Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life



“Bring in the dogs,” my father bellowed, slamming his goblet down with a thump.

I looked up, startled, wondering what this could mean. My birthday dinner had been going better than expected. For once my father hadn’t said or done anything to embarrass or hurt me. Maybe this year my birthday “celebrations” wouldn’t be the usual nightmare.

A feeling of dread began to creep over me when I saw the dogs that he was referring to. These were the only dogs that I was scared of. They had been specially trained as hunters and killers, unlike the gentle farm dogs I frequently met on my walks or the little lapdogs that bedecked my sisters bedchamber. Their eyes were savage and frightening, their mouths open, saliva dripping from their wicked looking teeth. Their handlers, as always, struggled to keep them under control. The dogs were more vicious than usual as a result of the crowd of yelling people in the great hall. They barked and snapped wildly at the crowd as they slowly paced into the hall, pulling their handlers behind them. People drew back and a path quickly cleared in front of them. Their handlers were equally fierce looking. They were twin brothers, taller and wider than most other men, their broken yellow teeth showing through their long bushy beards as they yelled at the dogs, trying to keep them under control.

I cowered in my seat until my father gripped my arm with his massive hands and yanked me to my feet. His fierce brown eyes glared at me, totally at odds with the broad smile that spread across the rest of his face. He turned to the crowd to address them.

‘As you all know it’s my darling daughter Brianna’s birthday today. We’ve eaten well.’ He gestured at the remains of the cooked piglets where they still hung on the spits. There was a roar of agreement from the crowd.

‘And drunk well of the mead and ale made by my other darling daughter Melike.’ He smiled warmly at my sister, a real smile, unlike the pretend ones he used with me. The roar this time was even louder. Many men lifted their tankards in acknowledgement and banged them rhythmically on the long tables. My father raised his hands, indicating that he wanted to talk, and the rabble subsided.

‘This is also the anniversary of the day I lost my sweet wife. Twelve years ago today she died, giving this girl life.’ His massive arm wrapped around my shoulders and he shook me, almost lifting me off my feet. Fear rose from the pit of my stomach into my throat, almost choking me. I pasted a smile on my face, knowing what the price would be if I dared to show my real feelings to my father. My legs and back were still red and sore from the last beating he gave me when I dared to question one of his orders.

‘And as usual I have a special present for my dear Brianna. I thought that since this is the year when she is officially a woman, the present should be especially memorable.’

Again cheers rocked the hall. Oh, how the crowd loved their Lord. Or at least they knew their Lord well enough to know what the price would be if they didn’t cheer him on.

‘I’ve thought long and hard about what her gift should be. I decided that she should be given a special display so that this day would live as long in her memory, as her mother’s death has for the past twelve years in mine.’ He squeezed me even tighter, and I struggled to breath, his arm like an iron band around my chest.

The room buzzed with muttering and curious speculation. What could he be referring to? Did it have something to do with the dogs? Like the master manipulator he was, my father let the noise grow, drawing out the suspense.

Captured by the arm clamped around my small body, I tried to concentrate on keeping my body still. I didn’t want him to feel me shaking from the fear that was engulfing me. I was determined that he wouldn’t see or feel this fear. I knew from experience what a goad that would be to his cruel nature. He seemed to feed on fear and grew happier and more cheerful the more he saw his victims shake and beg and plead. I wouldn’t do that. No matter what he did, I would be a stone idol, a statue that fear couldn’t touch. My mind left my body and flew to the top of the ceiling, among the stink and smoke that hovered under the thatch. I watched the scene as if I wasn’t a part of it, not even curious to see what my “gift” would be. I prayed it would be over soon so I could creep to my pallet and sleep.

‘Bring in the dwarf’. My father’s voice rung out at last, stunning the crowd into silence. I could see the curiosity on their faces. What could he want with my friend Finn? I was almost shocked back into my body and struggled to maintain my control and distance from the scene.

The side door opened and Gorung, my father’s huge bodyguard, carried in the small figure. Finn’s little face was white and drawn with fear. Did he know what was happening? Probably not, but he must know that if my father had thought of it, it was bound to be bad.

‘This little man has been with my daughter since she was born,’ my father continued, his voice quiet and solemn. ‘He has been a loyal servant and friend to her.’ The din of the crowd faded, their faces eager in the light of the lamps, waiting for the entertainment to begin. Would it be dwarf throwing? That was always lots of fun.

‘Unfortunately I think this has given him a mistaken idea of his importance. Do you know he even questioned me last week?’ he continued, in a conversational tone. ‘Just because I needed to correct Brianna, with a little stick, he dared to question me!’ He smiled wolfishly and swished his arm back and forth mimicking the action he used to beat her.

The crowd burst into life again, shocked that anyone should question their Lord. How did he dare? What would the punishment be?

‘So I decided that he should be part of the celebrations tonight. Just to let him know his place.’ My father roared out the words, which the crowd greeted with shouts of approbation.

With a look and a quick gesture to the guards my father indicated that the show should begin. Quickly and efficiently they jumped into action. One end of a rope was thrown over the roof beam and the other end was wrapped around Finn, under his arms, through his legs and around his waist. Once the rope was secure he was lifted high into the air where he swung, his little legs dangling, his arms swinging wildly. He had still not said a word, but his eyes, wide with fear sought mine.

Fear for my dearest friend had brought me back to my body. I wanted to cry out, scream, climb down from the dais and help him, but I knew that I would only make the situation worse if I defied my father. Maybe Finn would only be beaten? He could survive that at least and I would be happy to tend his wounds, as he had always tended mine.

Then guards picked up a bucket filled with hot drippings from the spit and threw the contents over Finn. He gasped and groaned and shook his head, trying the clear the burning slops out of his eyes.

‘Now the dogs,’ my father roared, his free arm gesturing from their handlers to Finn’s swinging body. They released the dogs and following their master’s instructions they began to jump into the air, snapping and slavering, climbing over each other to attack my dearest friend. Then the screams began.

I tried to start forward, attempting to pull myself from my father’s grip. I wanted to throw myself into the fray, to fight the dogs off, even if they killed me too. But my father held me rigidly to his side.

‘What do you think of the entertainment, my darling? It’s in your honour. Don’t close your eyes. How can you enjoy my present if you don’t watch it?’ He gripped my chin and directed my face to the scene. He could make me look but he couldn’t make me see. I forced my eyes to glaze over and closed my ears to the screams of my poor Finn, the barking and growling of the dogs, the hot smell of blood and the shouts of the crowd. I became deaf, dumb and mute; a stone statue indeed.

I don’t know how long it lasted. For Finn’s sake I hope it was quick. When I came back to myself the room was empty, the lights almost out. The only sign of the atrocity was a pool of blood and gore on the stone floor. The house hounds were doing their best to clean it up. Life rushed back into my mind and body, but it wasn’t me anymore, or at least not the “me” that I used to be. This was a new life, a new soul, one that burned brightly with hatred for the person that I had previously called my father. My body was warmed by the light of this hatred, and my mind was incandescent. Ideas for how to avenge my darling Finn flashed through my mind like lightning. I wasn’t Brianna anymore, I was Revenge.

I made my plans carefully, pretending to others that I had not changed, careful not to let anyone see my eyes in case they saw the new person within. I decided that it wouldn’t be enough to kill my father. That would be too easy. He had to suffer, his path to hell being as slow and painful as I could make it. Poison would be too obvious, and he might guess what I was doing since I knew Melike would be watching me and wouldn’t hesitate to tell him if she suspected anything.

Melike was his creature, as much as Gorung and the dog twins. She’d shared his bed for as long as I could remember, sitting on his lap and stroking him, kissing him and cuddling up to his massive chest whenever he would allow her. They didn’t care who saw their disgusting, incestuous games. I’d even seen them at it during dinner sometimes. Father would be eating and Melike would quietly slide under the table and undo the laces on the front of his breeches. She would take him into her mouth, her head bobbing up and down until he was done, his eyes bulging, mouth open, saliva dripping from the corners in a sickening stream. Then she would climb back onto her seat beside him, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, a self-satisfied smile directed at me. She was the enemy too.

It took a few months for the plan to form in my mind. I acted as I always had, quietly carrying out my duties, staying out of his sight as much as possible. He could not have realised how much I studied him, memorising where and when he was each day, who he was with and when he was alone. Previously I’d done my best to avoid him, but he had now become the focus of my life. I discovered what a creature of habit he was. He ate, drank, rode and slept according to a regular schedule. I realised the trick would be to find him alone; somewhere he could be trapped and secured. I was much too small to overcome him physically so I would have to use some herbs to render him unconscious, in a place where his screams couldn’t be heard.

I discovered that it was his practice to visit the town whores each Wednesday and Friday night. I couldn’t help but laugh at the realisation that my sister was not enough for him. I wondered if she knew about his extra activities. He never took his guards with him on those nights and usually didn’t return until daylight. This was perfect as no one would realise that he wasn’t coming back until it was too late.

I made it my business to become friendly with the whores, giving them presents of sweetmeats I stole from the kitchens. They were suspicious at first, but my mild-mannered appearance fooled them into thinking of me as a harmless fool, trying to curry favour with my father. Like everyone in the village, they had heard about my birthday surprise and probably thought that I was attempting to crawl my way to my father’s favour. This was an impression I reinforced by constantly asking them for suggestions on how I could please him. They were mostly kindly women and seemed to feel sorry for me. Their suggestions ranged from the obscene to the practical, but whatever they said I always acted as if I was thankful for their help.

Eventually, my plans were made and my preparations completed. I prepared some tasty confections and a special spiced wine that I knew my father favoured. Both were spiked full of sleeping herbs that I had carefully prepared in the most concentrated form possible. I delivered them to Margrid, the Wednesday whore, late on Wednesday afternoon and suggested that she serve them to my father. I told her that they were sure to put him in a good mood. She thanked me vociferously. She’d told me what he was like when he wasn’t in a good mood, and showed me the scars she had to prove it.

The night was dark and moonless. My father carried a torch with him to light the way and I slipped out of the hall and followed quietly behind him, careful to stay in the shadows. I waited outside the tiny house until his primary business with Margrid was concluded. When the grunts and squeaks had ceased, I peered through the window and watched as Margrid climbed out of bed and prepared their midnight feast, as I heard her call it. He ate in bed, gobbling the sweetmeats and swallowing the wine greedily, as I knew he would, occasionally inviting her to eat some of it off various parts of his body.

Soon they were yawning. Then he suddenly fell back onto the pillows, snoring hugely, mouth agape. Margrid didn’t make it to the bed and fell asleep in a chair. I waited until I thought they were well asleep, stole into the house and made my preparations. I secured Margrid’s hands and feet and blindfolded and put some cloth into her ears. I didn’t want her to be aware of the night’s proceedings. Then I stretched him out and tied up his hands and legs, securing them to the four legs of the bed with the strongest rope I could find. I blindfolded him too since I thought that would increase his fear and stuffed a cloth into his mouth, securing it with another towel around his head.

Then I took out my tools and began to work on him. Despite the herbs he soon woke up, at least partially, and began to writhe on the bed, pulling against his bonds. He tried to scream but it only came out as muffled grunts. I don’t like to dwell on what I did that night, but suffice to say that when the sun crept over the horizon I had fully paid back the debt for my dear Finn. I finished as the dawn light crept through the window. I quietly closed the door on a shell of the man who had walked through the door many hours before. His numerous appendages had either been crushed or removed or both. His scalp and beard (skin included) were nearly laid out on the table, and strips of his flayed skin bedecked the room like decorative ribbons. If nothing else the room was colourful!

When he was discovered the next day, rumours ran rife around the village and the Hall. Who could have done this to their Lord? Margrid couldn’t help them, and luckily they didn’t blame her since I had made sure to totally incapacitate her. She couldn’t have done it even had she wanted to. I slipped back into my place in the house, kept my head down and waited.

I took my sister’s place in the new Lord’s bed, using the techniques I had watched her use with our father. He had been the leader of my father’s bodyguard, and laid claim to the position of Lord. The rest of the bodyguard backed him, and together they frightened any other contender for the position. He was a brute, but a pliable one. I convinced him that my sister had connived at my father’s death, and she was not someone who could be trusted. He agreed when I suggested that she should be sent away and I enjoyed seeing the back of my sister and the dogs and all the rest of my father’s hanger-ons. I made sure they were banished from the hall, never to return.

I also dismissed the creature within me that he had made that night, the night of the dogs. I have never allowed “her” to surface in me again, although I strongly suspect she has never actually died and lies within me, asleep but not dead. I hope she never has to awake again, but life is long and uncertain, and who knows when I might need to call on her again to ensure that justice will be done.

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