The Fortress of Men
I woke up early in the morning. Everything was sore, especially my abdomen. Droll had rolled from my mouth and dried up on my sleeve. My right hand was wrapped tightly in bandages and a cast. I barely had feeling in it. What confused me was the floor. Flat stone. Everywhere. A deathly chill breathed into the cell from a barred window; that was what woke me up.
“What the …” I murmured.
I ignored every pain in my body to crawl over to the window.
Jerrick imprisoned me in some kind of fortress high up in the mountains. I looked out at the monstrous view of a snowy valley. It was a death drop from the window.
I leaned my head against the window. This was where my frustration sent me. Frustration - the child of rage and sadness. It took hold of me again as I growled uncontrollably and shook the bars. A sudden jolt of pain from my broken wrist made me cry out.
“Shut up in there!” yelled someone down the hallway.
I pressed my face against the bars to see the hallway. I was at the far end. To my right there was a dead end. To the left there were other cells down the hall too but it didn’t seem like anyone else was taken captive.
“Why am I always the only one?” I grumbled to myself. I then shouted, “Hey! Hey! Where am I?”
The guard didn’t answer. He lay back in his chair at his post comfortably reading. I repeated the question, much louder this time.
“You’re in Boreal,” the guard replied lazily.
“Oh, very funny. You’re so funny. You’re funnier than the Fire Magician himself!”
“Hey!” he barked without looking up from his book. “One more word out of you and I’ll have to beat you.”
I puffed up my chest. I bellowed, “WHERE. AM. I? CAN YOU PLEASE TELL ME?”
The guard rose calmly after leaving his book alone. When he arrived at my cell, he thrust the butt of his rifle in my face. I fell backwards. The guard walked off muttering, “Apeman.”
I wiped the blood off my lips. This was getting me nowhere of course, but I had my moment of expelling my frustration on someone. I rested against the wall muttering over my fate. Minutes later, the guard gave me a dish of food through the bars. The food consisted of bread, cheese and a glass of milk. I finished the meal by the time Ranulf appeared.
I shot to my feet.
Here was where he was going to tell me that all of this was some trick up his sleeve. Everything would be all right now. He would grab the bars and melt them with his fiery magic and we’d make a run for it.
“How are you holding up?” he asked lowly.
I gestured towards the empty plate. “How do you think?” In his silence, I came close and hissed, “Ranulf. Come on. Get me out of here.”
Ranulf hadn’t been looking at me. He was straightening his cloak and dusting off his shoulders. “I don’t think that would be in my best interest.”
“Ranulf, what happened to you? Come on! What happened? I don’t understand. We were fine in Talim. We were doing well until we ran into these apes.”
“I was losing faith, kid,” he snapped. He opened his mouth but closed it, thinking of the right words. “It was … fun while it lasted but this is becoming an obsession. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“So what are you going to do? You’re just going to stand with them and watch them destroy Balachandar with Taliah in it?”
Ranulf said nothing further. He turned to leave. This wasn’t him at all. There had to be some edge for him, some secret trick. He was up to something, I knew it.
I shouted across the hallway before he touched the door, “You just want her for yourself!”
The guard glanced up at Ranulf when I said this. Ranulf paused. He turned around and hustled towards my cell. He grabbed my tunic and pulled me towards him.
“I was her friend. I am her friend. I will always be her friend. I will stand by her side no matter what. Even if that means being on the side of soul-sucking succubi. I’ll probably be doing the world a favor by ridding the realm of silly boys like Jerrick and Stefan and Jaspar. I’m warning you. You’re getting very close to being one.”
“So you do want her for yourself.”
“I never said that. You don’t listen, dammit!” He shook me. “You never listen. You have to let go of the fact that you weren’t her first. You weren’t her first kiss. You weren’t her first love. You should have understood the fact that you may never have been her last either. She clearly doesn’t want you anymore. You have to let go, Adder.”
“You’re not letting go either.”
He pulled me harder with both hands. He glanced to see if the guard noticed the heated argument. “The difference is I’m on this side of the bars.”
He shoved me off and left. I sat down in my dingy cell. I thought over the ways to feign stomach aches and other pains, but I figured prison guards would be accustomed to such tactics. I had to think of something very convincing. But those thoughts quickly spiraled into fantasies, into what I would do to Jerrick if I had my hands on him, or Jaspar or Stefan.
If frustration is the child of rage and sadness, then insanity must be the uncle of frustration that grants many presents. Go home. Go home, they said. Go listen to Mommy and Daddy again. I did nothing but waste their time. I was nothing but an annoying fly. They put me there like a child needing some time alone. I kicked the bars thinking about it.
Someone entered the hallway. Jerrick appeared this time. I was huddled in the corner embracing my contempt for everybody.
He said, “Guard mentioned you were a little … abrasive.”
“What are you going to do with me?”
“You’re going to stay here until you cooperate.”
“What if I don’t want to cooperate?”
“We’ll kick you out to somewhere dark and dangerous in the middle of nowhere. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”
I didn’t reply. He left, but I asked, “What are your plans for Balachandar now?”
He answered with a scoff. “Do you really think I’m going to tell you?”
I heard him walk down the hallway when the door opened again. I heard other footsteps and other voices. I crawled over to the bars to listen. It was Jaspar and Stefan. They asked how I was and what they were going to do with me. Jerrick repeated what he told me. They conversed some more on other topics.
Stefan asked, “I don’t understand why we don’t dispose of him.”
Jerrick then said, “We must keep our image, dear wizard. As much as I’d like to as well, it’s not right. Instead, he’ll do it himself, trust me. I think he should waste himself by jumping out the window.”
They laughed together and left the jail.
I lay there on the floor holding onto that last comment. The amount of hate against me fell hard. Not even that, the amount of struggle. My parents were alone and broken back in Krestor Knolls. My one traveling partner harbored a hidden agenda. But even at the academy where I raised no revolver to anyone or didn’t have any conflict with anyone, I was met with snickers. I myself wasn’t even sure anymore if I truly was a pathetic little boy. All I wanted at that moment was to see Taliah and understand her actions. I wanted to be there in my room talking to her again like none of this had ever happened. Maybe that was the mistake – wanting to get close to something I knew I could never have.
I cried for the remainder of that night. The guard didn’t mind. I remained in that cell for another day. They fed me heavier pieces of food, like chicken and beef. I had nothing to comfort my body, just the cold hard floor. I had to think of something or else I knew I was going to lose my mind.
I had absolutely nothing but my clothes. Nothing in the cell could help me. None of the bars had any imperfections that I could take advantage of. There were no secret passages or loose cobblestones. There was nothing I could do with the window.
I just had my clothes and a broken right hand.
I played with the bandage.
The wound still had some fresh blood behind the layers.
I thought hard … eventually looking over to my left wrist.
I cringed as I moved the splint aside a bit in order to take dabs of the blood. I would be risking infection. I transferred those dabs to my right fingers and smeared a line across my left wrist. When I was satisfied with the presentation, I situated myself sitting against the wall so that from the guard’s point of view he would see only my left arm plopped on the floor as if lifeless. My right arm would be vaguely visible, and I would pretend as if I held a very small sharp object between my thumb and index finger.
When the guard came to present supper, I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
I heard his footsteps halt when he came to the cell. He put the plate on the floor and murmured with intrigue. The jingle of the keys was the most glorious sound I heard at the moment. I tried hard not to swallow, not to move even a centimeter until he was right in my face.
He bent low to inspect me. He then reached for my pulse at my throat.
That was when I opened my eyes and smacked my forehead against his nose. It cracked like wood. He keeled over groaning. I then kicked him in the groin on the ground. I viciously beat him all over with my kicks until I was sure it would take him a while to speak or get up.
I stripped him of his rifle and hesitated. I wouldn’t kill him. No, this was all a fool’s game. Nobody should have to die in a foolish matter.
My heart pounded.
I checked the doors for any sign of my belongings. Most of the rooms were solitary confinements - cells without windows. Finally, I found the room where they placed my rucksack, jacket, katana and boots. It was a stockroom with some miscellaneous equipment, but the useful things where the animal hides, matches and jars of food.
The guard’s moan carried down the hallway.
I slung the rifle over my shoulder. I didn’t know how to use one, and I would probably fail at shooting others without wanting to kill them. I took it anyway for hunting. I could still theoretically fight with the katana. My right hand was only used to guide the movements of the sword. All the force in the strokes came from the left arm.
I hurried out into the next hallway before the guard could find the strength to pursue me. By the door were several chairs. I put one up against the door handle. I already didn’t like this fortress – it was winding and dark and cold. I had no idea where to go but I went where my instincts told me. I figured the fortress had some long stairwell that led down into the mountain into the cave.
I walked down the steps of a wide room. Another set of stairs led down to the left. But I spotted the oncoming shadows of soldiers coming up. I hurried backwards to find another route. I passed by the jail room door. The door handle struggled furiously. The guard banged and shouted. I went down the other end of the hallway. I was closing in on the corner when I heard footsteps behind me. They were hurrying on towards the jail door. I was too far away in the dark to be noticed instantly. The minute they opened the door and let the guard free, I bolted.
They called out warning everyone. Their voices echoed in and around the fortress walls. The sounds were disorienting. I couldn’t tell who was going to come out of where or what direction the voices were coming from. But when I heard the crack of gunfire I knew at least someone had seen me. I ducked and continued running.
I discovered a stairwell leading up. I could find an exit out through the roof or some kind of balcony. I hoped I could find a way through the mountain; some kind of pass.
The biting wind swept from the next set of stairs going up. The wooden door wasn’t enough to hold back Boreal. I kicked it open. Indeed, it was the roof of the fortress. The snow had calmed at last, but the winds kept bursting. I tightened the hides around me.
At the second crack of rifles, I ran again. I almost fell off the edge into oblivion thinking there was a way down. I followed the perimeter of the roof to find one. Three soldiers had chased me upstairs and continued to shoot at me.
Ranulf was right – they had to run out of ammunition at some point. When they did, they drew their smallswords and charged.
When I unsheathed my katana they stood back abashed. They weren’t sure how to approach someone with a katana. I grinned in reply to their surprise.
The first soldier gave a thrust. I disarmed him in one swirl while shaking his nerves with a battle cry. I sent him running back inside. The other two continued to engage. I also sent them back with energetic cries, this time with grazed hands.
I returned to seeking an exit.
“Damn it!” I cried aloud, ready to strike whoever it was.
Jerrick approached with his own sword, followed by Jaspar, Stefan and Ranulf. Ranulf was the only one who didn’t brandish anything at me. Jerrick said in surprise, “I didn’t know you fought like those from across the sea.”
“Only taught from the best,” Ranulf said, but no one else seemed to pay attention.
I prepared my katana as they circled me. Jerrick tried to put some sense into me. “Come, Adder, you’ve done nothing wrong. Let’s stop this foolishness and send you home.”
“Why don’t you tell me to fall of the cliff?” And I leaped forward with a strike for his hands. Jerrick blocked it and forced me back. Jaspar and Stefan lunged too with their swords, but they clashed with each other clumsily. I sent them all back with one swing.
“You all want her for yourself. Admit it!” I yelled. “Don’t act like none of you have thought about it!”
Jerrick fought back vigorously. The other two hesitated at what I had just said. All of us, however, suddenly turned to Ranulf. He had run off like a scoundrel towards the door in the midst of our quarrel.
I raised my brow. “See?”
Jerrick scowled, “Get him.”
“On second thought…” Jaspar threatened him with his sword. Jerrick glared with intensity. “What? Are you seriously considering turning against me? Against everything we’ve been doing?”
“What if I already have?” Jaspar’s eyes danced with his pride. “I mean, in the end of it all, I do own my own country, and my own airship.”
“You idiot!” Jerrick hissed.
Stefan meanwhile was going after Ranulf. Those two proceeded to duel once Ranulf whipped out a rapier. With Jerrick and Jaspar going at it, I finally had my chance to escape. I discovered a way out on the other side of the roof. The edge of the mountain was within a jump’s length away, and from there a path led down.
“Apprehend him you fools!” Jerrick shouted.
I turned to see the outcome of the duels. They had managed to work together to disarm Ranulf. They had him at the edge of the roof where a jump could last forever. I tensed.
Ranulf looked at me, then to them. He said, “You really think you’re going to tie up the one and only Fire Magician?”
He winked and jumped off the ledge.
“RANULF!” I cried.
I saw his red speck fall down into the white abyss. His robes fluttered like the flames of a phoenix. He disappeared within that whiteness. I couldn’t ponder over his fate for long. I was sure he knew what he was doing. The three suitors still fought amongst themselves with their swords drawn. I jumped off the edge and tumbled into the snow, not without inflicting pain upon my wounds.
Some soldiers on the balcony tried to pick me off. I too disappeared within the whiteness of the mountain.
The snow became thick to run through. My thighs quickly felt numb. The trail continued to descend the mountain until I was back on the ground.
So I ran on.
I ran on through the snowy haze where hardly a soul had ventured for eons, into the dark and cold world that was Boreal. The mountains widened to reveal the clear tundra. The sun lingered for hours longer than anywhere else, but its rays were unable to warm anything. The sun wavered there far off as a reminder of a hope that was once bright.
In the days that followed walking along barren wasteland, I became sick. An unnatural warmth spread across my body and I coughed violently. I had gotten infected. I took a peek through the bandages and saw that my skin had turned black.
I could hardly speak without coughing or feeling pain. “Cursed … realm,” I murmured, vainly trying to hold back my coughs.
I collapsed. I didn’t think I would be able to go further. I coughed until my chest burned. I couldn’t last a couple minutes without doing so.
I clenched my left hand and banged it against the ground. I let out a cry for all of Boreal to hear. I would never get to see Taliah. I would die there alone and the snow would cover up my remains.
My illness took over me to the point where I couldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t sustain my coughs any longer. It hurt so much to breathe. I could only take shallow breaths. I lay on the ground hugging my knees and clasping my hands together tightly.
I closed my eyes and meditated. If I were to die, it would be in peace.