The boy felt swallowed by darkness whenever the moon hid behind a cloud. Wind blew through the thick forest like the raspy breath of old men back at the village. The wavering flame from his torch barely showed the narrow trail he followed.
“Who goes there?” A loud, harsh voice came from a bush a few steps ahead of him.
The boy stopped. “I am just passing through,” he said back. His skin felt stretched taut around his body.
“Let’s have a look.” A different voice in the bush, younger.
The boy felt like turning around and running. But that would be stupid. He held his breath. Two tall shadows came out of the bush and floated towards him. The feeble torch showed their stone hard faces with scars for ridges. The younger one held a knife.
“What’s this. A child?” The older bandit said and spat. “Here I was thinking the night watch was finally worth something.”
“Don’t be impatient,” the younger one said. He pointed the knife at the boy’s throat. “Someone else with you, boy?”
The boy shook his head. Heat throbbed through his entire body like he had a fever. His stomach scrunched and threatened to send food back up to his mouth even though he hadn’t eaten in two days.
“Any money on you?”
“No more than ten years old,” the older man said. “What are you doing strolling through the forest in the dead of night?”
The boy lowered his head. He had memorized what he was supposed to say here, but now his mind was a solid block of ice. He felt a pinch as the knife dug into his neck.
“We don’t do well with silence,” the younger man said.
“I … I am running away from home,” he stammered as the words suddenly came to him.
The knife was withdrawn slightly.
“Well, child, you chose the wrong road to take.”
“Let’s kill him,” the older man said vaguely. “He’s useless.” A shiver went down the boy’s spine.
“Well, I can think of some uses for him,” the younger man said, with a smile that made the boy’s hair stand on end.
The older man spat again. “You guys make me sick,” he said. “Fine. But you need to take him to the chief first.”
“Oh, come on,” the younger man said. “Don’t be a kill joy. I’ll be done with him quickly and take care of the body. The chief never has to know.”
The older man shook his head. “Forget it, I am not lying to the chief.”
“You know, it’s no harder for me to take care of two bodies.” The younger bandit pointed the knife towards the old man. The boy breathed in gulps as the knife moved away from his throat. Yes – he thought – take care of each other and I’ll be safe.
The older man’s laugh was like shovels digging into hard earth. “Sure. The chief will believe you when you tell him his oldest man just disappeared somehow while you don’t have a scratch on your body.”
The two men stared at each other silently. The wind had stopped, and the entire forest seemed waiting in anticipation. The boy looked up. A large cloud covered the moon.
“Fine,” the younger man said finally. “You’ll die on your own soon enough.” Then to the boy, “Let’s go. And no sudden movement or I’ll cut you to bits.”
They walked off the trail into the forest’s depth. Please show up now – the boy prayed.
The older man stopped abruptly. “I think I heard something moving.”
“Where?” the younger one said. The forest around them was shades of darkness. The moon still hid behind its cloud fortress.
“Over there,” the older one pointed towards the trail. “Like someone’s following us.”
“You’re imagining things old man,” the younger one said. “Anyways, we’re almost at the camp.” He pointed towards some lights in the distance, about half a mile away.
The older man said nothing but started walking faster. They’d only taken a few more steps before there was a sharp sound of a twig breaking. It seemed to resound through the silent forest.
Shit, the boy thought. Before he could move, he was choking. The older man had grabbed his neck.
“What are you not telling us, boy. I am going to kill you right here.” The boy gasped for air.
“Leave him alone.” The younger man’s voice was faint in the boy’s ears as the world seemed to dissolve away. Maybe it could end like this. That wouldn’t be so bad would it? His skin prickled. He turned his head a little to look up. The moon was coming out of the clouds.
The older man released his neck and fell on his back. He saw the men’s faces turn white as they seemed to turn to half their size. From the corner of his eye he saw the younger one run towards the camp. He put his front leg on the ground and took a deep breath. The growl was satisfying.
With a slash he severed the old man’s head from his body. He then turned and ran towards the younger man who seemed to move slowly, like he was running through water. He caught up to him in ten gallops and tore the flesh on his back. The younger man cried and fell forward. Finally, some food.
The man was all bones when the boy was finished. He licked some blood from his jaw and looked up. The clouds were gone, and the moon shone brightly. He turned to the camp. It was time to finish up the work.
There were more men at this camp than a usual group of bandits. He slashed and cut, feeling the panic spread through the camp as the men fell around him like stalks at harvesting. He trampled through the tents to find any bandits that were hiding. It seemed he’d taken care of all.
There was a flash and a silver noose fell around his neck. He fell on his face as it tightened. The world grew big again, and he tasted the gritty earth as he saw the villagers walk into the camp. He used his hands to push himself up and stood on his legs. His face reddened with shame as he stood naked in front of the villagers. They ignored him.
At the other end of the noose was his master, who watched patiently as the villagers looked around the camp to make sure all the bandits were dead. Then, he tugged the rope and led the boy back towards the road, where the carriage waited.
The master signaled the boy to get into the cage and locked it. Jonas was lying there, shivering with fever. Jonas was two years older than the boy and had a bad injury in the last run. The boy felt like Jonas was going to die soon, like the other ones. And then he’d be all alone. Not for long—he told himself—the master always finds new ones.
“Pay me double, the camp was bigger than you told me,” the master was telling the village head.
“We didn’t know either!” the village head said. “We’ll pay you the price we agreed on.”
The boy felt his eyelids get heavy. He laid down and pulled one of the thin blankets over his body.
“I took a big risk tonight,” master was saying. “It was a cloudy night. Do you know what would’ve happened if the moon didn’t show up?”
The voices were growing faint. His mind floated into sleep.
“That’s your problem.”
“I can make it your problem. You want your village to be attacked on some moonlit night …”
The boy dreamt of growing big enough to break the lock on his cage. He saw his master’s face, white with fear, as he walked towards him, slowly. The silver noose was nothing but little pieces of shiny thread lying somewhere far. He smiled in his sleep.