Many years have passed since the fall of the Tashari Empire, and its descendents have inherited a barren wasteland called by Northlanders the Maraudean Desert. The prophet Jerumei was long dead, and his people scattered across the desert like sand blown in the wind, surviving as nomadic tribes in order to make the most of available resources.

The largest of these bands was headed by Rei Hiloschen, and his name was known and feared by all. The Marauders were loyal followers of Yugashii, the god of war, and a Rei got his title through sheer martial prowess. Often his band ransacked trader caravans on their way to the Aramil Coast, or the Riverside Kingdom villages that lay too close to the desert. But when those were hard to come by, he settled for pillaging the other Maraudean tribes. Such was the life of a Marauder.

It was night now, and Hiloschenís band was reveling in the spoils of a successful raid. Fires flickered inside colorful tents, and main bonfire blazed in the center of the encampment, reflecting red-orange in the glimmering sand. Rei Hiloschen relaxed on valuable furs, surrounded by sparkling jewels. The rest of the men were in a wild, intoxicated frenzy.

Servant girls ran about refilling drinks and serving food. Among them was Tshushani, an orphan captured from the other tribe. Her name meant Tumbleweed, for she was tossed about from tribe to tribe, surviving on scraps of leftovers. She had no home to call her own, and the only warm be she knew was in the arms of a drunken man. Her whole life was a long string of abusive one-sided relationships that she had to meekly endure.

But today was different, for today she caught the eye of Rei Hiloschen himself. He bade her get him a drink, and after he was done, made her an offer she couldnít refuse. If she agreed to be his servant girl, he would let her stay in his tent and eat from his own table. There was no doubt in Tshushaniís mind of what she would choose, and from then on, she lived in the Reiís extravagant tent and knew no hunger.

Women were deemed inferior in Maraudean society. They were treated as property and slaves, and a manís wealth was measured by the number of wives he owned. But though the great Rei Hiloschen had many secret mistresses, he only had one wife. Reina Shvarna had substantial influence over her husband, mostly because she knew things about him he hoped would never reach the ears of his people. She did not approve of Hiloschen having a slave girl, and made sure Tshushani knew she wasnít wanted.

         Tshushani was used to harsh treatment, and didnít mind being beaten for the slightest offense so long as she had a roof over her head and food in her belly. But as time passed, Hiloschenís interests in her grew more carnal in nature, and he would force himself on her whenever he pleased. This was the last straw for Shvarna, and she pressured her husband to get rid of the servant girl. Hiloschen refused, but compromised by making Tshushani sleep out in the cold, tied to a post so that she wouldnít run away.

The Reina was not appeased in the least, and threatened to disclose the Reiís darkest secrets to his tribe. Finally, Hiloschen gave in to her demands. The next day he threw Tshushani out of his tent, hurling insults and calling her a whore in public. As her punishment, she was violently raped by the men of the band and exiled from society under threat of death.

Tshushani was left wandering the desert, all alone. Chances of survival for a Maraudean outcast were slim, but after years of gathering wild plants and searching for water, she knew where to dig for underground springs, which plants were safe to eat, and where to find an Oasis. At long last she found the Great River, and followed its serpentine path north towards the Riverside Kingdom.

If Tshushani thought sheíd get a warm welcome, she was wrong. The peasants here already had their share of incidents with the Marauders, and as soon as they saw her black hair, they attacked her with pitchforks and torches. She barely made it out alive. The next village was no different, and neither was the one after. Tshushani lost hope of rejoining human society and continued following the Great River upstream, wherever it may lead.

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Revised: 12 May 2010 07:47:48 -0400 .