When I was a kid, my family worked on a vineyard. My parents always tried to tell me that we weren’t slaves, but I knew the truth. Everyone who worked for King Tantero was a slave; every single person in the Eastern Kingdom, we were all puppets, dancing under the strings that Tantero pulled himself. Everyone, even his wife, daughter, and son were slaves. He was hated by all. Even his personal guard despised him. I always used to wonder why no one ever tried to rise against him. Start a revolution, do something to remove him from his throne. It wouldn’t be that hard. An entire kingdom against one man. It would take no time at all. But it was a bit later in my life that I realized why no one did anything. It was because King Tantero had removed all of our motivation. Our drive. Our hope. He took his power when we all thought he was a good man, and then he destroyed us. How did I realize this? Well, keep listening.
We were always told that life wasn’t like this everywhere. It was always said that there was no slavery in the Western Kingdom, that the king there was a nice man. A good ruler. “Freedom lies in the West,” that was our saying. We said it all the time: first thing in the morning, before every meal, after every prayer. We said it in the hopes that one day we would be able to travel to the West, and start a new life. Of course, we never had any intentions of trying to leave…
Until one fateful day, when I was ten years old. My sister and I were playing in the fields, chasing a butterfly, while Mom and Dad were working in the vineyard, when suddenly we heard
trumpets playing. My sister and I stopped chasing, and looked at each other. There was only one reason that trumpets would be playing.
We immediately dropped what we were doing and ran towards the trumpet music. Well, you could hardly call it music. It was more like half-hearted tooting. We were curious as to why the king would come to visit us. It could either be really good or really terrible.
“Greetings, subjects!” he bellowed across the vineyard, as we all gathered around his convoy. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve come to visit today. You see, I’ve been receiving some bad news recently. I’ve had reports from my noblemen telling me that their wine is less than satisfactory. They have asked me to come and check the vineyard. You know, see if everything is in order. If it is in order, I’ll investigate the next step in the winemaking process. If it isn’t, well, there will be consequences.
“You there! With the basket!” he shouted, while pointing towards someone in the crowd.
“Me, Your Highness?” said a woman, who sounded very much like my mother.
“Yes, you. Bring me one of your grapes.”
It was my mother. I saw her step forward sheepishly, her hands shaking, trying to hold her basket up. She waddled up to the king’s horse, placed her basket on the ground, then grabbed a grape out of it and handed it to Tantero. He studied it for a while, held it up to the sunlight, tossed it up and down, then put it in his mouth, and almost immediately spat it out, right at my mother’s feet. “Are you trying to poison me, woman?!”
“I – no. I didn’t mean… I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, you’re not sorry. Not yet. Get me my whip!”
As one of his servants rushed to bring the king his whip, my mother doubled-over, crying and screaming, “No! Please! It’s not my fault! I didn’t mean to disappoint you, Your Grace!”
“Whether you meant to or not, someone has to be punished for it. Hold her down!”
“NO!” a man cried from somewhere in the crowd. From the gathered people emerged my father, a look of pure rage and fear on his face. “Don’t touch her. I will take the punishment.”
“What’s this? A foolish man, trying to save a damsel in distress?”
“You don’t have to do this, darling,” my mother said.
“Go to the kids. I’ll be fine.”
“Kids? Oh, this just gets better and better.”
“No. Please don’t…”
“Where are these children of yours, peasants? Show them to me.”
My mother’s eyes scanned the crowd. I could tell that she was trying not to look at us, but Tantero saw through her attempts.
“Trying to hide them from me?” he said. “Now why would you ever want to hide such beautiful little children?” He then looked at one of his servants and barked, “The girl. Bring her to me!”
“No, no, please, you can’t!” my mother shouted, but the king was having none of it.
“You might want to go and shield your son’s eyes. I’m sure he won’t want to see what’s coming.”
My parents both ran over to me as my sister was being dragged over to where the king was standing. My father picked me up and buried my face into his shoulder, while my mother tried her best to cover my ears. She tried, but there was nothing she could do to stop me from hearing the crack of
the whip, that horrible sound as it tore the skin off of my sister’s back, and, worst of all, her screams, cutting through the air like a harpoon, aimed straight towards its prey. I couldn’t help but count the lashes. Three, four, five. I couldn’t help but hear my mother sobbing, my father bellowing at the king to stop, insisting that she had had enough. Eight, nine, ten. I couldn’t help but hear the other workers trying to help. “She’s only seven years old,” shouted one. “It was just one grape, Your Grace,” said another. Eleven, twelve, thirteen. Silence.
“Just. One. GRAPE?” Tantero exclaimed angrily, breaking the silence. I could feel the rage coming from his voice, could sense the fury in his tone when he said “you know what to do” to one of his servants. I could still feel it when I heard the sound of a crossbow firing. I could still sense it when I heard the sound of a bolt connecting with human flesh.
I could feel my own rage when I heard the sound of a body dropping to the ground. I could feel it festering in my stomach when I heard the exasperated screams of the workers. I could feel it traveling to my bones when I heard the sound of people running in fear, seeking shelter among the vines. I could feel it crawling in my skin when I heard my father whisper “We leave tonight,” to my mother. And I could feel it creeping into my fingertips when I snuck my father’s knife off of his belt and tucked it under mine.
I then shrugged out of my father’s grip to look at the damage. My sister was on the ground at the king’s feet, still crying and screaming. A few feet away from her, with a crossbow bolt sticking out of his heart, was my father’s best friend, Robert. Looking back at my father, I could see that he was just barely keeping his tears at bay. “We leave tonight,” he repeated.
“I will stay here tonight,” the king announced. “For I am tired, and the way home is long and
treacherous. Tomorrow, I shall depart, and upon my return to The Heart of the East, I will immediately send someone to come and shut this vineyard down. You all may take the rest of the day off. Good night.”
When Tantero was done talking, my mother rushed over to grab my sister, and we returned to our cabin. While my father was cooking us an early dinner, and my mother was in the other room, trying to clean my sister’s wounds, I could not help but ask, “Father, what did you mean when you said we’re leaving tonight?”
“Freedom lies in the West.”
“Wait. You don’t mean…”
“After the sun goes down, and as soon as your mother’s finished patching up your sister, we’re leaving the vineyard. Heading west.”
“Wow. I’ve always wanted to see the West.”
“Well, now you will.”
And sure enough, when my sister was as bandaged as she would ever be, and light had gone from the vineyard, we were ready to leave. At first I thought I would miss that place, but then one look at my sister reminded me that we couldn’t stay. It also reminded me that I needed to do something.
“Father? When we were playing in the field this morning, I think I left a toy out there. Could I maybe go out and look for it? I’ll be really quick, and quiet. I promise I’ll only be ten minutes.”
“Please? It was the last thing we were playing with before…”
“Oh, alright. Ten minutes. If you’re not back before then, I’ll have your hide. You hear me?”
“Yes, of course, Father.”
I ran out the door of the cabin, and then instead of going to the field, I shot off to where the king had set up camp. When I was just coming up to the perimeter, I stopped and pulled my father’s knife out of my belt. Clutching the knife with all of my strength, I advanced, sneaking up to the largest tent in the area. As I opened up the flap, I could see the king sleeping on a mattress in the center, while two men, whom I assume were bodyguards, were sleeping on either side of him. Everything was looking good so far. I crept up to the sleeping king, and held the knife just above his throat. I had a moment of hesitation before I remembered the horrifying screams of my sister, and the scars on her back that were caused by this disgusting man. I then plunged the knife into him, while clamping my hand over his mouth and nose. His eyes shot open, he thrashed wildly for a good ten seconds, but then stopped, and lay still, as if he had gone back to sleep.
One of the bodyguards must have heard the struggle, and stirred in his sleep a little. For a moment I could feel my entire plan slipping away. I thought that I was going to die, right then and there. And when they were done with me, they would kill my family. What had I done? I was a failure. I ruined everything over some stupid act of vengeance.
The bodyguard sat up, looked at me, held eye contact for what felt like an eternity, then said, “Goodnight, Mummy,” and then lay back down and fell asleep. I immediately exited the tent and bolted back to the cabin.
“I couldn’t find it,” I said sadly, when I walked in the door. Eight minutes had passed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetheart,” my mother said. “We’ll get you a new toy when we reach the Western Kingdom. How does that sound?”
“It sounds great!”
“Good,” my father said, sternly. “Let’s get moving.”
Part 2 continued in issue 7