Black Like Ebony (Part 1)

[To anyone who liked my old stories and was wondering where I was, thank you, and also sorry for the absence. Finally got out of school and back into the swing of things. Will be getting back to Bite Marks very soon. Anyone who left a kind comment, I saw and appreciated it more than you can know.]

 

He was a poor boy, both in the sense of wealth and in general matters. Though he was of adequate health and physique he had known no father since birth and lost his mother to her 50th Winter before puberty had fully gripped him. He spent the five years after in a hobbled together existence, parents fleeting wealth enough to secure his ramshackle home but not enough to escape town. He had never learned of any other family, and letters to his home stopped swiftly after his mother’s death. 

The village itself was not to be escaped from. To the nearest town, which would be a similarly ramshackle hobble of homes in the midst of nowhere, would have taken several days journey by horseback. The boy’s village lay on the outskirts of the kingdom, in a black sea of trees. It was a town of trappers, hunters, thieves, the odd murderer and other undesirables, a haven for all who sought to escape society. His parents were the same, he knew, some sordid past surely did dog them. Nothing but a past worst than the present could make a man and wife bring to raise their child in a place without future. 

The boy’s existence prior to his mother’s death was an unusually maintained one. He cleaned and helped her skin and hunt. He knew how to separate fur from meat and clean blood from leather. Some mornings before she left, his mother gave him books to read before she returned at night. He did so, learning to read early in his life, a skill nearly none of the other villagers shared even in adulthood. He was taught how to cook and clean their small cottage, how to survive and how to survive with dignity. 

His mother had sought escape for him. To hedge her funds from whatever her life had once been to send him somewhere else to serve as hired help. An escape from the border town, an escape that didn’t end in barely upheaved dirt or a solitary walk into the forest amidst the cry of wolves. 

Alas, no more. Her death saw the end of ambition and the start of his invisible life. Sequestered in his cottage amidst strangers with no care for him, he spent his days surviving as he had before. Dull, long, dark years of solitude. Trips to the village were for food and supplies, traded for in furs and pelts. The men of the village, and there were only men, deigned not acknowledge him as he walked by. He offered them no money, nor protection, and an unfortunate wideness between the eyes ensured he served as no more attractive a prospect for relief than any other. 

In these invisible years, he was numb. If he felt grief at his mother’s death, he had forgotten by the time she was buried. His mother was a quiet woman, her dreams for his escape born from a final desire for some sort of victory over life than any real motherly love. The boy wished only to escape the forest one day, and the dark things it held.

The boy had seen one once. One of the things that lived in the dark canopies. He had chased a hare into a clearing, deeper into the trees than his mother had ever allowed him, but she was no longer there to stop him. The monster was tall, towering over the two men it held like ragdolls. With its back to him he saw only alabaster skin and raw muscle clothed loosely by copious amounts of animal skin. He had known the brothers she held as well, thankfully well enough to know neither was worth saving, not that that would ever had been an option for him. One, the younger, screamed obscenities at her, the same he would screech at the boy when he walked into town. 

The monster had tilted its head towards the younger brother, then flexed its arm for all of a second. The man’s obscenities were drowned out by the crunch of bone and the gurgle of demise. 

The boy had stayed hidden from the moment he had seen the creature, the thought of fleeing outweighed by the fear of making noise. The wet slap of the youngest brother’s body meeting the damp ground had forced a gasp from him, however, and the monster turned to face him. The empty blackness of the single giant eye that turned to him made him want to cry. 

It was a she, he had noted automatically as it approached his hiding spot beneath the root of a tree. The patchwork of furs covered protruding breasts and a face that he supposed was as femine as one with a giant eye could be. The monster had seen his hiding spot from afar and was not keeping her vision locked onto him, ignoring the moaning flailing of the eldest brother. The boy could not even think to run, flattening himself against dirt in some childish hope he would simply vanish from the cyclop’s vision. He pressed his face into dark earth and closed his eyes, waiting.

In the frenzied futures his mind was predicting, he had anticipated perhaps the sudden grip around his throat tearing him from his hiding spot or the mere stomp of a powerful foot upon his hiding spot. He had not anticipated to hear the root and tree above him screech in snapping wood as he felt dim sunlight settle on his back, nor the gentle pull on the back of his collar as he was lifted weightlessly into the air.

“Open your eyes.” the voice was cold, monotonous steel. 

He had done so, her pitch black eye peering deeply into his own two eyes. A fearful glance to the left revealed the entirely uprooted tree and the crying brother to his right. 

“Stop wiggling.” she said. The boy went rigid. The cyclops resituated him onto her palm, then considered him further. Her massive thumb prodded painfully at his stomach and he screamed. 

“Mmm, weak.” she noted, nodding her head. She lacked a face that could be easily read, but she seemed very indifferent to her inspection. She turned to the surviving brother and flicked her wrist, noting his pained grunt with approval. “Mhm, sturdy.”

Whatever kind of examination this was, it felt as if it lasted an eternity. She rolled the two over in her hands, threw them up and then caught them, put them between her pointer and thumb and tested how hard they could push back against her. 

“Mmm,” she would say, “Mhm…”

Finally, she looked the boy over from top to bottom, her massive pupil trailing up and down his frame without craning her neck.

“Dirty.” she said, and dropped him back into his hiding spot. He hit the soft loam on his back and stared up with tearing eyes. “Go home.” 

She stomped away without another word, further into the black sea of trees. The frenzied cries for help from the brother faded into silence before long. He found the strength to move only after he realized the sinking pink of the sky would eventually turn to visionless black. The strength to run returned swiftly after, as he bounded frantically back into the home. 

Thus did the boy learn that not only was civilization out of his reach, but so to were the wilds no home for him. 

So, before a year had passed from his mother’s demise, the boy had found his goal. If civilization was a faceless unknown and the wilds an inhospitable den for him, he would escape his dreary life by becoming a servant for the Countess, the woman who ruled over the village in all but proper title. 

The boy knew very little about who she was, he knew only the constant ripple her decisions had for the village of outcasts. Supplies went to her first, as did medicine. There was no local town government, politicians and the important members of society, who the boy could not scarcely imagine the purpose of, would arrive to the Countess’s manor and leave straight to their native lands from her home when business was concluded. 

The boy had learned all of this from his mother and the hushed whispers of the townsfolk, though he was mystified still of so much of her. She officially held only the land of her manor, which sat on the peak of a high hill near town. The men of the village would allow each other to starve before they sacrificed for another, yet they made no complaint of the Countess’s privilege. Indeed, any comment regarding the Countess the boy had overheard was politely neutral at worst, tinged with apprehension and restraint. She had escaped the paranoid hostilities of a village of men with no Earthly bonds and no possessions, all the while offering no services to them. She had never set foot in town from what the boy had heard either, preferring isolated existence in her manor of luxuries.  

The boy’s theory was that what she offered was the invisible boon of protection. His mother’s books had taught him well enough about the many cities he imagined he would never see, and more importantly they taught him how they were kept safe. Troops of red crested knights in plate armor with halberds drawn proudly to their sides, imperious fortresses housing cradles of civilizations, towers and sentires that scoured the landscape for threats both monstrous and human, these were the great and mighty tools of his far away country.

The boy’s village had none of these things. It had no walls, merely a ramshackle wooden fence to keep boars out. Men did patrol the streets at night with blades drawn, but they offered no protection. The boy knew little of where his village lie specifically, as maps listed only the Sea of Trees, not his village. What he knew, however, and had seen firsthand, was that monsters thrived in these lands. There was no reason his village should have existed for a fraction of his life without any kind of interference. The men of the village were dangerous, but three of the creatures he had seen that day in the fields could have torn it asunder. There was some force keeping the monsters at bay, and though he yet lacked the knowledge of how, the boy was certain he had discovered who at least was responsible for their relative protection.

The boy’s confidence was bolstered by his knowledge of the knight. On particularly dark, gloomy nights, where even the light of the moon was faded through cloud, the orange light of a torch could be seen the blazing dimly down the path. He had seen this, but not the knight. No, he had heard about her from the distressed whispers of the townsfolk. Apparently, she would knock on the door of a random man at midnight, then take him up to the manor, never to be seen again. If they were lucky, at least. Apparently she had left the village more than once with a smashed in door in her wake and a man screaming bloody murder in the pitch black night. The other men never dared help, even as the few friends they had were abducted from the village. 

There was no guarantee of what the knight’s captive’s fates were, the boy knew. The men had discussed the point to death and back. Popular was the thought that she tied them to sizzling slabs of metal and carved runes into their genitals with a pumpkin knife, nearly as popular as the idea that bathing in their blood was the one thing keeping her young. Some say she ate their livers and then shrunk their heads, their decapitated corpses serving her even in death. Some said the men were still alive and forced into slavery at her manor, forced to work sleepless weeks and nights tending her private farm. 

No rescues were ever suggested. 

 The boy had heard every single outlandish, horrific, nightmarish scenario the men of the village had concocted, and still he believed the Countess to be his redeeming hope in life. A life spent coming home to an empty cottage that was ransacked from time to time for all of the nothing he had left in the world, a life of random beatings and jeers from criminals and scum of society, a lifetime of obsolescence, the bountiful world beyond the village forever denied to him and the hungry jaws of  the Sea of Trees nipping hungrily at his throat forevermore. The boy would throw it all away for the Countess, so much did he believe that his future lie nowhere but in the secluded walls of her manor. 

His wait lasted for 6 years after his mother’s passing. His conviction held, strengthened by the glimmer of hope that one day he would never see the faces of his village again. Even were he to be slaughtered for a rich Countess’s fun, he would take pleasure in knowing the same fate awaited them. He sat atop the roof of his cottage every night, eyes locked at the thin road leading to the Countess’s manor, awaiting the smallest hint of the flick of orange. 

It was a month from his birthday that he saw it. The Fall cold sank into his fingers with a numb chill, the steam of a skinned weasel’s meat translucent in the moonlight on the drying rack. The flicker of orange brought his mind out of the monotony of his tasks, abandoning the meat to wash his hands and face in freezing pails of water before barreling into the village. 

He heard her first. He had never heard the sound of platework metal slamming into wood, but he knew it for what it was immediately. It turned from a knock into the sound of splintering wood as he turned through an alley, shoving cowering villagers out of his way. He had not thought to run this fast even when the cyclops had released him, but he the angles and turns of the village opened themselves up to him as if by magic as he sprinted towards the knight. 

He found her as she was on her way out of the village with her screaming captive in tow, dragging uselessly across the ground. The knights in all of his books were men, and they wore rows of chainmail and had winged lions on their shields. The Countess’s knights was a woman in pitch black plate with jagged edges on the shoulders. She bore no insignia on her chest, her breastplate giving way to the inky expanse of metal that covered the rest of her body. If not for the dull flicker of the flame she might have been a creature forged of pure night and abyss. She bore no helmet, the pale cream of her skin accentuating equally pitch black hair that flowed down her back. 

She regarded the boy as he ran to her with dark and bottomless eyes, tinted ever so faintly with curiosity. Her hand rested on the sheath of her sword as if an afterthought while her boot pressed heavy into her squirming captive’s back.

“Halt.” she called, and he did so. Her voice was calm, measured. Though her tone lacked any kind of authority to it, the chill down his spine bid him do as she said. 

“I,” the boy began, “I am the son of Alexandria Gossen, I seek to employ myself in the service of the Countess. I am proficient in cooking, cleaning, farming, hunting, and skinning. I will work for no pay and only the barest essentials for housing.”

“Your words mean nothing to me.” the knight replied immediately after he had finished, as if her response were predetermined. “You say Gossen? I seek no one by that name. Have you received a writ?” 

“I have received no writ,” he responded, a panicked choke catching in his throat, “But, but my services are many and varied. I believe I could prove myself useful in service to the noble Countess.”

“I have not come for those who have not been called for.” the knight had begun shaking her head long before the boy had finished his plea. “Know you who Yarwick Histon is?”

The boy whimpered and shook his head.

“Then you serve no purpose for me or my Lady.”  A squirm from her captive illicited a thrust from her boot. The man, who’s tear stained face encited no strong memory in the boy, buried his face pitifully in the dirt road. “If you are required, you will be sent for.”

“I need no pay,” he pleaded. “I wish only to serve the Countess.”

“You will receive no pay and serve the Countess here.” The knight countered dryly. “Those who live here do so because the Countess wills it. If aught is required of you, you will serve her in true.” The knight’s face was still faintly curious, the situation she found herself in presumably unfathomably foreign to her. So deep her concentration that the light stir of bushes behind her went noticed only by the boy, and only dimly in his haze.

“Ah,” she said, nodding to herself. “Any kin you may have had sent to our service are your kin no longer.” she spoke as if reading from a script. “If it helps you, you may consider them deceased, though that is not the case. Regardless, you shan’t see them again.” she nodded towards him, then began to reach towards the whimpering man underneath her bootheel. “Apologies, please enjoy the peaceful life my Lady has gifted you and yours.” 

“I have no kin!” the boy cried, “I, I, I can read and write, and….and with time I could learn to do accounting!” 

The knight halted, staring back up at the boy with agitation. “What game do you play?”

“I play no game,” he whimpered, “I…I wish only to put myself in service to your Lady.”

“She is MY Lady, child. Not yours nor any other of these vagabonds.” The knight stood to attention and crossed her arms, the man below her gurgling as she propped her weight back onto him. “Your words are suspicious. Answer me truthfully or I shall make a judgement as my Lady’s arbiter of justice, for what reason do you approach me?”

The boy stared at her, hoping to find any kind of pity in the chasm of her gaze. “I…I wish to be rid of this place. I have no money to leave, but I must be rid of it.”

The knight sighed. “Truly?”

“Yes, Miss.”

“Begone from my sight.” 

He felt a throbbing lump form in his throat. The knight broke away from his gauge in annoyance, securing her captive’s arms with a length of rope. 

 At the death of his mother, the boy had perhaps wept. He no longer remembered, as the burying of her body had seemed another mindless task for survival at the time.He had sequestered his mind in the monotonous steps of survival and improvement. There was nothing that mattered as long as he could one day rid himself of his imprisonment. 

Now, as his future unwravelled before him, as the walls of a life spent wallowing in the misery of a faceless existence at the edge of the world, he cried. The tears pushed out of his eyes unhalted, flowing freely down his cold face. He watched as the knight finished her sobbing captive’s restraints and began to pull him roughly to his feet. 

Then he saw the shadow behind the knight, slanted steel distinct even in the moonless night. 

“Behind.” the boy whispered. The knight paid him no mind.

“Behind!” he screamed. The knight snapped to him with a glare, mouth opening in a snarl as her hand reached for her sword. The sound of overturned rock behind her paused her, her face alight with understanding. She turned as the blade found her neck, head tumbling through the air into the dirt road. Her torch fell flame first to the side and simmered into a pitiful flicker in the earth.

The man screeched into the air, howling with laughter and victory. “The bitch is dead! The bitch is fucking dead!” He was young for a villager. Not nearly as young as the boy, but far from the grizzled dead eyes of the average man of town. His eyes were young and alert, and they looked to the teary eyed boy with frenzied glee.

“You’re that little woods fucker. You dirty little freak, you wanna sell yourself off to the bitch in the high castle? Huh?” he cackled, pointing the blade towards the boy. “How about I send you with her? Throw all the fucking freaks out, I like the sound of that!”

“Untie me, fool!” The tied up man cried from below, the knight’s still leg slumped awkwardly across his back. “We have to leave, we have to leave right now!”

“Shut up Hoz! I do what you don’t have the balls for, I’ll say what we do next!” he spit on Hoz, then turned back to the boy with a grin. “C’mere, son. I’m putting out to pasture all the things in this hell I’ve always hated.” he began to walk forward, knife point forward with a clean blade. “That creepy, sad fuckin’ face of yours is next.” 

The boy was still. Even as the man sneered and began to walk forward, he was still. He thought of his lost future, and he accepted what would come. So he would die here, what of it? What would it matter if it were today or tomorrow or forty years from the day? Nothing would change for him. 

“How?” the captive moaned from behind. “How can you?”

“I can do whatever I want Hoz.” The killer sneered without turning back to him.

“How can you stand? How can you stand, damn you!” Hoz screamed as the audible cling of an unsheathed sword sounded out. 

Joy fell from the man’s eyes like a body from a cliff. The sword pierced his chest and carried him into the air with it. He did not scream, that was not the word for the anguished thralls of death he bellowed. He clawed at the wicked metal and slashed his hands for his troubles. The knight stood underneath him, her head nowhere to be seen. Her sword was held aloft with only one hand, holding her prey to the sky as if a great hand would descend to collect him in sacrifice. 

She did this for only the briefest of moments before she flung the body back towards the ground. It rolled pitfully along the ground. Then the body started to crawl, and the boy heard the wheezing whimpers of help. The man’s face turned to his own, and he saw the bone white face of a man slipping into nothingness.

“Help me.” he begged. His voice sounded a thousand miles away. “Please. Help me.” 

The knight’s boot came down on the back of his throat and her sword thrusted into his back. He gurgled for an instant, then the only movements of his body were the posthumous thrashing of the sword being pulled out.

“Man.” the knight’s voice sounded out in the darkness, somewhere far from her body. “Truly a race that needs the iron grip of their betters.” 

The headless knight began to move back towards the captive, who screamed. 

“Silence,” her voice called out again. “I shall retrieve my head, retrieve Yarwick, then I shall be relieved of this hovel with you and he in tow.”

The knight stepped over the bound man, into towards her discarded head. The boy saw then, as a dark cloud finally passed and spilled out a thin ray of moonlight, the apathetic head of the knight being pressed firmly back into her suit by her body. The knight stretched her stiff neck, then turned to the boy with a scowl.

“As before, you shall remain here, child.” she huffed, turning to collect her dimming torch from the dirt road. “Should I hear that a rumor has circulated amongst the filth of this town that a headless woman claims prizes for my Lady, I shall feed you to my Lady’s hounds.” Her face turned to him, bored as it had ever been. “To your home, boy. That I let you live is a kindness I know I shall regret.” 

“How could you?” The captive had resumed his sobbing, his face freshly speckled with his companion’s blood. “How could you slaughter him so?”

“Silence.” The knight replied, rolling her prisoner onto his back with a kick in the side. “That I deliver you merely bruised is a blessing you shall never repay.” 

“Yarwick,” the prisoner sobbed. “Yarwick…”

The knight froze. The boy felt a chill shake his body, like the one he felt when he saw the cyclops. 

“Say his name.” The knight hissed. The boy could not see her face, but the prisoner looked into her eyes with a face of utter horror. “Tell me this man’s name, you mongrel!”

“Yarwick,” the man cried, “His name was Yarwick Histon.”

A howl erupted from the knight. A primal, screeching noise that filled the boy’s soul with a crushing fear. 

“Fool!” she screamed, and kicked the prisoner in the stomach. He yelled in shock and fear, and she kicked again and again. “Damnable, stinking, miserable fools! You’ve ruined me! You’ve ruined my lady’s bounty!”

“I’m sorry!” the prisoner moaned as another blow struck him. “Please! Spare me!”

The knight screamed again, stomping her leg into the ground. “No! No, no, no!” 

She turned to the corpse, the useless thing leaking blood into the soil. Then she turned again to the boy and her eyes narrowed. She moved towards him.

While moments ago the boy was prepared to die, now he wanted desperately to flee. Even the darkest parts of the Sea of Trees seemed so much safer than here. As his legs locked and he could force no movement, a thought passed through his head that he was perhaps destined to be prey to things mightier than himself.

The knight’s gauntlet seized his throat and lifted him effortlessly into the air. He flailed limply and gasped for air, her grip unbreakable. His face was twisted towards the sky, the last bit of the moon’s light being swallowed up by a dark cloud. 

“You have caused this.” she whispered.

“I never meant to, Miss!”

“You did this!” she screamed. Her arm lowered him slightly, putting his gaze on par with her own. And then, with her free hand, she removed her head and brought it a hair’s width away from his nose. “You have been my ruin.” 

“I, I knew nothing of this plot!” 

“You distraction is to blame! Many a man has drawn a blade on me, not until your sniveling tonight have I been forced to draw my own!” The dark hollows of the knight’s pupils swallowed the boy’s vision. He found not even the barest hint of his reflection in her face.

“You shall make this right,” the knight continued. “His place is now yours.”

The knight’s face drew back from the boy’s. Her face grew pensive as it locked with a jerk to her neck. “Yes, that is acceptable.” She nodded to herself and lowered him to the ground, grip still firm around his throat. “Never have I been seen your face until this night. Where have you hidden yourself?” she loosened her grip on his neck and shook him. “Speak!”

He dared only one gulp of air before he responded. “My home is, my home is just outside the village proper. The cottage!”

The knight frowned. “You have not been reported to me, nor have I seen you seen at the headcounts. You have hidden yourself from me and for this you shall take the place of the conscript.” she nodded confidently, mouth twitching in a grin of fake confidence. “A dangerous criminal’s life in exchange for a hidden male, an equal trade.” she assured herself.

The boy, clinging onto consciousness through the thin intake of air he could manage through her lightened grip, struggled to comprehend any of what the knight said. “Headcounts?” he managed, clinging to that term in particular for some reason. “What headcounts?”

She spun released him and spun him backwards, halting him roughly. She pinned his arms behind his back and he felt the burning bite of rope digging into his wrists. “Be still.” 

“What do you speak of when you say headcounts?” he implored her. Perhaps it was the apathy with which he had planned to leave for the Countess that left him numb to the perils of his current kidnapping, but the mention of headcounts had stirred something painful in his stomach.

“You know of what I speak, this faux innocence is an even further insult.” the knight finished the knot around his wrists with a blood clotting tightness. “The weekly gathering, fool. Where every man is present and taken stock of. Never have I seen you present, which means your existence has been hidden from me.”

“I know not of this, Ma’am, I swear to you.” The boy did not understand her. There were gatherings? Had there always been?

The knight paused. She tested his restraints and he winced as rope tore into skin. “Perhaps you speak true. These whelps told me of the cottage, they told me its inhabitants had long passed.”

The boy felt a twinge of something in his chest. Not the resignation to his fate he been embracing, nor the fathomless emptiness of his ambitions dashed, but the icy chill of realization. 

“They…they truly said the cottage lay empty?” 

The knight shoved him towards the other captive, who lay on his side sobbing into the soil. “Walk, boy.”

“They never told you who I was?” he walked, his pace awkward and slow until another push bid him move faster. 

“They shall be punished for their deception, make no mistake.” she laughed, bitter and harsh. “As shall you.” 

They hid him? For all these years?

“I…I did not know.” The boy gazed up at the mountain path out the village, winding into darkness towards the Countess’s home. His home now, he supposed, though he dared not wonder for how much longer.

“Then you are guilty only by ignorance and stupidity, it matters not to me.” the knight responded. She retrieved the nearly faded torch from the dirt with a look of contempt. With no hesitation her hand wrapped around the still dimly burning torch and snuffed the light from it. The boy looked to her face for any hint of pain, but in the abyss of the night he could only faintly see the slight movements of her mouth and hushed tones.

She did this long enough for the boy to begin considering speaking, only for the torch to erupt into a column of flame. The knight held her hand still amidst the crackling, then withdrew it. The black iron of her glove cracked with orange fire until she closed her hand with force and it vanished. 

“Witch,” the captive resumed his moaning, “A damn witch!’

The knight turned to him, and even in the hiss of the flame’s heat her eyes reflected no life. Light danced on top of pure pools of black only bared accentuated by milky white.

“No witch, scoundrel.” she said. Her face cracked into the thin sneer of a smile. “Only my Lady’s Judge.”

 

The manor bathed in the barest flicker of lantern lights, arranged in careful intervals across the courtyard. Once they had passed piercing pillars of iron fence and the mountainous entrance gates, the courtyard’s garden greeted them in a warm glow. 

To the boy it seemed a horrid trap, like a fever dream he was being marched into. By lanterns light he tread with his captor and his fellow prisoner in silence along the entrance path. The path was paved with stone, a foreign luxury in the hovel below. It was lined with a garden of surely imported flowers in perfectly matching shades of reds and whites and lilacs. They were cut and trim to perfect measurements, none encroaching past their gardens. Gone was the overgrowth of the village, the unruly weeds and clutching branches that flanked their village. The manor was sterile, it was organized, it was planned. 

And he had no business being there, he realized. He never had, this he knew now. This place was not the manors of polite society his mother had taught him of, the Countess’s manor was something more. Was this were the elite of the world came? With it’s cold order and sterile beauty? Or was this something different, something sinister? 

The image of his mother popped into his head. Her broad forehead, muscular arms and callused hands. The flat smile as she skinned dinner, the unimaginative voices she gave the people in his storybooks, the sailor’s song she sung as they made dinner, the rough brush of her hand through his hair as he drifted to sleep. He thought of her for the what may have been the first time since she had left him. 

He slowed as the realization hit him, the sense of sorrow as her face came truly to him again. Never had he wanted the life of a servant, of faceless lords and ladies. He had wanted only the warm haze of a life lived with one who knew his name and called it with love.

The clatter of quickening iron behind him and a dissatisfied growl drew him from wistful memories and quickened his pace. The thoughts vanished, as did the tears building behind his eyes. His head cast downward he allowed the familiar numbness to overtake him once more. He knew there would be no use to bemoan what he had lost, he had come out this night prepared to lose more still. 

The sloshing of water in a pail drew the boy’s head upwards once more, three maids walking towards them. They walked side by side in perfect synchronization, breaking neither stride nor distance apart. The maids on the end were pale skinned and pretty in a fragile way, their blonde hair and features so similar he knew them as twins at once. The maid in the middle was sour faced and of darker skin, red eyes glancing to himself and then the prisoner with disdain. The dark skinned maid carried two buckets while the twins carried a neatly folded towel each. 

“Halt.” The knight’s voice made both prisoners jump, immobile the second they landed.

The middle maid cackled as she placed the water pails down, throaty laugh reverberating nauseatingly with the ring of the metal. “Truly, Judge, truly? Near half an hour late and you return with a scraggly shell of a man and a child?” 

“Test me not, Ysele.” the knight responded with venom soaked tone. “This day I will suffer none of your childish japes.” 

The maid, Ysele, crossed her arms and smiled crookedly as the twins spread their towels across the stone path. 

“And what of yesterday, and the days and weeks before?” the maid continued with glee, “Has the great lapdog of House Apiezza found her tongue peeled from the Countessa’s feet at long last? Discovered anew pride as a woman?”

The boy remained still, eyes focused on the pale maid quietly unfolding the towel in front of him. The sound of the knight’s hand on her sword hilt, which he had swiftly learned to recognize, sparked a primal urge to run he fought down desperately. The maid snickered, but she said no more. 

The twins stood, the white linen spread in neat squares before them. They bowed deep and rose to meet their respective prisoner face to face. 

“We thank you for coming to serve your home and your Lady.” said the maid nearest the boy.

“Your patriotism and your loyalty shall be remembered forevermore.” said the maid facing the still weeping prisoner. 

They rose from their bow and said in unison, “The Great Countessa Apiezza and her loyal servants thank you for your service and shall commit to our memories your names and faces.” 

“Spare these men your pleasantries, they are a coward and an interloper each.” The knight’s commanding tone was giving way to an irritated edge. The middle maid stopped inspecting her nails long enough to send a knowing smirk in her direction.

“Prisoners, strip and step forward.” The knight spoke before she could be interrupted. 

The boy turned to her, looking for her to clarify his misunderstanding. Her face bid him turn back towards the maid at once. 

“Would you like me to assist you?” his maid asked. 

“No, no Ma’am.” he replied quietly. He reached for the shedding leather belt he word and began to tug it off.

“Prisoner! Strip!” the knight bellowed. The boy yanked at his belt with such force it snapped clean off of him. He tore the bits of leather out of his belt loops in a panic and slinked his pants down to his ankles. Then he heard the quivering voice of his fellow prisoner.

“I will not!” he spoke in the whimpering roar of a trapped rat. His face was still red and leaking tears. “I will not suffer this indignity!”

At the sound of metal footsteps behind him the boy turned away, facing the still garden beside him. He heard a scream and a body being forced to the ground, then the loud tearing of clothes. The boy himself chose to focus on the quiet removal of his own shirt over the panicked pleas from behind him. 

When he had stripped himself down fully to his briefs, he looked timidly at the maid. She stared at him, looked down, then shook her head.

“Everything, sir.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” he said. Keeping his eyes on the ground helped him, but not much. The thin white fabric came off and he arranged it neatly on the stone ground in front of him.

“Thank you very much, young man.” His maid curtsied. “Would you kindly step forward? We will now clean the two of you for your audience.”

The knight stomped past him before he could move, dragging the naked prisoner in tow. She threw him onto the towel than yanked him back up by his hair, ignoring the feeble slapping on her armor and his demands. The boy stepped forward, attention forward to escape the sight.

His maid produced a sponge and dipped in the bucket. He was rinsed with no soap and water barely lukewarm, waves of thin black film dripping down him. The boy lead as cleanly an existence as his situation allowed him, but a layer of grime coated him at nearly all times regardless. The prisoner screamed to his right, his voice mixing with the cackling of the darker skin maid and the threats of the knight. 

The boy kept his eyes closed. Through the cold and the fear he fought down his body’s physical response to the maid’s touch. In another life perhaps this would have been pleasant, he thought bitterly. He knew though that the other life he dreamed of was as fabricated as his mother’s bedtime stories. 

A new set of hands grasping at his buttocks broke him from his ruminations with a yelp. His body lurched forward on instinct but the new hands locked him in place with a casual grip of his thighs. The maid continued bathing him unhindered. 

“Such a good boy.” It was the cruel maid’s voice. The gloating curl of her lip popped into his mind’s eye. He remained still, eyes shut still. However this were to end, calm would serve him better than panic. 

“Such a scary night this must be, and yet you’re the most well behaved guest we’ve ever received.”

“Thank you, miss.” He whispered. 

“And so polite! Oh, what are you doing in this place sweet thing?” her hand crawled upwards to his stomach. Her hands were colder than the air and touched greedily across his skin.

He shivered and fought back the crack in his voice. “I have …I have erred, miss.”   

“Oh, poor boy! If you have erred then so too has our noble Judge! Why should you suffer this indignity and not she as well?” 

The Boy waited for the Judge’s response, but save for the faint click of a tongue no response came. Pain in his twist forced a scream from his lungs as a chill hand tugged forcefully on his nipple. 

“Your better has asked you a question, boy.” The cruel maid’s voice changed to demanding, but her words were tinted still with glee. 

“The mistake is on my part alone, miss, I apologize.” 

“Sweet child.” her hand wrapped loosely around his hips, the warmth of her body drew closer. “Would you like me to punish you instead?” she whispered in his ear, “You’ll find my punishment more agreeable I’m sure.” 

He couldn’t bring himself to respond, not even to whimper as her hands scratched lightly across his chest. 

“Your skin is so white and clean, like winter snow.,” she whispered, her nails scraping so harshly across his torso he felt the red welts forming. “An artist does so love a blank canvas.”

“He takes another’s place, Ysele.” The Judge spoke. Controlled calm had sunk back into her voice. 

“Oh of course, dear Judge, I’m well aware.” The maid remained tethered loosely to him as she spoke, even as her compatriot continued cleaning the boy, unphased by her fellow maid’s clinging. “But a humble servant’s earnest request would surely be considered before that of some rabble, wouldn’t you say?” 

“Not when the rabble is Ebony.”

She loosened herself then, all but flung her body from his. “Whore!” she screamed. “You think yourself amusing? You allow me to degrade myself for your perversion?”

“I say only the truth, Ysele. You asked not of my insight until you had stained her property.” The Judge’s voice was proud, as if Ysele was congratulating her instead of screeching.

“Miserable, shriveled husk of a woman! Did it feel good, whore? Did you feel the barest trickle of moisture in your blackened nethers at my degradation?” 

“It seems I have offended you, honorable maid. Please, allow me to correct the situation.” The sound of steel being drawn scraped through the night and all went silent, as if the blade had slit the throat of all sound. The blonde maid’s hands went still on his body, and his opening eyes revealed her face had grown whiter still. 

“Prithee, take my sword. Take it by the hilt.” The Judge whispered. “I have shamed you, no apology shall make amends for that. A duel shall cleanse my sins, and I offer you my blade for it. I shall use only my dagger, and I shall strip to my linens if it pleases you.”

“I am no warrior.” Ysele responded. Her voice was lifeless, as if the words were being squeezed from her lungs. 

“Nay, you are a woman of respect. No woman of respect should allow that.” 

There was a pause. Then, there was the slow slide of steel into sheathe. The maid took an experimental brush of his stomach with the sponge, then the metal footsteps sounded from behind. The maid moved a foot backwards, but did not budge as she was approached.

The Judge spoke. “Are you not a woman, Ysele?” 

Ysele spoke, “Judge, I neglected to tell you, but last week I finished my duties early and dropped off our Lady’s sundries an hour early.” The boy’s stomach dropped, the wrongness of her voice as it mixed with glee sending off warnings to his frozen legs. “I must say, dear Judge, I never would have expected the great Lady of House Apiezza to allow her man to take her from behind.” 

He knew the sound that followed, the sound of skin hitting metal and a mouth gasping for air.

“Liar!” The Judge screamed. “You slander our Lady for petty revenge!”

The maid choked, words forced out raw. “How many shall your failures number today, Judge? A prisoner dead and a maid slaughtered? Is this how you serve your lady?”

“I will tell her all of your slander, bitch.” 

“We have finished.” The dull tone of the blode maids shocked the boy back to attention. They stood side by side in the path, bored but attentive. The boy knew not which of the two spoke. 

The head maid gasped for air and her soles hit the pavement. 

“Prisoners,” The Judge spoke, her voice hoarse. “Follow them.” 

They shuffled forward in the moonlight, his fellow prisoner shivering and shaking in the cold. The Judge’s footsteps followed shortly after. 

As the twins began to veer off down a sidelong path leading further into the garden, the boy dared a glance back. In the flicker of the night he saw the maid wiping her lacy headdress brusquely against her knee, dark slanted ears jutting into the darkness. 

The Judge blocked his view shortly after, hate warm in her icy face.

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