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Debt Price

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Debt Price 1
FALLOW

 
"And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt."

The Gospel of Matthew (18:34).


CHAPTER ONE

They kept his hands bound. He wasn't sure why; he had stopped resisting toward the end of his second week, around the time of his hundredth rape.

He no longer kept track of the men, as he had back in those early days, when he had memorized their faces with his proud eyes, calculating the debt they owed him. The thought of how he would collect that debt had been sweet to him.

Then the blazing pride began to die. He hadn't expected that; he hadn't realized at first the meaning of the chillness that began to make its way through him. He thought at first that it was due to the fact they had taken away his clothes, leaving him only with a flea-infested blanket to wrap around himself between sessions. But the chill was greater than that. It settled into his bones, and then into his heart, and then the day came when he began to cooperate with his rapists, giving the men what they wanted before they asked.

The guards lost interest in him after that. It was not as though there weren't other fields to plow, and he, precisely because he was so well-plowed, had become a field for diseases. He'd had six diseases so far, he thought, though none of them had killed him. Yet.

There came a period in time when the visits from the guards lessened, and almost – almost – the embers of his pride had begun to flicker again. But then a change had taken place in his life – a turning he had not anticipated – and an ingenious guard thought of a new way to exploit the situation.

And so after that came a string of strangers, men who had paid good money for this opportunity to visit him. They were worse, because most of them had no interest in raping him. They wanted to hurt him: to hurt him with their fists and boots, and to hurt him more with their words.

The words always had him sobbing at the end, which took the men aback. If they had seen him before, it had been at his trial, when his head had been held high and he had spoken with bold defiance, a triumphant smile on his face. It was this image that the visitors held of him, and some of them failed to notice that the youth they were beating was a usurper: not the proud young man they hated, but the fragile, defeated creature that had taken over the young man's body. He wondered sometimes, dimly, whether the proud young man had died.

When the visitors finally realized what he now was, they lost interest in him, just as the guards had. Some of them looked satisfied at the outcome, others disappointed. At any rate, the time would come when they failed to return, and a new exchange of money took place, and a new visitor set forth to break him.

What began to break him in the end was not words. Quite the opposite.

It was the same devilishly ingenious guard who thought up this plan. He must have been pleased at the results. For as the months wore on, it became clear that the last remaining fortitude in the youth was beginning to fail. The youth wondered when it would occur to the guards that, if they wanted their plan to be most effective, all they need do is stop the visitors from coming.

For now, though, greed kept the guards to their present path, and as the youth knelt shivering in his cell, awaiting his new visitor, he wondered whether this would be the one who would help him regain his courage.

Or whether this would be the last one, and his breaking would be completed.

He could hear the guards talking to the visitor now, making last-moment arrangements of the price; he knew that the visitor was a new one because the wordless rumble of his voice was unfamiliar. The youth wondered what the rumble would sound like with words, and he found that he was shifting restlessly, as though seeking a comfortable place.

There could be no comfortable place when one was kneeling naked upon cold flagstones. The guards had not required him to kneel; the youth had added that himself, having learned that matters were likely to go easier for him if he appeared submissive from the start. He ran his dry tongue over his lips in a nervous twitch, then more carefully touched the softness within his mouth, searching for sores. He found none there and abandoned the search, satisfied. He was rarely taken at the other end these days – he thought the guards, out of some faint sense of honor that prevented them from selling damaged goods at a full price, had taken to warning the visitors about the dangers there. Besides – he thought, looking down at himself – the dangers were clear enough, from the pus-filled sores upon him. So far his mouth had escaped the same fate, but if he lost the capacity to pay his debt even with his mouth . . .

The cell door swung open with a moan; he kept his eyes lowered, trying to steady his suddenly rapid breath. Already he could feel the shivers passing through his body, entering the place where his pride had once burned fierce, but which had been nothing more than dead ashes for many months now.

The boots made their way steadily across the floor as the door moaned shut again, the shadow-shrouded body blending with the dark, rough stones of the walls and the dirt-smeared floor. Then the visitor passed into the dim light that fell from the crack of a window high above, and the youth could see the calfskin boots, the gold-studded belt, the tight breeches, and, most clearly of all, the flash of crystal wound about the man's ring-finger.

A lord. It did not surprise him; most of the men who had visited him here had been lords or lord-kin. That was why he was here, after all. He kept his gaze cast below the belt. In the chill cell, sweat was beginning to form now on his neck, running down his back and between his bound wrists.

"Lord," he said softly, "I would be glad to pay to you my debt in any way I can."

There was no reply; he had not expected there to be – not in words. But he kept his gaze focussed on the spot under the belt, and there, within a few seconds of his speech, he saw the movement that he had hoped for. He bent swiftly forward and kissed the shape forming there.

The lord moved back, so abruptly that the youth nearly kissed open air, but he was in time to feel the soft fabric brush his lips, and behind it the hardness. With his heart pounding, the youth settled back on his haunches and said, without looking up, "My mouth has no diseases, lord. You may inspect it if you wish. And I would do nothing to hurt you – the guards would kill me if I did." This was not entirely true – the guards valued too highly the money he earned them – but it was close enough to the truth, as he had discovered during his first week here. He finished by saying rapidly, "I have nothing else to give you, lord, but I would be glad to give you this, if it would please you."

Still there was no reply. The man had not moved out of reach of the youth, and his hands were clenched in fists; the youth could only hope that this was not a forewarning of what he intended to do next. Taking a chance, the youth leaned forward once more.

This time the lord did not draw back. The youth let his kiss linger on the bulge in the cloth; it was like kissing iron left out in the noonday sun, so hard and hot had the flesh become. He could hear the lord's breath now, rapid.

He dared not break the spell by speaking again. Instead, without moving his lips, he raised his hands. During his first three months, the guards had bound his hands behind his back, until it reached the point where they realized he was straining, not to break his bonds, but to make use of his hands for their pleasure. Laughing, they had rebound his hands in the front, and that was how he was now: with his hands bound palm against palm.

It was an awkward position in which to untie the square flap of the breeches, particularly as he dared not remove his lips. His back was beginning to ache now from leaning forward, but he ignored the pain, knowing it to be minor in comparison to what would come.

The flap came free. In the manner of lords, his visitor wore no undergarment: the swelling flesh tumbled out, bobbed a moment, then pointed straight toward him like a dagger.

He had pulled back momentarily, and he swallowed, contemplating the weapon before him. He knew from experience that size was not the greatest factor in what would follow; what mattered most was how deeply the visitor would enter, and how furiously. He waited to see whether the lord would show his preference at once, but the man before him did not move, so the youth leaned forward again and kissed the tip of the thick blade.

It bobbed again, evidently pleased by this service. It was red and clean – one of the few advantages of the visitors over the guards was that they were usually clean, in the manner of lords. It was from the guards that he had received his diseases; running a practiced eye over the soft blade he kissed, the youth emitted an inward sigh as he realized that no disease would come to his mouth from this man.

The blade was clean, but from the furry hilt ahead came the musky scent that always brought sickness to the youth. He forced himself to swallow down the bitter liquid in his throat, and tried not to think of the bitter liquid that would fill his throat and mouth in time.

He tried kissing the raised edge of the tip, and the dagger bobbed again; it seemed easy to please. The man's hands remained clenched, but the youth tried to ignore that, slowly making his way along the top and sides of the blade pointed at him. The bottom was harder: he had to rise up on his toes at the same time he lowered his back. But he took care not to miss any part of what was offered him.

The man still had not given any indication, with either words or touches, as to whether he was growing impatient. With his stomach clenching in uncertainty, the youth replaced his lips with his tongue, retracing the path he had taken before. The lord's breath was heavier now, ragged; pleased with himself, the youth reached forward with his hands to touch the bottom of the furry hilt.

It was a mistake; the lord jerked back, and for a moment all that the youth could see were the lord's hands, clenched into hard hammers. The youth's legs began to shake, and he had to spend a moment concentrating his effort on not losing his balance. But after a moment passed and it became clear that he would not be punished for his error, the youth was encouraged enough to slide forward to the lord, ignoring the shredding this caused to his knees.

He had waited too long, he decided. This was not for him but for the lord; he should not be dawdling on the acts that he found less painful. Slowly, so that the lord would know that he was not a threat, he slid the soft sheath of his mouth over the dagger.

Almost at once he felt the lord's hand touch his head, and he went rigid, trying to prepare himself for the pain that would follow. But the lord appeared to have no desire to push the youth's head forward, nor to plunge his dagger deeper; he seemed contented to let the sheath move at its own pace. The youth took the dagger in till he felt it tickle the back of his throat; clenching his throat to prevent himself from voicing the spasm, he slowly slid back. The lord's light hand was beginning to stroke his hair.

Never before had anyone petted him. Soaring with encouragement, the youth paused at the tip and looked up.

The lord was younger than the youth had thought, perhaps in his late twenties. His chest was thrown out, his doublet rising and falling with each heavy breath. He wore a chain upon his chest that sparkled with the same crystal as the ring, though the crystals were strangely blackened. His beard was trimmed short and was the same dark color as the fur of the hilt. The color of his eyes the youth could not see, for the lord's head was thrown back, and his eyes were closed.

This was the most encouraging sign the youth had received in weeks. He drew back his lips from the dagger, and with a tremulous voice he asked, "Would you like me to use my tongue while you are inside my mouth, lord?"

There was no reply, and the youth felt his stomach clench cold with disappointment. He tried to ignore it, as he tried to ignore the moisture forming at the corners of his eyes; his task was not done yet. He leaned forward.

And in the moment that his lips touched the dagger-tip, he heard faintly the whisper, "Yes."

He had to close his own eyes then, as the dizziness drove through him in great waves. One hundred and ninety-eight days. That was how long it had been since anyone had responded to him.

It was not as though his visitors lacked words. That was why most of them had paid to come here: to hurt him with their words, to take verbal vengeance upon him for what he had done. They would stride up and down the cell, looking across at him – or looking down at his broken figure, depending on how their visit had begun – as they shouted and screamed at him and sometimes, most terrible of all, wept.

But the words were all in one direction. Some of his early visitors had responded to his questions or his choked apologies, but the devilish guard had put a stop to that. Now all of his visitors were instructed that part of his punishment required that the visitors take no note of anything he said. And the visitors, who were still tender from his words at his trial, gratefully complied.

One hundred and ninety-eight days. A single word at the end of those days. It was enough; the youth felt relief rebuilding a short wall within him, giving him the courage to continue. With gratitude shining within him, the youth did what he would have done in any case: twirling his tongue along the silken underside of the blade, he ignored the barrier at the back of his throat and plunged the dagger deeper.

The pain came at once, causing his tears to spring free and travel down his cheeks. He had thought many times that there must be a trick to doing this, a way to relax the muscles of his throat so that the visitors' daggers slid in easily. But he had no one to teach him the trick, and so he felt what he felt every time: the burning of his flesh as his throat was torn by the weapon ramming its way slowly toward his gut.

He was choking now, and he sought to hold back the accompanying sound: some of his visitors liked to hear his suffering, but others resented the distraction. He wished desperately that the lord with the crystal ring and the light hand would offer some indication of which way he liked it, for it was becoming harder now to hold the sounds within. The youth pushed his sheath further up toward the hilt, and the burning, scraping bite of the dagger caused a sob to escape his control.

Then the lord did move, but in the opposite direction the youth had expected, pulling himself out all the way. The youth wiped his hands rapidly across his eyes, trying to free his blurring vision from the tears, then he looked up apprehensively at the lord. The lord was staring down at him, unmoving.

The youth had thought, in the moment of the dagger's withdrawal, that he had chosen an angle that hurt the lord; if so, he would simply be placed at the proper angle, with perhaps a swift punishment in the interval. But the lord did not move, and the youth, with a spring of the heart, realized why. It had been months since this had last happened, but he did not hesitate: scraping his knees raw, he whirled about and flung his face onto the grimy flagstones, presenting his second sheath to the lord.

Even as he did so, he felt the rigidness return to his body in anticipation of the greater pain this sheathing would cause. Yet his mind was not on the pain but in apprehension of whether the lord fully understood what he was doing. Surely the lord had been warned by the guards, and if not, surely the youth's body made the danger plain. If the lord proceeded, it must be because he received pleasure from entering into danger – or perhaps he had brought one of the thin membranes that some of the lords were foresightful enough to armor themselves with.

He waited, his body strained taut. His face was hidden within the narrow crack between his upper arms, his bound wrists were further along on the floor, his knees were beginning to sing pain now from their misuse, and his privates were shrivelled, either from the cold or from the anticipation.

When the touch came, it was not at the youth's sheath, but at his shoulder: he was wrenched into a sitting position and flung into the nearby corner; the side of his face hit the sharp edge of one of the wall-stones. He could not forbear from crying out, and he flung his arms up automatically to protect his face, even as his legs, through long experience, doubled up to shield his privates.

When he peered past his arms, though, he discovered that the lord was standing out of reach, glaring down at him like an oak threatening to fall and crush him. His visitor said, "Do you think you can pay me for what you've done by offering me your disease-ridden body?"

He shook his head mutely from behind the arms he dared not lower, even though this response required him to contradict all his painful work of the previous minutes. The lord's face was as red as his blade had been, the latter now hidden behind the flap of his breeches. The youth, biting his lip to keep from crying out, waited for the blow to fall.

It came; the man, in a voice much quieter than before, said, "Did you see their bodies?"

The youth had no chance to respond, and even before the lord turned his head away, the youth knew that no response was wanted. The lord had reached the point now where he was prepared to throw the jagged stones of his anger, and it made no difference to him where the stones fell or how great the wounding was. The youth, resting his elbows upon his knees, hid his face within his arms.

The shield was too small; he could still see the lord striding back and forth, caught within his memories. "A five-year-old girl," the lord said. "She was trying to dig her way through the earthen floor – her jaw was still open in a scream. A nine-year-old boy. He was huddled in a ball on the floor – all that remained of him were his blackened bones. An eleven-year-old girl shielding an eleven-year-old boy – they were dearhearts to each other, making dreamy-eyed plans for the day when their parents would let them wed. They were on the floor as well, trying to escape the smoke. Shall I go on to tell you how the others died?" Again he did not wait for an answer, but said instead, "One young man there didn't try to escape. He was much older than the rest, and he was standing, trying to hold a seven-year-old girl high enough that she could clamber up the wall and reach the trap door to the attic, perhaps escaping that way. They were still in that position when the fire reached them."

The youth was shaking now; he closed his eyes, but the tears continued to well out, or they travelled down his throat, clogging his breathing. The lord, heedless, continued to stride.

"I knew even before I saw the chain I had given him that the tall body belonged to my brother," he said. "That was what he was like. He was younger than me, but he might as well have been the elder – he taught me everything I know about the generosity of love. I was not the only one he gifted with his love – he overflowed with it, like a never-ending fountain."

The visitor's boots tapped with precise hardness upon the flagstones as he walked; nearby, a rat scurried into a crack in the wall, discouraged from entering the cell while this stranger was present. The muffled voices of the guards could be heard as they passed by in their patrol of the prison; further away, faintly, a prisoner gave a long, thin scream.

The scream made the youth shiver further, but the visitor either did not notice or did not care; he said, "When Kipp came of age, our father had recently died, leaving me the heirship of his land and leaving Kipp most of his money – anything less would have been injustice, considering how Kipp had cared for him during his illness. Everyone expected Kipp to take the money and buy a titled marriage or an estate or, if he was more venturesome, spend his life in travels. Only our estate caretaker was unsurprised when Kipp handed the money to me and stayed on to help me run my estate.

"It was what he was: he could not leave me alone with my problems. Some people said we should have been twins. Others, more vicious-minded, said that Kipp and I were sharing more than brotherly love."

The lord paused; the blackened crystal chain rose and fell upon his chest as he said carefully to the youth on the ground, "If he had wanted that from me, I would have given it to him. Does that shock you?"

The youth shook his head from behind his arms. It was half a lie: he was shocked, though not by the lord's words – he had ceased to feel shock on any manner concerning the body around the end of his first week. His shock came rather from the fact that the lord had asked him a question, and appeared to be waiting for an answer.

The lord remained silent a moment, staring down upon the youth, as though expecting him to speak. The youth still had his face half-hidden behind his arms; from the side of his face where blood was trickling, he could see half of the lord, looming over him like an avalanche about to fall.

With his voice still drawn taut with anger, the lord said, "He did not ask it of me, nor I of him – my joy was complete in his companionship, without need for more. And it was the same everywhere he went: to the people he met, he was like a cool dipper of water upon a dry day, a warm blanket on a cold night."

Suddenly he moved his arm in a whiplash fashion; the youth, shrinking further back against the slimy walls of the cell, caught a brief glimpse of something being taken from inside the lord's shirt; then a paper was thrust into the youth's face, hiding all sight of the lord. "Here!" said the lord's voice, disembodied beyond the paper. "This is what you took from the world. Do you truly think that anything you can give me could repay me for the loss of this?"

It was a sketch, done in lead without coloring, such as artists make when preparing a study for a painting. The strokes of the lead were brisk and sure, softening only in their depiction of the persons at the center of the picture.

The drawing showed a garden hedged with holly bushes; snow fell lightly through the sky and blanketed the pliant grass below. Under the snowdrops were two cloaked figures: one was the lord, though he was beardless and looked younger in the picture. He was standing behind the second figure and had his arms flung around him; his chin was resting upon his companion's shoulder, and a smile was on his face.

The figure in front of him was younger, about the age of the youth. He wore a familiar chain of clear crystals about his neck. He was holding a small bag in his hand and throwing something from it – as the drawing was without color, the youth could not tell what was being cast, but the objects floated through the air like feathers.

The sunlight was full upon the young man's face. Youthful though he was, lines of laughter already creased the corners of his eye, giving his eyes a look of wisdom beyond his age; his mouth, relaxed, was upturned in laughter or joy. He was leaning back into his companion's embrace.

The youth felt his mouth tremble; then the hot tears became a flood, melting the remaining hard dirt encasing his cheeks. He squeezed his eyes shut in his effort to control his sobs; the lord must have seen the flicker of movement, for in the next moment the youth felt his arms being jerked painfully aside as the lord shouted, "Damn you for the gutter snake you are – look at it! Don't hide from it!"

The youth's immediate instinct was to fling his arms back in place as a fragile protection against the blow he knew would follow next. He realized in time that he must not do that. This was part of his payment, to allow the lord to do as he wished to the murderer of his beloved brother. The youth lowered his arms and waited, trembling.

The lord stared at him. The youth wondered what he was seeing: he knew that his face was filthy, and the combination of blood and tears could only make his appearance more disgusting. Apparently the sight of the horror before him was too much for the lord, for after a moment he turned on his heel, swiftly made his way to the other end of the cell, and hammered upon the door.

The youth struggled to rise to his feet and fell, sprawling upon the filthy flagstones. Pulling himself onto his knees, he cried, "Lord!"

The lord looked back at him; behind the lord, the door opened and a guard stood in the entrance, frowning.

"Lord," the youth said breathlessly, "I know that nothing I can give you can come close to paying back for what I took from you. But if you returned here . . . I could take away your thoughts of your pain for at least a little time . . ."

The guard tugged discreetly at the lord, trying to prevent him from answering the youth. The lord ignored him; in a voice as chill as the prison cell, he said, "I don't want you."

And then he was gone. The guard gave the youth a look that promised an appropriate response for the youth's success in luring the lord into conversation; then he stepped back, and the cell door slammed shut.

The youth remained where he was, his body and mind numb. After a minute he stared down at himself. The dirt from the floor had turned him all black, nearly obscuring the disfiguring marks left by the guards and the previous visitors; the youth had been slender when he arrived at the prison, and now he was skinny, with his rib cage standing out in an unsightly fashion; worse still were the bites of fleas and ticks and rats across his body, and pus-oozing sores upon his groin.

He was intelligent; he knew that ugly bodies often hide beautiful souls. Erik the Commoners' Soldier had been no great beauty, or so the songs said.

But the lord with the light hand had seen into his soul, and had seen what lay there, and what he saw had filled him with such disgust that he had left forever.

The youth's mouth began to tremble again; he flung himself back down onto the cold, hard flagstones and began to sob, his mouth choked with dust and his heart choked with despair.

o—o—o

As the high window of the cell grew dark that night, the youth stood near the door, preparing to undertake his most courageous act of the day: making water.

He always put the task off as long as possible, until the pressure from his bladder became unbearable. Laying his hands against the wall high above his head, and pressing his face into his arms, he began his daily torture.

The first slice of pain as the water passed through him caused him to bite down on his flesh; the dirt on his arm tasted bitter. After a moment he grew used enough to the pain that he could look down at the golden liquid pouring out into the bucket below. He thought to himself that it might as well have been blood that he was releasing from his body.

In the bucket, the creatures that had inhabited his meal were struggling feebly to stay afloat: he had picked them out of the bread in an automatic manner, thinking no more about that task than a housewoman thinks about laying the table.

By the time he was through, he felt weak; he staggered away from the door, leaving the open bucket to be fetched by the guards or overturned by them, depending on their mood. His back still ached from the beating he had received earlier from the guard who had witnessed his conversation with the lord, but it had not been as bad as he had anticipated. Indeed, the pain of this night was likely to be far worse.

Reaching the other end of the cell, he dropped to his knees, then realized belatedly that his cup and plate were still here. He picked them up awkwardly and carried them to the door, pausing to dip a finger into the cup, in order to see whether any liquid remained there. It was dry. Earlier, he had used the tepid, murky water to wash the wound on his face, though he doubted that the water was any cleaner than the dirt he was trying to wash away. That had left him with nothing to drink, and his mouth had been dry ever since he wetted the lord's dagger. He set down the cup and plate and made his way back to the far end of the cell, chewing upon the inside of his cheek to draw saliva, and worrying about his knees. There had not been enough water left to wash them; he could only hope they would not become tainted with disease, as some of his past wounds had.

He reached the other end of the cell and stared down at his blanket. It was late winter, but he reserved the thin blanket for nighttime, in the desperate hope of teaching his body not to become chill during that time. It hadn't worked yet. Still chewing his cheek, he tried to decide whether to use the blanket for warmth or for comfort. It was a decision he made every night: the cloth could serve as a blanket or as a head-cushion, but it could not serve as both.

Putting the decision aside, he walked over to the wall and crouched down beside it. Though the cell was dusk-dark, he could see the scratches near the ground which he had made for every day that he was there: close to a year now. He was beginning to run out of room for the marks. The remainder of the walls, as far up as could be reached by a tall man, were covered with scribblings from previous inhabitants of the cell: mainly curses and prayers, but one prisoner of a literary frame of mind had kept a single-line-a-day diary. His communications had cut off abruptly, shortly after an entry in which he reported feeling ill.

The youth often wondered when his own marks would come to a halt. The thought filled him with fear, not only because he was terrified of dying, but because he was sure that he had not yet tried to pay back his debt for all the children he had killed. He had not needed to make marks to keep track of his debt payments: the children were vivid in his mind, and in his nightmares.

He picked up the scratching rock and dropped it almost immediately; he fumbled trying to pick it up again. His hands had been numb from his first week of arrival; sometimes he would wake screaming from dreams in which he looked at his hands and found that the flesh had crumbled from them, so that the only part left was his skeleton. In desperation, he had once asked the guards to rebind his wrists so the rope was looser. His request had given the guards a week's worth of amusement.

The mark made, he went back to the blanket and, in another automatic movement, rolled himself up in the cloth; he had become deft at such activity during the months that his hands were tied behind him. His arms no longer ached as much as they had during that time, but every other part of him did, especially his head, lying upon the hard stone. The pain would awaken him within a couple of hours, or the nightmares would, or the rat beginning to scuttle out of his hole for his nightly explorations; it was a dull-witted creature that, after long acquaintance with the youth, had still not realized that he would flail wildly if bitten.

He lay there for a while, staring at the sill of the window above – it was too high up for him to see the sky or the stars. He was trying to ignore a crawling sensation he felt on his leg, as well as more wriggling taking place on his skull – it was a wonder to him that the lord with the light hand had been able to bear placing his hand there. Experimentally, he raised his hand and tried stroking his hair; after a minute he let his hand drop – it was not the same doing it to himself.

With a sigh, he turned onto his side, raising his bound arms above him so that his head could be cradled between them. His thoughts had turned to Keven, as they often did. Theirs had been a bittersweet alliance – sweet at the beginning, bitter at the end. When finally the youth fell asleep, his ears echoing from the sounds of screams elsewhere in the prison, he dreamt of the beginning and the end.
 

CHAPTER TWO

The other orphan boys called him "the bird boy." He acquired this nickname at age four, when he began to sneak out of his bed in the boys' cottage, early in the morning before the others awoke, to watch the birds come roosting upon the windowsill that overlooked the gated yard and the city streets. Soon he was bringing leftover crumbs from his meals to feed to them, and they would flock to the window as soon as they saw him.

Of course the noise of their eager squawking eventually alerted the other boys to what was happening. Laughing, they encouraged him to throw stones at the birds; when he refused, they threw stones themselves, both at the birds and at him. The birds flew away, never to return, but his nickname stuck. So did his position as the bottom-most boy in the strict hierarchy of the orphans.

He would likely have received that title in any case, for he was small and slight and gentle, but not graceful and pretty enough to make his gentleness win the hearts of others. Soon he was the favored victim in every game of roughplay; afterwards he would crawl into a dusty corner and cry, until he was pulled from the floor by the matrons and shouted at for dirtying his clothes.

The matrons called him "you," and bellowed their commands at him to stand aside. He began to cringe whenever they walked by; only as he grew older did he become bold enough to ask when he would be released from the boys' cottage. The answer he received was sharp and noncommittal; gradually he realized that the matrons wished to keep him and all of the boys there as long as possible, for they received money from the lords to care for the boys. And so the youth added the lords to his long list of people who imprisoned him.

In the evenings, when the matrons had locked them all away in their upper-storey dormitory, the boys would softly sing songs of defiance together, for the youth was not the only one who endured the matrons' heavy hands. Their favorite songs were about Erik the Commoners' Soldier, who fought against the evil lords of his land. Several of the songs told the tale of how Erik, while freeing the commoners from their oppression, was flung into a dark prison and languished there until his friends found a way to help him escape.

Sitting in his dusty corner, the youth used to imagine himself as Erik, awaiting the moment of release. But he vaguely felt that he did not deserve such release, for he had done nothing to help the commoners.

He was an innocent boy in many ways, so innocent that he did not fully understand the nature of the changes taking place in his body. All he knew was that he was approaching manhood, but what that meant was a mystery to him; he had never been outside the boundaries of the cottage wall during all his years of memory, nor had he ever seen a man other than the hateful lords who would occasionally visit the boys, say something stiffly to them, then vanish within minutes, leaving them to their captivity.

Once, driven by a need he did not understand, he had touched himself, but as fortune chose, a matron saw him doing it and beat him with a hard rod reserved for the worst offenses. After that, he was terrified to put his hand anywhere near his lap, and he failed to decipher the meaning of the looks that a few of the boys were beginning to cast toward him. Even the sounds that came from some of the other beds, when one boy would crawl in with another, were a lacuna in his book of knowledge.

He was enlightened one stormy night when, under cover of the crack and rumble of thunder, several of the boys dragged him into his favorite dusty corner and proceeded to teach him, in the lengthiest lesson he had ever learned, what various parts of his body could be used for.

In the end, they let him go, with a whisper that they would return the next night. He huddled for three hours in the corner, trying to imagine some way to escape from his torturers, but he knew of no one in his life – not the scornful boys, not the harsh matrons, not the indifferent lords – who would care what happened to him.

So he jumped out the window.

He landed, as he had hoped, in a hedge below the window; though he was scraped deep by the branches and prickly leaves, he was able to extract himself sobbing from the bush. He then scrambled over the gate, which had cracks in the wood too tiny to be of use to a grown man or woman, but which were just the right size for him to grip with his bare hands and feet. He had no idea where he would go or how he would earn his living without papers to prove his schooling, but he knew that he would rather die in the streets than endure once more what he had undergone that night.

Three weeks later, Keven found him dying in the streets.

He did not remember being carried out of the streets or taken into the house with barred windows and a door that was opened only when a whispered password was given. Gradually he came to realize that he was with a group of men and women who were in hiding, so that it was vital that he not speak loudly. He remained quiet, this being no great effort. In time, Keven came to him, giving him the name of his benefactor.

He had heard of Keven, for even the boys' cottage, shut off from the world, had heard of the general of the Commoners' Army; rumor had it that the army, modelling itself after Erik, would bring freedom to the oppressed commoners. Now, the youth learned with wonder, he was being asked to become a soldier like Erik.

It was made clear to him, in a straightforward manner, that he had no choice: the soldiers of the Commoners' Army could not allow traitors among them, and he owed Keven a debt for saving his life. He did not take in what the others implied about his alternative; he was too caught up in gratitude at being permitted to take part in such a noble enterprise. He felt obliged to stammer out to Keven the shameful confession that he had no talents, for he had done poorly in his schooling, and his body was ill-suited for heavy labor.

"No matter," said the general. "I have just the work for you."

So he began his training as an assassin. He was well-picked for the task, being quiet and inconspicuous in his movements and deft with his hands. Most of all, he was small; he would be able to slip through any windows that the lords had unwisely left open, thinking that no man could enter through so small a passage.

And there was also the fact that Keven found him easily trainable and biddable. He did not realize until afterwards how important that was.

Keven called him "lad." The general of the Commoners' Army was stern with him, but no more so than with any of the other soldiers. The other soldiers were rather wild and rough – understandably, since all of them were outlaws, having defied the lords in some fashion and then fled for their lives. They treated the youth as a companion in persecution, having heard how he was cared for in the cottage run by the lords. Their voices were filled with fire, speaking of the evils that the lords did and how the commoners must rise up against them. The youth did his best to emulate them.

In the evenings, after singing songs about Erik, Keven would give the outlaws visions of the world that would come once the lords had been eliminated. There would be no more poverty, no more sickness, no more back-breaking work or troubled times. Above all, there would be peace and love and joy among the commoners. It was akin to the dreams that the youth had held when imprisoned in the boys' cottage; his chest swelled with pride when he thought of his own role in this enterprise.

He was shaken when he learned, at the end of his training, that he was to kill children. But Keven patiently explained to him that this was the easiest way for their small band to bring about the changes needed for a world run by the commoners. By law, only a titled lord or his true-born son or the husband of his true-born daughter could inherit a lord's property. If they killed all of the lords' children, then when the lords died, no one would be left to inherit the property, and the commoners would be free of the lords' oppression. Besides, Keven pointed out, the children would grow up to be lords and mothers of lords.

It all made sense to the youth; having lived in the boys' cottage, he had no strange fancies about the innocence and sweetness of children. The lords' children were his enemies, just as the boys in the cottage had been, and he must kill them before they grew up to oppress the commoners.

Keven gave him a choice of assassination methods, and he chose dry-leaf. It was a painless poison: four drops would send the recipient into a sleeping death, and five drops would bring death itself. Keven approved of the choice, for dry-leaf was commonly used in smaller doses to relieve sleeplessness; if the child was discovered to have died from dry-leaf, it would be assumed that he or she had swallowed medicine intended for wiser elders.

The months that followed were the most joyous in the youth's life. Every night he would slip into nurseries or adjoining pantries and place five drops of dry-leaf in the water or watered wine that was meant for the children. He never looked at the hateful faces of the children he was killing; he did not want to be reminded of his days at the boys' cottage. But he would hear afterwards, from Keven's reports, of how successful his work was.

He had single-handedly created a campaign of terror. At first it was thought by the lords and lord-kin that the poisonings were accidental; their supplies of dry-leaf were locked away or taken from the homes. But as the poisonings continued, it became apparent that murder was creeping into the nurseries. The lords desperately barred the windows and removed the pitchers of water and watered wine, but to no avail: the youth was skilled at finding the one, tiny opening that had been neglected, and he would search the nursery until he found the stash of food that rich children always seemed to be hiding from their parents. He would insert the drops of dry-leaf into these, using a needle, and soon afterwards the door of another lordly house would be painted black and purple, to indicate that a violent death had taken place in the household.

No one knew who had committed the murders; though the Commoners' Army was suspected, the whereabouts of the army was mere rumor. Fear ate its way through the lords' estates like an uncontrollable flame.

After six months, Keven decided that the time had come to openly proclaim to the world that the Commoners' Army was waging a war of freedom. This, the general believed, would cause other commoners to rally to their cause, and bring a quick end to the war. There was open talk among the outlaws now of a bloody day of revolution, when all of the lords and their kin would be slaughtered.

On a brisk day in early spring, a select band of the Commoners' Soldiers made their way to an estate house just outside the city, where a few of the lords were attempting to raise their spirits by holding a spring-coming celebration. The soldiers did not go near the house; instead, they waited in a grove nearby, close to a clearing where a playing-cottage had been erected for the lords' children. The soldiers spent their time whispering to each other their anger that lords' children should be given cottages for mere play, when thousands of commoners lived in the streets.

The children arrived finally, gaily decorated with pussywillow puffs in their hair. In past years, they would have come alone, but the lords had become more cautious, and the children were accompanied by three young men. Two of them, armed with daggers, took up posts outside, while the third, unarmed, accompanied the children into the house.

The soldiers killed the sentries within seconds. It was done exactly the way Keven had planned: arrows were shot through their throats, so that the young men would not be able to call out the alarm. The soldiers sent a volley of arrows into the cottage next, but the young man there quickly closed and barred the door and window shutters, so quickly that he did not have time to give more than a sharp cry for assistance. The lords and lord-kin, relaxed in their revels, failed to hear.

All of this was as Keven had planned it. The general waved a hand, and some of the soldiers darted up to the cottage and nailed shut the door and shutters. Keven remained behind, preparing the flame.

The youth received the privilege of torching the cottage. It excited him beyond words, not the least because the cottage, with its high attic, reminded him of the cottage he had grown up in. He carefully lit the fire at each corner of the house, then stood with the other outlaws, smiling into the light and warmth as though it were a hearthfire on a winter's day.

Keven, who was standing behind him, gripped the youth's shoulder with painful tightness. The youth felt this as a sign of approval; he was barely aware of the screams within the cottage. He did register, in a faint manner, that the young man was pleading, asking that the children be spared. He himself, he said, would be willing to die in their place, in any manner the killers wished . . .

The youth thought about those words afterwards, when lying in the holding cell he had been placed in. The young man had not acted in the manner that lords or lord-kin were supposed to act, and he wondered whether he had killed a commoner by mistake. But he knew from the songs about Erik that the lords were often helped by traitorous commoners, and such commoners deserved to die as well.

He could hear from the nearby holding cells the angry cries of the other outlaws who had been arrested along with him when the magistrates' soldiers had unexpectedly swooped down upon the band and arrested everyone they could catch. Keven had escaped, the youth knew, and he was grateful that the revolution would continue without him. The outlaws were shouting now about the injustice of their arrest, though they were evasive about whether they had done anything that might have prompted such arrests.

The youth remained quiet; he was reserving his words for the trial.

The officials in the judging room called him "the prisoner." By the time the youth arrived before the magistrate, the other outlaws had been sent to their deaths. The youth was disappointed; he had hoped to save their lives by directing the magistrate's wrath to himself. But it made no difference: though he had heard that the other outlaws had pleaded their innocence, the youth had no desire to do so.

So the youth told the magistrate and the listening crowd attending the trial of what he had done on the day of the fire. He did not speak of the earlier assassinations, only because he was unsure Keven would want him to, but he spoke with pride of Erik the Commoners' Soldier, and of the way in which the deaths of the lords' children would serve to free the oppressed commoners. He was smiling before he had gone far in his speech.

The magistrates' soldiers had trouble keeping order amongst the listeners; there were continual cries of anger and vengeance from the lords and their kin. The youth took no notice of them; he was directing his speech toward the commoners whom he knew must have crowded into the judging room to see their savior, and he kept his eye on the magistrate, to see whether the magistrate would demonstrate any shame at his part in upholding the lords' oppression.

The magistrate had cool eyes and a rasping voice. He showed no sign of shame. When the time came for sentence to be passed – there was no longer any question of determining the youth's guilt – the magistrate said in a voice as dry as dry-leaf, "Our law says that any man who murders or rapes another must pay that debt with his life. You reached your manhood last year, and since that time you have killed fifteen people, fourteen of them children. By all the laws of justice, you ought to pay fifteen times over for what you have done."

He paused, only because the judging room had filled with a chorus of agreement rising from the audience. When silence had been reached once more, the magistrate said, "However, I have taken into account your youth—"

He stopped; no one could have spoken over the roar of outrage that arose. With difficulty, the soldiers settled the roar down to a rumble; raising his voice, the magistrate said, "I have taken into account your youth, and the fact that you have clearly been used as a tool by others. Anyone hearing your testimony can see, or should see" – he shot a look as sharp as an arrow at the restless crowd – "that you do not fully understand what you have done. This being the case, I am willing to place a debt price upon you."

He named a figure, so high that even the lords and lord-kin gasped. The grumbles continued, but in a more subdued fashion than before.

The magistrate looked about the judging room expectantly. "Well?" he said. "Better that one of you should pay the debt price than that this youth should idle uselessly. Put to work, he will be forced to pay back at least a small portion of what he owes for the deaths, and the money you spend on the debt price will go to worthy causes, such as improving the quality of our boys' cottages." He cast a dark glance toward the matron who had seen the youth hustled through the streets on the day of his arrest, and then had come forward to testify to what a vicious and heartless child he had been.

The magistrate's eye roved over the silent crowd; so did the youth's. He could see the commoners now, but none of them seemed pleased by his tale; they all looked as angry as the lords and lord-kin. Perhaps they were the commoners who helped the lords, but for the first time the youth felt an uncertainty, then a sickness to his stomach as the silence lengthened.

It was a very great debt price, he knew, and no single commoner could have paid it. But surely the commoners who loved Erik would band together to pay his price; or if not, the Commoners' Army would draw from the money they had been stockpiling from dozens of thief-raids. Someone would pay his debt price – someone who had heard what he had done for the commoners and loved him for it . . .

The magistrate gave a deep sigh. "Very well," he said, gesturing to his soldiers to come forward. "Until the prisoner's debt price shall be paid, he will be placed in the debtors' prison. Though it is a waste to let a murderer languish in prison—"

The youth heard nothing more; as he was being pulled toward the door that would take him to the debtors' prison, he had finally caught sight of someone he knew: Keven, standing inconspicuously near a window overlooking the execution yard. As the youth passed, Keven looked his way—

Then looked away again, indifferent. The general's gaze returned to where the final execution was taking place.

The youth tried to think it through as he was dragged, dumb and numb, through the streets between the furious crowds. Was Keven angry at him for telling the magistrate how the fire had been set? Or should he have spoken with pride of his earlier assassinations? Or perhaps the general was disappointed with him for not being executed. Perhaps the debt he owed to Keven required that he sacrifice his life . . .

A stone hit him, and then another, thrown by the angry commoners lining the streets. The youth had no time to understand the reason for this attack; cursing under the volley of stones, the magistrates' soldiers threw him through the door into the prison.

o—o—o

The guards called him names, but not of the sort he could repeat. The youth was unsurprised to be raped; in his mind, locked doors were inextricably connected with terrible things done in dusty corners. He struggled at first, though, a fateful decision since it led to his hands being bound. Then he lay passive, rebelling only in his mind; and then even his mind could not take in what was happening. He was Erik, he remembered; he was waiting in prison to be rescued . . .

On a night five months after his arrival, in a cell with no light and no sound but for the grunting of the guard atop him, it came to the youth suddenly that the pain he was feeling must be akin to the pain the children had felt when they were dying.

He screamed, so loudly that the guard was unable to finish. The youth barely noticed the beating that followed; his mind was being torn asunder by the dark realization of what the magistrate had meant, and why the commoners had thrown stones at him.

For three days he lay curled in a ball, refusing all food and drink, until the guards, not wishing to trouble themselves in explaining a corpse to the magistrates, placed a hollow, flexible reed down his throat and forced the water in that way. The youth was no stranger by now to a bruised and bloody throat, but the renewed pain in his throat triggered a thought. No one would ever pay his debt – he knew that now. But what if he were to try to pay his own debt?

He asked the guards whether he might have permission to see the lords and lord-kin he had wronged. They laughed, but his question triggered the reckonings of one of the cleverer guards, and soon afterwards the first visitor arrived, having paid the guards for this privilege. The youth did his best to pay his debt to the visiting lord-kin, spent the rest of the day weeping, and then told the guards the names of the other children he had killed.

They did not believe him; it made no sense to them that he would freely admit to his crimes. But it was of indifference to them whether he was telling the truth or not; soon more visitors arrived, asking whether it was true that he had killed their children.

And so it continued. There was no joy, no peace and love, none of the things he had been promised by Keven. There was only the small, bleak awareness that he was paying his debt back, much in the manner that a young child, having witlessly drained an ocean, will try to refill it with his own blood, drop by bitter drop.
 

CHAPTER THREE

A fortnight after his meeting with the lord with the light hand, the youth lay listening to the screams elsewhere in the prison, as he uttered gasping sobs into the dirty flagstones. He was sure that the rib that had snapped was boring its way into his lung.

The lord with the light hand had not returned, of course. He had been replaced by a man who said he was the eldest brother of one of the murdered children, though which child the man resolutely refused to say, leaving the youth with the frustration of not knowing to whom he was repaying his debt. The man seemed contented at first to pace up and down the cell, shouting at the youth, but his accusations of wrongdoing were so broad that the youth began to realize, with an unpleasant tickling down his spine, that the guards had widened their merchantwork yet further and were now selling him to visitors who were of no relation to the children but who were angry at what the youth had done.

The youth was still trying to decide whether he was required to pay his debt that far when the man, without warning, seized him by the hair, threw him headfirst against the wall, and proceeded to try to kill him.

The youth wasn't sure how the guards had known that his screams were of a different nature this time. At any rate, they had burst into the cell, dragged the incipient murderer off of the youth, and sent him on his way. Perhaps they simply didn't want the magistrates to start a murder investigation in their prison. More likely they disliked having their goods so badly damaged that the goods could not be resold to a new buyer.

So now the youth awaited the prison physician, and he knew he would have a long wait. The physician had taken up work at a prison because he was preparing an important treatise about the growth cycle of blue-winged larvae, and he required the light duties of prisoner-healing to accomplish his task. His duties had not turned out to be so light as he had been promised, and he had dealt with this unexpected turn of events by pretending that his promise of light duties had been fulfilled: he responded only to messages of the gravest injuries.

The physician had explained this on his last visit to the youth's cell, and had made clear to the youth that, if he were so careless as to break any bones again, the physician would not be in any hurry to return. The course of science would suffer if the physician continued to be interrupted from his work on the treatise.

It was the physician whose grumbling remarks had confirmed to the youth that the screams of prisoners in the other cells had their origins with the guards, though the youth gathered that he was the only prisoner who merited the privilege of being sold to outsiders. Even if the physician took his normal leisurely time in arriving to visit the youth, he might have half a dozen other cells to visit first. The youth smothered another sob against the dusty floor, then forced himself to sit up against the corner.

It was no less painful that way; he had not been able to find a comfortable position to wait in, and he continued to fear that, if he breathed too strongly, the splintered bone would pierce his lung. Biting his lip, he tried to rest his mind on the most pleasant thought possible, and, as in every day of the past fortnight, he thought of the lord with the light hand.

He ought to be grateful, he knew, that the lord had not returned. Most likely that meant the lord was satisfied with the payment he had given and had no need for further payment. The youth tried to imagine the lord standing amidst the holly hedges, peacefully warming himself in the early spring air, but that picture was missing the joyful young man, and so the youth gave up the effort.

Sweat from the pain trickled down his back, causing him to itch where he could not scratch, and making his chill body colder. Outside the prison, he knew, the air must be delightfully mild, but his cell was always cold, even in midsummer. Now, in the early days of spring, his cell was as frigid as though the year was at winter-coming; he closed his eyes and thought again of the light hand.

The cell door slamming shut seized him from his thoughts. He opened his eyes eagerly, expecting to see the physician, but the only man there was one of the guards, the one with the devilish cunning. The guard was holding something small in his hand.

He came to crouch beside the youth, who shrank back against the wall. The guard's face was a mingling of distaste and anger; the fierceness of his look caused the youth to breathe heavier, so that his broken rib stabbed over and over at his lung.

Finally, wordlessly, the guard held up the object in his hand. It was a tiny cup, such as was used to administer medicine; the youth awkwardly took it into his cupped hands and then held it up to sniff it.

He lowered the cup hastily, his lungs now heaving, regardless of any consequences. The scent was so faint that he doubted any other prisoner would have recognized it, but he had lived with the scent for half a year. He knew what he held.

He looked at the guard, his throat working in a wordless plea, but the guard's face was implacable. The youth remembered the reed down his throat. With his hands shaking now, the youth lifted the cup to his lips and drank its contents.

The guard waited until he had finished, briefly inspected the empty cup, and then left the cell, slamming the door on his way out. The youth remained where he had been before, propped against the corner, wondering who had paid for his death.

He thought he knew. Only one of his visitors would have granted the youth the painless death of dry-leaf, and he must have paid a great deal to do so, for it was clear that the guard was angry at this loss of income. The youth thought to himself that this was the most concern anyone had ever shown in him: to pay great money for his murder. It was as good as having someone come forward to pay his debt price.

So he thought; and then his face crumpled, like a piece of paper falling to ashes in the fire, and his sobs returned. He slid down onto the floor, ignoring now the sharp pain that was of no importance, and feeling the heaviness come upon him. Five drops, he thought. He hoped that the guard had used five drops rather than four, as the youth did not care for the idea of lingering in a sleeping death in a place like this. Perhaps the lord would bury him in the holly garden . . .

This was so ridiculous an idea that the youth began to laugh within his sobs, pressing his face once more against the dust. His bound hands were close to his head, and he tried to catch hold of a strand of hair. He heard his mind say to the lord, I wish you had given me the poison yourself. If you had stroked my hair again, I would not have minded . ..

His hands fell, his thoughts were replaced by emptiness, and he was drawn into the darkness of death.