This is the final part of the story. It’s longer than the last two pieces but hopefully answers all your questions.
The family paused as they arrived at the huge, imposing building that housed the Council Rooms. The child watched her mother prepare herself, like a warrior going into battle she stood taller, pushed her shoulders back and held her head high. Mother was ready to fight as she had done so many times before. The building was impressive. Solid brick and three stories tall; a wide portcullis framed the entrance leading to two huge wooden doors the height of two grown men standing one on the other. Soldiers were everywhere; four at the doorway and another dozen patrolling the small ornate garden between the road and the building. Two identical flags of a sword and sceptre embroidered in gold on dark blue background hung from the balcony above the portcullis. There were people everywhere, queued at the doorway and milling in the street, the noise was overwhelming.
The child stepped back in fear; she could hear the discontent in people’s voices and the anger rising in the soldiers as they yelled at people pushing their way through the gate.
“Mother,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m scared.”
Her mother turned to hurry the child along but stopped mid-step, she considered the child for a moment then turned and walked slowly towards the guards her body crumbling and defeated. She heard her sister’s sharp intake of breath as she took the child’s arm propelling them forward behind their mother.
“Please sir, please I need to see his lordship.” The child felt ill, she’d never heard her mother so scared before.
“Not today woman, his lordship has enough people to see.” The guard spoke but without barely a glance at mother.
Her mother started to cry and reached out to touch the guard. He lashed out but stopped just short of hitting her as he recognised the woman before him.
“Please sir, my children and I are starving. I need to see the lord to ask his help for my children.”
The soldier’s eyes widened in shock and disbelief, he had seen mother twice a week for many months now but never like this, ever since it had happened the woman had shown a strength he never believed possible.
“I’m sorry but no more people are allowed in, you should have come earlier,” he was kind as he spoke the words but the child watched his eyes darting around checking the whereabouts of his fellow soldiers.
Mother fell to her knees and grabbed his coat; the soldier tried twisting away as people started to watch.
“Please, you know we couldn’t come earlier and after the incident in the marketplace we haven’t sold anything today. Please we need food.”
The soldier didn’t know what to do, he was a young man not without compassion. He had known mother before she was sent outside the wall with her daughters and she had been good to him and his family. His mother still talked about the good things she had down for the townspeople, it wasn’t right she was being treated this way.
“Get up woman. You know I can’t help you.”
“Please, please, I’m begging you.”
“Get up! Enough, you’re coming with me.”
The child and her sister started crying as the soldier dragged mother to her feet. He flashed them a warning look before marching mother through the crowd that watched on. The children stood stunned, unsure what to do.
“You two, you’re coming too! Quickly!” the soldier yelled at them.
The soldier pushed mother around the side of the building towards a small door. Two soldiers were walking towards them but didn’t look surprised.
“Got yourself one then?” they joked as they went past. “About time you took advantage of them but why bring her brats along?”
“Look at them, just ripe for picking,” the soldier replied.
The child and her sister looked at one another, the child didn’t understand but her sister did. Her eyes were wide with fear as she started to cry. Their mother began to plead with the soldier as he dragged them into a room. Locking the door he threw mother to the ground.
“Please, no,” she sobbed. “Me if you must but not my girls. They’re still children.”
“Don’t be stupid woman! What do you take me for? I had to get you past them and the only way we’d get any privacy is for them to think I was going to rape you. But that won’t hold them for long. Some of these men like to share.”
Mother was stunned. She stared at the soldier unsure of what to say or how to thank him.
“Can you help me get an audience?” she asked. Hesitation, fear and hope all caught in the quietly spoken words.
“I think so, it’ll be tricky but the risk is greater for you than me. My mother still talks fondly of you and she would be ashamed if I had an opportunity to help you and didn’t.”
The child was confused and surprised, the soldiers never helped anyone least all their family, but she stood quietly waiting to be told what to do. As the soldier helped their mother stand, her sister rushed to hug her.
“Come child, it’s alright,” said her mother holding her hand out to the child.
The soldier looked at her, his face was kind and she could see the unspoken apology in his eyes as she walked slowly to her mother hugging her closely.
“Now, I’m going to take you through the back corridors towards the council hall. You’ll have to get yourself into the queue and that will be the hardest part. Other people are likely to object and the guards could get involved, I can’t help you if that happens, I’m sorry. My family will be at risk and I’m sure you can understand why I can’t go further.”
“Thank you,” said mother as she took the soldier’s hand. “Your help has been invaluable and I wish there was some way I could repay you for your kindness.”
“Let’s go,” said the soldier and the four of them moved quietly through the door into the passageway.
To the child, the walk seemed to last an eternity but it was probably only minutes. They walked in silence, barely breathing as they followed the soldier through the darkened corridors under the council rooms. The child could hear people but the soldier made sure they were never seen. The walls here were made of immense blocks of stone and she could feel the chill coming from them. As they moved upwards towards the main hall the architecture slowly began to change. The walls became lighter, first with paint until eventually they were all plastered. Paintings were positioned regularly along the walls, images of council members and society folk of times gone by. Some looked familiar but the child couldn’t read the names. Heavy tapestries covered the occasional wall and lanterns kept the way well lit. As they reached the outer reception area of the main hall the child began to recognise paintings and other decorations from a time earlier in her life; great windows replaced lanterns and streams of sunlight pierced the hallways causing her to squint.
“This is where I leave you,” said the soldier. “Just keep walking along this corridor until you see the big oak doors, they should be wide open for the queue. Good luck.”
And he quickly turned and walked away leaving mother with no time to thank him.
The child held her sister’s hand and the two fell into step behind their mother. Just as the soldier had said it would be, the corridor led into the reception chamber outside the council hall. The queue was long, running out past the oak doors but it was hard to see where it ended as there were so many people milling around.
“Stay close and don’t say anything,” said mother.
Joining the throng they pushed forward until, quite naturally, they blended into the queue. Mother looked around to see if they were going to be challenged, no soldiers had noticed but the couple they had pushed in front of weren’t happy. The man wasn’t tall but he was solid and his face scowled, going red as his anger grew. The older woman with him had a sharp face like a bird with a big beak. Her lips were pursed and she was ready to protest until she recognised mother. Her eyes opened wide with a combination of fear and anxiety, she grabbed the man trying to get his attention. He turned on her, ready to protest, but stopped when confronted by her fear. She shook her head pointing at mother and as he turned, he too lost his anger but instead of fear he looked at them with pity and regret.
“Not a good day to be here, lady,” he muttered quietly towards mother. “You should have stayed at home today.”
Mother looked puzzled but didn’t respond; pleased they weren’t going to be challenged she didn’t dwell on the strange advice.
The queue moved steadily and it wasn’t long before they were inside the hall. It was similar to the corridors they had walked, a long rectangular room with white plastered walls, huge ornate tapestries and iron lanterns plus huge windows along the west and east walls. The end they had entered featured the huge double oak doors twice the size of most doors; the opposite end was the podium with the lord and his council. Rising above the main floor, ten stones steps led to the top where a long table adorned with a white cloth and the lord’s standard sat in the middle with an array of equally impressive chairs upon which sat the lord, his young wife and two of his council members. Below the podium at the foot of the stairs was a red carpet for the person seeking the audience and placed along the steps about two feet apart were soldiers, lots of soldiers.
It was an intimidating sight and fear returned to the child’s belly. The reception hall had been full of noise but in here it was quieter, occasionally the child could hear the lord talking but the soldiers were quick to stop any chatter in the queue.
As they near the podium the child’s thoughts turned to the voice she could hear. It was deep and gravelly, words were spoken clearly and slowly to ensure the message was heard, the intent was buried deep in the sounds – cruelty, disregard, self-interest, impatience and mocking. There was no joy or compassion in this room, only fear and pleading, bewilderment and loss. The child was sad, she remembered the voice when it was warm and loving, with laughter and joy.
As their turn came the child almost stopped breathing. As mother stood before the lord he sat taller in his seat, his face became scornful and impatient. He sat like a king on a throne about to speak to a particularly annoying tenant, the child feared he would send them away before mother had a chance to speak. His young wife sat next to him, her eyes opened wide in alarm at the sight of mother, the child spotted a silent message in her face but couldn’t understand it.
“What is she doing here?” bellowed the lord. “I made it very clear that you weren’t to return.”
“My apologies sire,” said mother and she lowered herself to a curtsy. “I would not be here but for my children, my girls. We are starving and I am begging you for help. Only the word of your lordship will help me to get work, no one will let me work as you ordered but we have to have food somehow. Can you please rescind your order or help us with food?”
A cruel smile crept onto the lord’s face and he gloated as mother begged.
“And why would I help you?” he responded in a low hiss. “If you’re starving give the girls to me and I’ll arrange for them to work as maids in my house because that’s all their fit for.”
No one dared speak and the silent wait for mother to respond felt like an eternity.
“My lord, I will not be separated from my daughters and a life of servitude is not what they were born into. Can you please provide us with some food from your stores and in return I will work in your kitchens?”
The lord erupted with a fury that startled even his seasoned soldiers, spitting in his haste to get the words out and pointing furiously at the door.
“GET THEM OUT OF HERE … NOW,” he screamed.
“OUT! NOW! AND DON’T EVER, EVER COME BEFORE ME AGAIN OR I’LL HAVE YOU WHIPPED AND CHAINED LIKE A DOG.”
The crowd gasped and mother stepped back startled and fearful. A soldier grabbed her by the arm and dragged her from the hall, the child and her sister running after them.
“Get out, you heard what he said, don’t come back. None of us want to see you flogged,” the soldier pushed mother out into the street and turned back to the hall.
The child watched the soldier return to the hall. Her mother stood but looked to the ground, shoulders slumped and totally defeated.
“Come girls, let’s go home.”
The small family gathered their belongings and started the long walk home.
The child stared at the ground too scared to risk eye contact with any of the townsfolk. The streets were quiet, even the market place no longer buzzed with the sounds of merchants. A low murmur could be heard as they passed the city gates but no one stopped them. They trudged along the road, around the bend and up the hill as the sun set quickly in the west. As the moon rose they finally arrived at their small home and the child went to bed with the familiar empty feeling in her belly.
“Wake up child, it’s time to go,” said mother.
“Mother, are we really going to try again after what happened?” the child questioned.
“Child, don’t question me. Please get ready to go.”
She dressed silently in the dull glow from the lamp. Washed her face in the bowl her mother had brought up, pulled on her warmest pair of stockings and coaxed them into place. She pulled on a warm undershirt then her shirt and finally her shift. She threw her sash across her shoulders before brushing her hair. She slipped into her boots which her sister quickly laced and braided her hair.
The girls went downstairs to their breakfast of bread and warm milk. The child picked up her bag and readied herself for the walk to the town.
“GO, QUICKLY!” The voice screamed from outside.
The child looked at her sister. Their mother looked up from the table.
“Stay here, do not go outside.” Mother left and shut the door behind her.
“What do we do?” said the child to her sister.
“What do you mean? We stay here.”
“But what if mother’s in trouble? We have to help her.”
The child went to the small window near the door. She could see her mother but nothing else. The yelling continued but she didn’t understand what they were saying.
“I can’t see anything,” she said to her sister. “I’m going outside.”
The child cautiously opened the door, the ever present fear in her belly nudging her conscience. She stepped beyond the door looking for her mother but was stopped by the scene of men running and riding and walking away from the town. Some were bloodied but others triumphant. She could see townsfolk mixed with soldiers, all were excited and full of bloodlust. She wasn’t fearful of this but curious.
“Mother?” she called. “Mother, what is happening?”
Her mother turned to face her, exultant and relieved.
“We are going home girls. Get your things.”
The small family walked towards the town. The child was confused. She was scared. They had been warned not to return but mother, well mother was different. She was triumphant, excited, righteous and determined. The child didn’t know what to think, she just walked and hoped mother knew what she was doing.
The bend was near, the clumps of grass told her, the shift in the gravel, the grooves on the road and the bend in the trees. As they rounded the bend the child spotted the town. It was different. Smoke billowed from half the homes, the main gate was damaged, hanging from its hinges, and the people guarding it weren’t soldiers but townsfolk.
As she got closer she saw the shapes above the town gate, she paused as they came into focus. As her mother and sister pushed ahead the child faltered.
“No, this can’t be right,” she whispered. “Daddy?”
Above the gate hung the body of a man; he had been stripped bare, his feet slayed and his eyes removed.
“Daddy?” whimpered the child as she watched the lord’s body swinging amongst the smoke and breeze.