Excerpt 2, The King Trials
Posted on April 20, 2017
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
Sara trudged up the village main to Thorn’s Keep with the rest of Rosbury’s peasants. Beside her walked her mother Rose and their neighbor Caleb. She could tell the other Commoners were unhappy by the way they carried themselves. Every face was serious, and the air felt thick with everything they weren’t saying.
Not that she needed anyone to tell her what was going on. Even a girl of eleven like Sara Sothron understood when a man was about to lose his head.
It was probably why her mother hadn’t explained what was happening when she’d found her scouring Elf’s Grove for a flower to slide behind her ear.
“Up girl, we’re off to our Lord Uthron’s keep,” was all she’d said, in that stuffy no-nonsense tone Rose Sothron had alone.
She’d had half a mind to pluck a white daisy for her ear at the time, but little Common girls like her couldn’t idle; temple priests and parish readers agreed on that much at least. Rose would’ve slapped her for trying, anyway.
The march from their village of Rosbury to the castle was long and uncomfortable in the harsh sunlight. The way there wasn’t layered with stone like a proper Romarian road but clod with wet clay and treacherously steep holes. If one walked too fast, he risked his foot jamming in a hole; this happened to the idiot Praise, who slipped several times, drawing chuckles and headshakes from their fellow villagers. The risk of falling made them walk slower, which just made the heat more awful. Her pits and inmost thighs clung together sticky-like, irritating her.
She caught Bram the butcher’s boy loosening his girdle. If he could do it, why couldn’t she? Yet when she made the short-lived attempt, her ear took to burning hot as candle flame. Her mother twisted her earlobe between fingers made of iron.
“Finish what you’re doing and I’ll whip you like your father does the horses, do you hear, girl?” Rose hissed.
She covered her ear to try to ease the burning. The village girl couldn’t tell what stung worse: her mother’s public rebuke or the mention of her father, whom she hadn’t seen in three months and one week, not since he’d left to sell Little Lady for six golden lorens and a silver sylven.
All of their misery and worry over her father made her mad at her mother, so mad that she tramped through the mud, trying to put distance between them. Her left foot caught in a hole, and suddenly she was on her hands and knees, slathered in muck like Praise. At the sound of Bram’s laughter, her eyes welled with tears she couldn’t control, and she felt a good cry coming.
Two arms swung beneath her body and freed her from the mud in one clean sweep upward. Caleb carried her in his arms, picking off flecks of mud from her wool. “There, there, princess,” he soothed her gently. “I’ve got you.”
She threw her arms around the onion farmer’s neck and buried her face just below his jaw. It was stubbly and slick with sweat there, but she didn’t mind. It was shelter.
“You ought not, Caleb,” Rose admonished him.
“Why, Rose, we both know it’s a crime for royalty to soil themselves on Common land,” he replied in good humor.
She drew even deeper into the safety of his embrace. Only Praise Whoreson could upset her. Covered in mud and his own filthy rags, the idiot tried desperately for her attention, giggling and smiling. His pustule-covered face and yellow toothy smile frightened her, but there was a childlike innocence to the man that made her and every other villager worry over him.
“Mother, mother,” Praise said with a giggle. He always said that word, his favorite in the whole world ever since his actual mother had died of fever. “Mother.”
Sara watched the idiot from her perch in Caleb’s arms. “You don’t know any other words, Praise?”
He grinned stupidly. “Mother.”
Caleb must’ve seen her discomfort, because he told Praise there were elves in weed patches along the main, and would he like to help him find them?
Bram chuckled at the idiot as he ran. “Stupid Moonface,” he muttered, to the laughter of other boys their age.
“He don’t know the elves are gone,” laughed Bram’s friend Pesh the Prince. “Not since his mum passed from pox.” The girl pitied the simpleton as he rolled in the grass like a dog.
After a half hour in the sun, Thorn’s Keep rose above the fields and forestland outside Rosbury. Four stout sentry towers guarded a vine-strewn keep. Outside sprawled Old Sturdyroot, a withered oak tree said to be as old as a hundred lives of men. In the clutches of its roots lay a familiar tree stump, and around the stump hovered a crowd of men-at-arms in tabards of black velvet worked with the sigil of a blood-red tree.
The man who had summoned them stood on the fringes. Tall and grim, Uthron Morley, Lord Warden of Rosbury, had a forbidding look magnified by his caterpillar-like eyebrows and a long black beard that almost reached his waist. With him was his youthful son Sam, his only heir, small and awkward-looking in an ill-fitting doublet and cape that accentuated his scrawny build. Lady Cathreen never strayed far from her son.
Sara checked for faces she knew. The beet farmers Able Vauld, Jacen Wex, and Uther Gord conversed with each other in low tones. Seth Briarfield, a local bricklayer, looked on darkly with Bram’s smithy father Clyde Hobbs and the cooper Cam Suffrey. Farmer Gray, whose name she didn’t know, huddled with Farmer Gray’s double-chinned wife, whose name she also didn’t know. The comely brunettes Aubrey Port and Mara Kelly hovered close by the dais, admiring the dashing young knight Sir Luc Tolos. Reader Gary Henley loitered by the ancient tree with parishmen Connor Bagman, Ford Rounsey, Luc Almsman, and Alford Hemlock. The boys Bram and Alfrid and Pesh the Prince, friends all, teased Alfrid’s frog-faced sister Jenna, who pled with them to stop. Nearby, she spotted Lara with her roof-tiler father Wess and mother Dorsha.
Everyone was there—everyone but the one who mattered most to Sara Sothron. Where are you, Father? She searched the crowd in vain for the priest Uther Brune and his lost men, for Devan, her father’s loyal squire. She had no desire to gaze upon Spittlelip—who did?—but she’d embrace him like a friend all the same if he were present. Then she would know her father was safe. She still held out hope that he’d show up outside their cruck house one day, Little Lady with him, unsold.
Some of the men grumbled about Sam, wondering what his role could be in the execution. Alford Hemlock leaned into Connor Bagman. “Oh gods, will you just look at it,” he said just above a whisper. “Not a hair on that chin. Think he’ll swing the blade?”
Luc Almsman harrumphed. “His Wardenship’s always in want of a demonstration for Sam the Small.”
Connor folded his arms across his chest. “It’s not who’ll do the deed that concerns me.” And he said no more.
Sara followed his gaze to the man she disliked most. The sheriff of Rosbury, Sir Willard Rittman, stood beside his liege like a loyal hound his master. A stocky, unattractive man, the official had a short-muzzled face with narrow beady eyes set too close to a hook nose. An overlong black mustachio hung limply from his fleshy cheeks, and his colorful finery failed to favor him. By his side were his sheriff’s deputies Sweet Tom, who rarely spoke, and Geffrey Chaffer, who opened his mouth too much, revealing teeth stained pink from pinkleaf.
Once the peasants finished gathering, Uthron whispered to the chubby-faced guard Bardo Lym, and he waddled off. He returned moments later with the condemned. Hexaar trudged uphill in nothing but breeches, revealing a hard, sunburnt body stitched with a laborer’s muscles. Not Linda’s husband, the girl thought fearfully. What will their children do?
“Commons of Rosbury,” cried a herald she couldn’t see, “harken to your noble Lord Uthron, Lord Warden of Rosbury and bannerman to King Hexar, Lord of Loran.”
Their lord toyed restlessly with the drape of his long cape. “Commons of Rosbury,” he said, “long have I treated you with love as your Lord Warden. Have we not been friends at times? Have I not looked the other way when you loiter at the Golden Dragon? Have I not understood when bread goes missing?”
Alford whispered mockingly to Bagman, “Have you not looked the other way while the Sylvanians cast spells on us?”
“Yet you have not treated me with the same love.” Uthron scanned their faces like a father disappointed with his children. “The temples and parishes teach the same law—do they not?” His black beard ruffled as he twisted for a glance at the priest. “Brother Elfred?”
The freckled priest made a grave nod. “You speak justly, milord,” he said. “Even Reader Gary and I agree on the Great Covenant.” Several peasants spat.
“Secondborn men gave up their naked freedoms in the wilderness for the comfort of the king’s love and protection,” Morley said, looking proud. “Our wise forebears did this to save us from dragons and wolves—and did so knowing that with a ruler’s protection came sacrifices.”
“Sacrifices,” Alford spat. “A gaoler’s chains, more like.”
“I’d rather suffer the dragons and wolves, personally,” Luc said a little loudly.
“One such sacrifice is taxation,” Morley said, oblivious to the criticism. “Save for clergy, no one is exempt from what we owe our king. Not even lords.”
Another Bagman associate, Ford Rounsey, answered with a disdainful chuckle. “Save for the bloody priests, eh?”
The pudgy-faced sheriff overheard that time. He searched the crowd with a hawk’s precision until he settled on a culprit. “What was that, Ford Rounsey?” he snapped.
The peasant straightened. “Pardons, m’lord.”
Morley took the peasant’s measure with his gaze. “Priests are not like our readers,” he said stiffly. “Their temples are not ours to collect from.”
No one liked that, but that was because most of Rosbury’s Commons worshipped in parishes, where men could hear their holy men recite verse in their own tongue. The temples, adults said, belonged to the priestking and his Lonely Isle.
The Lord Warden exhaled softly, almost sadly. “Yet words are not enough, as you show me even now.” He beckoned to his sheriff, and Lym shoved Hexaar roughly toward the stump.
“Not Hexaar,” Rose murmured fearfully. “Damien was his friend.” But Father isn’t here, Sara thought.
The lord pointed at the kneeling Hexaar. “This man before you has brought shame on you and his kingly namesake. He did sire a family of his own with a virgin maid. Two children he has fathered with her outside of blessed marriage. They didn’t wed, I understand, because he did not want their number known.”
No one shared the Lord Warden’s horror. Sara was just a child, not even twelve in years, but she knew as well as anyone the hiding games that peasants played with their children. No one in Rosbury had five sylvens to pay in poll taxes, let alone five sylvens per head. She and her mother were lucky at least that she was the only child of Damien and Rose; some of their neighbors had concealed grown children for years to avoid paying what was owed. Yet Commoners lived by fair play, and peasants never betrayed each other’s secrets to highborn. So who betrayed Hexaar to Lord Uthron? she wondered.
“We must, all of us, pay the king’s due,” Morley said. “By evading what was owed, Hexaar has sinned against his kingly namesake and against the gods. It is my duty to surrender his bastard children to the High Bishop in hopes they can still lead righteous lives.”
Headshakes and appalled looks swept the soot-smudged Common faces. “Peshar the Pederast,” Rounsey muttered with visible disgust.
Passing over their faces, Rittman settled abruptly on Sara. She reached for her mother’s hand, clasping it tightly.
“By our laws, Hexaar must die, as shall anyone else among you who withholds the counts of their households. To deprive the king of his due is the same as theft from the king himself.
“And so, in the name of King Hexar the First, the Lord of Loran, Keeper of the Silver Walls, I, Lord Uthron Morley, Lord of Thorn’s Keep and Lord Warden of Rosbury, so honored by the Worthy Assembly, do sentence you to death by beheading,” the noble lord declared. “Let his death be a warning to all those who would steal from their king.”
The boyish Brother Elfred separated from the crowd. The priest had on the cream-colored cassock of his Old Faith, and carried a leather-bound copy of the Twelve Testaments under his arm. He recited a prayer in First Tongue, the language they said taught men how to make fire, till their fields, and worship the twelve gods and their High God—the deities whom Free Believers like Sara had been taught were twelve-as-one. After finishing, Elfred asked the condemned to make his peace.
The laborer didn’t tremble. “I never done nothin’ wrong,” he said stubbornly. “Nothin’ wrong, not by rights. I’m poor of purse like you lot, that’s how it is. I’m faithful to the twelve-as-one, Reader Gary can tell you. I’m loyal, done nothin’ but see me sons with full bellies.”
He rambled on until Rittman lost patience and pressured Hexaar to his knees. The laborer laid his cheek flat across the tree stump, choking on sobs. “I’m s-s-sorry,” he added wetly.
“As was the Thirteenth when he lost his grace in the War of Passion,” their noble lord responded in cold judgment. Men folded their arms, disgusted with the comparison.
Sara wasn’t surprised. Noblemen like Uthron were always keen on the parable of Dracar, the God Who Rebelled and Died. A prayer for you and a prayer for me, went the popular peasant rhyme, except for Dracar, who burns for eternity. She felt horrid for Hexaar. Will you burn with him?
“The Head speaks,” Brother Elfred said, to which only Morley, Rittman, and Morley’s men-at-arms replied, “The Hands serve.”
Morley gestured for his son Sam. Cathreen led him to the stump. The boy glanced about nervously.
“Holy Anjan,” Alford swore. “Not Sam the Unready. He can’t. He’ll make a botch of it.” Connor Bagman said nothing.
Her mother reeled her in close. “Don’t look, Sara,” she said softly. “Don’t look.” Her mother cushioned her face in the itchy folds of her wool.
Sara would never forget what followed, not for the rest of her days. Steel whistled through the air. There was a sickening wet thunk. The Commons gasped collectively.
“Oh gods, he missed.”
“Maetha save him, it’s in his fucking head,” another man said, calling upon Amath’s wife, the goddess of mercy.
Thwack. Thunk, theck, thunk. Men loudened with horror and disapproval. Thunk, thunk, theck. THWACK.
By the time it was okay for her to look, Hexaar was gone. Crimson glistened like dark red wine on the tree stump and grass. The body had gone with a group of men, along with—and this was something she overheard the adults whisper—a shaken, weepy-eyed Sam Morley.
The Commons didn’t want to linger. Connor Bagman was the first to turn and try to leave, and Rounsey and Alford and others hastened after him. They halted when the lord’s herald blew his horn. “Your lord has not given you leave,” he fumed.
“Indeed, I have not, for there are other tidings,” Morley said. “By the writ of Princess Jasmine, acting on the authority of her father King Hexar, the Walls have named for you, Rosbury, a new justice of the peace.”
Sara almost groaned with the others as Rittman stepped forward. “Henceforth,” declared the lord, “Sir Willard Rittman shall enforce the king’s will in the collection of taxes. Such as it is, he may by the king’s authority inspect dwellings, question men, and gaol lawbreakers.”
When the sheriff arose a justice, the herald called an end to the proceedings. As if of one mind, the crowd of Commoners turned to leave, uniformly silent and long-faced. Lara’s mother, Selyse, wept for Hexaar, Linda, and their bastard sons. Without another look, Sara hastened back up the main with Caleb and her mother, eager to be done of adult things and trying to forget the fact that a neighbor had lost his head today.
Sara cringed. The voice belonged to the justice, and it issued in their direction, but of course. Willard Rittman had an eye for her mother; everyone knew it. Never mind that her mother was wife to a noble knight, proper wedded like any decent woman. She tensed.
The justice plodded after them. Rose comported herself like any Common woman in a knighted man’s presence. “Sir Willard.” She tucked her chin deferentially. Annoyingly.
Sara seethed with resentment. She didn’t like Sir Willard, didn’t like his forked beard and squinty little eyes, didn’t like his honeyed voice, didn’t like that he approached her mother like a man in courtship.
Rittman looked coy as he fidgeted with his gloved hands. “Might we speak, Rose?
Sara stepped between her mother and the justice. “Men mustn’t speak with married women without their husbands present,” she said sharply.
The gods gave Rose Sothron eyes for scolding, and they were scolding her now. Yet her anger did nothing to hurt her beauty, and she was beautiful, everyone in Rosbury said so. She had dimples that perked with her smile, rich brown hair, and a dutiful womanliness that earned respect for their family. Her father had always said he loved her mother’s green eyes best.
Rittman had the courtesy to at least seem chastened after she spoke. “But of course. Sir Damien’s daughter speaks true. I should expect nothing less.” He smiled. She hated it.
“Might you have word about Damien Sothron, Sir Will?” Caleb asked abruptly, in a tone that seemed to suggest he knew perfectly well that Rittman did not.
The justice regarded him flat-eyed. “No, I have not, Caleb Bard, though not for lack of inquiring.”
“Then I must thank you for inquiring,” he replied quickly. “Rose, shouldn’t we be on our way? Evening is almost upon us and I believe you still need me to—“
“A moment, Caleb Bard,” Rittman said. “That’s all I ask.”
They all looked to her mother. She finally assented with a nod. Sara wanted to kick her in the shin.
“I know it has been difficult since Damien disappeared, along with Brother Uther and Lord Uthron’s other men-at-arms,” Rittman said. “My lord has been distraught, and knows about your hardship. I have therefore petitioned Lord Uthron for a writ so that you and Sara might go to the Walls and help prepare the king’s feast for Remembrance Day.”
Rose and Caleb looked stunned. It wasn’t a good sign, Sara knew.
“To the Walls?” her mother piped. “Sir Willard, you . . . you do me too much honor.”
His full lips peeled back for a smile that made Sara’s skin crawl. “You and your daughter will help prepare supper for the king, his family, and the Worthy Assembly. You’ll be paid for your work. I know this isn’t what you wished to hear from me, but it’s the best I can do for your loss.”
Sara made little fists. “There has been no loss,” she said fiercely. “My father will return. You must make more inquiries, Sir Willard.”
Rittman offered the most cordial of nods. Sara thought it mockery. “But of course, young one.”
“Sir Willard, if I may”—Sara’s mouth fell open when she saw her mother reach for the justice’s wrist tenderly—“Caleb Bard is a dear friend to my husband. If it please you, I know it would please him and me if, well, if he could attend with us. He knows how to skin rabbits and make a delicious onion stew.”
Rittman bowed. “I see no reason why not. Especially if it pleases you, Rose. I shall speak with Lord Uthron.” He kissed her hand. Caleb wisely restrained Sara by her shoulders.
On the road back, Sara expected her mother to pinch her ear or reprimand her, but she was positively happy, like she hadn’t been since before her father had left with Little Lady. She didn’t like it, but then Caleb was in high spirits, too. They seemed eager to shut away all memory of Hexaar Olmstead.
“Oh, Caleb, can you imagine?” her mother said, twisting one of her wimple’s strings around her finger. “No more selling onions at market! Not for a while. Not if they pay us well.”
Caleb nodded agreeably. “These are glad tidings—very glad. They’re said to pay their servants well at the Walls. I’ve heard as much as three gold lorens for one night’s service.”
“My husband will rejoice when he hears . . .”
Caleb put a hand on her shoulder. Only he could do that, no one else. Caleb himself had never taken a wife, and it was known in Rosbury that he was no threat to her father or any married man. “He will return, Rose. I know it.” He took Sara by her hand. “In the meantime, we need to make our thanks. Glad tidings deserve glad thanks, don’t you think?”
Sara thought her mother would refuse, but she pursed her lips for the smallest of smiles. “Yes, I suppose we should.”
Later that night, with the air cool and alive with crickets, Sara Sothron left her family’s dwelling with her mother. The two of them found Caleb in Elf’s Grove. He was naked, save for fur around his waist. Between his thighs lay a hare, which he held captive by its ears. The knife blade by his ankle had a dull shine.
This was forbidden practice, she knew. Noble lords like Uthron Morley didn’t like it, and Bishop Peshar was said to want anyone caught doing it taken to the Red Tower. But no one had stopped the Commons of Rosbury from practicing their Old Ways. Times were bad, everyone knew; the people were poor, and Midland wheat hard to come by.
And Sir Damien Sothron was missing.
“Come here, Sara,” their neighbor said softly. She went to her knees beside him. “Let us thank the old gods, the gods who were here before the priestking sent his priests, before even the Romarians sacked the Walls. Let us make a Gift.”
He switched to that strange clicking tongue she couldn’t understand. With a flick of his wrist he plunged the knife into the hare’s neck. Blood as rich and dark as Hexaar’s oozed from the wound, blackening its fluff. He stroked the flat fur and smeared blood on his cheeks.
In Common, he said, “Gods of root and stem, gods that gave us Firstborn elves and Secondborn men, gods that gave us the Great Tree: we thank you for Sir Willard’s glad tidings. We pray for Hexaar Olmstead’s widow Linda, and her lads Brad and Sam. Let them come to no harm under the high bishop.
“And we beseech you for Sir Damien’s safe return.”
“And we beseech you for Sir Damien’s safe return,” Sara and her mother repeated as one.
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