They arrived in Kingsdown on what appeared to be a market day. The streets were swollen with activity. Narrow lanes meandered through stalls set up for selling food, produce, and goods and artifacts of all kinds. But Elana noted the crowd seemed to be generally drifting toward the center of town.
“What’s going on?” Elana wanted to know.
“Unless I’m wrong, it’s a Day of Justice… a day on which public judicial punishments are carried out by Church authorities. Come on,” he said. “You should probably see this. It will help you understand New Norfolk’s theocratic culture. It’s much more severe than what you find anywhere in Westlyn, and in Port Sarum in particular.”
Rhys knew someone who owned a tavern that fronted a large square in the middle of town, so they could see everything clearly from a second floor balcony.
There was a scaffold in the square, elevated so people could have a good view. There was a post on one end with a ring at the top. At another end was a pillory. Another taller post was in the center. Between the two ends were some benches.
Elana could see a procession coming from an official looking building adjacent to the square. They looked like priests in robes, wearing odd pointed hats, and between two columns of them there marched five couples. The man in each couple held the woman by the arm, as if leading her along.
“These are the domestic cases,” said Rhys. “Women may be charged with minor offenses like rude gossip, lewd behavior, swearing… things like that. The Church authorities hear these cases and pronounce sentence. Their husbands may elect to carry it out. They atone publicly by submitting to public punishment.”
“What will happen?” said Elana.
“The men will take their wives up on the scaffold, sit on those benches, and upend the women over their laps. Then they will spank them for as many turns of the glass as has been decreed.”
Rhys pointed to a big hourglass that was supported on a gimbal. “It runs for several minutes.”
Elana winced, feeling for the women in view of her own painful experience across Rhys’ knee with that awful switch. And indeed, that was exactly what happened. Elana watched in amazed silence as the five men sat on the benches. The women knew what was expected of them, although they were all blushing or looking about, clearly embarrassed. No doubt some of their own friends and neighbors were witnessing this.
They stood by their husbands and lifted their skirts to waist level. The husbands whisked down undergarments, then pulled the wives across their laps. Five plump bottoms were upended across husbandly knees, awaiting the word to begin. Elana marveled at the public humiliation of it all. Her heart went out to the women. She almost thought, I’d never let a man do that to me. They she remembered. I already have. And she blushed at the memory.
It was announced that the punishment would be applied for two turns of the glass. This was about seven minutes total, explained Rhys.
Then it began. The men produced spanking implements—small paddles or strips of leather. With them they smacked the bottoms of their wives… hard, it seemed to Elana. There was much wriggling and pleading as sharp retorts of husbandly paddle or strap meeting wifely bottom resounded across the square.
How can they allow their men to do that to them? she wondered. The kicking and squealing intensified the longer it went on. Several times the priests had to admonish a husband who was not being severe enough.
“If he doesn’t punish his wife properly,” explained Rhys, “they’ll have her turned up in the pillory, and the Church deacon will do it—with a birch rod.”
There was a momentary respite when the sands ran out the first “turn”. Elana could see that the behinds of all the wives were turning very red. There were red faces, too, and tears aplenty. Some wives were sobbing quietly while others bawled unabashedly.
Then the glass was turned again and the punishment resumed. This time the cries were sharper as the cacophonous sound of leather or wood randomly smacking bouncing buttocks filled the square. By the time it was over, the wives were writhing shamelessly, trying to find relief from the repeated impacts of straps and paddles on their bare bottoms. There were cheers and catcalls, too, as the spankings continued. Finally, the sands ran out. The authorities allowed the women to cover themselves and be led away by their husbands.
Next, a pair of women were escorted out of the Justice Building toward the platform. One, a tall dark-haired woman, wore a dress in the style of an upper class citizen. It was red with expensive looking embroidery and boasted lace at the collar and cuffs. The other, a fair-skinned blonde woman, who to Elana seemed very beautiful and aristocratic in bearing, wore a long white shift. They ascended the platform. The brunette was smiling, but the blonde looked worried.
An official read from a ledger. It was something about one of the women making an election of apology. Elana didn’t catch it all.
“They are settling a dispute,” said Rhys. “The brunette has accused the other one of slander. It sounds like the blonde has admitted guilt. Maybe a priest got her to confess. Anyway, to avoid a large fine and to settle the matter, she will publicly admit that her gossip was untrue and will submit to punishment from the victim.”
There was a post in the center of the platform with a pair of handles at eye level. The blonde, one Dame Margetta, faced the crowd and made her confession. She said she was sorry for spreading rumors that Dame Fenn, the brunette in red, was unfaithful to her husband—apparently a serious charge. She admitted that the rumors were false and that she had spread them out of envy. She then requested that Dame Fenn punish her. Elana’s jaw dropped as the woman pulled the shift over her head and handed it to an attendant. Underneath, she was stark naked.
“This ritual of atonement requires that the penitent shame herself before the citizenry,” said Rhys. Elana watched as she turned and gripped the handles. She bent forward slightly, thrusting a plump and shapely pair of buttocks toward the crowd. An official handed the brunette a birch rod. It had a cloth wrapping for a handle that encircled a bundle of six or seven long switches.
“She must hold her position and not let go of the handles for the duration of her whipping. The dark-haired woman may whip her as hard as she wishes for one turn of the glass.”
“What happens if she lets go?” Elana was fascinated by the scene. The one called Dame Fenn swished the rod. The one called Margetta shivered.
“A fine is assessed and the Church pronounces punishment—and it will be worse than this. Probably a severe whipping. This is a way to make amends, but fortitude is required. Dame Fenn will no doubt try and make Margetta let go. Then she’ll get the whip and it will be worse. It looks like there is some bad blood between these two. But she must strike the buttocks only.”
The official announced that the chastisement would begin. The glass was tipped, and Dame Fenn wasted no time. She drew back and brought the rod down square across Margetta’s buttocks with a loud thwack. The blonde’s buttocks flexed with the impact and red lines appeared. Being fair-skinned, she marked easily. The brunette delivered another hard stroke. Margetta flinched and let out a small cry. Having established the correct stance and distance, Dame Fenn launched into what Elana thought was a thorough and painful birching. The lashes fell at a fast and furious pace. Dame Fenn had a smooth delivery; it was a coordinated movement, drawing back her arm to shoulder height, taking a slight step forward, and delivering a smooth downward stroke that gathered speed on its descent. It enabled her to land a stroke per second.
The steady sounds resounded through the square. Swish… Thwack! The blonde moaned and flinched as the withes scored her quivering bottom, painting lines that gradually merged into a livid red hue.
Dame Margetta heaved and stamped her feet. Clearly, she was fighting not to let go. Her body shook, and her bottom jiggled non-stop as the rod struck, over and over again.
The sands fell through the hourglass, but it was agonizingly slow. Elana saw the penitent woman’s eyes watching the glass. After her experience, she could certainly appreciate how Margetta was hoping it would go faster.
Meanwhile, her rival had redoubled her efforts and was whipping Margetta as hard as she could. Margetta began to cry and plead for mercy. She was shown none. Her bottom was now a livid red, almost purple.
For a moment her hands seemed to relax their grip, and it looked as though she might let go. Dame Fenn appeared to sense this and struck harder and faster. It was a dramatic moment, a duel, one trying to conquer her pain and hold on, the other trying to make her let go.
It looked as though Dame Fenn might succeed. The crowd grew silent, breathlessly awaiting the finish. But just when it seemed as if the shaky Dame Margetta would lose, the sands ran out. An official had to step forward and grab the arm of the punisher, lest she keep birching her victim after the allotted time.
“I think she really doesn’t like her,” said Rhys dryly.
The blonde was allowed to dress, and both women were escorted off. After that there were various other punishments meted out. A man was tied to the post and lashed on his bare back for theft. A single-tailed whip was used that left vivid red stripes.
A woman was birched in the stocks for cheating a customer. Her hands and neck were fastened into the yoke. It forced her to bend at the waist. Her skirts were raised and her drawers were lowered. A liveried constable took up what looked like another sheave of switches from a tall jar. A Church official read the sentence: thirty-six strokes. The constable or beadle laid on the stripes with a measured deliberate pace. Elana winced. At each swish of the rod, the woman’s buttocks quivered. She cried out in anguish and tried to wriggle as her bottom turned red under the intense switching. But she could not move much. The stocks held her securely.
“Why are the women punished on their, er, bottoms but the men are whipped on the back?”
“They call it upper discipline and lower discipline. Always been that way, I guess.” Rhys shrugged and turned away. “I think we’ve seen enough. Let’s go. We have to find the dead drop used by your agent, Julia Rogan. She’s a novitiate in the Benefice Sisterhood, right?”
Elana nodded. The strange frisson was back due to what she had witnessed. Somehow, watching those women being disciplined in such an intimate and shaming way had actually begun to arouse sexual feelings. Their bare bottoms so rudely exposed, their sex clearly… accessible.
And, she had to admit, there was her growing attraction to Rhys. It arose despite her resolve to confront the barbarian about his attitude, the idea that he was the dominant half of this arrangement, not her equal, but her master. It all made for an odd stew of feelings and emotions that gave her butterflies in the pit of her stomach—especially whenever Rhys stood close or touched her, even casually. She had to get this under control, dammit.
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