The Dust Thief – Short Story Sunday
This is a short story I wrote a while ago as a backstory for one of my characters. It has a sad ending, fair warning.
He stepped into the bustling tavern, looking around at everyone and looking for one man in particular. After a moment he saw him, sitting alone in the corner, his hood pulled low over his face. Leo walked over to him and took a seat across from him at the table.
“I have the dust,” he told the go-between, pulling a vial from his cloak and handing it to the man.
The man took it and looked it over.
“This is not what the master requested.”
“What do you mean? It’s the Glowmine Dust. I got it for him just as he requested.”
“No. He asked for the barrel, not the vial.”
“I’m sorry. I must have misheard.”
“There is no mishearing when it comes to the master, understand? If you mess up, he is not forgiving.”
“I will make it right.”
“You’d better. You have half an hour to retrieve the barrel of Glowmine Dust. That is all. After that I must return to the master. I will either have what he wants or I will not. You better hope that I do.”
“Half an hour?! That’s impossible! It cannot be done!”
“And yet it must. If I were you I would leave now so that you have the most time possible. Go.”
Leo nodded and rushed out of the tavern toward the Glowmine where he’d gotten the vial. He’d have to steal a barrel, and he’d have to be quick about it. But it was mining hours, and the miners would be everywhere. He’d just have to hope that they weren’t alert. They were usually absorbed in their work, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but Leo still worried.
He entered the mine and crept along the wall toward the Dust chamber. He reached the chamber without running into any Miners, which seemed odd. There should have been someone on that route, yet there wasn’t. He reached the Dust chamber door and peered in through the keyhole. That was why he hadn’t run into anyone. All of the mine council members were assembled in the Dust chamber. When there was a council meeting, all the miners were sent to the Delta section.
“Why’d they take a mere vial of Dust? Why not more?”
“The stuff is potent. They wouldn’t need much. Probably they didn’t want to go to the trouble of getting a larger container.”
Leo sucked in a breath. They’d found the vial missing. But why? It was a mere vial.
“Potent stuff” the one council member had said. But it just glowed. Right? Maybe not…
Leo jumped as the council members began heading for the door and ran off down the corridor, exiting the mine and running all the way back to the tavern to talk to the go-between.
“Did you get it?” he asked.
Leo shook his head, out of breath.
“They found the vial missing. They’re going to come after me. I couldn’t get the barrel.”
“The master will be very disappointed in you. I’ll just have to tell him you were sloppy. I wouldn’t want to be you when he finds out.”
The go-between stood up and prepared to leave.
“Wait! Please! If the miners find me they’ll kill me! You can’t just leave me!”
“I can, and I am. The miners are your problem. You were sloppy, now you’re paying for it. Now if you’ll excuse me I must inform the master of your failure.”
Leo watched as the go-between left the tavern, leaving him alone to sort out his problems.
Leo headed home, stepping in the door to see his little brother Axel running up to hug him. He smiled as the little boy wrapped his arms around Leo’s legs.
“Hey there, buddy.”
“Hewwo, Weo. I wuv you.”
“I love you too, buddy.” Leo patted Axel’s head.
“How was work?” Leo’s mother asked, walking in, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“It didn’t go so well. I think I got fired.”
“It’s a long story.”
His mother nodded and placed a now-dry hand on his shoulder.
“It’ll be all right.”
Leo nodded, not so sure.
She gave him a reassuring smile and picked up Axel, carrying him with her into the kitchen.
“You want to help me fix dinner?” Leo heard her ask Axel.
Leo smiled and headed to his room, taking a seat on his bed and picking up a notebook and opening it. His schoolwork for the day was written in black ink and he sighed. The work never ended.
“Leo, would you like to help with dinner, too?” his mother called.
“Will it get me out of schoolwork?”
His mother laughed.
“Just for tonight, since you had a rough day. But this is a one-time deal.”
Leo closed the notebook and set it aside, heading into the kitchen. Axel was standing on a stool mixing up a salad, half of which was ending up on the floor, and his mother was kneading bread dough, flour dusting her apron, face, and hair.
“What do you need me to do?”
“You can put the cake in the oven.”
“Cake? What’s the occasion?”
His mother laughed.
“It’s your father’s birthday, silly.”
“Oh, it’s his birthday already? I didn’t realize.”
He smiled and picked up the cake pan, sliding it into the oven.
“When is dad getting home, anyway? He’s late.”
“I asked his boss to assign him some extra work and keep him busy until supper’s ready. I didn’t want him to see the cake too soon.”
Leo nodded and walked over to Axel, tickling him.
Axel laughed and almost knocked the salad bowl off the counter.
“Oops,” Leo said, laughing and picking up the toddler, swinging him over his shoulder, and tickling him some more.
“Don’t forget to let him breath in between,” his mom said with a smile, grabbing the rolling pin and starting to roll out the dough.
He let up on the tickling for a moment and then started at it again, loving the sound of his brother’s laughter.
“Stop it!” Axel said through his laughter, “Please!”
Leo stopped and set Axel on the ground.
“I wuv your tickles, Weo.”
“And I love tickling you.”
Axel smiled, lighting up his whole face.
“I wuv you.”
“I love you too, buddy.”
Leo kissed Axel on the top of his head and turned to his mother.
“Can you grab the tomato sauce?”
“Are you fixing pizza?”
“Your father’s favorite.”
Leo kissed his mom on the flour-covered cheek and walked over to grab the tomato sauce from the cupboard, glancing out the window as he did so. He started. There were half a dozen black-clad men looking in.
“Mom, are we expecting company?”
He handed her the tomato sauce, forcing a smile, and headed for the back door, stepping into the yard and walking over to the men.
“Who are you?”
“We work for the master.”
“What are you doing here?”
“You’ll see. Go back inside before we’re forced to hurt you.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that. Go inside.”
Leo heard the back door open and fear gripped his chest. They couldn’t come outside. It wasn’t safe.
He ran back to the door and almost collided with his mother. She put a hand to her chest.
“Goodness! What’s the matter?”
“You can’t come out here.”
“You just… You just can’t.”
“But I need to pick my oregano for the pizza!”
“I’ll do it. You go back inside.”
She looked at him, befuddled.
She turned to head inside, glancing back at him in confusion before entering. He let out a sigh of relief.
He walked over to the oregano bush, trying to keep an eye on the men at the same time, and picked some of the herb, heading back inside with one last look over his shoulder. As he stepped inside, one of them smiled. It was a smile that chilled him to the core, and as the door swung shut he shivered.
“Here’s the oregano,” he said, handing it to his mother.
“Thank you,” she replied with a concerned smile. “Why did you want me inside so bad?”
“No reason. I just didn’t want you out in the cold.”
“Leo, it’s March. It’s not particularly cold.”
“Still, it’s chilly, and I know how easily you catch cold.”
She pursed her lips.
“I do not, and you know it. I very rarely catch a cold, or any sickness for that matter. What’s going on, Leo?”
“I’ll explain it all later. Let’s just enjoy the evening, shall we? There’s no reason to worry dad. Or for you to worry, for that matter. It’s nothing. Let’s just forget the whole thing.”
She looked at him suspiciously for a moment more and went back to the pizza.
“Who are the men outside?” Axel asked.
Oh no. He saw them.
“What men, honey?” their mom asked.
“The men in black that are standing in the yard.”
She looked out the window.
“Oh dear. I’m not sure.” She turned to Leo. “That’s why you didn’t want me to go outside, isn’t it? Who are they?”
“I’m not entirely sure, but I have a bad feeling about them and I didn’t want you to be put in danger.” It was almost the truth.
“Thank you for trying to protect me, sweetheart.”
She smiled over at him, a tight smile that told him she was still worried.
“Can you get Axel cleaned up and take him over to see your father? Maybe you three can go to the market and keep your father busy.”
“But what if the men decide to attack you? I can’t leave you alone.”
“I can take care of myself. Run along. You don’t want your father coming home early.”
“I’d rather he come home early than you be hurt.”
She sighed, opening the oven and sliding the pizza onto the rack.
“All right. But can you please get Axel cleaned up anyway? Maybe the two of you can play a game while I finish supper.”
“A game! Can we pway Hunters and Knights? Can we?”
Leo smiled down at Axel, who was jumping up and down next to his legs.
“All right. Come on. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Axel beamed and skipped off down the hallway to the bathroom. Leo glanced back to his mother, who gave him a reassuring smile, before dutifully following.
Leo finished washing Axel’s hands and face just as the front door opened.
“Daddy!” Axel yelled, running out of the bathroom and back toward the kitchen. Leo followed, though at a significantly slower pace, and saw his father entering the kitchen with a smile and picking up Axel, while his mother gave him a disapproving look.
“You’re not supposed to be home yet,” she said.
“Sorry.” He sniffed the air. “Is that pizza I smell?”
“Pizza and chocolate cake.”
“Thank you, Mia.”
“It’s the least I can do for a man who’s put up with me for fifteen years.” She smiled.
He set Axel down and walked over to her, kissing her forehead.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Leo looked down at Axel.
“I’m not sure this will ever not be awkward.”
Axel looked up at him and nodded.
“Do you even know what that means?”
Axel shook his head.
“Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes. Why don’t we do presents while we wait?” Mia suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” Leo agreed, picking Axel up and carrying him into the living room.
Mia and Xavier followed, taking a seat on the couch next to their sons. Mia reached over the arm of the couch and picked up three packages, handing them to Xavier.
“Here you go. Axel got excited and wanted to give you two presents. Leo forgot it was your birthday.”
Xavier gasped, feigning shock.
“How could you forget?!”
“Sorry, dad. I knew it was coming up, but I didn’t realize it was so soon.”
Xavier reached over and ruffled Leo’s hair with a smile.
“It’s all right, son.”
He looked down at the packages.
“Which one should I open first?”
“Save mine for last,” Mia requested.
“The wittle one! The wittle one!” Axel said, bouncing up and down.
Xavier opened it with a smile to see a rolled up piece of paper. He unrolled it and started to read the scrawled print.
“No, daddy! I sing it!” Axel took the piece of paper and began to sing the song he’d written.
“Daddy, I wuv you. I wuv you a wot. I’m so happy it’s your birfday, and I wanted to sing you dis song. I wuv you, Daddy. I’m glad you’re my daddy. I hope you’re wif me fowever. I wuv you.”
Xavier smiled over at Axel as the song finished.
“That’s very sweet. I love you too.”
He reached over and hugged the little boy, who was beaming.
As he began to tear open the second gift, the back door slammed and several sets of footsteps sounded in the kitchen, coming toward the living room.
“What on earth?” Xavier said, setting the packages aside and standing up, facing the kitchen as the men from the back yard stormed in, each with a dagger in his hand.
“Do not mess with The Master!” the lead one declared, walking over to Xavier and attempting to slit his throat. Xavier caught his hands just in time and held them back.
“Protect your mother and brother!” he yelled to Leo, who was already standing beside his mother, clutching Axel close.
“Resistance is futile!” one of the men said, walking around to Mia and cutting her throat.
Leo stared at the blood in shock and clutched Axel tighter.
Xavier’s arms began to give.
“Protect him! Protect Axel!”
Then his arms gave way and his throat was cut.
Leo stared at his parents’ still forms and then looked at the men, who were closing in.
“No. This can’t be happening.”
The men stepped forward and tried to wrench Axel from his grasp.
“No! Weo! Don’t let them take me! Weo! Hewp! Pwease!”
Leo had tears running down his face as he tried to keep a grasp on his brother. But he wasn’t strong enough. The men took Axel and cut his throat, discarding him on the couch and sneering at Leo before leaving.
Leo screamed and fell to his knees next to his brother, sobbing.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t save him. I let him down. I let them all down. I wasn’t strong enough. It’s my fault…
He sat there crying until he couldn’t take it anymore and then ran out of the house and didn’t stop running until his legs gave out a couple of miles outside the city.
I have to get away. I have to leave.
He sat there only as long as he had to and then started running again, never looking back.