Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.

-- I Corinthians 16:13

aarna had never been captured before, and the next few hours were to be the most degrading and humiliating of her life. The soldiers cautiously opened the net and threw ropes first about Alata's neck, then around hers. Several men held the bird and bound his legs while she was dragged out of the net and thrown to the ground. The rough cord cinched tight around her gorge, nearly choking her. A man sat on her back and held her while another bound her wrists. Then she was unceremoniously stripped and shoved, stumbling, through an annular passageway to a small, dank room. Like the rest of the complex, it was dark and decrepit.

A massive, foreboding rack awaited her. It squatted in the middle of the room, an ancient abomination of torture realized in stone, wood and iron. By a handwheel bolted to a vertical screw, its height could be adjusted to apply relentless tension. Four large, metal eyelets were affixed to its front. Blackish brown bloodstains--mute testimony to the anguish of past victims--dotted its heavy beams.

She was led to it, turned, and pulled spread-eagle as each of her limbs was tightly bound to the iron loops. The rope around her neck was then removed, and she gasped in great, ragged breaths.

At first her arms and legs were slack. But then one of the men disappeared behind her, and with a rusty, grinding sound, the rack was slowly raised and she was pulled taut. The strain of the rack and the weight of her body quickly made her wrists ache, and her hands began to tingle and go numb. She tried to maintain the circulation by opening and closing them. Pain blossomed in her feet and ankles as the sinewy fibers bit down into her skin.

Another soldier lugged in a large pail of cloudy, brackish water. He stopped before her and heaved the entire bucket into her face. As she coughed and gagged, he withdrew a rag from his pocket and began wiping her down, wrenching her hair as he wrung the water from it. With obvious relish he lingered at her breasts and pubis as the others stood by, leering. Yet, perhaps fearing punishment by his master, the man went no further.

They left the room, and for a period of time she was by herself, alone with her pain. She looked around at the disgusting surroundings. From cracks in the walls water leached down the broken, vertical surfaces. Moss and mildew grew in the corners, and here and there climbed toward the ceiling. There was a steady drip, drip of water. Insects crawled secretly along the musty surfaces. She heard the distant shouts and activities of the soldiers. The wind blew through the adjoining passageway, making a low moaning sound.

She tried to think of something, anything other than where she was and what horrors awaited her, but she could not blot out the bleak surroundings and her wretched situation. She felt abandoned.

She opened her eyes at the sound of approaching footsteps. Two large, burly men entered the chamber. The smaller of the two--he had a scar across his right cheek which terminated in a shriveled, empty eye socket--motioned to the other, who clambered up to the handwheel on top.

"He heard that she was too comfortable," the maimed one announced to his companion, a sly, knowing grin touching his lips. He reached up and tugged on the rope which bound her left arm, but was unable to move it; it was as rigid as steel. "Yes, much too slack." Smiling, he gave the nod.

Slowly, the rack exceeded what Taarna had mistakenly thought were the limits of her capacity to stretch. In her lower back she felt her spine unload and straighten, the vertebrae decompressing from one another. She could only utter a huh-huh-huh sound--a fear-filled panting noise--as her mind tried to deny what was happening. She mouthed a moan, but no sound came out, and she cursed her impotence of voice in the presence of an overwhelming need to scream.

The rusty wailing continued at regular intervals as the hands grasped and turned, grasped and turned. The muscles in her legs and arms cried out in agony. Oh my God please no more please--

She felt and heard a pop of cartilage in her left shoulder, the one she had dislocated over ten years ago. The maimed one must have heard it too, for he gestured to the other to stop.

He leaned forward and feigned interest in her contorted features. "That's just about right," he proclaimed. "Can't have her too damaged." He leaned even closer, and she smelled the foulness of his breath. His eye crawled over her. "Too bad you're so pretty. Well . . . that will change."

The other climbed down, and together they grabbed hold of the rack. With grunts and complaints at the excessive weight of the device, they wheeled her from the room and down the hallway.

Like a trophy she was brought into a large hall before the barbarian chieftain, who sat in a chair on the far wall. He was flanked by two large, feral, rat-like creatures which made guttural growling sounds as the rack creaked to a stop. He scratched the head of one absent-mindedly while watching Taarna with interest. A half dozen or so guards stood at intervals around the chamber, and off to the side in the shadows stood one of his lieutenants, feet apart, arms crossed, watching emotionlessly.

He stood and approached her, his heavy boots clanking on the plate metal floor. She managed to glare at him, but given her vulnerability and utter helplessness, he merely found this amusing. Yet, part of him secretly feared her gaze; clearly, given the slightest opportunity she would have leapt upon him and torn his eyes out with her bare hands. His enormous arrogance, however, allowed him to easily squelch this unsettling notion.

"So this is the Taarakian," he announced at last with a chuckle, hands on hips. Quite a prize, he thought to himself. He reached out and grabbed her cheek. Carefully avoiding her mouth, he forcibly turned her head to examine her neck and confirm her marks. "Somehow, I thought it would be more . . . difficult to capture a Taarakian," he said contemptuously.

He expected her to reply, but she said nothing, and her expression did not change. Her defiant attitude angered him, but he was not surprised by it--the Taarakians, after all, were legendary warriors from the northern country, renowned for their steely resolve.

It was the fact that she was a woman, coupled with his pride and sadistic nature, that led him to the mistake of not killing her.

"My whips," he said softly. He would break her silent defiance, crush her loathsome spirit. When he was through with her, she would look at him with nothing but fear, and his perverse desire to see that fear was worth keeping her alive--for awhile. His lieutenant dutifully stepped forward, and the heavy weight of a whip dropped into his raised hand.

Taarna's hands felt leaden as the barbarian stood before her; there was no more feeling left in them. Her entire body was a throbbing mass of pain. She tried gamely to take his measure, but she did not find much comfort in that--he would obviously be a formidable opponent in combat, assuming she ever had the chance to fight him.

She had guessed that she would probably be flogged, or worse, but imagining it and actually seeing the long, thick whip in his hands, with its several tails, were very different things. Her breath caught in her throat as she waited for the first lash, the dreadful knowledge of her utter inability to twist, turn, or somehow escape bearing down upon her.

The flogging began.

The pain was astounding, traveling from her fingertips to her toes. From top to bottom her body quivered in every nerve. Where the whips stuck she felt as though she was being impaled with a knife or spear. The time between each stroke seemed interminable, yet the next blow came too soon. She was unable to scream, but in her extremis she bit her tongue, and soon her own blood filled her mouth, choking her. She could feel the sticky wetness of her blood on her abdomen and legs, and the ever-increasing icily painful spots where her skin was being flayed open.

The whipping was not over quickly; after thirty-five lashes, she lost count. The time since the punishment had begun seemed like the only period of her life. She felt as if she had always lived in pain and torture, and that her lifetime before this awful day was a dream long past. Despite every effort it became impossible for her to think of anything except the next blow.

Between lashes, with an inner voice, she began to beseech her god in terrified and broken fragments.

God you are not with me I am forsaken--

--I cannot continue, I--I cannot be strong for You anymore--

--No more no more no more, please let this end, let me die O kill me now--

The barbarian leader grew increasingly frustrated at her silence, and began to whip her harder and faster. Beg, scream, say something, you Taarkanian whore! Why did you come here when you've no chance of doing anything!? At last, he could no longer restrain himself. Chest heaving, he threw down the whip, wrenched off his helmet, and struck her with it. The heavy metal connected solidly with her skull and her head reeled back, then flopped sideways to her chest.

Taarna's body hung limply as a guard finally lowered the rack. The barbarian chieftain looked on with pleasure, gratified with his handiwork. What had been preserved in beauty over the lifetime of a young woman he had laid to waste in forty-five minutes. His boots and pants were flecked with blood, and thin strips of flesh lay about his feet. He grabbed her by the hair and lifted up her head to stare into her unconscious face, but she did not stir. Blood and spit rimmed her lips and ran down her chin from the corners of her mouth.

He remained impressed by the fact that she had neither screamed nor cried out. He could recall no previous victim of his torture who had stayed completely silent throughout the brutal experience. Lips pursed, with a dismissive gesture he yanked her head down roughly and relinquished his grasp.

When your arms and legs are yanked out you will scream, he said to her silently. I will make you.

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