Excerpt 3, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on April 20, 2017
In this chapter, Sara Sothron, a peasant girl of Rosbury, travels with other Commoners to their lord’s castle. Feel free to check out the synopsis for A Seat for the Rabble if you need more information.
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 didn’t say.
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.
The march from the village 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 jamming his foot and falling; the idiot Praise did this, slipping several times, drawing laughter and headshakes from villagers. The risk of falling made them walk slower, which just made the heat more awful. Sara’s 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 did the mules—do you hear, girl?” Rose hissed.
She covered her ear, to ease the burning and hide her face from shame. The village girl couldn’t tell what stung worse: her mother’s public rebuke, or the mention of her vanished father.
Wroth with her mother, Sara tramped through the mud, trying to put distance between them. Her left foot jammed in a hole, and suddenly she was on her hands and knees, slathered in muck like Praise. At the sound of laughter, her eyes welled with tears she couldn’t control. She felt a good cry coming.
Two arms swung beneath her belly and freed her from the mud in one clean sweep upward. Caleb hoisted her in his arms, picking off flecks of mud from her wool. “There, there, princess,” he soothed her. “I’ve got you.”
She threw her arms around the 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.
Rose walked behind them, arms folded. “You ought not, Caleb,” she admonished him softly.
Her mother was a beautiful woman, even when Sara got angry with her. Rose Sothron had dimples that perked with her smile, rich brown hair, and a dutiful womanliness that earned respect for their family in Rosbury. Her father had always said he loved her mother’s green eyes best.
“Why, Rose, we both know it’s a crime for royalty to soil themselves on Common land,” Caleb 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, smiling inches from her face.
“Round, round it spins,” Praise sang his wheel rhyme with a clumsy twirl, arms fanned out, “until off it rolls again!”
His pustule-covered face, yellow teeth, and sheer height frightened her, but he had a childlike innocence that made her and other villagers look after him as if he were a small boy. His mother had passed from pox the year before. No one knew his father, but guessing his identity was a favorite village pastime.
Sara watched the idiot from the perch of Caleb’s arms. “Don’t you have any other rhymes you like, Praise?” Bad looks from several villagers reminded her that she and her mother were the only peasants who said don’t properly, and not donna.
Praise didn’t notice their reactions. He nodded eagerly, grinning. “Round, round it spins,” he answered her.
Caleb must’ve seen her discomfort, because he told Praise there were faeries in weed patches along the main, and would he like to help him find them?
Bram chuckled as the idiot ran off to find them. “Stupid Pebbleface,” he muttered. Other boys their age smirked.
“He donna know there are no faeries,” laughed Pesh the Prince. The girl pitied the simpleton as he rolled in the grass like a dog, repeating the rhyme.
After a half hour of walking, Thorn’s Keep rose above the fields and forestland outside Rosbury. Four stout sentry towers guarded a vine-strewn, merloned keep. Outside sprawled Old Sturdyroot, a withered oak tree said to be as old as a hundred lives of men. A tree stump lay in its shade, and around hovered a crowd of knights, their black velvet tabards 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 caterpillar-thick eyebrows. His long black beard 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. Lady Cathreen stood near their son, never far.
Sara checked for faces she knew. Seth Briarfield, a local bricklayer, looked on darkly with Bram’s smithy father Clyde Hobbs and the cooper Cam Suffrey. Two brunettes hovered close by the dais, admiring the dashing young knight Sir Luc Tolos. Parish reader Gary Henley stood in another tree’s shade, flanked by the troublemakers 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.
Everyone was here—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. “Twelve godfaces, 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 crossed his arms. “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 and squat nose. An overlong black mustachio curled off his mouth, and his colorful finery failed to favor him. By his side were his deputies Sweet Tom, who rarely spoke, and Geffrey Chaffer, who opened his mouth too much, flashing pinkbud-stained teeth.
Once the peasants finished gathering, Morley whispered to Sir Bardo Lym, and the fat knight waddled off. Some minutes later, he returned with the condemned.
Hexaar Olmstead trudged uphill in nothing but breeches. He had a hard, sunburnt body stitched with a Common field hand’s muscles. Not Linda’s husband, the girl thought fearfully. Their children . . .
“Commons of Rosbury,” cried a herald she couldn’t see through the packed bodies, “harken to the Lord Warden of Rosbury, Uthron Morley, bannerman to King Hexar.”
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 allowed you to wear fashions above your gods-given station, in violation of the law?”
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 beard ruffled as he looked at the priest. “Brother Elfred?”
The priest nodded gravely. “Justly said, my lord,” he said. “Even Reader Gary and I agree on the Great Covenant.” Several peasants rolled their eyes or sucked at their teeth.
“Secondborn men gave up their naked freedoms in the wilderness for the comfort of the king’s love and protection,” Morley said. “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 said. “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, chuckled with disdain. “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?” his voice snapped like a whip.
The peasant straightened. “Nothin’, Sir Willard. Sorry.”
Morley took the peasant’s measure with his gaze. “Priests are not like our readers,” he said stiffly. “Their temples are not ours to draw from.”
No one liked that, but that was because most of Loran’s peasants worshipped in parishes, where men could hear their holy men recite verse in their own tongue. Temples belonged to the priestking and his collared priests.
The Lord Warden exhaled softly, sadly. “Yet words are not enough.” Bardo Lym reappeared with the condemned man. He forced him to kneel and lay his head across the stump.
“Not Hexaar,” Rose murmured. “Damien was his friend.” But Father isn’t here, Sara thought.
“Round, round it spins,” Praise sang from somewhere in the crowd, “until off it rolls again.” No one acknowledged him.
The lord pointed at the kneeling Hexaar. “This man before you has brought shame on us and his kingly namesake. He was unable to pay his taxes and rents. By the laws of our king and his Worthy Assembly, he was instructed to forfeit his children to priests, who could better care for them.”
But that’s not what he did, Sara knew.
“But that’s not what happened,” Uthron said. “Sir Willard learned that Hexaar Olmstead tried to leave with his wife and children. They planned to do this under cover of night.”
No one shared the Lord Warden’s horror. Sara was just a child, but she knew as well as anyone about the hiding games that peasants played with their children when authorities came to collect taxes. No one in Rosbury had five sylvens to pay in poll taxes, let alone five sylvens per head. Some neighbors had concealed grown children for years to avoid paying what was owed. Unable to pay, many, like Hexaar, abandoned house and land to go into hiding with their children.
Yet Commoners lived by fair play, and peasants never betrayed each other’s secrets to the highborn. So how did Sir Willard learn about it? she pondered, glancing at faces.
“We must, all of us, pay the king’s due,” Morley said. “If a man cannot pay what he owes king and lord, he cannot afford to raise children. Thankfully, we stopped this plot and rescued Hexaar’s children. I will surrender them to the high bishop in hopes that he will raise them to lead righteous, dignified lives.”
Headshakes and appalled looks swept the crowd. “Peshar the Pederast,” Ford Rounsey muttered, disgusted.
Passing over their faces, Rittman settled abruptly on Sara. She reached for her mother’s hand, clasping it tightly.
The Lord Warden narrowed his eyes. “I have seen enough children go missing from Rosbury,” he said. “I am loath to make this example, but I feel one must be made. If you cannot afford your own taxes and rents, you must love your children enough to give them up.”
“They’d be easier to pay if the lords allowed us to bargain for better wages,” Alford Hemlock ventured quietly, bitterly.
Connor Bagman scowled. “That’d defeat the purpose of the game, Alford.”
“Obey the law,” Morley said, “or suffer this man’s fate.” He comported himself. “Hexaar Olmstead, as Lord Warden of this village, I, Uthron Morley, sentence you to die.”
The boyish Brother Elfred separated from the crowd. The priest prayed in First Tongue, the language the lords would not teach their peasants.
As the priest prayed, Hexaar peeled his left cheek off the stump. He had the ire of a man about to lose his head and the confusion of someone who knew he didn’t deserve it. “They’re my children,” he said adamantly, convulsing all over. “You’d all do the same!” He wrestled in vain with the ropes binding his wrists behind his back. “Why donna anyone DO something?” he demanded. “Someone . . . someone please STOP THIS.”
In the corner of her eye, Sara saw Ford Rounsey lurching forward, fists shaking, as if he meant to come between Hexaar and his headsman. Reader Gary and Connor Bagman seemed to sense his intentions. They clasped his shoulders, rooting Ford in place.
Rittman lost patience. Stepping forward, the sheriff pressured Hexaar’s face flat to the stump, as if he were a butcher forcing a chicken to conform. “Stop this,” he pled.
“In the First Days, Dracar also resisted judgment,” Morley responded, aloof.
The comparison only salted wounds. Lords 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.
Fear gnawed at Sara. Will you burn with Dracar, Hexaar?
At a gesture from the lord, Cathreen led their son Sam to the stump. The boy glanced about nervously as she instructed one of the knights to lend her son his sword.
“Oh god,” Alford Hemlock said, appalled. “He’ll botch it.”
Her mother reeled her in close, covering her face with her hand. “Don’t look, Sara,” she said gravely. Rose pressed her face into her itchy dress, as deep as her face could go. “Don’t look.”
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, or shrieked.
“Oh my god, he missed.”
“Maetha save him, his fucking head,” another man wept, calling upon the godface 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 linger. Connor Bagman turned first, and Rounsey and Alford and others followed him. They halted when the lord’s herald blew his horn. “Your lord has not given you leave,” the herald fumed indignantly.
“Indeed, I have not, for there are gladder tidings,” Morley said. Some peasants turned about fearfully; others remained facing the village main. “By the will of Princess Lorana, acting on the authority of 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,” the lord declared over the disgruntled noise, “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.”
As if of one mind, Commoners turned to leave, silent in their fury. Someone wept for Hexaar, Linda, and their sons, who’d soon be in a priest’s care, twelve-as-one be with them. Sara hastened back up the main with Caleb and her mother, eager to be done of the whole awful, lurid affair.
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, smiling through her nervousness. “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 slippery voice, didn’t like that he approached her mother like a man in courtship. She didn’t like this man.
Rittman looked almost boyishly coy. “A word, Rose?
Something surged up in Sara. Maybe it was all the worry over her father, or maybe the fact that Hexaar had just lost his head in the worst way possible. Whatever it was, she stepped between her mother and the justice.
“Men mustn’t speak with married women without their husbands present,” Sara said sharply. The One True God gave Rose Sothron eyes for scolding, and they scolded her now.
Rittman had the courtesy to at least seem chastened. “But of course. Sir Damien’s daughter speaks true. I should expect nothing less.” He smiled at her as he would a babbling infant.
“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 with flat eyes. “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. Rose assented with a nod. Sara wanted to kick her in her 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 to allow you and Sara to go to the Walls and help prepare the king’s feast for Remembrance Day.”
Rose and Caleb looked stunned. Not a good sign.
“To the Walls?” her mother piped. “Sir Willard, you . . . you do me great honor.”
His wormy 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 a fleeting nod. Sara thought it mockery.
“Sir Willard, if I may”—Sara’s mouth fell open when she saw her mother reach tenderly for the justice’s wrist—“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. He makes a delicious onion stew.”
Rittman weighed the farmer with a look. “I see no reason why not . . . especially if it pleases you, Rose. I shall speak with Lord Uthron.” He kissed her hand.
Wisely, Caleb 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 what’d happened.
“Oh, Caleb, can you imagine?” her mother said as they walked, twisting one of her wimple’s strings around her finger. “No more selling onions at market! Not for a while. Not if we’re paid 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 sat on his calves, on the ground, naked save for the cloth around his waist. Between his thighs lay a hare, which he held by its ears. The knife by his ankle glinted in the starlight.
This was forbidden practice, she knew. Neither readers nor priests condoned it, and the high bishop 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. The people were poor, the taxes and rents high. Men were off at war, and lords were giving their children to priests, who did not pray to the peasants’ One True God.
And Sir Damien Sothron, her father, 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 priests, before even the Romarians. Let us make a Gift.”
With a flick of his wrist, Caleb 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 fur almost lovingly.
“Gods of root and stem,” he said, “gods that gave us elves and 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 Brad and Sam 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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