The sheep mingled around lazily in a feeble attempt at a line. The warm, orange glow of the evening sun threw their shadows long and thin across the grassy field, appearing far more sinister than the actual bumbling woolly creatures dawdling along.
The sheepdog snapped wearily at them, nipping the heels of those who strayed too far out of line, meaning all he needed to do was guide them slowly down the familiar worn track to the safe pen where they spent the night.
Shutting the gate with a firm click once they were all settled, with the sheepdog lying in the corner, looking sleepily up at him, he trudged to the farmhouse with aching legs. Shepherding was a very tiring job, and he had hardly selected it as a career choice, but he had had little choice.
He passed the dairy maids finishing their cleaning of the cattle stalls with no problems- they were no bother to him, but as he went to pass the pig herders and the geese herders, he steeled himself in preparation.
They shouted as soon as they saw him, but his method of blocking them out was rather effective, though he could still pick out his own name yelled in a mocking tone.
Goat. He hated the nickname almost as much as he hated those who had given it to him.
It had been the result of too much ale drunk, bluntening their already less than civil tongues, and as it was his first day, he was an easy target for them to bully mercilessly.
Being a shepherd, the pure wit of the drunken boys had been to not call him ‘Sheep’ but Goat. Now he doubted that any of them even remembered his real name. Even he sometimes found it slipping into the misty realms of the back of his mind, and so he took to whispering it to himself last thing at night, like a precious secret.
“Moses.” Whispering it to himself, he felt strengthened by it- the only thing he had to remember his mother, who had picked out the name especially from her treasured dusty Bible.
He had been kicked out of the house (in the nicest form of the expression) the day after his fifteenth birthday. His mother already had seven mouths to feed, and what with the latest baby, Rebekah, recently weaned to food, and what looked like another baby on the way, it was too much.
So he had been pointed in the right direction, helped to hitch a ride on a trade wagon to the nearest town, a good thirty miles away, and he had set off. There he had gained work as a shepherd, earning three silver coins a day. It had sounded a lot on his first day- he had never had even a bronze to his name before, but when he sought shelter and food, he realised what a paltry sum this was.
Now his silver coins never lasted long. One silver coin bought him a warm dinner and the pub, and bread and cheese for the next day’s lunch. The second went to pay his daily rent and the third was enough to buy breakfast with two bronze coins change, which he saved, hoping to send back to his family on his next trip home.
However, his clothes were easily ripped and his shoes wore down with all his walking, so his savings rarely reached four silver coins before he had to purchase a new tunic, or some other item of clothing.
When he had returned to his house, after almost a year away, he had been able to give them seven silver coins- all of his savings. That had been the result of going without lunch several times, and not buying new shoes, even though his biggest toe was poking out of both his current pair. In the end, he was glad he had taken it, for his mother had given birth recently to a baby she had named Isaiah, and his younger sister, Tamar, was gravely ill, and the doctors bills had weighed his parents down with worry.
His coins wouldn’t last them long either, but he hoped they would have given them a small boost.
As he made his way into the cheapest inn nearby, The Laughing Hen, his usual haunt, he sat in his usual seat and was given his meal, beef stew with vegetables. Enjoying the warmth of the stew trickling into his empty stomach, he concentrated on eating, trying his best not to attract any attention from the boys in the corner, who were shovelling stew into their mouths as if they hadn’t eaten in a week.
He frowned into his plate, as he heard his name amongst the row they were making. Hunching his tall body down, he edged cautiously away, desperately not wanting to make another scene. But it was too late.
Bess finished cleaning the last room of the inn, brushing the special soft cloth across the dim mirror almost reverently. Her face looked back at her, dark brown eyes meeting dark brown eyes. She sighed to herself.
She often dreamed about looking in the mirror and seeing someone much more attractive than herself. It wasn’t that she was particularly unsightly- she just had tanned skin with a few freckles in place of the fashionable milky skin, dark eyes in place of the favoured cornflower blue, and rather wild dark hair in not quite curls that were currently slipping out of her thick braid, hanging down her back. She stood out from the crowd, but she sometimes felt that she would rather sink into the crowd, hiding away.
Giving one last, gentle sigh, she rubbed the mirror one last time, and went down the stairs to collect her wages. Two silver coins and two bronzes weren’t really enough to sustain her and her father, but it had to do.
As she made her way out, coins clutched in her palm, the rowdy noise of the pub greeted her like a cymbal clanging in her ears. She could see her enemies over in the corner, a gang of them. Stupid boys, who took delight in bullying anyone who dared not comply to their standards. It flared up her temper just to look at them.
She noticed they were bullying the poor boy they called Goat again. It was even more fierce than usual, probably due to them splashing out on another mug of ale each.
With his rather fluffy orange hair, awkward physique and well above averagely sized ears, Goat was an easy target for bullies. His inability to stand up for himself only aided the gang in their fun, and meant he nearly always had bruises here and there. Bess bristled with anger. They were as bad as piglets picking on the runt of the litter.
She made her way through the crowds of people, the overpowering stench of sweat mixed with beer filling her nostrils. The low, gruff voices of meaty handed men, called things out at her, and she shuddered in distaste. The foul mannered men of the tavern made her feel dirty just to look at them.
Every one of them large and fleshy, saturated with alcohol, straggled, wiry beards mangy and ill kempt hanging from the first of many chins, and every one of them disgusted her. They shouted obscenities at any female unlucky enough to have to set foot amongst them, talking about them as if they were objects up for discussion.
Bess had a feeling that the gang of boys teasing Goat would grow into those men exactly- round bellied and disgusting. She felt ill just thinking about it. It would probably be her future children being heckled too, she thought, with a shudder, promising herself for the hundredth time that she would earn enough so that her future offspring could get an education, and wouldn’t have to deal with an unpromising future.
No, she would be the one to suffer a work crippled childhood, she would go through this every day until she married. But her children would be free to be children, free from the strain of having to care about money. Sometimes she felt like those feelings alone were the thing that kept her going through the long days of work.
She looked back at Goat and the bullies. They were still jeering at him, making his skin flush the colour of a ripe beetroot. She watched as he timidly gathered his things, and bolted from the room, almost overturning several waitresses in the process.
Slipping through the mass of people with a great deal more grace, Bess noticed, with a sinking heart, that the boys had followed Goat, throwing pebbles at him and shouting abuse.
Bess felt her temper rising to a growl of anger. Eventually she could hold it in no longer and angrily stormed over to them, shoving the bullies aside.
Goat looked up at the noise, and couldn’t help the feeling of humiliation as Bess appeared.
“What are you doing to him?!” she demanded, her cheeks warm with fierce anger.
Goat dropped his gaze to the dusty floor. Saved by a girl? Again? The embarrassment flooded his mind.
The leader of the group, the detestably handsome and well muscled Tobias, stepped forward a little. “Who is he, your swain?” he mocked, causing some of his gang to double up in fits of laughter. Goat’s face grew even hotter.
“If you wanted a swain, sweet Bess,” Tobias continued, “you should have asked me!” He reached out and touched her cheek, mock lovingly. “I’d be only too happy to oblige.”
Bess slapped his hand away, shoving him away from her. Goat trembled at her bravery.
“Ooh, feisty,” Tobias commented. “You’d fit in well with us.”
The gang had circled around them now, Bess glaring, fierce as a trapped tigress, Goat cowering like a rabbit.
“Aw, come on Bess,” coaxed Tobias. “You know you want to join us! We’re the best gang for miles.”
Bess folded her arms firmly. “Correction- you’re the biggest bullies for miles,” she retorted. “I wouldn’t join you if you paid me a thousand silvers. You’re all just cowards.”
Tobias sneered, all traces of being friendly and nice vanishing from his expression. Instead, it was replaced by an expression of merciless fury. “You’ll change your mind when I start on the Goat,” he taunted, talking about him as if he wasn’t a person at all- just a thing. He gave Goat an almighty shove, and as he crumpled to the floor, they circled round, kicking at him. In the blur of pain and confusion, he saw Bess try to get to him, only to be dragged back by Tobias, who laughed at her.
“STOP!” she yelled. “Please, Tobias, stop!”
Tobias lifted his hand, and the gang stopped, breathlessly watching Bess as she helped Goat up, letting him lean on her. Goat couldn’t quite think straight.
“Changed your mind, Bessie, my girl?” Tobias folded his arms, dirt streaked across his face, stuck to it with sweat.
Bess growled. “Firstly, I am not your girl,” she spat. “And secondly, you all make me sick.” She hadn’t counted on Goat actually vomiting up his dinner all over Tobias’s leering face right at that moment, but after she recovered from the shock of it, she thought it was probably quite effective.
Tobias stood still, frozen in appalled horror.
“You… you…” His face twisted in rage, turning a shade of red that Bess thought particularly unflattering. Grabbing Goat’s arm, she made a run for it, dodging past an approaching horse and carriage, racing as fast as she could through the streets.
Goat’s long legs were put to good use as he ran beside her, though they ached from the bruises inflicted, and his back was slick with sweat.
They darted together through alley way and street, passing bawling infants, who looked lost and alone, sullen girls who stared coldly at them, members of other gangs who glared threateningly at them.
Eventually, Bess pulled him down the darkest alley of them all, and they paused, heart beat’s thudding in their ears.
Goat leant back on one of the walls, panting heavily to try and regain his breath back.
Something slimy soaked through his tunic and he leapt away, colliding with something soft and warm. Ah. Bess. He could faintly see her in the dim light. This alley was unusually built- it seemed to disappear into darkness just beyond them. The walls sloped upwards as far as they eye could see, until it faded into darkness at the top. Goat was pretty sure that no one lived there now.
“Goat?” Bess whispered. “I think we’ve lost them.”
“Oh.” Goat couldn’t deny that he still felt a little irritated. This hadn’t been the first time that Bess had saved him, but it still stung like nettles on skin to think that he had have been saved by a girl.
Bess sighed. “No gratitude then?” she asked, with a small huff.
“Thank you, Bess, but I can handle Tobias myself,” he replied, gripping her fore arm, earnestly. She shook it off.
“Clearly,” she grumbled.
“I don’t want you getting injured, and… I… I don’t need your help.” He felt rude for saying it, but he felt he would rather get injured than have to endure the taunts of the boys for being too wimpy to stand up to them.
“Fine!” Bess’ voice rose a pitch. “Next time, I’ll leave you in the gutter, bleeding!”
Goat sighed in annoyance. Stupid girls, poking their noses in where they weren’t wanted. A small voice in his head told him that Bess had only been trying to help, but he brushed it away quickly.
“Anyway,” Bess muttered, “where are we?”
Goat saw her move backwards, he heard the rustle of her skirts as she tried to find her way down the alley.
“Hmm,” she said, sounding confused. “That’s fu-”
A muffled shriek rang in Goat’s ears and the sound of cloths scrunching about threw panic into his mind.
“Bess? Bess? Bess!” he stumbled blindly forward, terror drumming in his ears, his heartbeat speeding up. Whatever had got Bess, would surely now get him.
“Number two.” A gravelly voice, right by his ear surprised him. He tried to turn away, but thick cloth was slipping around his mouth and nose, and he tore at it, frantically.
“Oh the mistress will be pleased! She’ll praise us, praise us she will!” the voice continued, as a pungent smell floated into his nostrils. It clambered into his mind, escalating his panicked thoughts.
He thrashed, but his limbs felt like lead, and he could feel his mind numbing, his thoughts now as slow and thick as the boggy mud he’d played in as a child. The feel of it between his toes… toes…
With a thump, he fell backwards, and his entire world went black.
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