I'm not going to pretend to be innocent. I'm not a liar about things like this. I'm guilty of a crime and I know it. But I won't say that I was wrong to hurt that man like I did. The sin I committed was much less terrible than the one that would have happened if I had just sat and watched as those things happen.
I did what I believe was right. And I stick to my decision. One fully-grown man (paid by the Lord to keep the peace), stalking an innocent little girl just because he had his sights on her… I was the only one there who could have stopped him taking advantage of her. She was half his size and had no hope on her own. Perhaps I regret breaking so many of his bones, but my quick temper's at fault for that. Nevertheless, however, I did the right thing. I would do it again, given half the chance. Protecting a girl from being raped… that's right, isn't it?
But I'm being punished for it, and I won't see the girl again, not for three long years, and by then I'll be nearly twenty and she'll be a woman.
I'm the eldest son of a seven child peasant family. My family need the income I can earn to survive. I may be only sixteen – nearly seventeen – but I'm responsible enough to work hard, when I need to. My punishment for 'hurting a man above myself' is three years of unpaid labor in the Lord's household, doing whatever the Lord orders me too. I get food and board and clothes and that's it.
It may not sound bad. The Lord's constable told me I should be happy, because I'll get good food and a good bed; and considering my previous crimes (petty stealing because I was hungry), I should have got much worse.
But he can't understand.
Without my income, my family will starve when winter comes. I've failed the people who I care for most in the world; and it's the biggest degradation of all. Worse than not being interested in hitching some pretty young girl; worse than the feeling that I get when I see that however hard I work we still can't afford enough.
I don't believe that anyone is born any better than anyone else. And now I have to go and spend three years pretending I do – if I want to see my family again before I'm an old man.
The man with his back to me in the small room, crouching over the fire, has a kindly voice. "Stop worrying, Vyvyan. What's done is done and you didn't do too much bad."
I've known this man for years, ever since I was a little boy. And now he's going to initiate me into my new life. I won't cry. I won't be scared. It can't hurt that much. "I'm not worrying. I just don't want to go." I want to stay here and work for most of the day but spend the rest of the time swimming in the pond, creating havoc in the sheep fold, climbing trees and stealing eggs. I want to stay here with my bow and arrows and easy hunting for a living. I was born to kill rabbits, not work for Lords.
"It's not that far. You could walk there."
"But they'll never let me come back." Even though I've known this for a long time, saying it makes it worse. I have to say goodbye to everyone and everything I've ever known, and just because I cared enough to protect an innocent child. Life is so unfair. I could never win in it, and just because God had the wonderful idea of letting my parents give birth to me, while the Lord and Lady Englewood had their own son who I'll now serve… It would have been so different if Libran Englewood had been born a peasant and I an heir…
I can't stop myself gasping, however, as the man with me turns around and very suddenly presses a hot iron brand onto the top of my right hand. A tear escapes my eye, and even though I clench my jaw the agony's so bad I still whimper. I can feel my flesh burning; and the heat sends fiery lances of pain up through my arm. They're so intense I can barely feel the press of the shaped metal itself. An acrid smell fills the room. The pain is so great I'm nearly falling over…
A few seconds, however, and the searing agony relents to a lesser pain – though still one worse than I've ever felt – as the hot metal iron is drawn away. My companion puts it back in the grate before looking at me with compassion and pity mingled with a slight embarrassment, like he doesn't know what to say.
He's silent as I clench my hand tight, the scarred and burnt flesh on my right hand feeling unfamiliar against my skin.
Branded forever a criminal for everyone to see.
One tear tracks down my cheek, a sign of my cowardice. I brush it away angrily and finally open my eyes to look at the sign of my crime.
Red, black and ugly on my sun-tanned skin, the bold sign of the balanced scales.
A crime paid for.