(Chapter Five has also been revised, and is available in the complete story link at the top of the page.)
“’Ey! Stupid boy! Wake up!”
The boy felt a terrible force kick him in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of him slightly, making him clench inwards.
The boy’s mind swam in deep waters. He’d been dreaming again. Something about being out in the blazing sun, feeling it against his skin. Its warmth filled him, made him feel relaxed and strangely powerful. He frowned. Considering he lived in the mountain village of Olvaren, the sun only shining brightly for about two weeks out of the year before frosting over again, he didn’t know where this feeling came from. A distant memory told him he came from somewhere much warmer than this, but it remained only an echo, something unreal and untrue.
“Oh no you don’t, you get right out of bed before I have to slap you out of it!”
A terrible collection of pinpricks struck his face, waking him immediately. A broom.
“Come on, now, you’ve got chores to do! Don’t make me grab the leather and make you!”
Aeo mentally switched gears. Slowly, but diligently enough to convince Ariste that he wasn’t disobeying her. He rose from his small cot, rubbed his eyes, and noticed the large woman was holding the broom out to him.
“Oh,” he whispered, and took it.
“Lazy boy,” Ariste replied. “Come on, come on!”
The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust this morning. Along with something else… Oh, right, it ‘enriched’ itself with the air of the stable connected through the back door. Horrible. Some patron to the inn had brought with him a team of five horses and just barely fit them all into the meager space. Needless to say, Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the man left. He would gratefully do it, too – it was the only time he would be free of the inn itself, giving him time to think to himself.
The morning usually consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms, and this the boy did first. About half of them had departed at dawn, no doubt to see themselves on the road before the usual traffic. And by the time those rooms were cleaned and made right, the rest would leave and give him more to do. The boy had heard talk that Olvaren sat in the middle of a ‘trade route’. He didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself night after night with tired travelers and men looking to get drunk. Up the mountain, maybe, where a slave could be free…
“Hurry up, boy!” Ariste would say after each room, usually throwing a swing of her hand hoping to catch the boy’s ear. Or maybe it was a broomstick handle, a beer flagon, even a candlestick. Anything she could grip and swing. He didn’t know why. After all, no one ever came to find a room for the night at seven o’clock in the morning. At least the boy knew how to avoid a blow.
That wretched woman. That gigantic woman. Ariste. His owner of three years. She didn’t deserve a name as pretty as that. He would rather risk serving an angry bear than catch sight of her. Always something went wrong. Always something to blame on him. If the patrons were unhappy with their rooms somehow, the boy would hear no end of it at the end of the day. If someone in the inn managed to slip or fall because of spilled beer or water, the boy would be slapped at least once and sent to bed without food. After all, it was his fault the floors weren’t cleaned spotless. Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks on customers. What a clumsy worthless Aurion, Ariste would say, to the delight of the patrons. Aurion, being his place of birth, of course. Some place he would never remember. It was the dirtiest thing they could say about him, and would often illicit laughter from other patrons. He had no idea why.
“Don’t let me catch you slacking off in the backroom,” she would often say, as if the backroom were the boy’s favorite spot. “If you do, it’s double duty for the lavatory.” The boy would often think how funny it was that she would give double duty to clean other people’s duty, but he never said so. It would probably get him slapped.
After the rooms, the boy swept the inn’s kitchen, the serving area, under all the tables and chairs, and the front foyer. After, it was wiping down all those tables and chairs with ratty rags. It never seemed to do much. After all, for all the years the furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain they all had been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any other stain. By this time, a few villagers would wander into the inn looking for breakfast, and the boy quickly made sure they were comfortable and took their orders. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do was cook, surprisingly enough. Ariste had allowed it once. The omelet had turned to a scrambled mess that nearly caught fire. The boy was throttled for that.
After the morning’s food was delivered, it was the boy’s responsibility to lift cartons of milk, cheese, and bread into the storeroom. He had only stolen a small bit of bread once, and blamed the evidence on rats. He was still struck with a frying pan. That one left quite the bruise on his shoulder.
Ariste always put on a face when serving guests that might convince them that she adored owning her own inn and tavern. Being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end. She indeed spread those rumors around. Some man sleeping with a woman other than his wife, the strange religion of some traveler, the finances of some person the boy hardly knew. And, at the very least, the ‘fact’ that the boy was a scab that had no place with the other children of the village and even other slaves. (Yes, there were other slaves, but the boy had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash, which is why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much.) Always with the name-calling. She never called the boy by his name. Useless boy. Good for nothing waste of flesh. ‘Bastard child’ was a rare treat. She had deemed it proper to explain to the boy what that one meant once, but considering he’d never met his parents, he wasn’t sure that one was true.
That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She would take the him shopping for clothes, keeping the leash around the boy’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if the boy had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. Well, maybe once or twice. Slaves in Olvaren were known for their ‘deviant behavior’ (the boy didn’t know what that meant at first), so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap, itchy flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.
About midday, the man of the house usually showed himself. Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Ariste’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than everyone knew the boy to be a lazy Aurion. How she put up with this physical embodiment of laziness the boy had no clue. She certainly didn’t let the boy off the hook. Harthoon certainly made no effort to help around the inn, and rarely put on a mask of sobriety if he could help it. Ariste slapped him every once in a while for forgetting to purchase firewood, ignoring the dirty windows, or harassing the inn’s patrons. Especially harassing the inn’s patrons. For some reason he felt attracted to the pretty ladies that walked through the door, despite the ring on his finger. Yet Ariste never did hit Harthoon with much force. Harthoon’s favorite wooden mug always brimmed with beer, and he made sure the boy filled it at every opportunity, even at two or three in the afternoon.
Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at the boy when disturbed (which happened often, considering how much alcohol he consumed), mumbling to himself, and pouring alcohol into the boy’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between them. In the middle of an Ariste chastising, Harthoon would sometimes stumble into it and apply the physical violence to the boy himself. The man struck uncontrollably, sometimes missing completely, sometimes with such force as to knock the boy flat on his back. Ariste would lightly scold him for doing so for some reason, as if she wanted to do it herself.
Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of him mind in the middle of the night, Harthoon would find the boy attempting to sleep. He would sit himself on the ground, wake the boy with a start, and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Harthoon’s tangled, matted beard was usually soaked in alcohol, and would make the boy drunk just by the smell of it. The boy never knew how to manage this or where it came from. Perhaps he hated Ariste just as much as he did. Perhaps this was the truth coming out at last. But by morning, Harthoon would forget the moment ever occurred and went back to bothering everyone in the inn as he regularly did.
The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt, sometimes mixed with snow and ice when the season turned. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and he often dozed off with it in hand as an excuse in case she ever caught him. Then, at midnight, it was time for bed just to rise at six o’clock to start all over again. Maybe the bags around his eyes made people think he slept too much. Maybe that’s why they all called him lazy.
Ariste never slept. Not when the boy slept, at least. She threw him to bed, then threw him right back out again. What drove the woman the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Maybe slapping the boy gave her strength. Many of the bruises on his arms and back belonged to her, and she added to them on a regular basis.
The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments, when it got bad enough. Maybe he could run away, get as far as the highway and manage to get to the next town without being noticed. He’d heard there was a border somewhere, and that if he crossed it, he could be free. But he’d heard traders talk about it as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without being discovered and sent right back to Ariste and Harthoon. No, there was a single choice for the boy. Up. Up the mountain trail and to the forests and jungles on the other side. It was another country on the other side. If he could find a way to carry himself to the other side of the mountain without freezing, he could be free and never work in a dirty inn again.
But he never dared try. He’d be caught. He’d freeze to death. There’s no way a trader would carry him over to the other side in secret. He’d have to convince one first, and that was assuming Ariste wouldn’t catch wind of it. He’d be beaten for sure.
No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up he could buy his freedom. He’d heard other slaves do that. Maybe he could too.
“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”
Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.
“Uhhn,” the boy replied, doing his best to lift himself out of bed.
“You didn’t sweep the kitchen well at all! Crumbs and dirt everywhere! It’s a miracle no one was poisoned tonight! Go, do it right!”
Ariste struck him on the head rather sharply with the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. What time was it…? The boy peered over his shoulder out the window. Darkness. Perhaps he’d only been sleeping for a few minutes, he couldn’t tell. Ariste disappeared as fast as she’d appeared, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t just around the corner ready to strike if he didn’t hurry. He slipped on his thin shoes and stood. He struck his head against the shelf.
He slipped on his shirt, grabbed the broom, and stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark save for a few candelabras that hung from the ceiling. Ariste was nowhere to be found. Lucky. He crossed the room quickly. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, he was just afraid of the dark if someone came with it.
In the kitchen, a single lantern burned dimmly above crates of potatoes and carrots. He was hungry, certainly, but he wouldn’t be caught dead munching on one. Instead, he pushed the closest crate away from the door and entered. From what he could see of the floor, it wasn’t all that bad, besides the fact that the room smelled like rotting fruit and dirty dishwater. Maybe a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables lined the floor beneath the bar and sink. The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves, but he pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the side table. If he hurried, it wouldn’t take him long.
Brush after brush after brush. So boring. He could feel himself get into a rhythm that didn’t actually get anything done. He shook his head back and forth. Snap out of it. Get this done right and you can sleep. The boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. Ariste especially hated having anything beneath her stove. There were a few stray crumbs there in the darkness – maybe that was what she exploded at. He tossed the broom underneath to get at the wall and pull everything out. Wouldn’t quite fit.
Warily, he placed his hand on the stove. It was cold. He lowered himself to his belly and shoved the broom inside.
Then, suddenly, everything went completely dark.
The boy turned his head to the lantern. Completely spent. The boy growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see. The boy wasn’t allowed to use matches. Usually. But the thought of waking Ariste just to light the lantern filled him with dread. He scratched his arm. He didn’t want another bruise.
The boy knew where Ariste kept them. The shelf just above the stove. He blindly lifted his arms up and found the edge of the cupboard door. It was filled with square boxes, and he only needed one specifically. Not that one, not that one… A tiny one reached his fingers. He pulled it down, slid the lid open. Matchsticks. Small and thin. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Ariste do it dozens of times. Just strike the black bit against the box and it should light into a small flame. Simple enough.
The boy crossed the room. He clambered up on top of the potato crate, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. The lantern still smoked lightly, but only a few red embers remained on the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had enough oil. He took one match, and pressed it against the box.
Strike one. Nothing. Strike two. Nothing. Strike three…
In a poof, it burst alight.
He quickly thrust the match into the lantern, pressing it against the tiny wick. Nothing happened. Wait, I’m supposed to make the wick bigger. With his other hand, he fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. It spun, and the wick raised up, lighting up immediately.
“Good,” the boy whispered. He then pulled out the small still-burning matchstick. Just as Ariste had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out.
It didn’t go out. He shook it again.
The flame grew bigger.
He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure. But it dropped lower and lower, close to his fingers.
He shook it one more time.
He felt the heat. He dropped the match. But the fire remained. The small candle-like flame attached itself to the boy’s finger like a drop of water.
“No, no! Get off!”
He shook his hand. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun.
“Get off!” the boy cried.
He shook his hand faster. Too fast. It swung upwards, striking the lantern. With a clatter, the lantern fell back behind the crate of potatoes. The boy quickly jumped down from the crate and ran to the sink. The fire was still spreading from his hand up his arm. It even caught his shirt, and started burning the cloth.
“No, no, no!”
He could hardly see, but the flames actually helped him find the sink knobs. He turned them on and immediately doused his hand; the flames disappeared. He tossed water onto his arm and patted out the fire; at last, those flames went out as well. In the darkness, he could hardly see his hand. He imagined the skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like the skin of a tomato. He felt it up and down, again and again… Nothing. No pain. Not even a burning sensation. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.
He sighed. How strange.
He smelled smoke. Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising.
“Ah! No, no!”
The potato crate burst into flame.
Whether it was the dropped match or the fallen lantern, it hardly mattered.
“What in hell’s name is going on in here, boy! I heard-”
Then Ariste screamed.
“Y-You stupid boy! You monster! Get the bucket, get it now!”
The boy looked around. What bucket?
“Move!” Ariste cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”
She flung the boy to the ground with one hand, and filled the bucket in the sink as quickly as the faucet would allow… which wasn’t fast at all, truth be told. In the meantime, Ariste filled the room with obscenities, most of which were directed at the boy in no particular order.
“You Aurion bastard child!” she cried, for example. “Ahh! What did I tell you about matches, you stupid boy!?”
The boy sat on the ground, slightly dumbfounded. He watched the fire burning faster and faster, catching onto more of the crates. One of the crates was filled with ceramic pots and thatch to keep them protected—that went up in a burst of intense heat rather quickly.
It felt like a dream. The dream of the sun. With all his heart he knew he shouldn’t wish it, but he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More intensely. Maybe even burn his arm again, and spread further, like an orange snake slithering across his skin. Ariste’s shouts droned in and out, like a mesmerizing pattern of sounds, consumed just like the wooden crates in the uncontrollable dance of the burning heat.
Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Harthoon had entered the room, panic growing in his eyes. The boy had never seen him so alert before. He took his coat and tried stamping out the fire. The water bucket filled, Ariste took it and threw it against the fiery inferno. To everyone’s shock, most of which the boy’s, the flames seemed to devour the water like oil, bursting up against the ceiling and further into the room.
“Y-You did this!” Ariste shouted, no longer able to control the situation. But this she could control. She grabbed the boy by the shirt and hauled him across the room and out the door. With a thud, the boy landed against the bar, hitting his head against the wood and making him dizzy.
“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me! I’ll kill you if this place burns down! You hear me!”
She wore soft slippers. She kicked the boy hard in the stomach. Nothing felt soft.
“You… You stupid son of a bitch,” Harthoon said, more intensely than the boy had ever heard before. He added an effective kick of his own against the boy’s arm.
Ariste bent down and threw her fist at the boy’s face. It connected. The boy felt his brain in the back of his head. She hauled the boy up by his shirt again, and threw him towards the door as hard as she could. The boy tripped and fell against chairs and a table.
“Go and get the constable, you idiot!” she screamed. “And don’t come back without help!”
She and Harthoon quickly scrambled back into the kitchen to try putting out the fire again. The boy struggled to his feet, unable to see. Mostly. His eye was swelling up. He stumbled to the door, unfastened the locking bar, and flung it open. Frozen air blasted his face as he walked out into the cold.
A thought occurred to him as he stared out into the dark.
Forget the constable. Forget the fire. Forget Ariste and Harthoon.
It doesn’t matter anymore, he thought to himself. I’m never coming back.