“Please, spare him, he’s only a boy.”
“You know the rules, you both know the rules. You broke the law so he must be punished.”
“No, please, punish me, I’m the one who stole it, not him.”
“That doesn’t matter.” He turned to the young boy, “You can place your hand there yourself, or we can do it for you.” The boy slowly moved his hand outward and placed it onto the stump. The guard nodded approvingly, “You are brave. That will serve you well in life.” Without warning he swung the axe down, it cut through the boys wrist with ease, lodging into the stump with a loud thunk. The boys screams drowned out the cries of his brother. The guard looked down at the boy, who was still screaming. “Remember you’ve no one else to blame but your brother.” Someone stepped forward, the boy was cradling his bloody wrist against his chest, blood gushing from the wound and staining his t-shirt, the man grabbed the boys wrist and quickly placed a red hot sheet of metal against it. The smell of burning flesh filled the clearing. The guard looked at the eldest, “You may go now. If we catch you stealing again we will take his other hand too. After that his feet.” The eldest nodded, tears dripping down his face. The two boys stumbled off, the eldest supporting the youngest as they went. The guard looked after them, long after they had disappeared into the trees. He sighed to himself, he felt guilty, though it wasn’t his fault. Both knew of the laws and had chosen to break them. He knew that the eldest would be beaten close to death when he returned home, assuming he had a home. It wouldn’t be the first time they had come across the body of a thief, covered in cuts and bruises, arms and legs jutting out at impossible angles. He looked at the men around him, “gather your things, we head back to the city in ten minutes.” They nodded and got to work.
The walk to the city didn’t take long, maybe thirty minutes. The thieves always ran, some thought the forest would provide protection, they were wrong. Those who ran into the trees were the easiest to track. No one went into the deep woods, it was too dangerous, most would stay towards the edges, where there was still plenty of light. The boys had gone further than most, but the guard knew that was just foolishness on their part. If they had run in the city they might have made it, all those filth covered children started to look alike, wearing the same threadbare clothes with grime coated faces. Not that that would stop some of the others from dispensing their own kind of justice. He had seen more than a few grab a child at random and blame them for what ever crime had been committed.
As they passed through the city people scurried from their way, some of the homeless stared at them with open hate, most were missing limbs. He didn’t blame them for their hatred, he would have hated himself too had he been in their position. But it was the only way to keep law and order in the world, to ensure people treated each other with respect, to stop people breaking the law. Well, most people. Some just didn’t care. It wasn’t them being punished, so they felt like they were getting away with it. They were always easy to spot. They wouldn’t flinch as the axe came down, they’d have slight smirks. They were the worst. Most of them would eventually be forced into the deep woods, none returned.
The palace rose above the skyline of the city, every inch of it covered in bright shining metal, creating a blazing beacon that glowed in the sunlight. It truly was spectacular, built thousands of years ago and still standing, as clean and beautiful as the day it was built. They would report the incident to the head of the guards, then head back out on patrol. He could feel the guilt rising, again he wondered if he was suited to the job, maybe it wasn’t for him after all, but he had no choice. His father was a guard and his grandfather, going back generations. If he quit his father would never speak to him again, nor would his mother for that matter. He climbed the glittering palace steps, he was too old to get an apprenticeship anywhere and he couldn’t afford to start his own business, he was stuck, it was a guard or become one of those homeless people that lined the streets, losing limbs one by one.