Prisoner by Christopher Patterson
A Short Story
by Christopher Patterson
The constant dripping. Stale, moldy moisture collects in the far corner, clinging to the rough stone. When the stone can hold no more, when it has gorged itself on the sick, rancid water, it releases its feast in quick droplets. Drops. Dripping. Always dripping. Maddening drops, falling to their deaths. Falling. Madness. They fall, silently. Every explosion of dingy, sickening water launches deafening roars through my head. My head. The pain. The ripple of every splash. Pain. Rising in magnitude with every strike, every beat of the watery drum. I wish my skull would just explode. I wish I would just die. Then the noise would cease. But, no. No. it won’t stop. It won’t ever stop. It will follow me beyond the grave. I know it will. It’s my luck.
The pain swells inside my brain. It rolls to my neck. I can’t move. I can’t sit. I can’t stand. I can’t lie still. The pain. My neck to my shoulders. My shoulders to my back. My arms. My legs. They rattle with every explosion. My stomach twists. I retch, but I have nothing to vomit. The silent, deafening sound builds inside me, coalesces in a cruel orgy of pain. Torment. Torture.
I let it loose. The pain. The sound. I can’t hold it in anymore. It tears at me, rips at my stomach, wrenches my muscles. I have to let it go. I have to scream it out. I know how it must have sound. It must sound crazy, demented, but it is the only way. I scream. I scream at the walls. I scream at the ceiling. I scream at the tiny slit they call a window—the only proof the sun still existed. I scream at the heavy, wooden door. I scream the pain away. Gone. The pain is finally gone. The pain and the sound are gone. The dripping stops. But only for a moment.
The wooden heel of a baton whips across my face. The pain returns. The pain. The wood thuds into my ribs. Pain. Pain ripples through my body again. I try to gasp for air. My lungs burn. My body goes numb. And there it is. Thank you. I was waiting for it. Numbness. The first time it happened, I thought that was it. I thought I was done. Dead. The second time it happened, I thought that was it. I thought I was dead. The third time it happened, surely, that was the last. After a dozen times, I realized it would happen another dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times. Maybe it would stop at a thousand. No. It would never stop.
I curl up on the floor. On the scattered straw on the stone floor. I’m an animal. Nothing more. A beaten dog. I stare at my door. It’s not really my door. No, it was mine. I earned it. There is an opening in the door. There is a barred opening where people can look in. Where eyes can stare at me. Watch me. Study me. Most of the time, the eyes are blue. Sometimes they are green. Sometimes grey. They always stare. Judge. Undress me. They see through my tattered clothing. I’m an animal. A beast. Wild. Beaten into submission. Broken. Those eyes stared. I was a beast to those eyes. Those beautiful, blue, sapphire, cruel eyes.
Those eyes are there again—grey eyes. A whistle. The click of a tongue. I crawl to the door. Food scraps. Those eyes push them through the bars. It falls to the floor. I don’t know what it is. I can’t tell. It’s mostly green. Maybe a potato. It’s rotten. I’ll eat it anyway. And then…could it be. Maybe. Meat. Grey meat. The thought of chewing meat hurts my mouth. Hurts my teeth. How many do I have left? Half must’ve been gone by now.
I remember the time I lost my first tooth. I bit it. Those blue eyes stared at me for the first time. A soft, slender hand reached through those bars. Offered me food. I bit it. What do people say? Never bite the hand that feeds you. I bit it. I learned my lesson that night. Broken ribs. Broken arm. Broken jaw, I think. Those blue eyes came back. Those cruel, blue eyes. But their hand never gave me food again.
I am truly an animal. Some beast. A bird with clipped wings. I was once a man. Maybe. Maybe I still am. My manhood is still in there. Its hiding. Inside my soul. Do I still have a soul? No. Impossible. Beasts have no souls.
My soul had left. Escaped. Left me. It left me alone to hunt small, brown mice too unfortunate to find their way into my world. Left me to feed on beetles and fleas small enough to crawl under my rotting, wooden door. Left me to stick my tongue out over broken, yellowed teeth and strain for the small drops of sour water as they dripped from the darkness of my ceiling. The damned dripping. Dripping. Always dripping. Just stop. Stop. If it would just stop, I think I could die. I could die in quiet darkness. Quiet. Silence. That brings a smile to my face.
The damn dripping. The sound is trapped inside me again. I have to let it out. No. What will happen? I don’t know. I can’t hold it in. I have to scream. I breathe. The air is hot, thick, rank. It bites my lungs. It bites my nose. Rot. Death.
Was there anything else? Anything but damned dripping in the corner? Anything but the sound of bone breaking? Anything but curses spewed from hateful mouths in harsh languages? The smell of rot? The smell of death? The feeling of pain? Constant pain.
Yes. There were other things. I hear the babbling of a running river. I hear the song of a sparrow. I smell new rain. I feel fresh dirt between my fingers. I smell lavender. I feel a warm fire, a feather pillow, a woman’s skin. Somewhere in the distance.
“I need out! Help! Please! Make it stop! Help! Make it stop! Stop!”
His voice curses at me, the owner of those dead, grey eyes. I can’t understand his language, but he’s cursed me so many times, I know that’s what it is. Cursing after cursing after cursing. So much hate.
I feel the crunch of wood on my cheekbone. More pain. Knuckles on my chin. More pain. Wood again, this time on my shoulder. It brings me to my knees. A knee to my chest. A foot to my groin. I can’t breathe. Wood beats against my ribs. It’s like a chorus of drums, from one to another and back again. I feel it. I hear it. Something breaks, I’m sure of it. My vision narrows. Black gets blacker. Numb gets number. Silence gets quieter. I roll to my back. Looking up, I see his head, gleaming bald and sweaty in what little light my slit—my window—allows in. A dirty face. Dirty hands. I wonder if my face was that dirty. Dead, grey eyes. I wonder if my eyes look dead. I see his smile. It’s void of mirth. I hear his laugh. It’s void of humor. It’s worse than the dripping. Silence. Darkness.
Sleep. All the time. Sleep. Dreams. An escape. My escape. Again, I dream. Thank you, whatever god may be out there. Thank you for my dreams. I dream of a place, a meadow, a village. I’ve been there before. I know I have. I can’t remember when, but I’ve been there. How long? Three years. Four years. Five years. Maybe longer. I can’t remember. Damn me. I can’t remember. Time doesn’t exist here, in my cell, where I sleep. No summer rains. No winter winds. No springtime breezes. I know this place, in my dream. It’s in the north, near mountain foothills, near highlands. I see tall mountains to the north. By the heavens, they are so tall. They disappear into the clouds. Especially two of them. The Fangs. Yes, that’s their name—The Fangs. I’m in the north, with forests and farms. I’m in the north. In the north. North.
Nordeth. Yes. That’s where I am. Nordeth, long ago. I dream of a place…
I walk through a meadow. The dampness of cold grass tickles my feet. It’s always green here, the grass. Never brown. Never dead. I can smell the green. How does green smell? I don’t know, but I can smell it. Refreshing. Mint, freshly cut. The first rain of a late spring day. That’s how it smells. The dew clinging so hopefully to each blade of grass washes my feet, washes away a day’s worth of dirt. I pick yellow flowers. I will give them to her. Her. Who is she? I can’t remember. Damn it, I can’t remember. But I will give them to her anyways and she will love them and confess her love for me. They smell like her. How does she smell? Sweet. Not honey sweet. Not sugared candy sweet. No, sweet, like the budding flower. The mother’s garden. I suck the petals’ water up into my nostrils. It makes me cough.
I hear the low moan of a farm’s cattle. My father’s cows. They stand, grazing, wide and large, orange hair hanging down to the ground, stretching in the morning. I strain to see them through the morning fog. It’s thick. The smell of coming rain hangs in the fog. It makes me think it will not lift by noon as it did most days.
I walk into the sight of a family’s—my family’s—corral of thatched huts. I see my brothers and sisters, all younger, playing around my mother as she draws water from our well. Do I live here? Yes. I have lived here my whole life. I have lived here, tending my father’s farms. Every morning I wake to the low moan of a giant, orange-haired cow brushing its thistle-infested fur against the unsteady wall of my room. They seem to wake even before the chickens. I put on my pants and sown jerkin my mother made me, tie the cattle to the plow, and till the earth, as my father has taught me. He walks behind me, throwing out seed and picking weeds. If I go too slow, the small switch he holds in his callused hands stings the back of my leg, prompting me to speed up.
Today is the day. Today is the day we pull it up. That’s all I can think of. Then I see them. My father, my uncles, my two brothers old enough to help. They stand around a large stump, shoulder height, so wide two men couldn’t wrap their arms around it. The ancient oak that had marked my family’s farm for longer than our history could remember had died last winter. Today was the day we pulled its anchor—its stump and roots—from the ground. We will tie an iron chain around it, tie the chain the harness of a dozen oxen, and with all our might, we will pull it from the ground.
When I am done, I will walk down to the shore. It is not the shore of an ocean. I can remember that. It is the shore of a lake. A giant lake. I am going to check our nets, but I’m really going to meet her. Damn the Shadow, what is her name? She is there, hair a fire red, skin a milky white. She is swimming, naked. She should clothe herself as she sees me, but she doesn’t. She runs to me, runs into me, and our lips meet. We kiss, falling to the ground, and I can taste her. I had forgotten that taste, but I can taste her now. Her touch softens my muscles, her voice calms my heart. We steal away to a nearby cave, carved by wind and water ages ago. Skin presses against skin, fiery hair enfolds me like some blanket of protection, and we make love. Waves splash onto the shore. Water from the ceiling of our cave drips onto the stony floor. Drip. Drip. The constant dripping. That damned, constant dripping.
I dream of the day I left home. I dream of the day I left her. I see tears stream down her pale face. It’s a face too pretty for tears. I can hear her sobs. Miles away, I can still hear her sobs. Why did I leave? Duty to country, duty to family, duty to her. Stupidity. We traveled east, over a giant of a river. By the heavens, I can’t remember its name. It was so large a giant could drown in it. I learned how to fight. I learned to use my skills as a hunter, a bowman, and I survived. I made friends. I lost friends. I earned scars. And always, I thought of her. I would return to her. I never doubted, I would return to her.
When I finished my duty in the east, when I had seen more men die than any man should ever see, when I had killed more men than I could ever count, we sailed down that giant river, heading towards the ocean, heading towards some unknown destination. I thought I might return home, but duty had a different path for me.
The heavy splash of waves against the hull of the boat resounds through the air with rhythmic constancy. The flapping of the sails snaps the clean air like thunder with each deep gust of wind. It is not a glorious ship. It is not a ship really, but a simple boat taking men south, towards the ocean, towards their duty. I smell dirt. Rot. Death.
The sea sickness, the rope burns that peel away the skin on my palms, the harsh words of a fat captain accompanied by the occasional sting of his whip. Through them all I see her. I see her face silhouetted by fiery red hair. I see her lips and her soft white skin. I see her blue eyes. Blue, icy, eyes.
The echo of a thunderous explosion rocks my insides. I feel as if my stomach has turned upside down. I feel wetness on my ears. Blood. In the distance, I hear the explosions of water drops on stone floor. I see black. Then red. A narrow point widens as my vision returns. Screams. So much screaming. “Rebels! Pirates! Slavers!”
All bad. Hot tears burn my cheeks. I feel the icy touch of iron around my wrists and ankles. How can something so cold burn so hot? I’m on another boat. I can’t see, but I can feel the water, hear the slapping of waves. I touch ground again—hard stone, cobbled streets. It hurts my feet. Rocks cut into the soft tissue of my soles. They bleed. I still walk. I have to walk. Pointed iron in my back and thick wood to the back of my legs force me to walk. I walk for days. My soles wear thin. I feel the iron on my wrist wear to the bone.
I hear voices, but I can’t see who speaks them. The bag over my head prevents that. Languages I don’t know. Eastern languages. The sack is removed. I see black hair, brown eyes, and pale faces. I see a copper penny exchange hands, and I feel hard wood on the back of my head. Darkness. What injustice have I committed? What crime? A copper penny. Is that all I’m worth—a copper penny? I could shoot an arrow through the eye of a man from a hundred paces. I could throw two spears at once. I could slay a score of men with only my long sword. And all I am worth is a copper penny?
The house is opulent. White stone smooth to the touch. Golden statues. Mirrors of polished silver. Fountains that spew wine instead of water. And fields. Fields of rice and corn and wheat, fields of cotton and beans. I am meant for the fields. There are other slaves. Dozens, hundreds, a thousand maybe. My owner is a small man, old and rich. He hasn’t worked a day in his life. He has ten wives, two dozen children. All of them are weak. They are bloated with wealth. And my life is only worth a copper penny to them.
That angers me. I am defiant. I fight. I grew up fighting. My father taught me to be a fighter. Not some broken beast, not some bird with clipped wings, not some slave. I remember the feel of leather across my back. I remember the feel of my hands around the man’s throat. His soft skin under my hard hands. One of his sons.
The beatings didn’t kill me. The starvation didn’t kill me. It broke me, but didn’t kill me. Which is worse?
Murderer. Instigator of riots. Another hood. Darkness. The sound of iron keys. The sound of heavy wood moving along a stone floor. And there is my cell. I wait for the noose. The axe. It never comes.
They have forgotten.
There is my cell. My home. Through the blackness, I see her face. Her blue eyes. Icy, blue, eyes.
I see the ceiling of my cell. I hear the dripping. Dripping. Dripping. The damned dripping. I can hear the skittering of feet, mouse feet, along the stone floor. I hear a thumping. Thump. Thump. Thump. I feel pressure in my side, an ache, a dull pain. I realize he’s beating me, that baton falling, again and again. I don’t care. I turn my head. There they are. Blue eyes. Icy, blue eyes. Watching through the opening in the door. They smile. How can eyes smile? I don’t know, but they do. Are they mocking me, laughing at my pain? No. I see the latch to my cell door lift slowly, softly. Blue eyes. Icy, blue eyes. I see the door crack open, slowly, quietly. Blue eyes. Icy, blue eyes. Is it her? I smell her, taste her, feel her, hear her. I lift my hand. The baton strikes it. My fingers close around the smooth wood. I look into those dead, grey eyes as he tries to pull his weapon back.
Enough is enough. I am tired of dreams. I am tired of beatings. I am tired of dripping. Dripping. Dripping. That damned dripping.
I wrench the baton away, push him away with my other hand. I stand. How long has it been since I’ve fully stood? He looks at me. I can see his anger. His hate.
“What did I do to you?”
I tried speaking those words, but they caught in my throat, a hissing rasp. He charges. I am ready. I remember. I remember my training. I push an outstretched arm aside with my free hand, lift a knee to his stomach, drop that foot to the top of his foot. He trips, stumbles, falls.
“You are dead.”
I don’t think I said that either. I tried. His face is buried in hay, in my bed, my filth, my dirt. He’s getting up. I pounce. My hand goes to the back of his head. I push his face deeper. He struggles. I slide the baton across his throat, grip it with both hands, and pull back. He arches. I hear his gurgling. He reaches back, scraping, punching, grabbing. I shove a knee into his back. I pull as hard as I can. He stops. Darkness. Silence. Death. Even the dripping stops. No more dripping. Good.
I turn him over. I see his eyes. Nothing has changed. They were already dead. I cover him with hay. I turn. The eyes. The icy, blue eyes. They belong to someone. A woman. Is it her? The fiery hair? The pale skin?
No. Her skin is pale, but her hair is black. She is shorter. She is slenderer. She wears a silver necklace and gold rings. She smiles. Why? Her eyes. Her blue, icy eyes. They smile, too.
She is strong. That much her eyes share. Is she my new master? Was it her hand I once bit? Is she the reason behind my hell? I could beat her. I could rape her. I could kill her. Yet, she stands before me, defiant. She says something to me. It’s one of the languages of the east. I don’t understand. I shake my head. She opens the door and moves to the side. Freedom.
I walk past her. She smiles and gently lifts a finger. A ring of keys. I don’t understand. Why? I don’t understand any of this. I should stop asking questions. I take them. The cold keys are heavy. They clang against one another. They are a beacon, a gong, a deafening bell. They ring of summer rains. They ring of winter winds. They ring of springtime breezes. They ring of grass on my feet. They ring of freedom.
The hallway is a tomb. It is silent and smells of death. Every ten feet is another door. Five doors one way. Four the other. I remember. I remember scraping my hand along the wall. I remember these doors, when I first arrived. One, two, three, four, stop. The creak of heavy oak. The sack is finally lifted from my head and then my cell. Four doors. I go the way of four doors.
The end of the hall. A spiral staircase down into darkness. I am shaking. My stomach hurts. Is this right? Yes. I walked up and up and up. I walked up cold stone steps for an eternity.
Slowly, I walk down. The almost silent pitter-patter of my feet against the steps is cat-like. The silence of the hunt. Little torches light my way. They cast faint light. Enough light, though. My eyes are used to the darkness. It seems an eternity, and then, the bottom.
A man stands at the bottom. He is large and bald, like the other guard. I grip the wooden baton in my hand tight. Raise it up. Bring it down. It thumps against his head like a rolling pin beating dough. He slumps against the wall. Three more times. A hard skull becomes a pulp of red meat, tenderized for the stone oven. I hiss. I spit. His leg shakes. His foot twitches. I slip into darkness.
Sunlight. Sunlight peers into my eyes from a small hole in a door. It blinds me. I slide a key into the lock. I turn it. Wrong one. Another. Wrong one. Another. Wrong one. Another. I hear a click. The door gives way. It is heavy. I push hard.
I gasp. I can’t breathe. Every breath I take hurts my lungs, burns my throat. Heavy, labored breaths drive a sharp pain through my chest. The sun burns my face. It is so hot, as if someone pressed an iron mask heated to white hotness to my face. I feel my heart stop. I feel goose pimples rise along my arms. I feel hair lift at the back of my neck. I feel tears in my eyes.
My hand touches the ground. Dirt. I have not felt dirt in…I cannot remember the last time I touched dirt. It was in my dreams. I run. I run as fast as I can. My feet hit cobbled stone. People stare at me.
I escape to an alley. Less open. Less people. My back is against a wall. I survey my surroundings, a soldier’s instinct still there, somewhere. I see faces. So many faces. So many eyes. My tears burn my eyes. I can feel their redness. When was the last time I cried? I smile. At least I can still cry. At least I can still feel something. At least I am still a man. I raise my hands. Whoever is up there, whatever is up there, whatever god that could have done this, I thank.
Those faces stare at me. I realize I am almost naked. I steal a robe from a sleeping vagabond in the alley. It is only a little better, but it will do. I will stand out, I know. I am taller than most of those who walk by me. My hair is blonde and theirs is black as night. My eyes are blue and theirs are brown or grey. But this will do for now.
Tall buildings. The stink of a city. Horse filth, goat filth, people filth. The din of voices thunder through the air. It’s deafening. But better than the dripping. That damn dripping. Horse shoes on cobbled streets. Wooden wheels. Criers shouting their wares. So many voices. So many languages. Eastern languages.
I remember someone saying something about the entrances to eastern cities. Their main gates always face east. I will go west. To a smaller gate. Less people. Less eyes. I look up. Noon. Damn. Which way is west? I will be able to tell soon, but can I wait that long?
I step back into the street. A horse cuts me off. It pulls a wagon. A man sits high on the wagon seat. He looks down on me. He wears heavy robes, but he looks tall, broad shouldered. He wears a straw hat, but I can tell his hair is like mine. Blonde. He wears a thick beard. He almost looks like my father.
I hear bells in the distance. I hear shouting. What do those voices say? It’s a language I don’t understand. But then I hear it, in my language, in Westernese.
“Escape! Murderer! Escape! Escape! A murderer has escaped!”
I look up at the man on the wagon. He sees the scars on my wrists. He sees the dirt on my face. He sees a tear well up in the corner of my eye. He sees me shake. I know it. He leans forward.
What do I say? Do I answer yes? What do I say?
“Yager?” He asks again, soft, in a whisper.
If I say yes, is it back to my cell? Is it worse?
“Yager?” More assertive. More forceful.
I feel this might be the last time he asks the question. I look at him, look at his eyes. Blue, icy eyes. I nod.
He hops down. I grip the baton hard. He grabs my elbow and helps me up to the wagon seat. He sits next to me and flicks his reins. The horses begin to trot away.
“Freedom, eh,” he says, glaring through a squinted eye.
The tear finally drops along my cheek. I close my eyes and feel fresh air on my face, welcome it for the first time. I grind a blade of grass between my thumb and forefinger. It stains my skin green. I smell it. I smile. I hear the hooves against the ground, the wooden wheels turn over and over again. The man gives me water. It hurts my teeth. I drink more. He gives me an apple. It’s so sweet. It hurts my teeth too. After a while, I look over my shoulder. I can see the shadow of a city, far away. I decide to say nothing, not to ask this man’s name, not to ask where they were going, but I couldn’t help it.
If you enjoyed “Prisoner” make sure to check out A Chance Beginning: Book One of the Shadow’s Fire Trilogy and Dark Winds: Book Two of the Shadow’s Fire Trilogy.
Make sure you also visit Christopher Patterson’s website at www.christopher-patterson.com and also make sure you sign up for his monthly newsletter where you can keep up to date with what’s going on in his world, his articles and blogs, get access to freebies, and experience promotional material. You can sign up for Christopher Patterson’s email newsletter at http://eepurl.com/b5AUa1