Being back at the harem had me sighing in relief. I couldn’t stay in King Bancroft’s chambers anymore. And now that I was back, I was going to get out of here. I knew that King Bancroft would not leave me be, so I had no choice but to take my freedom when he refused to give it.
“What is it, Hildred? Why have you been calling me so incessantly?” Ethel asked, breathing heavily.
“I need your help, Ethel. I need the biggest favor from you,” I said, desperate for her to help me get out of the castle.
“I will try my best to help; tell me what do you need from me,” she replied, taking my hands in hers.
I squeezed her hands with mine, praying to God for help. If Ethel refused to help me, then I didn’t know how I would get out of here. I had no other close friends who would help me, and I didn’t know the castle well enough to know each and every corner. But Ethel knew this castle like the back of her hand, I didn’t know how she knew but she did and right now I needed her knowledge in order to gain my freedom.
“Ethel, you are my dearest friend. You have been with me through thick and thin and I just hope that you will help me,” I started saying.
“Oh, Hildred, for heavens’ sake, tell me what you need!” Ethel exclaimed.
Taking a deep breath, I willed my heart to calm down before saying, “Ethel, I need you to help me escape.”
Silence. For the next few minutes, silence reigned thick and heavy as Ethel stared at me as if I’d asked her to help me kill someone. I knew what I was asking was not something she could give me easily, but I was desperate, she had to see that.
“Wh—What? Pa—Pardon me, Hildred, but I don’t understand…” she trailed off and I could feel hope deserting me.
“Ethel please, I cannot stay here while Lord Bancroft is here. You’ve seen what he’s done to me; I cannot endure it anymore. Please Ethel, you are the only one who can help me. Please, please, have mercy on your poor friend. Oh, pray, please do not desert me!” I begged.
“Please, Hildred, don’t cry. Please.” Ethel hastily wiped the tears from my face. “I—I will help you. Of course I will help. You are my sister; I will not let King Bancroft inflict anymore pain on you.”
“Thank you so much.” I kissed her hands. “God bless you, dear friend of mine. I need to live in peace, please help me escape.”
“I will. But you must do everything I tell you to; you need to trust me,” she stated.
I nodded. “Yes, yes. I trust you with my life.”
“Good. That is all I desire from you,” Ethel replied, smiling at me.
“When can I leave?” I asked. “I cannot endure Lord Bancroft’s presence tonight. Please help me get out before he comes to visit.”
“Yes, yes, I will. Now, you just stay calm while I go and make the arrangements.” Ethel sighed, a sigh which meant that she did not like what she was about to do. “God, I hope he helps me with this.” With a kiss on my forehead, Ethel hurried out of the harem, leaving me with my own thoughts of sweet freedom.
I did not know where I was going to go. I hardly knew what existed outside of these four walls, but I was ready to explore and discover. I would survive in this world and I would take whatever this world gave me. I was about to get my freedom and I would never think about sacrificing it.
“Good evening, Hildred.” I was surprised to see Leela standing in front of me with a warm smile on her beautiful face. What was she doing here? And what did she want to talk to me about?
“Good evening to you, too, Leela. How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you. I came to inquire about your health. Where have you been? In the infirmary?” She questioned.
“Uh…” Was I supposed to tell her the truth? Lord Bancroft didn’t give me any instructions which I had to abide by, so perhaps I could tell her. But no, I couldn’t. I didn’t know Leela, I couldn’t trust her. No I had to keep silent.
“It’s alright, you can tell me. I have been worried sick about you for days,” she continued.
I nodded. “Yes, the infirmary. I do not possess the knowledge of how I woke up there but I was there until the physicians deemed me healthy enough to return.”
Leela smiled again. “I see. Well I am glad to see you are better; the harem gets…lonely without you.”
“It does?” She was lying, she had to be. Why would she feel lonely without me when I hardly even knew her? Did she want something from me? If so, then what? I didn’t possess anything that she would desire.
She nodded. “Yes. But I’m glad to see you back. Maybe we will talk some more later.”
I won’t be here later.
Instead of saying what was really going through my mind, I smiled and nodded. “I look forward to spending more time with you, Leela.”
“Me too, Hildred.” She walked away, leaving me puzzled. But I didn’t think about Leela for long as my heart begun pounding for what I was about to do. What if I was killed while trying to escape? Would I get a proper funeral? Would anybody care that I died? My mind was conflicted over whether or not Lord Bancroft would mourn my loss. He certainly wanted to kill me; he even tried it, by making me bleed to death. But then why did he save me?
He enjoys your pain.
Mayhap he did, but I was glad to know he wouldn’t cause me anymore harm. Hopefully I would be free tonight and no one would know where I would be. I wouldn’t tell Ethel about where I intended to go, in case Lord Bancroft decided to inquire about my whereabouts.
How long would it take for me find a new place to stay? I hoped there were good people out there in the world, a little help would go a long way. As soon as I had a small cottage I could call home, I would start sewing. I knew I would need a source of income for food and survival, so I had to start working as soon as possible.
I looked around the thick walls of the harem, my heart breaking at the prospect of leaving them. For so many years, these walls had been my home. I had grown up here, laughing and fighting with the other common whores over petty issues. I would miss these women even though I hardly knew any of them. But they were family and you loved your family no matter what.
How furious would Lord Bancroft be? He never tolerated disobedience from me, and I was about to commit the ultimate act of disobedience, he would be furious. I just hoped he wouldn’t hurt Ethel. She was helping me and I did not want her to suffer.
You think Lord Bancroft would show mercy to anyone when he finds out that you are gone?
No, no, I couldn’t let Ethel suffer because of me. She was like my sister; I couldn’t see her in agony. Perhaps I could take her with me. We would have a new life; it would be just like rebirth.
You cannot carry the burden of another soul.
Defeat had me sighing. I couldn’t take her with me. Unlike me, Ethel was happy here. She had friends and comfort here. A cruel King did not desire her. She had no reason to leave her home. Which meant I couldn’t convince her to come with me. But it was for the best. I knew living outside the comfort of this castle would be difficult. I couldn’t let her suffer with me. No, it was best if Ethel stayed in the castle.
Tears pricked my eyes like toxic thorns as I thought about never seeing Ethel again. Why did life have to be so cruel? Why couldn’t I be happy? Why did my happiness reside in the outskirts of this Kingdom? Was I strong enough to survive in the cold world all by myself? Would loneliness kill me or a fatal illness?
You have no choice. You have to live all alone now.
My inner voice was right, I had no choice but to be strong. If I became weak then it would make me vulnerable. Lord Bancroft would find me and then God knows what he would do. He was bound to kill me after this. And I was sure he was going to torture me until I took my last breath. Chills had me trembling at thought of seeing my own blood leave my body; the last time it happened I was surrounded by the comfort of darkness.
“Hildred!” I jerked out of my thoughts at the sound of Ethel’s voice. How long had I been lost in my own thoughts?
“What happened? Is everything okay?” I asked, worried that I would not be able to escape.
“Yes. But you must come now. We don’t have much time. We have to get you out of here right now because Lord Bancroft is going to visit the harem in half an hour,” Ethel said, attempting to drag me out of the harem.
“Wait. Wait.” I tried to stop her.
“Hildred, we do not have the privilege of time right now. If you don’t get out now, then Lord Bancroft would never allow you to leave. You must leave right this minute. Don’t waste time in taking your belongings. You are about to start a new life; all this is not important,” she argued. I opened my mouth to protest but she was quick to pull me out.
“There are so many people, they will know that I’m trying to escape. What if they tell Lord Aboloft?” I asked, trying not to look at all the people I was leaving behind.
“No. No one will know you are trying to escape. If the women of the harem don’t know then no one knows.” Ethel led me up a dark staircase, passing paintings and flaming torches. This passageway was one I had never seen before, which meant that I was right to put my faith in my friend.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Out of the castle. This staircase is no longer in use, and it leads to the upper levels of the castle. From there we will go down a secret passageway which leads to the catacombs, and from there you can escape,” Ethel informed me as we emerged into the upper levels.
“I have never seen the castle completely and now I was attempting to go out into the world,” I remarked as I followed Ethel into a narrow passageway. These unused pathways were suffocating, but I had felt constricted with Lord Bancroft.
“I just want you to escape while you can. Lord Bancroft has hurt you long enough. I know he has claimed you for himself but I refuse to see you in pain,” she stated.
“Thank you so much, Ethel. I will never forget this,” I said, grateful to have this woman as a blessing in my life.
“No need to thank me. I would do this for you any day.” She paused. “These are the catacombs.” She didn’t have to tell me that because I knew just by the stench of death lingering in the thick air that we had entered the catacombs.
Tombstones littered the ground, making it extremely difficult for us to maneuver around them. If it wasn’t for my freedom, I would’ve never dared to come here. Nausea threatened to overtake me, but I forced myself to take deep breaths and continue forward. Just a little longer than I would be free.
“How much farther?” I asked Ethel as we passed one tombstone after another.
“These catacombs will take a while to get across, because they lead straight to the royal cemetery. But once we are out, then no one can know where you are. You’ll be safe to go anywhere you like,” she replied, barely tripping over a headstone.
“Be careful, Ethel!” I chastised.
“Forgive me, I wasn’t looking. I just need to get you out of here safely,” she replied.
“Yes, but not at the cost of your own life,” I argued.
“That doesn’t matter. If Lord Bancroft finds out that it was me who helped you escape, he is sure to kill me,” she muttered.
I grabbed her arm to stop her. “Ethel! Don’t say that. You said so yourself that he will never find out.”
“Oh Hildred don’t fool yourself. You think Lord Bancroft will not ask me where you are? And don’t you think that he won’t do whatever it takes in order to get what he desires? He is a King, Hildred! A powerful King! It will be a miracle if he spares my life!” She cried.
“Then come with me. We will run away together. I just need you, no one else. If Lord Bancroft punishes you then I will never forgive myself. Please Ethel, come with me. We will start our own lives together. We won’t have to service men from dusk to dawn. We can be the rulers of our own lives.” I told her, forcing her to see the utopia I imagined for myself.
Ethel shook her head. “No, Hildred, I cannot go with you. My place is here, inside the harem. My home is here. I know our lives are not perfect, but I am happy; because this life is mine and I will not trade it for anything.”
“But, men hurt you. They inflict pain on you. Do you want that for the rest of your life?” I enquired.
“Pain is all I’ve ever known. It’s the only thing that is mine; and I refuse to let go of it,” she stated.
Tears burned my eyes but I pushed them back. We’d already wasted plenty of time, I needed to escape before I got caught.
“I will miss you terribly, my dear friend. You are my sister, you truly are.” I kissed Ethel’s forehead and hugged her. This was it. This was the painful goodbye I never envisioned.
“Be safe, sister of mine. For my happiness lies in your health,” Ethel replied with a smile.
“Goodbye, Ethel, I love you.” I smiled before walking out of the catacombs.
I thought I was walking towards freedom. I thought I was heading towards a new life. I thought I would be free of all the darkness that continued to follow me around. But what I didn’t know, was that I was walking straight into the arms of the man I was running from. And when I saw King Bancroft standing outside the catacombs with an army of guards, that’s when I knew…
That death had come for me.