IT WAS JUST AFTER lunchtime. Rather, it would have been after lunchtime if I’d had anything to eat. I was begging in Merchant’s Circle and so far the day had profited me two kicks (one guard, one mercenary), three shoves (two wagoneers, one sailor), one new curse concerning an unlikely anatomical configuration (also from the sailor), and a spray of spittle from a rather unendearing elderly man of indeterminate occupation.
And one iron shim. Though I attributed it more to the laws of probability than from any human kindness. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while.
I had been living in Tarbean for nearly a month, and the day before I had tried my hand at stealing for the first time. It was an inauspicious beginning. I’d been caught with my hand in a butcher’s pocket. This had earned me such a tremendous blow to the side of the head that today I was dizzy when I tried to stand or move about quickly. Hardly encouraged by my first foray into thievery, I had decided that today was a begging day. As such, it was about average.
Hunger knotted my stomach, and a single shim’s worth of stale bread wasn’t going to help much. I was considering moving to a different street when I saw a boy run up to a younger beggar across the way. They talked excitedly for a moment then hurried off.
I followed of course, showing a pale shadow of my former burning curiosity. Besides, anything that moved the two of them away from a busy street corner in the middle of the day was bound to be worth my while. Maybe the Tehlins were giving out bread again. Or a fruit cart had tipped over. Or the guard was hanging someone. That would be worth half an hour of my time.
I followed the boys through the twisting streets until I saw them turn a corner and scurry down a flight of stairs into the basement of a burned-out building. I stopped, my dim spark of curiosity smothered by my common sense.
A moment later they reappeared, each carrying a chunk of flat brown bread. I watched as they wandered past, laughing and shoving at each other.
The youngest, no more than six, saw me looking and waved.
“Still some left,” he called through a mouthful of bread. “Better hurrup though.”
My common sense did a rapid turnaround, and I headed cautiously downward. At the bottom of the steps were a few rotting planks, all that remained of a broken door. Inside I could see a short hallway opening out into a dimly lit room. A young girl with hard eyes pushed past me without looking up. She clutched another piece of bread.
I stepped over the broken pieces of door into the chill, damp dark. After a dozen steps I heard a low moan that froze me where I stood. It was almost an animal sound, but my ear told me it came from a human throat.
I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing like what I found. Two ancient lamps burned fish oil, throwing dim shadows against the dark stone walls. There were six cots in the room, all occupied. Two children that were hardly more than babies shared a blanket on the stone floor, and another was curled up in a pile of rags. A boy my age sat in a dark corner, his head pressed against the wall.
One of the boys moved slightly on his cot, as if stirring in his sleep. But something was wrong with the movement. It was too strained, too tense. I looked closer and saw the truth. He was tied to the cot. All of them were.
He strained against the ropes and made the noise I had heard in the hall. It was clearer now, a long moaning cry. “Aaaaaaabaaaaaaah.”
For a moment all I could do was think about every story I had ever heard about the Duke of Gibea. About how he and his men had abducted and tortured people for twenty years before the church had gone in and put an end to it.
“What what,” came a voice from the other room. The voice had an odd inflection to it, as if it wasn’t really asking a question.
The boy on the cot jerked against his ropes. “Aaaahbeeeeh.”
A man came through the doorway brushing his hands on the front of his tattered robe. “What what,” he repeated in the same not-questioning tone. His voice was old and tired around the edges, but at its center it was patient. Patient as a heavy stone or a mother cat with kittens. Not the sort of voice I expected a Duke-of-Gibea type to have.
“What what. Hush hush, Tanee. I wan’t gone, just stepped away. Now I’m here.” His feet made slapping sounds against the bare stone floor. He was barefoot. I felt the tension slowly spill out of me. Whatever was going on here, it didn’t seem nearly as sinister as I had originally thought.
The boy stopped straining against the ropes when he saw the man approaching. “Eeeeeeaah.” He said, and tugged against the ropes restraining him.
“What?” It was a question this time.
“Hmmm?” The old man looked around and saw me for the first time. “Oh. Hello.” He looked back to the boy on the bed. “Well aren’t you the clever one today? Tanee called me in to see we have a visitor!” Tanee’s face broke into a terrific grin and he gave a harsh, honking gasp of breath. In spite of the painful sound, it was clear he was laughing.
Turning to look at me, the barefoot man said, “I don’t recognize you.
Have you been here before?” I shook my head.
“Well, I’ve got some bread, only two days old. If you carry some water for me, you can have as much as you can eat.” He looked at me. “Does that sound all right?”
I nodded. A chair, table, and an open barrel standing near one of the doors were the only furnishings in the room aside from the cots. Four large, round loaves were stacked on the table.
He nodded too, then began to move carefully toward the chair. He walked gingerly, as if it pained him to set his feet down.
After he reached the chair and sank into it, he pointed to the barrel by the doorway. “Through the door there’s a pump and bucket. Don’t bother to hurry, it’s na a race.” As he spoke he absentmindedly crossed his legs and began to rub one of his bare feet.
Inefficient circulation, a long-unused part of me thought. Increased risk of infection and considerable discomfort. Feet and legs should be raised, massaged, and swabbed in a warm infusion of willow bark, camphor, and arrowroot.
“Don’t fill the bucket too full. I don’t want you to hurt yourself or spill all over. It’s wet enough down here.” He eased his foot back to the floor and bent to gather up one of the tiny children who was beginning to stir restlessly on the blanket.
As I filled the barrel I snuck glances at the man. His hair was grey, but despite that and the slow, tender manner in which he walked, he wasn’t very old. Perhaps forty, probably a little less. He wore a long robe, patched and mended to such a degree that I couldn’t really guess at its original color or shape. Though nearly as ragged as I was, he was cleaner. Which isn’t to say that he was clean exactly, just cleaner than me. It wasn’t hard to be.
His name was Trapis. The patched robe was the only piece of clothing he owned. He spent nearly every moment of his waking life in that damp basement caring for the hopeless people no one else would bother with. Most of them were young boys. Some, like Tanee, had to be restrained so they wouldn’t hurt themselves or roll out of their beds. Others, like Jaspin who had gone fever-mad two years ago, had to be restrained so they wouldn’t hurt others.
Palsied, crippled, catatonic, spastic, Trapis tended them all with equal and unending patience. I never once heard him complain of anything, not even his bare feet, which were always swollen and must have pained him constantly.
He gave us children what help he could, a bit of food when he had some to spare. To earn a little something to eat we carried water, scrubbed his floor, ran errands, and held the babies so they wouldn’t cry. We did whatever he asked, and when there wasn’t any food we could always have a drink of water, a tired smile, and someone who looked at us as if we were human, not animals in rags.
Sometimes it seemed that Trapis alone was trying to care for all the hopeless creatures in our corner of Tarbean. In return we loved him with a silent ferocity that only animals can match. If anyone had ever raised a hand to Trapis, a hundred howling children would have torn them to bloody scraps in the middle of the street.
I stopped by his basement often in those first few months, then less and less as time went by. Trapis and Tanee were fine companions. None of us felt the need to talk much, and that suited me fine. But the other street children made me unspeakably nervous, so I visited infrequently, only when I was in desperate need of help, or when I had something to share.
Despite the fact that I was seldom there, it was good to know there was one place in the city where I wouldn’t be kicked at, chased, or spit on. It helped when I was out on the rooftops alone, knowing that Trapis and the basement were there. It was almost like a home you could come back to. Almost.