Friday, November 11, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 4 - 'dirty laundry'


One level down and a few minutes earlier, Joy and Malachi had slipped into the broom closet there to hide. 'Wait here. Rest,' Mal told Joy. 'I will return shortly.'

'Where are you going?' she asked.

'To check for Walker.'

'I can go too,' she protested.

'You are exhausted. You must sleep,' Mal replied.

Joy wanted to argue further - started to argue further - but there was no use denying that Mal was right. She was completely worn out. And just a few minutes later, immediately after Malachi left to search, she was quickly sound asleep.

He searched the level. No sign of Walker, which was exactly what he had expected to find. He knew that, while the Enemy might choose eventually to throw Walker into one of these dungeon cells - first, he would have his guards work the man over, to beat out of him everything that Walker knew.

Not to mention, to punish him for having infiltrated these dungeons.

They needed to find him, and soon. But Walker was not in this level. And Talia was.

Morning announced itself with the clatter of guards throwing open all the cell doors. 'Everybody out!' echoed and reechoed throughout the level.

The noise of it woke Joy, and it took her a moment to get her bearings. Oh yes - broom closet - that's right. 'Malachi?' she whispered, wondering had he returned from his search. This room was too dark for her to see if he was in here or not.

'I'm right here,' he whispered back.

'And Walker?' she asked. She was disappointed, but not surprised, that his answer to that question was No. Where could the poor man be? Joy wondered. Where in all this horrid fortress had they taken him?

'What about Talia?' she added. 'Did you contact her?'

'Without you? Of course not.'

That brought a moment's smile to her face. She really did not want to be left out!

The noises outside this tiny closet were fading into the distance. 'Come,' said Malachi. 'We shall see where the guards are taking them all.'

Out of the broom closet the pair crept, into the deserted corridor, then along the corridor to the far end, tracking the fading sounds of the prisoners and guards. Into the stairway - that was interesting. Up the stairs - where were they going? Pass the ground level of the dungeons, and still on upstairs - that was surprising! And into the guards' quarters? To here? Why were they taking the prisoners here?

The door was closed by the time Mal and Joy reached it. There was a small window in the door, though. Malachi glanced through it, then backed off and gestured for Joy to have a look. She had to stretch up on tiptoe to peek through it. What was going on inside?

The room beyond this door was huge, a great dormitory - no, a barracks. Rows and rows and rows of beds, most of them occupied, but who was in the beds Joy couldn't quite... Oh! These were the guards, the ones that had captured them back in the valley; Joy spotted a few faces among them that she recognized. And they were apparently still afflicted, just as they had been when last she had seen them, when she and the rest had followed them slowly to the fortress - had that happened only yesterday? She saw again their groping hands, and stumbling feet, and confused looks. And she almost felt sorry for them.

Almost.

Other guards were standing around throughout the barracks, ordering the prisoners about. Those must be the guards who weren't afflicted, Joy decided, the ones who had just now rounded up these prisoners and brought them up here - but for what reason? Joy still hadn't a clue.

The prisoners themselves were milling about, carrying things to the guards on the beds. Food, drink, books. Some of the young prisoners - and they were all young, all of them about Joy's own age - were sitting on the edges of the beds, reading from books to the recuperating guards. Whiling the time away, Joy guessed.

It didn't seem so bad...

So why was the back of her neck crawling?

And then Joy saw. There. A young girl, sitting, morosely reading to the guard lying on the bed by her. A sly smile stole over the guard's face, as his hand fumbled towards her and then slipped up over the girl's back. Her shirt rumpled, as his hand reached...

Ew! Reached up under her shirt. The girl paused in her reading, then wearily continued. The look on her face told the tale. She didn't like what was happening, but there was nothing she could do to stop it, was there?

Joy stuffed her hand over her mouth, feeling like she was going to retch. Back when she'd lived here, she had been on the first level below ground. She hadn't ever gone through anything like this!

'There's Talia,' Malachi whispered. 'The tall blonde. See her? Scar across her cheek?'

Joy didn't want to look again. But she did. Scanning faces quickly, trying not to see what was now breaking out all over the room. And there she was. The tall girl Mal had pointed out. She too had that same weary, no-way-out look on her face that the others wore. Talia's job here, unlike the others who were having to 'entertain' the guards, was apparently to gather up the guards' thrown-off uniforms that were strewn all over the beds and floor. And what a nasty set of foul-smelling clothes they must be, Joy guessed. For Talia seemed to be doing her best to hold her breath as she bent down repeatedly, scooping up uniform after disgusting uniform.

Poor Talia!

And then, as the tall girl reached for a particularly nasty bit of clothing in the middle of the floor - one of the guards kicked it up under a bed. Head down, the girl groped under the bed, trying to scoop it out - when the guard occupying that bed reared back and gave the girl a stinging swat on the rump. He roared with laughter.

Talia dropped flat to the floor, the clothes scattering. Still keeping her head hung down, she laboriously gathered again into her bosom all those horrid uniforms, then began wearily to push herself back upright. She was pushing herself up, though, by leaning her hand on the edge of the bed. Yes, the same bed that that guard was lying in, the guard who had just clouted her and laughed about it.

He must have felt that she was resting her weight on the bed, for his half-blind piggy eyes lit with an ugly glee. In an instant his hand snaked out and caught at hers. He hauled on her arm, making disgusting lewd kissing faces at her as he tried to pull her closer.

Talia's face was dead as she let him draw her near, very near.

And then she dumped that armload of filthy clothes right on top of his head.

~~~~~~~


The uproar that followed was intense. Some of the guards laughed their heads off at the girl's treatment of their indisposed companion. Others rushed towards her, yelling angrily, brandishing whips and clubs. While the one under the pile of filthy laundry was obviously screaming, shoving the nasty clothes off himself as fast as he could.

Talia just stood there, arms limp, looking like she had neither brain nor will in all her being.

One of the guards bustled towards her, shaking a coiled whip right in her face, gesturing at her to pick up the foul stuff she's dropped on the sick man. Dully, she complied, then stood up again, arms full of laundry, head hanging low.

The guard went on yelling at her, pointing at the door. This door, where Joy and Mal were now watching!

Joy glanced at Malachi. What should they do?

He nodded at the view into the room again.

Here came Talia, looking completely dull and lifeless. As she reached the door, Malachi drew Joy aside, all but melting into the shadows. The door opened, and a guard pushed the vapid-looking girl outside. 'And mind you get 'em clean!' he growled at her, giving her a kick to help her out the door.

Once again, the tall girl hit the floor full-length. With a bark of a laugh, the guard slammed the door after her. With himself inside.

Talia sighed where she lay in the midst of the foul-smelling mess. And then she sprang to her feet, snatching up the clothes in a trice and hurrying away at a strong and healthy stride. Joy blinked after her, wondering at the sudden transformation.

Malachi was smiling at the change. 'Let's catch up,' he whispered.

Joy nearly had to run to do so. The girl was hurrying along, obviously knowing just where she wanted to go. Swiftly she reached the stairs and rushed down, her feet beating a rapid staccato tattoo as they carried her to the next level down. Joy was careful to follow more quietly as she and Mal hurried down the stairs after her. They heard the stairway door open and close again as Talia passed through. Easing the door open themselves, they followed.

A door down the hallway was just swinging shut. Like the door they had spied through on the level above, this one had a small window set in it. So Mal and Joy peeped in.

Steam. That was the first impression they got. Trickles of water running down the inside of the window gave them a distorted view of the room beyond. But there seemed to be any number of great open - vats? barrels? no, washtubs - throughout the room. Steam was rising out of all those washtubs, curling through the room, dampening anything and everything it touched.

Ugh! Joy began to feel wilted, just looking at all that steam.

Malachi tapped her shoulder. 'Go in and engage her,' he whispered. 'As long as we're here, I'll check this level for Walker, then return.'

'Engage...?'

'...her in conversation. Talk with her. Offer to help with the wash she's doing.' He smiled encouragingly. 'The timing is perfect.'

'But the others!'

'Others?'

He had a point. There were only a few other people in the washroom right now, and none of them were guards. Only a handful of other prisoners, busy with laundry already in the early morning. Likely more would be here soon, since the room was large enough to hold nearly an army of launderers. Now was likely as empty as it would ever be. Now, as Malachi had said, was perfect timing.

All right. Joy nodded. Mal patted her shoulder and disappeared quickly down the corridor to make his search. Joy, with a deep breath and deeper prayer, opened the door before her and walked in.

~~~~~~~


The damp heat hit her like a slap across the face. Ugh! It was a bit disorienting, all this heat, and she stopped for a moment to look around again. There was Talia, standing by one great steaming tub, shoving the contents around and around inside it with what looked like a huge paddle. Joy walked over to her and did what Malachi had suggested she do. She said, 'Want some help?'

Talia froze. For a second the mask of dullness started to come down over her face. But then she realized there was no one there but another girl her own age - no guards. So instead, a look of wariness fell into place. 'Who are you?' she asked fiercely.

'Joy.' She said it with a smile.

Talia frowned, eyes narrowed. 'Joey is a boy's name.'

'No, I mean Joy as in, you know, happy.'

Talia's eyes narrowed even further. 'Happy? Who would be happy here?'

She had a point, and for a second, Joy thought maybe she would have done better to use her old name of Sallie. But then she thought to say, 'Well, I didn't get that name here. That's my new name.' And she picked up a spare paddle and started helping to stir the clothes in the tub.

Talia was still frowning. Slowly, she put her paddle back in and started stirring as well.

It took a bit of coordination, Joy found, to not jam her paddle in Talia's way and so wind up being more trouble than help. She had to keep her eyes on the wash constantly, which was a pity, since she would much rather be studying Talia's face and trying to fathom what the girl was thinking.

Finally, Talia said, 'Why do you have a new name?'

Moment of truth, thought Joy. 'Because the Master gave it to me,' she said softly.

Not softly enough, apparently, for Talia instantly hissed 'Shhh!' at her and glanced sharply about. None of the others seemed to be paying any attention to them, though. Relaxing a bit, Talia whispered, 'You... What...? How...?' And then came a sharp intake of breath as the tall girl realized, 'You don't have any chains!'

Joy looked down at her own arms, then across at Talia's. It was true, of course; Talia, just like all the other prisoners here, had heavy chains fastened to her two wrists, stringing across her body.

She looked up now at Talia's face. The tall girl's eyes were round with awe - and a bit of fear. In her lowest whisper yet, she asked Joy, 'Walker?'

Joy nodded.

The least hint of a smile broke in the corner of the tall girl's mouth. Again she checked to be sure no one was taking an interest in their conversation, then she whispered, 'You know where I live?'

'I know which level.' Curiously, Walker had not bothered to write down the exact location of Talia's cell in his notes.

Swiftly, breathlessly, Talia gave Joy the corridor and cell number. 'Tonight,' she added, a hungry look of hope in her eyes. 'After lock-in. You come. But,' and she glanced again around the room, 'be careful, Joy. Don't let the guards catch you.'

'I will. I mean, I won't. I mean...' Joy rolled her eyes at herself. 'Oh, you know what I mean.'

This time Talia really smiled. She had a nice smile, even with the scar that cut across her cheek and jaw. 'I'll be looking forward to it. For now though...' and wariness shaded her eyes again, '...maybe you better disappear before someone catches us talking.'

'All right. See you tonight,' Joy was replying when a movement suddenly caught both girls' attention. The door was opening! They both stiffened. Talia dropped instantly into her dull-and-lifeless routine, while Joy clashed her paddle against Talia's in an excess of nervousness.

The door stopped opening. A face slipped part-way into the room, peering with one eye straight at the girls.

It was Malachi.

All the air whooshed out of Joy in relief as her partner gestured for her to come along quickly. 'He's with me,' Joy assured her tall new friend. And then, with a brief smile of farewell, Joy hurried from the room.

Mal caught her arm and rushed her away. Off for the stairs, down them as quietly as possible, and then for the broom closet. They had to dodge guards twice, backtracking and even hiding swiftly behind an opening door, before they at last made it safely to their hiding place. Only after Mal closed the closet door, shutting them in with the brooms and mops and towels, did Joy dare to ask, 'Anything?'

Mal shook his head. 'No sign of Walker yet.'

'Then why the rush?'

He smiled tightly. 'I spotted ten guards leading a long line of prisoners, all of them carrying armloads of dirty clothes. I needed to get you out of there quickly.'

Ew. Joy shivered, glad to have such a good partner to watch over her.

'And you?' he asked.

Then she smiled. 'We meet with her tonight, after lock-in.'

'Good. Excellent.' He drew a deep breath, then said, 'Well. As we will be up in the night again, I would suggest that you to try to sleep just now. Oh, and...' He pulled something down from one of the shelves around them. 'Here's a towel. Likely you feel as if you were just in a steam bath.'

She grinned as she accepted the towel. 'I think maybe I was,' she replied.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Comments:
good, clear writing. I was very interested by this story.

You may find a thesaurus to be a great help. I felt that some of the descriptions could have been more powerful simply by using stronger words.

Keep up the good writing.

I too am a writer. You should check out my blog which I sometimes post excerpts from my novel on.

Have a great day.
 
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