"Here she comes, Stracc. And she doesn't look happy." I turned and watched Lady Melinor approach. Her face was red and her eyes bulged. I sincerely hoped I wasn't the object of her wrath. I held my breath. She stormed past, without even a sidelong glance. I sighed relief and noticed that Thea did the same.
"Someone's going to get lashed," I said.
She shrugged. "As long as it's not me, I don't care." Thea was a good-looking girl, young, thin and not quite blonde. She turned away and busied herself cleaning the bureau, no doubt remembering her last beating. I watched for a moment, before turning to finish filling the oil lamps. Most people don't realize how dangerous a servant's job can be.
Soon my job took me into the next room, but the image of Thea stayed with me. I really did like her, though I suspected that the interest was one sided. Not that it mattered. There was little that was tolerated less than servants getting together. Especially if the woman was attractive.
I had no doubt that once she was a bit older, some of the high and mighty would be calling her to their beds. Maybe it had happened already. And there was nothing I could do about it, so I finished filling the oil lamps on the first floor and set about drawing the water for Lord Etengard's bath. It would take me about half an hour back and forth with buckets to fill the tub. Afterwards, if I was lucky, I'd be able to sneak a five minute break before returning to my chores.
You can't imagine how many times I'd lie awake at night and fantasize about being someone else. Someone who had something - anything - to look forward to. There were times when I'd cursed the gods for making me what I was, not knowing at the time that there are fates worse than servitude.
Sometimes, I'd be serving at dinnertime while a bard was entertaining. I'd listened to those tales of adventure with a longing that I could never share with even my closest friend, lest I be ridiculed. And still I could not help but long to be the knight that rescued the maiden, or the soldier who turned the tide of some great battle.
Alas, it was not to be. I had been given into the service of the Duke as a youth, when my parents could no longer afford to feed me. I can still remember my mother's face clearly enough, but my father's has become the shadow of a ghost. I cried the night that I realized I could no longer picture him.
It was only a short time later, while I was helping to move tables about in the dining area, that the guards came. They stood and watched me for a moment, before one spoke. "You're going to have to come with us, Stracc."
I placed the table down and looked at his grim expression. "Why? I didn't do anything." "That's not our concern."
He was right, of course. Guards were just servants with swords. I looked at the table which was not yet in its proper place, shrugged and followed them from the room. I wondered what I could have done to deserve a lashing. Surely I wasn't being summoned for a commendation.
The guards flanked me and led me upstairs to Lord Melinor's office. He sat behind his desk with the sternest of expressions on his face. Behind him and to the left, his wife stood silent, her face like granite. Off to the side, face stained by tears, stood Thea. She stared at her toes, ignoring my entrance.
"You may go."
With a slight bow, the guards turned and left. I dropped my gaze. "Thea, would you mind waiting outside?"
This surprised me. No one ever spoke that kindly to a servant. I kept my eyes on my feet. I heard the door close. Lord Melinor then rose and stood before me. "How dare you?"
I swallowed, but didn't answer. I still didn't know what I had been accused of.
"Did you think we would never find out?" "Never find out what, M'lord?"
He struck me hard across the face. "Don't play with me. You know what you've done."
But I didn't. I just wouldn't be admitting it again.
Much to my surprise, it was the lady of the house who spoke next. "We have ways of dealing with miscreants like you."
I held my breath. I would not speak again, unless one of them asked me a question. And since I had no idea of what I'd done wrong, I prayed that question wouldn't come.
"You do realize that you've left me no choice?"
I realized no such thing, but dared not admit it. "Yes, M'lord."
I steeled myself for what was to come next. It wasn't what I expected.
The door opened again. "Take this man to a holding cell to await my decision."
A holding cell? What did he think I'd done? Certainly nothing to deserve that kind of punishment. I almost spoke up, but I didn't want to get struck again. I allowed myself to be led from the room and down to the cellar and confinement.
It was several hours later, when she came to me. It was pitch dark and I had only just recently become accustomed to the smell of excrement that pervaded the place. "Stracc?" "Thea?" "Yes."
And there was silence in the darkness again. I waited until it became obvious she wasn't going to speak. "What news?" "It's not good." "I didn't think so. Can you even tell me what I did?"
Silence. I was about to repeat the question, when I heard her sobbing. I waited until she spoke again. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." "Why?" "Because it's all my fault."
I rose now and moved toward the door. "What do you mean, your fault?"
Her voice was clear and she spoke slowly. "More than two months ago, Lord Melinor had his way with me for the first time. I was scared. I had never been with a man before."
I dropped my head and swallowed. "Did he hurt you?" "Yes."
Of course he did. He wouldn't care if he's caused a servant discomfort. I tried to block the image of the master of the house, pawing Thea's young virgin body, but couldn't. I grew angry. "That bastard." "He told me to tell no one and I didn't. I didn't dare. I did everything he asked of me and cried myself to sleep each night. I had no choice, you understand."
I didn't answer. She had to know that I did.
"But what does this have to do with me?" It wasn't that I didn't care about her, but rather that I had far more reason at the moment to be concerned for myself. She was walking around free.
"I'm with child."
My breath caught in my throat.
"When Lady Melinor found out, she grew furious. She confronted her husband and demanded to know if the child was his."
A sinking feeling began to form in the pit of my stomach.
"What happened?" "Lord Melinor came to me again. He told me to tell them that you raped me." "What!" "I had no choice. He said he'd kill me if I didn't." "So what is to become of me?" "They're going to kill you, Stracc. They're going to kill you and there isn't anything I can do about it. I'm sorry." She burst into tears again.
At first I started to grow angry, but felt it slip away. What choice did she really have? Would I have done things any differently in her place? I placed my hand flat against the door. "Listen to me, Thea. Please, listen to me."
The sobbing diminished, then stopped altogether. "This is not your fault. You had no choice. I don't blame you."
For a second, she said nothing. Then tears flowed anew.
"Whatever happens to me, I want you to take care of yourself and your baby. Do you understand?"
I could only barely comprehend her answer. Then she was gone and I was left alone to contemplate my uncertain future.
I didn't sleep that night. I didn't even bother trying. I was awake when the guards came for me to bring me back to Lord Melinor's study. He waved them away and we were alone. I stood before him, terrified and angry at the same time.
"You realize your actions have left me little choice but to recommend death."
I didn't respond. With only two of us present, I don't know why he continued the charade. Perhaps he was unaware I knew the truth. Yet if I spoke out, I would be condemning Thea to the fate I was about to suffer. This, I couldn't do. Or I would be called a liar and killed anyway. Unless I could think of some way to escape.
I looked at him then, Lord Melinor. He wasn't a large man, though he had a fierce temper. I was much larger and stronger than he. Yet laying my hands on his body was still something I couldn't bring myself to do, though he was sentencing me to death. Habits of a lifetime can not be changed in an instant. Aside from which, even if I could overpower him, which seemed likely, there would be no way to get past the guards outside the door. If I were to escape, it would have to come later.
"My lord, I am not guilty of this crime." "Do you have any proof of this?"
That, of course, was the question. If I could find some evidence that I was not the father of the child, my life would be spared. But what could I present that would clear me of these most serious charges?
I thought for a few seconds, then shook my head. Lord Melinor smiled a sad smile. "I thought not...guards!"
The door opened and the same men that had brought me here entered. "Take him back to his cell. There will be a public execution tomorrow at dawn."
And that was the proverbial that.
On the way back to the cell, the guards were gentler with me than they had been on the way up. Perhaps they felt I did not deserve to die for my crimes, or perhaps they knew the truth of things, as I'm sure many of the palace servants did. Not that it would change anything.
Today, the criers would be about, announcing at the top of their lungs that a man was to meet his untimely demise tomorrow at dawn. People would stick their heads from windows and emerge from doorways to watch the criers pass. Afterwards, many would still be gathered on the streets to talk about what I might have done. There will be much speculating and some will claim to know. The same people that always knew.
Tomorrow, at dawn, I would be publicly beheaded in the town square. A bit of entertainment for the common folk. They'll line the streets waiting for the cart to pass. I'll be lying in the back, trussed up like a holiday roast. I wondered if I would even feel it as I was jostled around in the back, or if my mind would be so full of my impending demise, that I might be immune to physical pain.
Some of the folk will throw fruits or even stones, but not many. That treatment is usually reserved for well publicized criminals. I was a nobody. In fact, the only reason that the event had been scheduled so soon, is that Lord Melinor was afraid I would talk or someone else would. Once I was dead, no one would speak the truth.
I was so lost in thought, I didn't even remember the walk back to the cell, or the guards locking me in. I had only a few hours left to live and I would live them here. I placed my hand on the back of my neck, then took it away, when I realized in only a matter of hours, a headman's ax would be passing through that territory. I sat on the floor and tried to close my eyes. I didn't think I could sleep, but I must have been mistaken because I awoke in the middle of the night to a whispered voice.
"Are you okay?"
I struggled into a sitting position and took a few moments to remember that I was not, before answering. "Should I be?" "I'm sorry. I really am, but there was no other way." "I know that, Thea. Why are you here? To apologize to me? Don't waste your breath. In a short while, all the apologies in the world will mean nothing to me."
There was a long silence. Finally, I could take it no longer. "Thea? Thea?" But she was gone. My words had sent her on her way. I would spend my last hours alive alone and in fear.
The wait seemed impossibly long. Surely there weren't this many hours in a night. Finally, somewhat before dawn, a cadre of guards came to take me to my meet my destiny. Lord Melinor was taking no chances. I thought back to all of the heroic tales of combat and escape. I held them in my head, even while the guards bound me. How distant those heroes now seemed. For how could I, a common servant, hope to overpower seven guards and escape unscathed, bound as I now was? They even tied my feet together and carried me like a sack of potatoes out through the servant's entrance. I had my eyes closed, so when I was tossed unceremoniously into the back of the cart, I was unprepared for the impact. Fortunately, the bottom was lined with a thin layer of straw, so it only hurt a bit. I had the urge to relieve myself but wouldn't. Not here. I wished I'd had the presence of mind to go back in the cell.
The ride to the square seemed to take forever. I occasionally thought I heard jeers shouted over the sounds of hoof beats and creaking wheels, but I couldn't be sure. It was like a dream.
The crowd was smaller than I thought it would be, and the executioner's block bigger. The cart had pulled all the way to the front of the crowd. I was only a few feet from the place where my life would end. The executioner wore a mask, but I could tell who it was from his body. Not that it mattered. I had no friends to avenge me. In a day or two, most people would forget I'd ever existed. Everyone but the servants at the palace, who would remember for the rest of their lives, sad for it happening, but glad all the same it did not happen to them.
The guards dismounted and walked around to stand on the ground before me. One of them cut the ropes on my legs so I could stand. The people would want to see me. Lord Melinor was there, a stern look on his fat face. I had never before dared think of him in such terms, but I had no reason not to now. Lord Melinor was a fat, pompous oaf, that was about to give the order that would end my existence. In that moment, I hated him as much as it was possible to hate a person. I hated him and all he stood for. I hated all nobility, who could do what they wanted to whom they wanted, because they owned property.
The guards stood before me, Lord Melinor just past them, and the executioner, holding a huge ax, just beyond.
I found myself unable to take my eyes from the ax blade, until Lord Melinor started speaking. "My friends, we are gathered here this morning to take our collective vengeance on a man...no a fiend, who would take the virginity of a young woman against her will." There was a gasp from the crowd. Several people shouted insults. I ignored them. They weren't to blame for this farce. And bound as I was, there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it.
Lord Melinor kept talking for a long time, but I had trouble concentrating on his words. What was the point anyway? They were all lies and where I was going, I'd have no use for them. So I stood and gazed out at the crowd and then back to the headsman, who stood impassively watching. At least the mask made him seem impassive. No one would know if he were laughing or crying beneath. Nor did it matter. All that mattered now was that Lord Melinor had stopped talking.
My time to die had arrived.
"Reflections of a Recovering Servant" Copyright © 2002. Steve Lazarowitz. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.