One of my earliest memories was one of hunger and fear. I was around five at the time on my own. I never knew my father, and my mother had recently died, a poor whore with nothing to her name except a constant flow of random men, more likely to beat her than pay her. Over the years her face faded from my memory, but since I feel some kind of emotion at the thought of her, I must have loved her once. I have vague memories of her voice, softly singing me to sleep after one of her many beatings, only seeing a shadow hover over me in the mind’s eye, but nothing more.
I survived on the streets of Valoor alone for a few years, relying on instinct and using my small size to my advantage. Living on the scraps of the citizenry was simple enough, but it was keeping what I found that was difficult. Dogs were a constant threat, often as hungry as I but with sharper teeth. There were many other children that ran the streets, but they were easy to avoid. The difficulty with them was getting to the source of food first. That was where my size helped rather than hinder. Valoor was by far the largest city in the area, with a couple hundred thousand people calling it home at any given time, and was thus extremely crowded. I had very little issue fitting into small places in alleyways, slipping in and out of crowds. Maybe it was all the success I had pickpocketing my way through the city that led to my overconfidence and my demise as a “street urchin.”
The first time I saw my “Uncle,” was when he held my wrist in a death grip and a look of incredulity in his eye. No one stole from the Legions. No one with any sense at least. I always thought I had sense enough to keep myself alive for several years, but as I said, I was overconfident. I was eight by then, I think, as I actually have no idea when my true birth date is. He nearly tore my arm from its socket as he lifted me off the ground with one hand, his purse still in my clutches.
“Your feet touch the ground again when my purse does,” he growled hoarsely.
I would have tried to squirm free, but even a slight bit of motion sent excruciating pain through my arm. Still, I hesitated, looking between what would have fed me for a month and that which would certainly end my life if I did not acquiesce. While I considered my options, this large, intimidating man began to laugh. Not a laugh to shame someone, or torment, but one of wonder.
“I have you, your arm ready to pop out its socket, my grip unchanging, and yet you still seek an escape. A fool would have struck out and a coward would pull a knife. You are obviously neither. Where are your parents, boy?” He did not have an ounce of malice to his voice, his question expecting an answer.
“Dead, sir. My mother is at least.” I was determined not to show weakness and break eye contact. “I have no father.”
He just looked at me, far longer than any person had prior and I did not like it much. The uncomfortable squirming motion that was little more than a flinch, as my arm was still in his vice-like grip and my feet still well off the stones of the road, was all I could muster as I still refused to look away from his fierce eyes. Dressed like all the other soldiers in the Legions, he was tall, and strong. His hair shaved at the sides, the top cut short was brown like the mud of the river, as was the stubble of his chin. The eyes, burrowing and burning, it seemed at the time, into my soul were grey and had a kindness I was too stubborn to acknowledge. I could not figure out his intentions. Was he going to kill me? Or perhaps have me thrown into a dark cell and left there to starve to death. I had no idea and dared not move more than I already had, trying to avoid as much pain as possible and hopefully escape with my hide intact.
“An orphan street urchin, huh?” he harrumphed. He paused a moment before continuing, “You hungry boy?”
“I’d be a lot less hungry if you’d let me go with some of this gold,” I retorted, his purse jingling between my fingers. I have no idea why I said that. That could have been the end of me and none of the hundreds of people that drifted by would have batted an eye.
Dashing my last hope of freedom, with his other hand, he snatched his purse back and set me back to ground without releasing me. “What’s your name? I can’t just call you boy the rest of the day?”
“Alain,” I lied.
“Well Alain, I can’t let you go so you can steal from some other unsuspecting fool. I could turn you over to the City Watch, but then they would just torture you before leaving you to rot in a cell. Then again, I could take you home and make a slave of you. But, I also admire the fact you would dare attempt such a thing on the Primora of the Legion, not to mention meet me eye to eye once caught.” There was this twinkle in his eye at that point, almost as though he found something in particular funny. “Come, let’s feed you first.”
He did not wait for me to respond, simply turning and continuing in the direction he had been going when I first encountered him, a small squeak being all I could muster. I have no idea how long we walked, but eventually he stopped at a tavern whose name I lost long ago. Pretty certain it burned down years later when the barbarians sacked Valoor. I was scared, probably for the first time since my mother died, of what was going to happen next. The owner of the establishment looked up as we entered, nodding toward a doorway at the back and returned to cleaning his bar. There were a few men sitting around the room, all of them keeping to themselves or chatting with one of the barmaids.
“I’ll need two of your largest servings of whatever Adira is cooking today Master Tolven,” was all that was said before I was taken through the doorway. It led to a semi-private dining table with four chairs and candles on the walls for light, there were no windows. “Sit,” he instructed, not letting go of my arm until my backside met wood.
I sat there, quietly waiting with this hulking strange man sitting across from me, watching me. Not a word was spoken as we watched one another, I warily and he interestedly. That was how the barmaid found us as she brought the food he had ordered. She had been on the verge of speaking, a smile on her face as she entered. But upon finding us, staring as we were, both the smile and the voice faded and she simply set down the two plates and walked out.
“Eat,” was all he said, and I did. He continued to watch me as I devoured the food before me. It was not until I was halfway through my plate of food that he finally spoke again. “My name is Avun Isa, but you can call me Isa. If that plate isn’t enough for you, this one’s for you too.”
I barely stopped chewing as I stuffed more food into my mouth while simultaneously pulling the other plate nearer. Glazed duck breast with roasted veggies were something I had only come across a couple of times during my scavenging days. It was beyond belief to ever think something could taste so good when it was fresh and on a clean plate. I did not know or understand why Isa was doing this for me, but for once, I did not care anymore. At that moment, all that mattered was the food in front of me. The issue of this strange man would be something to deal with later.
“Been a while since you’ve had a fresh meal, eh?” I nodded my head in agreement, not even pausing as the barmaid returned and set a mug of wine down for Isa and water for me. “Bring another wine please Lilia,” he instructed.
She looked at me, a mixture of pity and disgust. I hardly noticed, I had food before me. As she left, nodding, he pushed the mug of wine toward me. Looking at him once, I eagerly grabbed it and drank like it was the last drop on earth. It was not the first time I had had wine, but like the food, it was fresh.
Downing the entire mug of wine, I waited to catch my breath before starting on the food once more. My plate was nearly empty at this point. He had a small smile on his face, which did not unnerve me for some reason. I had heard tales from some of the older children of men that liked to “do things” to children they found on the streets, but for some reason I trusted this man where I had never trusted anyone before in my life.
“What are you going to do with me after this? Fatten me up so I last longer in a dungeon?” I was not serious, it was more jest than anything, but he took it quite seriously.
“No, not my style. If I had planned on killing you I would have simply slit your throat while you dangled over the street, retrieved my purse and left you there.” There was a simple truth to the words he spoke. I knew he would have done exactly that and would not have had a second thought of it. “I think,” he continued, “I’ll take you home instead and put you to work. A meal earned through work sits in the belly far better than one pulled from the dung heap.”
“So I’m to be your slave?” I asked incredulously, my back straightening with indignation. I was small, I was hungry, I was homeless, but I always had my freedom.
“Easy boy,” he chuckled, “not a slave. You’ll be as free as you ever were, but you’ll earn your way rather than steal it, and you’ll have a bed to sleep in.”
“Why would you do that? What do you get out of it?” I asked, doubt starting to creep in for the first time since meeting him.
“Well, for starters I won’t have to worry about my purse being cut from my belt every time I walk in your neighborhood, which I do daily when I am in the city. Look,” he said, “there’s only two choices here. You either come home with me and never go hungry again, or I dump you off at the nearest Watch station and let them lock you up with a full belly and you never see the light of day again. Take your pick.”
I know it sounds like an easy choice, but let’s face it, it was not that easy. When you have been living on the streets, alone with only yourself to take care of you, trust is often a commodity you can not afford to have. I had just had the best meal in my life and I was not interested in having it be my last, nor was I looking forward to even the slightest possibility of eating from the dung heap again. If anything, I could always run away if being there was worse than my old ways.
“Okay,” I finally said. “I’ll go with you.”
“Good! Now, before I let you dig into this second plate, why don’t you tell me your real name?”
I laughed. Harder than I had ever laughed before. “Marcai,” I relented. “Marcai Orban.”