BOY TUGGED at his leather collar, then stopped when he noticed the embarrassed glances of his friends. He fingered the bowl of food that he'd left untouched at his feet until now. Other members of the circle of nine looked away, giving him time to switch bowls with Owl, the youngest and the most in need of food, aside from Boy.
"Prince is a cruel fellow," Tandia whispered. She stroked Boy's bare arm with her painted nails.
Her touch sent whispered taunts between his legs, which he dared not answer. Boy shook his head. After three days in the collar, it hurt to speak.
Prince, so named because he was the only one among them who could gather the coins for a meal, hadn't meant to cause Boy pain. Like a thoughtless fool, he gave his friend candied sweets Boy could not eat. Nothing could pass the constricting bands that circled his neck except for the smallest sips of water. The collar provided the master with insurance Boy would return with what he stole.
If he weren't so busy stuffing his face with boiled honey sticks, Prince would doubtless scold him from staying away from his master for so long. "The collar ensures the slave return to his rightful owner. You don't wish to go against the natural order do you? I must attend school every morning and work with my father every afternoon. My mother has already picked one of my fat cousins for my bride. When I marry, I won't have even these few hours to spend with you, my friends."
Boy had received the lecture before with a respectfully bowed head. He did not want to hear it again, not when his stomach had shriveled to an aching nut.
Now, Boy looked at Prince, one of his eight friends, who squatted around the fire with him and shared stories of the day. What about his smiling friend made him more worthy of a happy life? Why did he wear embroidered linens and have food enough to share?
Tandia scratched at Boy's arm for attention. He fought to ignore her. Only a rich man could afford a wife, or a woman such as Tandia.
"Let me take you back," Tandia said. "I can say I found you in a ditch, beaten by palace guards. You are dirty enough that your master will believe me. Where did you get all these bruises?"
Aware of his scars and filthy loincloth, Boy pulled away again, ashamed to have his well-washed friend touch him and afraid she might guess his secret desire for her. He was a slave, he could be nothing more.
She wore her second best dress, tightly woven threads dyed a pale yellow. The hue made her skin glow golden, like the sand. He could almost wish he, too, served a master who required a clean slave, a well-fed slave, but Tandia had told him he would not like the work.
"You have to go back, Boy." The haughty words of Prince came to him over the smoky fire. The rest of his friends nodded. No one dared disagree, not when their fingers were still sticky with his treats. "You are a slave and a thief. It is your destiny. If you are afraid someone will catch you, come home with me. Mother has a broken bowl you can take. That should satisfy your master for a day or two."
Boy didn't contradict his naive friend. A broken bowl, a silver one, would not satisfy his master. Only beating his property would sate him, and then, only for a few days. Boy would return to his master, he had no choice.
Soon the gnawing pain in his stomach would grow more unbearable than his fear of a beating. He would kneel before the man who held the key to the shameful band he wore about his neck. Certain knowledge of the humiliation to come and the beating that must follow were not what kept Boy from returning. Fear trapped him outside the village and kept him hiding in the scraggly shrubs that dotted the dunes.
Three days ago, he had faced death for the first time.
The end had come swiftly to the man kneeling in the square. The victim's head rolled from his shoulders, severed by a shining blade, and came to rest at Boy's feet. A guard retrieved the head and stuffed it into a basket.
Boy couldn't stop staring at the spot where the dead man's eyes had fixed him in place. "Who was this man?" he'd asked.
"A thief," barked the guard. "What's that you're hiding there under your shirt?"
Boy turned and ran, dropping the apple he'd so skillfully taken from the vendor's stand.
The guard called after him shaking his fist. "You're next, Boy. I'll see your head roll in the dirt."
The words still rang in Boy's ears. He hadn't been back to his master since. And the collar placed around his neck, to keep him from eating any food he might find the courage to steal, kept growing tighter.
A quick look around the fire confirmed his lot was far worse than his fellows. Tandia might not like whatever it was her father made her do with the men who visited his tent, but she was well fed, owned two dresses and was hardly ever beaten. Owl would be all right if he survived until he was big enough to claim his share of the food at home. At least his mother had died, Boy's had simply left.
The two black-haired girls across the fire from him, their heads together, had secure futures, one with a potter, the other with a maker of cloth. Then there were the twin boys and their sister, all of them with strange red hair of various degrees of brightness. Their father ran the only inn in the area. They complained about their work and the roughness of the customers, but they seldom went without supper.
Boy had two choices, starve or lose his head in the Town Square.
Before he could decide which death he preferred, a wind descended from the heavens and put out their fire. Instinctively, he grabbed the bowl in front of him and wrapped it in a loose end of his loincloth. Then he tried to decide which way to run.
Owl pointed upward and they looked at the star-filled sky, a blanket of black studded with laughing lights. Boy had never found comfort in the stars. Cold, unfeeling eyes of the gods, his master had told him. Gods who amused themselves by watching the futile struggles of men as they sought to avoid their fate, eternal torture in the pit of death.
The stars vanished.
Prince broke ranks first. His finely embroidered tunic dragged in the ashes as he ran from the shadow that threatened to swallow the sky.
Tandia pulled Boy to his feet. He grabbed Owl and tucked the five-year-old under his arm. Together, the three followed their friends, screaming as they ran toward town. The bowl Boy carried dragged on his only piece of clothing, where it became tangled in his feet. He paused long enough to kick himself free and continued on, naked.
Wind whipped their legs, turning them in circles before they could travel half the distance to safety. Laughter sounded behind them, then in front. All around them, a spinning figure in white waved his arms, his sex made clear by the beard that seemed to precede him. The nine friends fell on each other.
When they lay panting on the ground, unable to move, paralyzed by fear and exhaustion, the words began.
Boy held his breath and waited for the wizard to turn him into stone or transmute him into a beast. Nothing happened.
Nothing happened to Boy or to his friends. Something happened to the world.
It grew large around them.
The giant wizard bent, his hand as big as the sky. Without a word, he scooped them from the ground and dropped them into his pocket.
Copyright © 2001 by Christine W. Murphy