Luck of the Toss
The boy walked through the town slowly.
He went past the farrier’s shop and the row of market stalls, past the old temple pillars and into the main square.
No one looked at him or paid him any attention. Why would they? He was just another street urchin like so many others, and everyone was too engrossed in their own survival to care about his.
The stink of an open sewer caught him, sending him reeling, spinning him momentarily off balance. But the feeling faded rapidly, even before the smell did.
A man with a large aquiline nose was watching from across the road.
The boy became aware of him and went out of his way to avoid those searching eyes. He had learnt long ago that attracting attention brought him nothing but trouble, so he kept his head down and sped up his pace, all the time reaching with his senses towards the man, monitoring him. Was he still watching? Had he moved? Was he following him?
He did not see the form that blocked his path. A hand seized his arm.
“Watch your step, boy!”
He muttered an apology, but the grip on his arm did not relent.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
He looked up at the question and started!
It was the same man who had been watching him from across the street, or perhaps his twin brother. How had he moved so far so quickly? What did he want with him?
In sudden terror, he tried to squirm away. But the man’s hold only tightened.
Dark eyes in a wizened face, lined with the marks of venerable age but belied by the iron grip upon his arm.
“Why are you fleeing, boy? What have you done?” His tone lowered a notch and became accusatory. “Are you a thief?”
The man shook him as if to shake an explanation out of him.
But the boy was too frightened to answer and the man finally saw that this was so.
“Very well – cat got your tongue, I see. Well, you’d better come with me.”
It was not as if the boy had any real choice. He stumbled to where the man dragged him, into the shadowed portico of a derelict house.
Here the boy became aware of others pressing in around him.
“Hey Sharim, look what I’ve gone and found!” the man exclaimed as he thrust the boy into the middle of the space.
A lantern appeared and an old crone bent down to look into the boy’s grimy face. She lifted his chin with a pointy finger and peered into his frightened eyes.
“Aye, he’d be the nimble one. He’ll do nicely, he will,” she said, and then he was whisked away.
“What’s your name, boy?”
He had been carted somewhere in a carriage with no windows. When they had let him out, daylight had blinded him and, before he could get his bearings, he had been shoved into this room.
It was gloomy, except for the vertical slivers of light seeping through the gaps in the roughly made windows. A man spoke from across the table at the room’s centre. His face was in shadow, but the boy made out the outline of a hat and thought the man might be bearded.
“Toss,” he answered.
This revelation was met with a moment of silence.
“Toss?” the man repeated in a tone of disbelief. “What kind of a name’s that?”
The boy shrugged.
“Well, never mind. Toss, I have a job for you. One that will pay really well, but you must do exactly as you’re told. Do you understand?”
“Now listen very carefully to what I have to say, Toss. Because if you perform your duty to my precise instructions, I will pay you more than you can possibly imagine. I will pay you in gold. Have you ever even seen gold, Toss?”
The lad shook his head.
The man leaned forward and held something out for him to inspect. As he did so his hand passed through one of the slivers of sunlight. For just a moment, whatever was in his hand shone as if it was a fragment of the sun itself.
Toss’ eyes widened and the man behind the desk smirked.
“Ah, you see it, don’t you? You see it and you want it!”
The hand closed around the treasure and withdrew.
“And as I said, it can be yours, but only if you do exactly as I ask, not more and not less. Do you understand?”
Toss nodded again.
“Very good,” the man continued. “But Toss, I need you to understand that if you do not follow my instructions precisely, something terrible will happen to you. Do you know what happens to thieves?”
Toss nodded, he knew only too well. Many of the boys he had met or had scrapes with had only one hand, having lost the other to the punisher’s blade.
“And you would not want that to happen to you now, would you?”
Toss shook his head slowly but firmly.
“Good, good; very good. Because if it came down to that, you would not lose just one hand, you’d lose them both, and we all know what that means, don’t we? You’d be of no use to anyone. It would mean the end for you, Toss. I need you to understand that before we go on. So, do you?”
Another slow nod.
The man moved closer to Toss and lowered his voice to a whisper.
“So then, here’s what I need you to do …”
The next morning Toss was free.
He had slept on a pallet for the first time in a long while. He had been fed well last night and had broken fast with pork and bread and milk. He was sated and even a bit groggy from all the food. But still he was far from happy with his situation.
His freedom was nothing but an illusion. He knew that he was being watched. And though he had no idea how many sets of eyes were locked on him as he walked down the street, he could feel them boring holes into the back of his skull with their intensity.
He had been given his instructions so many times since yesterday that he was certain he could prattle them off by heart even in his sleep.
He walked back towards the town centre. When he reached the square he stopped in the shade of a wall and waited. The wait seemed interminable. It ended when a carriage drawn by two horses came down the west road and came to a halt outside the inn.
The driver passed the reins to the lad sitting next to him and climbed down from his seat. He opened the carriage doors for a young woman and an older man. The driver then escorted the pair to the inn, leaving the carriage with the boy who was now sitting squarely in the centre of the driver’s seat.
Toss made his move.
Moving nimbly, he crossed the square and walked casually along the inn side of the carriage. As soon as he reached the rear he looked around to make sure that no one was marking his manoeuvre and then climbed up onto the luggage rack. He lifted the wooden lid of the luggage compartment and slid into the narrow space between the luggage and the side of the carriage. Gingerly he lowered the lid shut.
He awoke when the carriage lurched forward and he banged his head against the side of the compartment. He couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t cried out, but the carriage didn’t stop, so he slowly allowed his body to relax.
If anyone conversed inside the carriage, he did not hear their exchange. All he could hear was the racket of the metal wheels striking against the cobbles of the street beneath him and the rattles and creaks and groans of the carriage timbers as the vehicle swayed on the uneven surface.
Suddenly the noise of the wheels changed as they left the town and pulled out onto the open highway where there were no more cobbles, but plenty more potholes and ruts caused the carriage to bounce and sway violently. The journey seemed to go on forever and, with nothing else to occupy his mind, he went thoroughly over what he was required to do. He didn’t want to lose his hands.
Another change, short and dramatic, found the wheels thundering over a wooden drawbridge; a jolt and a thump and the carriage was admitted through the castle’s walls, and moved now across the smooth, level ground of the first yard.
Toss tensed again. The time for movement and action was almost upon him again.
He waited until all motion ceased and listened carefully to all the sounds around him.
The driver and his boy descended from the bench and opened the doors for the passengers, murmuring voices fading as the four walked towards the keep.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Toss pushed the compartment’s lid open just a fraction. He glanced left and right then dropped to the ground and scuttled underneath the carriage just as more footsteps approached.
Three sets of feet shod in black shoes. The house servants gathered at the rear and opened the compartment he had just escaped from.
Grunts and scraping sounds and then a loud thump as the heavy chest was lowered to the ground.
“They don’t think ‘bout us when they pack these things, do they?” complained one voice. “Shh!” cautioned another. “Of course they don’t, why should they when they haven’t lifted a thing in their life? They don’t understand weight. All they know is that someone’s gonna do it for them.”
“Shut yer traps,” warned a third voice. “Let’s just get all this stuff inside before ye have to look fer another job, yer stupid oafs!”
Accompanied by huffs and more grunts, the chest was lifted and two sets of feet walked it towards a small entrance, not the one where the first lot had gone through. The last of the trio fell in behind the others carrying some burdens of his own.
Toss crawled out from under the carriage and followed the last man right up to the door. He hesitated for a moment until he could no longer hear the sound of the man’s footsteps, and then he too was inside.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the change in light.
Then he froze to the spot.
Blocking his passage was a guard: armour, helmet, the lot. As luck would have it, the man’s head was turned towards where the last servant was even now turning a corner. Another moment now and he would turn, see Toss, and Toss would lose his hands.
Quick and silent as a rat, Toss scanned the room and bolted, even as the guard began to turn towards the door. He scuttled behind some crates and, keeping as low as he could, he made his way past the guard and made for the stairs that would take him up to the second floor, to where he was meant to go.
Toss moved when he could, froze when he had to, and slowly made progress towards his destination. He climbed the first flight of stairs without any bother at all, but then, when he was half way up the second flight, someone started to come down and he was forced to retreat to the first landing. He could not stop even here but ducked down the hallway to the left of the landing.
Just three steps into it and he heard the murmur of voices coming towards him. Trapped between two possibilities of discovery he opted to open the first door he came across and slipped inside.
He did it quietly of course, making hardly any noise opening the door and closing it behind him; so he almost jumped out of his skin when a voice spoke in his ear.
“What are you doing here?”
He turned to see a girl maybe just a few years older than himself. Her inflection was so confident it seemed to suggest that she knew him somehow, or perhaps that she even knew his purpose. Toss whirled around to face her.
“Please, don’t …” he started, but the girl reached past him and opened the door just a fraction.
They both watched as two maids walked past at a brisk pace, heads bent together, talking in hushed tones. The girl closed the door.
“What are you doing here?” she repeated, a little louder and more forcefully this time.
Toss turned to her with his eyes full of terror.
“Please, please, please …” he implored. “Don’t tell anyone I’m here. I don’t want to lose my hands …”
But before their conversation could go anywhere, another, deeper voice interrupted him.
“Savina, what is it? What are you doing in there?”
“Wait and be quiet!” the girl whispered urgently, shoving him back against the wall and then pulling quickly away.
“Nothing, Pa,” she said, walking towards the room where the man’s voice had come from. “The door to the passageway was open, so I closed it.”
“Ah, good girl. I thought I heard voices …”
She walked into the room.
“A couple of servants were walking past,” he heard her explain before the door closed and their exchange became muffled.
Toss’ heart was beating furiously.
He was stuck and did not know what to do. Any moment now that door could fly open and the man would seize him. If the girl talked, it was over. And why wouldn’t she talk? He was an intruder, he was in her home, and he obviously wasn’t here with good reason. She knew he was up to something, up to some mischief.
Toss had not been told what the results of his actions might be, but he was not a dullard, he could piece things together. The small metal vial tied inside the hem of his vest was of metal for a reason, and though he did not know for sure what it would do to anyone who consumed it, he could guess.
If they caught him and searched him, they would find the vial and would know his true purpose; and then he’d lose more than his hands. He’d lose his life.
There was no sign that anyone was coming for him. Clearly, the girl had not told her pa about him. He had to keep going – there was nothing else for him to do.
He started moving again.
He emerged from his hiding place and, feeling his way, walked back towards the door to the hallway. When he reached it he peered outside and, seeing that the coast was clear, he tiptoed to the landing and dashed up the stairs.
This time he had a clear run. He reached the second landing and took the left passage. He slid inside the third door to the right. Into a bedroom, just like he had been told.
An imposing four-poster dominated the room. A large wooden chest sat at the foot of the bed, offering a cushioned seat before a deeply set fireplace. Two gigantic wardrobes rose along the left wall, while an ornate dresser, and glass doors which opened onto a small balcony, claimed the opposite side of the bed.
Feeling dwarfed by all the furniture, Toss did not linger but slid under the bed and positioned himself close to the head of the bed, near the wall.
This is where he felt most comfortable of all - waiting patiently. He knew waiting. He was consummately used to it. It was such an integral part of his life - like regular meals and sleep are an integral part of a normal person’s life. He used every waiting experience to sleep, secure that he would be instantly awake at the slightest change in his waiting environment.
This time was no different.
His eyes sprung open when the door to the room opened, and he was instantly awake before the first footfall had even connected with the room’s floorboards.
Toss’ mouth felt parched. He had not had anything to drink since morning.
He watched as a man’s feet walked around to the dresser. The man paused before the balcony doors and opened them to the balmy night air.
He could see all this because the man held a taper, and its tremulous light made the room quiver and the shadows dance.
With a sigh, the man made his way to one of the wardrobes and opened it. He disrobed, discarding his clothes on the floor, and donned a nightdress.
The bed swayed dramatically when the man sat down upon it. Then the feet swung up and the man shuffled and wriggled into the bed.
The candle was extinguished, and after a silent spell the man’s breathing became audible and rhythmic. It gradually grew in volume until every out-breath produced a respectable snore.
Toss waited, just like he had been instructed.
When he deemed he had waited long enough, he silently crept out from under the bed and stood near the chest, looking down at the man’s sleeping form. He was within reach of his employer’s intended purpose and was close to accomplishing his objective. Until now, he had not allowed himself the luxury of thinking past this point. He was a street urchin, condemned to a life of hardship and misery. At best, he could hope to forge for himself a career as a pauper or a vagabond. He did not indulge in the luxury of thinking too far ahead. One thing at a time seemed enough to him. But now as he stood there, looking at the sleeping form of this man, he sensed that he stood at a major turning point. The decision he made here tonight would steer the direction of his entire future. And as he faced what he had been ordered to do, he could not deceive himself about the consequences. He knew clearly that, if he accomplished the task that had been appointed to him, the man in the bed would die.
A chill travelled the length of his spine.
I’m only doing what I’ve been told to do. I’m just doing what I have to do to stay alive, to save my hands.
But still he could not deceive himself. If he carried out this deed, his career would take him down the path of a cutthroat or, worse, an assassin.
Or he could try to leave and run away. Hope they would not find him. But he knew that this was self-deception. There was no hiding for the likes of him. He belonged in the gutter and there was nowhere to hide there - it was way too crowded.
As he stood there, torn between these thoughts, another thought suddenly stalked into his awareness, like a predator. What if this was the girl’s pa? She had seen him and not betrayed him. She had decided to protect him. Was this how he was going to repay her gift?
He stood there hesitating and looking at the form on the bed, confused as to what he should do, when the chance to make a decision was abruptly taken from him.
He must have had some subtle warning, however, maybe a soft scuffle in the hallway, or perhaps he felt the displacement of air as the bedroom door began to open, because he was back under the bed so quickly that whoever crept into the bedroom didn’t have a chance to see him. From his hideout, he watched a pair of bare feet cross the floor to the bed and then climb up.
The man’s regular breathing soon changed and was replaced by sounds of pleasure.
Toss was young, but he was not stupid. He knew what was happening. All the boys on the street talked of little else. Toss didn’t really get it though; he understood that it was necessary in order to make babies, but … why did people have to do it so often? It was baffling, almost as if they enjoyed it.
Oh, he could understand the men enjoying it, but the women? They were the ones who ended up making the babies. He had seen a baby being born once and it scared him half to death, it had.
These and other thoughts passed through his mind as he lay under that bed, listening to the baby-making sounds just above his head.
His mission was still poised over him like a menacing threat, unaccomplished and as unavoidable as death. Toss waited and worried.
Eventually the two on the bed exhausted themselves and the room grew quiet. Two breaths now sang their snoring duet.
Toss reached a decision.
He was here with a purpose. He could not leave and hope to survive if he did not complete what he had come here to do. It was not his fault if anyone died. He was not the hand that thrust knife, he was just the blade that was being thrust. He waited some more, just to make sure that the pair was truly and deeply asleep. Then he crept out from his hiding place and, wasting no time, he unstoppered the metal vial, reached for the cup of water on the man’s side-table, and emptied the small amount of liquid into it.
He replaced the vial into the folds of his shirt, secured it there with a tight knot, and then he was out of the room and down the stairs. He was on the verge of walking past the passage where the girl had surprised him, when he stopped short.
He could not do it.
He could not walk past. Could not bring himself to walk away from her life without one more glimpse, one more attempt to see her. Cussing at his own stupidity, he opened the door and slid inside. The long room was empty. He sneaked up to the door at the far end and peeked inside.
He saw a small bed. A small form lying in it.
He tiptoed right up to the girl and tried to peer into her face.
He could barely make out her features. He noticed how the sheets rose and fell with her breathing.
What am I doing here?
And, as if in response to his silent question, her hand shot out to grab his arm.
“What are you doing here?”
There it was, the mirror of his own question. At least he knew what answer to give.
“I don’t know.”
The girl’s eyes burned like lanterns. Her lips parted into a small smile.
“I knew you’d come back.”
You knew? he thought numbly, I didn’t.
“I … should go …” he stammered.
She frowned at his words.
“Go where? The castle is closed. There is no way out, until they open the gate at dawn.”
“The side gate’s not manned,” he insisted, telling her what he had been told. “I let myself out and I’m gone, long before dawn.”
“Who told you that?” she asked, sitting up in her bed.
He shrugged, unsure of what to say.
“I should go,” he repeated, serious this time.
He looked at the hand still gripping his arm.
“You can’t go now!” she insisted. “There are guards at every gate … you’ll never make it out. They’ll catch you.”
Could it be that they had lied to him? That they had made him do their dirty work, and trapped him here so that he would be found and killed? Could it be that even the gold they had promised him had been a lie?
He looked into the girl’s eyes.
He had never seen anyone with eyes as clear and honest as hers. The more he thought about it the more he asked himself why he trusted the men who had forced him to do this. And he realised the truth: he did not trust them at all.
He was terrified of them. That was the true force that had driven him here: terror and survival. He felt his eyes smarten with tears.
He jerked his arm away from the girl’s grip.
“Who’s the man sleeping upstairs?”
The girl looked at him with sudden fear in her eyes.
“He’s my uncle, why?”
“You called him pa…” Toss pointed out.
“My pa’s dead,” she told him. “He’s been my pa since my true pa was killed.”
Toss looked at her hard.
“Is he a good man?”
She nodded, eyes wide.
“Why? What have you done?”
But Toss didn’t answer. Instead, he fled the room.
Toss burst onto the landing and made for the stairs in a rush of blind panic.
“Hey you!” bellowed a voice from behind him. “Stop!”
He did not heed it but ran up the flight of steps, followed all the way by the guard’s shouts of alarm. He ran straight into the room of the sleepers who were just rousing in response to the racket. The woman screamed and the man cursed as Toss lunged across the bed to seize the poisoned cup. He glanced inside, but could not tell if any of the liquid had been drunk.
He carried it to the balcony and cast the cup flying into the courtyard below.
Then a blow to the head sent him reeling across the room and the darkness that followed was not one he would have chosen to suffer if he had any choice.
Toss was a survivor.
Even emerging from unconsciousness had to be done properly, seizing on any vantage he could find, any foothold that could help him stay alive. He felt himself reaching for the surface, but forced his body to remain still, as if he was still senseless.
The first thing he ascertained was that he still had hands.
He did, and it pleased him immensely. But in the process he also discovered that his arms were tightly bound, as were his legs.
So next, he risked opening one eye, just slightly.
And that was as far as his stealth got him.
“Pa,” the girl yelled, hurting Toss’ head. “He’s waking, he’s waking!”
Further away, a voice answered.
“Oh he is, is he? Well, let’s see what he has to say for himself.”
Toss realised just then how much his head hurt. Opening his eyes was painful. Light was painful. Sound was painful.
“Ah, your head hurts, does it? Well, that’s no surprise. You got yourself a considerable whack. But don’t worry, you’ll live. And, depending upon the story you tell me now, you might even avoid the gallows. So you’d better start from the beginning.”
Three days later, Toss attended the execution of the enemy spies in the town’s public square. Once the five men and two women were swinging from the ropes, he knew that the danger was mostly over for him. But he also noted that some faces in the crowd eyed him without sympathy.
Jasmine was not there. Uncle Tobias was of a mind that a young girl like her should not have to witness such harshness. Not at her age.
Afterwards, he approached Toss.
“So, you’re free to go now, if you like. You’ve got a lot to thank Jasmine for, you know. If it hadn’t been for her you’d likely be dead now.”
So would you, Toss thought - but said nothing.
A smile crept onto Tobias’ lips. He nodded slowly.
“As indeed would I …”
How did he …?
“But I suspect that freedom may not be the thing you really want? Made a few enemies, perhaps, by not killing me? So, here’s the thing … if you’re willing to work hard, you can come and make a life for yourself in the castle. How does that sound? It’s just an offer, you don’t have to accept …”
“I’ll come,” Toss said without hesitation.
And, as he followed Tobias away from the gallows and climbed into the carriage with him to ride back to the castle, Toss knew that his life had indeed turned.
He did not know where this path would lead, but he followed it gladly for, against all odds, it led away from the gutter and from a life that he had not believed it possible to escape.