I ran around the corner of an old stone building and nearly fell on my face in my haste to crouch down next to the two boys who waited in the shadows. “I did it,” I breathed in triumph. I had successfully dumped a handful of salt into a Guard’s mug while he’d been showing off to the pretty girl who poured the drink.
My friends smiled with devious approval but didn’t say a word. The sound of applause would only give away our position.
I heard the Guard cough and splutter after he took a long draught of the altered drink. He shouted in anger and knocked over the benches around him, obviously unable to take humiliation with any amount of grace. By the sound of it, the table quickly followed the other furniture into the street.
I snorted with suppressed laughter but stayed where I was, sure that no one would be low enough to tell him the direction I’d gone.
The Guards are a group of men and boys stolen from their homes or the streets at the age of sixteen. They’re trained to ‘keep the peace’, which includes killing mages and interrogating anyone rumored to be such. Once they complete training under the lash of whips, they’re employed by the King and become lazy, lawless brutes with no real concern for the people they’re supposed to protect. They were created to fulfill a man’s sense of judgment but I say their very existence fouls the idea of justice.
“Izotz!” Arrats shouted—a moment too late.
A strong hand grabbed my shirt and pulled me to my feet. The Guard lifted me until I was at eye level with him. If looks could kill…well, he still needed practice.
“You don’t want to hurt me,” I suggested, as if such a thing was normal for his kind.
“No, I really think I do,” he growled and set me back down. Hard. He pulled back a fist, ready to launch it at my face but I was quicker.
I kicked him where it really hurt, with every bit of strength I could muster.
He dropped to the ground, nearly pulling me down by my shirt before I could get away. My friends and I raced down the street while he groaned in pain.
“If I ever see you again I’ll kill you, boy,” he shrieked after me, still curled up on the cobblestones.
I laughed it off. How would he ever recognize me amongst all the other street dwellers?
We slackened our pace when we reached an alleyway overhung with the second floors of decrepit wood buildings. It was grimy and dark and refuse had drifted against the bases of the buildings—nothing like the other street with the delicious scent of baked goods and shops that were scrubbed clean every week.
Ekaitz slapped my back as a large grin spread across his face. He was the youngest of our trio, though you could hardly tell from looking at us. “He sure felt that one,” he snickered.
I smiled and then suddenly bluffing anger I growled, “Don’t touch my shirt or you’ll get the same payment.” I stuck my face in his and he backed off in surprise.
“Calm down, no need to get angry,” he laughed.
Our banter was brought to an abrupt halt when a Guard stepped in front of us to block the far end of the alleyway. We turned back and two more Guards stepped from the shadows, completely cutting off our escape.
I recognized one of them as the man I’d sorely affronted.
“Great,” I muttered and my friends finished the thought with, “Now what?”
“Good question. I have the answer.” The Guard paused, as if for effect. “This is where the three of you die,” he said as haughtily as he was able.
“Forgive me if I don’t scream in terror,” I said dryly.
A smile tugged at Arrats’ mouth and he added, “How do you plan on pulling it off? I hear you lazy brutes are quite the incompetent fighters.” Mimicking the Guard, he paused for effect. “Should we pay our respects now, or later?”
“You lost the chance to show me respect, brat,” the Guard growled self-righteously. “Now you’re going to pay.”
“Oh no,” Arrats exclaimed in exaggerated horror. “I’m not ready to die. Have mercy on my poor soul.” The sarcasm dripping from his words should’ve been enough to kill someone. The already humiliated Guard charged, exchanging cunning for brute force. Arrats waited calmly and stepped easily from his path to trip him.
The other Guards attacked and we each had our hands full. We fought hard, determined not to be amongst the numbers left for dead on the streets that day. Our opponents didn’t make it too difficult, fortunately.
One of the Guards was young and lacked confidence. He was the first to deal any harm but was also the first to fall. The others were more experienced but Arrats managed to take down the enraged one and that left the third alone.
The Guard didn’t seem to enjoy the prospect of fighting the three of us on his own and started to back away from me.
“Don’t forget your friends,” I said, seeing the anxious look he sent over his shoulder.
Ekaitz was all that blocked his path. Not the most frightening of sights. With little thought for his accomplices, the Guard knocked the boy out of his way and ran for his life.
Arrats tossed me the dagger he’d gained. “He might remember our faces. It’s not worth the risk.”
I expertly hurled the weapon at the fleeing man and it caught him between the shoulder blades. He dropped to the ground with a sharp cry of pain. I knew my aim had been perfect so I wasted no further thought on him and knelt beside Ekaitz who was cradling his hand to his chest and gingerly prodding the broken wrist.
“Koldobika can probably heal that,” Arrats suggested.
I nodded in agreement and we helped steady Ekaitz as he stood.
I cast one last look at the dead men, wondering if the one I killed would ever have crossed our paths and remembered our faces. Then we left them behind, with their warm blood pooling about them. Other Guards would eventually find the men and dispose of the bodies.
Our home was a simple shack that consisted of a single room built of boards in various stages of decay. Being orphans, we had lived in a number of less sheltering places so it wasn’t too bad, comparatively. The place was located on the outskirts of the city and sat in the shadow of a great, looming wall.
The Wall was said to be impassable and totally indestructible. With no exits or entrances anywhere along its great length, it defined our world. It surrounded the entire kingdom and held within its reaches the city Caernadvall and all the agricultural lands that sustained the inhabitants.
Few of the people I knew had ever pondered the question of what lay beyond the Wall and they were all street urchins like me so they’d never had the opportunity to ask it of anyone knowledgeable. As things stood, the most common answer was little more than the question, “What else could there possibly be?”
I had never been sure what could exist beyond the Wall, if anything did, but I found it necessary to believe that there was more to life than the uncivil ways of Caernadvall. It was commonly believed that there was nothing worse than life as we had it and, consequently, nothing better.
When an old man named Koldobika had appeared months before, with his knowledge of some ethereal force called magic, he had upset my underdeveloped knowledge of life. His tales were so outlandish that they seemed to contradict any sane reasoning, yet they had the fortune of vaguely coinciding with my hopes, rather than the petty discrimination of people with riches and the constant fight for survival by those who did not.
Arrats nudged open the shack door and it swung away from him with a weary groan. Ekaitz and I followed him single-file into the shack’s glum interior. The outlawed wizard and now good friend of ours, Koldobika, sat crouched over a small fire that glowed warmly in the round hearth, doing its best to cheer up the place.
“Good evening, boys,” the wizard said softly, as we all gathered around the fire. A distant look filled his old eyes for a quick moment before he suddenly stood and surveyed his surroundings.
After I’d been introduced to magic I’d found that I could hear other peoples’ thoughts at will. The wizard, however, seemed to keep some sort of barrier up so it was difficult to extract his thoughts and only occasionally could I catch a glimpse of his pondering mind.
“You aren’t leaving, are you?” I interrogated.
“Yes, Izotz, I am leaving. One of the Guards discovered my presence and it will no longer be safe for you to stay in this area. I am truly sorry to have put you three in this predicament, though I am sure you will easily find a new home.” His thoughts then strayed to never seeing the place again and suddenly my connection was severed as he looked sharply at me, finally having noticed my probing. Staying with my friends and me, he’d had a bit of practice rebuking us with a harsh glare.
“Wait,” I said quickly. “Will you heal Ekaitz?”
He glared at me a little longer, for good measure, and finally knelt next to Ekaitz to inspect his wrist. “I am sorry but I am not very good with broken bones or anything beneath the skin.”
“Now what?” Ekaitz mumbled, in his mind resigning himself to the hindrance of a broken arm.
The wizard hesitated a moment, then placed his fingers on Ekaitz’ wrist and let sparks of magic flow from his fingertips. Koldobika’s face grew drawn and weary by the time he removed his hands from the boy’s wrist but he quickly regained his composure. “Use the hand as little as possible until it heals completely.” He glanced at Arrats and I. “Make sure he takes care of it. Tell Eskarne to keep an eye on him if you have to.”
Ekaitz’ eyes widened. “No need for threats. I’ll let it heal.”
Koldobika stood again so we followed suit and he placed his hands on Arrats’ and Ekaitz’ shoulders. “May what luck and fortune there is go with you.” He looked at me and simply stated, “Farewell, Itzal Izotz.”
Some farewell. I reached out to snatch a dagger from the air as I called it into existence. That was the bit of magic Koldobika had taught me. I could summon any metal object within my capacity to imagine. I gave him the dagger and he chuckled softly.
“You know I can make weapons of my own.”
His words brought a quick smile to my face and I nodded.
Koldobika tucked the dagger into the belt he wore around his robes. “Then I will return this to you the next time we cross paths.”
I wondered how he could be so certain that we would see each other again. Whenever someone left for another part of Caernadvall it was for good. You never saw them again. Not according to my experience, anyway.
“Do not use your magic to harm others unless it is in defense, which it very well may be in the coming days, but even then you should try to keep it secret.” Those words he left as a final warning before he slipped out the door.
We thought the words were meant only for the three of us and our current situation but we would later find that it was much more than three orphans who might be accused of assisting a wizard. However, even if we could have suspected a deeper meaning behind his words, we were too preoccupied with our own circumstances to consider the possibility.