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I’d like to thank my editor, thewordsmith2590. Her unusual preoccupation with Carmen’s underpants is a tad unsettling, but she is generous with both her time and talent, for which I will be eternally grateful.

***

The sun had reached its midmorning height, fingers of light stabbing through the canopy of broad green leaves. The small group’s progress had been slow and arduous; still, the injured girl and her two companions had covered many miles since dawn. She had been understandably skittish and was grateful that the strangers had maintained what she judged to be a respectful distance during most of the trek. They had stopped at regular intervals along the way, and the men had shared what they gleaned from a seemingly endless variety of exotic fruit trees and berry bushes.

She confessed to a mild fascination with the younger of the two. He looked to be only seventeen or eighteen years old, but the awkwardness of youth had long since left him. He moved with an almost predatory grace that would have been unsettling were it not for his wide and easy grins. He wore his hair much like she did, and it flowed to his shoulder blades like a bolt of black silk. In the center of his chest was carved a stylized sun almost the size of a man’s hand. She felt a deep sense of gratitude toward him; two of the arrows in his quiver had put an end to the most harrowing experience of her young life. Without spilling a drop of blood, this man-child had saved her.

His older friend was a somewhat odd-looking fellow. Like his younger friend, he was naked save a single piece of leather and sandals. The leather appeared to be simply tied around the hips, with flaps to the front and back. The bronzed skin of his abdomen hung about him like a shirt two sizes too large, the sort of sagging usually reserved for the elderly or the sick. His dark brown hair seemed to defy both gravity and discipline. She guessed him at twenty-five years or so, but he was already missing four of his front teeth and had developed the habit of thrusting his tongue through the gap at moments of intense concentration. Since he also tended to knit his brow, the combined effect was so comical that it took a supreme effort to contain her mirth.

Just before midday, she felt a twinge of nervous anticipation as she spotted the village looming ahead. She wasn’t sure how she felt about impinging upon the hospitality of strangers, and if everyone spoke in the same tongue as the man-child, how could she ask for help in contacting her uncle? How would she even find out where she was?

A low murmur arose as they approached, heads turning to gaze curiously at the new arrival. A toddler darted out of one of the round huts toward them, only to be scooped up by the teen. The little girl shrieked in delight and flung her arms around his neck as he idly tickled her. A middle-aged woman bearing a striking resemblance to the young man strode forward, glancing inquisitively at Carmen before turning towards the teen. He began speaking in low tones, pausing only to answer her questions. Probably his mother, Carmen thought.

The village was larger than it had appeared at first glance. A large, round building with a conical roof seemed to be the center of the community, and was easily twice the size of her uncle’s villa. Just south of the large structure, a corral held a couple dozen horses and foals. To the north, a well-tended crop field contained numerous grains and vegetables in varying stages of readiness, and a small creek provided fresh water. She counted at least twenty of the round dwellings, seemingly constructed of wooden frameworks and cemented together with dried grasses and mud.

“Mara.”

Startled, Carmen turned toward the feminine voice. Recognizing the boy’s mother, she frowned slightly, struggling for comprehension.

“Mara,” she said again, patting her ample chest. A slight smile curved her lip as a look of understanding crossed the girl’s face.

“Carmen,” the girl replied, in a near whisper. In addition to the woman’s almost incapacitating beauty, a sense of raw power emanated from her in waves. Her liquid brown eyes showed compassion as they swept briefly over her, narrowing slightly as they noticed the bruised flesh of the girl’s hip through the gap of her ruined skirt. She reached forward, clucking softly at Carmen’s slight recoil. Ignoring the unintentional protest, she brushed the cloth aside and laid a gentle hand against the purple flesh. Detecting none of the heat of infection, she guided the girl into her hut, pausing only to speak to her son. The young man soon returned with jugs of hot water which he set just inside the dwelling.

The meager furnishings and complete absence of clutter inside the hut hinted at disuse. Four large crates, presumably used for storage, also served as legs for the pallet bed. Bowls of various sizes were neatly stacked under the bed. Herbs hung from the ceiling beams, most still drying, and Mara collected several. Pulling out a large clay bowl, she rubbed the dried herbs between her hands until they pendik escort resembled a course powder. Retrieving the four jugs of steaming water the boy had collected, Mara emptied them into the bowl before untying the knots restraining the door flap. As she pulled the last knot loose, the rolled leather unfurled, giving the privacy needed for the task at hand.

Mara turned toward Carmen, and her heart wrenched at the apprehensive look on the girl’s face. Santos had told her what the pig had done to her, and even with her considerable skill, there were some things she couldn’t heal. The girl reddened slightly at the look of pity on the woman’s face, her shame warming her cheeks and numbing her heart. Did everyone know? She lowered her lashes, unable to meet the woman’s eyes. She forced herself to remain motionless as the woman undressed her, examining every inch of her skin for injuries.

Mara dipped a soft cloth into the scented water, her gentle hands working swiftly to clean away the dust and sweat. Carmen winced as the astringent-smelling water ran in tiny rivulets over the abrasions, stinging her tender flesh. She allowed Mara to lead her to the pallet bed, assuming the woman meant for her to rest. Tired from the day’s hike and emotionally exhausted, she lay down and closed her eyes. Seconds later, she bolted upright in a blind panic as Mara’s hands tried to gently part her thighs. Eyes wide and nostrils flaring in a desperate effort to draw breath, she scrambled back away from the woman, coming up hard against the wall of the hut. The air whooshed from her lungs, compounding her fear as the woman held her hands out in a placating gesture and tried to soothe her in her alien language. Soothing nonsense, but soothing, nonetheless.

She’s not going to hurt you. Relax.

Mara had seen the blood streaking the girl’s thighs, and the thought of one so young carrying a bastard forced upon her made her stomach churn. If Santos’ description could be trusted, the pig had pleasured himself elsewhere, but she wondered at her eighteen-year-old son’s grasp of female anatomy. It was a simple matter for her to kill the man’s seed now by applying a salve, but the herbs required to remedy the situation after a woman started to become heavy with child were hard to find and even harder to tolerate. They could make the girl deathly ill. It was a slight chance but one the healer couldn’t take.

Still murmuring softly, she slowly eased the girl to her back. Grasping one of the girl’s hands in her own for reassurance, she gently parted her thighs with the other. Though Carmen turned her head away, squeezing Mara’s hand, she didn’t resist this time. The woman placed her free hand on the girl’s stomach, trying not to startle her with such intimate contact. Moving her hand over the girl’s fleecy mound, she quickly separated her lips before gently probing for signs of violation. Meeting the barrier of the girl’s hymen, she deftly withdrew, squeezing the girl’s hand. Carmen released a shuddering breath, tears of humiliation still drying on her cheek. She struggled weakly to get up, but was stayed by a restraining hand. Mara covered the girl’s naked form with a thin blanket, more to assuage the girl’s sense of modesty than for warmth. Standing, she leaned over the girl, brushing her hair from her eyes before planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. Eased by the maternal gesture, the girl closed her eyes and let sleep claim her.

***

Much had changed since the day she arrived. Although she still made mistakes, Carmen had learned much of their language. She spent her days tending crops and gathering herbs for Mara, who in turn presented her with linen for undergarments. When the day’s heat had passed, she sat with the women around the fire in front of the large building listening to the singers and storytellers. In the few short weeks she’d been here, these people had become family to her. Carmen gained a sense of belonging and an understanding of the tribal structure and politics.

It seemed, for the most part, to be matriarchal. All major decisions were made by a tribunal of the three highest-ranking women, Mara among them. While they frequently consulted the leaders of the hunting and trading camps, the real power of the tribe lay with these three women. Like many small communities, they were rarely called upon to do more than settle petty disputes. There were no marriages, but long-term relationships were common, and a fair number of them were between women. The men were free to come and go as they pleased, for the most part, but many stayed for extended periods away from the village at the hunting or trading camps.

The hunters usually occupied themselves with the brewing of grain beer and the telling of stories, but were also charged with keeping cougars at bay and, on occasion, bringing meat to the village. Boys as young as six summers camped here, learning about the making and maintenance of tools and weaponry. By their tenth summer, they hunted small game, honing their hunting and fighting skills in the safe company maltepe escort of their kinsmen.

The trading camps were mobile and wagon-based. In addition to trade goods, each carried enough supplies for the traders and their warrior escorts. The traders brought back more than goods. They were vital in inter-tribe communication and returned with word of births, deaths, illnesses, and crimes.

Crime among the people was rare, the punishment both harsh and swift. Minor crimes warranted penalties ranging from fines to sentences of servitude, usually served at the hunting camps. Most acts of violence and some acts of theft were punishable by death, and the perpetrators were sometimes known to flee before their actions were known to the tribal elders. It was not unheard of for such offenders to seek refuge with another tribe and a different identity.

The older woman had been Carmen’s constant companion since she had arrived at the village some weeks ago. The woman had proven to be a patient and affectionate teacher, quick to give a light pat or gentle caress when she was pleased with the girl’s progress. They took their meals together, and at night, the girl slept on a spare pallet in Mara’s hut.

***

The arrival of the returning trade wagons provided a much-needed break. As it was also near mealtime, the traders were swamped with offers of help. As soon as the wagons came to a halt in front of the doors of the massive central building, women began grabbing armloads of cloth, tools, and cooking utensils. Shouldering a large bag of sugar, Carmen followed the line of women unloading goods inside the building.

Mara had explained to her that the building was intended to house the tribunal and serve as the administrative center of the village. This was where complaints and petitions were heard, punishments decided, and goods distributed. This was where births were celebrated, deaths mourned, and spirits guided to the next world. Shortly before the girl had arrived, Mara had taken up temporary residence at her son’s hut to be close by in case his ailing and elderly neighbor needed assistance. As soon as the goods were distributed, Mara and Carmen would move here.

Riders were dispatched to the hunting camps, and after the last of the men arrived, all of the adults were allowed to choose one of the items arranged on the blankets. They moved in order of rank; tribunal first, then the camp leaders, warriors, pregnant women, and remaining villagers. Mara chose a bolt of white linen. She measured the material, cutting a couple of yards and leaving the rest on the blanket. Faces passed by in an endless procession, selecting various items and complimenting the traders’ choices. By the time the last item was gone, Mara had two new knives, a corked glass bottle, a cast iron pot, and enough cloth to make several lightweight garments. The pleated fabric of the girl’s mended riding skirt was more than enough to keep her covered while astride a horse, but it was also damnably hot.

The rear half of the tribunal hut was separated by a dividing wall with three doors. Mara ducked inside the door on the left, quickly depositing her new acquisitions before returning to the girl. Placing her hand on the small of Carmen’s back, she guided her toward the front door and outside to the communal cooking pot. Young girls scurried about, bringing stacks of bowls and loaves of bread by the armful. Food was quickly distributed to those milling around the large pot. Despite the early hour, the general consensus seemed to be that the workday was over.

After the meal was over, Mara and Carmen joined the throng of villagers walking along the stream. Following the streambed for just over a mile, they came to a large pond. Items of clothing settled like leaves on the grassy banks, dark bodies knifing into the cool water. The girl was becoming accustomed to seeing naked flesh, but her breath still caught in her throat when Mara peeled her linen shirt over her head.

The woman’s full, ripe, caramel-colored breasts rode high on her chest, with thick nipples and dusty-rose areolas easily two inches in diameter. Her body was lush and well-formed, its ample curves showing no signs of malnourishment, and a backside… Mother of God! A blush stained Carmen’s cheeks as the woman caught her wandering eye, an odd smile flickering at the corners of her mouth. The girl lowered her lashes, now coloring furiously, before stammering the first excuse that came to mind. “I don’t feel well. I need to go. I need to go now.”

Mara watched as the girl retreated in the direction of the village. She chuckled to herself, running her long fingers through her jumbled mass of curls. Saying you’re sick is no way to avoid a healer, little one. Still, she would have to tread very carefully with this one. She had admitted to herself just days ago that she was enamored of this girl. Her gentle and sometimes nervous manner reminded the woman of a wild bird, small and fiercely beautiful. This girl was something to be protected, nurtured.

The kartal escort woman quickly divested herself of her skirt and sandals before wading into the pond. The water was deceptively cool, given the heat of the day. Rather than endure the excruciating process any longer, she braced herself and dove. The initial shock lasted only seconds, but she felt it the instant her nipples made contact with the water. The contraction was instantaneous and mildly thrilling. Slowly rising tendrils of desire coiled in the pit of her stomach, fanned to flame as random and unnamed bodies brushed against hers in passing. The small pond teemed with tawny, naked flesh that did little but make her long for the one who had run from her.

Exiting the pond, Mara bent to retrieve her shirt and skirt. Slipping her feet into her sandals, she walked back to the village, clothes in hand. Striding confidently into the tribunal hut, she spotted her quarry just inside the door to their living quarters. She was but feet from the door when the girl spotted her, glancing from side to side as if looking to escape. Mara looked deep into Carmen’s eyes. They held uncertainty but no fear. She held the girl’s gaze as she moved ever closer. Reaching out, she ran gentle fingers over the girl’s cheek and to her neck, wreaking havoc with Carmen’s senses.

“Don’t run from me again, girl. I’ve never given you reason to fear me, and I never will.”

The reprimand was softened by the gentle caress of the woman’s hand, her fingers slowly skipping along the sensitive skin of Carmen’s long neck. Mara marveled at the responsiveness of the young woman. Tiny tremors wracked the girl’s body as she reached lower to cup Carmen’s breast in her hands. Mara felt the nipples harden through the material of the girl’s shirt, smiling at her quick intake of breath. The girl felt liquid, pliable in her experienced hands.

Carmen was beside herself. Strange new feelings coursed through her young body, warring with something akin to fear, yet far less malevolent. It made her tremble, and an unfamiliar heat was slowly building in her loins. She felt a tension building in her body, a desire for something she did not know and could not name. She was sure anything that felt this good must be sin, but she knew Mara to be a good woman. She felt gentle fingers at the nape of her neck, urging her toward the healer. Nervously, the girl gasped, “Mara…”

“Hush, child. It’s okay.” Dipping her head slightly, she brushed her lips along the side of the girl’s neck. Wrapping her free arm lightly around the girl’s slim waist, she opened her mouth, suckling and nipping the tender flesh. A massive shiver ran the length of the girl’s spine. Carmen moaned, pressing her face into the naked mounds of flesh. Of their own accord, her hands grasped Mara’s left breast, hefting it gently before steering the thick nipple toward her mouth.

Mara gasped as she felt her entire areola taken into the heated cavern of the girl’s mouth. Carmen’s face was a picture of contentment. Eyes closed, she drew heavily on the turgid flesh, her nose exhaling soft warm breaths on the firm flesh of Mara’s breast. Each pull of her nipple sparked an answering burst of pleasure between Mara’s damp thighs. The sensuous barrage destroyed the woman’s remaining resolve. Pressing her finger against the edge of the areola in the girl’s mouth, Mara broke the seal and stepped back from the girl. Carmen’s eyes flew open in surprise, narrowing slightly at Mara’s chuckle of amusement. Carmen smiled up at the taller woman and tried to regain the lost nipple, but she was stopped by Mara’s words. “You’ve played enough, girl. It’s my turn now. I would like you to undress for me.”

A momentary look of indecision flashed across her face before she complied. She knew the woman had seen her naked countless times, but this was different. Her hands shook so badly that she abandoned her attempt to unbutton her shirt and merely pulled it over her head. She spent several minutes in a halfhearted attempt to remove her skirt before dropping her trembling arms to her sides. Sensing the girl’s reluctance, Mara softly said, “You don’t have to take it off if you don’t want to. We won’t do anything you don’t want to do, Carmen.”

Mara moved closer, her hands slowly stroking the girl’s arms, gentling her. She pulled Carmen into her embrace, lightly caressing the girl’s back as her hungry mouth returned to the girl’s throat. A delicious shudder ran up the woman’s spine as she felt the girl’s small hands upon her naked back, and she began to lightly scratch Carmen’s flesh with her fingernails. The girl loosed a long, low moan into Mara’s ear, her hands reaching lower to cup and squeeze the firm flesh of Mara’s backside.

Mara could smell the girl’s arousal, a heady scent wafting from the fleecy mound between her silky thighs. She wrapped her left arm around the girl’s waist, her right hand reaching up to tangle itself in the long locks at the nape of Carmen’s neck. Tugging gently, she tipped the girl’s head back and covered her mouth with her own. The young lips were impossibly soft, and she let the tip of her tongue play lightly along the lower lip before nibbling gently. The girl responded immediately, mimicking the movements of the older woman in an effort to return the pleasure she was given.

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