Fanning myself using the back of my hand, I eyed the people milling about. I did not know what time it was, and I wished somebody was kind enough to tell me. But knowing the people of this town, I knew that no one would answer my query. And so I waited, fanning myself with my hand, willing the heat to go away.
Before I could voice out my troubles, a young boy of about seven came bounding over to me. He was dressed in a frock suit, and I wondered how he wasn’t sweating.
“Excuse me, how much for these apples?” He enquired, his eyes looking up at me.
“Three coins,” I replied, giving the young boy a sweet smile.
The boy slipped his hand inside a velvet pouch and produced three copper coins. I dropped a few apples in the bag, then held out my hand for him to put the coins in, which he did, before we heard a female voice shouting.
“Arthur! Get away from that witch!” A woman in her early thirties marched over to where the boy was standing and pulled him away, glaring at me. “Stay away from my son!” She seethed, and with one final glare, she snatched the bag of apples from my hand and marched off, dragging her son with him.
My heart clenched with pain at hearing her words. Even though everybody in this town had some vile name for me, and I should’ve gotten used to it, it never got easier. The pain just never went away. And no matter what I did, my past was my shadow.
“It’s alright, Sabina. She was not talking sense,” Beth said, coming up behind me.
I shook my head, plastering a smile on my face. “It doesn’t matter. Take the money and rejoice, we can buy food now.” I placed the three coins in her hands, before turning my focus back on my surroundings.
It looked to be around midday, judging by the amount of people that were bustling in the market. A few men were busy pushing wheelbarrows of fresh produce, while women went about buying. Everywhere I looked, people occupied a stall, while only a few wandered over to where I was standing, selling fresh fruits.
“You are right. We have made enough money for dinner tonight,” Beth stated, smiling as she slipped the coins in her pouch which was made out of a worn cloth.
I eyed the woman who had taken care of me when no one was there for me. Beth was the mother I never had. When no one believed me, she took me in. She comforted me when I was in desperate need of love. She helped me get back on my feet, and I could never repay for what she had done for me.
Even now, at the age of sixty, she tried her best to work like she was thirty. I kept telling her that she didn’t need to help me out with work but she did not listen. Her eyes always sparkled with a strange kind of happiness, brightening up the blue of her eyes.
“Beth?” I eyed the dissipating crowd with disappointment. Beth was a good person, she shouldn’t have saved me.
“I think you should hire someone else to run your business. With me here, we barely make enough for a one time meal.” I told her.
Beth brows furrowed. “Nonsense Sabina! How can you say that. I am telling you, it is this town of Willsden, the people who are bad for business, not you.”
“No Beth. People are always good for business, but no one wants to buy from a witch.” Even though it seared my heart to say those words, I knew that they were true.
Beth narrowed her eyes at me and I knew that she was angry. “How many times do I have to tell you, it’s lies! They are all lies! You are not a witch! You are a good woman, and people must appreciate you!” She admonised.
“I’m sorry, Beth. Please forgive me.”
“No dear. I know why you feel that way, but I must tell you, you have to be strong, these people speak nothing but lies. These ladies want to gossip, that’s it.” She patted my cheek lightly.
“What do you want for supper?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Let’s go home and decide. I don’t think we’ll be getting any more customers today.”
My heart jolted at the word home. Even though Beth told me that her cottage was my home now, it still felt so foreign. Home had been such an alien concept for me for so long, even after eight years, the word had the power to shake me to my soul.
“Just let me go and pack up.”
I had just turned to go back inside the tent, when the sound of screams and hooves permeated the air. Immediately, Beth came running, a look of terror on her face. The look had my heart kicking into panic, oh no, what had happened?
“Beth, what is it?” I questioned.
“We must hide. The king’s men are here, and they are capturing women for the king’s harem,” she answered, before grabbing the cloth which we used to protect the fruits from dirt, and pulled me over to her before she allowed the sheet to fall over us.
My heart accelerated at what Beth told me. The king’s men were here, and they wanted women for the king’s harem. This was a normal occurance, but the fear these men ignited in the heart’s of town’s people, never lessened. These people only came for those who were not married; kidnapping virgins and dragging them to the castle, where their fates were sealed as the prince’s concubines.
“Beth!” I held her hand tightly, praying that the men did not find me. I might not be respectable woman in this town, but I did not want to live as a whore.
“Quiet Sabina!” Beth hissed, squeezing my hand in hers. I could see the fear in her eyes; she was worried for me.
“What if they—”
“Silence! Nothing will happen to you,” she whispered harshly.
The sound of women begging and screaming only rose; the laughter of the king’s men mixed with the helpless cries of women, only added to my fear. Oh Lord, please protect me from the king’s men.
Suddenly, the sound of wood cracking permeated my ears. My heart jolted as I heard our wooden crates breaking, followed by the sound of thundering footsteps. Then, before I knew it, the sheet was ripped from over us, exposing us to the king’s men.
There were four of them; all dressed in the royal clothes of the king’s most trusted men. The look of triumph was evident in all of their faces, and that only made me more afraid. I had no choice, I had to run.
“Grab her. We must get back, the king did not give us much time.” One of them ordered.
Beth pushed me back, trying to shield me from the men, but I knew that she could not help me right now. These men were here for me and they would not leave until they had me.
“Do not touch her! Leave her!” Beth said, glaring at the men.
I screamed when one of the men brought out a sword and placed it over Beth’s neck. I tried pushing Beth away, but she did not move.
“Please don’t. Please don’t hurt her. I’ll do anything, please,” I pleaded, tears pooling in my eyes.
A couple of men grabbed my arms and hauled me up, before dragging me out of the tent, the remaining two following behind. The sun hit my face, but the sheer terror building in me made me oblivious to the heat. I did not wish to be a whore.
The men dragged for quite a while before they stopped in front of a large carriage. With four horses waiting to pull, the carriage was painted red and looked large enough to sit at least ten women. I should’ve been in awe of the carriage, but the vehicle only made me want to run far far away. This carriage would take me to the castle. This carriage would be my ticket to becoming a whore.
“Oh, the town’s witch. I think the king will enjoy this one.” One of the men standing next to the carriage said, leering at me.
“I agree. The women we picked today would suit the king’s needs.” The other agreed.
When the door of the carriage was open, fear took over and I begun thrashing against the men’s hold. I pushed. I punch. I scratched. I screamed for help. But there were four of them and only one of me. They had me subdued in just a couple of minutes. One of the men, ripped the front of my dress, exposing my bare bosom to the rest of them. That act of degradation had all the fight evaporating, and I gave up, holding the front of my dress with my hand.
The men all but threw me inside the carriage before shutting the door and locking it from outside. I tried to wipe my tears, but I had to keep a firm hold on my dress. I looked through my blurred vision to see six other women sitting, all with tears in their eyes. A couple of them were trembling, while some of them were holding the front of their dresses, and the others whimpering.
When I heard the sound of the whip cracking in the air, followed by the startled cries of the horses, I knew that my freedom was gone. My fate was now sealed. I would be nothing but the king’s whore.
“I wa—want to g—go ho—home,” one of the girl’s whimpered.
“You can forget about your home. The castle dungeons will be our new home,” another one replied bitterly.
The first girl burst into fresh tears, resulting in the others doing the same. None of us knew why the king was like that; why he wanted the town’s women as whores. But we could not do anything about it. We were helpless against the king’s powers.
“What is your name?” I asked the woman sitting beside me. She had dark hair and watery green eyes, and her cheeks were lined with streaks of tears.
“Ma—Mary,” she hiccuped.
“I am Sabina.” I told her. Introducing yourself to one another was not a sensible thing to do, but I did not how else to not think about the castle.
“Do—Don’t talk to me. Yo—You are not a good woman,” she stated.
Right then, I wished the king would kill me, because if he didn’t, the harsh words of these people would. I did not do anything that would have the town’s people treating me so harshly. I did not do anything. I was just friends with someone I shouldn’t have been.
The carriage continued its journey; the driver deaf to the cries and whimpers of the women inside. Whenever we felt the carriage slowing down, the driver would whip the horses into speeding up, taking us away from the safety of our homes.
“The castle is grand. I don’t know which room we’ll stay in.” A woman spoke up, alerting our attention.
“I have only seen the castle a few times,” the one sitting in the corner said.
When the carriage slowed this time, it came to a complete stop. My heart resumed its pounding as the carriage door was opened and two men dragged all of us out. When I was pulled harshly out of the carriage, the men tied my hands behind my back, causing the front of my dress to fall down, and this time it wasn’t just a few men, it was a lot more.
“Bring them in! The king is getting impatient!” One of the royal guards, standing by the gate shouted. The king’s men grabbed each of us and dragged us inside.
My eyes widened when I entered the castle, taking in its lofty glory. The castle was comprised of numerous towers and turrets, with the top of the walls lined with cannons. There were guards everywhere, swords tucked safely in their sheaths.
I did not get much time to admire the castle as the men dragged us all inside. I tried my best not to look at anyone since my bosom was on display, and looking at a guard while being naked might give the wrong sign.
The inside of the castle made me feel like I had stepped inside another world. A red carpet led all the way to the king’s throne. Guards were standing on either side of the carpet, looking like statues. I wanted to take a moment and admire the opulance and look at the interior if the castle, but the man holding me tugged me forward.
As I walked, I glanced left and right to look at the guards which were standing still; noticing how every one of them was placec an equal distance apart. The guards did not even spare me a glance, their eyes on the guard standing in front of them.
Feeling relieved that there were less eyes staring at my exposed bosom, I was led to where the king sat proudly on his throne. But when I dared to raise my eyes and meet the king’s, my heart stopped.
No. No, no no. This can’t be. How is this possible?! He...He is the king?!
My eyes met cold, black ones, and my soul shuddered in fear. There, sitting on the throne, ruling this kingdom, was my past. Only, after eight years, he had become the king of Quopia. With a perfectly sculpted face, chiselled jaw, and eyes that had the power to suck your soul, the king sat, eyeing all of us as we were brought in front of him.
I wished it was a dream. I wished that some witch out there would’ve cast a spell on me, making me delusional, but that was not the case. Reality was staring at me, my past was staring at me. And despite not wanting to, the word that haunted my dreams, escaped my lips.