"Bane, come in here and eat."
Bane put down the toy he was holding. He had never had a toy before. It was a ball, lopsided and hard, but it was a ball. He was sitting on the floor, pushing it around with his hands. He felt a little foolish. He had seen babies in the village doing the same thing. But he was learning to play. Before, he had watched animals and learned to run. But he had never really played with other children.
An old man named Sword gave the ball to him. Sword was a cripple. One of his legs was twisted out until he could barely walk on it. He had to stumble about on crutches. But he was still a happy man, with a smile always carved into his face. When he came by to give Bane the ball, he flirted with Ma.
"How 'bout a kiss for an old man?" He offered a cheek. Ma's face never changed expression, but her eyes sparkled as she planted a kiss on Sword's cheek.
Sword spent a lot of time in Ma's home. Ma told Bane it was because Sword had nowhere else to go. He didn't have a home. Bane felt sorry for Sword. But he never said anything. He hated sympathy himself. So instead, he became Sword's friend.
The man had a lot of good stories. He said he had been a soldier before his leg got hurt. He showed Bane a scar on his chest. An arrow wound, he said.
Sword was sitting at the table with them as Bane ate. Bane ate potatoes with butter and fish. The fish came from the river that ran through their town. He had never seen a river, but one cut right through the middle of the town! There were markets and houses on one side and there were markets and houses on the other side. Ma said that the people on this side didn't like the people on the other side.
She and Sword also said that they didn't like the people inside the walls. The walls of the city were huge, and they held in the rich people. And they held the poor people out.
One day, Sword was sitting on a stool near the fire when he looked up at Bane.
"You need to get outside more, boy. You're turning white as a worm," he said. Bane looked down at himself. His skin was pale. He didn't go outside that often.
"I don't want to." He kept batting his ball around.
But Sword persisted and finally pushed Bane out the door into the bright sunlight. Bane was still holding his ball and he hugged it to himself. He didn't want someone to take it away from him. It was his. It was one of the first things that had ever been his.
Sword began to limp away into the street and Bane followed him, almost touching the man's back. It was so open and there were so many people. There were as many people in the street as there were in his entire village. It frightened him.
The people here were poor, but they were clean. The only dirty thing he ever saw was the river. The river was a murky brown, and it stank sometimes. But the people were nice. They said hello to Sword. They said hello to Bane too, but he was too frightened to answer back. He didn't want anyone to ask his name. What would they do when they heard the word 'bane'?
Sword approached a group of children. They were playing a game with sticks in the dirt. But they smiled when they saw Sword. They ran towards him. Bane shrank behind the man.
"Tell us a story, Sword," one little girl said. Sword shook his head.
"Not right now. I want you to meet Bane. He's the boy that lives with Ma now."
Bane glared at Sword. Now the children would hate him. There would be new kickers. But the children didn't seem to notice. One boy, the biggest one there, held out his hand.
"Name's Kay." When Bane didn't answer, Kay looked at Sword for help. The old man smiled again. Bane shrank into himself. Didn't the man understand what he had done?
"Bane's a little shy," Sword was saying, "so I want you to be nice to him."
A little boy stepped forward. He was smaller than Bane. But Bane wasn't fooled. Even little ones could be cruel. He hugged his ball tighter.
"You have a ball? Do you want to play ball with us?"
Bane didn't want to give them his ball. They might take it away. He looked up and Sword and shook his head. Sword patted his shoulder.
"Maybe later, eh?" He turned to the other boy. "Why don't you teach him how to play the game you were just playing? I don't think he knows how to do that."
The children ran back to their pile of sticks. Sword followed them. Bane trailed behind more slowly. He watched as they played the game. The children would take turns and each one would try to pull a stick out of the pile without making the pile fall down. Bane moved a little closer. It was an easy game. But the children never once made the pile fall. Finally Kay looked up at Bane.
Bane looked at Sword for help. But the man was nowhere around. Bane whirled around desperately. Then he turned back to Kay and planted his feet defensively. Now that Sword was not around, the boy might do anything to him. But Kay pointed at the pile of sticks.
"All you have to do is pull one out."
Everyone was watching Bane as he walked towards the pile. He had to let go of his ball with one hand to pull the stick out, and he clutched it tightly to his chest with the other arm. Then he studied the pile of sticks.
They were all tangled together. There was no way he could pull one out without the pile falling. He looked around in despair. But there was no way out. The children all watched him. They were waiting for him.
Finally he reached for a stick. The pile wobbled a little and he pulled back. It was impossible. But he began to pull a stick out. He was afraid. What if he made the pile fall? What would they do to him? He hadn't seen any of the other children knock it over.
But somehow he didn't knock the pile down as he pulled his stick out. He looked at the stick in disbelief. How had he done that? But as he was looking at the stick, the pile suddenly collapsed. Bane looked around in panic. But Kay was smiling at him.
"It counts! You got the stick out before it fell! You won!"
Bane put his arm back around his ball, but he still clutched the stick in his hand. He had done it.
Every day after that, Sword took him to the children. They taught him games and showed him how to kick a ball around. They never used Bane's ball. He was still afraid that they would take it. So he left it at home.
Bane learned the children's names slowly. Kay was the leader. The little boy that had asked him to play ball the first time was named Peter. He was nice to Bane and Bane liked him. There was also a pretty girl named Danna. Bane was nervous around her. But she smiled at him and was nice to him. He just couldn't learn to talk to her just yet. There were over two dozen children. Some were older than others, but they all played together. Back in Bane's old village, the older children did not play with the younger ones. The kickers had bothered everyone. But Bane was their favorite victim.
Ma was happy that Bane was making 'friends.' Bane wasn't sure if they were his friends yet. He wanted them to be his friends. But he was afraid to ask if he was. So he asked Sword to ask. The man laughed at him a little, which made Bane angry at him. Did the man think that he was foolish. But then Sword smiled at Bane and went to go ask the children. Bane waited anxiously at Ma's house. What would they say? If they weren't his friends, then he wouldn't go to play anymore. They might not want him around.
But Sword came back with the news that the children did want to be friends if Bane would be friends with them. Bane had nodded and smiled. He ran to go play. And this time he brought his ball. They were friends with him. And friends didn't take their friends' things.
- o - o - o -
Ma watched as the boy twitched and whimpered in his sleep like a dog. Poor boy. He was learning to overcome his past, whatever it had been, in his waking moments, but it still haunted him in his sleep. She wished she could do something. Why 'Bane'? But he never offered her an explanation and avoided her questions.
Maybe his friends would help him leave whatever it was behind. They had adopted him as a sibling. Sword was like a father. She hoped he looked at her as a mother. Only Lam had no part in the boy's new family. In a way, she was glad. Lam was too much like his father. And his father was dead.
- o - o - o -
Bane was walking with Sword and Ma to the market when he saw the soldier. He had never seen armor before. He pointed it out to Ma. She looked and her lips tightened. It was strange to see her face move. Sword's face moved more. He scowled. Then he pulled Bane along behind him. Ma followed, her eyes solemn.
"Bastards," Sword was muttering. "What are they doing back? You would think that they learned their lesson last time.
Bane stiffened at the word 'bastard.' But he wanted to know what Sword was talking about. But the man wouldn't answer his questions. He was too angry. He left Ma and Bane behind as he limped away. Bane waited until he couldn't see the Sword's back anymore. Then he asked Ma.
"What does he mean?" The soldier wasn't doing anything. He was just walking along the road. But then he stopped a woman and began talking to her. Bane couldn't hear what they were saying. The woman looked scared. The soldier took her hand and she pulled away. He smiled and wrapped his arms around her waist. Bane had seen people do that before. But this woman didn't want to be held. She began to struggle and to hit at the soldier's chest with her fists. The soldier was growing angry. He slapped the woman across the face.
Then Sword appeared. He emerged from the crowd and smashed one of his crutches down on the soldier's head. As the man fell, Sword took the woman's hand and shooed her away. He was glaring all the while at the soldier. Ma had taken Bane's hand and she was squeezing it very tight. The soldier stood up. He was mad. With the back of his hand, he hit Sword in the face. Then he kicked one of Sword's crutches away. Sword fell down and the soldier kicked him. Then the soldier walked away. The people moved away from him.
Ma ran to Sword.
"You brave, brave, idiot," she said. Bane watched as tears flowed down the creases in her face. Sword grunted in pain. Then he smiled weakly at her.
"Couldn't stop myself. I can't stand by and watch that pig try anything with that girl. He's a cocky bastard. Trying it in full daylight."
"At least he knows now that we're not so weak as he thought," Ma said. She was trying to soothe him.
Sword stood up shakily. The crutch that the soldier had kicked was broken and it was shorter than the other. The man was more lopsided than ever.
"Yes, but now they're going to come in greater force. If he tells 'em that one old cripple acted out in rebellion, they're going to know that the young ones can too. But I say let 'em come. They haven't paid attention to us for years, and we don't need 'em. We're our own people now."
Ma tried to soothe him some more as she helped him walk. Bane wasn't really listening to her. He was thinking about what Sword had said. They were their own people. Maybe he was his own person now. The thought made him happy.
He was going to help Sword. He wasn't going to let the soldiers hurt any of his friends ever again. And now he had many friends.
- o - o - o -
One day, Bane saw Lam. He had avoided the man for a long time. He did not like Lam. He was mean to Ma. He was like the kickers. He never hit her. But he would hurt her all the same.
Lam was talking to someone else, a small man who looked like a mouse. Lam seemed angry; the other man was shrinking before him. Bane tried to go the other way, but Lam saw him and pointed at him.
"No bigger than him! Come here, boy." He snapped his fingers. Bane didn't like that, but Lam seemed like he might hit him if he didn't do as he was told, so he obeyed. Lam grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him towards the man, shaking the boy a little as he spoke.
"No bigger than him! It's disgusting!"
The mouse man had his head down and wasn't looking at Bane. The boy wriggled out of Lam's grasp. The man didn't seem to notice.
"How can you serve someone who does that? How can you not act out?"
The mouse man stiffened. His lips pressed together and he glared at the ground. "I didn't see you with a knife. Can't back up your own words?"
Lam was very angry now. "What would my people do if I died? You should know better than to hire bunglers."
Bane heard the mouse man mutter under his breath. Lam heard too.
"Grow a spine. What did you say?"
The mouse man finally looked up and stared Lam right in the eye. "You picked him. Don't blame me for your mistakes."
Bane barely saw Lam move. But suddenly there was a sound of fist on flesh and the mouse was scurrying away, clutching at his arm. Lam looked over at Bane. Bane didn't move.
"Don't ever deal with two-faced traitors," Lam said. Then he was gone. His long legs carried him away fast. As he ran back to Ma, his face white with fear, Bane wished that he had legs like Lam's. Then he would be fast.
- o - o - o -
The boy tried to avoid Lam even more after that. But it seemed that the man was everywhere. And sometimes the mouse man was with him. Lam didn't hit him that often, but he got angry a lot. Bane stayed away from him when he was angry. But Lam didn't seem to notice him again after he used Bane as an example. Bane was glad of that.
Ma didn't like the mouse man. When Bane told her about him one time, she got mad. Her bark-like face hardened.
"He knows better than to be dealing with trash like that," she said to no one in particular. "We may be poorer, but we have more honor than that. The likes of Lam will either damn us or save us."