There are plenty of bloggers out there who are going to address just about every aspect of inequality far better than I can so I will continue on my usual path and present you with my take on the subject in fantasy form. I got the idea to re-vist Ben and this happened.
If you want to read The Deepest Hours – Part One first, it can be found here.
Ben stood on the verge of leaving the village. It had been twenty-five years since the night of the dark stranger. His parents had put it down to sleepwalking, to night terrors, but Ben knew better. Now he was about to embark on either the most foolish or brilliant plan he’d ever had, and Ben was well known for his plans; mostly because they always failed. This was his chance to break the cycle.
Apprenticed to a smith at twelve, Ben had learned his trade well, but the timing had been poor. When Ben was fully qualified, the days of horses were long on the wane, replaced by metal contraptions of steam and clockwork. His prospects had dwindled to zero when the smith closed for good; Ben had been set to take over, but there was nothing left. He’d turned his hand to other trades, farm hand, wood cutter, and even hefting barrels at the brewery, and there he’d met Elaine.
She’d captured his heart in an instant; all flashing green eyes, tumbling red curls and with a laugh gay enough to turn the heads of gods. He’d stayed at the brewery solely because of her. Daughter to the owner, he’d expected nothing, but some god was smiling on them. He courted her for a year, salting away what money he could to buy her baubles, fripperies and her greatest desire, honeycomb. When he’d asked for her hand she’d given instant assent, but there had been the end of complete happiness.
Her father had rage, accused, treated Ben with appalling cruelty. Love of Elaine cost Ben his job, his tiny room over the inn, and his friends for they worked at the brewery and dared not risk his fate. Yet Elaine would not be shaken. She had given her word, her heart and she denied her father for the first time in her life. He disowned her even as she ran to Ben in the brewery yard, weeping in his embrace, but they walked away with heads high and, unbeknown then, misplaced hope in their hearts.
They were married in the only place Ben could take her, the church in the village where he had been christened. They shared his parent’s home, Ben taking any and all work he could find, but the coins were always too few to stretch from end to end, especially when the children began to arrive. At home this night Elaine slept with Daisy in her arms, but there had been more, three who had died unborn, and one who had lived just a day. Daisy was toddling, babbling, and sickly. Ben had spent what little savings they’d had on doctoring, but there was no more money and the doctor wouldn’t come, tending to the child up at the manor instead.
The manor where Ben’s parents had worked for years, loyal and true. The manor where they wouldn’t employ Ben when he begged in desperation. Elaine’s father’s reach was long, his business and social connections far-reaching. No-one would take Ben on, forcing the couple to live hand to mouth whilst the manor child grew strong on meat and milk, pampered and coddled, where a doctor would attend because he would receive that handful of coin. Ben acknowledged Daisy was dying, and he had one chance left in his long history of failure. He stepped out of the village.
In twenty-five years little had changed. The larches still formed the shaded avenue, but perhaps the animal track was a little broader, a little deeper for he found it easily. Following it through the undergrowth he thought back to the night of the dark stranger and forced down the ever growing ball of knotted terror which had formed in his stomach as he’d made his decision. Walking into the clearing, facing the immense doors, still impressive although not as gigantic as they had seemed to a child, he hesitated for a second, but the image of Elaine cradling Daisy in her lap, soothing her when the racking coughs came, was foremost in his mind and he approached the doors, hammering loudly, praying the dark stranger had no other call on his time that night.
The voice caused his heart to skip then thud hard, seeming nest to the door when he had heard no movement within;
“Benjamin Andrew Taylor, it is still not your time.”
“Wait, please, I ask an audience.”
There was a pause, and Ben could almost feel the curiosity emanating from within, slumping in relief as one door swung open, flooding the empty ground with white light, the stranger a silhouette.
“Enter then, but know you can have no more than a moment for I have calls to make.”
Ben passed inside, the door closed and he risked a look at his host. The cloak was as dark as he recalled, billowing constantly without draught or breeze. It enclosed whoever resided within, the hood falling over the glowing red eyes of Ben’s nightmares, for which he was grateful. He took a steadying breath and asked;
“I have seen your visit and what happens here. I ask this, is it within your power to choose who dances?”
The hood cocked slightly to the right, thoughtful, the voice slow in response.
“I have some… discretion.”
“Are you to visit my house this night?”
“Not tonight, but soon.”
“Then grant me this; take me and leave her.”
Ben had thought the question might arise, thinking long and hard about his answers, contemplating talking about the inequality shown in the village, about how it had affected his family, everything he touched, but in the end he could give only one answer;
“Because it is all I have left to give.”
Again the cocked hood, the thoughtful posture. An arm resolved from the billows, a hand, cold to Ben’s touch, a slight pressure:
“It is done.”
Ben danced that his little girl might live.