1 – A beautiful day

“You’re hiding in here again?”

The boy’s head rose from the book he was immersed in. He recognized the voice, and he knew the man would find him here eventually. He knew the boy well. This shoddy log cabin full of books was his favorite place. The boy would come here to read and avoid the outside world.

“Come out. Your father’s been searching for you… if he finds you here, he’s going to punish me too!”

The boy hesitated. He most certainly didn’t want to come out. But he also knew it was hopeless; the punishment would come eventually. If only he wasn’t a coward, maybe he’d come out and spare his friend from any consequences – like the heroes in the books.

“Please, Spear! Don’t make me drag you out… You know I have no choice!”

“But you are the wizard!”, the boy finally spoke, revealing his presence behind a huge pile of books. Not that Jeneth, the village wizard, had any doubt that Spear was hiding in his home.

“You know as well as I do that that’s worth nothing around here!”

Silence. Motes of dust could be seen in the sunlight filtering through little gaps in the roof. The most magic the wizard ever used was to keep rainwater off his books, which were just scattered without any apparent organization in piles and shelves everywhere, with barely the space to walk around. Not that there were that many books – Spear had probably read them all by now; it was just that the place was really small. Being the wizard was indeed not worth very much in the village of Dustwater.

The boy shuffled uncomfortably. He still didn’t really want to come out. He just wanted to curl up and hide for the rest of his life.

Jeneth sighed. “You know that I would help you if I could. You’re the only one with half a brain around here. But you have to get out now.”

Spear finally came out, putting his book on top of the pile he was hiding behind. His shoulders were slumped, his face the expression of dread. He looked like a prisoner walking to their execution. In fact, an execution sounded like a good deal to him at the moment. A swift end to his cursed existence. Dragging his feet, he finally walked outside the door; sighing again, the wizard closed the door.

It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining, fluffy white clouds adorning the sky. Birds were twittering, flowers were blooming, the trees’ leaves were rustling under a gentle breeze. Spear couldn’t see any beauty in it, though. He didn’t notice any of those things – except for the sun hurting his eyes. He fantasized about running away from the village and going as far as the end of the world; he didn’t believe for a moment that he’d be able to. He tried to think of somewhere else to hide, but nothing came to mind; he kept wandering aimlessly, hoping to delay the inevitable.

“There you are! You useless coward! You’ll regret wasting my time!”, he heard the booming voice of the General – his father – and flinched. He wasn’t really a general, mind you, as there was no army to speak of in the village. But he didn’t like to be called leader or chief; he fashioned himself to be a mighty general and the village to be his army. He grabbed Spear and started dragging him toward the square. He certainly didn’t avoid hurting him in the process. The boy tried his best to hold back tears – crying would only make the General more furious.

“Your brother Whip will take care of your punishment”, he said with the hint of a smile on his face. Whip was already waiting in the square, in front of a wooden post, the weapon he was named after in his hands, smirking.

“No! Please, no! I’ll do anything you say! Please!” Spear couldn’t avoid sobbing anymore, horror in his face; he uselessly struggled; he was dragged with little difficulty, his shirt removed, finally tied to the post. He kept sobbing uncontrollably while the General looked with disgust. “Damn coward! I should have never expected anything from the likes of you!”, he spat.

Whip enjoyed Spear’s wailing as he lashed out on his back. After the third lash, the boy passed out and stopped making noises, slumped on the post, blood drizzling down his back. “The weakling has already passed out!” Whip’s face was full of disappointment. Then it was lit by an idea: “father, may I continue once he wakes up?”

The man shook his head slowly, “Do whatever you want with him, he’s useless to me.” He turned and left. A huge grin spread across Whip’s face. The sun was shining, fluffy white clouds adorned the sky; birds were twittering, flowers were blooming and leaves were rustling under a gentle breeze. It was a beautiful day indeed, while Spear lay unconscious, tied to a wooden post, in the middle of the square, with Whip waiting with anticipation next to him.

✤ ✤ ✤

“Spear, wake up!”

Jeneth was whispering while shaking the boy’s shoulder. It was a dark night with just a sliver of moon. Sara, Spear’s sister, was next to him, looking around to make sure nobody could see them. The boy had been unconscious for hours, still tied to the post. He had woken up, not long after the first time he passed out, and Whip had eagerly resumed with his lashings, which caused him to quickly pass out again, to the great disappointment of his brother.

“Wake up, come on!”

Spear groggily opened up his eyes. His entire body was in pain, except for the parts he couldn’t feel anymore at all. His mind was too addled to understand what was happening. Jeneth was cutting the ropes that tied him to a wooden post. Once he was done, the boy fell to the ground, barely able to move and still confused.

“Drink this”, said the wizard, shoving a nasty potion down Spear’s throat. The boy coughed a few times, and quickly started to regain some sense. The pain didn’t fade.

“I already put an unguent on your back. It will prevent infection and help healing. There’s no time. You have to get up.” Then, facing Sara, “I shouldn’t have let you convince me to do this, there’s no doubt that we’ll be in big trouble when they find out!”

The girl ignored him and grabbed her brother’s shoulders. “Damn you Spear, all you had to do was endure for a few more years and we could have left together once we became adults! But I can’t see you like this, and now you’ll just be Whip’s plaything or even be killed. You need to leave now!” She pressed a bag on his chest and continued: “Here are a few coins and some food. It’s not nearly enough but it’ll have to do.”

“What’s happening?” Spear was still confused. The girl continued, “Our dear brother got bored after a while waiting for you to wake up and decided to leave. I’m sure he’ll be back in the morning but he could decide to come back at any time. Hopefully everyone’s asleep right now and you can just leave the village.”

Spear’s brain was getting clearer. “Leave? How? Where would I go?”

“Just hide somewhere nearby, I’ll come find you in a few days. You just need to make sure Whip doesn’t find you first. I doubt the General will bother searching for you.” She said “the General” with all the sarcasm she could muster.

“The guards will never let me out! Besides, I’ll never survive outside the village!”

Sara snorted, “Those guards are sleeping soundly at this hour, it’s not like there are any competent people in this stupid village! And… I think your chances are better outside than tied to this pole.”

The boy didn’t know how to respond to that. He was too scared to leave. But, at the same time, he’d do anything to escape further lashings, and he couldn’t even imagine what else his brother would come up with to torture him. He tried to get up, but the pain stopped him; tears started flowing down his face again. Jeneth grabbed him and helped him up, while looking around for any sign of discovery.

After a bit, Spear regained the ability to speak. “Even if the guards are sleeping, they are sure to wake up if we open the gate…”

“That’s what the wizard is here for!” the girl said with a wide smile. Jeneth wasn’t amused, he clearly didn’t want to be here. Spear was quickly running out of excuses. They started walking toward the gate, though the boy was basically being carried along. The two guards were indeed sound asleep. One of them was, incredibly, sleeping upright, leaning on his spear. That must require some skill, the girl thought. She turned to face Jeneth, who said “be quick!” and started concentrating. Spear was now able to walk a little bit, and Sara went to open the gate. The wizard’s magic suppressed any noise, and it opened silently. She hurried her brother along. “Just go hide somewhere. I’ll come find you as soon as I can.”, she whispered, then closed up the gate. The boy was standing outside the village, alone, trying to muster the courage to walk away.

“Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find a quick death in the belly of some beast…”, he mumbled to himself. He slowly, painfully started walking away from the village.

✤ ✤ ✤

Spear woke up in the late morning. He was laying in the trunk of a weirdly shaped tree, mostly hidden by bushes and other undergrowth. It wasn’t a great place to sleep, but it was the best he was able to find last night, given his condition. He was still pretty close to the village, and as he regained his senses and remembered where he was and why, he was quite surprised they hadn’t found him already.

He was really sore from sleeping in a weird position and hard, uneven surfaces; the pain in his back had faded a bit, but it was still pretty bad. He was able to get up, but his body was very much unhappy with that; he scanned his surroundings to make sure he was alone and it would be safe to come out of the bushes. For quite some time, he considered just giving up and laying there, waiting for whatever horror may come next; instead, he started walking farther away from the village, hoping to get some distance and to find a proper hiding place. He lazily nibbled on the food that Sara had put in the bag she gave him.

After walking for quite a while, he decided that this plan of hers was a really bad one. First of all, he had no idea how she was so confident she could find him – he imagined that if he made it easy for her, it would be easy for Whip too; and if he did his best to hide himself from his brother or any search party, then certainly Sara wouldn’t have any hope of finding him first. All this was even assuming that she could get out to search for him without raising any issues. There was a decent chance that his father had already guessed who had helped him escape; and if not, sneaking out to find him would raise his suspicion, to say the very least. Maybe she had concocted some plan where she could get Jeneth to help her with magic? He was not aware of the village wizard being able to do anything like that, and he doubted his friend would put himself under such risk. No, he really didn’t think any of this made any sense. Even if he told himself to trust his sister, this wouldn’t be a long term solution. In the best of cases, he’d still have to make it out on his own after whatever help Sara would bring him.

He decided: there was no point in following her plan, it just couldn’t work. His best bet was to walk to another village, far away enough that news of his arrival wouldn’t reach his family, and try to convince the local wizard to hire him as an assistant; in any case, it seemed that the worst he could find in another village would still be better than what was waiting for him in his own. He could teach other kids to read and write, at the very least, and there would be a good chance any wizard would be grateful for being relieved of that chore.

The bad news was, he’d never been outside Dustwater, and he didn’t really know where and how far away other villages were. He knew, from reading Jeneth’s books, of the kingdom capital, Redoaks city; but that was supposedly too far away in the north to reach by walking. He doubted he’d survive the journey. He’d love to get there eventually, he’d dreamed so many times of going to the Wizard Academy – just a dream, he knew, but even being able to see the capital with his own eyes would be beyond what he ever imagined. Well, none of this would help him right now.

He resolved to find a road. If he was careful enough, he’d be able to follow it to a village without being noticed by anyone. Actually, maybe he could join a merchant caravan going away from Dustwater… would his coins be enough to get to the next village? He didn’t know, but it was worth asking. This was good – it was all pretty uncertain but there was actually a decent chance of things working out ok. Definitely much better than finding a hiding place in the woods, and either being eaten by some beast or being found by his brother.

His body was still in pain, but his mood improved. He was able to walk more briskly. He was confident he’d be able to find a road before the end of the day.

“What do we have here?”

Startled, Spear turned to his right. A bandit! The boy’s face paled and his brain was jumbled by fear. He stood there frozen.

“A kid alone in the woods? Didn’t they teach you it’s dangerous, boy?”, the bandit said, smirking.

Run, run, the boy tried to think. But his body didn’t move.

“You don’t even look like someone who has things of value with them…” The bandit frowned.

Spear managed to take half a step back. Then a sharp pain in the back of his head. Then blackness.

“There’s just a few coins here…” Another bandit had sneaked behind the boy and hit him with the hilt of his dagger; then he knelt to check the contents of the kid’s bag and told his partner. “This wasn’t even worth the time, what do we do with a kid now?”

“I never expected him to have anything. We’ll sell him as a slave, a kid is worth quite a bit.”, the first bandit said, quite pleased with himself.

Next chapter: 2 – Could this get any worse?

Spear of Aiste by Gabriele Santilli is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
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