So sorry for the delay! I completed this piece last night, after skipping a day to do my debate wrap-up from Bill Nye vs Ken Ham (which, incidentally has DOUBLED the views on this page), but a winter storm had knocked out my internet so I couldn’t post this till now. It is the next phase in Millicent’s flashback. Expect the conclusion later tonight as I’m already working towards it as we speak.
For the sake of ease of reading I have included what was already posted of Millicent’s flashback so it is easy to read start to finish. If you have already read what was before, new stuff begins after the asterisks! Hit the jump for the story!
The maidens of Hilsbac (maiden being a word here used to describe a girl between the ages of ten and twenty) were gathered together five days prior to the shirt-centric beginning of Sebastian’s story, in the traditional square configuration, set just below a shoddily constructed platform. This raised wooden flooring served as a stage on the rare occasions the villagers in Hilsbac required one. At least, it was usually rarely needed. But it was the seventh time in the past month that Millicent Cobblestop had seen her father, the Mayor’s, ponderous girth hefted onto the creaking planks, her mother always right behind her waddling husband, hands extended to either side of him as though her twig-like arms would even slow the large man down if he did choose to tip unfortunately too far one way or the other.
Millicent Cobblestop tried not to look at her parents.
In fact, at the current moment, though she didn’t know why, her startlingly cool blue eyes were fixed on a young boy in the crowd. He wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting, just holding onto his father’s hand, eyes cast into the group of girls around her, no doubt looking for his sisters, just like every other person gathered behind the group of young women. But there was something that irritated her about the boy, and she fixated her gaze on him now without even realizing it. She looked at him as someone watching a fly buzz up against the glass of a window, dreaming with a lazy sort of malice about squashing it rather than just setting it free.
Millicent was staring at Sebastian Smith.
She knew that he had two sisters, one of whom was almost too old to be included here anymore. What was her name? Gwen, or Gerda? Gretchen. She was sure it was Gretchen. And there was a younger one too, though still older than Sebastian. A girl about her age. Lily was her name. She knew Lily well enough because she, like many of the girls in Hilsbac, fawned over Millicent Cobblestop endlessly, watching keenly to see what color dress she wore on Sundays, and how she braided her hair in the Spring, and whether she more often frequented the Baker’s or the Butcher’s shop.
Millicent couldn’t remember if she hated Lily Smith. She hated a lot of things, but not because she was hateful by nature. She found hate to be a pleasing relief from boredom, which was both her nemesis and constant companion. She glanced away from the gathered crowd of worried fathers, brothers, and mothers to scan the throng of teenaged girls for Lily’s face, hoping it would trigger some sort of reaction, a heart palpitation or gag reflex, but found the cow-like face of Tabith Thrushton filling her view all at once.
“Millie! Who do you think they’ll choose this time?”, said Tabitha. Millicent felt her throat tighten, a half-gag, and she consoled herself that at least the stress of the situation hadn’t dulled her social instincts.
She smiled at the brown-eyed peasant girl, who was, among other things, one of her two closest friends, “Tabitha, did you bring a shawl? I swear the least the dragon could do is choose a reasonable season to make us sit out in the open this often.” She laughed and patted Tabitha on the arm. She found touching people seemed to quiet them down, and she really was in no mood to play gossip with her.
Tabitha fingered the thin beige shawl her mother had given her for a moment before sighing and slipping it off. As she passed it to Millicent, she pressed, “But Millie! Who will they choose this time? It’s only a matter of time till…you know…one of the good girls has to go.”
Millicent sighed and rolled her eyes to the side, hoping that Tabitha would understand that when she looked away the conversation was over, but as she wrapped the younger girls offered shawl around her hands, pulling her own shawl tighter over her shoulders, she saw that Tabitha was still staring at her expectantly. She shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know Tabitha. It’s a lottery. Anyone could go.”
Of course Millicent knew that wasn’t really the case. When she was young, her mother had told her that the best families in Hilsbac stuck together. At the time she didn’t realize how literally her mother meant that. In reality, it was her mother who prepared the thin wooden strips on which the name of every eligible girl was written, and it was true enough that every girl was put into the pot. However, her mother used a certain special ink for certain special girls whose families were certain special friends of the Cobblestops which ensured that those wooden strips would stick to anything they touched. It make it simple enough for her father, who always drew the names, to make sure he was always selecting from the right group of people for sacrificing to dragons. He simply had to choose a free floating stick, and off would pop another dull peasant girl.
Millicent wondered idly if Tabitha would be next. What she said was, “Maybe they’ll pick Lily Smith this time.”
Tabitha, who was herself an insufferable and desperate gossip, who like her mother before her, made sure to always be the finger that pointed, never the one who was pointed at, leaned in closer to Millicent and said, “Oh do you think? She’s always so wretched isn’t she? Following us around…trailing sawdust behind her from that awful carpenter father of hers. It’d be fine by me if the dragon gobbled her up.”
As Tabitha let out her unmistakable laugh, which Millicent thought made her sound like a giggling donkey, the crowd around them seemed to fall into a hush as Mayor Cobblestop made his way toward the edge of the podium. Millicent was sure that she was the only one who noticed her mother swirling the pot of names vigorously behind the podium. It wasn’t a bad play, really. It liberated the wealthier families of money they weren’t using anyway, and did no harm to anyone at all, since the dragon hadn’t actually eaten anyone for basically a hundred or so years. Or at least twenty. At any rate, longer than she had been alive.
As her father cleared his throat to begin his traditional speech about bravery, stoicism, and the honor of sacrifice, Millicent felt Tabitha reach over and clutch at her arm. She was suddenly glad she had borrowed the shawl, which prevented Tabitha from digging ragged nails into her actual flesh. She tried to feign concern by inclining her head toward the obviously frightened girl, and realized as she did that the entire gathering seemed to be a lot more dour than it usually was. Now that she noticed it, everyone seemed outright terrified.
Tuning out her father’s voice, she looked around the crowd again, and mused that it probably was a little more frightening than usual to have to endure the ceremony of choosing so many times in a row, when normally it only happened two or three times in a decade. And of course, most of the people in the village didn’t have the comfort of knowing they couldn’t be chosen. But still, the way she saw it there wasn’t much risk either way. Sometimes she even questioned if there really was a dragon.
She noticed the faces of the men, who gathered helplessly behind the tight square of young girls, held at bay as they always were by two members of the town watch, who were a final line of defense against any last minute heroic deeds committed on behalf of the selected girl by her family or friends. But the faces were different now, dark and downcast and full of something that made Millicent’s stomach tighten. And what alarmed her most was that she saw it everywhere she looked, in the eyes of fisherman and farmer alike. She pursed her lips at them, though none of them paid her any mind.
She looked back to the podium as her father said, “And so, the time has come for us to once again honor the pact, and to select, at random, one of our fair and fearless maidens to face for the sake of us all, the terrible beast.”
She heard a rustle move through the crowd behind her, and shivered despite the two shawls she was wrapped in. She watched her mother, with a practiced and solemn look on her face move forward bearing the bowl of names, the sticky and the smooth alike. The usual hush fell as her father reached his stumpy hand into the pot and swirled the names around for good measure. Then, he withdrew a single stick and squinted at it, then announced in a loud voice, “Natlie Restin.”
The gathered girls let out a collective sigh even as they immediately drew back from one single figure, as if Natlie Restin had suddenly been transformed into a drop of oil in a clear bucket of water. Natlie, to her own credit, merely straightened her back, but from behind them all the anguished cry of a single man echoed over the gathering.
This was the part Millicent hated the most. It was such a joke. The family would cry and sob about losing their poor baby girl. Sometimes they begged, sometimes they made a valiant dash at the girls to try and run away with their daughter or sister (hence the two armed guards). And then for three whole days the village would fawn over some peasant cow and throw her a huge feast, and Millicent herself would have to sit next to the girl and chat with her for hour after dull hour.
Then at sunset on the third day they’d cart the stuffed girl out to a field, she’d spend a boring and uncomfortable night tied to a stake (thought Millicent often thought having to stand all night was probably not a terrible fate for some farm girl used to working the fields) and then come tea time the next day she’d come stumbling back into town, her family would blubber and wail as if every single girl that was put out didn’t come back in exactly the same way and life would go on as it always had, no change at all. Except of course now Millicent would have one more poor girl she had to wave at when she passed her on the streets.
Millicent was examining the fingernails of her right hand, which she had extended from the warmth of Tabitha’s preferred shawl, when something entirely new happened. A second male voice, from an entirely different area of the crowd, spoke up loudly, “Why should Natlie Restin have to go?!”
Millicent jerked her head to the side, casting her blue eyes about in the crowd for the face belonging to the second voice. She felt her stomach tighten.
Then, a female voice, from another entirely different part of the crowd cried, “Yea! Why is it always the poorest girls that have to go?! Never a Threshton or a Blans!”
The entire crowd began to rumble with a low murmur. Millicent tossed her gaze back to her father who was now gripping both sides of the podium and working his lower jaw. Just as he looked like he was about to succeed in forming his first word, another male voice, from roughly the same direction as the first cried, “Hey! You’re right! This isn’t fair! How come our daughters are on the menu while the wealthy girls are safe and happy!”
The crowd’s murmurs became a cresting wave of sound, which suddenly broke over the village square when three more voices tried to scream their own opinions at the exact same moment, which finally tore back the veil of civility and unleashed in that one dark instant the building fear and uncertainty which recent events had stoked into hot coals in the bellies of every single citizen of Hilsbac.
Hilsbac was instantly burning in fear.
Unsure where to look, Millicent caught sight of the two town guards, swords drawn half-heartedly, looking alternately between one another and the suddenly roiling crowd. She was bumped as the girls around her began to whimper and weep, churning in their confinement. She saw Natlie Restin turn and scream the name of her father, which caused a responding surge of violent noise from the gathered men. She drew her own shawls tight around her, and thought she could just make out her father screaming, but couldn’t make out what he was trying to say.
Then pain exploded some behind Millicent’s cool blue eyes. She felt her head jerked to the side, and recognized in that instant that something had a hold of her beautiful blonde hair. Until that moment this quaint little uprising was just an amusement. However, as she was wrenched downward into a hunched position, and realized it was piggy peasant Tabitha who had laid hands on her in the grips of a livestock like panic, Millicent Cobblestop had had enough.
Even as she sucked air into her dainty, bird-like lungs, she was bawling her fingers into painfully tight fists, and when she launched herself bodily at Tabitha, she let out a shriek so loud and so high that wolf pups in dens as much as a mile away were wakened from their evening naps to howl as though the moon herself had come to visit their dreams.
The crowd fell instantly silent in response to her unearthly shriek, and the dull thud of Millicent’s fist connecting with Tabitha’s eye socket was the final note of the short symphony of terror that had so spontaneously begun. Tabitha stumbled backward and fell onto her fat backside, and immediately began a wet sucking sobbing. The girls around her drew backward as though she were now the drop of oil, and Millicent found herself standing in a ring of concerned and frightened faces. She tried not to let her disgust dirty her features.
When the silence stretched on, Millicent, who was afterall a Cobblestop from a long line of Cobblestops, who were without exception masterful in the arena of local politics, realized the crowd was waiting for her. Millicent felt more comfortable in that instant than she had all night. She straightened herself up, ran a few fingers back through her recently abused but still gorgeous golden hair, and let out a heavy sigh, before saying loudly, “Oh for heaven’s sake, I’ll go.”