Five days, the slave keepers said, I had to live. In that time, the warlord Breshkan would receive the kuriet from Pendet, the master keeper, telling him I killed his cousin, and he would get to the internment.
The keepers knew my best chance of escape was in the milkroot fields, so they kept me in the internment, but at least they didn’t put me in the holes. I saw three recourses. Scale the wall, vault the wall, or go through it. For the sake of my beloved Enta, I had to find a way.
I watched the other slaves come in, there clothes filthy from digging, walking into the internment through the gauntlet of the keepers, the drab green of their garb appearing bright against the slaves. Tumat oversaw the parade of exhaustion.
“Tumat, you have been good to me,” I said.
The keeper gave me a rueful smile. “You’ve made our work easy, and your stories entertain me.”
“Before I die I would know what happened to my Enta. What have you found out about her?” I read his face, his sideward glance and the squint in his left eye. “You never inquired.”
“I made an effort. Don’t challenge me, slave.”
My heart withered, as if soaked in lye. “I didn’t put you to the question.” A side of me might call him ‘friend’ if he wouldn’t take it as an affront. Another side would thrash him like a recalcitrant child.
I didn’t take the idea of going through the wall seriously, made of cement thicker than my arm’s length. The steel gate was also formidable, and too well guarded to bring anything powerful enough to damage it.
Keepers perched along the top could see every barrack and had lines of sight to every surface of the outer wall, and Stebby told me there were traps along the top. Long spikes that flew up when tripped. I had no way to investigate them.
I scrounged spare fabrics wherever I could find them, tucked under my blanket where I worked each night to make a line strong enough to climb, but I had little hope to find an opportunity to secure it and get over the wall before the keepers stopped me, and I had no plans for the traps at the top. Yet, with false hope, I continued to work on it as I plumbed my mind for ways to vault a wall more than twice my height.
Every possibility seemed doomed, but a launchplank gave me the least certainty of failure. With a water barrel and the right board removed from one of the barracks we could devise one, but my size was a problem. Maybe three slaves in the internment were bigger, and they didn’t favor me. For a best choice, the launch filled me with great doubt.
Yet scant hope is still hope, and with the teeterplank I had something to work for. I needed a ruse to get the parts to the wall, a way to land a sufficient counterweight to propel me, and a diversion to give me time to make distance before they pursued.
“I have your man,” said Stebby.
Pag and I worked at loosening a board on the side of a barrack out of view of the keepers.
“You know Cam?”
“No,” I said.
The board creaked loudly as the nails to the stud released it. We pushed it back in and waited to see if it drew any attention.
“Cam’s too small,” said Pag.
Stebby shrugged. “He said he could jump from a barrack’s roof and carry a load of dirt.”
“The barracks aren’t close enough,” I said.
“The first one is,” said Stebby.
I shook my head. “It’s right by the gate. I’d barely get a start on them.”
Stebby scoffed. “You probably won’t make it over anyway.”
By the fourth day gloom oppressed me. I kept the line I’d made in my shirt in case an unexpected moment availed me a chance over the wall that way, but I gathered the others to work out the best plan for making a vaulting plank in the morning.
We’d barely started when a thump sounded at the other end of the barrack. Cam, a sturdy man with quick reflexes, bolted to the noise and pulled a man off the floor from behind a pallet, then dragged him in front of me.
“What are you doing, Harge?” One of Eret’s people.
“Nothing. Sleeping. I didn’t hear anything.”
“You have to kill him,” said Stebby.
Harge pleaded with his eyes. “I won’t say anything.”
I experience moments where the presence of Enta overwhelms me, and I know there is so much more than what this forsaken world gives us. Faced with a cruel task, I am halted, not by her disapproval, though I’m sure I would have it, but by the knowledge that her very existence manifests the greater good, and for her sake I must adhere to that thin, thin line between good and evil.
“He’ll give us away.”
“No.” How was I going to silence this man for almost a day? “Put a—”
Yelling outside interrupted me. Pag hopped to the door and listened.
“It’s the warlord,” he said. “He’s approaching.”
I cursed. Enta never cured me of cursing. “He’s early.”
“We do it now, then,” said Cam. “Off the roof of the first barrack.”
I nodded. “Pag, keep Harge here. Stebby, grab a water barrel and roll it to the spot. I’ll help you position it with the plank when I get there. When the keepers challenge you, pretend you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Say you’re preparing for Breshkan. It’ll confuse them. Cam, get ready to jump. We’ll only have one chance at this.”
My blood was surging as I pulled the loose plank off, then forced myself to carry it easily to the spot between the first barrack and the wall. Stebby had the barrel ready, so I propped the board up next to him, chatting about milkroot and watching for Cam.
When Cam’s head popped up over the roof, I lay the plank upon the barrel to make a springboard, and positioned it for the straightest flight. The guards yelled at Cam, asking him what he was doing, but I ignored it, getting my feet positioned. It occurred to me we hadn’t gotten Cam rigged with extra weight, so I could only hope his momentum would be enough to propel me over.
I bent my knees and looked up just as Cam came down on the other side of the plank. A perfect landing. The end of the board pushed me into the air. I straightened my legs, leaped as high as I could and bent backwards towards the wall, twisting my body. Everything slowed. I flew like a tsheemaroc, and as I turned, the top of the wall came into view. A keeper pointed at me and another pulled a lever. Tree branches carved into spikes shot out of the top of the wall. I strained to arch my body and glided over them, but one of them gouged into my ribs and jabbed my hip on the way by. I pulled my legs up and flipped, then straightened as I dropped to the ground on the other side, planting my feet.
A cheer rose from the other side, and I turned to run, but I wobbled and fell. A cool numbness spread from my hip and ribs. The same sensation I had from the cord that whipped me the day they caught me. I tried to get up, but only managed a sluggish crawl before collapsing on my side.
A procession of men, animals, and a few coaches had almost arrived. Horses! The animals were horses. Marvelous beasts that growled and hissed, baring their saber teeth as they carried men upon their backs, pounding giant hooves at the end of massive legs, bony spikes growing from them like claws.
The leading man, a giant dressed in royal leathers, dismounted and walked up to me. His eyes glistened like ice. It must be the warlord Breshkan. Before I found Enta, I knew no one so hardened as me, but this man was harder.
He smiled. “Found some adventure, did you?”
He laughed and fell back into his procession as the keepers came out and picked me up. Tumat and three others dragged me through the gate and turned right. I confess I was near hopelessness—they were taking me to the holes.
I heard chains rattle and metal clank, then they released me and I fell, slamming hard against the dirt, jolting my bones and the wounds from the spikes. Darkness of the pit surrounded me.
Tumat stared down. “That was a grand feat, Mallocrest. I can almost believe you killed a gobahr.”
I couldn’t answer, but I was too beaten to care.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, but I found what happened to the girl.”
My heart rose in my chest.
“The traders sold her to children of the Desiderasha. They didn’t say which ones.” Metal clanked, closing out the light.
From the chasm of despair, my soul cried out.
My Enta. My beloved Enta taken by the deenay scavengers to feed the root of hell. Carried to the worst evil and suffering one can imagine in this cursed, cursed emptiness of time.
I don’t cry. I do not cry. Never.
As time pours out into the barren dryness of the world, the end of my life is nothing. Yet, in all its misery, my heart still cries out for life, and for the deliverance of my Enta from the horror of the Desiderasha.