NYC Midnight Short Story Contest – Honorable Mention. An honorable mention is another word for loser in some languages, but in mine it was a confirmation that the writing path was worth pursuing. Particularly because I was assigned the story type of “mystery”, my very least favorite type of story. The last mystery I read was a dusty Nancy Drew book from my Grandma’s house, when I was twelve. And now I had to write one.
The winter red-cedar forest seemed to pull the warmth from the little boy. The dawn did not fill him with a sense of renewal, the way it seemed to do for the others. It was bone prickling cold, the devilwood grove he crept through along the coastal forest offered little warmth with their protection. The orphaned begg’r boy was quick, even in the absence of a day and a half of food. The wild onions and blackberries had run out for the men, women and children too long ago, although not long enough for his empty belly to forget. Rabbit and potatoes were his main diet now, whatever was left after the families ate. He dearly missed his cloak; there had not been time to snatch it from the dirt worn corner of the wooden dwelling, where he was as much an afterthought as his bedding. The little boy had already been wearing his deer hide shoes, scuffed of their color and far too-snug. They were the only thing to ever keep his feet warm, so worn them always. Perhaps one of the pursuers or one of the fleeing may have dropped a cover of some sort on their way to the river. The beggar boy was used to using what he could find; size mattered nonesuch, he was simply grateful for what luck and imploring words would drop onto his path and into his pocket. He kept an eye out, his need to stay hidden competing with his need to somehow gain warmth, or food. He’d been taught to draw afire in the hearth, but with dying embers. One of his many tasks had been to tend the fire. His ear would be cuffed and he would be the beneficiary of a slew of stridulous language from the housemaster, the man to whom he owed his life and occupation. M’ster could straight cuff him a good one now, his ears were half numb and a jolly red already.
Tucked in his britches was the patch of torn linen, with the symbol he was to transcribe upon the wood. He took a small moment to puff his chest with responsibility, remembering also the sailors on the Red Lion and his work on the ship. The seafarers didn’t mind his presence; he was a surreptitious swabbie, exchanging deckhand work for a bit of dried cod and a swaying bunk. The little boy was used to the invisibility of his station in life. He’d been a beggar since as long as he was alive. Seasons since he was toddling amongst his mum’s tattered skirt; and still collecting a farthing, plum or kick still after she died.
The dawn broke into a foggy mist of light snow. He shook the flakes from his shaggy brown hair, but most of them stuck and melted on his unattended head, as it had been beyond memory the last time he’d had a dunk and scrub in the river. The linen was soaked. His deerskin was soaked. But he was smiling, his memories warm.
It had been a fortnight since he’d had a hot meal, the begg’r nibbling on what he could sneak and gather since then. They’d all been gathered ‘round together inside the fortress walls, dismantling the spare village, one hearth at a time. The natives had been keeping watch. Assuming they were the familiar natives offing their help and assistance to lead them all up round’ the Chawwan and away from the raiding parties, the fortress gate was opened by the group elders. The little begg’r was more familiar with the natives of the area, having been taken as a slave from the first landing. But he didn’t recognize the marks on these braves or the smell of the oils they used on their bodies and hides. Not having a family to protect him, he hid. One of the braves found him, hiding on his stomach in a field of pink mallows. His body was thin, he was certain he could hide; snatching food had made him swift of foot. The native grabbed him by the hair, spoke two loud guttural words, opaivwhnekutand drug the boy back to the group. An unrelenting vision of dead bodies replayed in his hungry mind until he was pushed into the group of fearful villagers. He was allowed to stumble onto the cold ground, no family to catch him.
M’ster found him often a bit of time. No hug was supplied, yet a firm clasp of that masculine hand on his shoulder was strange in the comfort it provided, unfamiliar yet welcome. M’ster was the closest person he’d had to a father. He wished M’ster was his father sometimes, same with the privateers on the RedLion. The little begg’r was usually too busy for the wastefulness of daydreams, but the momentary peace they provided would always find a way to catch him. His dreams were the warmest thing he owned.
M’ster spoke quickly, and in a low voice, looking at the little begg’r in the eye, as he would a man. He showed him the linen. “See this symbol?” The little boy nodded, not looking at the linen. “LOOK” M’ster said, and pulled the boy’s head down and shoved the linen inches from his chilled nose. “I need you to bound away again, as you had just done, when no native is looking upon us”. M’ster again looked the begg’r in the eye. “See where we left the message?” he pointed southwest. The little boy nodded. “They will need to know what happened”,M’ster continued. “Carve this symbol into that same…” M’ster said as he shook the linen in his face and then tucked it into the drawstring of the little boy’s britches. “It is the sign that we have come to harm, Sir will understand its meaning”. M’ster handed him a small blade he had hidden. “Do not let anyone see you, or find you. The signal must be delivered.” He tipped the blade toward the post before handing it to the begg’r to hide.
The heavily marked natives had caught notice of the intentness of the conversation and moved swiftly, wrenching the little boy over to the other side of the throng. The shuffling mass began to move, making its way to the wide river-mouth, beyond which one could glimpse theislands. They followed the path along the waterline. The cry of the small girl-child gained the native’s attention at the front of the group. The little boy heard a splash, then the wail of a mother. The little begg’r leapt into the brambles along the riverbank and hunched in silence as the group filed past him towards the mouth of the great river that led to the ocean. He watched, frozen physically and silently, as the natives forced each person into the frigid February waters. He gazed without word as he watched the crimson blood of his only people mix with the saltwater of the sea and the freshwater of the river. The current of death washed away the people he knew as he crept out of the bramble and began to run in the opposite direction.
It was many hours of adrenaline before he remembered his task. The knife was long gone. The only meat he would catch would be in visions. The little begg’r knelt to the ground and nibbled at the leaves and sparse snow he found below them. His hands were pale and tinged with winter’s blue. His run became a trot, which then became a noisy shuffle. The little begg’r knew he had to get back to the camp, to warn those returning of the fate of them all. His heart became warm again at the memory of the M’ster’s confidence in him. He stopped next to a tall cedar to gain a bit of breath, inhaling the cold night air. He could hear the rush of blood through his body. He felt the warmth of his mother’s touch, how grateful she was for the bit of bread he was able to bring back for her, before she died. Sliding down the base of the tree, looking up at the stars, he blinked and saw his mother’s kind eyes blink back. It’d been so long since he’d seen her. The wind didn’t sound like wind; he could hear her voice, calling him home. He’d never been home, and so very much wanted to go. The leaves on the ground swirled up with the night breeze and over the night hours covered him in the most comforting and loving of blankets.
The members of the friendly tribe, looking for the Roanoke colonists, found his frozen body days later. It laid a length or two from the oak post bearing the single word ‘Croatoan’ etched in the sturdy wood. The blade and the ragged linen, which contained the outline of the Maltese cross, were never found.
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