Circlets and Seekers
“What were you doing there?” the voice demanded.
She could not reply. Would not allow herself to speak.
“There are ways,” it rumbled, “to convince you to answer.”
“It’s been dark for quite some time. Maybe you’d like a little light?”
It had been dark. So dark. But for how long. Hours? Days? She couldn’t say. Oh, but how she wanted the light. In the dark the noises played tricks on her: the scrabble-tap feet of vermin, heavy footsteps through the wall, an agonized scream that choked and rattled then died away. But always his voice came back, cold and low like the growling lions she’d read so often about.
The first room had been better: ascetic, well-lit, with featureless gray walls and unfurnished corners. A woman had come to her then, kind-spoken, with deft hands that loosened the chair restraints, long ears whose points peaked through waves of almost blond, and a face like old teak.
Kind-spoken though she was, the woman wanted everything, like him. Questions, questions, questions. From just beyond arm’s length, with legs casually crossed, and fingers knitted before a face taut with concern.
“That gem. You know the one, pretty green like summer leaves. Where in all the world did you find it? Did someone give it to you?” the words were sweet syrup laced with poison.
Never tell. Never say a word.
The kind-spoken woman clicked her tongue. “It’s quite important you humor us, my dear. We know you’ve hidden it, and we know it’s in Dalkaldur. But that’s a big place. Tell me how to find it, and we’ll get the rest all sorted out.”
When no answer came, the red lips flattened from concern to irritation, then relaxed. “As you will,” she said. “Just remember. We know about the book, too. That’s stolen property, my dear. And we can’t let stolen property go unreported. It’s not like you’ve kept some ordinary volume overlong. That one’s a historical piece. The fines will be significant. Imprisonment maybe. Who’s to say?” She tapped her fingers together. “Unless you tell us where you left it. Misplaced it, even, I’m sure. Yes, where did you last see it before you misplaced it?”
That was before the dark, before the cold, before the voice. When the kind-spoken woman went away, the light went with her. It wasn’t so bad. Despite the restraints, sleep had come, until the voice woke her.
“Tell us!” it had screamed, shattering the silence. She gasped, heart hammering. From then on sleep was impossible. If her eyes closed, he woke her. Clanging steel bars, a nail against slate, a bucket of water. No more sleep.
When the trembling subsided, the chair felt different: hard, scratchy, and it creaked when she tested the restraints. The room smelled different: thick with the damp of mildewed floors and something moldering behind the walls. It was then she had begun to hear the rats.
“A little light?” the voice asked again, scaring the rats away. The silence stretched, held its breath. She thought for a moment that he had gone. Then came the scrape of blade on whetstone, a gritty, shearing rhythm swollen with threat. She wanted to shout, to scream: “You can’t scare me! You won’t hurt me!” But in the dark she was no longer certain, and any word spoken was a broken promise to herself.
Light flickered into the room, leaving behind the shredded remains of a darkness his little candle could not clear. She glimpsed his hand as he set the light on a wooden shelf. In the soft space between his wrinkled knuckles and thumb, a faded shape blackened the skin: a teardrop. It hovered there for half a breath before the thick fingers evaporated with the rest of him into blackness.
On the shelf, an array of carefully aligned instruments glimmered: needle, physician’s blade, baton, knife with twisted point, and a hook with a five-pointed star at the end. She squinted. Her eyes had grown weak in the room’s perpetual darkness, and now even a candle seemed blinding.
He snuffed it.
“No,” she gasped. Mistake! Don’t speak.
“No?” crooned the voice. “I had begun to think we had struck you dumb.” The flame sprang again to life, and the ragged shadows unfurled. “You tell me something, I leave your light.”
No. She could control her mouth. That last word had simply escaped. One mistake would not become another. She licked the cracks along her lips and pressed them together. But it was so good to see again.
The man whose voice came from the darkness remained, shrouded in ghostly dancing shadows. Her eyes began to adjust, though for now everything was blurry and ill-defined. This was not the same room, nor the same chair—as she had suspected. The first room, burnished cleaner than any she had ever seen, and the first chair, soft and smooth, upholstery upon metal, were gone. Gray woodgrain ridges replaced them, a floor all dirt and stones, a chair that slipped splinters through her clothes and into her skin.
A cellar of some kind.
A guttural rumble issued from the shroud of black, and again the light went out. Her heart fluttered, but she bit down hard on her lip, refusing to let another plea break free. A door clicked open then banged against the frame. Eventually, she knew, they would break her. Wherever she was, it was far from where they had begun. Be it sound or sleeplessness, the dark or the light, something would give. If not, how far would they go? A table of sharp knives was one thing, but using them? They wouldn’t.
Ticka-ticka-tick. Ticka-tick. She startled awake, twisted her head from side to side, listened. Where had he gone? Would they leave her there? She suppressed the urge to call out. The rats responded unbidden. Ticka-ticka-tick. Ticka-tick.
“Hello?” A new voice. A man’s again, but not the raspy gravel of her tormentor. This one was lighter, frail even. Afraid.
She didn’t answer.
“Where am I? They said I’d have a cellmate, that they didn’t need me anymore. Hello?” A leather strap groaned and a chair squeaked in the dark.
Her mouth was parched. It felt like days since last they brought her water, and even then half of it had been used to douse her awake. Or maybe it had only been hours. Her tongue felt heavy and thick, and she tasted blood on her lips. Back in the clean room, the kind-spoken woman had escorted her to relieve herself. No such luxury here in the dark. The water washed some of that away. The smell lingered.
The door clicked open.
It was him. She could tell by the footfalls, the breathing.
“I’m supposed to have a cellmate,” the other man’s voice whined. “They said they didn’t need me to answer any more questions, said they’d found someone else.” His words accelerated as the heavy boots thudded over the doorframe and the latch snapped shut. He was squealing by the end. “There’s no one in here. What are you going to do?”
“Hmm,” rumbled the voice.
I’m here! Me! We’re here together. Not alone, she wanted to say. But she knew what the man with the teardrop tattoo was planning. At least, she thought she did.
“He thinks he’s alone,” the deep voice called. “Are you so cruel? Answer him. Tell him who you are.”
“Is someone here, truly? Hello?” called the second voice.
It took all her strength to remain silent.
And then the candle flamed once more. The shadows unfurled, her cellmate appearing in a flutter of orange and red and smoke. His eyes were wide and darting, blinded by the candle so close to his face. He was bare to the waist where his trousers, soiled like hers, covered him. Violently, he shivered as if whipped by a chill wind. But he could not move. The restraints saw to that.
“Is anyone there?” he called, his eyes flicking back and forth around the room. They alighted on her, and his mouth dropped open. “Oh,” he said. And then a scream, like nothing she had ever heard, burst from his mouth, rattled his throat. He twisted against the restraints and wailed, staring into her eyes, pleading with his own. A five-pointed star erupted from the flesh near his shoulder, his wide eyes following the blood and metal as it wrenched his shoulder back against the chair.
“I’ll tell you anything!” he shrieked.
“It’s far too late for that,” said the voice.
She clenched her eyes tight. They can’t do this, she thought. But the writhing, howling man on the other side of her eyelids disagreed.
He bucked and struggled, his body thumping against the restraints. And she closed her eyes tighter.
Something heavy hit him, sending out all the air in a rush. For a moment he was still. Then with a shuddering gasp, he inhaled again. She clenched her jaw, forcing down the roiling nausea in her stomach. But it leapt up again, like the man in the chair.
He keened once more, flailing at his bonds, until no air remained in his lungs, the sound flat and dry and gagging at the end of each breath. For hours.
She felt better when he died.
A rooster crowed somewhere in the distance. Shafts of dusty light peeked through the curtains, painting the western wall in pale gold. Out in the fields, the stalks grew long and green. Another six weeks and they would make quite the harvest. Thomas lifted a hand to his face, rubbing the sleep away. He’d gone to bed with the bracelet on his wrist again. It was the third time he’d dreamed the darkened cellar and the screaming man and the girl in the chair.
He lowered his hand and reached out with the other. Elise was not there. The bed was empty. He turned, rubbed the vacant space pointlessly. For a moment he feared, as he often did, that she had left him, gone away in the night. His eyes raked the room, and he found her at the small table across from the bed, her lean shoulders draped with a thin blanket and tangled black hair over all. And those eyes, so dark; sunlight never touched them.
“You shouted in your sleep,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s not the first time, either.” She shifted her weight on the chair, a bare leg escaping the blanket.
Thomas followed the leg until it disappeared back into the rumpled cloth. “It was only a dream.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. Her eyes pinned him where he sat fumbling with the remaining covers. “You said ‘Dalkaldur’ and murmured about gems and books. I heard you say ‘Askon’ and ‘Edward,’ on both occasions, actually.”
Thomas squirmed again, glancing about as the sunrise warmed their quarters with light. His wife sat still as stone, just as she’d stood at their small wedding before wrapping him in her arms, just as she’d stand for one of John’s lectures before shouting him out of the room. He looked slowly to the table next to the bed. It was empty. Though he could not see it, he knew that she too wore a gemmed bracelet around her wrist somewhere under the blanket.
“Tell me what you saw,” she said.