Chapter 1: Into The Abyss
Into the Abyss
"Please," I beg in the home tongue of the men, "Please, you can't!"
My grasp of their language is very limited, but it's clear by their reply that I'll find no favor with them. One man holds each of my arms, and a third begins to fashion a knot from a ragged rope and loop it securely around my waist, so tight i can feel it burning into my skin. Tears prick my eyes; this is easily the most terrifying experience of my life, even more so than what I am condemned to this living hell for.
I scream, beginning to feel faint underneath the beating desert sun, eyes blurred by the flush of water within them, then cry "no, please! Please, no!"; variations of the two spurting desperately from my lips as I fight against the three soldiers. "You can't!" I scream in my own language, "no, you can't do this, I did nothing, I saw nothing!"
My pleas for mercy come too late; the two officers holding me drag me to the edge of the well-like structure, holding me tightly even as I struggle and pray for some kind of mercy, be it through the hand of God or anyone else. Their leader stands in front of me, looks me dead in the eyes and mutters some words to me in a language I can't understand. I make out nothing but my name, and realise that this it it; this is my condemnation. The man stands back, nods to either of his men and I feel the grip on my forearms tighten.
"No, no, no!" I scream, throwing every vow, plea for mercy and promise I can at the three men, burning with shame at how pathetic i must look. Pull yourself together, some stronger part of me says, but the adrenaline and sheer absurdity of the situation I've been flung into diminish those thoughts like a candle left outside in a thunderstorm. I feel myself being tipped slowly backwards and scream louder; by some miracle their leader calls to them and I'm pulled forwards to firm ground.
Is this happening? they're not going to-?
Relief floods me and I thank the man in a groveling manner, uncontrollable tears streaming ribbons down my cheeks; he steps forwards and reaches a hand out to me. The hand finds my collar and slips underneath the metallic chain around my neck, which holds a semi-precious gemstone- some kind of quartz, If i remember. Confused, I go to speak, but before I can there's a sharp jab of pain as he tugs the chain, breaking a link and stealing it from my flustered neck. Too aghast to speak, I frown for a second as he examines the necklace, before waving his hand around the stagnant air dismissively; the two lesser officers holding me proceed to tip me from the edge again. I scream ever more, terror pumping through my veins and merging with the adrenaline, fighting to get them off whilst trying my best to keep my dragging feet from leaving the dusty ground.
Without warning the floor leaves me and I am falling; only for a millisecond, but the jolt inside me makes it feel like a lifetime. I cling to the threadbare rope tied around my waist as though it were the most precious thing on Earth, when only moments ago I had been desperately trying to rid myself of it. I look ahead to find my face only inches from the rough stone wall; looking up, I find I'm barely a meter or so below the rim of the pit. I reach up for it with one hand, tears blurring my vision, but it's no use. My hand soon returns to grasp to the rope as the line begins to be lowered, to descend into the blackness of the pit.
I risk a glance downwards. As I look, I see nothing but the solid black, never-ending and eternal. I watch with wet eyes as the light of the sun begins to turn from me, casting shadows over my face and along the crumbling walls. It seems to go on forever. Man's Damnation, I'd heard it called by the others when I had been held in the prison, the Eternal Fire by others. Hell on Earth, Home of Demons... the list was as never-ending as the abyss itself. And as the last few seconds of my freedom are stolen from me, I do nothing but concentrate on that dimming sun, savoring its sweet light.
My feet land against the hard ground quicker than I had expected. Even through my light sandals, I can feel its sharp pang through me, sparking a pain up through the backs of my ankles. I try my hardest to climb the rope out of sheer desperation, but just as I get a firm footing it is released and I shoot back to the ground, causing both my ankles to click painfully. The silhouettes of the three officers disappear over the edge of the abyss; my pitiful cries for release die within minutes, and I gradually become aware of a hushed mumbling.
Slowly, I turn myself from the wall of the chamber and look out to see a sea of men of all ages; dead men, I think. There is no light here, no life. All are wearing grey peasant's rags, many with unshaven faces and hollowed cheeks. I stare at them, dumbstruck, and they stare back. Behind them I can see the less inquisitive moving in the ant-like structure of the prison, drooped shoulders swinging as they wander around aimlessly like forgotten ghosts. A fight seems to have broken out in one corner, but no-one pays it any attention; all are focused on me. The attention makes my guts twist. Some of the men look at me with mild interest, some with confusion, others still with a sickening gaze I can only describe as hunger.
It is then I realize; they already have me sized up. A weak little girl, terrified and confused. I curse myself for begging the escorting officers for release earlier. I know that I have to show myself to be stronger than that, in order to get by in this place, if this pit really is to be my forever. Stand my ground, make the first move. Show them that I am not afraid, regardless of how I feel inside. I harden my stance and raise my head, clutching my fingers to stop them shaking. As I am forming the right words to say in my head, I notice movement in the back of the crowd. It distracts me from my thoughts, and in a moment the figure is at the front of the group. I frown at the face for a moment, hidden by layers of a burlap-type fabric. He does not halt at the front, however; he continues towards me.
I take a half-step back, ready for defensive speech or action, but in less than a second he is upon me and has me lifted by the waist, kicking and screaming in both my language and his, and throws me briskly over his shoulder. I curse at him in both out native tongues, beating my fists against his muscular back, desperate for release. None of the other prisoners so much as move, and as I grow more desperate I feel my eyes start to bleed again with salty tears.
"Put me down, Let me go!" I roar, aiming for the man's covered head as he jostled me up a crumbling flight of stairs. At the top of it, I can make out a ring of cells circling the open orifice, and the man carries me roughly down the curving corridor, passing several men as he goes.
"Help!" I scream at each of them, and although chances are they cannot understand my foreign cry, that gives no credit to the fact that they do nothing. At the end of one strip of cells, the man carrying me paws in his pockets and draws out a brass key, greening like copper and dented from years of use. He heads to the barred door of the second cell from the right, digs the key into the lock and struggles with it for a moment as it gets stuck. I try to use this opportunity to escape, striking at him with all four of my limbs, but he merely shuffles me along the blades of his shoulders as to get a better grip. Panicked, I give another shrill scream as the door clicks open and the man carries me inside.
In a second I find myself flung down on a low cot of a bed, and the man heads back to the doors of his cell and moves to lock them, the key proving difficult again. I suss him out; he's got to be at least a good four stone heavier than me on pure muscle, and his height serves to be quite intimidating. Strength-wise, I stand no chance. So, instead, I take the last few seconds left to search the room for a close-range weapon. I don't have the chance to grab something before the lock clicks. I spring to my feet as the man turns to face me.
"Don't touch me," I snarl in my own tongue, and then a firm "no," in his own. The man approaches slowly and I back father up, the backs of my knees touching the wood of the prison cot. My speech turns into mindless babble and my heart thuds blindingly as he gets closer, his large form shadowing mine. I raise my hands in defense screeching something between a plea and an insult. His hands clamp either side of my shoulders and he pushes down on them so that I'm forced in a sitting position on the bed.
No, I think resiliently, attempting to stand and clawing at him, but his grip is too firm and he simply shoves me down again. I wrap my forearms over his, trying to keep him away, still shouting at him desperately.
"This would be far simpler," he says with an earthly growl, "if you would just calm down."
I stop struggling a moment, surprised that he speaks my language. His speech sounds utterly natural, not learned, and the accent seems familiar. My grip on his forearms stays tight as I watch him, breath heavy and eyes wide whilst he lowers himself to his knees in front of me. Hands still on my shoulders, he bends to one knee before the cot and slowly lifts his hands from my skin.
My eyes lock onto the space where his should be as he reaches for the fabric covering the top of his head. Slowly, as if he is dealing with a frightened animal, he removes the cloth and a head of mid-brown hair is revealed, cropped short but still sticking out unruly at the sides and crown. The hand moves to the bandanna before and he tugs it down to reveal his face.
I stare engagingly, awe-struck by what I see. I had been expecting the face of a hungry predator, harsh and rough, but instead I had been met with this; young, soft features, only his jawline betraying this conformity. Stubble grazes his high cheekbones, and equally highly arched eyebrows frame his dark eyes, which now look demanding and alert rather than dangerous. We stare at each other for what feels like an eternity, before he seems to decide that I am at last calm. He stands and turns his back on me, shrugging off his threadbare coat to reveal muscular arms. His physique isn't... enormous, but his form is definitely not one to be trifled with, either. I sit completely still as he moves around the small room, shuffling things around for no apparent reason, running his hand through his hair twice before turning back to me. We stare at each other again.
"What do you want?" I managed eventually, my voice bitter and judgmental.
"Oh, isn't that nice," he says a little whimsically, an uninvited laugh taking prestige in his voice. He turns his back on me again and grabs hold of two of the cell bars. "I save you from a rabble of rapists and generally unsavory folk and tat is the best you can manage. A simple 'thank you' would have sufficed."
I can tell there is a trace of spiteless humor engraved in his voice, but remain wary.
"You speak my language," I say, expressing my surprise, though it sounds almost accusing.
"Yes," he states, "as do you." He is still facing the outside of the cell, flexing his muscles against the bars. I have to stop myself from staring at them in intimidated awe. "Are you hungry?" He asks, and as if on cue there's a sharp pang in my stomach. I take a second before nodding, then realise he cannot see me and clear my throat.
"Yes," I manage after a couple of choked attempts. Pulling the key from out of his pocket, he jabs it in the lock and opens the cell before turning and throwing the key to me. Still on the defensive, the simple motion shocks me and I miss it- it lands with a clatter on the stone floor.
"Lock yourself in," says the man, stepping out into the curved stone corridor. I pick the key up from where it has landed and watch him walk away before standing to do as he said. I push the jagged bronze into the lock and twist it awkwardly, creating a barrier between myself and the men of the prison. I stand still for a few minutes, waiting for my heart to stop racing, and eventually turn back to the room and give it a glance over.
Two cots, pushed up against each other to make one double bed. Several cardboard boxes stacked upon each other to act as a dressing table, upon which stands two books, a wooden bowl, two spatula-like utensils and a Stanley knife. At the back of the cell is a rag of fabric draped across a sill, and I pull it back curiously to see a dug-out area, at the back of which is a toilet.
I turn to see that the man is back, one arm against the bars, the other holding a wooden bowl filled with some sort of porridge. He looks at me expectantly, and I watch his eyes with caution.
"Not going to let me in?" He says after a few moments.
I glance at him and then at the key, which is still in my grasp.
"No." I say finally, taking a step back.
"My own cell," he mumbles to himself with a shake of the head. and then, "do you not trust me?"
I shake my own head wearily. "Of course I don't."
"A smart woman." He slumps to the floor with his back against the bars of the cell. "I suppose I shall just have to eat this myself, then. And seeing as you plan on staying in there forever, I suppose you shall just have to starve to death slowly."
He has a point.
"You... you wouldn't let me starve?" I say, realising that it sounds more like a question than the statement is was supposed to be.
The man turns his head back and catches my gaze. "Try me."
I know nothing about this man, and he may have forcefully carried me off to his den, but he is the only person here so far who has shown me any sort of kindness, saving me from whatever horrors would have befell me with the rest of the men. Plus, I think, he has food, which certainly doesn't stand to his disadvantage.
I stand and put the key in the lock. He copies my movement on cue and comes back inside, taking the key and re-locking the door behind us. He pours half of the porridge mix into the wooden bowl on the make-shift table and hands it to me, along with one of the wooden spatulas. I take it quietly, and watch as he places his own down before grabbing the end of one of the low beds and dragging it to the other side of the room, creating a causeway between the two. He gestures for me to sit on the one to my left and he takes the right.
Sat opposite each other, both of us begin to eat the sludge. I awkwardly dip the spatula into the gloop and try to lift some onto it, but it simply slips away; I do the same again, grimacing at the unsightly mixture and fail once more. I give a quick glance up at the mystery man to see if I am somehow doing it wrong; he is using exactly the same method, only for him it is working.
"You'll get used to that," he says without looking up, just as I manage to get some on the spatula. I carefully lift it to my mouth and take it in; it is cold and bland, the texture as unpleasant as its grayish colour. I suck in my cheeks a little to try to stop it swishing around sickeningly, my expression clearly one of disdain.
"You'll get used to that, too," says the man through a stifled chuckle. Half a bowl of grey porridge later and neither of us had said a word in at least twenty minutes- it is definitely not the easiest dish to swallow. I work words around in my mouth between the flecks of porridge, eventually settling on three of them.
"What's your name?" I ask quietly, looking up over the bowl at him. He stares at me for a second as though he thinks I was asking someone else, then realises the question must be for him, and mutters something not quite distinguishable enough through a mouthful of mush.
"Cain?" I say, "like Cain and Abel?"
He shakes his head and swallows, rolling the fingers of his unoccupied hand.
"With a 'B'."
I think on it a moment, but no names come to mind. At least not any I've ever heard.
"...'Bane'?" I try, half-joking. He nods without so much as looking up, taking up another scoop of porridge skilfully on his eating utensil. I nod as well, wondering if he's having me on. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. "...Unusual."
"And yours?" He asks, and I tell him my name.
"Also unusual," he says. There is more silence, then he glances at me again. "So why are you in here?" He asks.
I swallow hard, not just the ill-made porridge making me sick now.
"I saw something I shouldn't have seen," I respond, leaving the answer as vague as possible. The man- Bane- doesn't push the subject. He leaves it a few minutes before stating,
"You've killed a man."
I look up at him in surprise. "No I didn't," I say bluntly. "That's not what-"
"Yes, you did," he corrects. "That's what you are to tell anyone who asks. In fact, you killed two men. Stabbed them both because they... murdered your brother."
"I don't have a brother."
"No one else needs to know that," he reasons, pleased with his story. "Physically you are not the most imposing character," the man- Bane, I remind myself again- drawls. "You are a little less likely to be harassed if they think you're more than capable of looking after yourself."
I am, I think, but then brush aside that thought as foolishness. After all, without this man- this stranger- where would I be now? I hate to think of it.
"Okay," I say, and he nods in approval.
"Time to sleep,I think," he says, putting his empty bowl on the cardboard-box tower. Still slightly mistrustful of the man, I watch him for a moment until he speaks. "Well, are you not tired?" He asks, and I give it some thought- yes, I'm utterly shattered. In fact, it's been three nights since I actually slept solidly- four days of train travel in handcuffs surrounded by heavily-armed men shouting at me in words I can't understand followed by two nights cuffed in a warehouse with five other captives hardly bodes for the most comfortable setting. Then again, the prison environment isn't exactly better.
"Then go to sleep," he instructs, lying down on top of his own bed and turning to face the wall. I feel glad of this, as it means I can watch him without suspicion. "Goodnight," he says finally, letting out a yawn that catches onto me. My eyes water as it does, and I curl my flowing skirt slightly higher so I can use it as a blanket. I feel grateful for the heavy gypsy skirt they issued me the day my fate was decided.
It is cool in the cell as opposed to the heat of the main ring where the dying sun shines down. I look out through the shaded columns to see the pit, still filled with men bustling left and right, now having a dull orange glow. I sit like that for a few minutes, just watching the prison. A few men pass by the cell, those who bother to look in staring in surprise as they realized it is inhabited by a woman. One man gives a sickening wink- by the looks of him he is old enough to have been my father twice over. These worrying glances are what cause me to discern that sleep would be the best option. I lie flat against the modest cot, my head tilted towards the man with the strange name.
'A simple thank you would have sufficed.'
I dwell on this for a while, and then,
He gives a half-drowsy groan of acknowledgement.
"Thank you," I say, and he gives a similar groan, his breathing slowly developing into a snore as he falls asleep.
I pinch my eyes shut, breathing heavily, and try to stay mute as tears begin to flow down my cheeks.