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Keeper of the Wanted
Todd was beginning to worry. He stared out his window at the rain that poured from the clouds as though the gods themselves were spilling water from their godly buckets and pitchers. Lightning illuminated the dark night and he flinched at shadows that seemed to sneer at him from afar.
Todd was not like other young men. He could never be brave like them. He had learned long ago to accept his fears and not try to hide it. His father told him once that the more he tried to suppress it, the more it would control him. Whenever another man sneered at him for being afraid, Todd would not deny his fear. This, as you may imagine, startled more people than he cared to count.
But it was not the storm that worried him. Storms, on the contrary, had always calmed him somehow. When he was young, he would race to the window at the first clap of thunder and stare wide-eyes at the gray clouds above.
It was his dog, his faithful companion, Tootsie. She had gone off for a walk a while ago and hadn’t returned. And with the storm getting fiercer by the minute, he feared the worst. Always a worrier, Todd was.
He was a younger reflection of his father. He had short red hair, freckles, and a gentle nose. His smile was friendly and charming and his eyes never missed anything. If you had so much as a paper cut, he would notice and badger you until you let him tend to it, small though it was. He was kind and humble and forgiving.
He held a steaming mug of brew in his large hands. His slender fingers slipped through the handle and drummed a tune on its side. He remembered the first time his mother taught him how to cook.
“But cooking in for girls, mummy!” he said, chuckling in his usual good-natured way.
His mother turned a stern eye on him and wagged her finger. “Son, women can do much more than just cook. Who do you think brought this buck in today? Certainly not your father! He was out lumbering wood around. But that’s beside the point. If you want to be your own man and live on your own someday, you’ve got to learn how to cook for yourself or else you’ll starve to death!”
Todd had soon realized that he loved cooking. His mother told him that it was an art. You couldn’t just throw ingredients together and expect something delicious to pop out of the stove and onto your plate. You had to work for your meals and the harder you worked, the more pleased you’d be with the meal.
“Even if it’s nothing but a hunk of stale bread, you’ll be proud you earned it and that’ll make it taste all the better.” She said.
She had taught him well and Todd was grateful. He grieved for many months after her sudden death on a cold winter morning just a few days after he had moved out of the house to live on his own.
His father was another matter. He was in and out of the house, laughing a big, belly laugh and grinning through his red beard. He’d carve magnificent creatures, some real and some not, and place them on the mantel over the fireplace during the fall. His cakes were particularly delicious and people from all around the neighborhood would come knocking on the door asking for seconds, which he gladly gave them with a laugh and a strong pat on the back.
But he too had followed mother to her grave. Now Todd was alone. He had no real friends besides the occasional squirrel that skittered by and his beloved Tootsie. But he was fine with that. He enjoyed solitude as much as he enjoyed company. But he didn’t deny that it got lonely up there in the mountains in his little house.
“I wonder where she’s run off to,” said Todd, sipping from his steaming mug. “Well, I hope she’s found a dry place at least. If she comes back soaking wet into this house she’ll get a spanking.” He chuckled, remembering how he never got around to delivering those “spankings”.
He drained his mug and was washing it in the sink when he heard a knock on his door. Somehow he heard it through all the racket the storm was making. He cautiously pried the door open, careful not to let the rain in.
Standing there in the rain, clothes all soaked and dripping, was a very young boy. He was shivering like a puppy and sneezed occasionally. Behind him stood Tootsie, wagging her tail and whining.
Todd opened the door as wide as it would go and ushered the little wet boy in. He closed the door behind him and locked it muttering “What have you brought me this time, Tootsie, old girl?”
The boy was a mess. He sniffled and sneezed and his tears mingled with the rain water sliding off his dark locks and down onto his hollow face. His skin was dark and his eyes were like coal. But there was a spark in them that Todd found difficult to ignore. There was something strange about this boy and Todd knew he should be careful.
Todd ignored Tootsie as she shook the water off her coat, soaking him and the already soaking boy. He gently led the child to a chair set against the small dining table and began peeling off his wet clothes. The boy allowed him to do so, trembling all the while. Todd scurried over to his dresser and found some old clothes of his that looked like they would fit his guest. He tugged them over the boy’s head and stoked the fire, trying to make the room a little warmer.
The boy had stopped shivering. He stared at a spot on the ground under his dangling feet and clasped his hands together tightly in his lap. When Todd asked him if he was hungry, the boy nodded his head vigorously as thought the amount of food he got depended on how fast and how quickly he nodded.
As he devoured the food, Todd studied him intently. He asked questions when it seemed like the boy could answer without spitting out his mouthful of food.
“What’s your name?” Todd asked quietly.
The boy swallowed and answered, “Mark.”
“How old are you, Mark?”
“Don’t know, sir,”
Todd gasped silently and tried to handle the answer as one would handle a normal answer from a normal person on a normal day in a normal house. But nothing about this was normal. Mark looked to be about ten or eleven years of age.
Todd continued to question the starving boy. “Where are you from?”
“That little kingdom down south, sir.”
The boy nodded, taking a huge bite out of a loaf of bread.
“What were you doing there?”
“My sister and I made a living there, sir.”
Todd noticed that this boy must have been some sort of pickpocket or thief. He guarded his words and didn’t give more information than was asked of him. He was a smart sort of kid with sneaky tricks about him and a catch to everything. He eyed the boy curiously. Mark, too busy eating to make eye contact with his host, greedily consumed his cheese and milk with a twinkle in his eyes. Yes, there was definitely something fishy about him. But Todd brushed it off as his paranoid conscience.
When Mark had finished eating, he sat back with a sigh and smiled sleepily.
“Thank you, sir.” He said.
Todd smiled back and asked the boy to tell him his story. Todd listened quietly, nodding and shaking his head every now and then in sympathy.
Mark, Todd learned, was the son of a wizard and he had an older sister named Vienna. Magic was, of course, forbidden and Mark’s mother and sister were caught and arrested. They were most likely executed, Mark said. But his father, the wizard, had escaped.
James had taken up the title of “Magician”. He did not see himself as a sorcerer. He saw magic as a cure for the ill and food for the poor. But the others did not see it that way. Leaving Mark in the hands of an old farmer, James fled into the woods and hid for many years before being found and killed. His death was an accident caused by a young hunter but the lad was rewarded all the same.
Mark had gone from master to master, performing tasks and doing dirty servant’s work. He even resorted to pickpocketing every once in a while which proved Todd’s theory correct. But the world was getting harder to make a living in and he was losing his touch. He was too young to be doing anything but playing in his father’s big yard and pulling pranks on little girls.
He told Todd that in an attempt to wrangle a chicken for his newest master, he had fallen over and all the loot he’d picked from strangers unaware had fallen out of his pocket, clattering loudly on the ground. Many of the people around were servants of those strangers and recognized the valuable items immediately. They turned him in to the authorities and he was to be flogged. Mark grinned at his punishment, almost laughing as the whip licked red stripes onto his back. But the smile froze on his face when the warden found out that this boy was the wizard’s son. He was to be executed at dawn for crimes he did not commit.
Although he was the son of a magician, Mark did not practice the art. He stuck to farming and weaving baskets and pickpocketing. His sister, too, refused to partake in it. Their mother turned a blind eye to it although she knew of her husband’s gift. So if anyone asked the family, they knew nothing of magic. But their proud, fearless, often too bold father had let loose their secrets as though they were never secrets to begin with.
Todd stared at Mark with subtle admiration in his eyes, but also slight fear. This boy was a wanted man however young he was and Todd did not want to be caught hiding him. The punishment for housing an escapee was death and dull though Todd’s life was, he wanted to live it to its fullest. That was what his dear brother told him.
“Todd,” the older boy said, Hector. “I know you’re bored up here in these long forgotten mountains but you must always learn to live life to its fullest. Turn a walk in the woods into a grand giant hunt or try escaping crocodiles while fetching water for mother. Make life an adventure, boy. Make it fun. Fun isn’t given to you; it’s created by the one who seeks to find it within that which is lifeless and tedious.”
Yes, Todd’s family had been running with wisdom and they spread it from person to person until the end result was a village full of philosophers and aged children.
But Todd didn’t want to die at the cost of some runaway brat. He had other things to do. He had Tootsie to take care of! What would the poor girl do if her owner just up and died?
But the man knew in his heart that he must help the child. He would be put to death for the sins of his father and that in itself was wrong. Mark deserved to live a full life just as much as any noble or king did and Todd had no right to deny him that by turning him in.
Todd made his decision.
He grabbed the boy and looked him in the eyes. “I won’t let them get you. I promise. But you’re going to have to trust me, okay?”
Mark nodded his head, stunned by Todd’s sudden change in character. He was about to open his mouth to thank the older boy when there was a hard knock at the door. Mark and Todd exchanged nervous glances, momentarily unsure of what to do.
Todd led Mark to the bedroom and told the boy to get under the bed and stay hidden until Todd personally fetched him. Mark slipped underneath the wooden frame and coughed, sneezing from the dust. Apologizing, Todd rushed to open the door. The pounding had gotten louder and an irritated man was yelling through the cracks.
“Open up! I know you are in there! Come out with your hands up or we’ll be forced to break in!”
Todd opened the door and found three soggy guards standing expectantly on the porch. The leader, a huge man dressed in his wet, blue uniform, had a brown waxed mustache and small, squinting eyes.
“May I help you, sir?” Todd asked, his voice small and distant and carried away by the violent winds.
The leader stepped forward and drew a scroll from his coat. He unrolled it and showed it to Todd. It was a drawing of Mark.
“We’re looking for this boy,” the man said. “His name is Markus Dane and he is a wanted criminal. We believe he is hiding up here in these mountains. Have you seen him?”
Todd stuttered hopelessly. Surely they would find out!
The guard leaned in close to the shivering young man. Todd smelled wine on his breath as he spoke, his low and gravelly tone giving him a headache.
“There is a generous reward straight from the king that will be given to him who finds this lad and turns him in to us. Wouldn’t you like to get out of this little cabin out in the middle of nowhere? What’s more, you will be granted protection by his majesty’s personal knights.”
Todd swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. I don’t know him. I live here with my dog, Tootsie. There’s no one else around.”
“Eh?” The guard peeked inside the small house. He pointed at a dark object laying on the floor. “Whose shoe is that, boy?”
Todd glanced at Mark’s slipper and hastily kicked it away, his face turning red. “I-It’s mine, sir.”
“It’s much too small to be yours!” he shoved his way into the house and looked around. Todd hoped that he wouldn’t notice the damp clothes bundled up under the table.
“If there isn’t anyone else here, you wouldn’t mind if we took a look around, would you?” the big man asked, his arms folded across his broad chest.
“Go right ahead, sir.”
Todd stood aside and allowed the three men to turn the place upside down. They toppled chairs and opened cupboards and eventually found Mark’s clothes. The leader held them up questioningly, his eyebrows raised.
“Those belong to me as well, sir.” Todd stammered.
“What’s the matter, boy?” one of the other men asked. “Don’t you know what size clothes you wear?” This brought forth a round of laughter from the other two men. But their faces hardened and they continued searching. Todd’s heart beat loudly in his mouth when the guards entered his bedroom.
Tootsie was curled up on the bed. She raised her head when the three men and Todd walked in. She didn’t pay them much attention as was her way. But whenever one of the men wandered too close to the bed, Tootsie bared her teeth and growled, her ears sticking up straight on her head.
“What’s under that bed, boy?” Leader asked, cornering Todd.
“Erm…you see, sir, Tootsie here…she has puppies and they’re under the bed in a, er, box…sir.” The lie had squeezed the courage out of Todd but he refused to let his uncertainty show. He would protect the boy if it meant lying to the king himself. If his parents had taught him something if nothing at all it was that all human life had value and that no one could put a price on it.
“Aw, puppies?” one of the men said sarcastically. He grinned wickedly. “Let’s see ‘em! I’ve got a little girl back home who’d love a puppy of her own. You don’t need them all do ya, lad?”
He made a move to reach under the bed. Tootsie growled menacingly as Todd tried to thicken his lie.
“They were born yesterday, sir. They’re still very sensitive to light and it’s awfully cold. Please, leave them be.”
The men eyed Todd with suspicious glares and he received them with a bravery he never knew he had. He looked the leader square in the eye, daring him to peek under the bed. Leader’s iron walls finally crumbled and he cleared his throat.
“Come on, men. The kid’s not here.” He said.
Todd blew out a stale breath and smiled behind his hand. The guards were almost out the door when Mark sneezed under the bed. All Todd’s anxiety had come rushing back and he grinned sheepishly as the leader narrowed his eyes at him.
Todd laughed nervously. “Heh, heh…those silly puppies…”
Soon, Mark and Todd were dragged out of the house and into town where they were held in dark, cold cells. Tootsie had followed them faithfully but the guards made sure she didn’t get inside the prison. Todd heard his beloved pet’s wailing and whining just within his reach.
After many days of being starved and beaten, Mark was hauled away. Todd begged them to spare his life and tried to reason with the cruel men. But they acted as though they hadn’t heard him, as though he was invisible.
Mark kicked and screamed and clawed the guards, ignoring the blows they delivered to his face and stomach. By the time he had calmed down, several of his bones were broken and he was one purple bruise.
Later that day, the same guard came for Todd.
“Get up,” the man said. “Time to go.”
Todd, shackles binding his wrists together, growled. “He didn’t do anything to hurt anyone. He was just a boy. How could you be so cruel?”
The giant sighed. “I have my orders. They came straight from the king. I will not risk defying his word. No one is to question his majesty.”
“Oh, yeah? Why not? Just because he was born into the royal family doesn’t mean he can do as he pleases. He didn’t even earn his position as king. All he does his sit on his throne all day long and shout ludicrous orders to his overworked slaves. And people like you just sit by and allow him to do that! Don’t you think if there’s someone to blame it’s you?” Todd looked up at the guard, anger burning like fire within him.
“Hey, kid, don’t go running around tossing the blame, okay? I ain’t gonna catch it for ya. I’m doing this for money. It’s how I make my living. You understand what it’s like to eat bread you’ve earned, right?”
Todd’s face suddenly softened. He remembered his mother’s words.
Even if it’s nothing but a hunk of stale bread, you’ll be proud you earned it and that’ll make it taste all the better.
But the flames of his rage did not die out so easily. He grumbled and muttered while the guard led him to his death: the guillotine.
Todd’s head was roughly shoved onto the chopping block below the grinning blade and a bag was tied over it. His heart was beating so loudly he feared that the vibrations would loosen the strings holding the blade up and he would die sooner than expected. But sooner rather than later seemed best in this case.
A middle-aged man with a loud voice stood beside him and read off Todd’s crime to the large audience gathered below.
“This young man is guilty of harboring the son of the sorcerer James Yuler!” he yelled. “His name is Todd Smith and he has confessed to his crime so a trial was not necessary! His punishment is death!”
The audience hissed and booed and Todd was glad he could not see them and they could not see him. He began to feel tears fall off his nose and the thirsty bag drank it greedily.
But before the blade could fall, there was a disruption. A young girl among the audience with brown hair and freckles stepped forward and shouted.
“What did ye say his name was, good sir?”
The man yelled Todd’s name out. He was about to give the signal to the executioner to lop off Todd’s head when another voice rang through the crowd. It was a young boy who looked almost identical to the girl who shouted earlier.
“And you said he harbored a slave?” the boy called.
The man dropped his arm. “Not a slave! It was James’ boy! The wizard! Have you people gone deaf?”
This strange pair continued to ask question after question and the man answered them, slowly losing patience each time. Nobody noticed the third member of the party, a little boy, sneak up to Todd and begin to cut his bonds loose.
“You’re not going to die today, Mr. Todd, sir.”
Todd immediately recognized the voice of Mark.