A J’mandrian Tale

by A.J. Santos

Normally, rooting through someone else’s belongings was absolutely not something I would do, but tonight, I was making an exception.

“It’s okay, horse,” I whispered as I groped through the horse’s saddlebag. My fingers met the cool metal surface of several tools but nothing else. Sighing, I stepped away from the horse and took in my surroundings. The setting sun cast the cobblestone street in an orange glow. Tall, thatched buildings stood along the street and threw sleepy shadows upon the ground. Animals screeched and called to one another in the nearby jungle. The trees were a dark fringe on the horizon. I stared up at the ivy-covered inn where the horse’s owner had entered.

He must have taken it inside with him, I reasoned. I pulled my brown cloak tighter around myself and I walked up to the inn. The door creaked as I pushed it open. My ears were immediately blasted by the sound of voices. The inn’s restaurant was bustling with activity. The innkeeper dealt with customers at the counter while my fellow J’mandrians chatted over steaming meals. The comforting scent of fresh bread wafted from the kitchen. I ordered some stew at the counter, then I slid into the worn, leather seat of a booth and watched for the horse’s owner. Several of the inn’s patrons wore dark cloaks like the man I wanted, but none of them were the correct shade of gray. Meanwhile, I wondered what to do when I did find him. It wasn’t like I could just tap him on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, sir, but can I please have the package you stole?” The girl from the kitchen dropped off my stew, and I gulped down the warm food as I scanned the room.

Then, I spotted him. He was a broad-shouldered figure in a corner booth, munching on a forkful of chicken. His tattered, gray hood concealed his face and reddish dirt smeared his boots. I frowned.

Without warning, the man rose, so I turned my gaze away from him. He strode past the other tables and out the door. As soon as the door creaked shut, I hopped up and hurried to the window, where I caught a glimpse of him walking toward the jungle. I blew out a frustrated sigh. But since no sane person would follow a thief into the jungle after dark, I went up to the counter and asked the innkeeper for a room for the night so I could resume my search the next day. Once he had accepted my payment and given me a room key, I made my way to the staircase. It creaked as I walked up it. The loud conversations coming from the restaurant grew fainter, though I could hear a man arguing with the innkeeper, insisting, “I’m not paying that! That’s too much!”

“Just pay what you owe,” I muttered under my breath. I reached the hallway of the upper floor, where the plain, blue carpet absorbed the thumping of my footsteps. Using my key, I opened the dark oak door toward the end of the hall and peeked into my room. Inside, the room was simple. A single bed was pushed against the left wall, and a square window was on the right. A vase containing a single flower sat on the bedside table. The lingering scent of soap told me the room had been recently cleaned. I slipped inside and eased the door shut behind me.

As I reached for the lock, I hesitated. What if it jammed? What if I lost the key during the night? As my mind raced, the walls seemed to shrink around me. The room spun.

I backed away from the door and sat on the bed. The door would be fine unlocked–it was thin enough that I’d hear any intruders. I rolled over and slept until morning.

As I left the inn the next day, the soft rays of dawn were melting through the nearby trees as gentle rain sprinkled the cobblestones. I followed the side street that led toward the jungle. Suddenly, a strong hand grabbed my shoulder. I turned. The man holding me was dressed in the typical golden armor and plumed helmet of one of the king’s soldiers. His face was stern.

“Are you Marcellus, son of Bellator?” he asked.

I frowned. “Yes.”

“You are under arrest for theft,” the soldier gripped my arm and marched me down the road.

“Wh–what?” I spluttered, clawing at the soldier’s hand on my arm. “This is ridiculous! What in the world did I supposedly steal?”

The soldier’s grasp was as unrelenting as iron. “Several witnesses claim they saw you take a square package from the king’s vault.”

I saw someone take something from the king’s vault,” I protested, digging my heels into the ground. “And I was the only one there to see it! I’ve been tracking the thief. You have to let me go.”

The soldier, however, was not in the mood to argue with an angry fifteen-year-old. He led me into a gray stone building and pulled me into a quiet hallway lined with the iron bars of empty cells.

My mouth went dry. “You’re not really going to lock me up, are you?”

The guard opened one of the cells on the left side of the hallway and thrust me inside. There was nothing but dust on the stone floor and a flat mattress in the corner. I wrinkled my nose. This hallway was empty of prisoners, but I could tell that the ones who had been here last had sorely needed baths.

“If you return the stolen package now, it’ll make things easier on you,” the guard said as he lingered in the doorway.

“I told you,” I insisted, my voice cracking, “that I didn’t steal anything!”

The guard shrugged. “Then I can’t help you, kid.” He pushed the cell door closed and walked away.

I squeezed my eyes shut, mentally shoving away the image of a dark, smoke-filled room that the lock’s click had conjured up. Gripping the ice-cold bars of the cell with my sweaty hands, I whispered to myself, “It’s going to be okay, you coward. You’re fine.” I clenched my teeth, unsure of who I was more angry at: the guard for falsely accusing me, or at myself. I let go of the bars and began to pace, my boots squeaking against the floor. I tried to breathe deeply to calm my pounding heart.

By the end of a few hours (which felt like an eternity), I was crouched on the mattress in the corner, head in my hands, when the sound of light footsteps startled me. I glanced up to see that a girl around my age had entered the hallway. She was tall and slim, with crisp blue eyes. Her long hair was blond, like mine, but hers was a few shades lighter. Her blue silk dress indicated she was of high rank. She jumped when she spotted me staring at her.

“I didn’t think anyone else was in here,” she said.

“What’s a high-born like you doing in a jail?” I asked, rising to my feet. My legs wobbled a little.

She eyed me. “You don’t need to know that. You’re a criminal.”

Indignantly, I drew myself up taller. “I’m no criminal. I’ve been framed. I witnessed a crime and tried to catch the culprit, only to get accused of being the thief myself.”

“Are you talking about the robbery at the king’s vault?” asked the girl, her eyes widening.

I huffed. “Yes.”

The girl moved closer to the bars. “Then I believe you! I heard the guards talking about the real thief, and their description of him doesn’t fit you in the slightest. Maybe I can help you.”

“No,” I said sharply. “No, I can handle it.”

“I can make them release you.”

I looked from her, to the lock, then back at her. I swallowed hard. She had no idea how tempting her offer was. My muscles were so tense right now that if anything were to make me jump I would crash through the ceiling. But after a second, I shook my head. “I said no. Why would they listen to you, anyway?”

She held her head high. “Because I am Princess Tiana,” she said, “daughter of King Alexander.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why would the princess be wandering in a jail, unguarded?”

She sighed. “I was sick of my guards. I know protecting me is their job, but they overdo it–I can barely breathe around them. So I ditched them. They won’t think to look for me here.”

I probably should have been impressed by her escape, but it was all I could do to focus on her words instead of the cell walls that were continuously closing around me.

“Anyway, I’ll go find the head jailkeeper and have him release you.” She began to leave.

“No!” I said sternly. “With all due respect, Your Highness, I don’t want your help.”

She stopped in her tracks. “Why not?” She sounded surprised.

“I’m not in any shape to repay you. I can escape just fine…I know how to take care of myself.”

She gave me a penetrating look. “How are you planning to escape?”

“I’ll figure it out,” I insisted. I hope.

Tiana opened her mouth to argue, but that was when two more guards appeared in the hallway. Presumably the ones she had ditched, judging from the king’s seal stamped on their armor.

“Princess!” one of the guards scolded. “You can’t just disappear like that! What would His Majesty say?”

Tiana held her head high. “If you want to be helpful, you can find the jailkeeper and tell him to release this prisoner.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “No!”

“Do it,” urged Tiana. The guard nodded and hurried off while his partner remained with us. Before long, the first guard returned with the jailkeeper. The jailkeeper took out a ring of keys and unlocked the cell door. I burst out into the hall, relief settling over me like a cool mist on a hot day.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I told the princess, attempting to be stern.

She smiled at me. I shook my head and looked away. Meanwhile, the jailkeeper was discussing my case with Tiana’s guards.

As quick as a blink, Tiana grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall.

“Let’s get out of here while they’re busy talking,” she whispered.

Feeling helpless at this point, I allowed the princess to lead me outside. The fresh scent of rain lingered, but the clouds had parted now to allow the sun to look down on us. Tiana brought us to an empty side street, overhung with the sweet-smelling trees that bordered the looming jungle. A short stone wall, about half my height, stood between us and the trees.

“Why’d we leave your guards?” I demanded.

“Because I wanted to talk to you alone,” she replied, hopping onto the stone wall and sitting on it. “Tell me about–wait, what did you say your name was?”

I blew out a sigh. “Marcellus. Son of Bellator.”

She smiled. “Nice. Can I call you Mar for short?”

“I would rather you didn’t.”

She raised an eyebrow, then said, “All right, Mar, tell me about what you saw at the robbery.”

It took me a moment to reign in the annoyance surging within me. In as few words as possible, I told her my story. How I had seen a man run out of the palace with a lumpy, square package under his arm as the king’s guards shouted at him.

By the end, Tiana’s eyes were locked on me. “Why would you chase him?” she asked with shining blue eyes. I shifted beneath her gaze and looked past her to the jungle.

“It was my duty…as a citizen,” I said.

Tiana leaned forward. “What did the thief look like?”

“He–” I paused, noticing a man in a gray cloak down the street. “He looked like that.”

Tiana turned, and we watched as the stranger mounted his horse and rode into the jungle.

“If you’ll excuse me, Princess, I have work to do.” I marched past Tiana to follow the thief.

She grabbed my arm. “We have work to do.”

I shook her off. “This is no job for a princess.”

Tiana’s blue eyes had narrowed. “Let’s get this straight, Marcellus, son of Bellator. You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t want my help. But it was my father’s vault that was robbed, so this case concerns me. It’s far too important for you to be going it alone.”

“But I can do it,” I argued.

“And I can help,” she insisted. “I can’t do any good for anyone when I’m stuck with my guards. I’m going with you.”

With that, she threw her shoulders back and began marching toward the jungle. Muttering to myself, I hurried to catch up.

The air in the jungle was heavy and sweat stuck to my skin.. Insects buzzed and clicked as birds cawed from the treetops above. The towering trees were as rigid as stone pillars as they stared down at us. I bent down, searching for hoofprints in the reddish mud.

“Here,” I called when I had found them. “He’s heading west.”

Tiana nodded, and we followed the trail, pushing our way through the dense bushes.

“So, Bellator’s your father?” she asked. “I think I’ve heard of him.”

I nodded. “He made a name for himself in the military. Many call him a self-made man. A man who doesn’t need anybody. I think I take after him.”

Tiana eyed me. “Is that really true, though, that you don’t need anyone? You’d still be in jail if you hadn’t been let out.”

“I can make it true,” I insisted.
We hiked along for an hour. Tiana attempted to start a conversation every now and then, but I barely responded, not having the will to focus on anything other than my task. Finally, just beyond the bushes, we found an old stone wall towering above us, overhung with flowery vines. Tied up next to its gate was the thief’s horse. I pulled Tiana behind some of the thickest leaves.

“He must be inside,” I whispered. “Wait here. I’ll go check it out.” I approached the gate.

“I’m going with you,” declared Tiana as she shoved aside the bushes to follow me. Her expression looked far less certain than her bold words.

I leaned toward the gate to listen. No sound came from the other side. I tested the gate and, to my surprise, it swung open easily, its rusty hinges squeaking. I glanced back at Tiana.

“You sure you want to come with me?” I whispered.

She gulped, then said, “Of course. If he’s in there, you shouldn’t go alone, Mar.”

I sighed, then passed through the entrance. Tiana lingered at the gate as I strode inside. Through the gate we came to an overgrown garden. Flowers were spread every which way across the thick grass, with their contrasting colors, sizes, and shapes combining like the pieces of a patchwork quilt. I snuck through the garden, and had almost made it to the far wall when a pair of strong hands came from behind me and gripped my arm.

“I’d hoped you’d taken the hint to quit following me,” the thief hissed. Glancing back, I was finally able to catch a glimpse of his face beneath the old, gray hood. He had a dark beard and a crooked smile. Several more men stepped out from behind the weeds and surrounded me. Like the thief in gray, their cloaks weren’t much more than dirty rags, and their stench indicated that they hadn’t seen soap in a while. Their beady eyes locked on me, their hands fingering the weapons on their belts. Back at the entrance, Tiana stared at them, frozen in her tracks.

“Run!” I urged her.

Snapping back into her senses, she did just that. One of the other men moved to pursue her, but my captor told him, “There ain’t no point chasing her. It’ll be dark within the hour, and a rich girl like that won’t know how to get herself home.”

He pulled out a rope and proceeded to tie my arms behind my back, the ropes pinching so hard that I gasped. Once I was cuffed, he ordered his men, “Lock the gate. We’ll camp here ‘til morning.”

The word “lock” hit me like a door slammed in my face. My mouth went dry. A fog descended upon my brain, rendering me unable to resist as the head thief dragged me into the shadowy corner.

“We can turn this kid in tomorrow morning,” he said. “We already told the guard we witnessed him robbing the vault, so it’ll be his word against ours.”

By now, it was growing dark, so he thrust me amongst the scratchy weeds. He then joined the other thieves by the far wall, where they settled down to sleep, allowing their cloaks to serve as blankets. Soon, they were snoring. Trembling now, I strained against my bonds, but all that did was rub my wrists raw. My panic only increased as the night grew darker. My palms were clammy and my chest felt tight as I struggled to breathe. The hoots of animals from the nearby jungle sounded as loud as an alarm bell.

Calm down, I ordered myself. Try to sleep. You’ll find a way out of here soon.

But whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see was the inside of that shed from ten years ago. I had been five years old at the time, and my father had brought me along to the palace while he met with the king and some of his officers. I had gotten bored, so I wandered across the courtyard and into one of the supply sheds when, without warning, the door had slammed shut, the lock clicking loudly. In a panic, I had run to the door and pounded on it until the wood bruised my fists. Trapped there in the dimness, all I could do was pace, praying that the dark, hulking shapes along the walls were normal storage crates and not monsters. My only light had been an old lamp burning in a corner. It was so stuffy in that shed that my shirt was soon glued to me, and my throat felt like gravel every time I swallowed.

During my mindless pacing, my boot struck the old lamp. It shattered, and fire leaped onto the wooden wall. My heart pounding, I backed away, but the orange flames had crept along the walls until they had claimed every inch of the planks. The smoke had hung overhead like a blanket set to smother me. I hadn’t been able stop coughing. I would have been doomed had King Alexander not burst in just then, scooping me out of the burning shed and into the cool air, putting an end to my waking nightmare.

Back in the present, I opened my eyes, my breathing rasping over my throat and out clenched teeth. My shirt clung to my sweaty skin just like it had so many years ago. I looked to the sky, longing for help, but the distant stars only made me feel more afraid, more alone. I found myself wishing for the princess.

Stop it, I silently commanded myself. You don’t need that girl. You’re here to pay off your debt to the king. It defeats the point if she’s the one who does the work!

I lay there for hours, shivering. I had no idea if I managed to sleep or not. My mind remained in a fog until the light of dawn began to slip through the leaves above. Only then was I able to make out the black handle of a knife sticking out from one of the thieves’ bags. And sitting next to the thief in the gray cloak was a lumpy, square package. I swallowed hard. This was my chance.

Awkwardly, I rolled over and inched toward the knife. I grabbed the hilt with my teeth, pulled it gently, and then let the knife fall into the weeds with a soft thump. I rolled over so my hands could grasp it before struggling with my bonds for several minutes. Finally, the blade cut through the thick ropes. After kicking the knife under a shrub, I rose and tiptoed to the package. I snatched it. Tucking it under my arm, I hurried to the gate, the lock clanging as I unlatched it.

The head thief sat up. “Hey!”

I sprinted for the jungle. Meanwhile, my enemies’ footsteps thundered like angry drums behind me. I crashed through the bushes, soaking my boots with freezing dew. Trusting in my speed, I kept my focus trained on breathing. I was just allowing myself to hope when–whizz-thunk! An arrow breathed past my shoulder and sunk into a nearby tree.

They have bows, I realized. That’s not good…

More arrows whistled behind me. Not seeing another choice, I snatched the limb of the nearest tree and thrust myself up. I climbed higher and higher, the rough bark biting into my hands, until I found a spot, thick with leaves, where I could crouch, hidden. I squeezed my eyes shut and attempted to breathe as quietly as I could.

“Come on, kid!” I heard the head thief call from below. “Come on out!”

I peeked down. On one side of the tree were tall, prickly bushes, forming a barrier of thorns. On the other side stood the thieves. No other trees were close enough for escape. If they spotted me, it was either jump into the thorns or into the middle of my foes. I hunched over, trying to make myself smaller.

Suddenly, I saw a flash of blond hair just beyond the thorns. It was Tiana and she was waving toward herself. I frowned, trying to figure out what she was trying to say, before realizing that she wanted me to throw her the package.

No, I thought. I knew how to take care of things myself. Looking up, I studied the tree nearest to my perch. It was far…but perhaps I could make the jump to it. My legs tensed, ready to leap into action.

“There he is!” one of the men called. I glanced down. The head thief was pointing at me, and the rest were raising their bows. In that split second there, as the danger was closing in like a cage, my need to protect my pride suddenly seemed small and unimportant.

I hurled the package at Tiana. She caught it out of the air and dashed away. Realizing what I had done, the thieves turned their weapons away from me and began cutting their way through the thorns with their swords. But they were met with a surprise when they made it through.

King Alexander and his guards were waiting for them. Before you could have said, “onomatopoeia,” most of our enemies had been captured. I dropped down from my tree to watch, hitting the weeds below with a crunch.

King Alexander was a tall, strong-looking man with black hair and green eyes. He sat astride a light gray horse. Tiana walked up to him and handed him the package. King Alexander opened it and pulled out a large, gleaming emerald bigger than his fist, as well as an assortment of small diamonds that glittered like starlight.

“Good work, Tiana,” he said. “These jewels have been in the family for centuries. It would have been unfortunate to lose them. You were right to come fetch me.”

So that was where she’d been.

Tiana beamed, but she replied, “Well, it was Mar who did the hard work.”

That was when the king noticed me, watching from the path that the thieves had cut through the thorns.

“Marcellus, son of Bellator,” he said with a nod. “It’s been a long time.”

I was amazed that he recognized me. “Your Majesty,” I said, bending into a bow. “I have never forgotten how you rescued me ten years ago.”

“Of course,” answered the king. “Tell me, how are you involved in this? The report I received yesterday stated that you had been arrested as the thief.”

“He was framed, Father,” explained Tiana. “The thieves had him arrested when they realized he was following them.”

“I see.” The king studied me, then, he looked at Tiana. “I’ve also heard that you have been abandoning your guards again, my dear.”

Tiana lowered her head, her hands clasped in front of her. She sighed. “I’m…sorry, Father. But Mar needed my help!”

“Maybe you would cooperate with a guard that you actually respected.” The king turned to me. “You did well today, Marcellus. Escort my daughter home as her new guard.”

I blinked in surprise. “Uh…yes, Your Majesty?”

The king gave me a nod. “Thank you, Marcellus.” He motioned to his guards, and they rode away with the captured thieves. Tiana grinned at me.

“You did great today, Mar,” she said. Then, she cringed. “I mean, Marcellus. Sorry…”

I finally allowed myself to soften.

“You’re all right,” I told her. “I suppose it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you called me Mar every now and then.”

She beamed at me, and together, we began the hike home.

A.J. Santos

A. J. Santos is from the Pacific Northwest. When she's not hanging out with her characters in imaginary worlds, she loves reading, playing music, and going on whatever fun, real-world adventures she can find.

A.J. Santos

A. J. Santos is from the Pacific Northwest. When she's not hanging out with her characters in imaginary worlds, she loves reading, playing music, and going on whatever fun, real-world adventures she can find.

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