Harriet Washburn, of the Thistledown Grove Washburns, had been attending the annual Harvest Festival for as many years as she could remember. Even after her mother’s death, her family had always made the journey from the edge of the kingdom to the castle and erected a booth to sell the produce they raised on their tiny farm. Some of her earliest memories were of her and her brothers giggling and chasing each other around behind the booths as their parents and hundreds of others haggled over beans, corn, wheat and the other crops grown by the inhabitants of the kingdom of Dandoich.
It was during the festival in her seventeenth year of life that she had been minding the family booth, alone, when a great hubbub and scurry spread the tightly packed masses of people. Harriet raised her head from her inventory of the cherries to see the king striding in that direction, followed by his usual entourage of courtsmen. Her heart flew into her throat and her eyes darted about the little booth, judging its appeal with a practiced eye before taking up a position at the front of the booth and pasting on her best smile.
King Wendell was in mid-stride, turning his head to deliver a particularly witty bit of commentary to his nearest aide, when his eyes met Harriet’s. He stumbled and three men were immediately at his side, each taking an elbow.
“Watch it there, Sire…”
“Awful uneven terrain out here, Your Majesty.”
“Do you require a seat, Highness? I shall summon—”
“Silence!” barked the king, having regained his footing with ease and now shaking off his aides. “Enough of your coddling, fools. Step back, I say!”
With muttered apologies, the three aides scuttled backward a respectful distance and stood watching the king as he strode to Harriet’s booth and selected a cherry from her stand. “A good afternoon, maiden. How are your wares?” He smiled at her and she felt her heart flutter.
“They have never been known to disappoint, Your Highness,” Harriet said with numb lips as she sank into a curtsy, her eyes on his boots as she had been taught to behave when meeting royalty.
“Nor do they this time,” said he, chewing the cherry he had taken with unfeigned enjoyment. “Is this your stand? What am I saying, such a pretty, young thing as yourself? This will be your family’s stand, I am thinking.”
“You think correctly, Highness,” Harriet said, still in her curtsy, memorizing each detail of his boots. “This produce comes from the Washburn family farm, from the northern reaches of your realm, Sire.”
“Well, maiden, this is to be your lucky day,” King Wendell boomed, bringing a hand down to the young woman’s elbow and pulling her to her feet. “When your family returns to your booth, inform them that the total of your stock has been purchased for the king’s personal stores and that one of the royal logisticians will be in contact to arrange transport and compensation.” He smiled magnanimously. “What do you think of that?”
“Oh, Sire! Highness, it would be…oh it would be an honor!” Harriet’s eyes were shining and she actually clapped her hands. “My family will be so excited! How can we ever repay you for your generosity?”
“That is for the logistician to discuss with the head of your household, my dear,” said the king, popping one more cherry into his mouth. “Now I must take my leave, but I daresay, if your family wishes to return home with bulging pocketbooks, I must see you again soon.” He cupped one of her breasts and nodded appreciatively. “Mmm, yes indeed. Until then, maiden.” With that, he was gone, back to his entourage, then out of sight as the hubbub faded away.
Harriet stood, rooted to the spot, the smile frozen on her face. She looked down at the breast he had cupped, then back whence he had disappeared. Already, it did not seem real, that the king had actually been here, had arranged to purchase everything they had, groped a part of her that not even she had much experience touching, then left. There were a few titters from the surrounding peasants as those who had witnessed the exchange shared the details with those who had not seen it all. Harriet sat down and waited for her father to return, hoping he would hurry.
When her father, mother and brothers had returned from exploring the festival and she told them what had happened, they all laughed. The laughter stopped however, when those who had seen the king corroborated Harriet’s tale. The king’s attention to her breast was omitted from all testimonies. When her story had been verified to her father’s satisfaction, he began pacing around in a state of such agitation that if the royal logistician had not shown up at that moment, he may have worked himself into a frenzy.
The royal logistician was a large, beefy man with a walrus mustache and the smell of dust exuding from his ruddy complexion. He carried a thin piece of wood with a strap of sinew holding several sheets of parchment in place. Walking into the general area of the Washburn booth, he glanced at the topmost sheet of paper on his board and bellowed, “Washburn family!”
When her father waved, the man strode toward them, his mustache flying behind him as he did. “Right, I’m to arrange the transport of this ‘ere lot of fruit an’ veg plus one girl to ‘is Majesty’s castle yonder. For these–“
“Excuse me,” Harriet’s father interrupted. “You said fruit an’ veg an’ what??”
The logistician looked at his sheet of paper and nodded. “An’ one girl. That’n,” he said, pointing with his board at Harriet, who felt her stomach suddenly give way.
“You mean… Harriet? You’re taking her?” her mother asked, her voice frightened.
“Yuh,” the man said, and held out one of the pieces of paper. “She’s on m’list.” Harriet’s father took the paper as the man went on “Yer t’deliver the lot to the castle by no later than sunset tonight. ‘ere’s your pass through the gates.” He pulled another piece of parchment from the board and handed it to Harriet’s father, who was in a daze. “The pay for yer fruit n’veg will be given t’you when it’s delivered. See you get it all there afore dark if’n you want full price.” He turned to go.
“But…um…” Harriet’s father said, finally rousing his vocal cords. “Is, ah…” he lowered his voice and moved closer to the logistician. “Are we getting paid anything for my daughter?”
The man fixed him with a look of utter incredulity. “That’s a good’n, mister. Why should the king pay fer the use of one of ‘is subjects? You see she’s clean an’ smells nice for ‘im. Before dark, Washburn!” He strode off in the direction of the castle, the walk of a man who has many places to be as quickly as possible.
“So, um, Harriet…” her father said, averting her eyes. “Be sure you’re there by dark an’…” he swallowed. “Clean yerself up.”
Three months later, Harriet had given up all hope that her monthly visitor was merely late and had resigned herself to carrying a child. Her family looked at her nervously, forever since she had returned in the wee hours from the castle, disheveled and refusing to say what had gone on, they had treated her as an outsider. Now, as they watched her belly grow, the distance between them became absolute. Her father would not meet her eyes and her brothers snickered behind her back. She took solace in the woods, taking long walks through the trees as her belly grew birds with no judgement singing to her.
Finally, the day came. Harriet’s screams echoed over the countryside for miles and every midwife within earshot came running with their own infallible home remedies. Thanks to (or perhaps in spite of) their ministrations, Harriet’s son came into the world at midday nearly nine months to the day after his conception. Her father, softened by the presence of the new life, bestowed upon the infant his father’s own name, Orteg.
Harriet’s father had received a visit from one of the king’s messengers soon after wagging tongues had carried word of the imminent baby to the royal court. The man appeared at the door late one night, bearing the king’s seal and a leather pouch. After making sure the children were all out of earshot, Harriet’s father took the pouch, almost dropping it at its unaccustomed weight. The messenger handed him an envelope, which explained that the king could be relied upon to ease the pains of upbringing the child with gold sovereigns, in exchange for the Washburn family’s unconditional obeying of His command of silence as to the origins of the infant. The alternative, the letter went on to explain, was immediate execution of the entire Washburn family, with only little Orteg to be spared. The messenger had to wait only a very little time for Washburn’s answer; thanks to the king’s fondness for the women of his kingdom, the messenger had made these late-night deliveries many times and had yet to see another outcome.
The family warmed to Harriet once again with little Orteg’s help and the help of the king’s monthly gold infusion. In an effort to spend the gold as quickly as possible, Harriet’s father took to drink and was often gone all night. On one of his many trips to the local tavern, he drank up the last of that month’s allowance and, not being sated, fell to grumbling loudly about the king’s miserly nature and the terms of the arrangement. Most unfortunately he was overheard by the bartender, who had been in the pocket of the kingdom for decades.
The bartender summoned the nearest guard and informed him. The guard reported it to his superior at his nightly debriefing, who passed it on to the local garrison master. The master presented it in his report to the kingdom’s security forces as High Priority, automatically flagging it to be given to the king as part of his daily briefing.
When the king read the name Washburn, his jaw clenched. There was a brief conversation with the wizard Sapius, then a seldom-used red crystal bell was pulled from a hidden shelf in the side of his throne, which, when rung, produced a somehow sinister tinkling sound and two silent men, clothed in hooded black robes. After a moment’s instruction, they were gone. By morning, the Washburn family lay slain in their beds, all except for little Orteg, who was found shortly before noon when a passing gypsy heard his indignant screams from within the home.
Officially, the massacre was declared to be a robbery. Those familiar with the kingdom’s midnight assassins knew the truth. Orteg, not yet a year old, was taken in and raised by one of these men, a nearby dairy farmer who had lived his life in the shadow of the castle and knew its ways too well. The farmer’s family had red hair, pale skin and freckles and it didn’t take Orteg long to ask the farmer where he had come from. The farmer explained what he knew with a sick feeling in his heart as he watched Orteg’s face grow incredulous, horrified, saddened and disgusted before giving way to a smoldering hate which had no place on the face of one so young.
Orteg grew up hating the kingdom and the crown, sparing thought and effort for very little else. Finally, his eye caught that of another farmer’s daughter at a livestock auction. Discovering the pleasures of the flesh quickly, within two cycles of the moon they were wed. Within a year, they had one child and were expecting another. When Orteg’s father was taken by a heart attack, Orteg took over farming his land, grimly eking a crop year after year from the thin, rocky soil. When his wife became pregnant with their third child, she flatly told him that there would be no more. After the birth, she took to wearing multiple layers to bed and flatly rejected any advances he made, telling him to go play with the three children he already had.
It was after one of these heated exchanges that Orteg began to patronize the top floors of the local tavern and to meet the women who worked there. He would stride in, jaw clenched, a muscle working in his cheek, and down several drinks. The fire would dim in his eyes and what would become a silly grin grew at the corners of his mouth. The upstairs women would no longer fear approaching him and one of them would invite him upstairs. He would give them all the gold he had and enjoy their company, usually not for very long. When the women spoke of him in their after-hours gab sessions, he was neither praised nor mocked for his performance.
One night, Orteg had been heavily overserved and passed out in the woman’s chamber. She pulled him into the hallway and turned him on his side before returning to her room and locking the door. Orteg did not awaken until the sun was past its highest the next day, returning home in mid-afternoon to find his pale wife’s leg being bandaged by his eldest child. The moment he walked in the door, the yelling and recriminations began. Orteg learned to shut his ears to her most of the time. But the night he carried a bundle of soggy wood into the cold, dark house, his wife’s sharp tongue set events in motion which could not be halted.