Max refused the image her eyes gave to her mind. The door to her home had swung open and stuck there in the forceful gale, three men being the ones to open it however. They’d come without warning and without a word. They’d come with an ultimatum, to her father, a man of honour and duty. Why would they demand something from Patrick Harris, a custodian of trade and goodwill? The biggest of the three, a bearded man named George, locked Mr Harris’ arm behind his back, pulling the limb far further than was necessary, and pressed him onto the handcrafted oak table, flattening his face in the process. Mrs Harris had the misfortune of walking in on the scene, her jaw dropped in fright and a hand placed to muffle her terrified shriek. The second of the men replaced her hand with his and put a knife to her throat. Max hid behind her father’s box of dirty clothes, not able to muster the courage to look at her mother’s fallen corpse staring beady-eyed at her, blood running along the box’s rim. The third man, pleased with the result of his comrades’ raid, looked at poor Caitlyn Harris’ face and sniggered.
“A shame to waste a beauty like this. You struck lucky for once, Patrick,” he said, pinching Caitlyn’s cold cheek. Mr Harris struggled weakly against the brute holding him down, but a quick snap of his wrist motivated him otherwise. “But luck has a way of changin’. That was your change, Patrick. ‘Unlucky’ is your standard. George, Matt, take Mr Harris to the square. He has some… confessin’ to do”.
“I have nothing to confess. I’ve tried to make my life… comfortable in the same ways as the rest of you… at the same pace. But fate has smiled… had smiled upon me. That is all I will ‘confess’ to brigands”. The third man let out a staccato chuckle.
“I would have expected you to recognise military uniform, Patrick. We’re not brigands, because we’re on government terms. And the government in these parts is callin’ for you”. George lifted Patrick off of the table and the three goons left the house, its contents strewn across the floor in needless destruction. Max shuddered behind the obstacle which gave her safety, watching the men swagger out without conscience or care. The little girl started to get to her feet, but the slick of fresh red blood slipped under the sole of her right shoe and she fell back down. Matt, her mother’s murderer, looked back upon hearing the subtle thud of Max’s weight on the wooden floor. As the terrifying few seconds passed with Matt’s heavy footfalls hit the floor, Max could hear the loudness of each breath, every one just too quiet to give her away. The fear grew in her chest, expanding her ribcage until it was ready to burst from fright. Matt peered over the box, his cold grey eyes piercing the shadows.
He found nothing there and decided that his mind was playing with him. Sheathing his knife, Matt left with a brisker pace to catch up with his fellows. Max lied frozen under a grey-brown sweater, her golden head poking out when the footsteps died. The girl clung onto the sweater, her tiny fingers gripping the fabric tightly. It had her mother’s smell on it. A smell that wasn’t blood. Unbeknownst to Max, there was another soldier within the house, right behind her back.
“Are you okay?” the soldier asked. Max went stiff with fright, surprised by the soldier’s hand on her shoulder and the worried tone of her voice. She screamed and jumped back into the box of clothing, knocking it over and trapping her underneath. The soldier, a woman with a different uniform and tone to the others, lifted the edge of the wooden crate and gave the girl a look of deepest sympathy. The soldier gazed upon the shivering girl and fought not to release a tear. Removing the glove from her right hand, she offered it to Max. “You can trust me, little bird. I will do you no wrong”. Gradually, Max lifted her hand to the soldier’s and held her little and ring fingers tightly. The soldier put her other hand down to pull Max first to her feet then higher so that the soldier could comfortably carry her. The little girl put her head on the soldier’s shoulder, staring still at her mother’s corpse, wide eyed and in shock. “What’s your name, little one?”
“Maxine… Where did the bad men take my daddy?” Max whimpered, her fingers digging into the soft cloth of the soldier’s armour. The woman nodded and adjusted her grip on the weak child.
“My name is Sheila, Maxine. Your father is a friend of mine. Do you have many friends here, Maxine?” The girl shook her head and Sheila sighed, thinking to herself that Patrick was much the same at her age. She’d loved him once, but they’d both known Caitlyn just as long and the attraction had been obvious. Just being friends was fine by her, but her heart still ached that day. She knew what the mercenaries would do to Patrick. And if it was in the town square, then the spectacle would be much greater. Mercenaries were all about the performance.
“Kneel, Patrick Harris!” George bellowed. He shoved Patrick’s head down, the man falling onto his knees and his bound hands useless against his back. “Gunnar, take the speech”. The four men were elevated by a platform that stuck up from the cold concrete floor, imperfections of stone and grit the first to receive the rain that appeared in an instant. A crowd had been drawn to the square, invited by the three cutthroats, and it wasn’t one that would be made on an ordinary day. Murderers, thieves and the dishonest folk of the city flocked to see what the mercenaries had organised. These men and women disgusted Patrick and the feeling was mutual. Members of the front row took turns to spit on the virtuous man, his noble face awash with polluted rain and spittle. Gunnar sniggered at Mr Harris’ plight.
“They don’t make ’em much better than you, Patrick. You might have been a saint if you lived in fifteen hundreds”. The crowd jeered and booed, some of them chuckling at the joke and at the prospect of things to come. Sheila stood near the rear of the crowd of vandals and could spot men of her company in the midst of the criminal scum. One even greeted her with a respectful ‘Greetings, Major’ and continued to watch as if nothing was amiss. Sheila closed her eyes as George struck Patrick across with such force to send one of his teeth into the rain. “You’re not well liked in these parts, it seems. Wrong place and wrong time. Very, very unfortunate, Mr Harris”. The people of lower Darwin cheered and gloated at Harris’ capture, one or two shouting words that made Patrick freeze.
“Looks like the crowd wants something, Gunnar”. Matt gave the man a knowing gaze and Gunnar smirked, showing blackened gums and rotten teeth. The crowd rose as a singular unit, chanting two words.
“What do you want, good people of Darwin?”
“His head! His head!” Sheila’s gaze turned cold and rigidly set as George removed a simple meat cleaver from his belt. Gently, she pressed Max’s head into her shoulder.
“Close your eyes, little bird. Sleep if you can. There’s a long road ahead”. Blood oozing from his mouth, Patrick looked up, his neck shuddering with agony. His eyes flew open as his eyes met with Sheila’s, horror giving way to something that worried the soldier. Relief.
“So, Patrick, you have the right to some last words. It’s the most decent thing we could do,” Gunnar sneered, causing a wave of caustic laughter to bubble within the city folk. The rag-covered thief next to Sheila elbowed his companion on his right and the two chuckled nastily, their breath as foul as their manner. “So, what’ll they be, then?” Patrick gulped, blood filling his throat for a second before it slid down as thick as oil. Now, the last of his strength went his lungs and to his voice, the crowd cowering at the display of the old, noble Patrick. He was close to death, but not there just yet.
“Sheila… Take care of Max for me and listen to whatever she wants out of you. Her dreams are mine and they are yours… When she is ready, take her home and serve them my justice. May God be with you, my old friend…” Sheila could hold her sorrow back no longer. The trickle broke into a river and the soldier lifted her hand to salute him, her lip quivering. She didn’t care that the brigands looked at her with shock, revulsion and horror, only that Patrick saw her and the vaguest curve of a smile met his lips. The respect Sheila gave went unbroken as the noblest man in Darwin left the world with the assurance that his daughter was in safe hands.
“Wait a second. That’s the Henderson-Waller bitch. She’s Guild!” one of the murderers, a gutter rat named Nelson, shouted. The crowd all turned with robotic stiffness to put their collective hatred in a single place. The soldier did not move from her static salute when the goons began to converge on her. The thief from earlier jumped at the soldier with a knife, but Sheila was quick to retaliate. A quick blow below the belt stopped the man dead and that meant his knife fell out of his grip. Sheila grabbed the blade midair, slitting the thief’s throat in a single downward stroke. With Harris’ girl still in her arms, Sheila fled with a quickly more motivated horde of criminals at her back.
“Max, we’re going home, to my home in SA. You’ll lose your accent, you might not remember home, but I’m going to fulfill your father’s wishes. I’m going to be your mom for a while. Do you understand?” Max nodded, her face free of tears from the blessing of childhood ignorance.