All the Right Reasons
Haleen Synger stood on a rocky crag in the burning desert heat. Her long, black hair danced in the wind, while her deep, brown eyes gazed with longing at the city below. Katapesh was neither a kind place, nor a forgiving one, but it was home.
She sighed. After fifteen years on the streets she had done it again. She almost couldn’t believe it. All this time and she hadn’t learned a thing.
The first time it had happened she was a child of seven years old. She had been in the back garden tending the pesh cacti when they came. Their helms and shields glittered in the midday sun and their blue robes fell around them like a waterfall. She had gasped at their beauty. She ran up the back steps, threw open the door and skipped to the front entryway.
They stood there, fully armored, with their glistening scimitars drawn. She stopped when she saw them, paralyzed. Her mother sat in the corner of the room, motionless, her bruised face turned to the sandstone floor. He father stood before them on his knees, gesturing wildly with wide, terrified eyes.
“No!” he was saying. “No!”
She hadn’t understood what was happening at the time. She hadn’t known her father was an illegal pesh dealer, or realized that he had willingly broken the most important law in Katapesh and interfered with legitimate trade. That knowledge came later. What she did know was that they had come to take her father away. Her father and their home.
“No!” she had screamed. She threw herself at the Zephyr Guard’s polished bronze boots and pulled at his clothes. “Don’t take Father away!”
The guard ignored her and reached for her father.
“Take me, instead!”
“Yes!” said her Father frantically. “Take her, instead!”
The Guards hesitated, but only for a moment. “Your crimes weigh more than your offer.”
“I… I have another daughter! She is young and pretty! Take her, too!”
The Guards paused.
“Ghaniyah!” her Father called. “Come here!”
Haleen’s elder sister, thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood, had come obediently at her Father’s call.
“See? Take them!”
The Guards sheathed their swords. The leader nodded once and then spoke. “Let it be stated for the records that the Zephyr Guard accepts Aqil Saeed ibn Najjar’s offer of his two daughters on behalf of the Pesh Guild of Katapesh. His right hand shall be taken as payment for his crimes on behalf of Pactbroker Hashim ibn Sayyid, and his branding as Guildless will occur directly afterwards, as ordered by the Pactmasters themselves. The Guildless shall not be tolerated.”
Her Father had sighed then, in relief.
Her Mother neither moved nor spoke.
Two of the Zephyr Guards led Haleen and her sister out of the house and down the road to the Pesh Guild headquarters. Their Father’s screams as his hand was severed could be heard the entire walk.
It took Haleen a few days to realize that the man they were brought to now owned her. That she and her sister were his to do with as he wished. His slaves. It was the brand they seared onto her forearm that really drove it home. ‘Property of Tahsin Sumrah ibn Zayad al-Muhib,’ it said, ‘For Life.’
Haleen attempted escape at every opportunity and got away at least once a week. She always ran straight home. “Father! Mother!” she would call. “I’m back!”
Her parents would come running. Her Mother would embrace her, hug her and cry. Her Father would frown.
“Haleen,” he would say as he called for the Guild Guards. “You used to be such a good daughter. So obedient. What has happened to you?” The Guards always arrived after a few minutes. It was just enough time for her to plead and cry with her parents. To tell them the torments she had suffered that week.
She hadn’t known that the Guards let her escape. She hadn’t known how much worse her sister had it or what happened when they were separated. Not until the day her sister died. That’s when it all became clear to her. That’s when she knew.
With Ghaniyah gone, Haleen would be next.
Haleen would never leave this place alive.
She escaped that day for the last time. With tears streaming down her face she had stormed into her parents home, a whirlwind of grief. Her Mother held her and sobbed. Her Father scolded her and called the Guard. Only this time, Haleen wasn’t destined to return.
At the sight of the Guild Guards her Mother grabbed a kitchen knife and plunged it into the eyes of the first Guard.
“Run, my child!” she had cried. “Run!”
And Haleen did. She ran as far and as fast as she could. She ran until her feet bled and her lungs felt as if they would explode.
Her Mother was executed in the public square the next day. She died bravely, with her welt covered face held high in defiance. Haleen had watched from a nearby rooftop.
As young as she was, Haleen understood that her Mother’s life had paid for her freedom. She vowed that day that she would not let her Mother’s sacrifice go to waste. That she would never be held against her will again.
And now, fifteen years later, she had taken her Mother’s sacrifice and thrown it away.
She had failed.
When she was twelve, Haleen had been living in a small room, no bigger than a shed, that she had purchased from a surly old dwarf named Ho-tep. It lay in the back alley behind his book shop, the Gilded Tome. He had helped her occasionally, throughout her time on the streets and even given her a job as a messenger when she needed money. He was her only friend.
Until she found them.
They were hiding behind a street vendor’s stall, chained together at the ankles. The first, a ruddy skinned boy with thick black hair, was trying to pick the lock upon his chains with a chicken bone and an apple core, while the second, a half-orc child with reddish brown skin, tried his best to look inconspicuous. They were younger than her. No older than six. Old tears had left streaks down their dirty, bruised faces. The brands upon their bony arms proclaimed them slaves for life.
Haleen had heard the hurried footsteps of the Zephyr Guard approaching. She should have run. She should have saved herself.
But she didn’t.
She saved them instead.
They stayed with her even after they had been freed and as the years passed she became their big sister and protector while they became her very heart and soul. Her beloved boys.
A week ago, when the elder of her boys, Santon – now a strapping young man of seventeen – burst into their one room home screaming that Chochy – her kind-hearted, monster of a half-orc – had gone missing, she vowed she would do whatever it took to find him and bring him home.
Unfortunately for Haleen, Chochy’s life was legally forfeit to not one, but two Guild leaders and when she found him in their hands she knew not only what saving his life would entail, but that she would pay it without hesitation.
And so, for the second time in her life, Haleen Synger willingly offered her freedom in exchange for another’s. She was right back where she had started. Nothing had changed.
Well, perhaps one thing had changed. This time Haleen had a sword.
Her reverie was broken by an impatient huff. The guards behind her shuffled their feet. Haleen sighed. If she did not follow them now, of her own will, they would force her to. Her hands trembled and edged closed to the well-worn handle on her scimitar.
No. She couldn’t draw steel on these men. It would mean the end for Chochy.
She couldn’t fight back. She wouldn’t. Chochy meant too much to her.
Haleen cast one final look at her home and then turned and walked away. It was the last she would ever see of Katapesh.
She had paid a hefty sum to have her original slave brand removed and now another had replaced it. It sat in the exact same place and stung with every breath of wind and brush of sand. Worse than the pain it caused was the burden. It weighed upon her much heavier than the original ever had. It’s very existence mocked her Mother’s memory.
‘Property of Tahsin Sumrah ibn Zayad al-Muhib’ it said. ‘For life.’
Her Mother would be so disappointed.
Kaali hovered behind her daughter, watching her cast a final glance at their home city of Katapesh. A spectral tear rolled down her cheek.
Fifteen years ago Kaali had sacrificed her life to give Haleen a chance at freedom and, despite the odds, it had worked. Haleen evaded capture but Kaali, filled with regret at allowing her other daughter to die, could not rest. Her spirit lingered on, attached at its very core to Haleen’s well-being. Over the years she had protected Haleen as much as she could given her undead existence. A stray noise to lead pursuers astray, an especially shadowy corner to hide in and, on very rare occasions, a ghostly manifestation were about all that Kaali could manage, but it proved to be enough.
Against this though, Kaali was helpless. There was nothing she could do.
Haleen had given up her hard won freedom in exchange for her adopted brother’s, just as she had done for her Father’s so many years before. It was what Kaali herself should have done when her precious girls had been offered up as barter for her no good husband.
As Kaali watched her daughter follow her captors across the endless sands, she felt her hold on this world loosening. She was fading. Letting go. There was nothing more she could do here, on this world, and so the other world was calling her. The Dawnflower’s burning light would claim her today, as it should have fifteen years ago.
Another spectral tear rolled down her scarred face, and she smiled.
Haleen was exactly where she had started.
But this time she was there for all the right reasons.
Her Mother was so proud.