||[Dec. 25th, 2005|01:11 am]
The square room that interlocked the room with the root wall was empty. On the far wall, another door opened into a very small nexus, perhaps four feet on a side. A corridor ran off in each direction, two unremarkable hallways of the common sort to the left and right, and forward, a circular pipe-mouth, tall enough for Heinrich to walk, and just wide enough for Mirabelle.|
The pipe looked fairly intriguing, I admit, and I was just about to suggest that we head in that direction, when Heinrich put up a hand in a gesture for silence.
I cocked my head and listened. Mirabelle chose that moment to make a grumbling in her nose and shift her feet, but after a few seconds, I heard it too—a very faint clinking, the sound of metal on metal, or possibly stone. It was coming from the lefthand hallway.
We proceeded cautiously down the hall, Heinrich in the lead. It might be nothing, another suspended-object-on-a-chain clinking as it swayed perhaps. Still, with the steamjacks and all, we were more than a little jumpy at the moment.
Perhaps fifteen feet down the corridor, there was a wooden door. The planks were thick oak, with an inset barred window, and there was a heavy iron bar and heavier iron lock blocking it. On our side.
We considered this.
The clinking noise came again, from inside the room. Heinrich peered through the bars.
“Dark,” he rumbled, which provoked a flurry of agitated clinking from inside.
I was standing on the tips of my hooves (and this is harder than it sounds) to look through the door myself, when Heinrich shoved his muzzle forward so far it nearly jammed between the bars. He blinked into the dark several times, eyes narrowing, and then pulled back.
“Somebody in there,” he said. (Clink, clink.)
I couldn’t see much of anything. It was very dark. A high square window cast faded light down, with an almost yellowish tint, but this illuminated only a small patch of wall and cast a faint, brittle rim of light over flagstones and what looked like straw. It made all the shadows so dark by contrast that I couldn’t make out what Heinrich was seeing.
Generally when someone has put a lock on a door to keep something IN, there is a damn good reason. And I think that if there had been another polite note from the Monks of Perdition warning us that the being inside would eat our spleens and dance in our entrails, we would have let it alone. But there was no such note, and we had a perfectly good crowbar just going to waste, and so it took about three careful minutes and one very reckless one and we had the door open.
The inside was dark and dry and cool, and there was indeed ancient straw across the floor. The room was quite small, a circular construction of mortared stone that resembled an old well or cistern. It was at least thirty feet tall, possibly taller. The small, square window was perhaps twenty feet up, and did not illuminate anything that might be a ceiling.
We stepped inside, and the clinking went mad, a rattling of metal dragging on stone.
The light was so bad that at first I thought the thing crawling across the floor was a snake, or something’s tail. It was not until Heinrich set a foot down on it, and the clinking stopped abruptly, that I realized it was a chain.
I followed the line of the chain, and finally, in the indirect brightness of the door, saw the flat green glitter of animal eyes. They were set above the ground far enough that I had a brief, unpleasant vision of lions or tigers or bears less civilized than Heinrich. But the face was wrong, and the body underneath looked slender and huddled in the straw.
Eventually our eyes adjusted. The eyes belonged to something sadder, and much less threatening, than either of us had guessed.
It was a fox-faced youth, maybe sixteen. By fox-faced I mean he had the head of a grey fox, with huge, shaking ears and a narrow, angular muzzle. The rest was humanoid, mostly. Naked, ribs protruding, skinny arms clutching head. I have seen more flesh on mummies. No tail.
He was also apparently terrified or in shock, and nothing Heinrich or I could say achieved anything. We made soothing gestures, we tried every language the two of us knew, we sent Heinrich out of the room completely, and nothing. We offered him food, which he ignored. He stank with the rank ranginess of a fox, and we could not tell if he had been in there for a day or a year or a lifetime.
The chain ran to a shackle on his left wrist. The clinking when he moved had been the sound we heard.
After about thirty minutes of one-sided communication attempts, Heinrich did the only thing left to do. He reached down, grabbed the chain—the foxboy cringed—set the crowbar in one link, and made a quick twist. The chain parted. Heinrich dropped the free end at the foxboy’s feet, turned, and walked out of the room.
We moved Mirabelle back down the hall about ten feet and waited.
I was starting to worry that it was going to be the frozen deer all over again, when there was another flurry of clinking, and the foxboy poked his muzzle around the edge of the door. He looked at us both, still with those flat, emotionless green eyes, and paused. Fear? Gratitude? I don’t know. Then he tore off down the hall, running hunched over. The shackle and the two or three remaining links swung and clanked as he moved.
He turned a corner, and was gone.
The small room held only one more thing of interest. By feel only, I found scratches on the wall. They were even, regular marks under my fingers—four parallel lines, and a cross bar. Hatch marks. Counting marks.
I ran my hand along the walls, finding more marks, and more, until I lost count. They ran as high as my head, clear down to the floor, and along the walls as far as I ran my fingers. It was too dark to get any clear estimate of their numbers, but hundreds at least. Perhaps thousands.
What they might signify—days and weeks and years in the dark—could hardly be believed. There was no food, no waste, nothing in the cell at all. Someone had put the foxboy in there for a reason--probably. Maybe not. Maybe the cell had simply come into existence with its prisoner, fully formed. How could you tell?
Perhaps we’d done a good deed. Perhaps we’d set loose a monster. Likely we’d never know one way or the other.
We went on.