Content warnings for this story (click here for guide):
“Please!” The girl sobbed, as she stumbled into the main square. Her feet were bare and scraped and her worn dress had been torn at the hem. She must have been about 16.
Three burly soldiers strode into view behind her, smirking as they watched her dodge away from them like a cornered animal. They whispered to each other and laughed, before advancing on her.
“Mercy!” she bawled.
“She wants mercy!” said one of the men to his companions. “After our little warning last week about jewellery, she flaunts a fine necklace and expects mercy!”
“It was my mother’s!” cried the girl. “I wore it to visit her grave. I swear that I kept it locked away at home after the warning, but today was the anniversary of her death. You cannot let me grieve her for one day?”
“Not only that,” said another soldier casually, as they reached the girl’s corner, “but I heard she wished illness on Lord and Lady Devereaux.”
The girl turned pale. “I did not! I would never wish ill on anyone, even –“
“Even…?” The soldier leaned over her.
“N-nothing!” stammered the girl.
But the soldier, smelling blood, grabbed her ear and pulled her, yelping, into the middle of the square.
“Finish your sentence, girl,” he wheedled. “Were you about to disparage your benefactors?”
The girl trembled, shaking her head, as the soldier, traced the outline of her breast.
“Benefactors, my arse,” said a voice from behind them.
The soldiers span round to see Anna Smith leaning defiantly against the pub wall.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘benefactors, my arse.’ Engorged maggots, more like, feasting away in their stinking castle.”
“Saucy little bitch,” said the soldier, letting go of his prey and moving toward Anna. “And where’s your head-covering?”
“Up your arse.”
For a second, the soldier was baffled at the outrage. Nobody spoke back anymore. The townspeople held their breath as he recalibrated.
“You’re going to regret that, you impudent little slut. That’s a nice little trio of offences: insolence to the Official Guard, interfering with an arrest and public indecency. Reckon we’ll be carting you off to the brothel…or perhaps we’ll find a use for you in the officers’ mess. Sweet little arse you got there. But first, you’ll be joining this little wretch for a good, sound whipping!”
He lunged for Anna’s arm.Reaching into her apron pocket, she tossed a handful of ashes into his face, screaming, “NOW!”
Nobody had expected the rebellion to succeed. When you’ve been oppressed for so long, you lose faith in your community, if you don’t lose hope entirely. But the Carbaston townsfolk, sick of being dogged and demeaned and turned on each other, had had enough. They surged as one to overwhelm the Official Guard, and their momentum was more than a match for their muscles and weaponry. Anna’s father had forged scrap metal for week to arm as many adult as possible. Even the children threw stones and the old women threw greasy water. The soldiers in the square slipped, panicked and fell, and their loyalty to the two tyrants was rewarded with a swift death.
Once the soldiers patrolling the town had been felled, the mob laid siege to the castle, battering down the decorative door. They tore through the drunken guards. Anna searched frantically for the dungeon and found Isobel lying naked in chains. She had a bowl of scraps to eat from and bruises all over her. When Anna reached her, Isobel’s eyes fluttered open.
“I’m going to take you home, Bel,” said Anna, tears of fury streaming down her face as she lifted her semi-conscious friend. “And we’re going to make them suffer.”
Within an hour, the castle was taken. Any surviving soldiers fled. The townsfolk took silks, gems and plate, and the most precious prizes of all: Lord and Lady Devereaux.
The deposed tyrants were led into the town square in chains, their ornate garments dragging in the dust. Two cheap wooden chairs had been placed by the town clock, and they were tied into these ‘thrones’.
Anna gathered together the brightest minds in Carbaston to oversee their trial. She was determined that their captives would receive a fair hearing, in contrast to the treatment they themselves had meted out.
Lord Devereaux shook like a lily. In contrast, Beatrice sat sulkily, like a child sent to the corner. Her long hair glittered with opals and amethysts, and she played with it, taunting the poor girls of the town.
“First things first,” said Anna. “Everyone wearing a grey head-rag, take it off!”
A great cheer went up as the women and girls tore the dowdy cloths from their heads and shook out their hair.
“Whores,” muttered Beatrice, twirling a strand of her own hair round her fingers.
“That feels better,” said Anna. “We’ll have a bonfire later, perhaps. For the scarves, I mean. Although…”
She looked mischievously across at the nobles.
Lord Devereaux, fearing the worst, cried, “It was her! It was that witch! She enchanted me! I was a benevolent Lord. She made me do all of it!”
Beatrice’s cool exterior vanished, and she placed a satin glove to her breast in outrage. “WHAT? Witch? I never…You coward! You lying coward! How could I – a woman – wield power over an entire town?”
Lord Devereaux continued to gibber about Beatrice manipulating him, until Anna brought forth a notice, which had been pinned up in the town square. It announced the raising of several taxes and the bounty for informing on one’s neighbour.
“Is this your seal, my Lord?” she asked serenely.
“W-well yes, but…”
“And these?” Anna produced further decrees restricting trade, demanding tributes and announcing executions. “That seal looks awfully similar…”
Lord Devereaux turned purple. “They were necessary! I needed to keep order among you people!”
“You destroyed our way of life!” yelled the miller. “I lost my workers, my business, my wife, my land…you did this!”
Anna turned to the crowd. “Is there nobody who will speak up for this man?”
“He’s not a man!” yelled one woman. “Threw his own wife in front of the cart to save himself, didn’t he? Both as bad as each other but he tried to walk over her to escape, and that’s not on. Nasty little strumpet through she is…”
“GUARDS!” shouted Beatrice, reflexively, and the townsfolk erupted in laughter as no strong men stormed to her aid. They laughed even harder when a curious piglet trotted up to sniff her hem.
“There’s your bodyguard, My Lady!” spluttered Clover.
“Do we all agree, then?” said Anna. “That this man has wronged both Carbaston and his own wife, though she be a nasty little strumpet?” She grinned as Beatrice scowled.
“AYE!” chorused the town as one.
“And the punishment?”
Suggestions ranged from death to banishment, though everyone feared reprisal. Then Daisy spoke up.
“Indenture him here. He can make up for the loss of so many farm hands. Every day, he gets a different master and must perform the tasks they set him. I reckon the swine need a herd to start with. He can make up their swill and sleep in the barn!”
This pleased the townsfolk immensely, and Lord Devereaux panicked again.
“I shall NOT work as a peasant! I will kill any man who tries to make me a servant! You people are worse than rats!”
Anna leaned over him, her long hair tickling his nose.
“You either accept your indenture, My Lord, or I throw you to the good people of the town to do with as they plea –“
Her words were cut short as Lord Devereaux’s hidden cuff-blade shot forth and pierced her dress, nearly plunging into her heart. Anna fell to the floor, panting at her near-escape.
“Disgusting little harlot,” he sneered, snicking apart his bonds and springing out of the chair. He held out the knife to ward off the townsfolk as they advanced.
“Elland!” cried Beatrice, struggling in her seat. “Loose me too!”
“Sorry, dearest wife,” said Lord Devereaux, “but there’s simply no time, and frankly, you’ve become a millstone. I shall think fondly of you.”
He turned and began to dash for the nearest stables, spying a strong mare saddled outside. The people pursued him, but hunger and the rebellion had weakened them. As Devereaux swung himself into the saddle, he waved arrogantly, and kicked the horse into a gallop.
No sooner had the mare begun to run, though, than Devereaux fell to the ground and did not move. An arrow stuck out of his chest and blood flowed onto the ground around him.
Those assembled gasped in horror, and traced the arc of the arrow. In a high window, a weary Isobel, tears flooding down her face, nodded and put down her bow.
Beatrice Devereaux, nee Streeter, sat in shock. In the space of a few hours, she had been captured and restrained, sold out by her own husband and widowed.
“Well,” said Anna, once more gathering the people of Carbaston. “I may be the only person besides Lady Devereaux who wishes that had not happened. I would much rather our Lord had worked to pay his debts, but he did make his own bed.
“In fact,” she continued, “if I understand the law of inheritance, I may be the only one who regrets his death. Since Lady Devereaux, upon the death of her husband, is due to inherit everything her Lord possessed.”
Beatrice stuck her nose in the air and refused to look at Anna or any of the locals.
“For better or for worse,” said Anna. “That was your vow to your late husband, wasn’t it? Since he is not here, we could argue you should inherit everything that was coming to him. Not just the land and the finery, but his punishments as well.”
“Good idea!” called the seamstress. “They both profited on his deeds, after all!”
“But perhaps we should start with your own crimes, eh?” said Anna. “And I’d quite like to repay the lesson you gave me, three years back at your wedding party.”
Beatrice squinted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ah, that’s understandable, said Anna. “A noble lady’s life is very busy and you can’t always remember the little people. But I remember it well.”
Beatrice fiddled anxiously with her jewelled hair.
“No? Well how about a reminder?” She turned to her townsfellows. “I need two strong lads to help Lady Devereaux into position.”
A dozen men stood up and Anna chose two, who untied Beatrice’s bonds and each took hold of one of her arms. Lady Devereaux kicked and squealed as she was lifted off her feet. A cheeky young girl dashed in and plucked the brocade slippers dangling from her toes, claiming them as spoils.
“That’s right,” said Anna to the young men. “Over the well wall should be fine. Bend her right over and keep her in place. Now, has anyone got a strong leather crop?”