The Man in the Box
A tribute to Alice in Chains
© Copyright jvaughn, 2015, 2016. All rights reserved.
I’m the man in the box,
“Magic leads to madness,” or so the saying goes. For some that is undeniably true. There are others though, men and women of stout heart and unwavering conscience, who have managed to escape the corruption of wizardry. And it is to those few precious people that we look for our salvation, for the world is most assuredly plummeting toward a darkness so vast and evil that it will consume us all and leave nothing in its wake but fear, pain, and misery. We will pray for the solace of death long before it is finally granted.
But hope is not yet lost. Even now there stirs the makings of greatness: the potential for limitless power, bravery in the face of impossible odds, and strength that can only be spawned from the deepest love.
Shall we see how this tale unfolds?
When Justis heard the unmistakable sound of a large troop of men and horses approaching, he climbed to the roof of the stable to get a better view. Imperial troops on the move were a sight to see: column upon column of dun-suited cavalry wound its way across the sun-browned plains toward the town of Vale. These were followed by even more rows of infantry and, finally, in the distance, Justis could see a cavalcade of wagons, which he assumed held the wounded and the supplies.
The commander rode at the head of his troops on a chestnut roan, surrounded by his attending officers and the young men who carried the banners. The red banner with the golden bear on it, the symbol of Kenezia, flowed out proudly behind one of the young bearers. The other banner, which Justis recognized as belonging to the city of Perle, was green, white, and gold with an ancient curlicue design.
The commander’s bearing was proud and, even from a distance, Justis could discern the buoyant mood of the troops, in spite of their obvious exhaustion. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Another victory for Kenezia. He prayed there hadn’t been too much bloodshed, but taking in the reddish brown hues that sullied many of the tan uniforms, he didn’t hold out much hope.
Familiar guilt flared through him. Surely there was more he should be doing to impede the success of the Kenezian army. He had harried them in small ways—brought down a plague of mosquitoes on the men encamped outside the town—that had cost him his strength for several days and hadn’t really done anything to hinder the Kenezian army. He’d poisoned their beer, which had caused widespread discomfort and diarrhea but no deaths, of course. He couldn’t bring himself to use a dose strong enough to actually kill anyone.
He had considered and discarded a dozen other plans. Damaging the saddle girths had been tempting, but since he was the one in charge of the tack, that would have been too easily traceable back to him. And there was the very real possibility that one of the riders would fall and be trampled to death in the heat of battle.
He’d been living with the Kenezians for six months now and had observed that many of them had kindness and honor. Under other circumstances they might have become friends. He couldn’t bring himself to kill them indiscriminately—or maybe at all.
You’re a coward, he berated himself, not for the first time.
In spite of Kenezia being at war with his own country, Endora, killing a man simply because of his nationality was not something he found he could do. He had learned that people were people regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
“Idiot!” He heard Brutal’s bellow.
Justis shook himself out of his thoughts, realizing that the commander’s entourage had already ridden through the south gate. Brutal would be furious with him if he didn’t get out there and start taking care of the officer’s mounts.
He dashed to the edge of the roof and, grabbing the downspout, swung himself nimbly to the ground. After half a stumble-step on landing, he was off, running to help the arriving men and horses. The lane was empty—most of the townspeople had already made their way to the south end of town to greet the incoming soldiers. Justis was glad that he didn’t spot Brutal.
He schooled his face into a happy, witless expression before he entered the south courtyard where the townsfolk had gathered. It came as second nature to him now, this charade of imbecility.
He slowed his pace as he entered the crowded courtyard, but a huge man stepped in front of him and he couldn’t stop before he plowed into him, wrapping his arms around the bulk in an effort to minimize the damage. It turned out to be Hugh, the village smithy.
“Slow down there, young Idiot,” Hugh said disentangling himself with a laugh. “There’ll be plenty of horses left for you to tend. You’re not going to miss out.”
Justis smiled at him, keeping his eyes dull. “Sorry—didn’t mean to run into you,” he said. What actually came out of his mouth was a string of meaningless syllables.
Hugh patted him on the shoulder and chuckled. “You’d best get in there boy, or Bertel will have words with you.”
Bertel was Brutal’s actual name. Justis had renamed him in his head to better fit his personality. And Bertel was likely to have more than just words with him. He ran the stables with an iron fist and Justis had been the recipient a few too many times.
He nodded at Hugh and dashed into the melee. And a melee it was. Whatever order the troops had been in when they’d come through the gate had quickly disintegrated. In no time the large courtyard inside the south gate had filled with the press of men and beasts. It smelled of horse and sweat and blood.
Officers stood around holding their horse’s reins, chatting with each other, a few of them soothing their tired mounts. Justis knew that he should relieve the highest-ranking officers of their horses first, but he was playing the part of someone who might not remember that fact. Instead he grabbed the reins from one of the young men holding a banner. The boy was young, too young to be riding off to battle Justis thought, and he looked like he was about to drop from exhaustion right on the spot. He gratefully gave up his horse to Justis who lost no time in leading the mare through the crowd toward the stables.
As soon as the way was open, Justis picked up his pace to a trot. At the stables stood a dozen horses, already brought in by the other hands. The animals had been hastily tied to the railing outside. Once all of them were gathered, they would start the work of removing their tack, currying them, and getting them settled for the night. Justis’s chores wouldn’t stop there. He knew he’d probably spend the better part of the night cleaning and repairing tack. He didn’t mind the work, he just hoped that he got dinner at some point. He was already hungry.
The stables were large for a town this size, accommodating fifty plus horses, and that was perhaps one of the reasons the garrison had made Vale their home base for this campaign. Of the hundreds of mounted men, only the officers and a few others, such as the banner boys, would stable their horses in town. The rest of the men would need to take care of their own beasts and tack and would stable them in temporary corrals, which had been set up outside the gates.
Most of the garrison would camp on the plains south of town. Some of the officers would take rooms in town; many would camp with their men. In any case, the town would be overrun with soldiers. It had seemed quiet the last several weeks with them gone off to battle. Now there would be a long line at the public baths and the taverns would overflow with patrons, likely running out of bread before dinner and out of beer before the last rays of the summer sun had left the sky.
By the time Justis returned to the south gate from his fourth trip to the stables, the cavalry who were caring for their own mounts had secured them outside the gates, and the soldiers and officers had sorted themselves into formation, shoulder to shoulder, exhaustion apparent on their faces as they stood at attention under pressing heat of the midafternoon sun, waiting for the last of the wagons to arrive.
They were battered and filthy, obviously fresh from a fight. Many had blood streaked on their hands or faces—theirs or their enemies’, Justis couldn’t tell. A shudder passed through his body as he watched the men hold ranks even though a few swayed on their feet.
No wonder Endora is losing this war, he thought bitterly. The Kenezian troops were well-trained, well-armored, and disciplined to a man. Endora, which had enjoyed peace for generations, had been caught off guard. Their soldiers, quickly gathered from the farms and towns, hastily trained, and thrown into the fight, had been woefully ill equipped to contest the seasoned Kenezians. The first couple of scrimmages had been disastrous. As Endora adjusted to being at war, they had gotten better, but viewing the well-ordered ranks filling the courtyard, Justis doubted his country’s ability to remain a sovereign state.
The last of the wagons that were coming inside the gate creaked to a halt with a great billow of dust and clamor of rusty metal. A hush settled over the crowd of townspeople, and Justis, who had just grabbed the reins of a horse to lead him to stable, paused to see what the shock was about.
It didn’t take him long to spot the object of the crowd’s astonishment. One of the open-bed wagons held a cage. Inside the cage was a large man.
Justis caught his breath. The naked man inside the cage was filthy and bloody, but he was still magnificent. He sat perfectly still in the small space, legs crossed, his head bent slightly to accommodate the low height of the cage. His huge arms were heavily muscled, his back was impossibly broad, and his long, strong legs were covered with dark hair.
From where Justis stood off to the side, he could see his profile: square jawline, prominent cheekbones, a nose that was horribly swollen, most likely broken. The man might be quite handsome, but his face was so battered it was impossible to tell. His wavy dark hair was matted with blood that ran freely from a cut on his head, soaking his left ear. More fresh blood gurgled from a wound at his shoulder. Yet the man was not only conscious but seemed ready to fight. He held his head held stiffly, perfectly still. His gaze, through swollen eyes, was firmly on the floor of the cage in front of him and his scraped hands were clenched into fists at his side. Justis imagined that if someone were to open the door of the cage, he would come out swinging.
But letting the man out was not what the soldiers had in mind. Two of them grabbed the long poles that were attached to the bottom of the cage and hauled it off the truck. As the poles that stuck out behind the cage lost purchase on the truck bed, the back of the cage dropped four feet to the dusty ground. The prisoner was thrown about and grabbed the bars of the cage to ground himself. He didn’t utter a sound although Justis saw his jaw clench in effort, and his head swayed for a second, as if he were fighting to stay conscious.
A couple of other soldiers picked up the back poles and the four men, staggering under the weight of their substantial prisoner, bore him to the platform at the edge of the courtyard. The wooden platform held pillories, and at first Justis thought they meant to accommodate him thusly, but they positioned his cage next to a pillory and backed away.
Justis had not understood the function of the strange wooden structures when he’d first come to live in Vale, but a few weeks after his arrival, two men had been shackled there for the crime of public drunkenness. He’d watched as pious townsfolk had jeered at them, called them names, and thrown refuse at them. Then Justis had realized that he’d read about such devices. They’d been outlawed in his own country before his grandfather’s time and seemed like a barbaric convention.
He was relieved to see that the men left their prisoner in his cage, although he soon realized that the small cage could not be much more comfortable than the pillory. He wondered how long the man would be left there and whether he’d get any treatment for his wounds or even food and water.
The crowd was buzzing with excitement about the man and Justis overheard someone saying that the prisoner by himself had slaughtered hundreds of Kenezians before they’d managed to subdue him. He’d been the last man standing on the battlefield.
Justis’s heart went to his throat. The man would be a hero in Endora. Here he was a hated enemy and would suffer horrible abuse. Even as this occurred to him, he saw that a few of the braver boys in the crowd had gathered up stones, and now they began to pelt the man with them. To Justis’s relief, the commander quickly put a stop to it.
“No stones! That would be too quick a death for likes of him.”
Although the words did not bring Justis comfort, they at least brought an end to the immediate pelting. Maybe Justis could find a way to help his country’s hero.
“Idiot!” Justis heard Brutal’s bellow from right behind him. Instinctively he ducked and took a few steps forward while twisting around. He was just in time to miss a swing that would have clouted him solidly on his head.
“I don’t feed and house you for standing around gawking, boy.” Brutal’s dark eyes flashed with anger.
Justis quickly slunk away, leading the mare through the crowd. He hoped Brutal wouldn’t decide to beat him for his lapse—the man really didn’t need much of an excuse to take a belt to Justis’s backside.
Brutal was taking advantage of his supposedly compromised state of intelligence to get slave labor out of him. Although Justis didn’t work as hard or as smartly as he normally would have, he still got a lot done. Brutal didn’t pay him for his work, just fed him and let him sleep on a pallet in a corner of the stable.
Buried in my shit.
Justis blinked gritty eyes as the halter in his hands blurred. He was too tired to do more detailed repairs by lamplight. Brutal would be angry with him for not finishing—he still had several pieces of tack that needed his attention—but there was nothing for it. He wouldn’t be able to get anything more done tonight and dawn would come just as early tomorrow. With the stables overflowing, it was bound to be another busy day.
With a sigh he climbed to his feet, stretching his aching limbs. True looked up from where she’d been sleeping, on a scrap of burlap at the foot of Justis’s pallet, her big brown eyes following every motion Justis made.
“Time for bed, isn’t it True?” Justis said, reaching down to stroke the dog on her head. She pressed up against his hand with a small whuff. She’d gained weight since he’d been sneaking her scraps of food, but she was still skeletal.
He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it felt like the wee hours of the morning. He spent a few minutes straightening his work area and then washed the leather oil from his hands in the bucket in front of the stables.
The night was blessedly cool after the heat of the day. A billion stars streaked across the heavens and Justis couldn’t help but pause and stare up at the sky. He never ceased to be awed, and somehow humbled, by the sight.
He was just about to go back into the stables to collapse on his pallet when it occurred to him that he could go check on the prisoner. The town was silent; everyone should be sound asleep at this time of night.
The entire day, as he’d been unsaddling and currying horses, and later, while he’d been cleaning and repairing tack, he’d worried about his fellow countryman. How serious were his wounds? Had he been given food or water? How long would they leave him in the small cage? He had no illusions that the prisoner’s life would be anything but miserable as long as he was in the hands of the Kenezians.
He would sleep better if he checked on the man. Or maybe not. But now that it had occurred to him to go see, he seemed compelled to do so. He ducked back inside to grab his water bladder from the hook by his bed. As he headed out again, True dogged his heels, as usual.
“Stay, True,” Justis ordered, pointing to the ground right next to the stable door.
The dog might not have understood his gibberish, but she understood the command tone and gesture. She immediately sat down in the indicated spot, looking beseechingly at Justis.
“Not tonight, girl,” Justis said. “I’ll be back soon.”
True lay down and put her head on her paws, but still did not take her eyes off him. Justis was sure she watched him until he disappeared from sight, just in case he changed his mind.
The streets were empty and he walked as silently as he could on the rough cobblestones, his leather boots making just a whisper of sound. The moon was out, but it was waning, now only half full. His eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and by the time he reached the south end of town, he could make out the cage and the shadow of the man within on the other side of the courtyard.
He glanced around, hesitating as he stood in the darkness next to a building. His gaze focused on the watchtower that sat at the top of the wall near the gate. He had observed that they didn’t man the tower at night, and with thousands of Kenezian soldiers camped just outside, why would they tonight? There was usually a guard stationed at the gate though. He was likely inside the gatehouse, and he would probably periodically survey the courtyard or maybe even climb to the tower for a look around. Justis could not linger if he didn’t want to get caught.
Just a quick check on Hero, and then I’ll go to bed, he told himself. Having no idea what the prisoner’s name was, he had started referring to him as “Hero” in his mind.
He saw no movement in the tower or unexplained shadows anywhere in the courtyard. The only sounds he heard were his own harsh breathing and the distant chirp of crickets. It was too early yet for the birds to start twittering.
Deciding that it was as safe as it would ever be, he crossed the courtyard quickly and mounted the platform that held the cage. When he drew close he could see the man inside more clearly. He was trembling, minute shudders wracking his large frame.
When he heard Justis’s steps on the platform stairs, his head whipped up and he stared at him through the slit that was his left eye. His right eye appeared to be completely swollen shut. He was just as filthy and bloody has he had been earlier. It was difficult to tell for sure in the dim light, but it appeared that the wounds that had been bleeding freely when he’d been brought in, the one on his shoulder and the one on his head, had clotted.
Justis wished fervently that he was able to talk again, but the spell he had cast on himself was nothing if not effective. If he’d been able to unravel it easily, it would have done him no good. As it was, it had saved his life.
His native language, of course, was Endoran. The Kenezian’s spoke a language called Kreoley, which originated from the country of Kreole further south. Having lived near the border of Kenezia all his life, he had understood some Kreoley, but if he had spoken even two words of the language, his accent would have given him away. It was sheer luck that he’d been so out of his head from thirst and hunger when he’d been found by the Kenezians that the first sounds out of his mouth were incoherent babble. The soldier who’d found him had assumed he was an imbecile, and he had grasped that straw and run with it. The complicated spell he’d woven in haste to keep himself from accidentally giving himself away had kept him alive. Now, six months later, his understanding of Kreoley was almost completely fluent, but he’d still never spoken a word of it.
Justis wanted to assure the prisoner that he was a friend, a fellow countryman—although that might have been a dangerous admission. Hero’s gaze tracked his movements as he made his way across the platform to the cage and the tension in his body bespoke of his mistrust.
Justis crouched next to the cage on the side away from the guardhouse so that he wouldn’t be quite so visible if the guard happened to gaze into the courtyard. He was able to see that the wound in Hero’s shoulder had indeed quit bleeding, but the skin around it appeared inflamed. He was shivering and a sheen of sweat glistened on his massive chest. Justis was sure that he was feverish.
He saw no evidence that food or water had been given to him. He pulled his water bladder off his shoulder and showed it to the man. It was impossible to tell the prisoner’s expression, his face was too bruised and swollen. Carefully he squeezed the bladder through the bars of the cage, but kept ahold of the long leather strap that was attached to it. Hero took the bladder, popped the cork, and began to guzzle.
Justis watched his prominent Adam’s apple bob and a shiver ran down his spine. He had never seen such a masculine man. Even Hugh, the hulking village smithy, did not give off the sheer manliness that this man exuded with every movement.
Eventually, Hero finished his long drink and lowered the bladder slowly. His eye glittered behind the swollen folds of skin as he took measure of Justis. Then suddenly he jerked the bladder to the other side of the cage and the leather strap was torn from his grasp.
“Hey!” he cried, but softly, some part of his brain aware of the necessity of silence even in his startlement. “You can’t keep that. They’ll just take it away from you in the morning and I’m likely to get in trouble for giving it to you.” Of course what came out of his mouth was a string of nonsense syllables and he saw the prisoner eyeing him with what seemed like curiosity.
He’d have to get the bladder back, but first he would discover the extent of the man’s wounds and make sure that he wasn’t in imminent danger of dying. He couldn’t cure him completely, of course, even if he’d had the strength. If he did that, the commander would likely conclude that the prisoner had healed himself. That would certainly cause a stir. They would probably kill him immediately out of fear at that point. There was widespread mistrust of magic, even the healing arts.
Justis needed to touch the man to heal him but he had no illusions that the man would allow that without putting up a fight. He shifted behind the prisoner. The man grunted and started to squirm around to keep Justis in his sights, but the pain of his wounds must have stopped him for he suddenly froze, his chest heaving.
Justis took that moment to squeeze his hand through the bars and lay it on the middle of the man’s broad back, between his shoulder blades. Hero flinched but didn’t move away, still gasping for breath. Justis closed his eyes and focused, automatically weaving the spells in his mind that allowed him to assess the prisoner’s injuries.
He had just barely started his investigation, when the prisoner tried to shift away. Justis moved with him, keeping his hand on the man’s back. There was no place he could go in the small cage, but Justis would never be able to heal Hero if he were fighting him. He had mended many a broken bone, however, and knew how to cause a person to fall asleep so that they wouldn’t have to suffer through the painful bone setting and healing treatment.
Quickly summoning his inner reserves of strength, he focused on the man’s mind. His grandmother’s calm voice spoke in his head as it usually did when he was following her teachings. “Locate the area of the brain in the middle just below the ears. Now stimulate the cells that are producing the chemical that brings on sleep…”
When, at the tender age of eight, he had first started working with Nana, learning the healing arts, things like locating cells and discovering what chemicals they were producing seemed impossible. Now, twelve years later, that skill was second nature to him. As he caused more of the chemical that brought on sleep to be produced at a rapid rate, he felt panic sweep through the man under his hand. He must have realized that Justis was causing him to feel sleepy. He jerked away from Justis’s touch, but it was too late already. Either that or he passed out from the pain caused by his abrupt movement. Whatever the reason, he suddenly slumped against the back of the cage, boneless.
Justis wasted no time in laying a hand on the man and making sure he wasn’t going to wake up again soon. Then he explored. He could feel the blazing heat around his shoulder wound as his body fought the infection that had taken hold. The wound was deep but it hadn’t pierced his lung and had missed his heart by several inches. There was also a hot spot on his head and another on his right leg, below his knee. Justis hadn’t realized his leg was broken. He also soon discovered that Hero was bleeding internally—his spleen had ruptured. Otherwise, there were bruises, scratches and scrapes all over his body.
Overall, the prisoner was in worse shape than anyone Justis had ever treated for trauma. He had healed wounds before, but nothing quite as serious as the suppurating wound in Hero’s chest, and he’d never repaired a spleen.
He worked quickly but carefully, first stimulating Hero’s natural waste management system to carry away the excess blood that was pooling in his abdomen. He managed to staunch the flow of blood and mend the tears in the tissue that surrounded the spleen. Then he set about healing the bone, noting that it had been broken before in the same place and probably hadn’t been set properly. He wondered if his hero had walked with a limp. Meticulously removing the scared bone and tissue, he once more urged Hero’s waste system to carry it away. He needed to set the bone by hand—he didn’t have the ability to move objects, at least not that he’d been able to master.
Keeping one hand on the man’s back, he shifted around to the other side and laid a hand on his arm. Once he had a second point of contact, he was able to move his other hand. Never losing touch with his patient, he maneuvered around so he could reach his damaged leg. Slipping his hand through the cage again, he grasped Hero’s calf just below the break and brought his other hand to just above it. Using his inner sight, he carefully manipulated the bone under his hands until the two ends lined up perfectly—except… As he had feared, a chip was missing. A quick perusal showed that it firmly imbedded in the man’s calf muscle several inches away from where it belonged, and it had long since died and started to decompose. It would be of no use to him.
Pouring more of his strength into his work, he simulated the growth cells on the ends of the bones, fusing the fitted pieces together and causing a mass to grow where the chip had been removed. It was tiring and detailed work, and he was glad he didn’t need to use his blurry eyesight to see what he was doing. Eventually he had the new cells arranged in a perfect patch for the missing chip. Going over his work once more, he was satisfied that it was as flush as it could be, indistinguishable from the surrounding tissue except by its newness. It would take weeks to harden to the same quality as the rest of the bone, but if the prisoner didn’t put any weight on it, and in his present circumstances, he couldn’t, it should heal just fine.
Justis boosted the sleep chemical again and set to work burning the infection out of the man’s shoulder wound. There was dirt in the wound that he couldn’t do anything about. Normally he would have thoroughly flushed a wound before beginning treatment, but that would have left evidence of his ministrations. He couldn’t risk someone finding out what he had done.
He was able to get most of the infection out of both Hero’s head wound and his shoulder wound. His head wound was mostly clean and his skull was undamaged. He took a few more minutes to cause the swelling under his skull to dissipate. The dirty shoulder wound was a concern and would likely reinfect, and he wasn’t sure how well the patch for his spleen would hold up. Justis would have to keep an eye on the prisoner and treat him every few days until he managed to heal.
Feeling that he had done everything he could do for now, Justis slowly withdrew his sight from within the man’s body, the words of the spell he’d been muttering in his mind ebbing. Coming back to awareness of himself, he was shocked at his own condition. His body, covered with a sheen of sweat from his hard labor, shivered with cold and exhaustion. He could barely focus his eyes enough to remove his water bladder from the cage. He stood swaying on his feet for a few moments, almost ready to drop to the ground right there and let sleep take him.
Hero let out a low groan and that shook him from his lethargy. He needed to make it home to his own bed before he collapsed. With extreme concentration, he managed to descend the steps of the platform without falling. He staggered and swayed across the courtyard, praying that no one was watching him. Stealth was out of the question now. Later he didn’t even remember arriving back at the stables.
The next thing he was aware of was pain screaming through his stomach. His eyes snapped open and he quickly realized that he was in his own bed. Brutal was standing over him yelling something about him being a lazy good-for-nothing bastard. The stable door stood open, allowing full daylight to wash into the dim interior.
Justis managed to sit up and scoot away before Brutal brought his boot up to kick him in the stomach again.
Fuck! His head pounded and he felt like he hadn’t gotten any sleep at all.
Brutal didn’t wait for him to get out of bed. Instead, grabbing him by his collar, he hauled him up and pushed him down, face first, against the worktable. All the while he berated him for oversleeping, for not finishing his work from the night before, and for generally being stupid and lazy.
Justis knew what came next, and he did what Idiot would do: he started begging Brutal not to whip him. The words were gibberish of course, but his tone was clear.
True, who was cowering in the corner as she usually did when Brutal was near, began to whimper quietly, adding her voice to Justis’s.
“Fucking Idiot. If you did what you were told, I wouldn’t have to beat you. Now take your shirt off.”
“No, No!” Justis cried.
“Take your shirt off or I’ll take it away from you and you won’t get it back.”
Justis had no problem conjuring tears as he reluctantly pulled his shirt off and presented his bare back to Brutal. He clutched the table and carried on loudly as Brutal struck him repeatedly with the leather strap that was used to sharpen knives. Justis wasn’t sure if the pain would be less if he was silent or not, but the persona he had assumed was inclined to scream, and scream he did. True’s whimpering increased in volume as well, and between the two of them, they made quite a cacophony of misery.
As much as the whipping hurt, Justis knew the real pain would come later, after the welts rose. Luckily he was just as skilled at healing himself as he was at healing others. He focused on dampening his pain receptors and found that the effort was too much for him. He had overextended his use of magic by healing the prisoner the night before. Even as he continued to scream and blubber, he felt himself start to lose consciousness from his efforts.
“Sounds like you’re murdering someone in here,” he heard Hugh’s voice at the door of the stable.
Brutal paused in his beating to engage him. “He’s a worthless shit. Not only did he not get all of his work done last night, he was still sound asleep when I came out here. He should have been up an hour ago mucking out stalls and feeding horses.”
“I’m sure he’ll be much more efficient once he’s been beat to within an inch of his life,” Hugh said dryly. “If you want to get any work out of him today, you’d better lay off.”
Brutal sighed and hung the strap back up on its peg. “You’re right, of course. I just get so mad when he does shit like this.”
“Well, I doubt he did it on purpose. Seems like he actually got quite a bit done before he fell asleep last night.”
Justis was still facedown across the table and didn’t feel ready to move. He let out a small groan as he turned his head so that he could see Hugh. The big man was examining one of the bridles he’d repaired.
“He does good work in spite of his condition,” Hugh observed, fingering the neat stitches he had made in the torn leather. “If you don’t want him, I’ll take him. I’m sure I could find a use for him in the smithy.”
Brutal glared at Hugh. “No. He’s mine. I’m keeping him.”
Hugh shrugged. “Well, try not to kill him then,” he said as he headed for the door. He glanced back once just before he stepped through and Justis was sure he saw anger glittering in his eyes. This was not the first time Hugh had interrupted Brutal’s discipline and Justis was immensely grateful to him.
“Get to work, you worthless shit,” Brutal said. “For your insolence, you’ll go without breakfast.”
Justis whimpered. He was ravenously hungry; working magic always did that to him. Now, he didn’t even have enough magical strength left to heal his welts.
It was going to be long day.
The next day, in the heat of the late afternoon, Brutal came to fetch him. “Idiot, I have a new task for you. Follow me and I’ll show you what needs to be done.”
Justis was astonished to discover that the task Brutal had for him was feeding and watering the prisoner. The commander had set a trial date for the prisoner and the man needed to be kept alive until then so that they could kill him properly, apparently. Justis wasn’t sure what Brutal was getting in recompense for Justis’s services, but the man didn’t do anything out of the goodness of this heart, so surely he was getting some kind of kickback
Justis was to provide a bowl of water and a bowl of gruel to the prisoner every morning. That was perfect. It would allow him the opportunity to check on Hero daily without having to sneak out there at night. He knew he’d be pushing his luck if he snuck out to see him on a regular basis.
Brutal led him through the routine, approaching the prisoner’s cage with a bowl of water that he’d had Justis fill at the well that was on the other side of the south courtyard. The prisoner eyed Brutal motionlessly, but when he saw Justis following, he let out a noise that sounded like the snarl of a wild animal.
“You stay away from me, Witch Boy,” he said in Endoran.
Brutal looked at Justis in surprise. “I have no idea what he just said, but it appears that he doesn’t like you. That’s even better.” He held the bowl out to Justis. “Here, you slide that into his cage. Be careful that he doesn’t bite you.” He smirked at Justis.
Justis pretended to be appropriately afraid of approaching the caged man. Hero glared at him with undisguised distrust and dislike, much to Brutal’s amusement. Just when he felt he’d pushed Brutal’s patience to the brink with his cowardice and was about to get cuffed on the head, he slid the bowl into the cage. He jumped back with a squeal when Hero growled at him.
Brutal burst into laughter. “Yep. Be careful. That beaten, caged, wounded man is going to get you.”
Justis had no doubt that that beaten, caged, wounded man could kill someone in a heartbeat, given half the chance.
His water delivery task allowed him to visually assess the prisoner. The swelling on his face was starting to go down, but his chest wound still looked infected. The broken leg was swollen and bruised, of course. He stank of rotting flesh and purulence, and flies buzzed over him. When they tried to land on his scabs, he flinched them away.
Justis needed to touch the man to really inspect his injuries and to provide any level of healing, and he certainly couldn’t do that with Brutal standing right there. It appeared to him that the prisoner was deteriorating. His eyes were glazed and his breathing shallow. Sitting in the full sun in the heat of the day without water was part of his problem, and Justis was glad to be able to provide some relief for that. He promised himself he’d sneak back out at night to conduct another healing.
The ache in Kraig’s legs was unbearable. Twist and turn as he might, the cage was too small for him to straighten them. He waited until full dark, when the square was empty, to squirm and groan. He would not let his enemies see him suffer. They could torture him and kill him, but they wouldn’t break him.
He hoped the killing part would come soon.
Since he’d been taken three days earlier, he’d had nothing to do but think. He’d thought a lot about his life, about the choices he had made, the things that had happened to him.
His greatest glory was in being a soldier. He enjoyed pushing himself to get stronger, faster, better. He enjoyed pitting himself against other men, especially if he won. He had not lost a one-on-one confrontation in years—since shortly after he’d become fully grown. He enjoyed the excitement of going into battle. Once in the thick of the fight, a strange calmness would settle over him. He was focused. A killing machine.
He couldn’t stop the stab of guilt. How many lives had he taken? Hundreds he was sure. Killing to protect your homeland was noble, wasn’t it? He had to believe that or he’d go truly insane. As calm and cold as he was in battle, and even during the aftermath, he paid the price at night. His dreams were filled with the ghosts of men who had died at his hands. They surrounded him, moaning and shrieking and shaking their bloody stumps at him. Sometimes they bit him and clawed at him, seeking to suck out his soul.
Sometimes in his dreams, a soldier would beg for his young life and Craig would callously cut off his head. He woke from those dreams anguished, on the verge of tears. No one had actually ever begged him to spare his life during battle, but did it matter? He had seen their eyes. None of them had wanted to die.
He couldn’t get away from the stench of blood and death. It was on him and in him, and even if he spent hours soaking in the public baths, the scent never went away. He sometimes wondered if he was losing his sanity. Too many deaths. Haunted by too many ghosts.
He’d acquired acclaim as a soldier—respect that he had thought impossible for him. Grundy had called him worthless for so many years that it had been a shock when he had received his first praise. It had come from an older boy after his first street fight at the age of ten or so. That older boy had taken him under his wing and taught him the basics of hand-to-hand. Within two years he had learned to wield a knife and could best a grown man.
Soon thereafter, the next spring, after a particularly vicious beating, he’d run away from Grundy. That summer he killed his first man. He didn’t feel guilty about that—the man had tried to rape him. Fucker. Then he’d been on the run, travelling, stealing to eat and clothe himself. He’d been caught and tossed in jail just as winter was setting in. He’d considered himself fortunate to get a six-month sentence; it had kept him out of the worst of the weather.
It was in jail that he’d met a bandit who had talked him into joining his gang of thieves. After he’d gotten out of jail, he’d spent a couple of years as a highwayman. He was lucky that the leader of the group had been a man of some integrity. They were thieves, not murderers, he’d said. It hadn’t been a bad life, but before his sixteenth summer, he was captured by the local militia. He’d been furious at himself for getting caught, knowing that he would be looking at years in jail. But the judge must have seen the soldier in him, or maybe he was trying to help a youth led astray, because he offered him a choice: three years in jail, doing hard labor at the rock quarry, or a five-year stint in the infantry. He’d chosen to become a soldier and had never looked back.
Now, twelve years later, he was the most decorated soldier in His Majesty’s army. He’d been offered a commission more than once, but had always turned in it down. He was stupid, Grundy had said. He was certainly uneducated—couldn’t read, couldn’t do math beyond basic money exchange. He was not a leader of men, he was simply a killer. And as long as his country needed him, as long as he was still capable, he’d be their soldier, no matter that it cost him his sanity.
And his freedom. And his life. He could think of no way out of his current situation except death. And that could not come soon enough. His legs throbbed cruelly.
He shifted onto his side, curling up in a fetal position, carefully avoiding the pile of shit he’d started in the corner of his cage. His ribs screamed in protest and the wound in his shoulder burned mercilessly. He’d thought that wound was fatal, and the injury to his stomach as well. Either one of them should have done him in. He was surprised that he wasn’t already delirious, on the brink of welcome death.
But no, he thought bitterly. I’m not going to be allowed to die yet. I will have to suffer much more first. It is what I deserve for having taken so many lives. The Gods will get their justice.
He heard light footsteps on the cobblestone and moved his head slightly to see who it was. Alarm slammed through him as he saw that was the young witch again, coming for him. He scrambled quickly to a sitting position, gasping with pain as his wounds and his muscles simultaneously sent agony signals to his brain. His mind fogged briefly in anguish, then his senses sharpened.
The witch was on platform now, babbling at him softly. He had no idea why the boy didn’t or couldn’t speak. Perhaps he only spoke some bizarre language of witchery. He tensed, his heart rate ratcheting up as he watched the boy approach.
He was beautiful, Kraig couldn’t help but notice. Too beautiful. It was as if a special spell had been set on him to make him attractive, seductive to both men and women alike. His large eyes were wide set, appearing silver in the light of the moon. They were light green he knew from seeing the boy during the daytime. At night they appeared luminous in his pale, finely-boned face. He looked fay. He was fay, of that Kraig had no doubt.
He couldn’t fathom what the witch boy wanted from him. The last time the he had visited him at night, he’d caused him to fall asleep. Kraig suppressed a shudder. What evil had the boy done to him while he slept?
He snarled softly when the young man knelt beside his cage. The witch boy looked him over, his face showing no emotion.
Not taking his eyes off Kraig’s face, the boy reached inside the cage and snagged the empty water bowl, bringing it to the edge of the cage. Then he unstoppered his bladder and filled the bowl with water.
Kraig eyed it suspiciously. Was it really water or something else? His throat was parched to the point where he knew that as soon as the boy left, he’d drink whatever it was. He didn’t have enough will power to resist that. He’d been eating the gruel every morning too, even though he didn’t want to.
The boy moved around behind him, and he shifted to keep him in his sights. The witch kept shuffling and Kraig moved with him, even though every movement brought racks of pain coursing through him. Sweat broke out on his brow and his breathing became harsh.
The boy spoke to him in a soothing babble the whole time, but it did nothing to ease Kraig’s mistrust. Finally the boy quit moving and quit talking and simply stared at him. Unfamiliar terror screamed through Kraig. He was not afraid of physical confrontation; he would meet any man or beast in battle with barely a flicker of unease. But witchcraft … witchcraft terrified him. Was the boy reading his mind? Was he stealing his soul? Was he going to bewitch him? Turn him into a thrall and make him do unspeakable things? Kraig suppressed a shiver of fear, choosing instead to put on his most threatening expression and snarl at the witch.
The witch reached between the bars and tried to put a hand on Kraig’s foot. Kraig kicked out automatically and the boy snatched his hand away.
“Leave me the fuck alone, witch,” he growled.
The boy made more soothing noises and moved again quickly, trying to get behind Kraig. Kraig turned with him, but not before the boy reached through the bars again and touched his back.
Kraig felt the sleepiness coming fast and he yelled, “No! Get the fuck away from me,” as he jerked forward, managing to dislodge the boy’s hand.
“Sssshhh!” the witch hissed.
Oh ho! He’s sneaking around in the dark. He doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s doing.
“Guard!” Kraig called loudly. “Guard!” He knew there was always at least one guard in the gatehouse.
The witch turned and fled, racing across the courtyard with surprising speed and disappearing into the shadows on the other side.
The gatehouse guard did not even look out the window.
Kraig sat tensely for half the night, waiting for the witch to reappear, but finally, close to dawn, he succumbed to a restless sleep.