21st of Ashan 699
The damned leather collar that Erastus had fitted Woe with chaffed him, pinched the skin of his neck whenever he turned his head, and overall was a pain. His master was attentive and reasonably generous, but the old man couldn't stitch a fitted collar to save his life. But then, perhaps that was his aim. Either way, Woe found himself staring straight ahead most of the time, as he sneaked out of the house in Lowtown, out and about on his training and chores.
Erastus had him doing all sorts of things these days, since he'd reached the age of twelve. "Almost a man grown now!" Erastus said cheerfully. "You'll be beating off the girls with a stick."
Woe remembered furrowing his brow, and pouting then, "I don't care about girls. Give me a longer leash."
"So you can go chasing girls?"
Woe had groaned, and then left in a huff. Erastus was barking up the wrong tree if he had Woe in mind for a breeder. He had bigger ideas of what he could do to further the master's cause, to further the Divine One and, of course, Mother. He was off to do Erastus' strange errands around Lowtown. Most of these involved odd drops of notes and packages around the city. He carried the packages and notes in a satchel, ready to deposit them in barrels, into windows, wherever Erastus directed him to. In time, he found his way around Andaris pretty well, at least the less affluent areas, where slaves weren't commonplace.
He'd often run into trouble in those areas, mostly from other children who thought it was their duty to accost any slaves that happened to cross their path. It wasn't often these rabble found one who was of lower social stature than them, so they took what opportunities they could to get the abuse out of their system.
Woe had to sneak by certain neighborhoods where he often was found to be frequenting, about Erastus' business. He learned to soften the hardened soles of his shoes in order that they wouldn't make as much noise on the cobbles and dry dirt roads.
He reached into one window, slowly, placing the package that Erastus had assigned to it. There, on the wall of the stone cottage, was written in bright red letters, CHILD-SLAVER Woe's eyes went wide as he beheld the words. Was there really something wrong with child slavery? And what distinguished it from normal homes?
Woe had no point of reference, but had been told by Erastus that the distinction was pure semantics. Low-town folk often treated their children as indentured servants anyway, making them run chores just as he did. And like Woe, they were expected to obey their parents without question, lest they suffer the crack of the lash.
So in terms of what Erastus told him, it wasn't all that different from his own life. Except that Woe was a good child slave. He rarely gave Erastus cause to punish him.
Woe walked along as his pack got lighter, with every drop off he made. Eventually, he came to a scummy fountain, where a lady in brown dress was feeding some birds; black birds with orange beaks. Crows.
Woe cleared his throat, to get her attention. He'd done a lot of drop-offs today, and was welcoming any diversion from his path.
She paused a moment, looking at her birds, and then turned to him with a slight smile. "'Ello there boy." She scattered some seed and rotten meat for the birds. "Wan' 'elp me feed th'birds?"
The boy held his nose, wrinkling his forehead as the smell of the rotten meat hit him. "Ooof, what beast would eat such rotten offal? This square smells like a tanner!"
She gave him an enigmatic smile, and continued spreading more meat and seed for the birds. Clucking her tongue, "Crows like the taste of meat that's been left out a while. Some say because it gives it a flavor. Yet there are other theories, stories that I've heard..."
The slave boy regarded the birds for a few moments, and shrugged, "Seems they're just fighting over scraps here. They're hungry and desperate for whatever will suit them, and that's all there is to it."
Again she clicked her tongue, "Oh ye of little imagination. Who stole your childhood boy? Aren't you curious to hear what I have to say?" She threw another handful of seed and offal at the birds, which they quickly devoured. There were black beaks as well as orange ones present there. Perhaps different breeds. Or just a variation thereof.
"They say, when a young child feeds a crow, Labrae herself takes notice, and begins travelling forth from Yaralon, to snatch the younglings up for her weavery and home in the southeast."
Here, she had Woe's attention. He'd only heard of Labrae through stray whispers between Erastus and his wife, and some of the people coming and going through his shop. Yet for all that talk, they kept a low profile when it came to details. All that Woe had been able to gather, was that she ran a similar operation to Erastus, only far more sophisticated and well-fortified by the warriors of Yaralon, who held children as important above all others.
At times, when the young slave was angry at Erastus or one of the others, he would wish for Labrae to come and take him awaya. He practiced the prayer like an incantation, intoning her name. At times when he mentioned her, he felt a faint connection to her name. It was familiar somehow, as if understood, in another body or form.
When it looked like the offal and seed were running low, Woe reached into her bucket, and threw the food onto the ground, observing the crows at their natural behavior.
The birds tore into the meat, and nearly got at each other when they began fighting with their beaks and wing buffets. The old woman chortled. "You have to spread the meat out boy! You trying to start a crow fighting ring?" She snickered.
Woe didn't think it was funny, though. The crows began tearing into the meat, and some of them lost feathers in the conflict. One of these stray feathers brushed up against Woe's shoe.
The old woman's eyes lit up as she saw where the feather had landed. "Good luck, boy! Maybe Labrae favors ye."
Woe quirked an eyebrow at her, but then knelt to pick up the feather. It was dark, black, and very shiny. A good keepsake. Yet what the old woman told him next would alert him to an alternate use.
"If ye burn that feather on yer window sill, Labrae will come to snatch ye up to bring up, live and play with her children." The witch smiled at him. "Just gotta recite the nursery rhyme while letting it burn into an open window... Let's see here..."
And she went on to recite the nursery rhymme for him, which he committed to heart. The boy grew excited at escaping the drudgery and suffering the prejudice that came with being Erastus' servant. He wanted a real mother, not Erastus' wife, a real family, not Erastus' slave pens. He was tired of the smell of the old tannery, the rotting flesh and stretched hides. He wanted a real family, one better than any one could find in Rynmere.
He wanted Mother to take him away from slavery, and into her welcoming arms.
Without even bothering to get the old witch's name, Woe ran straight back to Erastus' shop with the feather in hand. As he burst through the door, without so much as a greeting for Erastus, the boy ran upstairs, up to his quarters where he could find some privacy. There, he took the feather out of his pocket. This he set on a window sill, weighed down with a small rock.
There was a tinderbox in his room, used for lighting candles. This he brought to the feather, and began lighting it aflame, just as the old witch had told him to do. As the smoke began blowing, he threw open the shutters to his window, and began intoning the words,
"Labrae, a child suffers,
Wishes to go away,
From home and shelter,
To weave and play."
And on the nursery rhyme went, the smoke from the crow's feather blowing on the wind. There, it would certainly reach Yaralon and Labrae herself. He daydreamt about his new siblings, and what fun they would have together, learning and thriving under Labrae's care.
Woe went to sleep dreaming of his new home. A new home that he would not get to see.
In the seasons and arcs following, there was no sign from Labrae. Mother had ignored his prayer.