The windmill squeaked and squawked in the wind and the grinding of the millstone went on. Sunlight was bright on the ground outside the wagon, and lit on the edges of the straw like pure golden fire.
Wendahl sat up, as much as he could under the wagon, and stared for a while. Nothing went past. Then he crawled out quickly from under and went along down the scraggly dirt road.
The well water felt cold and sharp in the stranger’s bucket. The water rippled to stillness after a moment. A boy stared up at him from the bottom, ringed with the perfect blue sky. He was too old to be “just a boy” and much too young to be “a man”.
Dark chestnut locks fell on his face. The face looked out from the water every day. Once it had been so small. Today it was not, but the passage of time was so slow. Wendahl did not remember when it had grown.
A thousand smells and sounds of the market greeted Wendahl as he huddled against the sharp morning wind. He always liked the marketplace in the morning; it was like all the great confusion swallowed him until he was just another part of the clamorous music. Squeaks of wheels and spinning wheels and waterwheels, filthy boots stomping past, lumpy rolls, the last winter apple, a fresh scent of hay, the stench of the meatman’s bloody sides.
No one seemed to notice the short boy who dawdled around the baker’s awning, hopping on one foot and fiddling his fingers behind his back.
Now he turned and leaned on the table, looking around, watching a bird that hopped on the roof, or the other children playing and squealing by the horse’s water. He hopped up now, and listened.
“Coming mother!” he yelled obediently, and ran off quickly, ducking between the people walking by. The baker looked up for a moment and smiled a little.
He ran across the way between two low houses and kept going, one way and another. Now there were fewer people and he slowed and walked down a desolate street, a bit dusty and with bits of straw strewn about.
Two other boys lingered around, walking aimlessly. The first one, Colin, was a bit taller and thin, with a moppish head and a sad, bored expression, as if he had watched the butcher cut up lambs all morning, and the other, Derrick, was just an ordinary type, with brown hair and a typical boyish look.
“Hallo Wendahl,” the moppish one said, not unkindly. “Have you got anything yet?”
Wendahl reached inside his shirt calmly and pulled out a few puffy looking bread rolls.
“You’re the best, Wendahl, the best, you know?” Derrick said appreciatively, and he handed them each a roll. Then began what looked like a solemn ceremony. They sat down in a ring, and began leisurely tearing off pieces and stuffing them in their gaping mouths.
After a while Derrick piped up, his mouth still gnawing on a big piece.
“You know, if I was as good as you at stealin’, Wendahl, I bet I would’ve stole all the gold in the castle by now. I tried my hand at stealing rolls once, but the baker he caught me by the wrist real quick, and they threw me in the dungeon for a good while. It was real nasty in there, lots of rats and such, but not that different than living down by the peasant’s land. Of course, everyone’s tried to steal rolls before. Easy and quick. But there’s no one like you, Wendahl, no one.”
And with that he started on a long chuckle, rocking a little with it, the roll still in his mouth.
Colin, the sad boy, looked up, his eyes moving about slowly and watchfully. He had long, yellow hair that drooped over his head like wet straw.
“I tried to get a roll once,” he said simply. “They just sent me to a lady out by old man Cralth’s field, who put me to work on potatoes and weevils. It was real hard work, and she beat me sometimes, but once in a while I could get a potato.”
He said nothing more.
They continued their solemn eating in silence, until only the sad boy was left with some. They got up, and kind of dusted themselves off really quickly, although it didn’t do much. Derrick kicked a straw with his foot.
“What do you want to do today?” he said. “I’ve been hanging around the blacksmith’s, hoping to get some work, fetching coal or something,” he continued.
He looked off to the side into the distance, then looked down at his raised foot. Wendahl spoke up.
“Let’s go to the Black Mongrel. Maybe we can find another drunk and get a few coins off the floor.”
With mute agreement, they wandered along up the narrow side street.
It was a bit loud in the Black Mongrel, and the air smelled of things that were unpleasant at the beginning but had since had lots of time to grow even more unpleasant. It was dark inside, and a few torches gave a kind of grudging light to the black pitched walls. There were tables of rough wood, and a servingman in a greasy apron stood behind the counter. The two other boys wandered aimlessly by the benches, looking down at their feet.
“Hey, boy!” a rasping voice called out.
Wendahl turned, and looked over at the front, where an old man sat perched on a bench like a withered hawk. He had an eye patch, and when he saw the boy his face broke into a wide grin, the smile pushing through innumerable wrinkles of time, like the splintering of an old tree. He gave an uncouth laugh, and patted Wendahl on the head.
“So you’re still alive, boy? You’re growing strong, I see, just like I was once.”
And he gave a horrible cough.
“And how are you, Nate, you old badger?” Wendahl said without politeness or malice.
“Not as well as I used to be,” he replied with a bit of seriousness. “That’s why I wanted to see you.”
He patted a short sword hanging on his belt, really more of a dagger.
“I can’t handle this very well anymore. I’m getting old, very old, and I wanted to make sure it went to someone deserving of it.”
He gave a rumpled chuckle of amusement.
“I still remember that day when Billy Oakens pushed you down,” he said proudly. “So I’ve decided to give it to you when you turn fifteen.”
Then his voice turned grim and sober again.
“Anything younger than fifteen is too young to have a sword. You’ll have to prove to me that you can learn to use it properly, boy, before I’ll give it to you.”
Wendahl grinned and gave a short laugh. He spit in his hand and stuck it out. The old man did the same, and they gave a short shake. Then the old man reached in a dirty pouch and pulled out a brassy looking coin. He pressed it in the boy’s hand.
“Go get yourself a melon without thieving it for once, and leave an old man to his drink.”
With that he laughed like an old crow and took a swig from his tankard.
Wendahl turned and went to look for the others. The people in the tavern sat at the tables, some drinking or laughing or singing. He soon saw them at the back, and went over to them.
“I got a copper,” Colin said resignedly.
Derrick shrugged and said nothing.
“I got a brassy from Nate,” Wendahl said.
They stood around a bit, looking across the tables, then one by one began going to the door. A taller, older looking boy stood by the entrance, his face bloated with a sour expression, chawing on a piece of wheat.
“Still scrounging for coppers in the vomit, Colin?” he spat out, and the sad boy just drooped along. Wendahl went past, and briefly looked up at the older boy. They stared for a moment but said nothing, and then all three went out.
“I’m not afraid of you!” the older boy called out from the doorway behind them.
The dust in the street had been thicker than the heat from the sun on that day, long before. Wendahl remembered it, how hot the dirt was, not only on the ground, but in the air and in his eyes. The memory itself was a picture scratched in the hot earth somewhere in his mind, baking with the fumes of the day. He didn’t remember exactly how it started, or why.
Billy stared at him from across the street. His face was puffed dangerously, his clothes were torn in places and stained. Two years older than Wendahl, he was already big for his age.
“You’ve got something you stole from the market. I know. I’ve seen you.”
He walked on, ignoring him. Billy walked along quickly after him.
“Give me some and I won’t tell,” he said teasingly. “Just a bit. Ay, I’m talking to you, you little whit.”
A few other children gathered around.
“I know you think you’re so great, Wendy, just because you can pinch a few rolls from the dumb baker. He’s so stupid, anyone could do it.”
“So, why don’t you?” Wendahl asked plainly.
The boy wheedled, “Because I’m not a thieving bastard like you. Hey, come here!”
He pulled on the back of Wendahl’s shirt, wheeling him around. Other children came and formed a ring around them, watching curiously, some shouting. Wendahl stood at one side, his face red and serious. It seemed as if time had stopped, and he had been standing there a long time, with the children always shouting and watching and the dust everywhere and the older boy staring down at him with his big, angry face.
“I’m not a bastard,” he murmured quietly. “I had a father once,” he continued, a mite louder, stepping ahead.
The other boy reached out with one hand and pushed him a little. He fell back into the dirt with a crash, and suddenly it seemed like something was roaring inside him, a roaring that seemed to drown out everything else. The other children yelled and shouted directions and stamped all around, like the inside of a whirling thunderstorm, and suddenly he got up and ran at the older youth.
He remembered that he got hit, and hard, but he hit back, again and again, until at last he stood heaving and trembling, looking down at the unconscious form of the larger boy, his fingers digging into his hands, his breath coming in great gasps. Colin, his sad face bewildered, came over and looked at him. Others came over as well, their faces fearful and serious. Wendahl looked back at them, not able to say anything.
“Are you okay?” he heard Colin ask suddenly.
The memory of that distant day shattered, and Wendahl snapped his head up quickly.
“Yeah…” he said, and shrugged.
They continued down the street away from the Black Mongrel.