The beast held her up in the air, examining her thin, sixteen-year-old figure with uncomfortable concentration. It was some strange mixture of a human and boar, with thick legs and protruding, sharp teeth. It held Alyssa close to its mouth and smelled the sweat escaping from her skin. It curled its lips and said in a low growl: “To the pot!”
Alyssa was then flung into another cart and the beast proceed to wheel her down the hill and into depths of the underground. As they continued down, she breathed a sigh of relief. They never soiled the bodies of those selected for the pot. The Dark Queen Isabella would not allow that, she liked her meat pure and unadulterated.
Alyssa looked over at the other prisoners and saw that the twin girls on her right shared in her relief. The red-headed boy next to them seemed to disagree. He whimpered throughout the whole trip.
Jonathan Nathaniel De Este, first commander of Queen Isabella’s Dark Army, watched the village of Amirith burn before him. As the beasts were rounding up the last of the prisoners, he felt a small nudge upon his right hand. It was Louis, his first lieutenant and the man partially responsible for the massacre unfolding before him. Man, however, was a term John used loosely.
A long time ago Louis was a man and just like John he drank the Black Water and took the Darkness upon his spirit. But unlike John, he gave up his human body and retained instead the form of a large, oversized wolf with red eyes and ferocious, sharp teeth. John, however, refused and struggled daily against any transformation. The struggle caused him severe pain and Louis counseled him daily against it.
“I saw the new recruits my dogs rounded up. Where do you want them to go?” said Louis tiredly.
“Anybody under the age of sixty goes directly to the slave fields” answered John. “I want them spread evenly against the four quarters. Let the enforcers deal with them, it’s their slave labor after all.”
The enforcers were Isabella’s favorite pets. Once human, their vileness and skill for sadism helped the Black Water turn their body into some strange mixture between a boar and a human being. They often carried with them chains equipped with large, fish hooks and would use them on the prisoners if any failed to meet their daily quotas in the slave fields. Isabella absolutely adored them. John hated them. The enforcers returned John’s sentiment.
“And the woman and the children?” asked Louis, breaking his commander’s silence “how many do you want to go to the pot and how many to the catacombs?”
John grew quiet at the question and Louis knew why. The young commander was not fond of this aspect of the job and he avoided it at all costs. He got away with it up until the time Louis caught the last cook “sampling” some of the meat. Since then, John took it upon himself to visit the cook before the Queen’s meal—to ensure compliance at all levels.
“Come Louis,” said John with a sigh, “let’s get this over with.”
“After you,” said the wolf and John gave him an unappreciative look.
They traveled swiftly through the forest and upon the plains. Louis tried to keep up as the commander traveled with the wind and the darkness, a mere shadow in the daylight.
When they arrived at the front gates of the fortress, the rest of John’s wolves perked up and came over.
“At ease,” said John to them as he scratched behind one of the ears. “I am just here to inspect dinner.”
“Our dinner?” said a wolf by name of Stephen. He was never human but over the centuries had acquired the ability of speak. Black Water was strange like that.
“No,” said John, “you know better than that.”
The wolf let out an exasperated sign and lay himself back down. John looked over at Louis and the beast replied: “After you commander.”
John rolled his eyes and the two continued inside. The fortress swallowed them whole and they entered the main hall. All around them were wolves, demons and pervasions of every kind. Some of them, like Louis and John were once human. Others were always something else.
Towards the right of the hall was a large staircase that spiraled upwards into the bedchambers. John knew that right after dinner, Isabella would want to spend time with him. It was the same every night—she wanted him and he obliged. She got off and he was left unsatisfied and wishing he was back on the battlefield. He tried not to think of it often, it made his stomach sick and his skin itch.
“Come on John,” said Louis and he gently nudged him on his hand. “The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can disappear for a while. You know, before your other duties.”
John gave him a look and Louis looked away.
“You done?” said John coolly.
“Yes, commander” said the wolf meekly. He was not going to press his luck anymore.
John then beckoned Louis to follow him and they began to make their way slowly down the hallway and into the tunnels. It was dark and the smell of boiling flesh filled John’s nostrils. He could hear the screams and the pleadings of little children and the inhuman snickering of their captors. He felt his skin itch as he stepped into a large kitchen.
On one side were large, black pots burning on huge coal beds. On the other, were cages filled with children. They were beaten, bruised and some were already half eaten. One of the cooks, a large beast with a protruding jaw and a human torso, reached into the third cage and pulled out a red-headed boy. He was frail looking and the complexion of his skin told John that he must have been from one of the southern countries. The cook held up to the boy in the air, waiting for John to reply.
“I do not eat human flesh,” said John.
The cook shrugged and threw the child into the pot. The water hissed at the sound of the body and the room was suddenly filled with screams. And then there was silence. John looked down at Louis and the wolf starred back at him. For all of Louis’ talk, when it came to “soup” he shared John’s sentiment on the matter.
“Let’s do this” John said and he then proceeded to look into the cages and inspect the children for any disease or deformity. Consumption of human flesh was a delicate matter and if Isabella contracted something from the children—everyone would be to blame. And at that moment, John was not sure that his body could take any more abuse. He had lost a battle to the Galandrians a couple of weeks before the taking of Amirith—and she had him beaten so severely that Louis was alone on the battlefield for several days afterwards. John had recovered, but the wounds still ached.
As he painfully lowered himself to examine the final cage, he saw a teenage girl scurry to the darkened side. With one swift movement, he grabbed her and brought her out into the light.
Alyssa struggled against him and her whole body shook as the dark commander examined her. She had dark hair and beautiful blue eyes. There was so much fear in them and something else. John didn’t know what it was exactly but his unconsciousness recognized a familiar pain.
“She is mine,” said John to the cook and he placed her down upon the floor. Louis kept watch over her as John examined the rest of the children. When he was satisfied, he beckoned Louis to follow.
“Bring the girl” John said and Louis sighed. He the picked her up with his mouth by the collar of her shirt and carried her out of the tunnels and into the hallway. John continued walking and Louis followed him until they were once more in the dark of the catacombs. They walked for some time until they came upon a door at the end of one of the hallways. John opened it and it revealed a small room with nothing more than a bed and a pile of clothes. As soon as the girl saw it she began to scream.
Louis growled at her and she stopped screaming. He then carried her inside and placed her near the piles of clothing.
John then looked at her and said in perfect Amirith: “the moment Isabella knows you are here, you won’t just die. Do you understand?”
He then closed the door and disappeared with Louis into the darkness.
As soon as John bolted the door, Alyssa scurried quickly to put her ear to it. When she was completely convinced that they were gone, she sat down on floor. She took a couple of deep breaths, her body still shaking from ordeal. The back of her neck was sore and she rubbed it gently as she examined the room before her.
Besides the bed and the pile of clothes, the room was completely bare. There were no windows and any light came from the few candles hanging upon the walls. The more she examined it, the more convinced she became that this was actually a room in a dungeon and not a commander’s bedchamber.
I wonder she said to herself how many other women he as brought here. And what he did with them.
Something on the wall in the far corner caught her eye. She would not have noticed it had not the light from one of the candles flickered upon it. As she drew closer, she saw that it was a small, charcoal portrait of girl. It was both rudimentary and amply sketched and Alyssa could distinguish the fine features of her face.
She looks like me Alyssa said as she traced her finger over the outline of girl’s face. She looks so much like me….only a little bit older.
The sudden sound of chains resonating throughout the hallway send her scurrying behind the bed and into the pile of clothes. As she sat there, surrounded by the smell of musk, blood, and dirty laundry, her mind drifted between the portrait on the wall and her hometown of Amirith. After a while, the two worlds meshed together.
“What are you going to do with her?” said Louis when John finally emerged outside. It was very early morning but in truth there was no real way to tell time. It was always twilight at the Dark Queen’s fortress. The slaves in the fields, however, were being rounded up for the first shift so Louis assumed it was probably a little bit after four am.
“Who?” said John tiredly as he leaned his back against the cool stone. He kept his right hand hidden from view so Louis assumed that Isabella had made him drink again.
John didn’t say anything, he starred more into the fields before him, his body aching from the new diseases upon his spirit.
“Commander?” said Louis and there was genuine concern in his voice.
“I’ll let you know when I figure it out” said John and pushed himself away from the wall.
“Keep an eye on the enforcers, make sure they don’t start messing with the prisoners again. I am going to sleep before tonight’s onslaught against the Galandrians.”
“Take it easy commander” said Louis, more to himself than to anyone else.
John waved him off as he headed down through the fields and into the depths of the catacombs. He walked carefully down the long corridor, his mind lost in the upcoming battle before him. Isabella would want him to perform well.
As he came upon the door, he put his ear to the wall. The wall told him that she was still breathing and very much alive. Probably hungry, but he had no time to feed her.
John opened the door and he heard her scurry to the other side of the room. In the grey of the room, he could see pale blue eyes starring at him from the massive pile of laundry in the corner.
“I wouldn’t hide there if I were you” said John with a smile. He sat down upon the bed and watched her shrink from his voice. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve had that pile washed. Come here.”
When she did not move, he violently yanked her from the pile. She let out a yelp and he put his right hand over her mouth.
“Go ahead scream” he said to her “see where you’ll end up.”
She looked at him and down at his right hand. The look that went through her eyes at that moment was enough for John to let go of her. She scrambled to the back wall but he did not go after her. He just starred at his right hand, clenching and unclenching his fist, trying desperately to bring forth some form of feeling back into his arm.
“It has never been this bad before” he said as he looked upon his withering arm. It was the color of charcoal black with dark, painful blotches all over his skin. He could not see his veins but he could feel them expending within his body—and the pain that accompanied the growth was overwhelming.
“I don’t know how she wants me to fight with my good arm like this” he said angrily “I might as well shrivel up and die.”
There was a long pause. She saw how he starred at his hand, the immense pain in his eyes over his small transformation.
“Why is your arm like that?” she finally said. She said it meekly, almost under her breath.
He looked over to her and smiled. It was so gentle that for a minute she forgot where she was.
“It’s called Black Water” he replied “it seeps underneath your skin and heart. It is how Isabella controls you—once you drink it, your mind is hers forever.”
“So you are not one of them?”
“No,” he said almost with a laugh, “I am not one of them. They are the exact same shit that crawled out of the pit almost 500 years ago. I was once like you. The difference between you and me, however, is that you know who you are. I don’t.”
“You are the Black General,” she said “the Dark Queen’s right hand man.”
“I know”, he said with a smile, “but I do not know who I was before that. Louis—my lieutenant remembers who he was. I don’t.”
He then looked over to the etching of the girl beside Alyssa. He starred at the drawing for a moment, his mind lost in the turmoil within his head. “And I don’t remember who she is. All I know is that she is one of the rulers of the Galandrian people and Isabella wants her dead.”
He rose suddenly and came over to the etching. Alyssa scrambled out of his way and he said coolly: “take it easy. If you keep making so much noise, the neighbors will hear you.” He then ran his finger over the face of the girl. “I see her every time I close my eyes. And I have no idea who she is to me.”
John then looked down at the girl and said: “you look like her.”
The movement on the other side of the wall interrupted John. Alyssa did not hear anything but John did and he motioned her to remain still. After a quick silence, John sighed and said: “just come in Louis.”
The walls parted and Louis emerged. As soon as he had done so, he fixated upon the young girl in the dark corner in the room. He then looked at John with a perplexed expression on his face.
“What do you want Louis?” said John tiredly.
“It’s time to go commander” the lieutenant replied “in fact you are late and I was sent to fetch you.”
John’s expression changed and he replied: “I didn’t realize it was evening already. I’ll meet you on the battlefield in a few.”
Louis gave the girl another look but there wasn’t much more he could do. He turned and disappeared into the walls, leaving John alone with his prisoner once more.
“Don’t answer the door for anyone” the commander replied, almost in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
She, however, took him seriously and nodded with eyes full of tears.
They did not do well that night. The Galandrians pushed back with intensity and John found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to pull back the Dark Army. He never liked to pull back, it meant more pain for him at Isabella’s hand later. He also had no choice, Louis’ wolves were getting slaughtered.
John never cared for Isabella’s demons, enforcers or any other perversion that crawled out of the pit centuries ago. But he cared for Louis and his companions, so he ordered the retreat. Against the searing pain still running through his body from the previous beating.
“What are you doing?” said Louis as he ran up the hill to join John. His fur was stained with blood and sweat. “You’ll never walk again after she’s done with you!”
“I doubt that,” said John but Louis could tell that even he was not so sure.
Louis looked down at the battlefield and saw Stephen, dragging himself desperately behind the demon ranks. His left paw was so injured that Louis was not completely sure that it wouldn’t be amputated. Louis then looked over to his friend and replied: “do not do this because of me.”
John said nothing. He called off the attack.
Alyssa waited for John to return that night but the hours stretched and he did not come. After a while, she settled into paranoid dreams, waking at the scrape of every chain upon the floor.
Sometime into the night, she felt a shift in the walls. Louis came out of the darkness, his body moving effortlessly through the walls of the catacombs. He came over to where Alyssa was hiding and dropped a piece of meat by her feet.
“He won’t come tonight but he didn’t want you to go hungry. Go ahead, its veal—John doesn’t let us consume human flesh.”
He then turned and disappeared as easily as he had come.
At first the girl was unsure but soon the hunger pain overtook her and she proceeded to devour her first meal in two days. When she was done, she settled back down—the edge finally off the starvation.
Hours passed until Alyssa heard movement again. At first she thought it might be Louis, coming in through the walls once more but then the front door opened slightly and in came John. He didn’t say anything to her but instead sat right down upon the edge of the bed, his whole body clothed in darkness.
She waited nervously for him to address her, her body constantly tense in his presence.
“Did you eat?” he finally said to her, his voice strained and full of pain.
“Yes, thank you” she replied.
He snickered at both the politeness and the innocence of her remark. “You realize that veal was nothing but leftovers from my dogs.”
“It doesn’t matter to me” she answered “it is the first I’ve eaten in a long time.”
“Okay” he replied it and he said it in such a way that she was completely convinced that her answer did not matter. He then stood up, pulled his shirt and cloak and threw them at the other corner in the room.
The half-light in the room revealed the severe marks of chains and whips upon his torso and back. They were deep, horrific and even in the darkness Alyssa could see their vileness upon the skin of her captor.
“Compliments of the enforcers,” said John to her, “my punishment for losing tonight’s battle. Though I’m sure some of them have been dreaming of such an opportunity for a while now.”
He then lay down, with his back and his wounds towards her.
“Try not to make any noise,” he said, “I am very tired.”
“Yes,” she said to him quietly but he did not hear her. He was already asleep—sung to rest by the intensity of his injuries.
Alyssa wasn’t sure when it started but the scratching at the other side of the wall became more and more persistent. At first, she thought that she was the one scratching at the walls and she looked over at John—nervously afraid that she had woken him.
When John made no indication that his sleep would give way, she settled down—only to hear the scratching once more on the other side of the wall.
She put her ear to it, listening closely to the intricacies of the walls. It was as though they had bodies and with her ear to them, she could hear their heartbeats.
I wonder she said if this is how they travel. Through the veins in the walls.
As she listened further, she could suddenly hear crying coming from the other side, followed by muffled whimpers and scratching. There was more than one voice and once in a while, they would all whimper together.
There are women back there she said to herself and then looked over at John. She wondered whether there were more children hidden away in these catacombs. As she put her ear once more to the wall, she felt her heart suddenly race and her stomach drop. Within seconds, a big hand came through the wall and it grabbed hold of her mouth and neck.
I’ll snap your neck right off, said a vile voice into her ear. You wake him and I’ll break your neck.
Alyssa fixated her eyes on John as she felt her body consumed by the wall. The hand pulled her right through and into the adjacent cell. All around her where girls, not much older than her. Some where hiding and others were a little bit more in the open. All were chained.
“Here you are,” said the beast as he spun Alyssa around and looked at her. She recognized him as the same monster in charge of the pot.
“My, my,” the beast said as he brought his pig nose close to her skin and smelled her. “You are beautiful. I could see why he would want to use you himself. I’ll warm you up for him.”
He flung her to the ground and she could feel his half-man and half pig hands, pulling at her underwear. In a last ditch of madness, she bit the “hand” that held her down and screamed: “Master!”
There was a movement of air and then a low, guttural sound. The oversized pig fell down besides her, spitting up blood and bile. John stood there watching the enforcers die, he then turned to looked around the room. He looked at the girls and then at their chains. He knew what this room was for but he wasn’t going to allow himself to say it at loud.
After a minute, John closed his eyes and listened attentively to the chatter within the walls. Her cry for him had traveled and he was absolutely sure that Isabella was now aware of both his prisoner and of the murder of one of her enforcers. Nothing good could come from that.
Alyssa pulled herself slowly up, her body shaking from what could have transpired. She looked over at John and saw that for a brief second, his eyes glistened over.
“Now I have lost you too” he said sadly.
The walls gave way and out came both Louis and Steven. They were followed by a slew of enforcers, with their whips and chains.
“Oh I dare you” said John to the human swine “to try to take me with those chains. Louis, Stephen stay with her and the rest of the women.”
“No, I’m coming with you” said Louis “maybe I can talk her out of it.”
John gave Louis a look.
“I’ll watch them commander” said Stephen “nothing will become of these girls.” He then led out a low growl and the enforcers took a small step back.
“Come Louis” said John tiredly and he gave Alyssa one more look before the wall swallowed him up.
Stephen did his job. He did not let anyone touch Alyssa or any of the other prisoners in the room and when it was time to rest, he still remained vigilant. He watched the movements in the shadows and listened to the chatter in the walls. It was late night when the walls parted and John and Louis finally emerged.
Stephen rose and replied “I thought you were dead, commander. The walls were whispering blood.”
“Let them whisper” said John as he sat down, with his back against the wall.
Stephen yawned and lay back down. John, in the meantime, examined the room. He saw the girls looking at him, trying to discern his intentions with their tired, frightened eyes.
“I didn’t let anybody touch them” said Stephen.
“Good boy” answered John and he ran his hand over Stephen’s back. As he did so, Stephen could see the beatings on his friend’s body. “Where is she?”
“In your room” said Stephen “I figure nobody would touch her there.”
“Go get her Louis” said John tiredly as he closed his eyes “I’ll wait here.”
“What did she do to you, commander?” said Stephen quietly, as soon as Louis disappeared behind the walls.
“The same thing she always does Stephen. She hurts me.”
They traveled through the darkness, with John often stopping to wait for Louis and Alyssa. The wolf carried Alyssa on his back and the girl would grip his fur so ferociously that Louis would curse at her under his breath. When they finally arrived, Louis slowed down and Alyssa got off.
She starred upon the ruins of her village, the wind blowing the piles of charcoal and black around the earth.
“Go ahead” John said to her and she descended down into the torn houses and alleys.
Alyssa walked upon the uneven roads, surrounded by constant remainders of death and destruction. She knew this road quite well, she had walked it all her life. She tried not to remember what had occurred here, the wound was still too fresh.
Alyssa looked up for a minute and saw John leaning against one of the posts.
“How long do I have here?” she asked.
“As long as you want” he said to her gently.
She nodded and went about the gardens, the alleys, the houses where her neighbors and her friends had once lived. She found her grandmother’s house, the clothes laid out perfectly for the evening church service.
Alyssa found her bed and lay down upon it, pulling the clothes up to her chest. She lay there for a long time, her body sliding in-between bitter reality and sleep. When the darkness began to subside, she opened her eyes and saw John leaning against the door frame. He was holding a small dagger in his hand.
“The blood of that cook traveled through the walls and to the Dark Queen “he said “she has demanded that I bring you back to her so that she can hand you over to her pigs as recompense.”
Alyssa’s eyes filled with tears.
“But I will not let them defile you” he said.
“Is it because I look like her? The woman scratched into the wall?”
“Yes” said John and he pierced her heart. It was his act of mercy towards her and she felt no pain.
He then took her body and covered it with his cloak. He buried her in her grandmother’s house, beneath the clothes and under the bed.
Louis was waiting for him on top of the hill and when John returned without the girl, the wolf said: “why did you defy Isabella? She wanted that girl with all her rage.”
“Because that girl on the battlefield looked at me with yearning. I meant something to her and whatever it was, Isabella took it away from both of us.”
“She took a lot away from many of us” said Louis, his animal eyes glistening over “you are just the only one that continuous to struggle against it. She will make you drink so much of that Black Water that tomorrow morning you will not recognize yourself.”
“That may be true, but she will never have Alyssa now. Just like I will never have that princess again. Come Louis, let us go home and pay our dues.”
“I can hardly wait.”
© October, 2014 Alex B.
Alex B.'s work has recently appeared in The Mythic Circle.