They entered the square where the boyar usually held his speeches, followed by the first houses, fires still burning in them. Bright light shining through the gaps in the wooden walls.
“What do we do now?” - Ozren whispered.
“We look around. It has to be somewhere here.”
They passed around a group of kids, maybe younger than Ozren. They were gathered around a fire, cooking a small animal.
“Sod off, find your own!” - one of them yelled protectively when he saw that Ozren was looking at their food.
Another boy was hunched, pressing his hands against his stomach. He kept swallowing his saliva at the sight of the meat. How long hasn’t he eaten, Ozren wondered. The housemaid led the way through the muddy streets. Behind a corner, they saw a man lying on his face.
“Are you okay, sir?” - Ozren said by instinct.
He knelt, put his hands on his shoulders, and shook him, but no answer came, so he turned him over.
Ozren yelled and fell back in the mud when he saw the man’s face. He was dead with hollow eyes. Two empty sockets stared back at Ozren.
“It’s the rats. They start from the eyes because they’re soft.”
A forgotten body left on the streets to rot. Up there in the keep people got funerals when they died. Here they became food for the rodents.
“Why don’t they burn him at least? Rats bring diseases.”
“Maybe they’ve left it as bait, or they want to distract the creatures away from the babies. Who knows?”
“Those kids we passed by, did you think they were eating rabbits?”
Two houses down the street, they heard muffled sounds and pleading coming from one of the houses. Its door was half-open, and the moon’s light was the only one that reached it. They heard a woman’s muffled pleas for mercy as they passed, followed by the sound of cloth being ripped. The moon revelaed the silhouettes of two men, holding a woman pressed up against the ground.
“We should call the guards!” - Ozren whispered.
“These are the guards.” - the housemaid answered.
“I’m the son of the boyar. I’ll order them to stop!”
“Do you look like one now?”
Ozren looked down at his ragged clothes covered in mud and whitewash.
“You go in there you will be the dead son of the boyar.”
He took another look at the gruesome scene inside. One man bared his teeth while the other smirked at the woman’s futile attempts to escape.
“Soften up, darling, don’t make us go see your baby in the cot.” - one of the guards said.
“Such a shame if something were to happen to the little one only because his mother didn’t show some hospitality.” - the other continued.
She slowly loosened her grip on their clothes and stopped kicking, and she looked at them with tears in her eyes, accepting the world for what it was. Just like the rest of the village has, raising a generation who viewed corpses on the street as something normal. A generation whose mothers faced each horror silently with tears in their eyes, just so they could give their children a chance.
“Please get me out of here.” - Ozren asked.
“But we haven’t found the thing yet.” - the housemaid answered.
“Get me back to the keep. Please.”
“You can’t bear it for a few moments but expect your people to live here?”
“Look at this place! The only thing here is death and despair. What are we even looking for?”
“You finally get it.” - she smiled - “The garden doesn’t want anything you could give it, nor your father, nor your brothers.”
“Then what does it want?”
“It feeds on your people’s love, Ozren.”