing on her only hill when she should be out in the woods gathering herbs and magical plants. Only once, though, had the old woman ever threatened her with the mines.
It had been Gordil’s idea for them to go to the barn and lie in the hay together. Shalia didn’t know how the old woman knew, back then she assumed it was some sort of magic. But Nasta, with surprising speed and shocking strength, had dragged the young naked Shalia from the hay, and out into the village where everyone turned to laugh as she was dragged past them by her hair.
‘You must not lie with anyone, man, boy or even woman until you have been taken first by the gods. If you do not obey me in this,’ the old woman still with Shalia’s hair wrapped in her fist, had stared deep into her eyes, deep into her soul, making Shalia shiver with dread, ‘then you will end your days in the mines. Do you understand?’
Shalia had nodded despite the pain from her hair it caused. And she had kept her word, until that night when the gods did come for her, and she learnt everything she needed to know about their magic.