The old guard at Mittelwälder Jail awaited arrival of his prisoner. He scanned the uncertain horizon from beneath an awning while the rain fell for days as though summer had time to spare. Heavy drops plinked the tin plate he’d set out with seeds to feed the birds, the rhythm reminding him of the drums those mad performers played in the city streets of his youth. The cataracts in his eyes distorted but did not hide a green field reaching to the woods as did the blue mist, a yellow road spindling towards him from the bold beyond to greet the decrepit jail door beside him. Days grew short, but no one tracks time in the rain. The old guard’s duty was simple and demoralizingly so. Nothing so fickle as the alternating wealth and poverty of youth, hunger abated one moment as a sword for hire and the next in care of lonely young widows of the war. Gambling paid for time in between. Resolve counted for more than luck among cardholders, and he had excelled at each. Now he had only to receive criminals convicted by the burgomaster’s court to the south, hold them for a few days and release them to the lord’s men for execution to the north. This less than useless occupancy afforded him comfortable enough bed, food simple but plentiful, and put a black tar roof over his grayed head. In old age, he considered himself lucky for the luxuries borrowed of modern law, politics and other inefficiencies. The rhythm of the rain on the tin plate reached a crescendo when two men on horses appeared from the mist. As they neared, the old guard saw a third man slung over the rear of one horse like cargo. Even in the milky rain and through his elderly eyes, he could see shapes for nearly a mile across the heath. The old guard waited a long time for their arrival before standing.
“There is no need to salute,” said the first of the prisoner escorts, a tall man with broad shoulders. His uniform fell over him like a tent, adorned in the bold blue and gold crest of his burgomaster, other less ornate insignia commemorating his deeds stitched up and down his sleeves. He had a face full of angles upon which he wore his lips pursed with just a hint of a sadistic grin. The old guard had never met him before, and he immediately disliked the man, though his predecessors were no better and often drunk.
“I learned to show respect to my superiors,” the old guard said, squaring his frail frame as best he could.
“Superior?” the tall escort spat. “Army man, were you?”
“Infantry. Yes, briefly and long ago.”
“You work for your lord now, not the burgomaster,” the tall escort quipped, waving dismissively as the second escort pulled the handtied prisoner from his mount. The prisoner fell with a thud and lay in a heap before the being kicked with gleeful effort to his feet. The tall escort narrowed his eyes down at the old guard. “If you’re such a man of formality, it would do you well to learn proper protocol.”
“Call me Thomas.”
“Yes, Sir. Thomas.”
“Not ‘Sir Thomas!’ I’m not knighted yet, Old Man!” He stared from cold steel eyes before turning and laughing to his comrade. “My God, Jenkins. The old ones have no sense of humor!”
Jenkins sent the prisoner staggering forward, his face battered, hair long and black, body naked and emaciated from near-starvation. His feet lacked several of its toes, setting him off-balance, and the condition of his fingers were likely worse though impossible to tell with his hands bound behind his back. He looked at the old guard from vacant, yellow eyes. Whatever agonies he had suffered had to some extent passed, leaving him merely broken rather than pained. The second guard straightened the convict up as well as he could before drawing his sword and smashing him with the broad side behind his knees. Down the prisoner went, face into the mud and struggling, twisting on the ground but not able to free his mouth and nose from the mud for air.
“Good God, Jenkins,” Thomas groaned. “Why must you keep knocking him down? You know you only have to pick him up again!”
“We all have our hobbies,” Jenkins laughed, turning back to hitch the horses.
“I’ve prepared the cell,” the old guard said, coyly turning the prisoner’s head with his foot so he could gulp for air. “Shall we go in out of the rain?”
Mittelwälder Jail served as a forward watchtower during the Millenarian Wars, called by some the War of the Witches. It was a sort of jail even then, or certainly a death sentence as belligerent factions overran it dozens of times and butchered all within. The stone masonry held firm to this day, reaching into the sky high above the surrounding forest. The upper levels were now cordoned – not by brick, but by the decay of the wooden stairs leading up, and what remained as the old guard’s quarters was a circular ground floor with a single door and a barred window. It had a dirt floor, straw bed, and a table with a bench along one side for meals. The far end, facing the door and dug two feet into the clay in a crescent shape awaited the jail area. Groundwater seeped from the ground here, and with no window the air here was perceptibly danker and more dismal than in the living area, a fact which every prisoner escort noted and often with a chill as though expecting to see a ghost. In this holding area were fashioned three sets of four manacles each: two rusty iron manacles for the feet attached to stone blocks and two glistening, steel manacles for the wrists fastened to chains that disappeared into the wall and back out again to a large wooden spindle with a crank. The crank tightened the chains, hauling the prisoner’s hands upward and out, not to the point of crucifixion but enough to keep a convict struggling on tip-toe to breathe. No guidance system fed the chains – no arrangement of pullies made hanging of the prisoner easier – and so Jenkins struggled inch by inch, turn by turn, against the binding of chain over stone. He wheezed and grunted louder than the prisoner himself while Thomas supped with the old guard in his adjacent quarters.
The meal was simple and awkward. Seated beside Thomas, the old guard awkwardly stifled a nagging cough to the point he could scarcely breath let alone eat, his watery eyes searching the nooks and crannies for the rat without a tail who lived with him there. It seemed foolish to him now, feeding the vermin and having adopted it as a sort of pet. In the long days and weeks he spent alone here, he often found himself speaking to the creature. He’d convinced himself that the rodent liked him and even understood his words at times.
“That is quite a cough you have,” Thomas grumbled, breaking his silence as he pushed his gourd bowl of venison, bread, and sliced apples away in disgust. “Are you sure you can handle the prisoner alone here?”
“He’ll be chained!” the old guard said defensively for reasons only he knew. Too defensively, perhaps, and he quickly added, “I once took on and captured the infamous Capston killer? All on my own!”
“So I’ve heard.”
“His assassins had quietly picked off each of my men. Rather than turn back I tracked them, ambushing his party singlehandedly and bringing the murderer to swift justice.”
“I am aware of your history as a mercenary, old guard. And I promise, I will never question how you allowed your men to die while obtaining glory for yourself.”
Anger raced to the old guard’s face, skin hot. He bolted up from his seat but rapidly fell into a fit of coughing.
“Oh, sit before you hurt yourself,” Thomas sneered. “I’m not interested in your life story. I only wonder if it crosses your mind who the real prisoner here is, hmm? Just look at this! Rancid meat. You didn’t hunt that deer. Moldy bread you didn’t bake. Even the apples…brown as they are, someone brings them to you.”
“You would rather I were a baker? An apple-picker?” He patted the worn, iron short sword sheathed at one hip and the steel dagger at his other. “These are the tools of my trade!”
“My point is that even this lowly existence is of no small expense to your lord. Our burgomaster is surely capable of placing hot steel in a convicted man’s heart. What is your purpose here exactly, hmm? Why do you or the jail exist?”
Jenkins appeared just then, as damp from sweat now as the rains he’d ridden through an hour earlier. “The prisoner is fastened up. Are we done here?”
“I believe so,” Thomas said, taking to his feet in a leisurely fashion. He reached for his cup of water, sniffed it, and set it down again without drinking. His eyes flashed and his cruel grin widened. “You were right, Jenkins. These old men have no humor at all.”
The prisoner was silent as the burgomaster’s escorts rode away. The old guard fumed. He looked at the damp, stone wall in the direction of his former visitors. “Why do you exist?” he shouted to the emptiness. He stomped his foot and wheezed, “If my life means so little, then what purpose does yours serve?”
Don’t let the bastards get to you.
“Never!” the old guard replied. His already dim eyes burned with tears. Strange how the long spells of solitude and the loneliness filled him with hopes for any visitor. And yet when they arrived, bringing him prisoners or bread, he quickly wished they would leave. Quiet routine kept him going. Cooking, short walks early and again late in the day, and writing with the quill and papers he kept hidden against the wall beside his bed. Visitors invariably disrupted the routine that saved him from the despair of loneliness. “I’ve lived far too much to let little men get under my skin!”
They get under your nails too.
“Agreed,” he nodded to the rat without a tail now wriggling his pink nose at the old guard’s feet.
He hunched down to feed the brown and gray rodent some bread when he realized the voice he heard had come from the next room. “They drive splinters up there,” the prisoner’s voice cracked. “When that doesn’t work, they remove your fingers and toes utterly.”
The old guard found the prisoner gasping and so, with great effort, loosened his chains. With his hands lowered, the guard saw the wood and iron splinters driven up and under the nails of his seven remaining fingers. These he removed as the man, now breathing easier, slipped into unconsciousness. These processes took longer than expected as dusk turned to night. Routine broken, he had forgotten to light up his lamp.
With the prisoner snoring, the old guard made his way in the dark back to his bed. He reclined head first, swinging his feet up, and folded his hands over his heavy chest, considering whether to hunt for his lamp and accoutrements in the dark or just go to sleep early. He found himself dreaming before he could even decide. It was the sort of dream he seldom had before.
“What do you normally dream of?”
“Memories, I suppose,” the old guard said. He glanced annoyedly at his prisoner the next morning, yellow eyes caught by a shaft of early light that made its way into the cell each morning of summer, now dulled by rain. He’d released the prisoner’s wrists entirely once he felt he could trust him, leaving only his feet bound and hands free to feed himself breakfast of moistened bread and barley. Taking prisoners down was his custom even though it made more work for him, having to string them back up again to keep up appearances when the lord’s men arrived. Few resisted that process, and the old guard saw no point in adding pain to purgatory. “Dreams are for fools. Anyway, I should ask the questions here.”
The prisoner fumbled with his wooden spoon, experimenting with means to hold it between his missing fingers. “Then ask.”
“What brought you here?”
“The two demons.”
“But what did you do?”
“Whatever I confessed to. I wish I could remember, but it’s hard to hear yourself over your own screams.”
“Were you difficult to break?”
“I still have my hands,” the prisoner said, holding them both up after dropping his spoon again. The stumps of his missing fingers festered, but his yellow eyes showed no sign of pain. They showed no anger or fear either, and yet were not wholly vacant. Some light had returned to them, though far back in orbit. Some spark of, for lack of a better word, mischievousness. “If I truly held out, I would have no limbs left. Just a torso without a head.” “But what were you accused of?”
A long, greasy lock of black of hair fell into the prisoner’s eyes. “Funny,” he said. “Even in the worst of circumstances, you notice the same little annoyances. In fact, you notice them more.”
“How do you mean?”
“A fly on my nose. Hair in my eyes. It shouldn’t matter at this point, now should it? And yet I brush each of them away, just the same as I would on a sunny picnic with good food and a girl I love.”
Unexpectedly, the old guard choked on his gruel. His chest seized up, and he realized he had a fit coming on. Withdrawing his kerchief, he coughed blood into it until the fit passed.
“Quite some rain we are having,” the old guard said to change the subject. “Say, you must have brought it with you!”
The prisoner groaned. “So this is to be my final conversation? Tired jokes about the weather?”
“I’m only making conversation. I’m only passing time.”
“Neither of us have much time left. You should start by asking my name.”
“I thought I had. Thomas! No. Something else.”
“Do you play cards, Old Man?”
The old guard felt a smile creep across his face. It had been so long, that his cheeks tingled at the expression. “Do I play cards?” he said, and then laughed out loud. “Do I play cards, he asks!”
“That was the question.”
“Oh, my boy. If you thought your luck ran out now, wait until you’ve played me a few hands of cards. You’ll pray for execution day to relieve your debt!”
Upon hearing the prisoner’s interest in cards, the old guard eagerly gathered sticks, blades of grass and some twigs which he broke into pieces to use as gambling chips. He had choked on his words to the prisoner, so callously referring to his imminent demise. But the young man had laughed! Not like so many young who passed through here, ready to take offense by either shouting or weeping – sometimes both – at the slightest transgress. He reminded the old guard of friends from his youth who could laugh at nearly anything, but especially at themselves. They often had no choice in the face of true adversity and in that way, the prisoner made him feel young again.
Before the old guard was old – or even a guard – he’d served with valor in the king’s infantry. He hunted criminals for bounty. He knew women. He took a wife, had children, traveled on his own spiritual journey upon conversion, and even moved untaxed items across territories for his own makeshift enterprise. Every move he made throughout took considerable planning, which is not to say nothing ever worked the way he planned. The army left him to turn swords to plowshares, and the bounty hunters refused to pay. The women scolded him, his wife returned to her proper husband, and his children were all taken either by cholera or by vice. The spiritual journey led him to preaching to the poor which paid for less than the cost daily bread. As for his business ventures – well, he learned the hard lesson that money lenders and lien holders already knew every angle, had purchased the rights by law, and that even the slightest profit drew unwanted attention.
But gambling was different. With the focus of a hound on the hare, he never planned beyond the hand he held. His luck at cards and dice got him by with a roof over his head and warm meals in his belly when plans fell apart around him. Now he arrived from the rain to divide sticks, grass and pebbles between himself and the prisoner before retrieving his deck of cards from beneath his bed. “Perhaps I should shuffle,” the old guard said when the prisoner mangled the cards in his battered hands.
The men played night and day, even when meals burned in the oven.
“I smell smoke.”
“Meat is better smoked. Draw!”
The old guard’s luck held at first, winning most hands and slowly accumulating the bounty. But by the second day, the prisoner had one winning streak after another although he frequently showed his hand, quite by mistake due to fumbling the cards around his missing fingers. On the third day, and the prisoner’s last before his scheduled removal to the north in the morning, he had gathered nearly all the sticks and pebbles leaving the old guard dejected with his few leaves of limp grass.
“Perhaps my luck has left me like everything else.”
“Don’t feel down,” said the prisoner facing execution. The tone of his voice reflected the irony of the situation, a fact not lost on the old guard.
“Foolish of me to complain. I am sorry, my friend.”
“Think nothing of it!” the prisoner smiled, color returned to his face as he sucked a scab from his lower lip. He lowered his hand and mused for a moment. “Tell me, old guard, what makes life worth living?”
“Peace. Love, I suppose. Wealth!”
“But you’ve never experienced these things. At least, not for long from what you’ve told me. What would encourage you now to haul your old bones out of bed like you once did, filled with life?”
“Close. It’s chance, my friend. Risk!”
The old guard thought for a moment. “Men avoid risks. They try to win.”
“Not at all,” the prisoner disagreed. “Think of the greatest generals in history. Yes, they strategize. They plan the most minute tactical details to win. But the battle might turn either way because there are unknowns. And greater still, there are unknown unknowns. It’s what keeps any man in the game. A businessperson from the greatest exporter to the lowliest shopkeeper does everything in his power to thrive, and yet what keeps his interest in playing?”
“Taking greater risks,” the guard consented. “Taking greater chances for greater gains.”
“And what has happened to ‘chance’ in the current system? Bankers owning the lords, the lords passing edicts to assist the bankers of their choice. All coin, filtering into fewer and fewer hands as the risk – the hope – is taken out of every game.”
“Fine talk, but what has this to do with us or my losing streak?”
“My fate is sealed,” the prisoner said, casting down his fiery, yellow eyes. “That’s the true horror of execution. I’ve no fighting chance, not even the most minuscule. My life has become a mechanization leading to a single outcome. And it’s no different for you. Kept here by your lord and his State until your dying day. If you were the one in manacles and I brought you food, would our roles be so different?”
The rat without a tail had emerged reticently from the shadows and into the dusky, orange-yellow light of the lantern set between the cardplayers in the jail area. Its gray whiskers bristled as its pink nose sniffed at the prisoner’s feet before tasting, and then feasting, upon the scabs.
Strangely, but perhaps to escape the dour mood cast over him like a wet blanket in the cold, the old guard’s mind turned back to that dream he’d had only a few nights ago. He found himself in a wide desert of yellow sand with the sun high above, so different from the cloying, stone walls that protected him from the persistent rain. Someone or something had chased him across the timeless sands, eluded for the moment while the dry sun warmed his face, eyes full of blue sky. He sensed the presence of another without fear, and his right hand constricted not around his sword as he first imagined, but around a hand, warm and soft. Fingers intertwined with hers, he stroked the back of her hand. A woman turned toward him, young but no younger than he. She had dark hair and almond-shaped eyes like those women he’d seen from the east, and these eyes met his, filled with love. The old guard tasted salt upon his lips, startling him back into the cell and company of the prisoner where he hurriedly wiped tears from his cheeks.
“You asked what brought my arrest,” the prisoner said, breaking the old guard’s reverie. He picked up his hand of cards and manipulated them in his half-crippled hands, fingering first edge of one card and then another. A faintly folded corner here; a tiny cut along the edge there; and along the edge of another, a reddish-brown stain of his own blood. The old guard’s eyes widened with recognition!
“Cheater!” the guard shouted, frightening the little rat away. “Card-marker!”
He scrambled for his sword, intending to leap to his feet and put it to the neck of the criminal. He found himself falling into a coughing fit, the taste of blood on his lips. The fit came on so strong, he could hardly sit up straight let alone lunge forward in assault.
“My crime,” the prisoner stated bluntly. “Tell me, do you think I would have been tortured – set on a path to execution – if I had cheated only you? Or perhaps some widow of the war? Cheating the poor is allowed. Good heavens, man: it is encouraged! But you cheat one of the burgomaster’s family – ” he dropped the cards, raising and spreading his seven fingers – “this is what happens.”
Silence fell except for the ubiquitous patter of rain and the occasional crackle of the wick from the oil lamp. The old guard gathered that lamp along with his strength and retreated to his quarters. He stared out the single window at the fallen darkness. It had been a mistake to take the prisoner down. With the others before him, he often spent half the night cranking the leaver to pull their arms up by their shackles again in time to keep up appearances. He had not the strength tonight, and so he lay in his bed, restive and waiting for sleep that would not come.
You’ll need horses.
“Hush, you little rodent.”
At dawn, he went to the prisoner and unbound his feet. The sleeping man curled instantly into a ball on the floor. The old guard swept long, black locks from man’s eyes and kissed his face like a brother until he awoke. There was a rustling outside, and the neighing of horses when the old guard drew his short sword. He handed it to the prisoner, now bolted upright.
“There’s two of them,” the old guard whispered before retreating from the cell to his quarters, golden light pouring through the window after the passing of rain. He drew his steel dagger and stood with his back set firmly against the wall to one side of the prison door.