Annabel had a few days to get over the fact that her life had changed, totally changed. She could say it happened when those awful people came and took her from her family, hit her father, and made her mother cry. But who they were they didn’t say, and even after a week of living in the illusion of life rather than in reality, Annabel didn’t know precisely who enslaved her, and why, and what they wanted from her.
The first task she got was connected with the kitchen, where a helper was needed, or Elijah only thought so. After six days of cleansing the most dirty surfaces Annabel had ever seen, the chef said she irritated him. She was sent to a girl who asked for another kid to help her with washing dirty clothes and sheets. The girl’s name was Susanne.
Annabel couldn’t say if Susanne was a regular inhabitant of this place, or an exception. She had at least sixteen years, and she was kind and attractive. Her hands were somewhat dry because of bad water and soap, but her face was one of the most beautiful Annabel remembered. Susanne’s patience she considered the best thing, whereas the most of the people in the house, including children, seemed to have no patience at all.
“So, what do they want me to do, except the housework?” Annabel asked as they brought two buckets filled with water and a hip of dirty garments in the yard.
“You want to hear the truth?” said Susanne. Her hands started to rub the fabric perkily, like she had always known how to do this job well.
“Of course I want.” The girl looked up mournfully and sighed.
“They have taken us from our families, homes, to make slaves from us. Slaves and servants. Before a rich lord, or maybe not a lord, decides to buy you for his own purposes, you live here and work, for they don’t want you to be a waste of money. After that you’ll work for your new master.”
“Who are you talking about? Who are they?”
“Alferdo Morr and his men. He’s the only one who got high on such a business in our kingdom.”
Annabel had heard something about slave drivers from her parents, but they both had ensured her those people would never reach her. It seems like they had underestimated the human avarice.
“How long have you been here?”
“For two years now.”
Annabel’s heart stopped for a second and fell deep down with a painful feeling. Two years? So many days in slavery, with not even a miserable possibility to see your family again, all the time belonging to somebody else?..
“And he has always been guarding you?” Annabel threw a careful glance at Elijah who was walking near them and watching the children work. His whip seemed to be even longer and scarier from the distance.
Susanne turned her head to where Annabel was looking. “Elijah? Yes. He guards kids who are under seventeen.”
“But he’s a kid himself,” whispered Annabel, not able to comprehend what she was hearing: a seventeen-year-old boy had been that ugly watcher for years, not even for months! “How comes a kid has become that? How has he got the worst job ever existed?”
“Oh, trust me on this, the watcher is not the worst job, not even a bad one.”
“But… but he makes children suffer!”
“Yes, and it gives him a lot of good, actually.”
Annabel shuddered. She tried to concentrate on wet clothes in her hands, but the curiosity had never been something she used to fight with.
“What’s happened to him?”
Susanne’s mood seemed to lower.
“Nobody knows exactly, but there’s a rumor he’d been a slave, too. He worked so hard and was so clever that Mr Morr blessed him to be the watcher and gave him some advantages. Since then, Elijah has been eager to keep his job. He’s ready to do anything.”
Susanne took the soaked garments and rolled it to squeeze the water out. She ordered Annabel to hang the wet clothes and sheets on the ropes nearby that were fixed between two walls of the next-standing buildings. The sunlight was shining brightly, and the wind was warm, “Perfect weather for it to dry,” said the girl and smiled. Annabel had met such people like Susanne before. They could talk about things that dejected them but be happy-go-lucky the very next second. Or at least seem to be. Annabel’s courage grew, and while they were hanging the garment, she asked, as if by the way of things, “So… Is there a way to run?”
Abruptly, Susanne gasped and tucked Annabel behind the sheets. She was almost panicking, her eyes were looking out in terror for Elijah’s arrival.
“What are you doing?” she whispered furiously.
“What?” said Annabel.
“Never talk about it if the watchers are near!”
“But why? It’s only a house, and there’s a fence – why can’t you just get over it and-“
“Because you can’t! Believe me, you can’t.”
The girls jumped and whirled. Elijah stood right before them with his whip moaning and cracking between his fingers, and with an arched eyebrow. His deep black eyes seemed to freeze Annabel’s blood. He looked at Susanne, waiting.
“I was telling her that you can’t expect a good supper if you don’t work hard,” said the young girl in the easiest way she could. Annabel felt the tense in her voice, but even if Elijah noticed it too, he didn’t show it.
“She’s right,” He looked down at Annabel and tightened the whip. “Finish your job, kid.”
Then he turned slowly, but it seemed to Annabel that he’ll never leave. When he disappeared in the yard again, she exhaled freely, feeling the danger going away. Susanne said nothing and took the next sheet to hang it; her face was ghastly pale and hands were trembling. That’s their everyday life, Annabel thought and felt her heart fall down again.
Every evening children were brought to the dining room and then to their common big bedroom. They slept on blankets and sheets, for Mr Alferdo Morr didn’t want to spend money on beds. Though, no one complained about it. All kids knew they wouldn’t get beds anyway, moreover, if they said something unpleasant about their living standards, they would get a few more bruises on their skin.
Annabel got over that, too. She and her dad used to sleep on a layer of dried grass or on furs if they had some, despite her mom was against it. “She should get used to any difficulties. You can’t protect her from everything, so let me at least make her strong,” dad was saying. Annabel was so grateful to him now. She could sleep well whatever happens, except the cold, for it was impossible to stop shaking sometimes. That day, she also tried to fall asleep as quickly as she was able to, because tomorrow was promising the hard work on which she wouldn’t get any rest. The night was warm and fresh, filled with a slight scent of green fields outside the mansion, and it was almost quiet. Almost.
A few kids were sitting around that boy who Elijah hit on their first day in the house. Annabel could hear them speaking, though they tried to whisper. She didn’t want to listen to them, but something inside her forced her to eavesdrop. It was quite intriguing what could the subject be that wouldn’t let those kids go to their beds. Annabel was lying on her side with eyes open, concentrated.
“You can’t be so sure,” said a low voice she knew belonged to another kid, named Rotty. He always doubted everything, although sometimes he could say very smart things.
“That’s you who can’t, Rotty, but I can.”
“Victor, it’s too dangerous!” that was the third voice.
“Nothing too dangerous. There’s a fence, I’ll just climb it and jump on the other side. Have you seen it? I’ve climbed trees that were much higher.”
“It isn’t only about you,” said Rotty. “Some of the watchers are awake at night, they round the perimeter in order to prevent runaways like you from doing stupid things.”
“Hey,” Victor protested, “I don’t do anything stupid, all right? If you think it’s better to stay, then you may stay and be a slave until you die, but I won’t. I don’t want this,” he made a short pause during which, Annabel guessed, he gestured on his cheek – there still was a red line after Elijah’s whip. “And I want to come back home. They’re not right, they are criminals, and they do illegal things. I’m not going to bear it.”
“So tomorrow?” asked the fourth voice.
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll be free.”
Victor was near. Annabel could see his messy blond hair and piercing blue eyes that were full of courage, and she wanted to close up to him and whisper, “Don’t run! They’ll catch you and punish you!”. But she wasn’t sure if that would be right. Susanne’s words, and then Elijah who freaked her out yesterday, and all her bravery dissolved at once, she wasn’t sure anymore if running away was something easy. Oh, you’re such a coward, she thought to herself, Victor is only a bit older than you, why would you be so scared, and he so doughty? But each time she noticed that alacrity to leave the mansion had regenerated in her heart, Elijah’s whip would appear in her thoughts, and she’d hear that terrible whistle again and again. By the end of the day, Annabel had decided neither to run with Victor, nor stop him, but watch. If his aim was reached, she’ll try too. And if not?..
Susanne hadn’t let Annabel go and rest earlier than the supper time came. They both were tired, but Annabel forced herself to keep awake. Now, lying in her bed, she tried to listen to the noise from the yard that could be heard in the common bedroom. Victor left a few minutes ago, and yet nothing had happened. Annabel’s heart was pounding so loudly that she could hardly concentrate. Instead, she was listening to what the others were talking about.
“I told you, we should have stopped him.”
“No, he’s right. I think I’ll run, too, but later.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Victor won’t make it.”
“Yes he will.”
“Anyway, it’s too late to stop him, he’s probably in the yard now.”
“Hey, did you hear that?”
Annabel sat down on her blankets. From the open window far above her head she could hear dogs barking. Fear devastated her. People’s voices started to shout, somebody whistled. Annabel thought she heard “Gotcha!”, but hoped she really didn’t. Some kids sprang on their feet. “Run, Victor, run!” one of them murmured. But dogs were barking, and a man shouted, “In the basement!”, and somebody covered their faces with their hands.
No, Annabel thought. Please, for Heaven’s sake, let all of this be a dream.
But none of it was a dream. After a sleepless night all children, as well as adult slaves, were forced to go outside and stay in a circle around a wooden pole. It was the only pole in the middle of the yard, and Annabel couldn’t even imagine what it was for. Maybe to tie horses or attach an announcement, but it wasn’t worth the public attention, as Annabel guessed. In a few minutes after people had clustered some men left the house and came to the pole. Two of them were guarding Victor. The boy tried to keep dauntless, but Annabel saw a drop of panic in his eyes. He knew something awful had to happen. Next to them stood another boy, Annabel recognized Elijah. Although he was very young, he looked serious and furious and didn’t even for a second turn his gaze away from Victor. The fourth man’s face Annabel had never seen before. He was big and very wide, wore an expensive suit, and though his face was sort of joyful, he scared Annabel. She didn’t know how, but she realized that that man was Alferdo Morr. In his hands, his fat neck, his face, and even in his voice when he spoke was something horrible, rude and dangerous.
“People,” he said, “I hate admitting the fact that we have to be here now. But those who violate my laws are to be punished, and everyone knows it. This boy,” he gestured on Victor who was slightly shaking, “was caught tonight when he tried to run. Look what happens when you dare do something like this. Elijah,” Morr turned to the watcher,” he’s your responsibility. Do it, and do it well.”
Elijah was mad. With his thick black hair that made him look like a bandit, and his angry black eyes, he was so scary that Annabel intuitively made a step back. Elijah took the whip. Two man tied Victor’s hands around the pole, so it looked like the boy was hugging it. Victor was breathing deeply, trying to fight his terror, but as Elijah closed up and stood behind him, his panic grew.
“Please, don’t,” he begged, but everybody understood it wouldn’t help.
“Haven’t I told you if you try to run, you’ll be punished?” Elijah growled through his teeth.
“Please,” Victor’s voice ran weak.
“I’ve told you.”
Elijah rose his hand and hit Victor’s right leg. Some kids started crying, women pressed their palms to their mouths. Annabel froze. There was the second hit, and the third, the fourth. Victor’s legs were trembling, his trousers soon soaked with blood. He was crying. No one could help; Annabel looked around in a hope to find a fearless man, but everybody hanged their heads low, hardly able not to shake. At last, Mr Morr came closer to the watcher and touched his shoulder.
“That’s enough. He won’t run again after this.”
Elijah was wildly breathing and stretching his trembling fingers.
Annabel thought she just imagined things, but it seemed to her that there was terror in the watcher’s eyes when he left.