In the days when kings and lords were greedy and needed their coffers lightened, there were men who stole from the wealthy. Some weren’t so good at escaping once they’d snatched the gold. One of them was Stock, who earned the nickname for being locked in the stocks so many times that they seemed like a second home and who’d been called that name so much that he’d forgotten his own. Often people brought him drinks while he waited uncomfortably with wooden planks keeping his arms and legs straight and his back bent. Sometimes a fellow robber would break him loose.
Those were his good days and he didn’t realize they were done until he was locked up in a dungeon cell instead of the stocks. The room was dark, wet, and sickening. He thought he was to be released when the guards finally dragged him up from the underground, but then they locked him in another cell on the ground level, one with a window looking to the gallows.
“They mean to hang me?” Stock wondered aloud.
“In a way,” one guard said, slamming the iron door shut. “First they’re going to cut you open and spill your guts on the earth. Then they’ll burn you, but not to death. They’ll let you suffer a while. Then they’ll hang you. Your death will set an example for anyone else who dares steal from the lord.”
Stock was left alone at this window, watching the sun drift below the horizon, and wished he had a chance to do something different. “Who am I kidding? I’d do things exactly as I’d done before, except maybe I wouldn’t get caught. That’s where I went wrong.” He didn’t go to sleep when the land grew dark—there would be plenty of time for that soon enough. When all was quiet and the town slept, he heard a spritely whistle echoing through the night and spotted a figure lugging a large bag over its shoulder, coming closer to the window.
“Is that one of my friends?” Stock called. “Have you come to set me free?”
“I could be your friend, if you wish,” a voice said. The figure neared and shined a lantern into Stock’s window, giving a view of a tattered, dirty young man soon to be at the end of his rope, once the gutting and burning were done. He saw a tattered, dirty woman, not young, but not old, with a silvery flare in her eyes and an odd mix of warmth and wickedness about her face. “But I may have come to let you set yourself free,” she said. “If you wish.”
“I do, if you have the tools for me to do it.”
The woman slung her bag onto the ground, fished around inside, and retrieved a small, wooden box, adorned with a silver emblem of a key. “This here is the box of freedom. Open it and you’ll have three freedoms to use as you please.”
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Stock beamed. “Fantastic! I’ll pay you as soon as I’m free and I’ve stolen the lord’s riches.”
“My business works in bartering, not in coins. I want to borrow your sense of generosity, which is quite strong. My sister is trying to become a heartsmith witch, but she lacks empathy. When I give you the box, I’ll take yours. The moment you’ve used all three freedoms, that caring nature will return to you, meaning I must be quick about reaching my sister.”
Stock agreed to the witch’s deal, shaking her hand with one hand and taking the box with the other. “And all I have to do is open the box?” he asked.
The moment he spoke, a guard opened his cell door. “You’re free to go, Stock, but don’t show your face in this town again.”
“Was that one of them?” Stock asked. “I didn’t even open the box.”
The witch smirked. “No, sir. That escape was free.” She hauled her bag onto her shoulder then and sped off into the night.
Once he left the cell, Stock knew his first order of business—to steal the lord’s wealth. He snuck past the guards, deeper into the keep that housed both dungeon and vault, picking locks until he found his way to the room where gold and jewels were kept. He could only carry so much on his person, but the few handfuls he stuffed in his pockets and down his shirt would keep him fed for a long while.
Shouting arose from elsewhere in the halls. “They’ve found me out, but they won’t catch me,” Stock said to himself, grasping the box of freedom. “I won’t make that mistake again.” He cautiously lifted the wooden lid, unsure of what a freedom looked like, only to find nothing inside. “I couldn’t have been cheated. There must be some quirk to this.” Barely a moment after he’d opened the box, the wall beside him opened as if someone had pulled it loose like a box lid, granting him an exit into the village.
Stock hurried out of the keep, past the village’s walls, and set off on the road with a scant few hours remaining until morning. He refused to be anywhere near the village’s gallows by dawn. His travels took him to another town, where he bought nicer clothing and a horse, and then he rode onward, wondering how far he could push the last two freedoms in his box.
“The woman didn’t say I had to use these to open walls and doors,” Stock said to himself. “Perhaps I could have the freedom of a king, to choose any bride. I should head to the city where the king makes his home. He has a daughter of age and when he’s gone, I’ll be the king in his stead. A king’s life is a much easier one than living on the road, stealing from the rich. Why not be wealthy myself?”
With new prospects in mind, Stock rode for nine days until he reached the king’s castle. Dressed nicely and bearing jewels and gold, the guards thought he was a nobleman and let him inside the hall, where others made petitions to the king’s justice. Stock found the main hall crowded with surly people—nobles, merchants, land-owners, land-workers, everyone shouting and arguing over who would see the king. The throne at the head of the hall remained empty from dawn until dusk. When the king emerged, Stock was surprised to find the tyrannical ruler he’d expected to be merely a small, fragile old man.
Stock’s plan, if it worked, would reap his rewards much faster than he expected. “The king has one leg in the grave already.”
Yet Stock didn’t have a chance to meet the old ruler, for he only remained in the hall for an hour before returning to his quarters, where no one but guards, servants, and the royal family were permitted.
“Why has he started court so late?” Stock asked a noblewoman. “And why close so soon?”
“Princess Isabelle has caught some strange affliction,” the noblewoman said. “No doctor or priest seems able to cure it. I heard she’s had it all her life, but only now has it become so bad that she’s bedridden and the king scarcely wishes to leave her side.”
Stock had an idea then—if the princess had caught an affliction, his box of freedom could free it. He hurried to the guards who watched the way to the castle’s inner quarters. “Sirs, I must see the king about his daughter,” he said.
“You don’t seem like much of a nobleman,” one guard said.
“In fact, you look a bit familiar,” said the other.
“I’m no nobleman, this is true,” Stock said. “I bought these clothes from the riches I’ve earned as a miraculous healer, recently moved here from distant lands, who has never been in this land before, and thus couldn’t possibly be recognized as anyone local.”
“You don’t seem like much of a healer either,” the first guard said. “But the king did say to send all such men like you to him and the princess. Off you go.”
Stock thanked the guards and hurried on. If the king had seen every man who promised to cure his daughter, then it was no wonder he was exhausted. The old man was likely losing hope and Stock anticipated he’d quickly agree to his terms of curing the princess. Guards pointed him along the way until he found a small chamber, smelling faintly of staleness and rot, where the king sat in a crooked chair next to a bed.
The princess lay on the bed, dressed in a beautiful yellow dress, bright as the sun, and yet somehow as dark and dingy as an algae-covered lake. Her face shined like the moon, and yet appeared gray and dying, like parched earth in a land suffering a drought. Stock could look at her and see the alluring young woman, but if he focused his eyes elsewhere, he noticed a heavier presence, as if Death itself sat on the princess’s chest.