Chapter 36: The Cost of Loyalty
Gus looked up from his pitchfork of manure as Judith appeared, followed by her brother John, who worked as a footman back at the manor.
“Mistress Sophya wants to see you, Gus,” Judith announced with a sour smile that further contorted the swelling around her left eye and the cut on her jawline.
Gus gripped the wooden pitchfork tightly as the lads behind him slowed their pace. “What have you done?”
“Stop asking questions and get to the house,” John snapped as he stepped forward.
Gus didn’t like either sibling, but then they both had cause to hate him. A few weeks past, Gus had turned down Judith’s flirtatious offer to explore the haystacks. Naturally, that meant John took Judith’s side when she flipped the story and said Gus had been the one who tried to get under her skirts.
He looked down at the flimsy piece of wood in his hand and wished it was something stronger, sharper. Something he could use to defend himself from what he knew was coming.
“Let’s go,” John urged with a sneer. “Unless you want to challenge the Mistress of the house.”
Gus tossed the pitchfork against the barn floor and sighed. “No,” he relented. “I’ll come.”
Brother and sister escorted him along the path that led up to the manor. Judith from the front and John at the back just in case Gus decided to run. But Gus knew better than to run.
Slaves who ran away were sold to Tharyn, where they were burned as offerings to pagan gods. That’s if they weren’t killed or maimed upon capture. Even the pagan gods had no use for crippled slaves.
Gus frowned and hesitated when Judith entered the side door of the manor ahead of him.
“Go on,” John muttered as he pushed Gus firmly over the threshold.
It was the first time Gus had seen the interior of the Turnbell Manor. He couldn’t help but gaze about in wonder. This had been Ivy’s world.
Only the knowledge that she was far away and safe from harm helped eased the sudden pang in his chest. She didn’t need to witness any more of this family’s cruelty.
John prodded him along as Judith led them along the hall, past the washing room, kitchen, and a couple closed doors. Then she turned through an open alcove, and Gus caught the whiff of flowers.
The garden quickly came into view—or at least, what had once been a rose garden. The bushes and flowers were scattered and smashed as if a wild boar had trampled through them.
But it was the wooden post at the center of this disheveled enclosure that captured Gus’s attention. This was where the house servants were punished. This—was where Ivy had been whipped.
“This is the boy?” Sophya asked from where she stood beside Lord Josiah, who sat in a chair cradling his bandaged right hand.
‘His whipping hand.’ Gus realized with some confusion. ‘But then—why am I here?’
“Yes, Mistress,” Judith replied with a curtsey. “He’s the one I saw with Maura three nights past.”
Gus turned sharply toward Judith. ‘What lies had she spun this time?’
“Is that true, boy?” Josiah snarled. “Were you and that half-blood sneaking out after dark to see each other?”
“No, my Lord,” Gus answered. “The Lady was out at that time because her pot needed changing. Since I was also awake, she asked me to assist her.”
“And what was a stable boy doing near the manor at such a late hour?” John retorted with a leer.
Josiah grunted in agreement. “It appears you need some incentive to tell us the truth, slave.” He glanced down at his broken hand and sighed. “But since I’ve been rendered incapable—”
Josiah turned his gaze towards the other servants gathered in the corners of the garden and quickly settled upon the butler. The senior servant refused to meet his master’s gaze as he stared through the glass windows of the garden silently.
It was an act of disobedience that surprised Gus—and touched him. Surely the butler knew Josiah would not forgive such disrespect from a servant—even if the butler was not a slave.
“I’ll do it, my Lord!” John said as he stepped forward.
Josiah’s disgruntled gaze flicked from the butler to John and sized the footman up critically. “You?”
Gus shook his head as John replied, “If it pleases you, my Lord.”
“Very well,” Josiah said with a sigh. “Tie him up then.”
John gripped Gus’s shoulder, and for a moment, the two exchanged tense glances as John waited for Gus to resist.
Gus turned from John to Judith, who watched them both with arms folded and a satisfied smile. With a shaky breath, Gus faced the post. He did not have Maura’s clever words or Ivy’s protective mistress, but he had what little courage he could afford as a slave.
“Let’s go,” John growled and stumbled as Gus shrugged his grip free.
The proud slave walked towards the post and tried not to notice the blood engraved into the wooden beam. Ivy’s blood lay here among countless others, and his own blood would join them soon enough.
John caught up to him with a muttered curse. He seized Gus’s hands and bound them with rope before tying them off to the post’s ring.
Gus swallowed back the lump in his throat. “You do remember what he did to your sister?”
Anger burned in John’s eyes as his lips pressed together tightly. “He wouldn’t have beaten her if the half-blood hadn’t provoked him.”
“I wasn’t talking about the beating,” Gus replied. “You know she’s—”
John’s fist slammed against Gus’s jaw, and his neck almost snapped under the impact.
“Save your breath,” John growled. “You think your Ivy is any better? We both know Lincoln already spoiled her for you.”
“That’s a lie!” Gus snarled.
John laughed and turned away. “Think what you like.”
Gus stared at the post and fought to control his emotions. It had been over three years since he’d found Ivy shaking and crying in the corner of the hayloft. Gus still remembered the look in Lincoln’s eyes as the Young Master strolled through the stables below them like a predator.
Only after Lincoln had left did Gus dare to speak. But Ivy had refused to give him any details. He didn’t pry, and when she asked him to escort her back to the manor, he quickly agreed.
Gus would have done anything for her, even kill a noble if she asked.
“Please don’t tell Maura.”
That had been Ivy’s only request before she disappeared inside, and it was at that moment, Gus understood how important the frail half-blood had become to her maid.
The same proud half-blood who promised to protect Ivy when Gus had warned her about Lincoln.
Gus had thought them to be empty words of a child who refused to accept her fate, but Maura had since changed his mind.
She had kept Ivy safe. Maura had taken her away from these beasts, and he knew she had tried to save him too.
‘If all masters and mistresses were so kind, perhaps the life of a slave wouldn’t be so bad.’
“Take your time,” Josiah instructed. “Once you’ve got the feel of the whip, it’s not that difficult.”
“Yes, my Lord,” John answered obediently.
Gus clenched his jaw and tightened his hands into fists as he glanced towards the butler and servants beside him. Their expressions were hollow and empty. Most preferred to stare at the ground.
The first crack of the whip missed Gus entirely, and he exhaled sharply.
“More to the left,” Josiah coached.
Another crack and sharp pain licked against Gus’s left calf.
“You’re getting it,” Josiah observed eagerly. “Take another step or two closer.”
Gus closed his eyes as the burn on his calf spread along his skin like fire. He could hear John moving behind him and knew the next strike would not miss.
The third crack echoed through the garden. The blow felt like a blade had cut clean through his spine. Gus tasted blood in his mouth as his legs almost gave way instantly.
“Nice, just like that,” Josiah encouraged. “Put him on his knees.”
Gus sucked in another breath only to have it snatched from his lungs as John’s fourth strike lashed across his back with equal ferocity.
Gus closed his eyes and tightened his fingers around the rope, determined to remain upright for as long as he could. Each blow was like a beast tearing into his flesh, ripping and shredding him apart until his vision blurred, and his scream of agony rippled off the walls and back at him tauntingly.
John hesitated, but only for a moment.
Gus knew he wasn’t going to stop, not until Josiah told him too.
The whip returned again and again. Pain like a tidal wave claimed his body, mind, and soul. When he fell to his knees, Gus barely noticed. He forgot about the servants, the manor, and his miserable life as a slave. The only thing that existed in his tightening world of pain was the post he clung to, the whip at his back, and the girl on his mind.
As his pride withered and died inside him, Gus held onto her image like a prayer. His final prayer—that he would live to see Ivy—one last time.