Heroes and Villeins – Desiree Ducharme

It was a terrible misunderstanding that started with a misspelling. Knowing you are the victim of vocabulary is of little comfort or redress when you are chained to the wall of a dungeon awaiting your pyre. Knowledge does not sate your hunger. It does not ease the aching cold in your bones or soothe the burns on and beneath your skin. Truth does not stay the hand that holds the hot poker or dull the pain in your ruined, nail-less digits. Your mother always told you words had power, which is why reading is forbidden, but you didn’t listen. You ignored her words and set off to find your own. Now she is dead. Your father is dead. Your farm was burnt to the ground and you are soon to follow. All because of a book and a regional spelling variant.

Facts are of little consolation when your life dangles at the end of a chain. You did not lie during your coerced confession. You told them everything. Well, you told them what an illiterate villein’s girl-child would tell old men pressing hot metal into her skin. In short, whatever would make them stop.

You told them how you found it, tangled in the remains of the old rowan tree. The Lord had recently returned from a murder spree on the continent. He issued a new edict requiring all rowan trees be removed from his lands. 

You were following orders. You told them how you thought it was a rock after you broke the ax head upon it. You scream the story of your mother burning it with the rest of the midden as they peel the skin from the bottom of your feet. Sobbing through tears, you tell them how it did not burn. They placed your skinless soles over hot coals. You could smell yourself roasting as you told them how your father threw it in the lake. You salivate and cry out the truth. You don’t know how it ended up in the belly of the eel. You rush to tell them how you brought it directly to the Heroes of the Holy Order as the stones slowly compress and fracture your ribs.

“You are a family of villains!”

“Yes, villeins, peasants! We know nothing of books and live to serve our great and noble Lord!”

“See, confession is good. Your soul is saved.”

“I care not for my soul, what of my life? And my parents?”

“You are blasphemous villains, your lives are forfeit.”

“No, we’re villeins not villains. Please, we’ve done no wrong. We followed the Lord’s edict. We burned it, we drowned it. When that didn’t work, I brought it to you, the Heroes. We found it, but we are loyal villeins!”

“That’s what I said.”

“Villeins. With an e not an a!”

“What strange magic you try. Spelling will not save your life.”

“My parents have done nothing wrong.”

“Your parents are no more. You clearly know how to spell, which means you can read. Reading is a dangerous thing, especially for a girl, and dangerous things need burning. Be content, your soul belongs to God once more. Your body will be cleansed by fire and returned to the earth.” The Hero’s tone was flat and factual, his words far more injurious than sharp hot metal could ever be.

You did not tell them how the gnarled roots opened like fingers at your touch. Even as they pulled your fingernails out, the sensation of the roots moving under your palms kept this detail from your tongue. You failed to mention the wrappings. How you’d never seen skins like them and could not imagine the creatures they came from. Even after what must have been centuries in the earth, they were shiny as though recently oiled and buffed. How they sparkled like liquid gems in the grey dusk. How they slipped apart revealing the rowan tree embossed on the cover of the tome. 

You did not tell them how supple the binding was. How the day’s labor pains were drawn out of you as you traced the tree on the front. How the knowledge of the Universe flowed into you. Through seven days of being picked apart by holy heroes, these details stayed locked away. You are strangely comforted by this thought. You feel your mother would be proud.

Your father did throw it in the lake. This was not a lie. It washed up on the shore the next day. He rowed to the very center, tied several rocks to it, and dropped it in. You pulled it from your well three days later, rocks, rope and all. Your mother panicked and tossed it into the river. 

Several days later, you bring home an eel from the market. Your parents did not see the eel’s skin pucker, stretch and reveal the pattern of the rowan tree at your touch. They did not witness the eel’s exposed vertebrae widen and darken as you pulled the skin off. They did not watch as flesh and bone became pages, boards, and spine. Perhaps if they’d been there you would not have opened it. Doesn’t really matter now. 

They found you in the field at dawn, naked and covered in viscera. A ring of seven rowan saplings around you. One tree for each year of your life. Your father pulled the saplings. He burned them. Like the book, they did not burn. He tied them to rocks, rowed to the center of the lake, and dropped them in.

Your mother dresses you in a new cloak and a pair of new boots. She tells you to go into the forest to find mushrooms. She tells you to avoid rowan trees. She asks if you can read. You nod. You are both crying.

“They cannot take that from you. It is part of you. This life is filled with dark places. You will never be alone but you will be lonely. You must choose your words. They are powerful. Be wary of heroes, they embrace a single purpose and resist correction. Tell no one of the saplings. Now, run.”

You met your Hero where the road crossed Hadrian’s wall. He warns you of the dangers of traveling alone. He tells you he was a villein once and the Order saved him and made him a hero. He smells of smoke and what you now know to be burning human flesh. He is the one who takes you to the Order. He lights the fires that produce the coals for your torture. Each night, he visits you and feeds you. He tells you of his life, how he lost his wife and child to plague. How the Order gave him purpose in hunting down villains. 

You ask how many people he has killed. You point out the spelling error. He is resistant to correction. He begs for your life on the seventh day. He wraps the cloak around you before they tie you to the stake. He is crying, but you are not.

“I am sorry, child. I could not save you.”

“Leave the Order. There is still time for you to save yourself. I gather they will need villeins to work the land now that my parents are dead. It would bring me comfort to know you served our Lord in their place. You could visit me in the lake.”

“You are a strange child.”

“What can I say, I am a villain. You can save me by adding rowan branches to my pyre. Even if you do not, I forgive you.” You kiss his bowed head. He tucks your hair under the hood of your cloak. You think of your father as your Hero adjusts your cloak so it envelops all of you. You are comforted by this small kindness. His eyes are so like your mother’s when she told you to run. “Go now, Hero. This dangerous thing needs burning.”

Fun fact: even atop the pyre, you notice the smoke first. It is the smoke that fills your lungs and takes your breath. It is smoke that robs the Heroes of the Holy Order of your screams. The smoke steals you away to unconsciousness as the flames dance. You do not see your Hero add the rowan branches. He does. He has replaced all the Mercy Sticks with rowan branches. Your pyre burns hot and loud. They cannot put it out. The stone beneath it melts. All the trees within Holy Keep burn from the roots upward. 

The smoke from your pyre blocks the sun for seven days. The flames from your pyre light the square for seven nights. The keep is abandoned. Your Hero tells your story to the villeins. He writes it down. He distributes copies of it. He corrects the spelling error next to your name in the Order’s records. He gathers all the un-burnt rowan into a bundle and takes it with him when he leaves.

Rowan trees spring from the ashes where you burned. They grow quick and hard. Within a few months, the keep is overwhelmed by a forest of rowan. The Heroes of the Holy Order are recalled to their palaces of gilt and glory. Your Hero returns to the farm where he murdered your parents. He buys the fallow land from your erstwhile Lord. At the center of the lake, there is now an island surrounded by seven rowan trees.

In the village, he learns that the island erupted from the lake in a column of smoke and flame that blocked the sun for seven days and lit the sky for seven nights. No one goes out on the lake anymore. There is no life within it save the rowan trees. The villagers tell him a legend of a woman condemned. A legend filled with Heroes and Villains. A legend of dangerous knowledge that cannot be taken only given or found within yourself. Of a sorceress reborn from the ashes of rowan trees and forgiveness. 

He goes there to visit you. He places the bundle of un-burnt rowan in the center of the island, and beneath it, a copy of your story which he has had illuminated. 

He lights the pyre at midnight during the summer solstice. He weeps for you and for those he killed. He collects his tears. In the morning, he waters the ashes with them. He works the land and keeps to himself. 

When an eighth tree appears, the Hero-turned-villein rows to the island.

Desiree Ducharme is a once and future Used Book Buyer, semi-feral dragon, who spends her days making space for dreams at Powell’s City of Books as an Operations Manager. You can find more of her work at desireeducharme.com.

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