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Author Topic: [Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread  (Read 3619 times)

Offline Arry

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[Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread
« on: December 01, 2013, 03:54:07 PM »

Image by by VileRaven

Your challenge this month is to write a fantasy from the perspective of an underdog, a character that others think is destined to lose

“You gain power by pretending to be weak. By contrast, you make people feel strong. You save people by letting them save you.
All you have to do is be fragile and grateful. So stay the underdog.
People really need somebody they feel superior to. So stay downtrodden.
People need somebody they can send a check at Christmas. So stay poor.
"Charity" isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind”

-- Chuck Palahniuk

Maybe your character is weaker. Maybe they have pretended to be weaker. But regardless, your character will be the underdog. Whether the underdog wins or not, well, that is up to the author.


1. This can be prose or a poem.
2. Your character must be an underdog in the story.
4. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
5. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
6. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That's why they're called limits.

Entry will close December 31st 2013 and voting will begin January 1st 2014.

Please post your entry below. All members are eligible to join. If you are not a member you can join here. Sign up is free and all are welcome! :)

The winner will have their piece displayed on the main Fantasy Faction website in February 2014.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.”
-- George R.R. Martin


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Re: [Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread
« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2013, 09:32:14 PM »
The Seventh of Seven

“How old are ya, Armrest?” Matler’s elbow settled on Domin’s shoulder, the difference in their heights making it a comfortable fit.


Mat sprayed spit. “Y’are not! Nine, ten tops. Smooth skin and voice like a girl. If ya dropped your trousers we’d need a glass to see anything. If yer balls really are grown, there’ll be some men wanting to see just how high yer voice can go, wi’ looks like that.”

Dom was thirteen, but he knew to make a high starting bid, like a market tradesman. He was perfectly in proportion, not stunted like a dwarf, but the gods had made him small. Really small.

He shrugged. “I’m thirteen. Just short.” Being small had its uses; a child often got away with things a man wouldn’t. He dreaded his voice breaking and his body sprouting hair in inconvenient places. Then he’d be a freak.

Mat’s raised eyebrow said he still didn’t believe him, but would play along. Mat himself had shoulders like a barn door and meaty fists the size of Dom’s head.

“Thirteen, eh? Well, we’ve a plan a-hatchin’ that could do with someone your size. Y’interested in work that ain’t strictly legal?”


The bars had been sawed through by the time Dom got there.

“Remember what I said. Through the hole, grab the bags of coins an’ anythin’ else of value an’ toss ‘em out. We’ll pull ya out when y’re done.”

“You wouldn’t run out on me, would you, Mat?” Once Dom was through the hole, it would be too high for him to get back by himself, and he didn’t totally trust his new colleagues concern for his welfare.

“Rope round yer middle and we can haul yer up.”

They had cut as close to the wall as they could, but the gap was still tight.

“I’m stuck, Mat. I swear, I’m fucking stuck!” He didn’t need to pretend the panic in his voice.

“Jes need a helpin’ hand, is all.”

Dom felt rough hands grasp his legs and shove. With a rip of linen and a sudden searing pain, flesh tore from his back, leaving blood and skin and cloth on one metal stump. He screamed as the floor came up to meet him, but stopped short, dangling on the end of the rope, his weight taken by two of the gang left outside.

The gems were in one of the bags; he could feel them calling to him. He only needed one. Just one.

The last one.

He didn’t see the soldiers emerge from their hiding places, but he heard the shouting and the scuffles, the sound of fists and quarterstaffs making contact with skulls and stomachs. And he saw the face of the officer peering through the gap.

“Well, well, boys. Looks like we’ve a little lobster in our lobster pot. What’s your name, thief?”


“We have delivered them, as we agreed. Now we expect you to deliver on your promise.”

Farnsel spoke with quiet authority. His clothes were mismatched with his surroundings: scruffy and travel-worn in a room of understated opulence in the palace of the Prince of Amultar. The man he addressed was not the prince—Farnsel had not expected to be received by the ruler himself—but his high councillor, a man of high enough rank to fulfil the prince’s commitments.

The councillor held out a hand and a servant stepped forward, placing a single jewel onto his palm.

“Your reward, as per our terms.”

The gem was the deep green of evergreen leaves, and its facets caught the sunlight that cascaded through the room’s windows and shattered it, sending the beams scattering like waves breaking on the shore. Farnsel’s breath caught. The last one. If he was correct, this would activate the magic. If he was wrong, Dom’s life had been put on the line seven times without purpose other than the innate value of the crystals.

But first Dom had to be freed.


This was the nerve-wracking part. Dom had to be up here with the rest, being seen to be judged. Being released without any retribution would mark him as someone not to be trusted, and trust was nine-tenths of his game. If the gems did what they should, his schemes could become bigger and bolder with the assistance of their magic. If not, he would still be a boy playing at men’s games, and his good name would be vital to his continued existence. He could only hope the constable had been primed to his part in the charade. And that the prince didn’t double-cross them.

“You, boy. How old are you?”

Dom forced his voice into its upper register. It grew harder to do each time. Soon his voice would drop and his cheeks would lose their youthful bloom; just as well this particular game was coming to its conclusion. The tremble as he spoke was only half faked. The reward was so close he could smell it.

“N—Nine, sir.”

The constable frowned over his bench.

“The age a boy becomes a man hereabouts is thirteen. You are excused execution due to your age, but to escape imprisonment you need someone to stand as bondsman for your good behaviour. Do you have such a person?”

“He does.” Farnsel’s voice came from the crowd, firm and confident. Dom watched, his eyes flicking between the constable and his saviour.

“And who might you be?”

“The name’s Farnsel. I’m a merchant, dealing all up and down the coast. I have need of a boy with initiative. Seems he’ll fit my needs.”

The constable regarded Dom as if his ‘initiative’ were rather more developed than he’d like. “You realise he’s up for stealing?”

“I have ways to ensure the honesty of lads I take on. They don’t last long if they aren’t honest.” Dom’s back prickled, even though he’d heard this exchange many times before.

“Very well. Leave your bond and he may entrusted to your care. Any further crimes committed by him while under age and in your charge will be treated as if committed by you. You may reclaim the bond in seven years.”

Dom let out a long sigh of relief. As he passed Mat, crossing the courtroom to where his father awaited him, he whispered, “I might be an armrest, but at least I’ll be a live one.” The sudden tension in Mat’s posture told Dom he had heard.


“I thought Matler might not go for it, Pa,” Dom confided, sitting in a tavern with his father and a mug of small ale later that evening.

His father shrugged. “It was always a risk. As was one of the noblemen not paying up after.”

“Did you get it?”

“Sure did.” Farnsel scrabbled in his belt pouch and pulled out a gleaming green jewel. “That’s the last of them.”

“Can I see them together?”

Farnsel upended the pouch and six more jewels clinked to the table. They were of varying sizes and cuts, but all around the size of the nail on Dom’s smallest finger. Together they made a rainbow, the colours from deepest blood red to the purple-black of the night. Dom hovered his hand over the seven and shivered.

“You feel it?”

He nodded. “It’s amazing. And you knew I’d be able to do this when you first saw me?”

His father shook his head. “Not at first. Not when you were born. But when you didn’t grow like your brothers and sisters had—then I knew. Practitioners are always small; your grandmother barely came up to my waist. The magic takes your height, but your abilities compensate. And now we have the spectrum, you can do almost anything you can think of.”

Dom gathered the seven gems in his hands and imagined himself bigger, feeling the seams of his clothes strain and rip as the illusion formed. He opened his mouth to speak, knowing somehow that his voice would be a good octave deeper if he did. Then he sighed, dropping the gems to the table.

“That’s amazing. But exhausting.”

“It’ll get easier with practice. But—” Farnsel hesitated. “You know you’ll never grow if you use them, don’t you, son? My mother didn’t come into the seven until after she had come to womanhood, and even so having me almost killed her, she was so small. We could always wait a little.”

Never to grow. Never to come to manhood, or to love a woman, or to look more than the nine or ten years he did now. Would it be worth the sacrifice?

Dom grinned at his father. “Let’s go watch an execution.”


They watched the thieves hang—the last they would need to betray. In each of seven cities they had earned a single jewel which when brought together with its mates would trigger Dom’s abilities.

For Dom the adventure now could truly begin. For the little lad they called Armrest, with his seven magical gems.

« Last Edit: December 30, 2013, 08:41:20 PM by ACSmyth »

Offline TOMunro

Re: [Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread
« Reply #2 on: December 30, 2013, 07:39:58 PM »
This sort of fits - it can also be read as a sequel to my Battles entry "The Battle of Bledrag Field"

A New Start

By T.O.Munro

“I don’t want any trouble.”  Kaylan tried to pretend he had some choice in the matter.

The big blond thug grinned round at his four companions.  “Here boys, Mister Lightfingers here doesn’t want any trouble.   Thing is, trouble is pretty much the second thing we’ve been looking for.”

“And the first?” If the muscle bound fool was willing to let him play for time, Kaylan was happy to play along.  He scanned the alleyway’s dark walls.  To the left the polished stone of the temple wall, to the right the broken brickwork of the empty inn.  One at least offered handholds aplenty, but slimy with the moisture exuded by the air.  Not beyond climbing, but beyond climbing swiftly enough to evade the grasping hands of the nearest thugs.

“The first?” Blondy parroted back at Kaylan.  He stepped close and belched his last meal in the thief’s face.  Kaylan waved away the scent of over seasoned sausage with an exaggerated waft of his hand. “The first was you, Kaylan, temple thief.”

“Sorry, friend.  That’s not me.” Kaylan said.

The man’s brow creased in a frown, brief puzzlement chased away by anger.  “Don’t play games.  We’d have guessed it anyway. Where better to do thieving than a town abandoned in the shadow of a war.  But your old mum said you’d headed west.  What was that bullshit you fed her about joining up to fight for the Prince?” 

Kaylan tightened his grip on the sack over his shoulder.  The movement brought a faint metallic clank from its shifting contents.  “This is nothing to do with her.” 

“I don’t get it though.” The big man went on.  “I mean if I’d robbed as much as you had – stolen from the Goddess and all – I reckon I might have spared the crone that spat me out something a little bit finer than a two room shack in downtown Woldtag.”  He leaned in, pasty face glistening with a sheen of the damp afternoon air. “Reckon you’re not a very good son to the Goddess, or to your own mother.  Not likely to be missed are you?”

Kaylan’s fingers had curled into fists but a stray word tripped up his anger. “Missed?”

“This ain’t no arrest party, you rangy streak of piss.  Bishop Yaggerin ain’t looking for no show trial, no more spells in prison for you.  There’s a war on, in case you hadn’t noticed.  Normal rules don’t apply.  Five miles from here they’re fighting against the invaders and you’re lurking around this ghost town raiding the temple of its treasures. Well I reckon there’s going to be plenty of bodies clogging the river Mawyed before nightfall. One extra won’t be noticed.”

There was a rasp of steel as the five of them drew their blades.

“Come on, Jak,” the weaselly one called out.  “Enough talking. Let’s get this thing done and get going. Dunno why you had us wait.”

“Not so fast, Milt,” the blond guy spat.  “Let’s see what the deadman walking has in his sack.  Always curious as to how he gets past the temple wards – the old woman wouldn’t say.”

“You shouldn’t have hit her so hard, Jak.  I said she knew nothing.”

“Just shut it,” the blond guy muttered.  “Yaggerin wants an end to temple thefts. He didn’t say anything about whether we stopped it before or after the bastard’d grabbed his last set of service gold and silver.”

As Jak turned a fraction, lips parting in a snarl of rebuke, Kaylan dived forward, swinging the bag like a club.  Neither the hessian material nor his target’s thatch of blond hair provided any cushioning from the blow of the heavy plate within as it crashed into the man’s skull.  Jak stumbled against the slighter figure of Milt and Kaylan was through, running.  The precious bag swung from his hand, arms and legs pumping, as he dashed for the alleyway’s opening.

“Stop him!” Jak’s anguished howl pursued him. 

He was almost clear when the knife hit.  He missed a step as the blade thudded into his back just beneath the shoulder blade. The next intake of breath was filled with the pain of bone grating on steel, of tissue tearing. Instinct made him turn his half fall into a stagger to the left, towards the temple he had just robbed.  They hadn’t expected that.  Another knife whistled past his right shoulder, its aim perfect had he made the obvious choice, turning right in a desperate flight away from the abandoned town. 

But Kaylan felt his fleeing days were done, not in his heart, but in the wounded lung, leaking blood into cavities he longed to fill with air.  Made breathless by the slight exertion he scrabbled across the temple steps, leaning against the door to open it with his weight. 

There was a roaring in his ears which he took at first for the pounding of his frantic heart, but the timbre of the sound was different. He glanced down the main street to the West where the battle was being fought beyond the rise.  Cries and shouts carried on the wind within a darker sound.   Kaylan gulped a painful breath and pushed into the temple. 

His legs failing as his lungs filled he stumbled forward, a mixture of knees and feet carrying him, to the altar he had so recently denuded.

There were shouts outside, Jak commanding. “Get in there, get him.”

“Look!” Milt cried.  “Reckon there’s more trouble coming this way than a wounded thief.” 

Hurried words and then Jak crying, “Why are you running, fools! Come back.”

Kaylan rested on the altar steps, fingers knotted around the neck of the bag though that surely didn’t matter anymore.  The doors swung open and Jak strode alone down the aisle. 

“What, not dead yet? Well you lie their begging for forgiveness from the one you’ve been thieving.”
The blond bent to seize the bag, yanking at it, frowning at the strength of Kaylan’s grip.

“It’s for my mother,” Kaylan gasped.  “She’s sick.  Priest’s cures cost money.”

Jak laughed.  “Oh, so you robbed the church to pay the church.”

“The poor shouldn’t have to pay.”

Jak bent close, again the foul stench of his breath.  “Well you don’t need this anymore.  And nor does the old bat.  She wouldn’t say much at first and like Milt said, I tapped her a bit hard.   So now she’s beyond priest’s cures – just like you.”

At last the bag came free and Jak stood up with it.

“There’s more,” Kaylan gasped, sprawled awkwardly on the altar steps.

Jak stopped a glint of greed in his eye.  “Where?”

Kaylan waved him close, his voice a hoarse blood flecked whisper.

The blond leant in. Kaylan struck. The thin blade, his knife of last resort, pulled from his boot and in one smooth move thrust into the Jak’s throat.  The blond killer rose unsteadily one hand raised to try to staunch the blood that sprayed through his fingers, the other clutching still the bag of stolen goods with no less desperation than Kaylan had.

Kaylan watched him turn and take a step and a half before he fell full length on the temple floor.

The thief half closed his eyes drawing shallow blood filled breaths.  His vision played dying tricks on him.  A shimmering bubble of light formed between him and Jak, in its midst a shadowy outline of a woman.  Was this the Goddess come to judge him? Was it time to pray, or to ask forgiveness?

It took a second or two, a second in which Kaylan realized this was no divine being.  The priestess’s robes were spattered with blood, her red hair disordered across her shoulders, green eyes wide in puzzlement.  Her first word a nonsense. “Father!” The anguished cry ripped from her.

Kaylan shook his head a fraction, apologetic for her disappointment. “Where is this?” Her next demand.

“Bledrag Village,” Kaylan gurgled as his vision faded.

Sight and sound came back slowly.  He was being hauled to his feet, a voice insistent “we’ve got to go.  They’re coming.”

His back was stiff, not sore. A bloodied knife that was not his lay on the floor.  “What happened?”

“I invoked the Goddess’s grace to heal you.”

“I have no money to pay.”

“The Goddess does not want your gold.”

“Priests do.”

“Well, I am no priest. I am Niarmit.”  She kicked a foot at Jak’s body as they swayed towards the temple door.  “And I think you have already done the Goddess a considerable service.  What’s your name soldier?”

He gulped.  “They call me Kaylan, and you are mistaken.  That is not how it was, my Lady.”

She stopped and faced him, holding him by the shoulders as her green eyes bored into his soul. “However it was, Kaylan, this is a new start.  A new start for both you and I.  The Goddess grants such chances but rarely, let us both make the most of it.”
« Last Edit: December 31, 2013, 05:54:32 PM by TOMunro »

Offline Liselle

Re: [Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread
« Reply #3 on: December 31, 2013, 04:21:09 AM »
The damn harpies were everywhere. We were hopelessly outnumbered. A mist had crept in to obscure our passage and we'd sailed too close to their Isle of Bones. No pirate woulda been dumb enough to brave its waters on purpose. They circled the galley's deck like crows over a corpse, screamin' down their battle cries. Given the chance we would have steered away but by then it was too late -- the creatures were right above us, impossible to attack with cannon fire. All we could do was rally to our captain and stand as one, steel in hand, waitin' for the wretched creatures to attack.

I was a lowly cabin boy a few months shy of fifteen but armed with a navy man's cutlass that had no business bein' in my hand. I watched them as they dropped like a storm of black arrows onto our ship, sweepin' us aside like rags dolls with great beats of their wings. They had huge black eyes, savage teeth and taloned feet designed for nothin' better than to rip us apart. Pirates all around me were chokin' on their own blood, too slow for the fury of the harpy that could break a man's bones with a crack of her wing! I trembled like a rat half drowned in my own sweat and swung my cutlass at the nearest beast. She came at me with her black eyes ablaze. I ducked and rolled under her claws but she spun around and hit me in the chest, knockin' me onto my arse so that the steel fell from my hand. I groped around for it as the shadow of the beast came over me. "Get up and run!" Orella the captain yelled at me and drove her cutlass into the harpy's side. She twisted the blade and the harpy turned on her, pushin' her back into the fray. I never saw what happened to them in all the madness.

I jumped to my feet, still searching' for my blade, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I was pressed up against the wall of the main deck with the forecastle deck above me. That's when I remembered the ballista. One of the gunners had gone to man it when we were first attacked but I'd seen no shots bein' fired. I climbed the ladder to the deck above and came face to face with another of the monsters. It was chewing' on an arm that must have ripped from Marco the gunner. With my heart in my throat I charged at the harpy, hopin' to seem more fearsome than I felt. She musta thought I was as crazy as a castaway on salt water. She took to the air, snatchin' up the rest of Marco's body to carry him to her island. I shouted up at her to come back but the great beast ignored me. Marco was already gone and there was nothin' I could do to save him.

I ran for the ballista, hopin' I still had a chance to help the others. Marco had managed to load a bolt, the only one that I could find, but the whole contraption was facin' out to sea. I hauled it around and took aim on the main deck. My heart dropped like a stone into my stomach. The deck was crawlin' with harpies that were feastin' on the dead bodies of my friends. I started to despair. Was no one else left alive? Then I saw her. Our fierce captain Orella was fightin' a huge harpy on the sterncastle deck, a monster more than twice her size! They flowed back and forth like the tide, Orella slashin' at the creature with her cutlass, the harpy stirrin' up a wind with its wings to knock the captain off her feet. Orella stumbled backwards, givin' me a clear shot. I squeezed the trigger. The bolt flew straight and true across the deck and thunked into the harpy's wing, pinnin' her to the mizzen mast. Orella looked across at the ballista and grinned, liftin' her cutlass in salute. Then she gripped the blade with both her hands and swung it at the mast, choppin' the harpy's head clean off its shoulders.

The flock screamed in unison as their leader's head was severed and every last one of them burst apart in a cloud of ash. I stood up and faced Orella across the main deck, awash with the bodies of our dead. There was no one left but us. The Isle of Bones is quiet now but men still fear to sail there, sharin' grim tales of the harpy ghosts that haunt the skies thereabouts.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

Offline Carter

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Re: [Dec 2013] Underdog - Submission Thread
« Reply #4 on: December 31, 2013, 07:16:59 PM »
A Handful of Change

“Got any spare change?”

His voice was thick with gravel and smoke, cracking with an age that matched the lines on his face and the arthritis in his hands.  Around him people passed by with little but a glance, maybe an awkward expression, perhaps a mumbled apology.  The wind picked up, biting at his bones and he huddled deeper into his threadbare jacket, its edges frayed, the holes ever widening and the warmth psychological. 

The day’s generosity had begun slim and only worsened.  His sole treasure was a lonely fiver now secreted within the fold of a pocket.  A scant handful of change lay on his ragged towel, slumming alongside discarded drinks cans and crisp wrappers.  He ought to have thrown away the rubbish but he never could dispose of any donation.
“Any spare change?”

He no longer knew why he bothered with the afternoon commute.  After a long day at work, in a hurry to get home, few had anything to offer.  Yet he always tried, always hoped.   

A couple of coins clattered against aluminium.  Pence but welcome all the same. 

“Thank you, sir.  God bless you, sir,” he said to the man’s retreating back. 

Small words but welcome all the same.
Slowly, the stream of passers-by dwindled to a trickle before finally disappearing completely.  Sickly yellow streetlights now illuminated the pavement while blazing bulbs from nearby buildings blotted out the night sky.  Even the still air had a bite to it and he could feel the first hint of drizzle on his bearded cheek.  The day’s donations made their way into the many pockets of his trousers and jacket as he packed away his belongings, tucking the towel beneath his arm. 

As he wandered the almost deserted streets, hearing the sounds of revelry and life behind doors forever barred to him, he jangled.  Coins lay heavy with hope and potential but his journey was desolate and lonely.  With each passing day it became more and more difficult to maintain anything resembling a positive façade, the ever-increasing amount of rubbish he received on a daily basis dragging him down.

Angry, questing fingers found their way into a pocket.  Probing, prodding they discovered a bent and twisted can and his mood soured further.  Sharp, jagged edges bit into skin.  Beneath his breath he mumbled a few barely coherent words.  If anyone had been listening, if they had been paying him any attention, they would have mistaken the syllables for the mad ranting of an old, homeless man.  Only a handful of scholars in the whole world might have recognised anything familiar but even they would have struggled to extract any sense from the language. 

The can disappeared beneath his fingertips.  Some lingering aura clung to the metal, the residual presence carrying the curse on invisible wings.  One by one the other pieces of rubbish followed as his mumblings continued.  A migraine, a hangover, a heated argument with a loved one, a night of impotence; nothing fancy, nothing too complicated but each would find its target. 

The two miles to the soup kitchen allowed him to go through all the items in his pocket until only the coins remained.  It bothered him how far he had to walk, how many places now turned him away.  Even some of those who offered shelter frowned at him, unable to cope with the numbers he attracted, unwilling to help all those who sought him out.  Although they never forbade him access, he always knew where he was no longer welcome.   

More were waiting tonight, perhaps as many as fifty outside and more within.  A ragged bunch, they represented the forgotten members of society; the homeless, the addicts and the destitute, all scraping together something resembling a life within the underbelly of the city. 

At first they had clamoured for his attention, fighting amongst themselves to be the first in line.  Only time had availed them of the notion such things were acceptable or even necessary.  Now most were peaceful, quietly awaiting his arrival and what little benevolence he could offer. 
The aroma of freshly baked bread, wafted enticingly from the open door of the kitchen.  It mingled with the smell of bubbling leek and potato soup.  His empty stomach growled its appreciation and anticipation.  Within, the noise of those already indulging in their daily meal started to hush as news of his arrival spread indoors.
They waited for him to fetch himself a bowl and a plate, to eat the sustenance on offer and trick his stomach into satisfaction.  His knees creaked as he lowered himself to the street and prepared for the night’s endeavours, his hands aching as he spread the donations out in front of him on his stained, dishevelled towel.  Only the note he left hidden.  A quick glance between the line and the wealth on the towel, a quick mental calculation, a grimace and he was ready to begin. 

The first woman was a regular.  She had been coming to him for several days in a row now.  Her shaking hands, her gaunt, almost vacant expression, told him everything he needed to know. 

“One more day.  Please,” she said, her words slurred and shaking. 

“How many days?”

“Ten tomorrow.”

He read the truth in her eyes, in her tone.  Beneath his fingers a twenty-pence piece vanished.  A little more than normal but he could tell she would need it come the morning, when the withdrawal symptoms kicked in all the harder.  Another day or so and she might not need his assistance any longer.

“Bless you,” she said as she turned to leave. 

One by one the others came forward.  One by one the coins disappeared.  Alleviating aches.  Relieving pains.  Fixing holes in sleeping-bags and coats.  The assurance of being seen at a medical clinic in the morning.  A decent night’s sleep.   

Small yet important things.  And all the day’s generosity could afford.

All too soon the coins ran out.  A handful of people still remained, their pleas unheard.  Only the five-pound note remained, its presence a taunting fire, the possibilities it represented almost extravagant by comparison with all that had gone before. 

“I only have one left,” he said to those waiting. 

The disappointment on their faces squeezed his heart tight.  For some it meant an uncomfortable few days and nights ahead.  For others it meant empty bellies and dry throats.  For one, he knew, it meant another day riddled with fever unless they could claim the remaining blessing. 

Yet he could not decide.  As always the final decision rested with those in front of him.  They all looked at each other, all unsure of their own importance over the needs of others.  Their indecision only made his heart constrict.  Before there had been fights.  Once it had almost descended into murder. 

Finally a young girl came forward with small, hesitant steps, her eyes darting around, fearing disapproval or worse.  None came.  She looked too young for this life, to be out in the darkness among such people.  Perhaps eleven, perhaps even younger, it was hard to tell beneath the dirt on her face and the experience in her green eyes. 

“What do you need?”

“I . . . I want to go home.”

A simple request but he read the full meaning in her eyes, in the way her voice cracked on the final word.  It almost ripped his heart in two.  Home did not include her mother’s new boyfriend.  It did not include the scars on her arms and legs.  It did not include the daily hunger and desperate search for the next coin.  Instead it called for a return to how things had once been, a roof over her head and a purpose back in her life. 

It called for far more than the value of the solitary note in his possession.
Before he could start to shake his head, before he could begin to give the only answer possible, she started to realise.  Behind her, the others were already moving forward to take her place.

Coins cascaded from generous fingers.  More followed from giving hands as those who had waited so patiently, so fruitlessly, gave over their carefully hoarded wealth before disappearing into the night.  The tinkling, the soft thuds as donations settled on the dirty towel brought hope back into his chest and wonderment into the girl’s eyes. 

He drew the note from its hiding place and added it to the pile.  His gaze darted across the towel.  Enough.  Just enough. 

His fingers danced across the fortune until it had all been erased. 

“Then go home, child,” he said. 

Her hesitant smile lit up her face before she turned to go. 
Alone now he packed away his meagre belongings.  His body protested at every moment, his head swimming at the day’s exertions.  A few hours’ rest and he had to begin again in the morning, scrounging for a handful of change.