Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
I. The Young Man
The old man scratched his fleabitten beard. "Eh, that one's Jahan. Don't think he knows the common tongue."
"What's his tongue then?"
"Afaar, probably. Don't ask me how the poor sucker got here."
The young man and the old man leaned in together as they whispered, casting glances to the third -- Jahan -- who sat crumpled in the corner. One leg laid flat on the floor, the other pulled up to his chest. His eyes stared off between the bars of their cell, settling nowhere in particular. He appeared dead.
The young man lowered his voice further.
"He looks like he could use a springing, too."
"Don't bother," said the old man. "I've tried getting through t’him before, bu' he just paces and starves himself all day."
"Fine, then," the young man whispered back. "So who all do we have then? Harry, Donald..."
"...Ernest, Jack, Terry..."
"...Birdie, Marv, you, and me."
"Right," said the old man.
"And you said you've already got guys among the guards."
Footsteps approached and both men straightened up, the young man twiddling his thumbs and old scratching his beard. The guard walked through the hallway, glancing into each cell as he went. He paid no particular attention to the three as he passed, and soon his footfalls faded away.
The young man ran a hand through his hair. His eyes wandered back over to Jahan.
"You sure we should leave him here? We all get away and they'll probably kill him."
"Prob’ly for the best."
* * * * *
There is no evening in the city of cells, nor morning or afternoon. No windows peep out to the gloomy sky, no clocks are kept in sight. Torches are lit at all times and guards walk through without schedule, peering into each space without warning. Time is respected by only three things: first meal, second meal, and the daily retrieval of the shitpots. That day at first meal, the old man encouraged the younger to take the third bowl of slimy oats for himself.
"For strength," he said.
"It's hardly fair," the young man said, glancing towards Jahan.
"It's perfectly fair. He doesn't need it. You do."
The young man shook his head. The other sighed.
"Look," the old man said, "you're new to the block. But I'm telling you, you'll need every bit of strength. You'd better start building it now."
The young man didn't look convinced.
"Fine," his elder said, exasperated and getting to his feet. "But just watch what he does. Just watch."
The old man shambled towards Jahan and set the bowl down at his dark, scarred feet.
"Bon appetit," the old man said to him. Jahan didn't even glance his way. "I said eat," the old man said. Jahan, still, did nothing. The old man looked pointedly to the younger and made his way back over.
"What'd I tell you? What'd I tell you..."
* * * * *
At some point, the two fell asleep. When they awoke, they were slumped against one another. Across the cell, Jahan was pacing from one corner to the other, like a caged feline.
The younger man watched him for a while as the older yawned and combed through his beard with his fingers. Surely enough, Jahan's bowl was still full.
"Don't pay him any mind, I'm telling you," the elder said. The younger only sighed as he watched his strange roommate pace the same ten feet, again and again. His soles made soft scuffing noises on the stone floor, falling together into shapeless white noise.
* * * * *
"AT LEAST he's not a screamer," the old man said after the younger had been watching Jahan for a while. "My last bunkee, he was a screamer. Wake up in the night, yelling about rats eating his toes."
"What happened to him?"
"Who knows?” the old man wheezed. “They took him one day and never brought him back."
* * * * *
That night, Jahan ate from the bowl he was given. The other two cleared their dishes in ten minutes or so, despite the taste, but it took Jahan nearly an hour of slow, methodical chewing. It was frustrating to watch. The young man had to wonder how long he'd been there. He’d been told there were three kinds of people who didn't make it out of the city of cells: those who don't sleep, those who don't eat, and those who don't speak. How this strange, dark foreigner had survived so long, he couldn't guess.
* * * * *
Come the day of the plan, Jahan was sitting in his corner, staring listlessly out of the cells. It was the young man now who paced, arms crossed behind his back and eyes trained on the floor. The old man watched him with a frown.
"Don't use up all your energy," he said after some time had passed.
"I'm only walking."
"I can't sit right now."
The old man stretched his arms above his head. "Just 'long as you remember the way we're goin'."
The younger man stopped, turning to his elder. "How did you get in here, if you don't mind my asking?" he said.
"Broke a man's wrist, seeing as he was heading at my daughter."
"And just for that, they took you here?"
"He was somebody's nephew, a wanker from the Gardens."
"You think I'm lying."
"I don't," said the young man. "I was only wondering."
“Wondering how I been here so long?”
The young man shrugged.
The old man took a wheezy breath. “Guess they just forgot about me.”
* * * * *
Evening gruel was hardly kept down for the two men, but Jahan seemed to eat with more eagerness than usual. The young man was too wired to think much of it. He whiled away the hours by rolling a small stone under his finger, until his skin was red and sensitive and a faint white mark had been left on the floor.
"Ready?" the old man asked him.
"Aye, well, they'll be coming along in this hour."
The young man moved to lean against the wall. His eyes, like magnets, wandered back to Jahan. By now watching him didn't strike the young man as rude. He wasn’t sure Jahan even realized he existed.This willowy foreigner, with his dark skin and oily blond hair, seemed somehow ethereal, somehow existing outside the prison even as his body wasted away within it.
* * * * *
There were footsteps down the hall. The old man got to his feet. Jahan flicked his eyes up.
There was a jingle of keys as three guards came into view. They lead a man in shackles.
"Awh shit, Marv" the old man muttered.
The shackled man, Marv, looked up long enough to shake his head at the old man. He was drenched in sweat and his lip was split in two. The guards stopped in front of their cell. One was far taller than his company and bore an iron brooch in the shape of a serpent pierced several times over by a sword. One hand was clamped about the back of the shackled man's neck, while the other lounged casually in a pocket. The young man wagered him to be the warden.
"So these are our boys," he said.
The shackled man nodded, eyes trained down. The warden gestured to his two guards. "Bring them out, then."
As one of the guards disengaged the heavy iron padlock the other prepared to enter the cell wielding a wicked, metal-topped club. The warden stayed back, holding tight onto his captive.
"What'll we do?" the younger man whispered.
"Jus' follow my lead."
When the lock sprang loose and the cell door slid open, the club-wielding guard advanced inside, his steps slow and sauntering. He spun the instrument around his hand with practice. No one took note of Jahan, who had torn off part of his sleeve and now used it to furtively tie the sliding iron door open against the bars.
"Come easy now," the guard said.
The old man lunged at him with bare, gnarled fingers. In one easy brandish the guard cracked the metal end of the club over the old man's head. He sank to his knees, eyes wide, a visible dent in his skull. His jaw moved up and down, as though forming words, but all that came was a thick spittle that poured over his lower lip. He fell sideways and began to convulse.
The young man stared. He felt as though his head had been flooded with mud. The guard suddenly dropped his club to the floor. Jahan had appeared behind him, shirtless, twisting a band of cloth around the guard’s neck. Until now the young man hadn’t understood how tall Jahan really was, but the foreigner must have been six feet, maybe a few inches more. What he lacked in strength was compensated by sheer leverage as the guard thrashed and clung at the fabric against his throat.
The pair swung sideways and slammed into the wall. The young man snapped from his stupor. He snatched the discarded club from the floor and leapt over the old man’s writhing form and struck the choking guard across the face. Blood erupted from his nose. The young man struck him again, across his temple. The guard gnashed his teeth. His face was red and purple, splashed with blood. The young man desperately struck him one more time, hard. This time, the guard’s face spasmed and his eyes rolled into his head. Jahan released him, limp, to the floor.
“Shut the damn door!” the warden roared. His remaining guard heaved on the door, but it was secured against the bars by Jahan’s knot.
Jahan swept across the cell like a phantom. Even the warden retreated from his presence. The guard met him at the doorway and the two were immediately engaged in a struggle against the bars.
The young man felt dizzy. He hopped over the corpse of his companion towards the door. The warden dropped the shackled man to the ground and disengaged something from his belt. The young man was so unfamiliar with this tool that it wasn't until it was armed in the warden's hand that he realized what it was.
“Stop!” he cried.
There was a click, and both Jahan and the guard froze.
The warden aimed a fresh-greased flintlock pistol directly at Jahan’s head. His finger rested on the trigger. Jahan slowly turned, setting his uneven gaze upon him.
The next few moments passed in a vague blur. There was a bang, a flash, and a burst of smoke. There came no ricochet, but instead, the dull thud of lead in flesh and a pained groan from the dark skinned foreigner. Both men were blown back onto the floor simultaneously, Jahan onto the guard behind him. The young man's ears rung.
The gun tumbled onto the floor and the shackled man, Marv, reached for it. Apparently not knowing how to operate the device, he began to beat the warden over the temple with the ivory grip.
The young man rushed to Jahan’s side. A hole was punched near his collarbone. Blood spilled freely from the wound. He seized the club from the young man's hand and began to throw wild, angry blows upon the guard behind him, who shielded his face with leatherclad forearms. Jahan beat him, and beat him, offering no breath, until the guard's arm fractured and he began to cry from each blow. Jahan dropped the club. He reached up and grabbed the young man’s shoulder. With a pained heave he rose. His face had taken on a lighter pallor, and his bare chest shone red. Jahan’s other arm hung limp, blood running down from his wrist to the floor.
“That's not...” the young man started.
Behind them, the pistol clattered to the floor. The warden had ceased his fighting. There was a dark, cavernous well of blood where his nose had been. Marv now stood over him, unshackled. The hall of cells was alive with shouting. The young man looked down the halls and for the first time made eye contact with some of his fellow inmates. They were not like the old man. They screamed and bared their teeth. They scared him.
“A'right, er’rybody, listen up,” Marv hollered, just above the din. “We take this shithole. ‘Fore the sun rises, we’ll all be breathing free air.”
The prison hall roared. They rattled at the doors like dogs. Jahan grabbed the young man's hand and forced a sticky ring of keys into it. He tugged him back into reality and towards the opposite end of the hall. The young man stumbled after his lead. They passed rows upon rows of other prisoners. Which of them were innocent, like he, and which were rapists, slavers, or murderers? When they reached the end of the hall, Jahan undid the lock. A staircase wound both up and down.
Jahan forced him through the portal as the next rallying cry of prisoners rose and echoed through the stone hall. Marv must have already begun releasing prisoners. Jahan pulled the door shut behind them and immediately collapsed to the floor.
“Jahan!” the young man cried.
Jahan clutched his shoulder but it did little to staunch the flow of blood. The young man tried to reach out to him when, suddenly, Jahan seized the young man’s hand in a painful grip. An instinctive fear shot into his heart. Jahan stared at him. It was the first time the young man had looked into his eyes. They were uneven and sharp, animal. He didn’t even blink. The young man couldn’t look away.
They were locked together like that for what must have been only minutes but felt like hours when a pounding on the door jarred them both. Jahan released him. A bloody handprint wrapped about the young man’s wrist.
Jahan breathed deeply. A thick stream ran continuously down his chest and arm. His expression was hard. The young man watched him warily, and after a moment, offered his hand. Jahan took it. The young man used both of his hands to heave him up, and Jahan leaned heavily on him. “There's an unlocked door that leads out the armory,” he said slowly. “We need to move down.”
Maybe it was trust or maybe it was some sense of understanding, but Jahan followed the young man's lead.
* * * * *
As they descended the levels of the city of cells they could hear the riot growing steadily in magnitude behind them. It was like being followed by a rolling, rumbling glacier.
At a point they heard guards rushing up to meet them. Jahan and the young man took shelter beneath a table and miraculously were passed by. There must have been thirty guards, all thundering through in clanking metal armor.
At several other points they were nearly discovered but Jahan, despite his condition, seemed to always sense when someone was coming upon them. When they reached the base level of the prison, the riot went suddenly silent.
The sky outside was as dark and gray as iron. When they broke out into the chilled night, Jahan leaning on the young man heavily, it felt like the first time they'd breathed real air in years.
The young man's eyes were drawn to the horizon. It was the only thing which shaped the sky. Somewhere in the distance was the bay and his family. The nightmare was nearly over.
“We’ll go to the harbor,” the young man said, letting Jahan go. “My pa’s a fishmonger. He can help us take a boat out.”
Jahan remained silent. The lead ball was still somewhere inside of his shoulder. It worried the young man how far they’d have to walk, but there was no other option. They needed to get as far away from the Cells as possible.
The young man gestured towards the horizon. “We have to walk,” he said slowly. Jahan remained entirely still, yet the young man had the sense he comprehended. Something else was wrong.
Suddenly Jahan shoved him against the wall. The young man tried to choke out some exclamation, but his throat was pinned tight against his own spine. Jahan thrust him once, twice, three times, four times, five times against the wall. The young man tried to pull Jahan’s hands off of him, but it was like he'd lost all strength. His vision blurred and flashed at the edges. He clawed at Jahan’s face, grabbing hold of his nose, his lip, hair, anything that he could. With a final snap, Jahan cracked his head into the wall. Like a candle, the young man’s vision was snuffed away. He did not sense light again.