I stand up and walk toward the window. The floor beneath my feet is brick, as is the ceiling above my head. It is all brick, brick, brick, brick. Everything is brick in this place, old, pale, crumbling, wet brick. Well, everything but my cot and the heavy wooden door. Oh yes, there is also a hole in the door with three thick iron bars covering it. There, everything is brick except for those few things. I hate brick.
The window is just three feet in front of me when my progress is halted abruptly by the heavy iron chains that bind me to the wall. These chains aren’t brick either. There are two more items. I forgot about those. In any event, the window is really just a square hole in the wall. It doesn’t sport any glass or bars or the sort. It is just an opening. All I can see out that hole is water. Perhaps it is an ocean. Since I don’t know how I got here, it’s hard to know where I am. Considering where you are at any given point is completely relative to where you’ve been. The only thing about my location that I can be completely sure of is that this window faces west. I know this because I watch the sun set in that direction every day.
I crawl back onto my cot. It’s cool and damp. Everything in the room is cool and damp. I’m surprised I haven’t died of pneumonia or some crazy thing like that yet. Oddly, my health seems to be holding up pretty well over these…I don’t know. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. I suppose it must be years at least, judging from the length of my hair and my beard. The hair on my face doesn’t grow very well, yet my beard lightly brushes the floor when I walk about. How long would it take me to grow that much hair? If I could figure that out, I’d know how long I’ve been here.
Time doesn’t seem to matter much confined within these walls. At first it did. I’d keep track of the days by watching the cycle of the sun. At that time, I’d still been holding on the idea that I’d eventually escape this hell high above the world. I know now that that will never happen. Yes, I’ve given up. I fully expect to die here. Fortunately, I’ve given up on lamenting my situation as well. I suppose I’ve accepted my fate. Though accepting a fate such as this is not my nature. I guess my nature has changed during my time here, as imaginary as time seems in this place.
A tray slides under the door. Scrape, click, scrape, click as it slides over the worn brick. Silence surrounds me as I wait for my host, my keeper, to address me. I refuse to break it, so she does.
“Your dinner,” she says. Her voice is sweet and soft like a song. I know it’s a fake. That’s not her voice, merely a disguise for the truth of the terror behind her teeth.
I don’t know why she continues to pretend to be some soft, beautiful maiden. She’s already tricked me and trapped me in this place. It’s not like I can escape. Why keep up the charade? I keep quiet.
She laughs, “I know you’re in there. Where else would you be? Such a hero, trapped by a mere woman. What would they think of you now? I wonder.”
Still I remain silent. Let her think I’m escaped or dead. She calls herself a woman. She’s a witch, an enchantress. I was a hero before I fell victim to her wiles. She sapped my strength, stole my courage.
“You don’t have to speak,” she continued. “I can smell you. Go ahead and hide in your cell, coward. You’ll spend eternity in that damp tomb, and I’ll make sure you live forever to enjoy it.”
“Damn you!” I can’t keep quiet any longer. She knows just what nerves to squeeze. “Why do you keep me here? You have no use for me. I remain here in this cell, locked away from the world. What purpose is there in that? What good am I to you?”
She stops laughing. “I know that you’re here. That is enough for me.”
Then she is gone. No footsteps, she is just gone. I don’t bother saying anymore because I know that she is not there. That is her way. Engage me in a discussion and then leave before it becomes anything. I won’t eat my dinner either. The food can sit there and rot and I’ll starve. I don’t care anymore. This isn’t any kind of life. My eyelids grow as heavy as the bricks that make up these walls. The world disappears.
I wake to total blackness, surrounded by a seamless void of nothing. It is as if my eyes are still shut. I blink them a few times to make sure that they are open. A few moments doesn’t do anything to help them adjust to the darkness. Everything remains pitch. There must not be a moon tonight. I close my eyes, hoping to find sleep again. It’s elusive. I’m wide awake. Perfect. How long until morning?
I wasn’t always a prisoner in this tower. I used to be something, a hero I suppose. That’s how my people saw me. I protected my city against armies, ogres, giants, and dragons. They would stop me in the street to sing me songs of praise. Then she came.
She wandered into the city one day, cold and alone. The people in my city are kind, caring, and gullible like me. The first door she knocked upon was opened to her and she was welcomed in. She stayed with them for a time and became part of their family. They treated her just as they would one of their own. Little by little, her story came out. She came from a kingdom far across the great ocean of the east. No one, not even I, bothered to question how such a petite, frail, young girl could survive a trek across the great ocean. She was just so convincing. In any event, the dwarves in her kingdom mined the mountains to the north of it. Apparently they dug too deep and disturbed those things that live in the earth, those things that serve humans best when not thought about. The mountain exploded and left a pit in the earth a mile across. Her king sent soldiers to investigate but they never returned. Animals began vanishing from the fields and folks from the surrounding villages spoke of winged creatures carrying screaming people off in the night. As time went on, the stories grew wilder and became more frequent. The king mounted an assault on the pit and whatever the creatures that lived there were. His forces were slaughtered. Then it came.
The thing that she described coming out of the ground to take the city sounded like something I knew to be a dwarf myth. It was a king of the underworld, a demon. The myth is an old one that tells of the creation of the earth. During the great battle of the gods, Tsachna was bound up within the earth, trapped in a great mountain. No one really believed in that myth, but the monster this young girl described certainly fit the description of Tsachna. Apparently, the dwarves had released him from his prison and he destroyed her city.
According to her, Tsachna was the size of a castle with red, smoking skin. He had a body like a man, but his head was like that of a dragon with horns all over it. His mouth was filled with giant, terrible teeth and it dripped fiery lava. As she spoke of this terror destroying her city, she shivered and wept. Not one soul doubted the authenticity of her story. Of course, I was sent to slay the demon. That was my lot, disposing of those things that would threaten mankind. She insisted on accompanying me. Why no one tried to stop her, I’ll never know.
The journey across the great ocean of the east is a long one, a full month or more depending on how favorable the winds are. Two days into the journey, and my whole crew took ill. After a week, they were all dead. The ship was empty except me and the girl. This girl on the ship was different than the one in the city had been though. She wasn’t quiet and scared. No, this girl was aggressive and vocal. Halfway through the journey, I was intrigued. By the time we reached shore I’d been enchanted. The next thing I knew, I was imprisoned in this cell towering high above the world.
It had all been a lie. Sure, the kingdom was empty, but there wasn’t any ancient demon prowling about. There weren’t even any signs of a struggle. The castle she showed me had never seen a war. For a long time, I didn’t believe it. I wouldn’t let myself. Her spell was strong. She kept me in a confused daze, much like being drunk. After a while it wore off though. After a while I saw through her lies. By the time I did it was too late. I was already trapped in this place. I’ve been here ever since. I guess the people of my kingdom take me for dead. I might as well be.
The sun must be close to rising. The first little hints of light begin to break up the blackness. I slowly rise off my cot and stretch. Warmth in my muscles seems to chase the tightness away. I walk toward the window until my chains stop my progress. Damn chains. I tug at the right one, much like I always do when walking about. It gives slightly. I pull harder. I can’t see anything, but I definitely hear the brick cracking as the heavy iron plate that’s bolted to it pulls away. I pause, gather my strength, and pull again. The chain cuffed to my right wrist clatters and clangs about the bricks. After a few moments of tugging, the chain fastened to my left wrist does the same thing. After all of this uncounted time, I’ve loosed my chains. How many times have I unsuccessfully played at the same exercise? I can’t even count.
I’m free. Granted a heavy wooden door stands in my way on one side, while a drop that would frighten the most fearless of hawks waits on the other but still, my binds have been loosed. I can use my arms. Hell, I could try to remember when my tongue still had some sweetness and coax that witch in here. Then I could choke that demon with the very chains she bound me with.
I walk all the way to the window. I’ve only gone three feet farther than I’ve walked for the last…well I don’t know how long it has been, but it feels like I’m soaring to the sun. My skin is all tightened up into bumps. I could shout. I could sing loud all the songs of freedom I used to sing with my armies after conquering a foe. I suppress the urge though, lest she hear me and spoil the surprise I have planned for her. I stretch my head out through the window.
The world swims before me, zigging this way and zagging that way. It spins like the wheels of a wagon. Queasiness sets into my stomach as my body heaves. There isn’t anything in me to expel, but my body heaves again and again in a vain attempt. My knees weaken and go slack beneath me. Those damn bricks jump up to smack me in the head. Once I’m safely on the floor, the dizziness slowly creeps away. My stomach still feels a bit squishy, but I think the heaving is finished. The ground is much farther away than I thought it would be. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but I don’t even like to imagine being this far above the ground. I crawl back to my cot slowly, afraid to even try standing up.
The sky brightens as I slowly begin to relax. My breaths are slow, deep, and calculated. She should be by with breakfast soon. I need to be ready when she comes. I’m sure that I’ve lost at least fifty pounds wasting away in this place, but I feel able enough to choke the life out of that witch. I may be able to do it on will alone.
Scrape, click, scrape, click, the old tray goes and scrape, click, scrape, click, the new one slides in. Chills dance all up and down my spine as a shiver races through my body. It is time. Finally, I’ll get my chance to face down that witch, that demon. I try my tongue but it lies limp behind my lips. Where are all those golden words I had planned? I shout at her in my head. I imagine everything that I’m going to do to her, but I can’t get my mouth to work. How can I attack if I can’t even lure her close enough? Say something damn it!
She speaks before I can. “Your breakfast hero. I see you didn’t touch your dinner. I slave for you and you show no appreciation for my efforts. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.”
She pauses for a response, but still I can’t muster one. I’m losing my chance. No matter how long I’ve been here, one night, unchained, knowing that freedom is just on the other side of that heavy wooden door will surely kill me. Say something! Still nothing comes out.
“I can sustain you whether you eat or not,” she goads me. “Don’t think that you can escape me through death by starving yourself. I’m a wonderful cook you know. You may as well enjoy my efforts.”
I fill my lungs until they feel as if they’ll burst in my chest and clench my fists into tight balls. My whole body tenses as I open my mouth. Say something! “I’m sorry dear,” my voice sounds foreign to me, but it is working. “I wasn’t feeling well last night. I didn’t feel much like eating.”
“Really?” She knows I’m lying. “Whatever could be ailing you? My spells should keep you quite healthy.”
“I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like eating.”
The room wavers slightly, like a reflection swaying with ripples on the water and she materializes before me. I keep my arms at my side. She knows I’ve broken my chains. I have to make a move. I can’t. My arms won’t work and my legs feel limp. Why am I so afraid of her? I could wrap these chains around her neck and squeeze the life out of her body. Why won’t my limbs cooperate with me?
“You’ve been bad,” she smiles. “What has happened to your chains? And look what you’ve done to my wall.”
My head slumps. “I’m leaving. You can’t keep me here any longer.”
Her laugh is like the wild shriek of an angry dragon. “Where do you suppose that you’re going to go and what exactly do you think that you can do to me?”
“I could choke you with these chains witch.”
“All of these years I’ve toiled over you, cooking your meals and keeping you comfortable in this grand tower and this is the thanks you offer. You unappreciative bastard! Do you think that it’s easy to keep you here?”
I look up at her. Her eyes are wild and seem to be growing bigger, bigger than eyes should be. They’re getting red. Not bloodshot, they are more like fire. Her hair begins to dance with the same flames. She expands with every breath she takes. She’s getting bigger. Her whole body is glowing as faint flames begin to lick the air around her.
“I’m not afraid of you anymore,” I whisper. My voice has a weakness that betrays my words, so I say it again, this time with force. “I am not afraid of you!”
Flames are swirling around her now. She rants and mumbles. Her words aren’t anything that I understand. Maybe it’s another language or maybe it’s just gibberish. Either way, the volume of her voice seems to increase with the intensity of the swirling flames that engulf her now. I can barely make out her form in the fire.
The flames come close to my face. It is like I stuck my head in an oven. The odor of my eyebrows and ridiculous beard sizzling away fills my nostrils up. I can’t push any harder against the wall for fear that my skull might crush. I have to move. I have to get away.
I jump off the cot to the side of her. Her fire almost fills the whole room now. I can no longer see her in the flames. It is as if she became the flame. Perhaps the fire exists in place of her. The only thing I’m quite sure of is that I need to get out. I can’t get to the door. I don’t want to burn to death. It has to be two hundred degrees in this room and it just keeps getting hotter and hotter. My body is covered in a thick sheen of sweat, glistening like ripe apples after a heavy rain. The window.
I shuffle towards the hole in the wall, that portal to a view so nauseating. I can’t look. I know how far it is. What would be worse, to burn to death like a greasy steak on the fire, or plummet like a rock and break upon the waves so far below? The fall will be terrifying, but death will be swift. I could probably survive the flames for at least a few minutes, burning and watching my flesh get crispy as fat melts and oozes from it. I dive out the window.
My fall is brief, three feet at best. The ground is solid beneath me. Where is the great open space, the miles and miles of my fall? Slowly I raise my head. The city surrounding me, my city, is a fat, roasted turkey placed before a starving man. My eyes devour every brick and every plank of every building. People walk by my prone body, a mixture of sympathy and loathing drips from there downward glances. “Poor drunk,” I hear somebody say. “Get a job you bum,” from somebody else. Slowly I raise my head. Some of the faces are people I know but they obviously don’t recognize me.
My hut is behind me. It was all a lie, an illusion. All of the time I spent in that tower, and I never really left. The witch is gone. I’m free. The laughter that pours out of my lips is something so foreign to my body that it hurts my ribs, but I don’t stop. I just laugh harder.