As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a bandit. To me, being a bandit was better than being the Lord of the castle. Even before I first wandered into the bandit camp as a kid, I knew I wanted to be a part of these outlaws. It was there that I belonged. To me it meant being a somebody in a kingdom full of nobodies. They weren’t like anyone else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They parked their horses in no poop zones, and the guards never harassed them. In the summer when they played cards and drank all night, their fires still crackling long after the rest of the city was in darkness, nobody ever called the guards to shut them up.
As I grew, so did my reputation with a weapon. I was fighting boys that were 2, sometimes 3 or 4 years older than I was, and still winning, most of the time. One day a bandit I recognized came up to me after a nasty street fight I’d won and asked me when I was going to get smart. I looked at his nice Castle Guard uniform, then asked him what did he mean by get smart, who got smart from fighting. He replied, ‘The ones that work for me.’ His self-assuredness threw me, and settled the question in my mind for the time being. I piped up, “I’m smart” with a similar air, and he just smiled that mischievous smile of his. “We’ll see, come to the guards stand later.”
When my parents first heard I’d gotten a job, they were happy. There wasn’t lots of opportunity in the kingdom and working for the leader of the castle guards seemed to be the perfect chance for me to make some coin for the family. My father, who was from Naura on the West Coast, had started working at the age of 10, and he liked that I had a job. He always said kids in the East were spoiled.
Every day I jumped out of bed, anxious to get over to the guard stand and help out. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. I could do anything, go anywhere, and harass anybody. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. It wasn’t too long before my parents changed their minds about my new position. For them the guard position was supposed to help put some food on the table, not take me away from the house for days at a time. Once, the guards were doing a search of a wagon belonging to a well off merchant. Used to the mild harassment, he leaned against his wagon and pulled out a silver lighter to light a cigarette. I was young, but the moment I saw that lighter I had to have it. I had been fascinated with fire for some time, and the thought of being able to conjure it with the flick of my fingers seemed like magic. I walked over to that grey haired merchant and despite being no taller than his belly, I snatched it right out of his hand. The merchant was slightly shocked, and I stared him right in the eye and dared him to try and take it back. We both heard the muffled giggles from the other guards still searching his wagon. He stopped smoking for a moment and turned to look at them, and they stopped laughing and stared back with hard looks. Then he returned to puffing the cigarette and gave me a bemused grin. “You’ve got a live one here! Better watch out for this one.”
People like my father could never understand how I felt. I was a part of something. I belonged to something. I was treated with respect. My father had never in his life been treated with respect, and here was his son getting respect from warriors, merchants, and knights before he could grow a beard. He took it harshly, and he got his revenge by taking it out on me.
“You think we wouldn’t notice you been gone 3 days?” My father yelled, grabbing me by the collar as I came in through the window long after sundown one night. “Who are you? Some poor mudkid, son of a stable shoveler. You think I don’t know what goes on with you ‘Guards’? Ha! You think you’re so much better than us. You ain’t no one. You won’t ever be anyone.” He pushed me down onto the dirt floor, and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. “Look at you crying. Some ‘Guard’ you are. Don’t worry I’ll give you something to cry about…” I don't remember much after that except for the white-hot hate I felt, mixing with the intense pain of the beating. But by then I didn’t care so much about taking the beatings – the way I figured, everyone took one sometimes.
It was the summer of my 12th birthday. Summertime meant travelers, which meant the guards would make a killing. The bandit leader that had recruited me, my patron so to speak, loved this time of year. Every traveler had to pay a fee at the gate, or they weren’t allowed in, simple as that. Got into a fight in a pub? Gonna have to pay a fee to get out of jail. Want to sell your wares in the market, well, who’s gonna protect you from the pickpockets and thieves? Oh now you’d like to leave? There was a fee for that. The crown even got their cut. Those were the good days, and I was young and naive enough to think it would never end.
It was only a few months later that I said goodbye to my father for the last time. The Lord mustered an army, and my father was pressed into service with the infantry. It would be 2 years before I watched the army return, and when they did it was much, much smaller. The Lord had been killed in action, along with my father and tens of thousands of others. A new Lord was soon crowned, which was when everything changed.
I remember it clearly, it was a Saturday, overcast and cold, with a hint of snow in the air. It had been 6 months or more since the new Lord was crowned when the soldiers from the garrison marched up to the guard stand by the gate and stopped. We had been sitting and playing cards, but we stopped as well. We looked at them, and they looked at us. Then a knight in fancy armor came over and informed us that we were to be dismissed and the army would handle guard duties from now on. He handed the sly man who’d first found me in that street fight years ago a paper bound by the Royal Seal. “The young ones are to join the army.” The sly man remained sitting, holding the document and giving the knight a hard look. Finally with a resigned sigh he spat on the ground in front of the knight, and getting up said “Let’s go boys.”
Just like that my life was turned upside down.
Myself, and a few other boys accompanied the knight to the drill grounds to be assigned to our units. When my name was called I was asked if I had any skills, I couldn't stop thinking about my father, and I knew I never wanted to be in the infantry. I didn't know what to answer, so I found myself idly touching the lighter I always carried in my pocket. The drill sergeant stopped short. "Give me whatever's in your pocket." I grasped it tightly in panic. The officer stood stolid, hand outstretched, so I had no choice but to hand it over. "Hmmm," was all he grunted, and walked back towards his desk. His back to me, I couldn't see what he was doing as he rummaged through a drawer and shuffled some papers. Then, as he bent his short-haired head I heard that familiar click of my lighter, and he turned back to me with a thick cigar between his teeth, billowing smoke. "We got ourselves a little firestarter. I know just what to do with you. Report to the Siege Works.” I gave the sergeant a withering look, then turned and joined the others in line for the Siege Works. “Get moving! There’s work to be done!” The sergeant barked and we marched to the Siege Works, berated by the sergeant with every step.
I hated this new life already. Who did this guy think he was? Didn’t he know who I was? Who I’d been? I hadn’t spoken two words to anyone since I’d been pressed into duty, and I didn’t plan to stick around long enough to say much more than that. I knew the castle well from my days in the guards, and I was sure there was no way I’d be around more than a week.
Mornings were spent waking before sunrise, and then exercise in the yard hoisting cannons as a team. When the sun was up we had a small break to eat and then cleaning the cannons. I hated the cleaning; endless scrubbing, washing, rinsing, and worst of all, repeating. It never ended. Several days later, I had finished washing my cannons earlier than usual, so I splashed myself with some water and walked out to the firing range. I was watching one of the recruits who’d started training before I did fumbling with the fuse - scared of the noise or expecting to blow himself up, I had no idea. His absolute incompetence caused my long simmering rage to boil over and I exploded at him. Slapping him in the back of the head, and then punching him in the face, I asked him how he expected to fire a cannon in battle if he was that scared during practice. “You’re gonna get us all killed! How about I save us all the trouble and just kill you now!?” I had my hands around his throat before the sergeant grabbed me, trying to pull me off. “What is wrong with you?” the sergeant yelled. My hands still around his throat, the fog of rage cleared a bit and I saw the sheer terror in that boy’s eyes. Instantly letting go, I stumbled back. “I’m…I…I’m sorry,” I said, as I took a few steps back and looked down at my hands, still clenched and shaking. Everyone was looking at me, wide-eyed and waiting to see what I’d do next, even the sergeant. A thousand thoughts ran through my head in the blink of an eye. Anger mixed with humiliation fought for control, as I closed my eyes and slowly breathed. Then as quickly as it had overcome me, it dissipated. Something I’d never felt before had cleared the fog of anger; a sense of duty, of honor. That kid hadn’t done anything to me except light the fuse to the powder keg of my emotions with his incompetence. Taking a step forward, I leaned over and grabbed his hand, helping him up. “I’m sorry. Let me show you how to do it properly.”