A really old story I wrote, graphic and weird
Yet still they came, in the small dawn hours when he was staggering up from the straw, blazing sunlight cracking through the iron bars, in swarthy grey robes, bearing candles, bearing bread, and speaking so soft, so raspy that he’d had trouble imagining real faces inside those grey hoods. Small deeds, espionage, petty thefts for important people. Ell refused them all.
Today, they came late. He blamed it on the new guard. The new guard was always late, always a bit scuffed up in clothing and expression whenever he saw her, as if her passage to his cell always intercepted some small accident. She was a cheerful sort, her staccato walk loud even from afar and unique in its vivacity. This did not calm Ell. In prison, cheerful usually meant mad.
Ell sat. He waited.
The lock screamed, and the door swung open with a prodigious gust of cold wind. Today, Marta was soaked, her black hair plastered to her scalp, her dark eyes a bit too wide. Ell noticed her spear was missing, and then winced when a servant appeared next to her, mid-polishing the bloodied weapon.
Marta beamed. “You’re not a good person.”
Ell shook his head. “The worst of the lot.”
“Are you the sort inclined to charity?”
“Charity is a crutch for the morally stunted.”
"You heard him."
Marta leaned her back to one side of the doorframe, effectively silhouetting herself the same shade as the dark wall. This revealed his first visitor, hunch-backed and grey-swathed in woolly folds that pooled in a prodigious puddle around him. The cloak was clearly much too big, clearly not belonging to its current wearer. The wearer said, “even so, even as it is as you said ma’am, I’d like to speak to the Viper.”
“You’re a woman,” said Ell, surprised. Possibly even a child.
Marta shrugged. “Your funeral.” She snatched her spear back. A blur of grey steel and the point was an inch from Ell’s throat. He managed a smile.
The servant removed his cuffs and Ell massaged his wrists. Guided by spear-point he followed them across a narrow, filthy corridor; into the courtyard. Trees had collapsed and windows shattered. The grass was wet, and above, a mountain of grey clouds.
“Some storm,” said Marta, “Blew away half the village. Nearly knocked the castle over too.”
“It awoke in me a memory,” said the cloaked woman softly. “One so buried in my mind that it changed my very identity when I recalled.” She sounded like she was going to cry.
“What is that?” asked Ell, when silence ensued.
She removed the cloak. Underneath, she had a cruel diagonal slash maiming her pretty face, peeling varicose lips from ear to chin. She smiled shyly at Ell. “Were you ever a kind man? A giving one?”
Was it the rain? Was it the bristling cold? Ell found he could not speak. The maimed face was intriguing, horrifying in a disgustingly vague way. Ell could not tear her from his sight. Suddenly he cried out, an anguished, maddening howl. A dam broke in his mind and a flood of thoughts; emotions, emotions he’d never known came hurtling back in tidal fury.
Perhaps Ell had once been a kind boy; he’d often felt the pull of sympathy for those motionless beggars huddled like sooty furniture for the sooty city. This sense of community deepened the more he did help the less fortunate, in an ironic way the less he had, the more ineluctable this duty became…as much as he tried to deny it in those wane hours crouched, insect-like in the alley, hunger pressing his ribs into mucronate spikes stretching withered skin. It’d felt like death, like conscious thought trapped in a dead stranger’s body.
He’d wave his contractured arms at the throng of merchants during Sun Day, and despite the sea of urchins waving their arms with him there on the street, Boris would spot him like he always did each month. He’d ride up to the roadside, rake Ell’s new appearance with wide eyes, and then usher him onto the horse. Most days, Ell was too weak to climb on his own.
Inside Boris’s tent, Ell would ignore the lurid display of wealth. His eyes would be fastened on the merchant’s fat back, his heart pounding in his throat. The trepidation had made his fingers shake but Boris had no mercy. The merchant propped himself on a pillow, ate lavishly from the table. Then, he’d turn to face Boris, mild disinterest opposite to naked terror.
“Can you still do the trick?”
Ell nodded savagely. He beckoned.
The sharpest memory of a lock Ell still remembers is a huge golden bastard with a lion’s head emblazoned in solid pearl. It’s not how he had cracked it that Ell recalls; like most of his childhood memories, he remembers the beautiful lock through a mist of overwhelming desperation and then suddenly metal under his thumbs and the lock clicking open and the slow, dreamy clap of Boris.
“Magnificent,” Boris said. “I’d take you as my own if your appearance was not so obviously…Crescyain. Right down to that disgusting lallation in your tongue.” He sneered and then spat on Ell’s forehead. “I’d be doing the Seven Gods a disservice by raising their Damned to a stature worth living.”
But he would throw a chicken leg, or some grapes, from the bountiful table behind him. Ell would rip into the food like an animal. In those brief, salivating seconds, all human thought was gone, only movement.
Then, the next day, in the matinal hours of dawn, Ell would be dressed in bright livery and wait awkwardly for a crowd to gather around
him and each new machine Boris’ servants wheeled forth. Blindfolded, he’d be locked in coffins, wrapped in chains, submerged in water, often upside down, and in a matter of thoughtless, vapid seconds, air would fill his lungs. The crowd, exploding with cheers. It was a black humour: the Crescyain traits that so condemned Ell had also materialized in him a skill that was his only grace. He’d be helped back down, bow silently, and then in an hour, repeat the process.
“It’s wonderful,” said Anne, kicking her legs, looking up at the sky. “Boris must be so kind to give you charity. You’re blessed Ell.”
“Just wait until I become a scholar Ell,” repeated Simon. He had his bread uneaten under one spiny arm, a faded tome on his small lap. “I won’t forget your kindness. None of us will.”
“Just hurry,” Ell had urged, that day. “I have to be back in a few minutes. The food’s only supposed to be for me.”
In those fleeting moments Ell remembers feeling a love he couldn’t possibly describe. A sense of belonging that emanated from his heart in the most pure, golden rays. That day he’d left, returning at night with two armfuls of food, himself starving.
He rapped on their door. “Open up!”
What had happened next now repeats itself in Ell’s memory again under a bright halation of burning desperation. He remembers no tangible thoughts, no reception from his senses; only movement and a singular emotion. Then, slowly, noise and sight permeate in viscous latitude.
“…DESRESPECT ME? WHO TOLD YOU TO CRAWL AWAY?” A hand choking him, lifting him up. “WHO TOLD YOU TO GIVE AWAY MY FOOD?” Shaking him. “WHO DO YOU TAKE ME FOR?” Hot breath. Roseate cheeks. Tiny, angry eyes.
And below him, Anne was staring up, her bread in a puddle, the puddle soaking her shirt too, discolouring her skin where it touched her arm. Her mouth was a red ruin where Boris had punched it. Ell briefly realised the puddle was blood. And to his left, ragged breathing. Simon splayed over his book, fingers curling and uncurling – Ell remembers it all – a hitch in the breath and then silence.
Boris jabbed a fat finger at Ell’s head. “The food is for YOU, you ungrateful Crescyain shit. How am I supposed to make money if you collapse on the street? Who’s going to keep feeding you, you bloody idiot?”
And it is at this point in his life that Ell begins to wobble in his conviction as a kind man. It was as if someone had taken those taut strings of empathy in his mind, those pulls of sympathy, and had cut them with scissors. Slack, empty. Ell’s fingers had moved. So quick, so natural. He remembered feeling nothing when Boris’s piggish head came apart. A woman had screamed behind him, the sound awoke him. He ran.
Months later Ell broke into a rich man’s home. He took nothing his first time; the smell of food had been so unfamiliar that’d it seemed almost disgusting. Ell ate so much that he threw up, then he ate more. When a servant had heard the noise and came rushing, Ell was gone. He had stopped giving back to his brethren. He’d stopped making eye-contact with them altogether. That cold, dispassionate slackness that had awoken in him the day he killed Boris did not leave him. He stole from the rich and the poor; he endeavoured without shame or humanity.
He forgot, as the years went by, what it meant to belong. And so he had lost hope in happiness. And so he’d been captured.
“Anne?” asked Ell, his voice tight.
Anna smiled back. “You remember!” She hugged him quickly. Then, as if chastened, she withdrew, looked around the courtyard, and hid herself once more in the cloak. “Is the carriage ready?”
Marta nodded. They rushed Ell back whence they came, and out the back of the castle. There, two guards had been slain, the smell still fresh. Marta twirled her spear; she winked at Ell. “I’m a mercenary, not a soldier. Just so you know, you’ll be the one paying me back, not her.”
Ell stared at his hands. Once hale, they were now hesitant and hoary with spots. “It might take awhile,” he croaked. He coughed, voice returning. “I’m thinking of switching careers.”
Anne helped him up the carriage and Marta waved them off as they left. Soon, a green canopy overtook the grey sky above. Ell said, “Thank you Anne. I – I had forgotten all about you. And Simon.” He looked at her, curious. “What now?”
Anne put her hand on his shoulder. “Whatever you want.”
Ell considered it. He smiled, closing his eyes. She was right.