Leaves crunched and twigs snapped as Marcus ran through the woods. Although he couldn't see his pursuers because of the dark, he knew they were close. As he reached a clearing in the forest his foot got caught in a root. His life flashed in front of his eyes as he fell flat on his face. A scarce 9 years. He quickly got up and scrambled downhill through the clearing till he reached a quaint town. He knew he wouldn't be pursued in public and knocked on the first door he could find.
He rapped the door until a middle-aged man let him in. The man seemed to be wearing a mask fashioned from wood. Marcus recognized this mask since it was usually worn during religious customs, especially by the royal families.
"What do you want at this ungodly hour of the night boy?" croaked the man with a more than subtle tone of anger.
Marcus pantingly explained that he was being hunted and needed a place to hide. The man seemed to be empathetic towards Marcus and hushed him in. Marcus sat down on the wooden floor and caught his breath. He gulped a glass of water generously offered by the man who was serving him with a skeptical but concerned look.
"Where are you from?" asked the man.
"Stratton" replied Marcus gasping for air.
"That's far away from here. Who’s been hunting you?" he inquired.
Marcus took a pause and looked at the man—he could only see his eyes through the slit in the mask but he felt like he could trust him—"Slave owners" replied Marcus.
The man seemed to understand the situation immediately. Slavery had been banished from their land but it didn't stop wealthy royals from keeping captives.
"Sleep here for the night, we'll find a way out for you" said the man.
"Thank you very much sir. May I know your name?" asked Marcus.
"Aurelius'' he said as he blew out the lantern.
Marcus was fairly nervous the next day. He expected the hunters to bust down the door and handcuff him any moment. He hid in Aurelius' basement while he was out cutting wood for the fireplace. The day was pretty uneventful and both of them indulged in some small talk by the fire. Apparently, Aurelius wore the wooden mask at all times since his face had been scorched in a house fire. Marcus noticed that Aurelius wasn't much of a talker. He felt obliged to offer some backstory to the man who had saved his life.
"My father sold me as a slave." Marcus said.
The fire was burning brightly but the room got fairly colder.
"That's what the buyer told me" he continued "I think they’re liars. My Daddy would never do that to me." said Marcus with assurance in his voice.
Aurelius did nothing except nod. As the night got darker they both drifted off to sleep by the fire.
"Come Marcus let's play in the woods" said a giggling girl’s voice. Marcus was suddenly woken up by Aurelius. "Must've had a bad dream boy you were stirring in your sleep like a madman" said Aurelius and went into another room. Marcus tried to remember his dream as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. He was sure it wasn't a nightmare but his head hurt from the vain effort—he could remember nothing.
Aurelius shouted out to Marcus and called him into the other room. "Sit down here." he said while pointing at a wooden chair. Marcus took a seat and Aurelius explained how he had been looking for a servant and since Marcus had nowhere to go he wanted to offer the job to him.
"It may not look like it but I am getting old so I need an extra pair of hands. All you need to do is take care of small chores and go to the market once a week. What do you say?" Aurelius asked.
Marcus thought for a moment. Aurelius was right about Marcus not having another place to go to. He figured that he would stay and work for Aurelius till his father came to find him and accepted the job offer.
Aurelius told him some rules that he needed to follow.
"When people come to visit me you will never talk to them." Aurelius said.
"If ever asked what goes inside this house you will act as if you know nothing. You will also never go to the basement."
Aurelius said the last rule in such a stern tone that Marcus was convinced that the basement was not to be meddled with.
Things went smoothly for the next three months. All Marcus had to do was take care of household work like cleaning and stocking up on vegetables and meat. He noticed that people would visit Aurelius from faraway villages with concerned looks on their faces. As instructed Marcus never spoke a word to them. Whenever they came Aurelius would take them to a secluded room and bring a book from the locked basement. Marcus did not know what went on inside the room as he was too scared to peek. After a while, they would leave looking dazed and Aurelius would deposit the book back into the basement. This went on for quite a few months but their next visitor brought shock to Marcus.
Aurelius opened the door to a tall man with tanned skin and brown slicked-back hair wearing some rather expensive clothes. As soon as Marcus caught a glimpse of him he immediately ducked below the dining table. It was the slave owner who had bought him from his father. Or so he said. Marcus tried to breathe as silently as he could partly due to fear and partly because he wanted to listen to their conversation. Aurelius and the man exchanged a few words and the man made his way to the secluded room. Marcus noticed that unlike their other visitors this man did not look concerned or sad in the slightest bit. He walked to the room with a smug look on his face and locked the door behind him. Marcus caught Aurelius as he was opening the basement. "That man, do you know him?" asked Marcus. "Yes, he's a local royal, Lord Raspen. He owns a lot of land not far from here. Why do you ask?". Marcus recounted his story and said that the man inside was the one who bought him as a slave.
Marcus could not see Aurelius' expression through the mask but he seemed to be in thought. He told Marcus to go hide in another room and to not come out till he called him. Marcus went and hid in the room for a few minutes but he couldn't get over the trepidation. Silently, he made his way to the room. He could only hear muffled voices through the door and after a few moments of consideration, he opened the door ever so slightly. It seemed that their conversation had ended and Marcus could only see the back of Aurelius' head. He was writing something in his book which he then shut. Marcus quickly ran to the other room and waited till the slave owner had left.
When he was sure that everything was normal he stepped out of the room and confronted Aurelius. "What did that man have to do with you?" asked Marcus. Aurelius took a few moments to think. "It seems that I owe you an explanation about my work." said Aurelius. He told him about the bad things that existed in the world —things that people did for power and money. He further explained that they needed someone to confide in. Someone who would be a conduit to vent their guilt — a path of purgatory. He explained that he was that path, a "confession taker". The books were a place for those confessions, a place where the person’s guilty conscience could be put to peace. "When I write their confessions in this book, it erases their sins from this world. Anything incriminating and any speck of guilt is washed away. Only this book knows their true selves and no one else". Aurelius let his words hang in the air for some time before opening the basement and disappearing in the dark.
TO BE CONTINUED...