In a damp cellar the mould mixed with the scent of urine coming from his rags. A drop of sweat still dangled at the tip of his black hair from an excruciatingly painful hour as the hatchway closed. He was strong, the strongest, but he had never endured that level of pain. Moss and mice were signs of hope, or at least hope of life in the dark.
Conspirator. Traitor. Your house shall burn and your name will be dragged in the mud.
And they dragged his face in mud. Along the wooden planks and the stone. From one side of the long wall to the next. Two hard punches to the back of his head threw him into the stone. He lost teeth. A man stamped him in the lumbar region, which was the reason he couldn’t stand up.
The coward can’t even stand to face us.
How he had ridiculed friends over their fear of men from East Aros. Before they skinned James, this must be where he lay and smelled the same mould. He probably pissed himself too. Dear James. The bravest go first. And as James went, Eric was second to none. He will now prepare to tell them to end it quickly. He does not fear death!
The hatchway opened. Sunlight seeped down the stairs but didn’t touch the cellar floor. Gentle steps interrupted the light. A son taking his chance, his last chance, to humiliate the defeated, mighty foe or a curious villager, a neighbour, who heard his cries. Hopefully he will grant him his early death.
“Finish me. Kill me. Bury me and send word to West Aros.”
A cold hand lifted Eric’s head. A girl, barely a teenager, with golden hair and fair skin gave him bread and water. She pulled his arm, tried to get him out.
“No! Don’t. They will murder us both. I don’t have the strength. Leave me and run, brave girl.”
She let go and took two steps back. A horse trotted just outside and the door was still opened. She stood by the wall, in darkness, held her breath. Eric raised his neck and waited for a soldier to storm down, beat the girl and kill him. But the horse passed.
“ Stay out of politics. And…” He listened for her breathing. It was still there. She was still there. “Marry for love.”
She ran away and the sun stopped lighting the stairs. The whole incident took a lot of effort and he had moved only a small distance.
The hatchway wasn’t locked. If only he could walk. This would be his moment. This is his moment! He will not survive another day. His wife and children are just by the stairs. And by the top of the stairs they are smiling, waving at him. If he can just get it open, they are sitting on the grass waiting for him. The yellow field, that’s where they’re hiding, but they will find him there; those who took him. Look at the mashed grass and the red crops. The blood! He can’t hide here. He must crawl to the forest. And there they will be; his family. Oh, but they will send the dogs. They will send the dogs on his sons and daughters because he can’t run. He. Must. Stand.
Eric faltered, nearly fell. A branch from an aspen tree whipped his face and a smile flashed before his eyes. A smile from Sinclair after a monologue about fairness during the torture.
Eric’s pessimism made a farmhouse on the other side of the woods to a mirage, but he fought for every little ounce of hope he was given and he had to take a chance. No raised flags for East Aros. It strengthened his hope gave him fortitude. He knocked on the door and stared at his hands. Mud, blood and the suppurating lesion made a paste in his right palm. He stepped right in.
An old woman with saggy clothes screamed as he approached her.
“I have money. Please be quiet.” He walked into the kitchen. “Get me well and I will reward you. You can hire five strong men to work out on the fields. Please help me.”
He was obviously from West Aros, but no man deserves his fate, she must have thought. Another cellar, this time shared with the dog and her four puppies. He woke up to her licking his palm. The dark orange palm burned. He had to sleep facing the wall.
The farmer never showed his face downstairs. The less you know… Soup, bread and water. Bandage, bath and rest. He was ready, but far from home. In a carriage of hay he travelled to the border where he jumped off.
“The Jenkins. I will repay you, I promise. I don’t know how, but I will work it out somehow.”
“Sneak in the thicket on the north side. It’s less guarded.”
The farmer turned the carriage around without saying a word and Eric jogged through the thicket. He never once heard a guard or a barking dog. He was in West Aros.
In the hall of Kings, West Aros, men stood in the hundreds eagerly waiting for the only man ever to survive being held captive in East Aros; Eric.
A large man roared. “SILENCE!”
Eric raised his hand and the room quietened. “The many men of West Aros, noble men of this kingdom, the fierce and justice-seeking women willing to fight and the few curious children sneaking in here, I am humbled by your presence and beg of you a few minutes of your valued time. The lesser men of East Aros have disfigured, disgraced and dishonoured me to their best capacity for the entire duration of my captivity. At that capacity they weakened me. I couldn’t run, walk or even stand. Their best capacity put me at my worst, but even at my worst capacity I still bested them!”
A small pause for applause.
“They didn’t capture me because of the importance of one single person, my person; Eric, but because of the idea Eric represents and what I as a leader represent; our struggle and the idea of justice. It was an attack on that idea! An attack on fairness and reasonableness! They dragged it along the mould afflicted wall, along moist mud and sharp stone, in sweat and darkness, in blood. My body weakened, yes, but never did my spirit weaken. Never did I lose hope for our cause. Never did I yield to unreasonableness in their claims. NEVER! Did I yield. I will gladly offer my body to an ideal, as James did. Yes, I thought of him and how he also lay in the very same cellar, before dying for the same ideal I was under attack for having. The idea we are all under attack for having. Is our claim for justice unreasonable? Is our cause for fairness unjust? Can they be reasoned with? Can they be fair? Let your NO ring high!”
“Let your NO ring higher than the last cry of a tortured James. HIGHER!”
“Roar as the thunder! ROAR; NOOOO!”
“An idea is bigger than its people. Bang the drums! Armour the sneaking women and children. Sneak through the thickets, sneak. While we men will roar as thunder. ROAR AS THUNDER AND WHAT WILL OUR CRIES SAY!?”
“The drums will beat the courage out of the souls of our weaker foes and bang bravery into our stronger hearts! Beat! BEAT!”
The drummers banged their arms numb as the men of West Aros broke the barrier of the west entrance to East Aros. Three guard houses were set on fire by the women and children and eight guards burned alive after the women successfully barricaded one of the houses. They fled to the thickets while the guards had to fight hundreds of West Aros men. The guards had to run, but the horses caught up with them.
“They flee. Inferiority will always flee superiority. Let us show them the true sense of West Aros and the word superiority!”
A few small houses on the road to the capital were barricaded, set on fire and the few who managed to escape were hunted. The horn of East Aros signalled an attack.
The militia from West Aros stopped. A taste of metal made children cry.
“The sound of panic greets us!”
The militia of West Aros met the army of East Aros on the grand market. Children hid behind stalls, in the fountain and by dead bodies. Eric kicked open the door to a mansion with two flags of East Aros hanging from the façade. A mother in nightgown screamed as she shielded her daughter.
“Shut up! I don’t want to hurt you. Where is your husband?”
“I don’t have a husband.”
“Okay, go down to the cellar and hide. If I find a man in this house I will come down and kill you.”
“I have a brother.”
The mother leaned her head just slightly and Eric quickly turned and forced his sword through the body of her brother. He was unarmed, but Eric reacted instantly. The mother and daughter cried.
He ran to the next house with flags. The door swung open, almost hitting him and two middle-aged men rushed out. Sinclair! He ran back to the house he came from and down to the cellar. He recognised Wilford Sinclair, the leader, from the monologue and the smile! He was the smile! Both men ran after him, but stopped by the stairs.
“He ran down here. Get a torch.”
One of the men held a torch in one hand and a sword in the other. Eric grabbed his ankles from behind the stairs and pulled him. The torch fell on the floor. Sinclair ran down and heard the daughter just by the torch. He swung the sword towards her head. The mother cried! The hair of the daughter was covered in blood. Sinclair collapsed and the daughter also screamed. The mother hugged her and held her tight.
“Here, little girl. Hold the torch. That was close. You, mother, help me drag Sinclair out.”
The mother did as instructed and they dragged his body out onto the grand market place.
“Sinclair is dead! SURRENDER! SINCLAIR IS DEAD!” Eric took the torch from the daughter and held it up to get everyone’s attention. “Come out from your corners of cowardice!”
Soldiers threw away their swords, axes and spears, raised their arms and yelled: “I YIELD! I YIELD!”
Two or three were killed during the surrender. The rest of the soldiers were rounded up. “Get their names and rank. Do not miss any kind of information.”
The sun was rising closer to the horizon and coloured the sky red. The daughter washed her face of the blood of Sinclair in the fountain. Eric told her to go home. He told the women and children of West Aros to collect food and take whatever they wanted; toys, jewellery, clothes and garments.
Only forty men survived from West Aros, less than a fifth of the men who fought. Eric told them to bind the soldiers.
“The soldiers who kneel before you surrendered. A man who didn’t surrender was James. He never questioned his beliefs and was willing to die for our cause. He was a great man. And he was killed. These men have all betrayed their beliefs. What do they deserve?”
The men stood in silence, waited for someone to make the first move. Eric gave his sword to a man. “This sword should be saved and not used on a worthless soldier.”
He grabbed a sword from the ground and pierced through the stomach of a soldier. He screamed as he fell. The soldiers begged for mercy, cried to be spared!
“Men!? Do you hear them? Grant them their mercy.”
The militia started cutting the bound soldiers while Eric begun yanking out women by their clothes, hair and limbs from East Aros on the street. He forced them to identify their murdered husbands.
“There is a shovel. Bury him!”
Eric watched as the women of East Aros buried their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers. He stopped the wife of his torturer. “You come with me. Take him with you!”
She pulled his body to the cellar Eric was held captive in. “Down the stairs. You don’t have to carry him, just shove him down the stairs.”
She carried his body down the sunlit stairs and laid him down on the stone floor.
“Well… What should we do with him?”
“Please… Have mercy-”
“He dragged my face from that corner there… to that corner there. So go ahead! Do that. Yes now!” Eric rushed her and she hurried to pick him up. “NOW! Or I will personally make you MY SEX SLAVE!” She cried and gently dragged the face of her deceased husband along the wooden and the muddy walls. “He is dead. He can’t feel a thing. Punch him. HARDER. PUNCH!”
The hatchway closed.
“What? Hello!? HELLO!” Eric ran up the stairs. “LET ME OUT!”
“You belong in the cellar.”
It was the voice of the little girl with golden hair and fair skin. Her gentle steps left the grass area just outside the hatchway.
“LET ME OUT, GIRL! LET ME OUT!”
He tried to break the hatchway with his sword to no avail. He banged his fists and screamed. As the smoke started to seep in, he grabbed his sword. The woman held her husband. Eric cut her throat.
He laid down on the ground and waited, eyes shut. Sinclair’s smile flashed before his eyes. The smoke grew thicker and heavier. Mice ran over his back. He tried to conjure up the image of a wife waiting for him, two daughters and two sons caring for him. The mice stopped panicking and stilled in darkness. His palm had the same paste of sweat, mud and blood and he remembered the dog with her four puppies. The smoke hurt his eyes, he had to close them. A family waits for him. They will wait.