Here’s the short story I submitted for the Patrick Henry College’s a Call to Pens Short Story Competition. I hope you like it. 🙂
Go and Steal No More
The deed had been done. I clutched the diamond in my fist and moved toward the alley where I could spend the night. Tomorrow I would visit a gem dealer who wouldn’t ask any questions.
I entered the alley, far from the king’s mansion. It would be safe here. I settled on some straw pilfered from a stable, put my treasure into my pocket, smiled. I had done it. Taken a gem from beneath the nose of Soterios, son of the king. With the diamond, I might finally be able to leave Verskin and start up another life somewhere else. A place where no one knew who I was, or what I was; a place I could change my name.
A hand gripped my shoulder. “Get up, boy.”
I opened my eyes and glanced around. A dozen torches pushed back the dimness of early morning. I looked at the man who was roughly holding my shoulder. Karnik, king of Verskin. A shout of alarm escaped my lips.
“You should be scared, boy.” Karnik stuck his hand into my pocket and pulled out the ticket to my new life. “Aha!” He shifted his hold to my collar and hoisted me up. “Come on. You’ve got some explaining to do.”
As Karnik dragged me through the streets of Verskin, the sun rose, exposing me to unfriendly eyes. Housewives saw me and shook their heads. Boys which had families and fine names, lifted up their heads, as if they couldn’t bear watching scum like me.
The small procession reached the center square of Verskin. Justice Square it was named, since this was where trials took place and punishments went into effect.
Before I knew what was happening, I was shoved into a chair on the right side of the square, facing a raised platform. On the left side was a podium. A rope swung in the early morning breeze on the arm of the gallows on the opposite side of the stage.
Karnik mounted the platform and stood behind his pedestal. He glared at me and then glanced at the jury, who were any townspeople in attendance, a proud democratic tradition of Verskin.
“Citizens of Verskin, we are gathered here today to try this boy, for a terrible crime.”
Whispers spread through the gathered townspeople behind me. My cheeks burned. Karnik pointed at me. “The defendant’s name?”
“Panadreos,” I said.
Boos filled the air. Some woman shouted. “Thief.” I nodded. Yes, that was my name. Thief.
Karnik pounded his hairy fist on the pedestal. “Silence! Will the witness please step forward.”
Soterios stepped onto the platform. I lowered my head. Stealing after the kindness he had shown me was difficult, but it had to be done. “Name?” Karnik asked.
“What is your relationship with the defendant?”
“I am, was, his employer.”
“What is the charge against the defendant?”
Soterios paused, a grimace on his face. Karnik slammed his fist on the pedestal. “Speak! Justice must be dealt.”
Soterios nodded. “He stole a precious diamond.” Murmurs echoed through Justice Square.
“How do you know?” Karnik asked.
“After he left at the end of the day, it was gone, and you found it on him.”
“Yes.” Karnik held up the glittering gem. “What is the value of this?” Though of course he already knew.
“Three thousand crowns.”
Gasps lifted to the sky. Karnik faced the crowd of citizens. “Did you hear that? This thief stole a diamond worth three thousand crowns. Does anybody know what the punishment for that is?”
I stared at the swinging rope, mentally answering. A whipping and probably banishment from Verskin as well, since I had stolen the gem from Soterios.
Someone in the crowd yelled “Death!” I started. Death? You couldn’t kill a man for stealing, could you? I suddenly remembered something. I had never seen a trial for a thief who had stolen an item worth so much money. My hands shook. I couldn’t die.
Karnik’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Yes, death by hanging.”
The scaffold spun in front of my eyes. My hand grasped the edge of my chair, as if it could somehow drag me out from my fate. Karnik glared at me, but in the corner of his eyes, something sparkled. Were those tears or was my mind imagining?
Before I could decide, Karnik faced the jurors. “Citizens of Verskin, you have heard the evidence, please take a few minutes to make your decision. Tread lightly not on this choice. A boy’s life depends on your conclusion.”
I kept my head down, but the whispers of the jurors reached my ears. I wasn’t able to understand the words, but without doubt, they were going to condemn me to death.
Tears blurred my vision. I was going to die. My family had died before I was born, forcing me to take the name of thief. For years I had been the bane of Verskin as I struggled to survive. No one had helped, no one had cared, all except for Soterios. Tears dripped down to the coarse grass as I remembered the lonely nights, the days in prison, and the whippings when I was caught.
I sniffed as more tears fell to the ground.
“We have come to a decision.” I lifted my head and closed my eyes. The verdict would be guilty. A man stepped forward from the crowd and repeated. “We have come to a decision. It was unanimous. The boy should be hung!”
An animal cry escaped my lips and I dashed across the grass and fell to my knees on the stairs up to the platform. “Please, sir. Have mercy.” Drops of water splashed to the hard, unfeeling wood, wood like the people of Verskin.
“Justice must be served,” Karnik repeated. He lifted his arms. “Bring the prisoner.”
Hands inserted themselves beneath my armpits and began to drag me forward to my death. I screamed and thrashed around, but it was no use. I just kept getting closer. The two men continued to hold onto my arms as they placed me on the trapdoor beneath the rope. Karnik himself pushed the noose over my head.
Soterios stepped forward, hand extended. “Wait. Has any of you never sinned? How can you kill this boy when in the past you’ve made terrible mistakes, like Panadreos?”
The men grumbled, but backed away. Karnik stayed by my side, though tears were now evident on his face. “Son, I don’t like this either, but justice must be done. Someone must pay the price for this crime.”
I closed my eyes, nodded, the coarse rope of the noose rubbing against my neck. I deserved this. “Father,” Soterios said. I glanced up at him. “I can take his place.”
“Son, you have a choice.”
“I know and have made my decision, Father.”
Karnik nodded, a shower of tears cascaded to the platform. Soterios stepped beside me, took the noose off my neck, and affixed it on his. I blinked. Why was he doing this? Soterios gave me a slight push and took my place above the trapdoor. I was finally able to voice my question.
“Why? I stole from you.”
He looked at me. His eyes full of kindness. “Panadreos, your life is worth more to me than any diamond.”
“But what about your life?”
Karnik plodded over to the lever and grasped the wood that would allow the gallows to suck away the breath of his son. “Do you have any final words?”
Soterios, still smiling, whispered into my ear. “Panadreos, your name means thief, but after I die, your name shall be Leshem, which means a precious stone. Remember me, remember what’s happening today, go and steal no more.”
Tears were running down my face. “No! You can’t die.” I reached up for the noose and tried to pull it off Soterios’ neck, but he kept a firm grip on the rope.
“I have chosen this. Let me do what I must.” He motioned at Karnik. Just before the lever was pulled, Soterios said in a loud voice. “Panadreos shall take my place as the son of my father.”
The trapdoor dropped and Soterios was suspended in the air. I screamed, reached for Soterios, but strong, hairy hands pulled me back, embraced me. I glanced up. Tears from Karnik’s face bathed my forehead.
I looked back and watched as the one person who had cared for me, slowly died.
From that day forward I was known as Leshem. Because of the sacrifice of Soterios, a thief became a precious stone, and an alley boy the son of the king. I have always been thankful and have never forgotten his words.