It was the second taking that week; Irene was beginning to become resistant to the cacophony of grief pooling into the streets. That’s not to say she could simply block them out. They hung over her thoughts daily—and it wasn’t only the cries of the grieving that haunted her.
Screams pierced her ears, but she stopped flinching long ago.
She stepped along the stone ground beneath her, gaze lowered and focused only on her movements. Every meticulously placed foot splattered water up onto her cloth leggings. Of course, it had to rain. She stretched her hood to cover up more of her face as a horse-pulled wagon scraped down the street beside her, its molding wheels spinning through the puddles like a blemished water wheel. She didn’t want to be recognized, for everyone knew what the magistrate did to people with unfavorable reputations. Irene was in no rush to become the next example; she shuddered.
Strangers weaved their way through the town square, most looking to trade for their weekly rations, same as Irene. Everyone looked the same, but she thought they rather preferred it that way. The downcast citizens wore gray or black clothing and each paid no attention to the gallows sitting off to the side.
It was just another day in the city of Ralidence.
Irene had always been told to keep to herself. To not to trust anyone, not even family. And so far, she thought she was doing pretty well. There weren’t many people left who could call themselves trustworthy in her eyes.
Reaching the market, Irene stepped up to the designated stand and began to look over the rations for the day. The awning above her flapped in the wind, splashing more water droplets onto her head and soaking her mood further. At least the goods were dry. She purchased the food, eyes narrowing at the three coins increase in cost. Inflation. The beans and potatoes were only four coins the week before. Letting out a sigh, she resumed her shopping, her pace slow. Irene walked over to the non-essential items, planning to pass them as she always did, but stopped where she was, noticing a certain stand; this one sold small toys and trinkets.
Glancing into her coin purse, she nodded to herself. There was enough. Irene moved up to the booth and looked over the items before pointing; it was a small, hand-carved stone horseshoe.
“I would like that one, please,” Irene asked, polite, yet familiarly monotone.
The store owner reached for the item and passed it into Irene’s hands, the rock was cool in her palms. “That’ll be fifteen coins.”
She exchanged the coins, putting the trinket into her bag, and went back to her business, walking further into the crowded market. She never understood why it was always so busy, especially on a day as miserable as it was. It wasn’t as if any of the circulating gossip was new. A farmhouse burned to the ground the day before, there was another break-in at old Gunther’s place, and two kids were taken in the night that week. Nothing new.
A sharp crack stole her from her musings; she turned to look at the noise. Ahead of her stood the day’s Punishment Trial: a man knelt over a wooden box, tears streaming down his face as another man held a whip behind him. Before she could steel herself, the twisted rope snapped again, a scream accompanying the mark. Irene pulled her hood further over the side of her face and turned away, not quite able to forget the pain-filled pleas of mercy spewing out of the bleeding man.
She took a deep breath. The city scorned criminals; to the magistrate, breaking the law was unforgivable. It wasn’t as if they were unreasonable—the only reason the city had such tight laws and security was for the citizen’s safety, everyone knew this. In a world like theirs, there could be no pity for rule-breakers.
There were three main rules that everyone had to abide by:
1. Do not break the law
2. Follow the curfew
3. Do not leave the city walls
It was simple. Safety was the magistrate’s highest priority, and what was safer than staying within the city limits? They all knew what would happen if they left. There have been too many stories—and she was not one to put herself in that kind of danger. She shuddered at the thought. Nothing could make her want to leave the protective barriers of her home.
The city was safe. It was secure. No one in their right mind would want to leave.
Leaving the town square and the desperate shadows behind, Irene began the familiar walk home, her face set with resolute confidence. There was nothing of value beyond the gates, only wasteland as far as the eye could see; nothing but death and misery awaited those who left.
Passing through the moist alleyways, Irene reminded herself once more of what was at stake. She shook her head. No, that wouldn’t ever happen on her watch. She reached a pale hand into her bag and slowly rubbed a thumb over the horseshoe she had purchased, tracing her hand over the smooth surface.
“Never again,” she whispered to herself, reaching the entrance to her dwelling. She swung open the door and stepped inside, the wood slamming back into place. “Never again.”
Silence embraced her as she stepped into the room, the lack of sound making her smile after her trip through the bustling town square. The house was barely furnished; she just didn’t have the money nor wanted to purchase any. While her house was empty in terms of belongings, she prided herself on the food in her cabinet and the clothes adorning her body. Every strand of cotton was sewn together using leftover scraps from her commissions; she kept every fiber she could get her hands on. Her only outfit was simple. A cotton gown covered her thin trousers, and the shortened dress had a hood attached; a tool she was grateful for on a day like that one. Her job didn’t pay well—that was for certain, but it put food on the table, and that was all she needed.
Irene had neighbors, people who lived around and near her, but she only knew one of the families. She made sure to avoid meeting nearby strangers. There was no telling who would stab you in the back when you weren’t looking. It was a common occurrence for peasants to steal and kill each other for much-needed food and supplies. Fortunately for her, she had never had her food taken from her. Perhaps she scared them off too well.
Irene sucked in a deep breath, rubbing her weary eyes. It was time for work. A noble required a new pair of gloves; making them for him should get her a nice sum of money, though not as much as she would have liked. The guy’s a real penny-pincher. The commission stated that he needed them by the end of the day. She hoped she would be back in time for the curfew. Irene sighed. No time to feel sorry for herself; she would just have to figure it out.
The day drew dark and hollow. The alleyways peered daggers into the back of her head in the brisk and moonless night. Irene’s huffing against her thin scarf left her breathless on her return home. Ralidence was no place to rebel, and she didn’t dare break curfew; she had seen the punishments firsthand. Irene rushed towards her street, hoping to get there before the countdown ended. Adrenaline coursed through her veins, pushing her faster down the stone path. The tentative flicker of yellow lamps only added to her anxiety.
The nobleman was as slow as imaginable, taking up her precious hours only to show off his fancy house and his unimportant belongings. All she cared about was putting food on the table, she didn’t have time for pompous men and their patriarchal antics, especially when they put her at risk of having to overcome a Punishment Trial. Irene shuddered as the memory of blood-splattered stone and scattered chunks of mangled flesh littering the street flew to the front of her mind.
'Don’t think about it, Rina,' she told herself, breathing carefully. The man deserved it.
Irene was just about to turn the corner when something grabbed her arm and dragged her into the alleyway.
Instinct took over. Irene spun around, raising her fist to attack while snarling, “What the Hell?”
“Hey! Hey, it’s just us.”
Irene looked beyond her attacker’s hooded faces, instantly relaxing against their grip. It was Lori and John.
“What’re you two doing? The curfew’s about to start!” It was then when she noticed the desperation in their eyes. Something’s happened.
“It’s Kingsley, Rina!” Lori exclaimed, the lean woman’s breaths catching. “He’s gone!” She finally broke down, head in her hands, sobbing. Her hair, normally in a tight bun, stuck out, frayed, and hanging down her face.
“They dragged him from our home. The guards didn’t even tell us why!” He bowed his head and clenched his jaw. “There was nothing we could do.” John pulled his wife into a gentle embrace.
Irene’s blood ran cold.
“Kingsley?” she breathed, then exclaimed, “When did this happen?”
“Only a few moments ago. We came out here looking for where they went, the boy is all we have. If he were to be executed...” John trailed off, tears forming in the corners of his eyes as Lori began crying again with renewed force.
Irene’s entire mind became engulfed in memories of the small child’s laughter-filled play, unruly brown tufts of hair and his intoxicating smile. Kingsley was a beacon of light and happiness in that Godforsaken place. All she could think of was the child’s frail neck snapped, his body hanging limply from the towering gallows. Her heart caught in her throat.
"We’ll find him, Lori.” She grabbed onto the woman’s hand, pulling it gently away from her damp face. “We will find him if it’s the last thing we do."
This seemed to placate her enough to cease her tears, Lori looking up into her husband’s eyes. “Let’s go,” she murmured. “There is nothing more we can do.”
John frowned, but nodded. “Let us know if you find anything, Rina.”
Irene watched as the couple stepped away, the gravity of the situation dragging down on their forms, their bodies slinking away into the shadows. She stood still, frozen, unable to comprehend what just happened. How could she have let this happen? How could she have allowed someone else she loved to be taken away? The poor child didn’t deserve it. Irene’s mouth filled with heat and her stomach churned as her mind continued to dwell on Kinsley.
“Rina!” A blond child giggled, running through the field. “Bet you can’t catch me!” He sprinted faster, looking over his shoulder towards her, his eyes shining like sapphires in the sun’s rays.
“Just you watch me!” she called back, her lips twisting into a smirk.
Irene sharply inhaled, the beads of sweat under her lips turning cold in the chilled air. No, it was not the time to remember. Not now. Kingsley didn’t look like him. Squeezing her eyes, she pushed the memory to the back of her mind, willing her thoughts to slow down as she wiped her face with her sleeve, ignoring the tinge of pain in her eyes. She swallowed thickly, her throat dry.
She took a step forward, suddenly remembering about the curfew, and started to sprint home, fear raking her body.