Chapter 17: Of Mice and Men
Colin wriggled up against the dungeon wall as he sat on the wet stone floor and a rat scurried in front of his feet. The hay in the dank cell smelled of urine and feces. How much time had passed? He looked up at the ceiling of the small stone room and the tiny barred window overhead. There was only darkness. He heard the hustle and bustle of people overhead on some distant street, the angry voices of a mob muffled by stone and distance still made their way to his ears. But the world here in the dungeon was as quiet as a tomb. Only shadows, cast from the torchlight, played across the stone walls. It could be midnight or morning, only the darkness knew for sure.
Alexandra paced in the cell next to him, chewing her lip. The dying embers of a nearby torch barely lit the end of the long hallway. Colin could just make out the silhouette of a triple-locked door, no doubt leading to the upper hallways. Few of the other cells were occupied. He heard soft snoring across the way, and a woman weeping quietly from the shadows farther down. Colin glanced at Alexandra, still pacing in the cell adjacent to him. “What time is it?”
She ignored his question for a moment before turning to him, “Does it matter?” She returned to her thoughts.
Colin watched the shadows of the bars flicker against the dungeon walls. “Eternal night, right. I guess it wouldn’t.”
Somewhere water dripped and echoed. Colin wondered if his mom had died in her hospital bed, alone, too delirious to even realize he wasn’t there.
Alexandra tried her cell door again. It rattled but remained solid. “You couldn’t have gone back, could you? You couldn’t have left well enough alone.” She dropped her hands and glared at him.
Colin sighed and looked up. “Samuel told me to deliver the message, not you.”
“You had no message to deliver!” Alexandra hissed back at him. “Not that it matters now. Mariselle reads it as we speak. Still, I should’ve been chosen for it. Be glad I took it. This is not your fight! It’s not your home.”
“No, but I’ve been thrust into the middle of it--this whole train wreck you call a kingdom! Besides, you brought me here. Deal with it.”
“I blew into a shell hoping for a hero, instead I got a half-drowned helpless child,” Alexandra said and turned away. Her eyes avoided Colin’s hurt expression.
“If I get out of this alive, I won’t bother you, or Samuel, or Balaam anymore. I’ll find this balm on my own.”
The princess slumped down on her cell floor. She peered at Colin between the bars. He stared straight ahead, chin up, mouth taut. Alexandra’s expression softened.
“What?” Colin said, glancing at her.
“Tell me of your parents. Is your father noble or in a trade?”
She glanced away, “I’m sorry. What skill did he teach you? Surely your— “
“Look, I don’t know how it is here, but in my world, fathers don’t do squat. They don’t show up to your games, they don’t help you when you need it, they promise you the world one day . . .” Colin reached into his pocket and his fingers grazed the old photo once more, “the next day, they’re gone.”
“So, you mentioned your mother. What illness besets her?”
“Cancer. That salve Samuel talked about, I have to hope it can save her. I don’t think there’s much in my world that would.”
Alexandra looked at him questioningly.
“They call it cancer where I’m from, it’s a disease, except it’s more than that . . . . something bit her.” Colin’s hand clenched, he could feel his eyes water. He cleared his throat. “Back in the cemetery these . . . . things were chasing us.”
“Things?” she asked.
“They were like snakes but . . . well, they were like humans too. I was scared, you know? Really shitting my pants, but then, I don’t know, I just got tired of being scared. I got mad. And I said something, I don’t even know what it was - gibberish, and I charged them.” Colin shrugged as he ran his fingers across the stone floor. “For a moment I thought that if I could do that, maybe I could somehow do the rest of it.”
Alexandra leaned in on the bars as she listened to Colin’s story, “These things . . . they were snakes? Were they black, larger than a man, with yellow eyes?”
Colin glanced at her face. “Yeah. How did you know that?”
Alexandra’s mouth dropped a little. “What you’re describing are Hissith, black serpent beasts that serve the dark one exclusively. It’s said that to even lay your eyes on one means your death is imminent.”
“Well, I’ve had some luck then,” Colin said and shook his head, “I’ve seen them three times.”
“You could’ve died, easily. You had no control over Balaam, over anything, and you faced them?”
“I had to or lay down and die, I suppose. Sometimes you have to just pretend you’re stronger than you really are.”
Alexandra nodded and glanced away, letting his words sink in. “You said you charged them with a word?” she asked.
“Yeah, it just sort of appeared in my head. I don’t even remember what it was exactly.”
“This word, it did something?”
“Well, Balaam certainly moved his ass when I spoke it.” Colin smirked at his unwitting pun.
“You may have spoken the Logos,” Alexandra said, “the language of the Maker.”
“The words in Samuel’s scroll? How could I?” Colin asked, “When I had that page I couldn’t make anything of it. How could I suddenly remember a word I don’t even know?”
“I have no idea, but those that speak it have power over this world, visions of the future, the past, the power to bring your enemies low, or move past them unscathed. They say to speak with the power of the Logos, one can move a mountain with a whisper,” she replied. “If we ever see Samuel again, we should ask him.”
Colin leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. “Sure. I’ll put that on my bucket list, right before they execute me in a few hours.”
The large door at the end of the hallway unlatched and burst open. Two guards approached. The first was pudgy and short, his bald head was acne-scarred and covered with boils. He was dwarfed by his seven-foot-tall comrade whose enormous fists held a torch and who’s shaggy unshaven face and broad shoulders made it look as if the first guard had trained a bear to follow him.
Pudgy swung a ring of keys as he approached and called out. “Well blimey, if we don’t still get surprises these days. Ain’t that so, Rustag?”
His comrade grunted. They paused at Colin’s cell.
Colin immediately caught Alexandra’s eye, and they looked to the oversized jailor.
Pudgy nodded at Colin, “Me thinks you’re new to this spot of the world. Sad, you won’t be staying round long to get to know it. They call me Gunney.” He mockingly bowed before Colin. “I’d say I’m pleased to have met you, but truth is I could give a shit.”
Gunney stepped over to Alexandra’s cell door and leaned in close, smiling wickedly at her. “But you. No introductions needed.” Gunney licked his lips and lowered his voice, “Ole Gunney hears things he does, hears about princesses running off and returning, like a sweet young filly that comes back to the stable. Mayhap Gunney can help her and she can help Gunney.”
Alexandra backed away from her cell door.
“Ole Gunney’s got an itch, and sweet filly, you gots a fine set of hands!” Gunney turned the key in the lock. He let the door swing open and bang against the bars as he stared at the princess. “I’ve had a taste of most every young pilcher that’s come ere’ – but never one quite so pretty as you, love.” He glanced to Rustag, “Go watch the stair. M’lady and I need some alone time.” Gunney turned back to Alexandra and unbuckled his belt.
She pushed back against the wall. “I swear I’ll tear it off if you come near me!”
“Promises love, such sweet promises – I like it rough!” He took a step forward.
Colin stood and grabbed the bars. “You want to tango buddy? Come here! Don’t touch her!”
Gunney smiled, “Oh I’ve had my share of your like as well – afterward I’ll let you clean me off.” He took another step towards her. “Now open that pretty mouth of yours and-”
Rustag slammed his torch down on Gunney’s head and the pudgy jailor dropped to the floor like a rock. Alexandra glanced at Colin, his eyes darted back to hers.
Rustag took a breath as if the words were hard for him and then in a deep rumbling said, “Some here still serve the crown. At your service, M’lady.”
Alexandra stood and stepped over Gunney’s unconscious form. “Do I know you? I think I would’ve remembered your face.”
Rustag shook his head. “I’m Agronian. Your father paid a kindness to me when I was young.”
“You’re a slaughter-man? He let you live?” Alexandra’s eyes widened.
“A slaughter-man? That doesn’t sound nice.” Colin backed further into the corner of his cell.
She kept her eyes trained on the giant. “Nor should it. They’re north men, savages that burn, rape, murder . . . and eat their victims. My father spent years on a crusade to wipe out their tribes.”
Rustag stared at the princess, his cold expression unchanging, “Blood debt. What is owed, must be paid. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.”
Alexandra nodded. “Can you get me to my father’s chamber? Without being seen?”
Rustag nodded silently.
“Then come. We must hurry.” She moved past the giant.
Rustag picked up the limp body of Gunney and tossed him into the now empty cell, before slamming the cage door closed and locking it.
Colin ran forward and shook his cell door. “Hey! Come on Alex, don’t leave me here!”
She turned. “I’m not leaving you to rot. I promise! But I need to get to my father, and there can’t be any mistakes this time.”
Rustag moved to the dungeon doorway and peered through, he turned back to Alexandra, “Princess, footsteps approach. We have no time.”
Colin saw uncertainty wash across Alexandra’s face. Her eyes pleading with his. “If you’re caught again they’d kill you on sight. I’ll be back for you before morning.” She hurried down the hall followed by her new companion.
Colin shook his door again, “Alex! Alex! I’m not helpless, I’m not . . . .”
The two were gone. Colin slumped back down to the floor and put his head in his hands.