Sleep clung to his body like a caking of dirt from the grave. He twitched a finger, and it felt as if the muscles had lain dormant and dead and heavy for years instead of hours. He twitched his toes, and it felt as if they had to remember life before they would obey him. Each small movement cracked the plaster that bound him and shook loose a few more grains of immobility from his body and mind.
Couldn’t he lay here forever? Would it be so bad if he did? He was so comfortable. It felt good to be so comfortable. Yet his body continued to claw its way to life, to try to wiggle loose of the sleep that snared him.
He tried to open an eyelid. It fought. His sight flickered in and out of light and dark.
The sunlight showed him an unfamiliar room. A carpet of clean, woven reed spread between him and the wooden wall not an arm’s length away. Sunlight striped the wood with shadow, but the lines were clean not jagged like the window of a tattered cloth or collapsed thatch.
A shout and a crack cut the last of sleep’s mantle to ribbons. The thunder of sound returned to his ears with the creak and rumble of cartwheels and harness and the clop of shod horses on dirt track and a whinny like a sick horse’s.
“Gee up, you lazy mules!” a man called.
And the room lurched, and the boy rolled and his stomach heaved.
He retched but there was nothing left in his stomach to empty.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
Groaning, the boy turned. The wall that had been at his back was comprised of iron bars and through a gap a man smiled with a wisp of white paint still caught in the hollow beneath his eye and in the edges of his beard and retreating hairline.
“Home?” the boy asked.
“Aye. When you attacked the master with your hands all aglow—awful trick for a thief—well, he weren’t going to just leave you behind, were he?”
“What do you—”
“Don’t you remember?”
The boy shook his head.
“Maybe a bit too much of the drug, then. T’ain’t much of your body to hold that much of it, and I imagine you’ve a hollow stomach besides if you think to steal bread from a caravan our size. Small you might be, boy, but you ain’t no mouse to sneak by a dozen men unnoticed. So that’s home now till you can be trusted outside of the bars.”
“Wherever’s there’s folk who’ll pay for cheap tricks—and not so cheap tricks. ‘Magine there’s many who’d pay us good money for a glimpse at you. Your trick ain’t mirrors and chemistry—or the master don’t figure it is.”
The man pushed a skin pouch through the bars. “Here, boy. Drink up and flush it out. We won’t have us a show tonight, I don’t think, but you should still have a head on your shoulders before the nightfall.”
The boy uncorked the skin and took the mouth. The lukewarm water in the skin was still better than many drinks that he had had, and he gulped it eagerly.
“Hey now. Not all at once. Slow. Don’t you know better? Gonna make yourself sick,” the man spat, pushing his hand between the bars to make an ungainly and unsuccessful swipe for the bottle. The boy retreated further away from him and hugged the bottle close between a thin chest and bent knees.
“Ar, fine then,” the man relented. “Keep it. You make yourself sick, and see if I feel sorry for you. You just bear in mind what I say, and if you’ve half a brain in that thatched head, you might be all right.
“Consider it a welcome present from your new friend Slim.”
Do you all remember way back, near when I turned to a life of crime, when I found a young boy named Runt? Well, I do believe he’s back. I suppose chronologically this story would come first, but it also partially contradicts the original tale. Oh well. The line for that first story I stole from Gwen, but she stole this line from me, so does that make us even? Visit Apprentice, Never Master to see what she’s done with the line in “Might.”
This piece spawned a sequel! Here is “Vetted” (999 words).