Friday, December 30, 2005
the child, part 3, chapter 11 - 'stephen... and beatriz'
The smash of a fist on the cell door accompanied the massive voice growling out, 'You, Rob! Roll call in five minutes! Get a move on in there!'
The former Rob stared, hollow-eyed, across at Jack, who for his part was also a bit shaken by the onslaught of that voice. Only Morgen seemed unaffected by it. The tromp of heavy feet out in the corridor told them that the guard was moving on to the next door down the hall. They heard him hammer on that next door and rumble out his merry wake-up call at the next poor bloke stuck in these cells.
Stephen let out his pent-up breath. Then he turned to Jack and whispered, 'He's not going to do it again, is he?'
'Do what?' said Jack.
'Take my place, the way he did yesterday morning. You think Morgen's going to do that again?'
'I have no clue,' Jack replied. He too had been stunned the previous morning when one of the guards had unlocked the door. Stephen had been glumly heading for the door when Morgan stopped him and strode up to the guard instead. And the guard, apparently without ever noticing the real Stephen (or Jack either, for that matter), had grabbed Morgen by the arm and hauled him off in Stephen's place.
'How could that guard have mistaken him for me yesterday?' the much-shorter Stephen added, nodding over at stately Morgen. 'How could anyone?'
'Beats me,' said Jack. 'He woulda had to been bli...' And then, in the middle of the word 'blind,' Jack remembered the vast army of guards staggering their way back to the fortress. And he said no more.
A key scraped into the lock. 'Continue the search,' said Morgen quietly. He stepped towards the door as it opened. Though Morgen easily towered over the guard who now entered, the guard barely glanced at him. 'C'mon, Rob,' he grunted, propelling Morgen out the door and away.
Stephen just stood there, shaking his head. 'Off to the grind he goes again,' he said after the door closed them in once more. 'And in my place.'
'The grind?' asked Jack.
'Oh yeah, you know - the work they make us do.'
'What kind of work?'
Stephen shrugged. 'Hard work. But dumb. Just busy work. Makes you feel like you're accomplishing a lot, but it's all meaningless.' Absently he picked up a figurine from the top of the dresser next to him, turning it over in his hand. 'Like hamsters running in a wheel,' he said.
And then he realized what he had done. He stood there, frowning down at the little figurine he was holding. Then, looking up, he took in the piles and piles of stuff clogging his cell. His frown deepened. 'You know what?' he muttered.
'I know a few things,' quipped Jack.
'Hmm? Oh. Sorry. Thinking out loud, I guess.' Gesturing at all the stuff, he added, 'Most of this ain't mine, you know. I stole it. Snuck around here, there, and everywhere, making off with whatever caught my eye.' Gently he set the figurine back in its place. A nod. 'I gotta give it all back.'
Jack whistled. 'That's a big job.'
'Yeah, but - I can't keep it all. Right? Not when the stuff isn't mine.'
'True.' Jack dropped into the cell's only chair, plopping himself down on it backwards so he could rest his arms on the back. 'But if you start doing all that, when will we have time to search for Walker?'
Stephen sighed, closed his eyes, rubbed at the bridge of his nose. 'Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Walker comes first. And besides...' He looked over the accumulation of many years once more. '...soon as we can find him, we'll be out of here. And once I'm gone, everyone I took the stuff from can just come here and get it back.' Reaching up to spin a gaudy bauble hanging from the ceiling, he added, mostly to himself, 'Not like I remember half the names of who all I nicked the stuff from anyway...'
For a moment, they both fell quiet. And in that quiet, they heard all too plainly the clamor still going on out in the corridor. Roll call must now be finished, for the guards were roughly herding the prisoners away, taking them off to the workrooms for this day's grind.
Listening, Stephen winced in sympathy. Up until two days ago, that would have been him as well...
And then Stephen stiffened.
'What's wrong?' asked Jack.
For now a grimace had spread over Stephen's face. 'Idiot,' he muttered darkly.
Jack glanced round the empty room, then looked back up at Stephen. 'Um... there ain't no one here but you and me. So, unless there's someone hiding under the bed there, I'm guessing - I'm the idiot...?'
Stephen sighed. 'No, I am. I mean, look at me, Jack! Here I was, throwing accusations at the Master about him letting people he loves rot in these dungeons. And I was about to do the very same thing. My brother!'
Jack shook his head, confused. 'Brother? You mean Walker? We're just about to go look for him, remember?'
'No, no, not Walker. My brother. My own flesh-and-blood.' And Stephen pointed at the floor under his feet. 'He's been down there for years now, and here I was just going to walk away from these dungeons without giving him a single thought. He's gotta go with us!'
A spark lit inside Jack for some reason. 'Down there? Down where?'
'All the way down,' said Stephen.
'The lowest level? Really?'
'Yeah. Though I don't know see why that should start you grinning like that.'
Jack was all but laughing out loud. 'Happens we've got a team down there,' he replied. 'All the way down on the lowest level, ready to bring someone to the Master and get them out of these dungeons forevermore.' And then he sat and watched in delight all the emotions that splashed over Stephen's face.
'A, a team?' Stephen managed at last. Oh, the man could barely talk! 'Who...?' he stammered. 'Who...?'
'Starr and Stone. You haven't met them yet.'
'No,' Stephen shook his head. 'Not that. I didn't... I mean, who...?'
'Oh, who are they going after? Well, that's the part we don't know. Walker never got down that far. So they're searching the lowest dungeon for anyone they can find who's ready to get out of there.'
Tears hit Stephen's eyes as his face fell. 'Oh, man,' he whispered. 'Oh, I hope they find my brother! And I sure hope he wants to leave with us! Can you imagine,' he added fervently, 'can you imagine how wonderful it would be, to get see your own brother set free too?'
'Actually,' said Jack very quietly, very soberly, as a long-ago memory swelled into his mind, 'I can imagine it very well.'
Silence at length reigned out in the corridors. Jack popped up from the chair and crossed the cell to stick his ear to the door. Nothing. 'All right,' he said, 'I think it's time. Let's go.'
Together they headed out into a silent world. With everyone hauled away to the workrooms for the day, the corridors were echoingly empty. So Jack and Stephen did all they could to keep from creating any echoes.
Two at a time, the same as they had done all day long the day before, the pair of them checked the rooms. Jack took the left-hand side of the corridor, while Stephen had the right. Slide the key into the lock, turn it softly, open the door, slip in, look around, slip out again, close the door. And then on to the next room. Listen for guards. Watch each other's back.
And so the day passed. One cell soon blurred into the next. Stomachs rumbled with hunger after several hours, and they hid in an empty cell while Jack brought out some of the apples from his pack to make a very sketchy lunch of. And then they went on, room after room, hour after hour.
They reached, at length, the last cell of the last corridor. And still no Walker. 'All right,' said Jack. 'If he isn't here, then we go up to the next level like the Master said, and we get started searching there.'
'Up,' said Stephen wistfully.
A shrug. 'It's just... be nice if it was down, so we could maybe help my brother too.'
Jack nodded. 'Yeah. Well, we can hope Starr and Stone find him. And anyway, the Master knows. And he loves your brother even more than you do. Just talk to him about it. Trust him with it.' A pause and a smile. 'After all, the Master got my brother out of here.'
'Yup. Sure did.'
They walked in silence towards the stairway door. And just as they reached it, Stephen added softly, 'Thanks, Jack. That's good to know.' And with a swipe at the tears threatening to sting his eyes, he added, 'I sure hope he'll get mine out too.'
'Yeah,' said Jack. 'I'm praying for that.' And then they slipped through the door and on up the stairs.
This level was as empty and deserted as the one they'd just left. Quickly, for they were sure the day must be far spent now, the two set to the work, this time Jack taking the right side and Stephen the left. And into the same routine as before they fell: sliding the key into the lock, turning it softly, opening the door, slipping in, looki...
'Did you hear something?' Stephen whispered.
Hear something? Jack froze where he was, his key hovering at the next door's lock as he listened. And then frowned. The level was quiet, so quiet.
Slowly Jack straightened up and turned to look at Stephen. Something... something... He couldn't put his finger on it, but something had just definitely... changed. As if in response, all the hair on the back of Jack's neck suddenly stood up at attention.
From across the corridor, Stephen was staring back at him. 'What is it?' he mouthed.
Oh, there, that was the question, all right. Slipping his key into his pocket, Jack dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword as he swiveled his head to glance up the corridor, looking back in the direction they had just come from.
Out of the tail of his eye, Jack saw Stephen do the same.
There was nothing there.
Jack's frown deepened. He started to turn again to check the other way...
'Be not afraid.'
Stifling a yelp, Stephen jumped half out of his skin as sweat bloomed abruptly all over him. And Jack, in a single fluid motion that Forest would have been proud of, both spun about and drew his sword at the same moment, bringing the sharp tip up to confront the sudden interloper. Tensely, Jack faced down the length of his sword, scowling at... at...
No one moved for a moment. And then Jack dropped the sword to his side as all the air whooshed out of him. 'Mac! Man, you scared me out of ten years' growth,' Jack grumbled good-naturedly as he gladly sheathed his weapon.
'Which are now restored you,' Mac smiled in answer. 'Hello, Stephen,' he added.
Stephen nodded a greeting in return, his heart still racing. Finding his voice again, he asked, 'You're the one from upstairs, aren't you? The one I met last night?'
'Then what are you doing down here?' There was a definite tinge of belligerence in the little man's voice - understandable, perhaps, given the dramatic entrance Mac had just made.
'I am doing the same as you are,' Mac replied easily. 'I am searching for Walker.'
'But I thought you were supposed to be searching your own level,' Stephen went on. 'Or did I misunderstand what you were all talking about when you reported in last night?'
'You misunderstood nothing,' Mac replied mildly. 'I have finished searching my level.'
'I don't guess you found...' Jack put in, then caught himself. 'No. If you'd found Walker, you would have said so right off.'
'You are correct, Jack.'
'That still doesn't explain what you're doing here,' Stephen went on, still upset. 'Once you were done with your level, the Master's orders were for you to go to the level above you. Right? Or did you misunderstand?'
'Stephen...' Jack began.
But Mac broke in, his voice still soft, still calm. 'I finished that level as well, my friend. And so I came here to help you check this one.'
'You... finished?' Stunned, Stephen stammered out, 'But... but... how? How could you get finished that quickly? The two of us working together barely got done with ours just now. And we've been at it two days!'
'Oh,' Jack said suddenly, his voice quite hollow.
Stephen turned to look at him. 'What's the matter?'
Jack was staring at Maccabees. 'Something's happened, hasn't it?' he said. 'Something that's made it urgent that we find Walker right away now. Am I right? Please tell me I'm wrong.'
Mac met his gaze. 'Sadly, Jack,' he said, 'you are not wrong.'
'Oh, man. What? What happened?'
Quietly, Mac said, 'Early this morning, I was able to make contact with Beatriz.'
'Beatriz?' said Stephen. 'She's the one you're supposed to get out of here?'
'That I and Walker are supposed to get out, yes.'
'So... things didn't go so well?' Jack prompted.
A shake of the head. 'Fear holds the poor woman more surely that the chains on her wrists or the bars of this fortress,' said Mac.
Stephen shook his head. 'Meaning?'
'Meaning that she told me, quite bluntly, that until and unless she sees Walker standing at my side, she is too fearful to trust me or any other. She will not hear, nor will she listen to, any but the man Walker.' He spread his hands. 'And so without Walker...'
'She won't set foot out of this prison,' said Jack.
Stephen sighed. 'Yeah, we gotta find Walker. And fast!'
The clash of the stairway door opening echoed throughout the level, followed by the gabble of many guards leading many prisoners.
'But not right now, we won't,' muttered Jack. 'Come on. We gotta find a place to hide till the corridors clear out again and we can make our way back down to our own level.'
'There is a broom closet that way,' Mac pointed.
And as Jack and Stephen hurried to the temporary shelter Mac had directed them to, neither of them noticed how Mac, behind them, suddenly and simply vanished from sight.
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