Short Story – Seventeen Steps

Seventeen steps.

I draw in a breath, clenching my eyes shut even though I’ll still see darkness if I open them. I was seventeen steps from the wall.

My fingers twitch as I remember the guards’ warm blood drying cold on my hands, as their faces—contorted in pain—flash through my memory, colored by red and sunlight. I don’t know how many fell. I don’t want to know. I didn’t mean for them to die, but they stood between me and freedom and they were the only thing that kept me from reaching it.

Them and that wall.

My eyes fall open to study the shifting blackness that conceals everything. I suppose I deserve to be in this cell, alone—my back against one side, my feet against the other, my knees against my chest—marinating in my own sweat and tears and excrement. I was the fool who spoke against Morganmar, our wise and sovereign governor, the greatest benefactor of my family, the very hand that armed and fed me.

Morganmar, that bastard.

I like to imagine his face on those guards I strangled, his arms as those I dismembered, his stomach the one I ran through with my sword. He trained me well, after all. I killed more men in my attempt to escape this godforsaken mine than a dozen of these other poor souls sentenced to toil to death alongside me could have. But I still didn’t reach the wall.

God, that wall.

The world lies behind it—bright and lush and green—but can I even remember what it’s like anymore? What it’s like to see the sky, to walk beneath the sun?

I brush my hand along the stone at my side, feeling for those notches I’ve made. Of course I don’t know the true passage of time confined down here, but they do feed me—hard, moldy bread I wouldn’t have fed to my worst hound back home—once every eternity. I count those notches, slowly and with reverence, as if they were my last tie to any semblance of normalcy, reality. Because they are.

There are thirty-five.

The first month of my sentence I believed—I had hope—I would escape. By the third month, and my seventh unsuccessful attempt, I was far less optimistic. But even as hard as I try to throw myself into the monotonous agony of the salt mines I can’t resign myself to be complicit in my punishment.

I will escape this mine, I told myself those first few mornings. I will escape this mine or die trying, I tell myself every morning after. I’d rather welcome death than accept I’ll fall into the same despondency I see in every dirty face around me.

But, hard as I tried, I didn’t find escape or death. I found this—this black pit, this well of nothing, this inexorable lingering between neither living nor dying.

I used to have everything.

I was captain of the guard, lord of my own estate, master of the governor’s hounds, the most eligible bachelor in the district—named by whoever’s role it is to name such frivolous things. I could have kept it, too. Forever, nearly, or at least until I was a feeble old man who lost his looks and his strength and couldn’t wield a sword any longer and fend the young buzzards off.

But I gave it up.

I gave it all up for that scrawny, snaggletooth stable boy who ruined the governor’s tack but didn’t mean to, who didn’t deserve the lashing Morganmar was going to give him.

No one deserves the beatings Morganmar gives out—not the servants who cook and clean as quickly as anyone is able, not the soldiers pressed into service who are more loyal to that worm of a man than he earns, not the starving farmers who produce all they can and give him more than they have.

I adjust my seat, in vain, and run grubby fingers through my matted hair. I didn’t give up what I had for any of them—not any of the country folk, of the workers, of my soldiers. I gave it up for that one stable boy, that foolish, low-born little stable boy who probably doesn’t deserve my sacrifice anyway.

I pretend otherwise, but as my memories haunt me over again, sometimes it’s that boy’s face above the neck I crush. It’s not his fault I made my choice, but something dark and deep within me enjoys seeing him punished. It feels good to see someone punished; it feels right to put a face on it, on everything I suffer.

Put a face on it.

Something sinks to the pit of my stomach. I could look past those great masses of my countrymen but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see the face of that one boy.

I suppose a fellow doesn’t rightly see the humanity in something that doesn’t have a proper face on it. Not that the human—the person—wasn’t there all along, but a man has such a hard time seeing it, feeling for it, acting on it when it’s not staring him down with wide, fear-filled eyes.

My head falls to rest on my knees.

I suppose I’d rather suffer this, directly, having held that gaze without blinking, without flinching—having done all I could—rather than keep limping on, complacent in my success and willfully blind to everyone else’s suffering.

I suppose that ought to give me comfort, knowing I’ve chosen rightly, but—too clearly—I feel the strain in my joints, the torn and scarred flesh on my back, the ache in my tight limbs.

Suffering to end suffering. That doesn’t seem right, but I guess it’s fitting. Though, I can’t help but think through this—through all of this—I merely postponed a single beating for a single boy for a single day.

Something clangs, dull and loud, beyond the door of my pit. I flinch, jerking upright, which slams my already raw shoulders and toes against the walls. My heart leaps, in both fear and excitement—they’ve come to get it over with, those dark-helmed guards have finally come to hang me.

No. They haven’t fed me yet.

My heart sinks, settling back into the near-sleep rhythm at which it now belongs.

Footsteps echo in the hallway, growing louder—not one man’s feet but two, not the patter of the guards’ leather soles but the clanking metal of a soldier’s boot. I lift my head and my heart comes awake, raising to the strength it probably should be.

Keys rattle against the door latch. It’s not the thin shake of the peep-hole they open to toss that bread lump at my chest but a true clatter of metal against a steel padlock. Suddenly, my door is thrown open and my world of darkness is shattered by blinding light.

I blink, repeatedly, my head aching as I attempt to shield my eyes against the glare. I probably should be afraid, but with that door open I catch a breath of air that doesn’t smell like I do and I remember the wall and the white clouds floating overhead and the seventeen goddamn steps I was from hurling myself over it and into freedom.

Before I can pry myself up, a dark figure passes over the light. I think he says something but I don’t understand him. Still, he grabs hold of my arms and hauls me to my feet.

Pain shoots through my tight muscles. I grit my teeth to smother a cry and the figure has to catch me before I topple face-first onto the stone floor. My sight swims, I feel a second set of hands grab hold of me, and those figures—murmuring something I can’t hear over the pain—drag me out of that pit.

I try to stand, I try to fight them, I try to ask either man his name and his purpose but I can hardly keep my legs working beneath me. They carry me up a flight of stairs, down a corridor, and then we’re outside.

The wind ruffles my hair and tugs at the soiled strips of cloth that used to be my tunic and trousers. The sun—god, the sun—it stings, but I can’t be sure my eyes are wet from tears of pain or joy.

They stand me up before the wall. My head tilts, I couldn’t have stopped it, and I catch a glimpse of leafy branches waving to me from the other side.

Seventeen steps.

I’m closer than that now, but hard as I try I can’t take even a single step more. I haven’t the strength. Still, hang me now and I’ll die smiling, gazing at that gorgeous sky, praying that boy somehow makes better use of what I squandered.

But I can see the boy. The gate in the wall is open and he’s running towards me, his ruddy curls bouncing over a snaggle-toothed smile. Am I already dead?

Those figures step away from me and that boy throws his arms around my waist. I still can’t stand on my own, but the boy clings to me and helps me fall, gracefully enough, to my knees. He’s sobbing and blubbering on about something as he buries his face in my chest.

God, can he not smell me?

“I promised,” he says—he might have said that a few times, but I only comprehend it now. Bleary-eyed, he pulls back and smiles at me through the snot and the tears. “They all said you’d be dead, but I knew, I knew.”

“W-wha…” What the hell is that croaking? I try to speak, but the words don’t come out of my mouth the way they sound in my head.

“We came as soon as we could, sir.” The figure on my right is speaking to me. I recognize that voice, and then that face too when I turn, squinting against the sun, to study him. It’s not a prison guard, it’s my first lieutenant.

“Kedyn?” I form words this time, weaker than a whisper. “…how?”

The soldier jumps to a salute. “If Morganmar would do this to you, how long until he did worse to us? If you were willing to stand against him, how could we not?” He gives me a look of pity that’s unbecoming of an officer, but I suppose I look bad enough to warrant it. “It took four months, but we’re a free people now. A free district.”

I stare at him, trying my hardest to swallow despite my dry mouth, as his words roll over and over again in my mind. Did I hear him right? “Mor…”

Kedyn nods. “We fought back. Morganmar is dead.”

My breath catches and I feel like I’m blinded by the sun all over again. My mind can’t fathom the possibility we are really free—and, damn it all, that would mean I didn’t get to kill the bastard myself.

That other figure at my side—Sergeant Darien—throws a blanket over my shoulders and presses a cup of water into my hands. I take it, but my gaze falls on that boy as he stands there, still watching me with his wide eyes.

I don’t know why, but my hand drifts up and touches his cheek. I guess I want to know he’s real. If he’s actually here, I think I could believe all this. My skin is grimy, my nails chipped and blackened, but he doesn’t shy away, he takes hold of my hand and gives me the biggest, happiest grin I’ve ever seen.

That face.

All the hours in the mines, all the whippings, all the days and nights in that pit, I did everything for that face.

Goddamn it. Maybe I don’t have regrets.

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