The small hand in my own was strange.
Holding the hand of another person was strange enough, but that of a child’s was somehow different. It was not a bad feeling, just unusual.
The tiny hand belonged to a boy named Thomas. A stout boy of eight proud summers, or at least that's what he’d had me believe. Thomas held himself with the courage only a boy could possibly possess. Not oblivious to the problems he faced, but sure they could be overcome. It was a sureness I came to both envy and weep over.
Thomas and I met one evening at a tavern that hardly deserved the name, in a nameless city. It was among the poorest I had seen throughout my travels, where I thought more people were living on the streets than in actual houses. I had finished a performance for the disheveled men and women of the tavern, and was fighting my way towards my room when the younger boy pushed through two rather boisterous men and grabbed ahold of my hand. When I glanced down to see who had the nerve to actually stop me, I was shocked to find the wide and young eyes of a boy, glaring upwards at me through the gaps of unruly hair that hung low around his face.
“You can’t be finished!”
The pure ferocity of his gaze made me burst out laughing. I drew the looks from nearby people but paid them no mind, focusing instead on the child. I had spoken to very few in the last years.
His glare only intensified as I laughed and with a small flourish he ripped his hand from mine and tucked it underneath his arm, standing in a way I had never seen a child stand.
“You cannot be finished!” He said again.
I contained my amusement this time and tried to look both as stern and serious as I could.
“And why is that, young Master?”
“I’ve yet to hear my favourite song.”
I nodded solemnly, like this was a problem I often faced. He didn't appear pleased.
“That does indeed put you in a situation.”
He nodded equally as gravely as I, pursing his lips as if to make it obvious he was remedying a solution. He turned to me after a moment seemingly lost in this kind of thought.
“I haven't much, but I’ll give you it all if you play me ‘Oh The Mountains High’.”
Although an earnest offer, I felt a sudden sadness overcome me. I was long beyond the point of feeling anger at the way of things, but moments like the boy’s offer were a sullen reminder. I agreed to play the boy his song, on the sole condition he not grow up, which left him utterly confused but happy nevertheless. Both him and the men and women listening around gave a small cheer.
Ever persistent the boy had followed me to my room after I retired from the floor for good. His knock on the rotten wooden frame was so quiet I almost mistook it for some bird outside the window. When I opened the door I saw him standing with his hands cupped, holding enough half coins to buy a grown man hefty meals for a week. Quickly though and without hesitation he shoved the small pile of gold into my hands and brushed by me into the room. If he was even remotely nervous or shy, it didn't show.
“Payment for more songs,” he said.
I wondered a moment if he knew I wouldn't accept the money, so thinking myself clever I stuffed the coins into my pants pocket and shrugged as if I agreed to the deal. The little boy didn't even flinch as what must have been months of work disappeared before his eyes. The iron resolve in a body so small and young was inspiring.
I smiled after a second and handed the lad back his gold.
“Young Master, I cant take your money, but perhaps a few more songs are in order.”
The genuine surprise on his face forced away my seriousness. I couldn't help but smile again. It had been almost as long as the boy was old since I’d had even a conversation this long.
“You’ll play for free?”
I bowed my head. “Unless it offends you.”
He actually seemed to think about it, but decided after a moment that it didn't.
“Things usually aren’t free,” he noted.
“No. I guess you’re right.”
Unfortunately with little surprise to me, he revealed later that evening that he was alone in the city. Fearing the answers, I asked where his parents were, and although he spoke no words the stoney look he gave me was answer enough.
I was in the city looking for yet another name on my list, and as I searched the young Thomas followed me.
For the most part he was a quiet companion but also a useful one at times. He knew more about the streets and those that dwelled on them than anyone else I stopped. He explained to me the way things worked under the local rule, but also of the workings underneath the city surface. It was his advice to check the underground market that finally lead me to the son of the man I sought, old enough to be facing down death himself.
With a disappointment I was getting used to, I crossed the seventh name from my page.
Thomas and I walked back to the tavern where we had first met. I was due for another show if I was to eat, and although not the only musician in the city, the crowds had been getting bigger each evening. Before going back inside though, Thomas stopped me by the door.
“Does this mean your leaving soon?”
I realized I had given no thought to what would happen with the boy when I found what I was looking for.
“I, ah… yes. I have someone else now to find.”
“Outside of the city?”
“How far away is he?”
I really didn't know so I shrugged, I feared though that it would be far.
“Can you take me with you?”
To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. I hadn't even pictured what traveling with a companion would be like. Nobody wanted to travel. The boys strength certainly outweighed his age, but for all of it he was still just a boy. With my hand frozen on the tavern door, I truly thought about it though.
He would be a burden no doubt, but that wasn't why I hesitated. More often than not the roads I took were far from friendly, and it was no place for the average person, let alone a child. Were I to finally die in one of the ambushes, or injure myself to the point where I could no longer walk, it was a sure death sentence for the lad. Even as rough as the city life was, it was still better than anything I could possibly offer.
I was about to tell him that even though it probably didn't seem like it, his life was considerably safer than one traveling with me. He didn't need the answer vocalized though, he saw it in my eyes.
When he looked at me again I didn't see any anger, only disappointment of his own. It was no great feeling denying him what he saw as a way out, but it was for his own good.
“I’m sorry,” was all I managed.
He nodded and pushed by me, heading into the tavern. I grabbed ahold of his arm before he got by.
“Stay after the show, I’ll play 'The Mountains High'.”
He offered a weak smile and nodded.
But he didn’t, and I never saw him again.
I searched all the districts for a week after that night, looking in every place he said the homeless children gathered. I didn't find him in any of the hideouts, and whenever I described him to others they would laugh and tell me all the city children fit that description.
Thomas had disappeared.
The day I finally lost heart in searching I returned one last time to the tavern, only to gather my things and leave. As I always did before setting out again I opened my lute to rap it in cloth. This time though, wedged between the strings was a half gold coin. There were letters roughly scratched on the surface.
It read, “nothing is free.”
I stopped by the smith before leaving that day, paying for a small chain and a hole to be punched near the top of the coin.
I left wearing the wise words of an eight year old.