The boy stood in the yellowing light of dusk, bare feet planted in the dirt between buildings, a hand against the rough planks of the house beside him. His gaze crossed the flagstone street to the house on the other side. Sometimes he saw the young girl that lived there poking in the dirt outside the door, but today the husband had arrived with a large sack of potatoes and they were all inside preparing dinner.
Keenin turned to his friend Lester who looked back at him. Keenin had gained many friends when he joined the local group of thieves, but he still felt left behind.
“You always look like you might go somewhere,” Lester said.
“What? No,” Keenin said. “I just…keep thinking about what it would have been like if my mother didn’t leave.”
It was a silly idea. That had been eight years ago, but he still clung to the faded memories that resided in his old house. He remembered his mother’s wispy blond hair, the pastry stains on her dress, and the walls that kept them safe.
“I think you would have gone hungry all the same,” Lester said honestly.
“You’re probably right.”
“Anyways,” Lester said, “I’m going to see if they threw out any bread at the bakery. Want to come?”
“You’re still doing that. All the good stuff will be gone and the rest burnt because of their new baker.”
With a distant war being waged more food was going to soldiers and their little farming community was becoming a popular place to live and shop.
“It’s just singed on the outside.”
“I’ll get you dried fish if you wait till nightfall,” Keenin said. “I saw the new arrivals drying it out by the river. And I got three bruised apples fresh off the cart.”
Keenin pulled one from his deep pockets. Lester took it.
“Not bad, but you better keep the rest. You know the boss likes money and trinkets.”
“He’s an idiot.”
“He is the boss. I wouldn’t show up until you have something to show.”
“I get it.”
The others would hassle him if he didn’t have any stolen goods.
“And stay out of the camps. They have dogs.”
“Sure, sure. You go take care of those idiots who can’t feed themselves.”
Lestor left and Keenin turned back to the street to see that the shadows had lengthened. People wandered by; ladies with baskets of food, fathers carrying sleepy children, young women gesturing to show off their latest jewelry to friends. The market street must have been closing.
“I want to play with Sophie’s dog,” a child whined.
“Sophie’s dog has to work. She’s a sheep dog,” the mother’s reply drifted over as Keenin heard the crunch of their boots.
“Then I’ll get the work done faster and we can play.”
The mother laughed. She came into sight as she passed his hiding spot. Her green dress flared with the step of her boots as her free hand kept a tight grip on her daughter’s hand. The girl spotted him before being pulled away.
“Mother,” the girl called in excitement, but Keenin had already left.
He wandered back through the village and came out from between the buildings beside the butcher’s house to a flagstone street that contained as many weeds as the fields beyond. Here villagers wandered by with the last of their purchases from the market. Keenin put his hands in the warn pockets of his pants and absently inspected the ground for fallen coins or forgotten trinkets. Then he looked up and across the street expecting to see empty booths.
Instead his eyes fixated on a small green bottle glinting in the last light of the sun and balanced at the edge of the medicine stall. The street had become mostly deserted and the owner of the stall, a famous retired war hero, was bent down to pack his other goods.
The shadow of a cloud streaked over Keenin’s face. Then he was gone. He ran though dying light and deepening shadow and caught the bottle as he passed the-
“Hey!” the merchant hollered.
Lester will be jealous, Keenin thought as rushed down the street towards a narrow ally. His pursuers boots pounded the cobbles and Keenin’s heart thumped in his chest. A sense of thrill coursed through him as he realized he would be the first person to steal from the old hero. Keenin envisioned the look on the other thieves’ faces, but was distracted by a sound. What was that sound? Like a whoosh. Like a- He suddenly tripped, saw the ground, tucked, and rolled over the cobblestones.
When he stopped, it was a painful relief, but he knew that the war hero, Alaban, stood over him. Keenin didn’t want to look. Tonight he would not be able to share his earnings with Lester. His feet were tied and the only thing he could expect was a cold night in some cellar while the town council discussed his fate. Keenin forced himself to look over his shoulder to meet Alaban’s gaze and opened his right hand where the bottle still rested intact.
“Undamaged merchandise,” Alaban said, “In that case maybe a bit of humiliation in town square would remind you to respect personal property. A day tied to the post for being a public nuisance.”
Keenin considered this. A display in the square was not jail, but having the entire town know his face wasn’t in his favor. Alaban reached for his possession, but Keenin tightened his hand around it.
“Wait,” he said.
If he was known as a thief, his friends could no longer rely on him. He would be a known criminal that the townspeople would avoid. Alaban did pause, but only to grab Keenin’s upheld wrist instead.
“Two days,” Alaban said instead.
But Keenin wasn’t backing down. He wasn’t afraid of the old war hero. He clamped his hand around the bottle so that the effort would be noticeable. He felt the brittle bottle start to crack.
“What are you…
“A trade,” Keenin continued, “You let me go now and I’ll come back with whatever you need for this potion. How does that sound?”
“Is that what they’re teaching you kids to say these days?”
“No. It’s a promise.”
Alaban showed a confused expression. He let go of Keenin and stepped back.
“What does a boy with no mother know about promises?”
Keenin thought about it. Then he wondered why he had tried to talk it over in the first place. He felt the liquid inside the potion bottle seep into his skin through hairline cracks in the glass. He shifted himself up onto his knees and carefully placed the bottle on the ground in front of him.
“You’re right. I bet people like you don’t keep promises anyways,” Keenin said.
Alaban bent and picked up the bottle. He examined the cracks across its surface. Keenin knew that it should have been like this from the start. He absently pulled at the weighted throwing rope that had wrapped around his legs.
“One chance,” Alaban said.
“Huh,” Keenin said looking at him.
“One chance,” Alaban repeated. “Show up at my house tomorrow morning and you can make potions for me. If you don’t show, then I better not see you again.”
Alaban leaned down and pulled Keenin’s legs out straight to unwrap the rope before turning to return to his stall. Keenin was left to consider what would happen if he didn’t show up.