The Framing of Illa
They dropped her on the beach. She couldn’t move her head enough to keep her face from hitting the ground. She coughed and spat sand and blood. The men turned and began walking back toward the village. “Wait! You can’t leave me here! I’m innocent!” They didn’t even pause. She didn’t say anything else. To tell the truth, she was just as tired of repeating it as they were of hearing it.
She let out a short sob and thought about trying to follow but gave it up, then changed her mind again. They’re lazy. They’ll pick the easiest path out of the tide zone. She tried to crawl. Using her forearms, she found she could lift her upper body a few inches above the sand. It was not the same with her lower body, however. She could only move from the knees and below. Her thighs were locked such that her legs couldn’t push against the ground only along it. With a grunt, she pushed herself forward, paused and took a breath. It was a lot of work for only a couple of inches. She did it again, iron scraping against wet sand. “I can’t do it! It’s too heavy,” she said aloud. Of course, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? I’ll never make it to the high water line. This shell-frame is not just my prison, it’s my executioner!
When the sun had risen that morning, Illa was walking free along this very shore, looking for clams to dig. Until she found the dead sea-turtle. Someone had flipped it over on its back. It had either drowned in the last high tide or died under the previous day’s hot sun. Such cruelty sickened and frightened her. She turned to run but collided with one of the village elders, the cooper. “What have you been doing here Illa?” he said. His voice was soft, but there was something in it that chilled her.
“N…nothing!” She tried to walk away, but his grip tightened on her arm.
A look like disgust came over his face. “You…You did this!”
“No, no, NEVER!”
Other men came and surrounded her. They drug her to the village. Women and children came out and watched, curious. She was brought before the chandler, the headman of the village. The other elders gathered around. The cooper accused. Illa protested her innocence. They believed him. They’ve always hated me. I’ve always been an outcast in their eyes. They don’t want to believe me! The deliberations were short. Her trial was soon over. The verdict, unanimous.
When sentence was pronounced, she barely heard and didn’t comprehend. Then they took her to the blacksmith shop. They drug a rusty thing out from behind a pile of firewood and laid it on the dirt floor, next to the forge. Only then did she understand. She screamed and struggled to get away.
She had seen it before, many years ago, when she was a little girl. It was an iron frame, roughly the same size and shape as a sea turtle shell. At the tail end of it hung a short chain with an iron ball, nearly a span in diameter. A young man had killed one of the sacred turtles. There had been famine that year. It wasn’t wanton cruelty that made him do what he did; he had simply wished to feed his family. Never-the-less they riveted his body into the shell-frame and carried him down to the shore where she never saw him again. No! They can’t mean to do that to me! “No!” She shrieked. “I’m innocent!” The smith slapped her so hard her ears rang. While dazed, they stripped her naked, turned her onto her back and thrust her head into the frame’s collar. The cooper closed it; the smith brought over the first red hot rivet and began hammering it into place. Illa let out a wail of despair.
The rivet made the collar uncomfortably hot, but they doused it with cold water before starting the second rivet. “Don’t worry.” The cooper chuckled. “We won’t burn you!”
“Why are you doing this?” she said to no one in particular.
“Because you shouldn’t go torturing and killing helpless creatures,” said the cooper, coldly.
She stared at him.
The smith finished with her collar. Illa could look up, straight-ahead or side to side. She could not look down. She couldn’t see her own body below the shoulders. They took her right arm and forced it into a kind of band between shoulder and elbow, and then riveted it closed. They did the same with her left arm. Her shoulder joints were now locked extended straight from her sides. Even with fingers stretched, she could no longer touch her face. Neither could one hand reach the other.
When they grabbed her legs and pulled them apart, she panicked and tried to kick. She feared she was about to be raped. That was not their intent, though one of the younger men who was helping to hold her made a lewd comment. First her right thigh and then her left were locked into iron shackles which were then riveted closed. Her hips were now completely immobilized.
The men were not finished, but they decided to take a short break. Illa lay spread-eagle on her back in the frame. None of her limbs could touch the ground. She was as utterly helpless as the sea turtle had been. She counted the rivets they had pounded in; two for each limb, two for her neck, ten. Each was a barrier of iron between her and ever being free again.
It was time to complete the job. The rest of the frame, the lower shell, was brought forth. It was a long metal strap with three cross-straps. One end of the long piece of iron was riveted to her collar, the other to the tail end of the back of the frame, a little below her crotch. Each hammer blow to the lower rivet made her yelp and flinch. The smith laughed. “We shan’t bruise your precious maidenhead. Though little good it’ll do you now!” Six more rivets fastened the cross-straps to the main shell and all was complete. Eighteen rivets…eighteen. Her body was now permanently locked into the device.
The smith and the cooper sat down, mopped their brows and agreed it was a job well done and finished in good time. Four of the other men picked her up. Illa gasped when they flipped her right side up. Then they carried her out into the yard.
There, in and around the yard, was every face she knew. They stared at her, naked, immodestly splayed and framed in iron. She felt the blood rush to her face. She briefly thought she might protest her innocence once more; but she could not bear to look back at these people and stared at the ground instead; willing her hair to hide her face.
For the most part, the crowd was silent, but there were a few jeers and some laughter. She tried to remember, did she laugh at the young man when they brought him out? She hoped not, but she was very young and he had looked very silly.
It seemed that they stood there holding her for a long time, until the crowd became more embarrassed than angry, before they finally began carrying her down to the shore. She felt, but could not see the iron ball swinging between her legs.
Illa stirred herself. No! I’m not going to die here! Not like this! She plunged her fingers and toes into the wet sand and pulled/pushed herself forward on the strength of her anger and indignation alone. One inch, two inches, four… The gods would not permit the death of an innocent! Not like this! “Not like this! Not…Like…This!” She repeated aloud.
She followed the path the men had taken, grunting and growling with each pull and push. Finally, she came to the foot of the dune, their boot prints continued over it. She stopped to catch her breath. It was steeper than she had hoped. There was a coldness touching her left foot. She couldn’t see it but she knew what it was, water. The tide was rising.
Illa pushed her body and its prison up the dune. The iron ball was a great hindrance, pulling her back at least one inch for every inch she climbed. Surely there is a place less steep. I must find it! She turned and followed around the foot of the dune. There then began a grotesque, slow motion race between Illa and the tide. As she scraped along, the heavy ball kept rolling painfully against her left calf.
At last she came to a place where the slope seemed less and pushed and pulled up it. It’s only five feet! I’m taller than five feet. If only I could stand up! At first she made progress, but the higher she went, the more pronounced the slope became. The ball pulled back. Finally she became stuck. Her feet had dug two arc-shaped troughs in the ground and no longer had any traction. Her hands uselessly pawed at the loose, dry sand. She lowered her cheek against the ground and wept. Her head was still six inches below the high water line.
Both of Illa’s feet now splashed in the sea. She called for help. She screamed, cried and begged the gods and men for mercy. She fell silent and listened. Was it her imagination or had she felt and heard footfalls? It was nearly dark. She could see nothing aside from the dune in front of her face. The water was now to her knees.
There were footfalls! She heard them distinctly now. “Who’s there? I’m over here! By the gods help me please!” A pair of boots stopped and stood at the top of the dune. Illa recognized them as belonging to the smith.
The man stooped and grabbed the shell/frame at Illa’s shoulders and pulled her out of the water onto the grass.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She sobbed.
He picked up a long handled tool and walked around behind her. There was a metallic snap and he walked back in front of her carrying the iron ball.
“You’re setting me free? You must know I’m innocent then.”
“I know no such thing!” He growled. “This is not a reprieve, simply a mitigation of your sentence for mercy’s sake.”
“That’s all you’re going to do then? Remove the ball?”
“You’re leaving me? Like this?”
“Hardly, just ‘til you die.”
“There is an alternative.” He hefted the ball. “You have but to ask and I’ll drop this on your head and end your misery.”
Illa recoiled in horror. No! I want to live! “No!” she said aloud.
The smith laughed. “Suit yourself. You can always change your mind. Only now you’ll have to come and seek me out.” He walked away into the darkness, still laughing.
Exhaustion from her ordeal made Illa fall asleep, despite the hard ground and harder metal. Hours later, a chill sea breeze across her bare skin woke her and made her shiver. The iron seemed to draw all the heat from her body. She couldn’t see much of the sky but something in the air told her dawn was approaching. Until sunrise, however, the only way to get warm was to move. She pressed herself up on her hands. Because of the angle of her thighs, she still had to drag her belly. She pushed/pulled herself across the grass. It was so much less difficult without the ball that she actually giggled. But it was not easy. I must spend my strength wisely. Where should I go? Where there is food and water of course. There had been neither for her since the previous morning. She stopped and sighed. “And where might I find that?”
There was just enough light now that she recognized where she was, the common pasture on the south side of the village. To her right about a hundred yards was the pond where the cattle drank. Thirst almost made her go there but she shuddered at the sudden thought that she might become immobile in the slick mud and unable to raise her face from the brown water. It’s as much a death trap as last night’s tide. I have to be careful now.
About five hundred yards across the grass was a low stone wall that ran along the coast road to the next village. The gate was open. From there she could crawl into her village, perhaps even to her own cottage and garden. The carrots and cabbages are nearly ready! She half smiled at the absurd thought of puttering around her garden while riveted into the frame.
But that would mean crawling naked in front of everyone. I’m a condemned criminal now. If they decided to hurt me, I couldn’t defend myself! And no one had the right to stop them. She thought of some of the local adolescent boys. The same who used to steal from her garden and throw pebbles at her house. What if one of them flipped her on her back? In the hot sun I would be dead in hours!
Speaking of the sun… It was well up. It felt good on her skin now. But I’m going to need shade before noon. Fortunately, a hundred yards closer and to the left of the gate was a copse of trees. Illa turned and made her way toward them. About half way and a half-hour later, she stopped to rest. Sweat glistened and dripped from her body. Her limbs ached from their unnatural positions and hard work. A fly landed on the small of her back and began to drink. She squirmed but couldn’t make it go away. “Auugh!” She thrashed about, nearly injuring herself, but the fly stayed put. She began to sob. How can I go on like this?! If the smith came now, I would beg for him to crush my head.
Again she felt footsteps, lighter and faster this time. Illa lifted her head and heard laughter and squealing. Children! She felt both relief and dread. Illa loved children, but what will they think of her now?
“Illa! It’s Illa!” She recognized the voice as belonging to Mina, her neighbor’s daughter, a child in her seventh summer. Illa began to turn to face her.
Mina stood between a boy and a girl of about the same age. The other two children shrieked and ran, but Mina stood her ground. “Don’t run! It’s just Illa!” She put her fists on her hips in disgust, shook her head and then plopped herself down in front of her framed neighbor. “Don’t mind them, they’re just kids.” She made a face in their direction. “They think you might hurt them, the sillies.”
“That is silly!” Snorted Illa, “Even if I could...”
Mina looked Illa over and became solemn. “They said you would be dead by now. They said that you tortured one of the sacred turtles, and that’s why they made you like this. But I knew that couldn’t be so. Not my Illa, not my neighbor. You would never do such a terrible thing!”
“Thank you Mina. I’m so happy someone believes in me.” Illa reached for her and Mina took her hand.
“Ooo, Illa, your hands are so dirty!”
Illa let out an embarrassed giggle. “I’m afraid that comes from so much crawling on the ground.”
Mina gently touched the frame. “Does it hurt?”
The child sniffed back tears. “I prayed and prayed for you, that I’d see you again.”
“I’m here. Your prayers were answered.”
“But I prayed that when I saw you, you’d be free because you’re innocent. I didn’t want to see you like this! Aren’t the gods just?”
“Of course they are dear.” Illa felt her throat tighten. “Sometimes it takes a while. Not even the gods are all powerful. Even they are subject to Fate.” Even they.
The child nodded. “I’ll just pray harder then.”
The iron was becoming uncomfortably warm. “Could we talk in the shade, Mina?”
Illa took her time and tried not to over exert herself. Having company helped ease the journey as well. None-the-less it felt very good to collapse in the cool grass under the trees. Mina sat in front of her friend again. “Would you like for me to bring you something? I can get some water from the well. The apples are getting ripe too.”
“That would be so kind.”
“I’ll be right back!” She jumped up and began running toward the gate. She’d only gone a short distance when she stopped. “Look!” She ran a little to her left, stooped and picked up a wooden bowl. “It’s water! Someone left it for you.”
Mina shrugged. “Why else is it here?” She brought the bowl to Illa and held it while the young woman drank it dry. “There’s another bowl. Looked like milk and gruel. I’ll get it too.”
“MINA!” It was a distant, frantic voice. “You get away from there and come here right this instant!”
“Uh-oh, it’s mum. I have to run, but I’ll be back tomorrow and bring some more water and some apples. Perhaps we can play some games like before!”
“I’m afraid I’m only good for turtle games now.” I can do all a turtle can, except swim.
“Well, turtles must think their games are fun, why can’t we? Bye!”
Illa laid her head in the grass. Tears filled her eyes. She missed Mina already. She lifted her head. Wait a moment! Did she say milk and gruel? She dragged herself over the ground toward where she thought she saw Mina stoop. She was troubled by tree roots but soon found the spot. There was a bowl alright, filled with a white liquid. Bugs were already getting in to it but Illa didn’t hesitate. She maneuvered to where she could pick up the bowl, set it against her lips and drank. It even has some honey in it! She finished the gruel, licked the bowl then wiped her face off in the grass, laughing and crying at the same time.
After a short nap, Illa crawled to the edge of the copse and looked out over the sea as the sun slowly dropped toward the horizon. It had now been one full day since she had been hammered into her prison. How long can I live like this? Her arms were sore, her fingernails torn and bloody. Her legs ached and cramped. She was glad she couldn’t see how her body looked. This is after but one day! Is there any hope? Any point? I’ll eventually fall to some mishap, disease or starvation. They need only neglect me to death. But is that what must happen? What of Mina? Who left the gruel and water? Why?
A day ago she would have assumed that everyone hated her. Wasn’t her father one of the heathen raiders who raped their way across the kingdom near two decades ago? Unlike the other women of the village who found themselves with an unwelcome sojourner in her belly, Illa’s mother did not expose her to the mercy of the tide when she was born. Neither of them was forgiven for that. To make matters worse, Illa most resembled her father, with hair so blonde as to be nearly white. Many saw her as a reminder of pain, humiliation and guilt. The pain and humiliation of rape, the guilt of infanticide. They must have seen my condemnation as justice deferred. And now? Rather than safely drowned, the council’s bizarre mercy will leave her inconveniently crawling about underfoot. At least ‘til someone takes the trouble to bash my head in or flip me on my back. But somebody, perhaps even on the council, must want me alive. And what of them? Do they just want me alive, or do they want me free?
The old sun dipped into the sea and was extinguished. Illa decided not to stay overnight in the copse. She was not forbidden going wherever she wished (or at least wherever she could). She felt compelled to go see her property again, to relieve both her hunger and her curiosity. Darkness would hide her nakedness. She also was worried that if she stopped moving for too long, her muscles and joints would seize and she would lose the ability.
As soon as it was fully dark, she began her crawl to the gate. It was open and she passed beyond. The road was dry and well surfaced. She thought that it might be difficult finding traction on it, but that lack was made up for by the iron strap that went down her front. Though raspy/noisy, it acted as a skid and allowed her to make good progress. She could even slide along without lifting her chest, which made her glad that her breasts were not large.
She paused at the edge of the village to watch and listen. All was dark and quiet. She pushed forward. A land breeze stirred the trees and covered her metallic scratching. Her cottage was near the other end of the settlement. She passed the common well. With no one to draw water for her, she couldn’t use it, but she did lap up the spillage left where people had filled their pitchers.
By the time she’d reached her own gate her indignation had begun to rise again. She pulled herself up the gate, unlatched it and then slid back to the ground. She push/pulled to her door but stopped in dismay. She had forgotten the steps! There were but three, but there was no way she could reach the door latch without tipping sideways off them and probably ending up on her back. She lay there and wept bitterly until hunger drove her on.
She turned aside and entered the garden. It was just as it had been left, less than two days ago. She plunged the fingers of her right hand into the familiar, friendly earth and drew forth a carrot. She wiped the dirt off and wished she could have washed it, but she had no way of doing so and was too hungry to really care. Illa munched the carrot in one hand and struggled, impatient and three limbed to the cabbages. She finished the carrot, then pulled a leaf from a cabbage and stuffed it into her mouth.
At that moment, her cottage door opened and a man stepped out. Both Illa and the shadowy figure froze and stared at one another for several long moments. Finally he hissed. “What are you doing here?”
Illa spat out the leaf. “Sampling my garden. What are you doing in my house, cooper?”
“It’s no longer your house or garden. You were condemned for murdering one of the sea god’s people, remember? Your property is forfeit. Now be gone!”
“You’re shooing me from the garden I planted? The house my mother’s father built?” The cooper may not have seen the absurdity of arguing with a naked woman locked in an iron frame in the garden, but Illa began to. She would have laughed if she hadn’t recognized the danger she was in.
“I’ll set the dog on you!”
She knew he was bluffing. He had no dog, but there was no telling what he might do. He actually sounds frightened. Does he fear me or what he’s done to me? What have they done to me? Am I still human? I don’t look or even feel human anymore! Illa turned away to hide her tears and leave. There was a loud bang. A stone bounced off the frame and sailed over her head. She calmly continued, but her heart pounded. She listened to hear if he might be coming after her, instead the door slammed. She sighed with relief, but paused in front of her old gate long enough to pee. “This is my house and land!” she shouted defiantly at the door. “It was my mother’s before me! It is still mine even if I have to mark it like a beast!”
Illa decided to continue on instead of risking returning the way she had come. There was another pasture and some shade trees on that side of the village as well. It was a little farther, but the adrenalin from her encounter with the cooper had reduced her pain.
She was more than half-way when she felt the pounding of hooves from the road. Horses? Who has horses? These have to be strangers! She suddenly felt very frightened. Where she was, the road ran through a cut leaving no place to get off and hide. Even in the dark, no one could fail to see her. They would know she was a condemned criminal and even guess what crime she was condemned for. What if they thought she had slipped her ball and decided to throw her into the sea? She slid to the shadowed side of the road and tried to press her way up the grassy bank.
Three horses clattered down the road, their shoes threw sparks in all directions. They didn’t slow as they passed Illa. But, suddenly, the horse nearest her skidded to a stop almost losing its rider.
“Precious gods, Behlen, what is that!”
“It’s her, I’ll wager,” said the one called Behlen.
“That thing? I thought it was the biggest cockroach outside Hell!”
As frightened as Illa was of these strangers, she would not bear the insult, she had been through too much already. “I am no thing! Neither am I a cockroach! I am a poor woman condemned for a crime she did not commit!”
“Of course you are.” Said the third man from his horse. She wasn’t quite sure whether he mocked her of not.
The first man dismounted and approached. “I’m afraid we must make off with you…Oh my, she’s naked inside all that!”
“Haven’t you ever attended a tidal execution? Of course she’s naked!” said Behlen. “Carrying her is going to be harder than I thought.” He added.
“What are you going to do with me?” Asked Illa.
“We’ll try not to hurt you.” Behlen also dismounted and with the first man reached down, grabbed an edge of her frame and lifted.
Illa yelped and kicked her legs. “Try? That’s not reassuring! Who are you!”
“I’m Behlen. This is my brother, Fehlen.”
Fehlen touched his forehead. “Pleased to meet you.” They then carried her to their horses and proceeded to tie Illa’s frame between the two saddles.
She was amazed to find that the two men looked exactly alike. Both had dark, shoulder-length hair and the same humor-filled face. She stared at them.
“I’d wager the young lady has never seen identical twins before,” whispered Behlen to his sibling.
The third man, who remained mounted, circled his horse and watched the road behind. “Make sure she’s secure! And hurry it up!”
“Hard to do both!” Muttered Fehlen under his breath.
“That’s Sir Ambrose, the king’s justiciar,” said the other brother. “If you really are innocent, that’s who you need to speak to.”
Illa craned her neck, but couldn’t see him. She strained her ears to listen, but the man said nothing else. The brothers continued tying her frame to their horses.
“Who is after you? Why are you hurrying?” she asked.
“No one’s after us. It’s you who’s being pursued.” Said Behlen.
“Me!” She laughed bitterly. “Why bother with pursuit? A cripple with a rock could catch and kill me.”
“All I know is after you left, the cooper fetched the smith and the chandler, the smith fetched his hammer and they all set off down this road not half an hour ago.” Said Behlen. “I think they intend to do you ill.”
“How do you know all this?” she asked, amazed.
“We’re spies.” Fehlen winked. We’ve been watching.”
Watching. Her face reddened as she remembered her nakedness. “Have you been watching me?”
Both men worked silently.
“You have! For how long?”
“It was Just me and only since mid-morning. You were talking to the little girl in the middle of the pasture,” said Behlen.
“You! You! …You left the gruel and water.” Her anger faded away.
“That was my idea,” admitted Behlen.
“Thanks for adding the honey,” she said softly.
“It did look like you were having a hard time of it and needed something more,” he said. “She’s all trussed up now!”
They quickly remounted. But before they could start, a large figure leapt from the shadows at the road’s edge. It swung a massive hammer at Behlen’s head and just missed. Instead it grazed the rump of his horse, causing the animal to buck and rear. Illa screamed as the horses jostled each other and nearly fell with her between. The smith raised his hammer for another blow but was knocked to the ground by Ambrose’s horse.
“Go!” yelled the justiciar.
“The brothers steadied their mounts and took off down the road. Illa’s unsupported legs bouncing painfully between them. Sir Ambrose followed with his sword drawn.
They raced down the road for about half a mile before slowing. Illa thought her thighs might snap and cried out more than once.
“We can slow down!” said the knight. “They won’t follow now.” He rode to the front. “I’m sorry, young lady, to have to transport you in such fashion. I was unaware of your…condition ‘til this evening. We don’t have far to go now.”
They proceeded for another mile at a light canter and then left the road to enter a thick wood on the right. A low whistle was answered in like fashion by Fehlen. They walked slowly through the trees for a couple more furlongs until they came to a small clearing lit by a modest fire. Two more men, dressed like the others in dark, woodsmen’s clothing sat there. One stirred a small pot, which attracted the starving Illa’s attention. When they saw that they were in the presence of a woman, both stood, bowed and touched their foreheads. She was amused. Showing courtesy to a naked condemned criminal?
The twins untied her shell/frame from their saddles and carefully placed Illa on the ground near the fire. Fehlen then covered her with a blanket and folded another and placed it beneath her head. She felt almost like a human being again. The men then sat.
Sir Ambrose spoke first. “Your name is Illa? Is that correct?” The justiciar wore his hair like the others, only his was near white with age. He also had a long, drooping mustache of the same color.
Illa nodded. “Yes.”
“I’m pleased to see you alive. I’d feared a great miscarriage of justice…Oh, before I continue, is there anything we can do for you?”
“You can free me from this, this…” Words failed her.
Ambrose looked down at the fire. His voice was low. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
She raised herself on her hands. “No? But…Why? I’m innocent! Please!” Her eyes glistened.
“I believe you. We simply haven’t the tools. Those rivets, that iron, they were made to be permanent! To last ‘til your flesh rots away and your bones disjoint! It will take time and heavy tools to remove them!” His voice became softer again. “But I swear upon my oath to king and gods we will remove them! You will have to bear this burden for just one more night.”
One more night. Illa sighed. “I suppose I can do that.” At least I won’t be cold, alone and without hope.
The justiciar and his men did what they could to ease her discomfort. They washed and bandaged her hands and feet. They also washed as much of her body as modesty allowed. Then they fed her; hunters’ stew and journey cake followed by milk laced with brandy. All the while the knight first listened to her story and then told her his.
“I was summoned three days ago,” he said. “A fisher had found the remains of a sacred turtle butchered on the beach. Much to my surprise, day before yesterday, while on my way here, I received a message saying my presence was no longer needed. Another dead turtle was found with the culprit caught red-handed and already sent to her well-deserved doom. That alone made me suspicious, so quick, so convenient. My suspicion was further aroused when I found out that the condemned was a mere slip of a girl who’d have had trouble flipping a live turtle half the size of the one she was found with.
“I understand now, however,” He paused, leaned over and rapped on Illa’s frame with a knuckle. “That this slip of a girl is much stronger than she seems.
“I next sent an urgent message telling the fools that you probably had an accomplice and on pain of death they weren’t to let you drown til I’d questioned you.”
“Really? The smith told me it was the council’s mercy that saved me from the tide. Then he offered to bash my head in.”
“I guess technically that wouldn’t have been letting you drown,” mused Ambrose. “I then sent Fehlen and Behlen ahead to try and find you and keep an eye on you, if you still lived. When Behlen found you, relatively safe, I decided to wait and talk to you first, quietly, after nightfall. I had no idea you’d slip off on your own or that you even could!” He shook his head. “By the way, why did you?”
“I was hungry and I wanted to go home.”
“Well, we had no idea where you’d gone, ‘til we heard you screaming at your front door,” said Fehlen.
“I wasn’t screaming…Much.”
“Then you fooled us again by not going back the way you came,” said Behlen. “Care for more milk and brandy, miss?”
“Yes please!” It makes me feel warm!
“Be sure to leave her plenty of brandy for the morrow,” Cautioned the justiciar. “Her joints will hurt when they’re loosed from those bonds.
“That will be welcome pain,” she said. Dare I even hope?
“We were fortunate to finally find you!” The older man stood and stretched until he noticed that Illa was looking at him in forlorn jealousy. “Well, we have a busy day ahead,” he stated. “I suggest we rest.”
The sky was gray and a foggy mist clung to the boles of the trees when Illa was awakened by the rattling of a wagon. Every part of her now hurt. She wondered if she might now be truly immobile.
One of Sir Ambrose’s other squires, Erlen, had ‘borrowed’ the wagon from a nearby farmer. “I threw him some shillings, more than wagon and mule are worth, he was still displeased.”
Ambrose shook his head. “We’ll return it to him this evening. If we still live.” He added under his breath.
“Here is your chariot, milady.” He smoothed his white mustache and smiled at her. “It’s not much but better than being tied to the back of a pack-horse.”
He sat next to the young prisoner and stirred the fire. “You were sleeping so soundly we didn’t wake you, but there’s still some warm tea and oats left.”
As the knight held the bowl for her to drink the tea, he asked. “How do you feel?”
“Like I’d spent the night riveted into an iron skeleton.”
“I’m sorry, that was a stupid question.”
“But it was also a very kind one, thank you for asking.” She smiled.
“I know who is responsible for doing this to me and how they went about it,” she said, changing the subject. “But I still don’t understand why? My house and land are precious in my heart, but not really all that valuable. Why do this to me?”
“You were a convenient scapegoat. Your house and garden were a bonus not the motive. They have, without doubt in my mind, been butchering and selling the meat of turtles to the heathen who know not the gods (and are thus willing to pay in gold for such savory flesh). Through ill-luck or carelessness they attracted attention and needed to shut down the investigation before it started. They chose someone who was vulnerable, alone…and had a taste for clams.”
“Clams? Oh, I get it; I could be relied upon to spend a lot of summer mornings on the beach. They slew a turtle then lay in wait for me.”
“Indeed. I’m sure you noticed how the beach was suddenly crowded with elders.”
Illa shook her head sadly. “Was the whole council corrupted?”
“I doubt it, or they would have acted in unison and more sensibly when my order came to spare you. I should have had naught but a drowned corpse to question. They could have thrown up their hands and said, ‘Your order arrived too late milord!’”
“So what happens now?”
“In a few minutes we shall load you in that wagon, saddle up and go do justice!”
“Do you have enough men?”
“Depends, they’ve turned out the village fyrd, the militia,claiming they’re about to be attacked by heathen raiders. We’ll see what happens when I unfurl the king’s banner. I expect only the truly guilty will continue fighting.”
Behlen walked up wearing a sword, a chain hauberk and carrying Sir Ambrose’s arms. “See milady, we can wear iron as well as you, though ours is easier to put on and take off!”
They picked Illa up and placed her in the bed of the wagon with a blanket over her and another to cushion her from beneath. Never-the-less, the journey in the springless wagon was difficult, especially while on the woodland path. Altogether with her there were Sir Ambrose and six men-at-arms, including Erlen, who was still driving the wagon.
Near the edge of the village, Ambrose called for a halt. He rode back to Illa and saluted her. “This is where we must part.”
“Part? I thought I was going with you?”
“We cannot fight and protect you. You will be safe here.”
“Safe!” There was more than a hint of bitterness in her tone.
“Safer then. If we win, you will soon be free. If we lose, we’ll be dead and unable to help or protect you. I expect to win, but it is in the hands of Fate.”
“Then give me a dagger! I’ll not be at their mercy again!”
He looked at her a long moment, then drew his dagger and placed it in her hand.
She checked to be certain that she could reach her throat with the point, then thanked him.
“Promise me you’ll not be hasty, Illa, there has been enough injustice and soon, more than enough bloodshed.”
They tied the wagon under the shade of a tree and rode away.
For a long while it was quiet. Even in the shade, it began to be too warm under the blanket. A grasshopper landed on the weapon in Illa’s hand and crawled along the blade. The mule ripped a mouthful of grass and began to chew. Then there came shouts and the blast of a horn. The insect was shaken into flight. The mule snorted but continued to eat. There were more shouts and the clash of metal on metal. What if we lose? What if we lose? They will find me here! Will they kill me quickly? Or will they mock me and leave me bound in iron? She looked at the dagger. Can I permit that? How much do I want to live?
It fell quiet again. Over so soon? Is that good or bad? She had an overwhelming urge to flee. I wish now they’d left me on the ground, where I could crawl away and hide!
There was another sound. Somewhere in the distance a woman was wailing.
She heard running footsteps approaching. Boots, not hooves. She made her choice and readied the dagger.
“Hello, milady!” It was Behlen carrying a cloth bundle.
The dagger clattered to the ground.
“I have something for you.” He set the bundle down next to her.
She reached out to touch it. “Clothes. For me?”
“Yes! From your very own wardrobe. As soon as my brother gets here…”
“Sir Ambrose? The others? Are they alright?”
“His lordship is having his arm seen to. Just a scratch. Here’s Fehlen now.”
The other brother dropped a heavy sack which clanked. “Tools!”
Illa laughed like a child. “Tools!”
“I took them from the smith. He has no more need of them, “said Fehlen.
“Now, we’ll have to uncover you as we work,” said Behlen sheepishly.
“And flip you over,” said Fehlen.
“It will be loud, let us know if it’s too much,” said Behlen.
“Uncover and flip as much as you need and be as loud as you like. I’m in a hurry!” said Illa.
“So are we,” said Ambrose as he stepped up to the wagon’s side. “We want you out and the cooper in that thing before low tide.”
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