Rini and the Old Slave
by Terri Snyder
2010 NEBADOR Writing Contest, second place
This story takes place about four years before Ilika arrives in the kingdom in NEBADOR Book One: The Test.
Rini was about nine when he wandered away from the farm where he was born for the last time. He knew his family wouldn't really miss him. He had strong brothers and sisters who were happy doing farm work. Rini didn't mind working, but he was skinny and couldn't do some of the hard work. Also, he knew there was something else out there he had to find.
The girl down the road who liked him, who was about eight, cried a little when she heard he was gone, but couldn't do anything about it. She grew up and married Rini's brother who was big and strong.
When Rini left, it was late summer and there were plenty of berries everywhere. Rini wandered into the hills near Bee, where he visited many places he liked. As he sat alone on the hills, watching the sun set over the ocean in the west, he knew this time was different. He knew he wasn't going back. He just didn't know where he was going.
For weeks he wandered in the grasslands north of the hills, playing hide and seek with the rabbits, running with the foxes, and howling with the wolves. One or two farmers heard him, but just thought it was a sick wolf.
When fall came, he walked north, thinking he could find a cave, or make a little house, in the woods. He looked through tree branches at the little village of Huk, but didn't let anyone see him. Dogs heard him and smelled him, but he was so much like a wild creature by then that they didn't even bark.
Rini found a cave, but it was taken by foxes, and they didn't want to share it. He built a little house with tree branches, but a storm knocked it down. He said thank you to the pile of tree branches and walked deeper into the woods.
The fall started getting frosty, and Rini shivered until the sun finally warmed him. He was crossing the road from Huk to Lumber Town when he found an old box that was only smashed on one side. He dragged it into the woods and made it into a house. Another storm came, but his house was strong enough this time.
After a few more weeks, the days were frosty all day long, and very cold at night. Rini put dry leaves in his house, and they helped a little. Bugs sometimes tickled him when he was trying to sleep.
But he had a bigger problem. The frost made the last of the berries go moldy. He couldn't find anything to eat. Just for a moment, he thought about being a hunter. The thought made his stomach twist up into knots, so he forgot about that idea.
Rini was just about to give up and get on the road to Huk, or maybe Lumber Town, to find some work he could do in trade for some food. Then he saw an old man walking very slowly in the woods. Rini hadn't talked to anyone in about two months, and he was getting a little lonely.
"Hello!" he called down from the rocks where he was sitting.
The old man shaded his old eyes and looked up. Then he walked slowly on along the path.
Rini thought the old man didn't want to talk to him, and that made him feel a little sad. But a minute later the old man came to a log and slowly lowered his old bones onto it.
"I don't know if you are a good boy, or a bad boy, but either way I could not get away from you," the old man said. "In fact, I don't think I will be going much father from here."
Rini quickly climbed down from the rocks and stood looking at the old man.
The old man looked right at Rini. "I can't see you very well, but you haven't tried to steal my pack yet, so maybe you are a good boy."
"I would never steal you pack," Rini said. "I'm just a little lonely and would like to talk to someone."
"You got anything to eat?" the old man asked.
"No," Rini said. "The berries molded, and I'm not much of a hunter."
The old man took his pack off and opened it with his stiff fingers. "Let me see. Bread to keep your belly warm, fish for your muscles, and fruit for your heart."
Rini took the pieces of food that the old man handed him, and could feel his stomach churning just smelling the food. He was about to gobble it all down, but noticed the old man eating very slowly, so Rini ate slowly too.
"What are you gonna do to survive the winter?" the old man asked after slowly eating some bread.
"I don't know," Rini said. "Maybe go to a village and ask if I can work."
The old man was silent as he ate some fish. "That might work. You'll have something to eat some days, but not others."
Rini thought about it. "What are you gonna do?" he asked.
The old man finished slowly eating a piece of dried fruit before saying anything. "There's a stream up this trail about a mile. I played there when I was little. I kissed a girl there when I was a youth. I hid there from soldiers once. It's special. I have enough food to get me there, maybe keep we warm for a week or two. That's enough."
Rini wondered how that could be enough food with winter coming, but didn't say anything.
Rini carried the pack as the old man slowly walked along the trail. He used his walking stick all the time, but didn't stumble much with Rini carrying the pack.
As they walked slowly along, the old man asked Rini to stay and share his food until it ran out. Rini felt guilty about eating the old man's food, and said so, but the old man told Rini it was worth it to have someone to talk to.
When the sun started to set, the old man said they were about half way there, so Rini made a little house for them with tree branches. Luckily there was no storm that night.
All the next day they walked slowly through the woods. They couldn't talk much because the old man only had enough breath for walking or talking, but not both.
Late in the day they came to the stream, and the old man almost seemed to be young again. He walked around, telling Rini about the old cabin that was falling down when he was young, and now was just a pile of rotten boards. He showed Rini the place where stones made a pool, but now some of the stones were scattered down the stream. He pointed to a piece of old rope hanging from a tree and told Rini about the swing that used to be there.
Before the sun set, Rini gathered tree branches again and made a little house for them. They ate bread and dried fish, then fell asleep.
The fall days after that were cold but clear. With bread in his belly, Rini stayed warm. The old man had a cloak that kept him warm. Sometimes the sun would warm them a little just before setting.
As the days passed, Rini thought about what the old man had said, and realized he wasn't going to leave his special place ever again.
"I was a slave most of my life," the old man said when they had been there about a week.
Rini had seen slaves, but didn't know much about it. He begged the old man to tell him more.
"Slavery happens to people who aren't smart enough to see dangers and avoid them, or smart enough to see chances and take them. That was me. Always a little too slow. I thought someone was going to hand me life on a platter. Doesn't happen that way."
"Was it a good life?" Rini asked, knowing the man was not planning to live much longer.
The old man thought for a long time. "Yes and no."
Rini looked at him and waited.
"It taught me what people are all about. I saw very good people, and very bad people. I learned to tell the difference, even before they said or did anything. And it gave me work and food every day. That was the good part of being a slave."
The old man was silent as he listened to the stream gurgling.
"What about the bad part?" Rini asked.
"The bad part was staying a slave too long. Remember what I said about being too slow to see the dangers and chances?"
"A few years as a slave, especially while you're young and strong, is good for any young man. You'd learn many things. You'd get stronger. Any softness in you would be worked off."
Rini waited because he knew the old man wasn't finished.
"But don't do what I did. Don't stay. Watch for your chances. Don't grow old as a slave. When they finally have no more use for you, you'll get some bread, fish, and fruit. Maybe an old cloak and a little pack if they like you. But winter will be coming. Winter comes every year."
Three days later, their food ran out.
The old man walked around to all his favorite places again. The cabin. The pool. The swing. One place, a little grass hidden by some bushes, he never said anything about. Rini guessed that was where he kissed a girl.
The next day, the old man asked Rini to do one more thing for him. He asked Rini to move the little tree branch house up onto a low ridge that was above the stream. From there, he could see all his favorite places.
Rini knew it would be colder up there, but took the rest of the day doing what the old man asked. When he was done, he added more branches to keep out the wind.
As the sun set, the old man drank from his stream one more time, but there was nothing to eat. He asked Rini to help him up to the little house. With a far-away look in his eyes, he sat in the entrance until the light faded. Then the old man crawled inside and went to sleep.
When Rini woke up the next morning, he could not wake the old man, who had become all cold and stiff.
Tears ran down Rini's cheeks. "Good bye. And thank you for everything you told me," Rini whispered.
Suddenly Rini knew why the old man had asked him to move the tree branch house. He didn't want to die by his favorite stream, and maybe ruin the water.
Rini stayed at the special place most of that day, looking at the old cabin, the pool, the broken swing, and the hidden place where a young man had once kissed a girl. Up on the ridge, he covered the entrance to the little tree branch house with more branches.
As the sun started getting low in the west, Rini walked down the trail, back the way they had come, toward the road from Huk to Lumber Town. When he came to the road, he thought for a moment, then started walking toward Huk.
Rini had been to Huk once before. It had a mill, a small inn, a grocer, some houses, and a little guard post. He arrived just as the sun was setting.
He looked at the inn and grocer. Both had lamps and candles lit, and people were going in and out. Rini knew both those places were for people who had copper pieces in their pouches. Rini didn't even have a pouch.
He looked at the mill. A sign said, "Need strong men." Rini glanced at his skinny arms and walked on.
Rini stood in the middle of the road remembering all the things the old man told him. He walked to the little guard post, stepped inside, and said, "I'd like to be a slave."