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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chapter 15 - To the Dungeon

What?  You thought we'd get through this whole story without putting Jonathan in a dungeon?  Hah - likely story.  Seriously - have you ever read a story about dragons that didn't have a dungeon in it somewhere?  Preferably one with rats and cobwebs and other nasty critters?

Let's see if our dungeon measures up to the horrors of the Dark-Because-a-Dragon-Burned-Out-Your Eyeballs Ages...

15 – In the Dungeon

                Naturally, he ended up in a dungeon. It was underground, damp, and dirty.  Most of the ride there he barely remembered – there had been acres and acres of nematada, a few towns here-and-there, and then some half-dozen military bases they passed by.  At least, he reminded himself that they were military camps – they seemed more like historical reenactments than anything.  Men in helmets and breastplates would look up from campfires with turning sides meat as the wagons rolled past.  Sometimes, there would be a group of gremlins mixed in with the men – usually they’d be off to the side, and they’d be dressed in something dark or a drab green.  And then there were the weapons – spears, long-handled axes, whole rows of arrows planted point-first into the ground.  And then there were the looks of exhaustion – dark creases around the eyes, hands that were gray with dirt and char.  The uniforms looked as though they might have once been red and black – at least, there were a few of the newer uniforms with red scarlet sleeves and long black tunics overtop.  These newer uniforms hung off the slight frames of boys that couldn’t have been older that fourteen or fifteen – Jonathan stared at them, at their harrowed expressions of pain.  But these were boys who looked as though they’d seen no action – their clothes were as crisp and bright as any they saw.  It was the older men – the ones in uniforms that were so worn and faded that the red and black had almost fused into a uniform tinge of rust-orange and brown.
                Still, Jonathan could learn only so much from the ride to the dungeon.  As they bumped across the drawbridge and then under the portcullis, he tried to gauge the height and width of the walls.  His heart sank with each guesstimate.  The drawbridge was twice as wide as the wagon – and the wagon was wide enough to carry a small car.  The moat below was deep – so deep, in fact, that Jonathan couldn’t lean over far enough to get a good look at the bottom.  Then there was the wall – it as three, maybe four stories tall.  It had been built, bit-by-bit, of thousands of heavy stones.  He could see the wall sparkle in the setting sun as the wagon crossed the bridge, the way the fading light reflected off the hints of limestone and granite in hues of red-orange and gold.
                If it looked pretty from outside, though, the inside of the castle was anything but.  Rolling past the tunnel and under the portcullis was like entering a sewer – the clopping hooves of the horses kicked up dust that smelled almost as bad as the day Jonathan was on the shit-burning detail – it was the rich aroma of diesel fumes and human waste that made anyone want to gag.  Even the two gremlins keeping watch over them lifted the collars of their tunics to cover their noses against the dust as they rolled in – Jonathan and Suha had no such choice.  Jonathan tried holding his breath, but Suha looked too dejected to even care.  She simply leaned her head against the side of the wagon, eyes open but unfocused.  She didn’t seem to even notice that a lock of her hair was poking out from under her hijab.
                Had the tunnel been just a tunnel, it wouldn’t have been so bad.  It couldn’t have been more than twenty feet from the front portcullis to the second row of spikes marking an inner portcullis.  But that was twenty feet of wall.  Jonathan’s thoughts of escape became fainter with each vanishing echo of the horse’s hoof.
                Inside the wall, though, wasn’t as bad as Jonathan could have expected.  It was little different than he would have expected back on the FOB in Iraq.  There were old men sitting on benches smoking corncob pipes and younger men directing traffic.  All of them wore those red-and-black uniforms, sure, and the traffic involved horse-dragged sledges loaded down with wooden trunks, but other than that it all seemed pretty professional.  There was a team of men jacking up a wagon with a broken wheel, and then there was a line of men at attention with their spears who made a right-face to march out through the tunnel.  And all along the inner wall, men were fastening barrels to hoist-ropes to heave them up to the battlements.
                It took Jonathan little time to figure out what was happening – they were readying the castle for a siege.
                This impression was reinforced as days went past in the dungeon.  He entertained thoughts of kicking the gremlins aside and swiping a set of the black-and-red outfits, but that plan was doomed from the start.  The gremlins, for one, never cut him and Suha loose – instead they turned over the wagon, horses and prisoners and all, over to a trio of human guards.  The first of the guards was a big old man who looked very bored with his job.  Bored he might have been, but he wasn’t stupid – he hefted a drawn crossbow off his desk and kept it trained on Jonathan and Suha as his two subordinates stepped in to cut the bonds around their wrists.  Then – strangely – he pointed to an inkwell sitting at the end of his desk and directed them to dip in their thumbs and then press their inked thumbs to an unrolled strip of parchment.  The older of his subordinates helped with the thumbprints, pressing and rolling their thumbs to fill in the penciled boxes on the parchment.
                “Lemme guess,” Jonathan said, “this counts as my consent to interrogation?”
                The big guard regarded Jonathan with a faintly amused look.  He said something softly under his breath – maybe it was the same language spoken by the woman to her gremlins? – and the two subordinates chuckled.  Then the big man came around the desk and nudged Jonathan with the crossbow toward a barred door at the end of the hall.  There wasn’t much he could do, not with his hands still tied behind his back.  He looked over to Suha and tried to give her a look of reassurance, but she wasn’t looking his way.  And she wasn’t following him, either.  He tried to hold back long enough to be with her, but the big man reached forward with a meaty hand and shoved Jonathan forward so hard that he flopped down on his belly onto the stone floor.  Before he could squirm to his feet or even to a vaguely seated position, the two assistants had him by the shoulders to drag him to his cell.
                The food, strangely, wasn’t bad.  There was bread, there was thick soup in wooden bowls, and the beans left him as full as they left him flatulent.  But what was that to the loneliness of being alone in an iron-barred cell with granite ceilings?
                He spent his first hour examining the floor and walls for signs that he might escape – he searched for the slightest cracks in the rocks, even for evidence that the lines of cement between the stones was beginning to crumble with age.  Then he ran his fingers along the barred door in the desperate hope he might find rust or other signs of corrosion – again, no luck.
                The next few hours he spent checking himself.  When the opportunity for escape came, he wanted to be ready.  There was his leg – whatever the woman had done to him, the bleeding show no sign of return.  The pain, too, had pretty much gone.  He pressed in on the bruised skin to feel for signs of infection or tenderness – he found none.  He rolled up the bloody pant leg as high as high up his thigh as it would go so he could get a better look – even that revealed nothing.  Except for the yellow-purple discoloration around the thin ovoid of new skin, there was no sign at all that he’d been wounded.  Despite the flakes of dried blood cracking out of the creases of his fatigue pants, it looked as though he’d done nothing worse than walk into a low doorknob.
                He wasn’t hurt, and he couldn’t leave.  Beyond that, there was nothing to do but wait.  He paced his cell.  He sipped on the soup, sopping up the extra bits with the crusts of bread.  He drank from the flagon of water that tasted as though it had been spiked with a touch of rum.  He pulled off his camo top and balled it into a pillow and lay flat on the stone floor, waiting.  Sometimes he slept.  Sometimes he woke in time to see the guards coming through to snuff out the torches for the night.  Sometimes he fell asleep again before they came back to light them again for a new day.
                Sometimes he thought about all that had happened.  He tried to work out what exactly had happened.  There was always the possibility that this was a dream – a harsh, brutal dream that was now too far separated from reality for him to reasonably suspect himself of sanity.  But he knew better.  He would have woken from a dream.  Schizophrenia, he figured, would have had more symptoms before this – a few warning signs, at the very least.  Assuming, of course, he was sane enough to remember what exactly had happened.
                This was around the time it occurred to him that he might have suffered a head injury.  He was on his back, then, taking in the cool damp of the stones through his shirt as the sweltering heat of day worked its way down to the subterranean air of the dungeon.  It possible, he figured, that there had never been a dragon to start with – it was possible, even, that the image of that first charred convoy had simply been enough to push him over the edge.  It seemed unlikely, but possible.  And that thought was at least somewhat reassuring.  If this was all a subtle trick of a tortured mind, then Higgins and Captain Hirsh and all of them were fine.  They were probably standing over Jonathan just now, willing him to get up from the dirt and get back to work.
                Thinking he was free, though, did nothing to make it so.  And so he continued to lie on the floor, staring at the ceiling, as the days slowly passed.

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