Friday, March 17, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 22 - 'as you love her...'
In her worry - yes, the very thing Maccabees had told her not to do! - over Stone, Starr had stopped paying attention to that unnerving noise that had been coming closer and closer all this time. Now she saw the source of the noise. Now, when it was too late.
'Well, what the' curse' do we got here?' rasped a husky voice from all too close by. And from every corridor, Starr now saw people pouring forth. Dozens and scores of people. Maybe the entire population of the prisoners who lived down here.
And they did not look very friendly.
Least friendly-looking of all was a big, ugly, brutish lout with an unholy glint in his eye, weaving his unsteady way towards her. 'Where'd you come from, little girl?' he sneered leeringly, drawing even closer. He might have been spawned right out of the slime that covered the floor. His eyes raked over her, enjoying her apprehension. 'We don't get a whole lot of pretty little girls down here,' he said. 'Do we, boys?'
'Back off, Butch,' said Stone, his voice low and still a bit gravelly from the abuse he'd just taken. Coming up alongside Starr, Stone made ready to draw his sword for her defense.
'Ohhh!' said Butch, mockingly. 'Now I get it! Now I see why ol' buddy Mitch don't wanna drink with us no more. He went and got himself a girlfriend.' And there was something in the way he slurred the word that turned it into an obscene insult.
'Leave her alone. Your quarrel is with me,' said Stone.
'Quarrel? Ain't no quarrel here, Mitchie. Naw, we just gonna have us a party, eh, guys? And Mitchie's little girlfriend here - why, she gets to be the live entertainment!' He leered at her evilly. Leaning close, he hissed into her face, 'Won't that be fun!'
'I said leave her alone!' said Stone, stepping between her and Butch. At the same moment, the prisoner bravely stepped up too. 'Ain't it a tad early to be soused already?' said he disparagingly. 'How 'bout you just go sleep it off somewhere, Butcher Boy?'
'You,' Butch turned savagely towards the little prisoner, 'get the' curse 'outta my face! And you...' He turned back towards Stone, acting like he had something to say to him. But instead of talking, Butch suddenly launched his knee into Stone's gut, doubling him over, sending him sprawling. 'Get him, boys!' Butch cried, as he himself reached for Starr.
'The' curse 'you will!' growled the prisoner. Locking both hands together, he swung at Butch so that the chains hanging from his wrists whipped hard into the drunkard's face. Down went Butch.
'Go, Starr! Run!' cried the prisoner. And this time, she didn't hesitate to obey. Spinning, she started for the stairway door.
And then she was sprawled on the floor as well, face down in the mire. Stunned, she tried to fathom why she was down there; what could she have tripped on? But then she felt the strong hand gripping her ankle. Butch. From where he lay in the floor, he had lashed out at her anyway. 'Not so fast, little lady,' he growled, starting to get his knees under himself to stand.
'Let her go!' yelled the prisoner. Starr, blinded with mire in her eyes, could only guess at what was happening now. But it was an easy guess; the sound she heard now were the same as she had heard the day before: the crunch of a foot connecting with human flesh, over and over and over again. And punctuated with the words, 'Leave. Her. Alone!'
And then hands grabbed her at the waist. Still mire-blinded, she wasn't sure at first if this was friend or foe - particularly since right now there were plenty of foes about and precious few friends. She started to struggle...
'It's me, Starr. It's just me.' The prisoner's voice, very close by her ear. He lifted her, guiding her somewhere. The confusion of voice all about disoriented her. Where were they going? And where was Stone?
A door opening. Herself being thrust through the doorway. She balked. 'I can't see. Where's Stone?'
For a moment, the prisoner paused and looked back. He shuddered. Better she couldn't see! He could barely spot the guy himself. Somewhere under that pile of angry violent men was Stone, being punched, kicked, smothered.
And yet... Now he saw him, looking up at him from under that mass. Stone caught the prisoner's eye. And somehow, over all that din of angry voices, Stone made himself heard. 'As you love her, get her out of here!'
The prisoner nodded. 'I will.' And closed the stairway door.
Now it was he grabbing Starr's hand. 'C'mon.'
'Where's Stone?' But he gave her no answer. He just tugged her on, scrambling up the stairs. She stumbled badly over the steps as he dragged her along, and more than once she fell entirely, so that he had to help her up again. There was no way she could see where she was going.
The prisoner knew how that felt. He'd had mire splashed and smeared and ground into his eyes a few times during his long years down here. He knew how it must burn and sting her. If only he had something to cleanse her eyes, something that would get rid of the mire and soothe the burning. But he didn't have a thing - not even a rag, not a drop of water...
Wait. Hey, yeah! He didn't have anything, but she did!
He stopped running so abruptly that she nearly fell up the stairs again. 'What's happening?' she cried as he spun her about, jerking at the leather strap across her body. 'Stop that! Who...?'
'It's just me, and hush your squalling before someone hears us! I just need your canteen.' He pulled it off her. She heard it uncorking. Then a hand shoved her chin skyward.
And now water was coursing over her face. 'Oh yeah. Hold your breath,' he added as she spluttered and flailed to push the canteen away.
'What...?' Ah, but then the water hit its mark and she comprehended what he was doing. She stopped fighting it and instead dug at the mire in her eyes, receiving the cool cleansing relief of the water.
'All better?' said he, and stopped pouring. Oh but she looked a mess, what with stripes of clean and dirty all down her clothes marking where the water had flowed and where it hadn't. And her eyes - ugh, but they were red and swollen!
But she could see now. She blinked. A lot. Looked around.
'Oh no you don't. Don't you start with that again.'
Bafflement gave place to horror on her face. 'We left him behind? We have to go back!'
He caught her arm as she turned to head back downstairs. 'What are you, part mule? We can't go back!'
'But Stone! They'll kill him. They'll kill him!'
He didn't argue the point. He was sure she was right. In fact, well, he figured they already had...
What was that?
For now they heard a sound, way above their heads. It might have been the sound of a flash flood roiling down a hillside, or perhaps a rockslide carrying devastation in its path. But Starr knew what it really was.
'It's the guards,' she whispered, her face pale.
'Guards? What now?'
Swiftly she related to him what Maccabees had told her that morning about Walker. And when she was done, the prisoner's face was pale as well. 'We gotta get off these stairs!' Panicked, he looked up, down, all around. No doors here. Had they passed any already? He couldn't remember if they had. Muttering curses, he tried to think. The only door he knew for sure was below them was the one they had just fled through. No way they were going back there. So that left...
'C'mon,' he said again. And grabbing her hand once more, he lit out upstairs as fast as he could go.
At least now he didn't have to drag Starr along. She ran too, sometimes outpacing him. He gathered his chains and pressed them to his bosom as they ran, trying to minimize the jangling, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.
They ran. Landing... landing... landing... No doors? Where were the doors? Had they missed seeing one?
Oh, the guards were coming closer, closer. They could hear now individual footfalls up there, could make out rough voices and rugged breathing, coming closer, closer.
They ran. Stumbled. Ran on. 'Oh please, Master!' Starr's lips moved silently. 'Please, let there be...'
A door! The prisoner sprinted ahead, yanked it open. They both tumbled through and he dragged it shut again behind them.
And here came the guards. Like a thundering herd, they swept past the door and on down, down. So many of them, rumbling past! When had there ever been so many guards this far down before?
We really dodged that one, the prisoner thought to himself. Imagine if they hadn't been able to get off the stairs in time!
He was standing right by the door, his hand at the knob, just waiting for the guards to all go past so that he and Starr could get out of there. He was feeling mighty nervous about this whole thing and kept casting glances behind him at the empty corridors surrounding them, wondering how long these corridors could stay empty.
And so he happened to be turned away, scanning those hallways, when he heard and saw Starr stiffen and stifle a gasp.
What? He spun back - and found himself stifling a full-blown shriek. The door was opening!
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