THE GAUFF MANORS, ORVKA KINGDOM
The most well-kept secret lay hidden in-between the kingdoms’ fold. The ominous people who possessed unspeakable powers and who swept across lands brawling with the unjust.
“It has happened again.” Lord Gauff flung aside the hair that was hanging in his face with his arms, his hands still black with soot from his work at the smithy. He had left the second he heard the news.
The villagers had gathered around and seen the dangling man hanging from a tree branch. The offender hung by a tight noose, with pulled-down trousers; his scrawny body lacking genitals. The sight was frightening even to Lord Andulf Gauff. Some people’s cruelty had no limit. Lord Gauff quietly watched his people’s calculating reactions. Despite this eerie scene, he knew they felt a great relief.
“Come on men, let’s cut the man down.”
With heavy steps, Lord Andulf Gauff ploughed through the autumn leaves, seeing the silver birch leaves play in a whirlwind underneath the feet of a skilled hangman’s masterpiece. He superstitiously spat over his shoulder, wanting to rid his pious heart of judgement by the spirits for thinking that the sinner deserved what had come to him.
His great great-grandfather, Lord Anskar Gauff, had envisioned a prosperous community when he’d started to build the village and it had grown to a good two hundred houses today. The glorious silver birch tree, located only a short distance from the village boundary landmarks, had risen out of the flat landscape like a tall column for nearly one hundred and fifty years. What had been intended as a symbol of welcome, had in later days become known as The Blood Birch. Lord Anskar Gauff had not wanted to be commemorated by having a hefty gravestone, but the present Lord Gauff had been told by his parents that Lord Anskar Gauff had been buried under this very tree as a notion of his warmly welcoming personality. If his spirit knew what had happened to his grandiose tree today, he’d be twisting in his grave under Lord Gauff’s boots right now.
At the thought of spirits, Lord Andulf Gauff looked to the sky and saw a well-recognised omen. Always foretelling death, the white raven sailed the winds far in the distance, hovering underneath the thick rainclouds that were threatening to unleash their load on the people below.
Seeing his son standing hesitantly beneath the branch on which the man was hanging, he shifted his stance to instil more urgency into his commands.
“Put some haste into it, lads.”
His son’s childhood friends, Henry Voyrad and John Collin, interlocked their hands, supporting their arms onto one knee each to make a step for Duke Liam. His son was usually a jolly man, but shock from seeing this punishment for the blasphemy of rape, which had left the body stale and the parts around his crotch stinking from the corpse’s bloodstained clothes, had turned his face pale. Duke Liam stepped up on his friends’ hands and began to saw at the rope with his knife. Bumping into the swaying body as he struggled, he cursed and spat from the grotesque chore. With the rope finally severed, the hanged man thumped onto the hill, splitting his freshly healed wound open again. More blood spilled out onto the autumn withered grass.
Lord Gauff brought out his white handkerchief from his vest’s pocket, snapping it open and placing it over his nose and mouth as he cautiously moved closer to inspect the body. He removed his tricorn hat and pressed it to his chest, inspecting the misery and muttering a silent prayer to the almighty Virun. Although he made his best effort to bless the soul in the hope that it would peacefully pass into the afterlife, it wasn’t without cursing once or twice. The late night rapes and burglaries affecting innocent families had severely depleted his wealth over the last few months. On the other hand, the mysterious folk of the kingdoms’ fold who were said to police these reprobates had strengthened his own position, making it appear as if there was some power and justice from his part.
“Bury the bastard somewhere no one would care to visit his remains,” Lord Gauff ordered and soberly walked over to the Sekrus family.
Young Maddison had been handed back to her parents, the little girl’s face shocked out of expressing any emotion. She was a girl who at her young age, was now forever damned to know of such horrors. She shouldn’t have had to witness the act of the justification thereafter either, but here it was on display. The public event would brand her life, as everyone understood what had happened to her.
Lord Gauff knelt down so that he was level with Maddison who curled even further into her mother’s coat, lifting her mother’s thick green skirt to cover her face. It wasn’t surprising that she was scared.
“I’m going to strike off a full quarter of your parents’ rent so that you can have an easier time coping with your recovery.”
Her parents’ faces garnered a slight ray of hope, yet they were too distraught to show it with more than a timid smile.
“Ensure they provide you with a small toy horse as compensation, aye,” Lord Gauff whispered and winked. “What’s your favourite colour?”
The girl lowered the skirt from her face, but kept her eyes on it as she answered. “Re…” She cocked her head to look at the corpse who was being dragged away under his arms by Duke Liam and his friends and seeing all the blood it seemed she changed her answer. “Blue,” she whispered. “Blue as the Lake of Astra.”
The Lake of Astra, situated north of the village, was not a large lake but supplied them with necessary water. It was named after Lord Anskar’s wife, Lady Astra, and was said to have been created from all the tears of her sorrow after her husband’s death. In reality it had formed partly due to a landslide and partly from the heavy rainfall the same year in which Lord Anskar had died.
“That’s a lovely colour, Maddison. Ensure they paint the horse blue or you’ll speak to me, okay.”
The little girl nodded. Her tension seemed to ebb away a little as she stood up straighter.
“You want to tell me what happened last night?” he asked in a deliberately soft tone, but the girl still withdrew back to hide behind her mother’s skirt.
Lord Gauff sighed inwardly, thinking the battle was lost when suddenly he could see her trying to form words from her tiny lips. Lord Gauff nodded at Maddison’s father to have him clear the area from nosy people’s ears to ease the pressure on the girl. The girl stared towards the tree and then moulded a groove in the soil with her foot for a while before she looked up again. The bottom lid of her eye barely held on to a flood of tears which threatened to seep over the edge. She was shaking akin to the autumn leaves, her fresh memories probably repeating the vilest of deeds imaginable.
Lord Gauff clenched his fists, trying to remain calm. The girl finally started talking. Albeit, her confused story made little sense. She talked about women with warm friendly smiles, about men who never came near her, and how she was wrapped in a large shawl and brought home in the arms of a woman who held her as tenderly as a cradled baby. The story didn’t sound credible considering the sight of the man who had been hanging in the tree just moments ago.
Lord Gauff wouldn’t have believed her vivid tales if it weren’t for similar stories told through generations. They had all been comparable fables of the people of the kingdom’s fold. People in need had been rescued by these human figures who the victim could always only recall indistinctly. Some of them were even said to possess magical powers. No one knew who they were. The villagers considered them both as a salvation and a threat, and ensured they taught the children in their early years not to get into trouble with these magical creatures. Indeed, the extent of these tales had established themselves as a part of the partents’ disciplining methods. Lord Gauff had evoked them frequently on Liam when he was growing up. ‘Liam, don’t go too far into the woods or the people of the kingdoms’ fold will take you. Liam, don’t swim in the lake without adult supervision or the people of the kingdoms’ fold will drown you.’
Although, Lord Gauff doubted that Maddison would feel scared by these people ever again after they had rescued her from the perpetrator and to whom they had meted out the justice they had all withnessed. He ruffled her hair as he stood up and nodded sympathetically at her mother. As the family left for home, he saw the girl turn her head to have a last look at the tree and then at him.
“Ensure you get that horse, eh!” he called after her and felt his heart a little less heavy seeing a coy smile on her lips.
Lord Gauff turned around to look at the keep of his castle, soaring above the village from its position on a small incline in the vast field. It wasn’t far away from where he stood so it wouldn’t take long to reach the curtain walls that surrounded the entire estate and which had a large enough outer ward beyond them to house a few noble families. He looked up at the fourth floor of the keep where the bedchambers were and felt a strong desire for a bath, not only to get the soot off his hands but after having imagined what the rapist had done to the girl.
It was true that the People of the Fold carried out half the job for him to keep harm away from his people, but letting it get out of hand would indicate to the villagers that he wasn’t the one in control. It had to stop. All felons needed to be trialled through their customary court system like any other criminals, or it would eventually lead to uproar and chaos. He couldn’t underestimate the power of fear for the unknown. His biggest threat would come to fruition if King Esko Belvintor were to hear rumours of any weakness and decided to pay a visit with his armies, burning the prosperous village to the ground.