Friday, February 03, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 16 - 'starr alone'
Sitting alone there in the corner, without Stone, with the screams and commotion of the deepest dungeon echoing through the cell around her, Starr found it very hard not to imagine what was going on out there. In fact, she had to fight her imagination, which was spitting out picture after picture to explain the horrendous sounds she was hearing.
It was exhausting. But she saw even more clearly that Stone was right: she really did not want to know what was happening. Pressing her hands over her ears was next to no help. And anyway, when she did that, she couldn't hold her ankle. And she needed to hold her ankle.
Presently the thought hit her to pack some of the cool mire round the ankle. Finding some cloth in her pack, she made a bandage to hold the slippery muck in place, glad that the skin was not broken.
And she sat. And she waited.
And as she waited, her mind began to wander about. She wondered what was going to happen next, and whether the guards would show up here at this cell. She wondered how the prisoner was doing, and if he would ever forgive her. Not that she thought she had done anything against him - but he obviously thought she had, and that was enough.
She cried for a bit for him, then dried her tears. And her mind wandered some more.
She wondered why Stone had made this shelter out of the old, ratty blanket. He must have found it on the bed over there, so it was the prisoner's blanket. Why hadn't Stone used his own, which would have been so much more light-proof? Had he known already about this 'favor'?
But soon, as she grew chilly and pulled out her own blanket to wrap up in, she realized why. Stone had wanted the better blanket to sleep in, to keep the cold out.
And soon after that, she found a second reason Stone had chosen to hang up the prisoner's old blanket rather than sleep in it. For she gradually noticed that, in the flickering light of the candle, there were flickers across the face of the ratty old blanket that weren't merely shadows and light. Peering closer, she saw...
Tiny, tiny insects. Evil-looking insects. Things she really, really did not want coming anywhere close to her skin.
She shuddered and shrank back. Ew! They hadn't had anything like that up on the ground-floor where she had been! Oh, no - they were clean; they were superior; they were the best, the good people...
Oh! She remembered that? Was she beginning to remember things? Eagerly, happily, she pursued the memory, looking to see what else she might recall.
But no - whatever more she might have remembered had already taken to wings and flown out of her head.
Sigh. Oh, well...
Time passed, but how much time it was hard to tell. Presently her stomach announced that whatever the time, it was time to eat. So she pulled out an apple.
She looked at it. Memories flooded in. Not her long-ago past this time, but the immediate past. From that morning - the prisoner's dream. And from the day before, the poor guy's rapture at getting to bite into a real apple. And his indignation when he realized that while he was eating, she wasn't.
Why hadn't she eaten? In fact, come to think of it, she hadn't had a bite the whole time she'd been down here. Hungry she was - her stomach was plain on that point. So why...?
The word appeared whole inside her head. Fast. Yes. Fasting...
Frown. She had heard that phrase before, hadn't she?
...this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting...
What kind, she wondered. The kind that afflicted the prisoner? That made him - so small, he was - one of the victims? One of the kind of victims who hated it, she guessed.
Without really noticing it, she had put the apple away.
And almost without noticing it, she began to pray. For the prisoner - for his safety - for his heart to beat after the Master's heart - for his hatred of being a victim to blossom into a longing to be out of this prison - to be free. Free not just from the chains and the dungeon holding him captive, but free within - free of the inner chains. Free in heart.
For him to change; the very thing he thought no one could do.
Beloved, she whispered into the lonely air, praying such words as appeared within her head, speaking his will with her mouth.
Time passed. Tiredness overcame her. She prayed on, slowly wearing down. Slowly her eyes closed. Slowly her mind wandered off again.
Why, she wondered... When Stone had been lying there on the floor, while the prisoner was kicking him - why he had said, 'ta-ta'? She'd never known him to say such a thing before; he always just said 'good-bye.' Or 'I'll be back.' Or 'catch you later'...
So why? *yawn* Was he really saying 'ta-ta'? Or was it something else? Something like maybe... *yawwwwwwwn*... a name...?
Still spitting out curses under his breath, the prisoner paced. He was far too angry to sit down; as he stomped back and forth in the mire, he was throwing off energy that could all but be seen crackling off of him. How could she do that? Bring that no-good curse-curse-curse in here with him? Mitch! Of all people he hated, Mitch!
His stomach was rumbling, but he was too angry to care. Back and forth he paced, churning up the mire, churning out the curses, till...
A light. The room was growing less dark again. Were they coming back? Were they that crazy? Man! He'd trusted her...
Trusted? Since when did he trust anyone? Maybe he was the crazy one...
He stopped pacing and watched the patch of light spreading on the far wall, defining into the shape of the iron-barred window, moving down the wall and across the floor to his feet.
Whoever was coming was here now. And bearing a torch. A pretty good bet it wasn't them again, but was instead...
A heavy hand battered the door. 'Look alive in there,' barked a guard. 'If you are still alive, you,' curses.
'I'm here,' the prisoner replied sullenly.
'Want some lunch?' growled the guard.
Lunch? Oh, yes! His stomach jumped with joy.
'Well, too bad, 'cause you ain't getting any!' The sadist guard laughed with maniacal glee as the helpless prisoner's hopes fell and were crushed in the mire. No lunch? Were they going to starve him this time?
'Heh, just funning you,' the guard added. 'Catch!' A fairly microscopic something flew in through the window. The prisoner leapt to catch it.
And landed face-first in the muck. But laughing. He might be yucky from head to foot, but he'd caught the food this time! Ignoring the guffaws of the guard, he crammed the bit of stale bread into his jaws, chewing, chewing, chewing.
The light retreated. Or began to. Suddenly there was an oath from outside.
'What the' curse 'is this?' The torchlight sprang up towards the ceiling as the guard bent for the floor. Straightening, he thrust his arm inside the window on the door, shaking something at the prisoner. 'Where the' same curse 'did this come from? You been having visitors?'
Warily, swallowing first, the prisoner slinked just close enough to the guard's hand to see what was in it - certainly not close enough for the guard to be able to grab him. He knew better than that. But what was in the guard's hand? It was small, stubby...
No, the candle. That same stub of candle that Mitch had lit, which had shown him Mitch's face and shown Mitch his.
The guard waved the candle at the prisoner's nose. 'Where'd this come from?' he demanded.
The prisoner licked his parched lips. Here it was, his golden moment. He could rat Mitch out! He didn't know if the scum had gone back to his own cell that he'd told Starr he'd taken over - but who cared! Just telling the guards that there were some of them in here - the people with their precious keys - the goody-goodies... Yeah! They would reward him for ratting them out.
His vision spangled as he imagined it: food, and drink - real drink, not brackish water like they usual gave the captives. And fame - his name known and lauded - not cursed like they always cursed him, guards and prisoners alike. All he needed to do was tell...
And as his mouth opened, he saw her. Starr. So strange, so foreign. Yet so trusting. She...
She had trusted him. No one had ever trusted him before.
For good reason. Trusting people got you hurt, got you killed.
'Where'd this come from?' the guard growled once again.
The prisoner started to tell. He really did. And then, instead, he snarled back, 'How the' curse 'should I know? Probably one of you blasted guards - sneaking around to see his girlfriend!'
For response, the guard spewed out a blistering barrage of curses. Flinging the candle at the prisoner's feet, he took his torch and left.
But for some reason, the cell didn't seem so dark anymore. And the prisoner's heart certainly felt lighter than it had ever felt in all his life. Why was that?
She woke. Blinking. It was dark. Her candle?
She felt for it. Found only a still-warm, still-soft puddle of wax where it had been. It had burned out.
It had been Stone's candle. Did she have another? She'd never looked for one in her pack; she'd never needed one before. Now, she looked, feeling around and around in the depths of the pack's interior.
No candles. Puzzling. They were supposed to be provided with what they needed, right? So why didn't she have a candle?
Maybe... she didn't need one?
She started at the thought. But maybe it was right. Maybe she didn't need a candle.
All right. Then she would sit in the dark.
She thought over the dream, looking at it from every angle, pondering it and what it could mean. She was still meditating on it when a sound invaded her thoughts.
The lock - she could hear it being unlocked. The door opened. Feet sloshed in. The door closed.
In her corner, she stiffened. Suddenly she was glad to have no candle. Even with what Stone called 'favor' - if this was the guards come to look for her, she didn't want a light shining to guide them in their search.
But... The prisoner hadn't given them away. At least, he hadn't in the dream. So maybe...
'Starr? Starr, it's me.' She heard the blanket move above her head. 'Starr? Did your candle burn out?'
Relief. 'I'm here, Stone.'
'Whew. Good. When you didn't answer at first, I began to wonder were you gone.' A moment later he had a light made and a new candle lit.
She looked up at him, blinking in the light, then looked past his shoulder. 'You're alone?' she said wistfully.
'Well, yeah, I... Oh.' He understood her meaning now. 'No, no Walker still. And I finished the level just now. He's not here.'
A glum little nod.
'What about you, Starr? How's your ankle?'
She hadn't thought about it since before she fell asleep. Now, at his prompting, she moved it.
Stone knelt, gently removed the bandage she'd made. He tried to flex the ankle, but her hiss of pain let him know it was much too early for that. He rebandaged it and rocked back on his heels. What would they do now?
'Well,' he said. 'It will be the nightly lock-down soon. Once the halls are clear and the guards are gone, I can do like I said and carry you out. In fact,' he added with a smile, 'I can take you to meet Forest and James for tonight's report, and they can take you on upstairs. Though what reason I have to stay down here, I don't know. Walker's not here, and no one else seems to be...'
'I can't go, Stone,' she interrupted.
Huh? 'What do you mean, you can't go?'
Swiftly she recounted the dream to him.
And he shook his head. 'So?'
'So he didn't betray us. There's still a glimmer of hope for him. If he's the one we're here to rescue - well, how can I leave?'
'Starr, it was a dream. You can't know that any of that really happened.'
She looked him in the eye. 'It happened. That's why I dreamed it. Because it's real.'
'Starr...' And then he sighed. Shook his head. 'You and your dreams. I told you, I have a lot of trouble just living on dreams and visions and all. But... You believe it, don't you?'
'Which means you ain't budging till you know different.' He didn't wait for her nod this time, but said with another sigh, 'All right then. We'll go with that. Though how you can do anything when you can't even walk...'
'I can still pray,' she whispered.
Stone looked around at the three guys from upstairs and said, 'So, she's staying. And if she's staying, so am I - for now. She still thinks we should trust the Master to give us someone to get out of here, from right down here.'
Seth rolled his eyes. 'Man! That lady of yours, she always that loco?'
Before Stone could respond, Forest broke in, 'She saved my life with her visions and sight, Seth. And I've saved her life too. If that's what she believes the Master has for her, then I believe it too.'
The fire in the boy's quiet words shook Seth. 'Hey! No offense,' he said, finding himself actually backing away from the kid. 'I don't know her like you guys do, so,' he shrugged, 'maybe you're right.' He looked over at Stone again. 'But don't stay here any longer'n you hafta.'
'We don't plan on it,' Stone replied.
James had been thinking while this exchange took place, and now addressed Stone. 'I don't know what exactly her dream meant, except that it seems to be intended to keep the two of you from giving up on this level yet. So - keep searching. Maybe the man in Solitary is the one. And maybe he isn't.'
'Yeah, that's what I was thinking,' said Stone. And Forest, looking into James' face, added, 'That's more than you've said in three days, buddy. And I'd say it's worn you out. Let's get going.'
James nodded. He really did feel tired. And that wasn't a good sign, knowing that they might well have to cut their way out of here once Walker was found. With brief farewells, he and his men started back up the stairs.
'See you tomorrow night for your next report,' Forest called softly as Stone turned to go.
How could any of them know that there would be no next report?
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