When you've lost everything, who can you trust? When you're far from home, where do you go? When there's death around every corner, how do you stay alive?
But even this man couldn’t escape the dogs and huntsmen. They chased him tirelessly, and eventually captured him. A black cloth over his eyes and rope around his wrists, he was led back the way he had come.
It wasn’t long, as the huntsmen kept a brisk pace, before they arrived at the palace gates. The young man quailed at the thought of what was to become of him—the dungeons, surely, complete with rats and deranged cellmates.
He wasn’t disappointed.
All the way down the stairs, the guards prodded him in the back with their weapons, and by the time they reached the bottom, the boy’s shoulders were raw and bloody. They poked him down a long corridor—it was dark, though he couldn’t see anything for his blindfold, and wet, too; he could feel that—smelling like death and despair. The moans of other criminals created a cacophony of pain. He heard the soldiers bang open an iron door. The clash echoed all around and he cringed.
The guards shoved him into a cell, where he landed on the stone floor with a painful thud. They jeered at his grunt of discomfort.
“You’d better get used to that,” one told him. “And worse, too.”
“What are you talking about?” the young man asked hoarsely, and received a fist to the mouth.
“No questions!” the second guard ordered as blood and a tooth littered the already filthy floor. “Your job is to feed the rats, and you’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens to you.”
“That’s right,” agreed the first. “No one lasts long in this cell.”
“Not with the demon, no,” sneered the second guard. “All that’s left is bones. Bones and the heart.” He shut the door with another clang and locked it.
“Yes, that’s your job,” said the first guard as he walked away. “Feed the rats—if you don’t feed the demon first.”
The boy listened as they ascended the stairs and their voices vanished. The moans resumed, but there was another sound now—someone else’s breath, close by. The demon, he assumed, and wondered if he should say something or get away, though really there was nowhere to go. But the demon spoke first.
“They’re lyin’, you know,” it said. There was something delicate about the voice, as if it was barely there, though too raspy and hoarse to be very loud. The accent was foreign to the young man.
"’Bout them bones an' hearts. I en’t never eaten no people.”
The boy sat up cautiously from where he had fallen. He asked warily, “Why’d they call you a demon, then?”
“They calls me that a-cause that’s what they’s afraid I am, but I en’t. Leastways, I weren’t before…” The voice trailed off without finishing.
“Never you mind. You a-wanting that head cloth off, yeah?” Before the young man could reply, there were hands fumbling with his blindfold, removing it and doing the same to the rope around his wrists. Whenever the “demon” moved, there was a clanking, jingling noise. When his hands were free, the boy turned around and saw who had untied him.
The cell was very dark, but as his eyes adjusted, he could see that it was a girl who sat nearby. She was a woman, really, though it was impossible to tell her age. In the dim light, the young man could tell that she had grimy black hair and a dirt- and blood-smudged face, pale from little sunlight. She wore the tatters of a dress and manacles as well as ankle shackles. The chains fastened to the large stones of the walls. There would be no untying her.
“How long have you been in here?” the boy asked, eyeing her ghostly complexion and hollow cheeks.
“Five years,” she answered, “an’ not once with another soul around. Must be my lucky day.”
“What did you do?” he asked, unable to help himself, though the question was rude and of a personal matter.
“Doesn’t much matter t’them,” the girl said. “They don’t care what I done, only that it’s not what they’s done. I en’t about to tell ’em the truth of the matter. It en’t none of their business.”
“Oh,” the boy said, unable to help feeling disappointed. Anyone subject to such treatment would have a good story to tell, and there weren’t a lot of other options besides listening.
The girl peered at him through the gloom. “You en’t gonna be in here long, y’know that? Right, they’s a-stickin’ you in here, an’ they’s just wantin’ to give you a good scare, so’s they get their bit of fun.”
“How do you know that?”
“A-cause it makes sense, that’s how I know. They en’t never put no one in here before, an’ I reckon they’s just gettin’ bored of th’ ordinary cells. So they’s gonna take you outta here before nex’ week, tops. Most likes, you’s gonna be gone tomorrow.” There was a lonely sort of certainty in her voice.
“Why don’t they put anyone else in here?” the young man asked.
“Most’s they’s afraid I am a demon. Like I said before, I en’t, but I can’t get it through they’s thick skulls.”
“Why do they think you’re a demon, though? I mean, you don’t look like a demon.” Of course, the boy thought, that was a matter of opinion. In this murky half-light, anything was plausible.
The girl hesitated before speaking in a wary tone. “You’s really wantin’ t’know, en’t you?” When he didn’t say anything, she sighed. “’S a long story, right, an’ you’s not fixin’ t’stay here, but most likes this’ll be th’ last time I be gettin’ a chance t’ tell it. I s’pose it can’t do no harm, an’ it’s nothin’ them palace folks en’t heard already.” The girl sat up straighter and continued in a much different style. “I was fifteen when everything started—”
“Hold it, how’d you learn to talk like that?” the boy asked, realizing too late how rude it sounded.
“Well, I didn’t grow up in here,” the girl said haughtily. “You’d be a-talkin’ like me if you was on you’s lonesome, too. I do know some things. Like, you know, proper storytelling and such.”
“Anyways. I was fifteen when everything started. I grew up in the village of Ascra, near the Suka-taan Range. It was a small village, and it’s not on the maps anymore. But it was when I lived there.
“I didn’t know anything about the world and I didn’t care. I was happy to learn how to weave and cook and clean, happy that in four years’ time I’d be wed to Adigo T’lat—it’s funny how, after all that’s happened, I still remember his name.
“I was silly, I guess, to be so content with so little knowledge, but it was all I had. You know how in a dream, you’re positive that this is everything you’ll ever need, but when you wake up, you realize that there was nothing at all? That’s how it was. It’s how it seems now, too. Like a dream.
“I’d give anything to go back to sleep.”