Friday, January 27, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 15 - 'when stone was mitch'
Stone was silent for a very long time, gathering his thoughts. Working up his courage. Then:
'You've asked me more than once what goes on down here,' he said at last, 'and I've always put you off. Well...' He shifted uncomfortably. 'All right, let me put it this way. There are... victims, and there are, uh, bullies. And after roll call every morning - if you can call it 'morning' in a place of endless dark - the guards turn everyone loose. And the bullies... go after the victims.'
'But what do the bullies do to...'
'Oh, Starr!' said he in the anguish of his soul. 'That I won't tell you.'
Oh. She thought that over for a bit. What could be so awful that he wouldn't tell her, and would couch it only in sanitized labels? He couldn't be talking about fighting, because that's what went on upstairs where Forest and James were. So what... could it...
'You were a victim...' she said at last. It was a statement, not a question.
She shifted to look in his face. 'Stone?'
At length, not meeting her eye, he said, 'Well, we all start out as victims, when we're small. Victims are usually the small and weak. And bullies... are usually, uh, big...'
He cut a glance at her then, and for a second she looked into the eyes of this man she loved so dearly. This... big... man...
He was, she realized, telling her without having to tell her. Wordlessly, she reached for one of his hands. Held it. Squeezed it.
'Some of the victims,' he went on, 'hate being victims. Others - such is the way things go - love being victims. Go figure. And it's the same with the bullies. Some love it; others hate it with a passion.' His head fell back then, leaning against the wall behind them, his eyes focused on things Starr could not see. 'But... they can't stop. They might want to stop. But this is all they know. How do you change? Even if you want to, how can you change?'
The prisoner's cry of 'People don't change!' echoed through Starr's memory.
And then she understood. 'That's why he hates you,' she said. 'He's a victim. And... you bullied him.'
Miserably, Stone nodded.
'But the Master came for you. He got you out. He changed you.'
'Yes, he did.' And that brought a slight smile to his lips. 'But it doesn't erase the past. It doesn't erase his memories,' his voice dropped off to a whisper, 'of what I did to him.'
From her heart, Starr breathed, 'I am so sorry.'
'Sorry? You didn't do anything.'
'You're hurting. If there was any way I could take that hurt for you, so you wouldn't feel it, I would do that. And,' she added, 'he's hurting too...'
Stone sighed. 'Yeah. And I just blew the whole thing.' He shook his head. 'Why would the Master send me here, knowing that just the sight of me would send the guy off into...' He shook his head again, then winced as if he could feel his brain sloshing around in there.
'I don't know,' said Starr softly. 'I only know what I saw, what the Master told me just before they threw him into Solitary. And I still think...'
She trailed off. She could still think it, but she sure couldn't fathom how the Master would pull it off.
Stone sighed deeply. 'Well,' he said, determinedly pushing away the dark thoughts. 'At least he doesn't know that we came back here. If he did know that, he'd be sending the guards after us in a heart beat. As it is...' and Stone paused to listen to the outside world.
The usual noise of the subterranean day was going on out there, but nothing that sounded like the guards anymore. 'All right, we should probably get you out of here as soon as possible,' Stone said. 'Even if he doesn't realize we've come back here, he might decide to tell them I've been using this cell. And then they might come to check this room anyway. So, let's go.'
Starr blinked. 'Go?'
'Yeah,' said he.
'Right now? In the middle of the day?'
'But... but... From what the man in Solitary said, I'm the only woman down here.'
'Won't they see me?'
'Maybe,' said Stone. 'But I'm counting on them not noticing you.'
Starr's wide eyes went even wider. 'How could they not notice me? My hair! My dress!'
'And your sword. And your lack of chains.' He chuckled at her blank, baffled look. 'Starr, all day yesterday I was going around amongst them. And not a one of them paid a bit of attention to my sword, or the fact that I wasn't wearing chains. I don't know if maybe Mac did something to them, like what he did to the guards back in the valley, or just what's going on...'
'Like why candlelight doesn't shine through this blanket,' she agreed.
'Exactly. But we have some sort of... favor, I guess you'd call it, on us in this dungeon. And I'm counting on that to take us through to get you upstairs, little girl.'
Oh. 'I, I'm sorry, Stone.'
Another chuckle. 'Now what are you sorry for?'
Her cheek twitched. 'For doubting you. I should have trusted you better than I just did.'
'No problem, dearie,' said he, giving her a quick tight squeeze. 'Now, up we get. And you keep your eyes shut till we get to the stairs, ok?'
He hopped to his feet in a trice and blew out the candle. Gripping Starr's hand, he boosted her to her feet.
And she shrieked. Her hand instantly vanished from his grasp, and he lost her in the darkness.
'Starr?' Afraid to move for fear of stepping on her, he fumbled for the candlestub he'd just dropped on top of his pack. Found it. Lit it.
There she was, sprawled in the mire, whimpering. Her hands were wrapped round her ankle.
'What's wrong?' he asked.
Through her tears, she moaned, 'My... my foot... it's... oh, oww...!'
Stone knelt by her. 'But how could this happen? We were only sitting here. How could your foot get hurt?'
'I, I don't...' And then she gasped. 'Wait. Oh!' She turned her tear-streaked face up to look at him. 'When he was kicking you, back in Solitary, I tried to make him stop. I got in the way and, and he kicked me. It was an accident, Stone, but - it was this ankle.'
Stone brought the candle close. Her ankle was definitely swelling and turning dark. He touched it and she flinched. 'You can't walk?' he said.
'I...' She paused, considering. 'I don't know. I mean, it caught me by surprise; I hadn't noticed it was hurting, and certainly didn't expect my leg to collapse like that. So maybe... Maybe I can walk...'
'Let's try.' He took her hand again and steadied her as she got her good foot under her. They stood as one, with her teetering on the one foot, clutching Stone's hand, gathering the courage to set the other foot on the floor.
'Ahh!' She stifled the cry of pain as she snatched her foot up again.
'Can't put weight on it?' he asked.
Tears spilling, she shook her head no. 'What are we going to do now?' she said, trying hard not to wail.
He sighed. 'Oh, man. What are we going to do? I might could carry you out - but not past everyone. I can't expect nobody to notice that. Hmm...'
('But you could have carried her out now,' said Forest. 'So where is she?'
'I'm getting to that,' Stone replied.)
Holding her two hands, he carefully eased her back down so she could sit, her bad leg poking out in front of her at an awkward angle. Then he began to think. Thinking, thinking, racking his still-aching brains for some solution. And finally having to give up. 'I don't know, Starr. You're just going to have to stay here for now,' he said. And, at her forlorn look, he offered, 'I'll stay with you if you want.'
'But you have to search for Walker.'
He nodded. 'I know. But...'
She dashed the tears from her face and gave him a lop-sided, plucky smile. 'I'll be fine,' she said. 'You go. I'll be right here.'
'Yeah, with that foot, no kidding,' he chuckled. Then sobered. 'That is, unless the guards come and search this room...'
'Well. Maybe they won't come. Or if they do, maybe they won't see me.'
'And if they come and they see you, maybe they won't take you away? I don't think the favor extends that far. And anyway,' he added, hunkering down by her to trace a finger along a tear track zigzagging across her cheek, 'that's a lot of maybe's.'
'True. But we don't know what's going to happen. We just have to trust the Master with it.'
He nodded. 'He at least knows.' A sigh. 'All right then. I'm going. Scream if you need me.'
'I love you, Stone,' said she.
She looked so sweet and appealing, there in the candlelight, looking up at him, that Stone nearly broke his resolve not to kiss her till they were wed. 'And I you. I'll be back,' he promised.
'I'll be waiting,' she promised back.
And he left.
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