“Gerbrant? Is that you?” The young man could hear his mother's voice coming from the living room. It was the fifth time that month he had come home late, and he had already received numerous complaints from his parents. “It's so late, where have you even been?”
“Mom, get off my back. It's none of your business.” He sighed, and opened the door. His father was sitting in at the table, looking stern. A quite aggressively pieced of carved wood lied on the table, the knife was still in the old man’s hand.
“It most certainly is!” His mother walked towards him, and wiped his jacket clean. “We're constantly worrying about you, and you need to be alert during the day! Protecting this forest is your job as well, and you're lucky it still is! All those stories I've heard, about young men and boys, taken away… Every night I'm worried the same will happen to you! Do you not understand?”
Gerbrant placed his bag on the floor, and brushed past her, rubbing his temples. Before he could reach the ladder and escape the never-ending argument, a hand on his shoulder pulled him back.
“Gerbrant, please, listen for once-“
"Mom, stop! You're always nagging, I'll be fine! I know these woods like the back of my hand, they're not gonna take me away! Let me live!” He shouted, and the woman started trembling. His father stood up, causing the chair to fall.
"Stop that right now, and don't you dare to ever use that tone of voice against your mother again! You need to learn some respect, some gratefulness!”
“I don't need to learn shit! I'm an adult, get off my back! I'm getting sick of this ranger-responsibility-bullshit!” Gerbrant could barely hear his own voice anymore over the drumming noise in his head. His vision was getting blurry, and his pulse was growing faster. His face felt hot.
“Now listen here, you brat, you can either shut up right now and behave, or you-”
“Can fuck right off? Well, you know what?” Gerbrant picked up his bag again, swaying a little in his attempts to pick it up. “I'm going with the second option. You don't have to expect me back anytime soon, probably never. Goodbye, I'm out.” His father looked confused, but his mother stood up as soon as he opened the door to the hallway.
“Gerbrant, please! Wait! You can't just leave like this! We're your parents! What are you even going to do?”
Gebrant turned around, to see his mother with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know. Don't care enough either.” He threw open the front door, and took a deep breath of the cold air. “Fuck-up is leaving the house. Goodbye.” The door was closed with a bang, and he stalked away quickly, ignoring his parents' yells and pleas to come back.
Dawn was approaching when he reached the city. He let out a sigh of relief at the sight of the buildings, towers and walls, illuminated by the soft morning light. It was beautiful, just as he remembered it. It almost seemed that nothing had changed in ages. Gerbrant knew this to be untrue, but the hope for a new future made him ignore all the terrible things he knew had happened in the past few years. With new courage filling his heart, he walked towards the city gate.
It was here that the first changes immediately became apparent. Whereas the gate used to be busy with travellers and merchants heading in and out, he was now nearly all alone. The only movement was people in full black walking about, seemingly on the lookout for him. As Gerbrant walked closer, one of the people in black noticed him, and marched towards him.
“Who are you, and what is your intention?” The person, a woman, asked. Gerbrant was taken aback by the question, but quickly flashed a smile.
“Who's asking?” He replied. “And why do you need to know? Some things are… personal, y’know.”
“I am, and I’m asking you because it is my task as a guard to prevent troublemakers from entering the city. Now answer.” Her furrowed brows made her seem more worried than angry to Gerbrant.
Gerbrant sighed. “Well, surely I’m not a troublemaker.” He rolled his eyes as the woman raised one eyebrow. “Alright, fine. Hi, my name’s Gerbrant, you can call me Gerry, and I'm here to… I don't know, get rich? That seems like fun. How’s about you?”
The woman huffed. “You’re getting yourself in trouble already. I’ll allow you entrance, because I can tell you’re not… up to something. Just, please, don’t be disrespectful. It’ll get you more trouble than you deserve.”
Gerbrant saluted, and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Will do, or, wait.” He shook his head. “Will not do? Anyways, got the message. No disrespecting.” Gerbrant saluted once more and walked away, towards the gate that was being opened, and the woman let out a sigh. A tall man walked up to her.
“Think so.” She nodded. “He won’t last long before getting arrested.”
As soon as the door closed behind him, Gerbrant wiped some sweat from his brow, and took a deep breath. He hadn't been prepared for questions like that. If he hadn't been allowed entrance, he would have had to go back home, begging his parents to let him back home again. Even the thought of that wounded his pride.
Raveleijn was big, but the market seemed like a central place, right in front of the big, looming tower, where the Count lived with his wife. There were tons of people wandering about, more than Gerbrant could ever hope to count. Merchants selling their wares, women buying bread or dinner, men chatting with their wives or friends, children playing. And on every corner, keeping a close eye on everyone, one of those guards. The people seemed to avoid them, averting their eyes, and quickening their pace when one got close. One of the guards suddenly looked towards Gerbrant, and walked towards him.
“You! Put those down!” He bellowed, as he pushed Gerbrant aside. Gerbrant looked behind him, where a young woman carrying two loaves of bread was already preparing to run. Before she could get very far, one of the other guards pushed her to the ground.
“Do you not understand the concept of exile, girl? You're banished. Ergo, not allowed to enter the city.” The guard was nearly yelling, and the woman was in tears. Gerbrant swallowed. The woman at the gate obviously hadn't been kidding.
“Please, I paid for this with the last money I have, we're starving!” The woman on the ground sobbed. Another guard ripped the bread from her hands, and threw it in the dirt. A part of Gerbrant’s mind told him to pick it up, but he decided not to listen.
“Get out now, or I'll solve your starving problem in a different way. Dead people don't starve all that much.” He hissed the last part, but still made sure that everyone on the square could hear him. The guard that had thrown the bread away pulled the woman up from the ground, slowly, and started escorting her to the gate.
“No need to be such a softie, she knows full well what she's done!” The guard still on the square yelled after them, and laughed as he returned back to his original position. All the people on the square silently went back to what they had been doing before, and Gerbrant looked around in confusion. This was not how he remembered the city.
“What just happened…” he whispered.
“You best not question it, boy.” An older man replied. “It's just the way things go around here. There's a lot of bad apples among these guards, and we're all grateful for the nice ones.” The man looked pained, and walked on.
Gerbrant slowly nodded, and walked further onto the marketplace. There were fresh goods stalled out everywhere. Still, citizens seemed to barely buy anything, and many looked underfed. The merchants seemed just as tired and angry. Gerbrant looked inside his bag. It was as empty as his stomach.
“No choice then.” He whispered, and slowly walked past a cart filled with fresh fruits. Without moving his arm too much, he grabbed an apple, and continued walking. The merchant hadn't noticed. He smiled smugly, and took a bite. The apple was fresh and juicy; it truly was a pity no one seemed to be buying any.
Just as he was about to enter an alleyway leading further into the city, a hand on his shoulder turned him around.
“Sneaky little thief.” The man said. “You could get into a lot of trouble for that, you know.” He was taller than Gerbrant, and dressed in the tell-tale full black.
“Uh, sorry?” Gerbrant shrugged, forcing a smile out. “I'm not a thief, I think you have the wrong person.”
“Don't play stupid. You should be glad I spotted you, and not that dude over there. Hand over that apple, and pay the merchant for it, or else I'm going to make sure you know what you did.” The guard didn't seem very angry, but it was enough to make Gerbrant inch back.
Softly, he whispered: “I don't have any money.”
The guard snickered. “Of course you don't. So, how do you expect this to end? Do you expect me to give you a hug, let you keep the apple, and happily walk away? Or are you smarter than that?” Gerbrant looked at his feet and handed the guard his apple. “That's a start. Now go give the merchant his money.”
“I seriously don't have any money! Look!” Gebrant raised his voice a little, and handed the guard his bag as well. “It's empty!”
The guard turned over the bag and emptied its content on the floor. A mug clattered on the stone, along with a sharp rock.
“Aside from that. Listen, please, don’t kill me. Or cut off my fingers or anything, I still need those.”
The guard sighed deeply, and pushed Gebrant aside, into the wall. “I'll let you off the hook for now,” he hissed. “but don't think you can do anything like that ever again. You're being watched.” He turned away from a heavily sweating Gerbrant and walked onto the square. Gerbrant could see him talking to some others and pointing at him. The young man let out a breath. It seemed like Lady Luck was on his side, but he decided against taking any further risks.
He yawned as he felt his lack of sleep catching up to him. It was time to find a place to rest. He looked into his bag once more.
“Maybe a bench will do.”
The city was dark, and the bench he had fallen asleep on wasn't well lit. After waking up, he stood up immediately. A shawl fell off him and onto the ground. He picked it up, and smiled at the nice gesture. It was a pity he couldn’t thank the person. There was no one around, and the streets seemed eerily silent. Gerbrant had always thought a city would be more alive at this time, but apparently, he had been wrong. There were almost no lit up windows, and the only light came from lanterns hanging in the streets. He walked on and on, through the city, without meeting anyone, for a good ten minutes. Suddenly, he heard footsteps and chattering. He dove into an alleyway, trying to avoid being seen. Two guards walked past, carrying torches. He held his breath, until he was sure they were gone.
“Fuck. There's probably a…”
“A curfew.” A soft voice finished his sentence. Gerbrant turned around and jumped back. A guard, carrying a torch, had managed to sneak up behind him. She held her torch to his face, to see what he looked like, as Gerbrant slowly kept edging away.
“Stand still. You're under arrest.” The woman said. The torchlight lit up her face as well, and Gerbrant could see that she still looked rather young.
He snickered. “Are they enlisting children? What are you going to do, call your parents?”
“Oh, fuck, I know who you are… I've heard about you, you’re that apple-thief. I can't even imagine the amount of shit you're in right now.” She chuckled. “Anyways.” She hastily looked around. “You are under arrest in name of Sheriff Korda and Count Olaf. Refusal to cooperate will result in severe penalties.”
“Oh no, help, I'm being arrested by a child. Please, just go away, I'll nap on, not bothering anyone.” Gerbrant turned around to leave, but quickly felt a foot collide with the back of his knees. In an instant, his face met the cold hard rocks of the street. A metallic taste filled his mouth. He felt unable to move, and the weight of a person now pressing a foot on his back confirmed it wasn’t just a feeling. Before he could react his hands were being tied up behind his back.
Gerbrant lifted up his head. “I can't. I'm tied up.” He spat back.
“You’re worse than insufferable.” She rolled him over and shook her head, before unsheathing her sword and pointing it at his face. “Get up. Last warning.”
“Woman, I seriously can't! What part of ‘I'm tied up’ do you not understand?”
The guard sighed, and rolled him back over, his face once again hitting the pavement. Without listening to his offended yelps, she pulled him up by the rope tying his hands together, getting him on his knees.
“Is this more to your liking, sir?” She snarled. “If you don't get up right now, I'm going to cut off a limb. You don't get to choose which one.”
Gerbrant grunted, both in pain and in affirmation. Slowly, he got up, and was greeted by a sword centimetres from his face.
“Don’t even think about running.”
He lifted his head to look at the wielder, and shot her a pained blood-covered grin. “Am I bleeding? I'm pretty sure I'm bleeding. Can you get me a nice band-aid for my booboo?”
The guard grabbed his jacket, and smacked him sideways into the wall.
“Oops.” She said, as monotonous and uncaring as Gerbrant ever heard it, and pushed him forward.
Grumbling and muttering, feeling the threat of the sword behind his back, Gerbrant walked. They made their way through quite a few streets, passing by the Belfort and the market, and passing a few guards, whom Gerbrant could hear snickering after they passed. His faith in this ending favourably was fading away every step they took.
After a while, the guard stopped in front of a door, and cleared her throat, motioning for Gerbrant to come stand next to her. She opened the door, and pulled Gerbrant up the stairs. He winced in pain as his shoulder bumped into a wall.
“This doesn’t look like a jail cell,” he thought. “Unless jail cells around these parts are cozy and… not locked, I’m not in jail.”
“Not yet.” a voice in the back of his head added, a thought he quickly shook away.
The guard seemed to count the doors, and finally knocked on the fifth one. Some rummaging could be heard inside, and finally, a blond, tired looking man opened the door.
“What? Who’s there? I… Can't see who you are, uh…” He sounded tired, but the voice was familiar to Gerbrant.
“Cecilia Meijer, sir.”
“Is something wrong, Cecilia? You wounded, or sick?”
Gerbrant snorted. The girl definitely wasn't the one wounded here.
“No, no, I'm fine, don't worry sir. I arrested a criminal.”
The man looked confused. “Well, great job, but…” He scratched his head and yawned. “You don't have to tell me every time you do your job, Meijer. And you certainly don't have to wake me up for it. I thought that much was clear when you took the night shift. Please, just… don't do this the next time.”
Cecilia looked a bit embarrassed, but cleared her throat to continue anyway.
“I know, sir, I'm sorry. I just… I woke you up this time because this criminal, breaking the curfew, matches your description from earlier tonight exactly.”
The man squinted at Gerbrant, before rubbing his eyes and looking back at Cecilia. “Give me a second.” He left the door open, as he started to look around his room, finally settling on a candle. After rummaging around some more, he lit the candle with a match, and lifted it up to Gerbrant’s face.
“Hey! Careful with that!” The young man shouted as he tried to blow out the candle.
“Shit, it really is you, isn't it?” The blond man snorted and started giggling. Gerbrant, in return, looked shocked. This was the guard who had let him off the hook earlier today, after the whole apple incident.
Gerbrant took a step back. “So, uh... We meet again? Three times means you have to treat me to a drink, right? I can’t wait already, but see, the thing is, we can’t meet for that third time unless I leave, and-”
“You're not a criminal.” The guard paused to look at the young man, who was still trying to flash a cocky grin. “You're just really fucking stupid.”
“Sir, if I may.” Cecilia waited for the man to nod, and continued. “I think he's both. A stupid criminal.”
“Hey now! I'm right here! Anyways, are you guys gonna let me go or what?” He started to shuffle his hands, trying to get them out of the rope, but felt a cold, sharp blade to his neck almost immediately.
“Cecilia, put that down, please. There's no need for that here, he's not going anywhere. Give me a minute to get dressed, and I'll help you get him back to the Belfort.”
“Yes, sir.” Cecilia sheathed her sword and turned towards Gerbrant. “Don't even think about doing anything while he's gone. You’re down before you’re at the stairs.” Gerbrant rolled his eyes, but nodded anyway. “Good.” she finished.
They stood in semi-silence for a while. Gerbrant kept shifting his weight from leg to leg, huffing and sighing every time he did.
“Can I sit down? My legs hurt. You know, ‘cause you kicked me. And hit me. Multiple times.”
“No, you can’t. And shut the fuck up.” Cecilia said, but Gerbrant sat down anyways.
“So, Cecilia, right? Nice to meet you. What's a kid like you doing up and about at these times of the night? I mean, I woke up after napping on a bench. You, however, were fully awake.” No response. He decided to push further. “Isn’t your mom worried about you?” He nagged. “Or your dad? Or are you all alone in this big city-” Another kick in his shin, and he retracted his legs. “What have I ever done to you for you to treat me like this? You know, your, uhh… Friend? He's not nearly as mean as you are.”
“He's my squad leader, you twat. Now get up. He's going to be meaner than me if you continue to piss him off.”
Gerbrant stuck out his tongue. “I'm not going to-” Another kick. “Fine, fuck. I get the hint. But come on, doesn't your boss understand that a dwarf your age isn't exactly intimidating?”
“My boss understands that I do my job. You, however, seem to do nothing of any importance.” Cecilia had gotten sick of him slouched on the ground, and pulled him up by the ropes again, in one swift motion. The rope burned against the skin of his wrists, and the sudden jerk made him feel a little wobbly.
“Are you going to insult me personally now?” He replied, the pain audible in his voice. “At least I can confidently say I'm not a bad person. Unlike someone in this building, I tend not to kick strangers on sight.”
“Alright, I've heard enough.” The blond man reappeared, looking refreshed and a lot more intimidating in his full uniform. “I heard all of that, you know. That's plain disrespectful, not even mentioning the fact that you were told to, and I quote, ‘Shut the fuck up’, a command you obviously ignored. See, usually…” The man closed the door behind him and started pushing Gerbrant forward. “Usually, breaking the curfew for the first time just means you have to spend the remainder night in a cell. However, adding the theft to that, and the general annoyance you’re being…” He pulled the young man closer. “You're in deep shit, and I'll make sure to personally take care of the amount of shit, okay?”
Gerbrant gulped, and he could hear Cecilia snicker behind them. “Aight, fine, I'm sorry, okay? I'll leave town and I won't cause you any trouble ever again, deal?” The two guards stayed silent, as he walked out of the building and into the streets. “Guys? Dudes? My newfound friends?” His questions were met with more silence, and Gerbrant started to feel a little afraid. “I'm sorry, I really am, I didn't mean to offend you! Please, just let me go?”
Once again, they crossed the market square, the Belfort tower looming over it. The few present guards politely greeted the blond man, saluting. Gerbrant was pushed towards the Belfort, but before they reached the stairs leading to the front door, they took a turn to the side, to a dark, small staircase, leading down to a fortified door. A man in a more fancy outfit stood outside, seemingly guarding it.
The squad leader cleared his throat, nudging his head towards Gerbrant. “Peter, we have another one. I'd like to take care of this one personally, if that's okay.”
The man, Peter, nodded. “I'll alert miss Mulder of that, mister Verheij”
“Very well. I'm sure she'll understand.”
Peter opened the door, and Gerbrant was pushed in, violently, causing him to land on the floor.
“Ouch, dude! Not necessary! I was already going!”
The tall guard, Verheij, grinned, and pulled him back up again. “Cecilia, could you open that one up, please?”
Cecilia nodded, and opened a cell door. Without any warning, the blond man pushed Gerbrant again, this time causing him to land inside the jail. Gerbrant could hear the man laugh a bit as Cecilia cut his ropes loose with her sword, after which she quickly stepped out of the cell, closing and locking the door behind her.
“Alright, time for me to go back to sleep, and for you to continue your shift. I will see you tomorrow at breakfast.” Verheij said.
Cecilia saluted, but Gerbrant quickly ran up to the bars.
“Hey, dudes, wait! Don't leave yet! What's gonna happen to me now?” Cecilia shrugged, but the man smirked.
“I’m going to sleep on that, you’ll see tomorrow. Don’t worry too much about it, I’m sure it’ll be fun. Sleep tight! Don’t let the… hay… insects… bite, I guess.”