It was the sound of the crowd that Matilda remembered most from the day her father died. They did not scream in outrage at his pain, nor gasp in horror, even as he flailed in desperate agony and his face turned the sickening color of a day old bruise. No, they cheered. They laughed. They cursed him; all while he slowly choked on the hangman’s noose, many of them fully aware that the criminal’s four children were among them, watching, helpless, as their only parent was dying.
It was a messy execution. His neck did not snap as it should have. Instead, he suffocated slowly, agonizingly slowly. Matilda and her brothers cried and screamed their father’s name, desperate to be heard over the jeers of the blood thirsty crowd until their throats were raw and aching. The twins, Rolland and Rhys, at only eleven, hurled themselves brazenly at the crowd, throwing punches and kicks as hard as they could and screeching like wild animals. Jasper, the eldest of their brood at thirteen, stood with their tiniest member, Matilda. They stood shoulder to shoulder; staring blankly at their father’s violently twitching limbs. Jasper clasped her hand so tightly it hurt, as if he were afraid she might join the twins in their fight, although she made no move to.
She looked around at all the people around her, glaring at them. She could feel her chest burn with pure, fiery hatred. Their eyes had this odd glint to them as they watched her father die and their grinning mouths seemed to be filled with razor sharp teeth. They were monsters…monsters…every last one. She was only seven years old and yet, at that moment, she was filled with an overwhelming desire to plunge a knife into each of their bellies. A feral desperate cry suddenly rang out through the air. She crouched down low with her hands over her ears to block out the hideous sound. She did not realize until much later that the scream had come from her own mouth.
The men Rolland and Rhys attacked finally chased the children off like they were a bunch of feral cats. They never saw their father’s feet stop kicking.
That night, they returned home to their empty hovel. It was so strange, the silence of the place. It was so deathly quiet; all they could hear was the familiar scurrying of the ever present rats. Their father was a thief to be sure, but when he was with his children and not full of wine, he was a kindly, warm man with a laugh that practically shook the house. He was always humming or singing a drinking song very badly, always talking. The man never shut up. Now, without him there, the house felt as dead as he was. None of the children could bear to even look towards the little chair by the hearth where their father usually sat.
They huddled around a dying fire. Rolland and Rhys nursed their swollen, bruised faces while Jasper ladled lukewarm soup into dirty old bowls. He hadn’t said a word since their Father was led up to the gallows, so when he finally did speak, the sound startled Matilda.
“Eat what I give you. Don’t ask for another bowl. We have to make this last as long as we can.” He said softly, his voice cracking.
“What are we going to do, Jasper?” Matilda cried. Big tears dripped down her dust covered face.
Jasper eased himself down onto the floor with his sister and brothers and rested his head against the stone wall behind him. A tired smile tweaked the corners of his bow shaped mouth, though the expression did not touch his dark brown eyes. “We do just as Father did.” He shrugged. “We’ll take what we need.”
“And Wha’?” Rolland slurred through his swollen mouth, “Hang like ’em too?”
“I don’t wanna die!” Rhys began sobbing pathetically. Bloody snot dripped from his busted nose.
Jasper remained eerily calm. “No one is going to die.” He sighed. “He got caught. We won’t. I’ll make sure of that.” A gurgle echoed in the tiny space. Jasper’s gaunt cheeks flushed and he busied himself with poking the last embers in the fire to muffle out the sounds of the his empty belly. He had made no move to fill his own bowl. It would later prove to be the first of many nights he would go hungry for their sake. “Besides, it will only be temporary. Once we’re old enough to get apprenticeships, we won’t have to steal anymore.”
“What about me?” Matilda asked, eagerly. She did not want to be just another mouth to feed. She wanted to help.
Jasper looked at her in a strange, pitying way. “We’ll marry you off to someone nice and rich, don’t you worry.” He smiled. His eyes peered into hers for a long moment, before he turned away and went back to tending the fire.
Of course, everything he said, everything he promised, would turn out to be nothing but lies.