It had been a month since their mother had died. The Tarles kids, now orphaned, struggled to put something on the table with the unreasonable amount of debt they had to pay off. Their father having left them years ago, their only source of income was what the oldest, Simon, could get from some cheap labour. With the king taxing them high and the price of food increasing, it wasn’t just the Tarleses that found life hard.
The third Tarles, Jack, a young boy of twelve with auburn hair and a jolly, freckled face, called out the window, “Fair Susie, is there something to eat? Bread will do or even a cold piece of meat!”
Susie looked up, raising her hands to shield her eyes from the icy winds. She was like Jack, auburn hair and a freckled face, only her eyes didn’t have that glint of mischief, rather, they held deep sorrow.
“Shut up, will you,” Susie yelled, “Why don’t you come out here and help me?”
With that, Jack ran away, screaming, “I shan’t, I shan’t, I shan’t.”
“That boy,” Susie sighed.
By sunset Susie had something over the fire, while Jack and baby Lucy sat watching the pot. Just then, the rickety door opened and the three looked eagerly at the new comer.
A tall boy, red with the days exercise, walked through the door. He disappointedly put a few coins on the table and joined the others by the fire. Susie put a hand on him, “Don’t worry Simon, we’ll figure somethin’ out.”
“Tomorrow’s the last day to pay of them debts,” Simon said bitterly.
“I’m sure that the king’ll be more than happy to give us a bit more time.”
The four Tarleses ate their dinner and went to bed, which were actually straw mats covered with hay. By the time the sun had risen the following morning, the Tarleses were ready to journey to the king’s castle to ascertain their future.
They stopped once under a Baymore tree and Jack quickly grabbed the best fruit from the top branches. As they feasted, they looked upon the city and its occupants.
The Land of Cromia, ruled by King Pesin II and his ancestors for generations, was divided into two by nature itself. The Cromian River ran through the kingdom, splitting it into two. The northern end, where the Black Forest stretched far and wide, was where the Tarleses and other middle and lower class families lived. In this part of the kingdom, things were run differently. Markets were little stalls on the street, open all through the night. People bustled about everywhere, attired in vibrant colours. In the hotter part of the year, people slept on roofs or with their windows and doors open. Fear of thieves was virtually unknown.
But when you crossed the river and entered the Southern Land, things changed drastically. Large mansions, spaciously spread with clean cut gardens, surrounded you. Markets were delivery men that brought things right to your door step. Men dressed in silk robes while women wore elegant dresses which were in no way too ‘revealing’. Valuables were locked and hidden and guards circled the doors every night.
The difference being great, the two sides hardly knew what went on in the other end. The Tarleses, having rested enough, continued on until they reached the heart of Southern Cromia. The palace gates stood in front of them, stretching far into the sky. After being checked for weapons, they were blindfolded and led into the castle. They descended stairs and walked through cold, musty passageways. Then they were made to stop. The guards took the fold off their eyes.
“What was that for?” Jack protested.
“Security, young man,” one of the guards replied.
They entered a large hall covered with silk tapestries. Intricate carvings were made onto the ceiling and large pillars were surrounded by extravagant statues. At the centre of it all sat King Pelsin II, high up on his throne. They bowed.
“What is the matter?” the king asked, eyeing the Tarleses as if they were the problem themselves.
“Sir, they ask for time to pay off their debts,” one of the guards answered.
“Very well, Duoye, bring me the Book of the Subjects.
The man did as asked.
“Name?” the king asked.
“Tarles, sir.” Simon took a step froward.
The king held the book out and a young man with bright blue eyes, looked through the pages.
“Found it,” the young man announced.
“Very well, Casin, what does it say?”
“Mother died recently…owes a hundred quires, thirty nine starleks and fifty one reels. “
The king contemplated for a few minutes and said, “I’m sorry to say that I can’t offer my help. You know the consequences: you’re sent to the workhouse until you’ve paid off the debts.”
Simon shuddered while Susie huddled closer. The workhouse was reputed to be a place where girls got raped, boys turned into drunks and lives were ruined. There was even a chant that went around:
Oh! Never go to the workhouse cell,
For it is worse that Satan’s own hell.
They take your toys and burn them all,
They make you work until you fall.
“However,” the king continued, “I give you a choice.”
They looked up hopefully.
“Casin,” the king looked the young man.
“Of course, uncle.” Casin disappeared behind the curtains.
“This is my offer, consider it carefully. The settlers before us grew the Turleen flowers right at the heart of the Black Forest. Of course, after the war, when we took their land, they fled to the East. But before they left, they cast powerful spells protecting the flowers so that it was impossible for anyone but them to get it. Now, these flowers produce juices which can be used to cure almost any wounds. If we do get possession of it, our soldiers will have a great advantage during battles. All you have to do for me is get those flowers and not speak a word of this to anyone.”
He leaned back in his throne to indicate he was finished.
The man by the name of Casin returned with a heavy book in his hand. He opened to a page, pointed at a picture and said, “This is the flower.”
The Turleen flower was a black mass at the centre of spiky, green leaves. The petals had no shape or shine; they just stuck out in all directions.
“That’s not very pretty,” Jack blurted out.
Casin chuckled, “It may look like poison on the outside, but inside, it’s a jewel.”
“Now,” the king warned, “It’s a dangerous place, the Black Forest, and many have never returned. So make your decision wisely, for once you accept, there’s no turning back.”
“What happens if we are unable to find the flower?” Susie asked, “Is it the workhouse again?”
The king laughed, “We’ll see. So, do you agree?” He sat up straight.
“Yes,” Jack said at once, much excited by the prospect of an adventure.
“Yes,” said Simon, determinedly.
Susie sighed and reluctantly agreed.
“Excellent,” the king exclaimed, “You have seven days. Now, off you go for I am required somewhere else.”
“Wait,” said Simon, “Where exactly is the heart of the Black Forest?”
“Why, at the centre of course.” The king was amused.
“And how would we know that?”
“Ah! The centre is where the Cromian River divides into four.”
The Tarleses were dismissed, but the king stared after them, long after they were gone.
By the time the Tarleses had reached their cottage, it was well past midnight. Lucy slept, while the rest packed things for the morrow: Simon sharpened a knife, Susie packed some apples in a haversack and Jack got a few ropes from the shed.
Simon awoke well before it was light and made sure that the rest were asleep. Then he stuck the knife in his shoe, placed the haversack on his shoulder and quickly tip-toed out of the cottage.
He walked without looking back but then stopped. The Prat sisters, the neighbourhood’s eyes and ears, peered out of the curtains. When they realised Simon had seen them, they quickly closed the curtains.
Simon resumed walking.
Susie awoke with a start. She looked around and realised that Simon was gone. She woke Jack and together they searched the whole house. There was no sign of him and the haversack was gone. Susie quickly took some food and put it in a sack. She placed Lucy on her hip and hurried out of the cottage. Jack ran along, shouting for Simon in vain.
All this havoc didn’t go unnoticed. The Prat sisters ran after Susie, Jack and Lucy, begging for them to stop.
“Dear Susie, what is the matter?” asked the eldest.
“Yes, yes. What is the matter?” the other joined in.
“Oh! Have you seen Simon?” Susie asked desperately.
“Why yes. He left a few minutes ago towards the Black Forest.”
“Yes, yes…towards the Black Forest.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Dear girl, can we help?”
“Yes, yes. We love to help.”
“Everything’s fine. Now, I have to be off.” With that, the Tarleses ran.
The Prat sisters waited until they were out of earshot. Then they ran across the street, screaming, “Oh Martha, you won’t believe…”
Susie, Jack and Lucy slowed down their pace as they entered the forest. They kept on the path that the villagers used but soon the trail was lost. Huge tress rose around them, stretching far into the sky. Barely any sunlight came through the canopy above while hisses and chirps filled the air. Trying not to panic, Susie sang:
Day or night, we shall survive,
For we are the Tarles kids.
Through all the tough times, we will thrive,
For we are the Tarles kids.
“Admit it Susie, we’re lost,” Simon said.
“No,” Susie insisted, “We’re just off track.”
“It’s all Simon’s fault. If he hadn’t left us –” Susie stopped. She heard something. After carefully looking around, she dismissed it, thinking it was only her mind playing tricks.
They walked along and Susie heard it again. But this time, Jack heard it too. Suddenly, about half a dozen men came running in from all directions. They were surrounded. Susie gingerly took a few steps back.
Then, Lucy broke into tears and didn’t stop. She had never thrown such a tantrum before. One of the men came forward and tried to stop her, but to no avail. Much annoyed, he put his finger in her mouth.
Suddenly, Lucy’s jaws snapped and she bit the man who screamed in pain. She let go at last and the man’s companions laughed merrily.
This distraction was exactly what they needed. Jack broke into a run, Susie and Lucy followed. The men were quick however, and within minutes they were only a few metres behind.
Not noticing the uneven ground, it was only a matter of time before the Tarleses fell into a ditch. Jack cleverly covered the top with some leaves and they hid inside. The men hadn’t noticed this and looked around. Some climbed trees and others went in different directions. One of them however, circled the area.
After a while, the man gave up and retreated. Jack carefully came out and helped the others. The men were nowhere in sight.
“Gottcha!” a voice whispered.
The three turned around in shock. They tried running but in vain. The Tarleses were handcuffed, a cloth was tied around their eyes and the men dragged them along.
Ere long, the grass and soft earth of the forest suddenly changed to gravel. The men released Jack, Susie and Lucy. They were now standing in front of huge iron gates, beyond which was a dull, grey building. As they walked in, Susie winced at the terrible stench. Jack and Lucy did much the same. They were led into a narrow passage way.
The three of them gasped in horror. On either side of the passage were cells in which were people. Most of them, barely old enough, clung to the metal bars. They wore rags through which bony arms and legs stuck out. Little girls, some younger than Lucy, were jammed into the corner. They were suffocating and hardly anyone noticed.
Lucy started to sob. Jack vomited with revulsion. Susie started to shake with fear.
They were taken to the last cell which housed only one person. They were thrown inside. The man sitting in the corner looked up and gasped in shock.
“No! No! Why did you all come?”
“Simon?” Susie stared, “Oh Simon! They got you too?”
They hugged each other.
A voice interrupted them. It was Casin.
“Well,” he began, “You put up some fight, but we got you in the end. “
“Uh! You dirty cheat,” Susie screamed.
“Now young lady, save your breath. Simon, why don’t you tell your sister what’s happening.”
“It’s a trap, Susie,” Simon said, bitterly, “There is no flower. The king sent his men after us and now everyone thinks we’re dead. No one’s going to look for us. I’m so sorry.”
“And all these people?” Susie asked.
“We’re all going to be sent to the East as slaves. The king is exchanging us for money.”
“You all disgust me,” Susie was beside herself, “How could you! All those children!”
“Watch your mouth, miss. This is all for the greater good. Cromia has improved much already. You should be thanking us!”
“Thanking you! Improved!” Susie spat, “Cross the river and enter the Northern side, you’ll see misery. We have no food and your King sits there with all that gold! You fool, look around. Have you no heart?”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Casin walked away.
After a while, they heard hurried footsteps. Casin reappeared, this time agitated. He unlocked the door.
“Quick, get out and get some help. I’m so sorry, I’ve been a monster. The King’ll be here by sunset; I don’t know how long I can hold them off for.”
“Thank you, mister.” Jack said.
“I don’t deserve that. Quick, go get help or else all these people will be sent to the East.”
As they left, Susie looked around at the people. They were pleading for her to take them with her.
“I’m sorry, I cant. But I promise I’ll be back. I promise.”
Then they ran out of the building.
“Which way do we go?”
“Look, Bluveers.” Jack pointed at the pale blue birds up in the sky. “They fly south for winter, towards the castle. Follow me, it’s this way.”
So they followed Jack and within minutes they were at the edge of the forest. Soon, little cottages came into view.
“We must tell all the villagers and get their help,” Susie declared, “Simon you go left, Jack you go near our cottage and Lucy and I’ll go right. We’ll meet here in ten minutes.”
So they departed. Simon knocked on doors and Susie ran inside shops. Jack however, went straight to his neighbours, the Prat sisters. Being the eyes and ears of the place, they had within minutes spread word to the entire town.
When the Tarleses met, they had gathered quite a crowd: men with rakes and pitchforks and housewives with saucepans. Even some children had tagged along, with sticks and stones in their hands.
The sky started to turn orange; the sun had begun to set.
“Follow me, everyone!” Jack called out. The crowd marched through the forest and within minutes, the iron gates were visible. The villagers ran inside, bashing the gates open.
The king and his men, who were already there, were taken by surprise. The men drew out their swords but were largely outnumbered.
Fighting ensued. Bodies dropped to the ground, mostly the king’s men. Susie looked around and noticed that the king and Casin were at each others throat. Then Casin dropped to the ground, blood oozing out of his stomach. It was so sudden. Susie couldn’t even scream.
Slowly, the noise of metal and swords ceased. The king’s men were dead and the king himself lay in a pool of blood. The people cheered while the Tarleses walked over to where Casin lay and felt his pulse. He was no more.
All the people that died that night were buried in the forest. The dull grey building was burnt down along with the king. Casin was buried under a large oak tree in a clearing. The sunlight fell straight on his grave stone which read:
Here lays Casin, who found his way back.
Most of the people were rescued from the East, but some were lost forever. So every year, on the first day of winter, the people of Cromia gathered to keep their memories alive.
The Australian Literature Review