Charybda: Worldstrait Book I
Copyright © 2017 by A.L.S. Vossler.
All rights reserved.
“Violent prisoner entering! Beware, beware! Abomination!”
The dank and mildewed halls of the dungeons reverberated with sound.
Nivin tilted her head, listening to the shouts of soldiers and the jingle of mail. She could hear them even from inside the small kitchen her father had set up for her in the dungeons. Moans and roars punctuated the customary wet, dark quiet. Whatever abomination they were bringing, it sounded huge. Thunderous footsteps echoed through the passages. Nivin could feel the vibrations through the cold, damp stone under her bare feet.
Making a mental note that this prisoner might need a larger meal than usual, she turned her attention back to her cooking. She reached for her long wooden spoon, which she always kept in exactly the same place so she could find it easily. It was how she organized all of her utensils. Not a thing could be out of place, especially if anyone might come in and watch her. If she had to fumble around, patting the surfaces until she could find what she searched for, people might suspect her secret.
Sometimes, she wondered if they already did.
After she stirred the stew, she carefully replaced her spoon and left the kitchen to investigate what manner of abomination they had brought to the dungeons this time. She gently dragged a hand along the damp walls of the corridor as she walked, listening carefully to the echoes for guidance.
Her father’s footfalls, lightly marked by a shuffle, hurried down the corridor. When he passed her, he gave her long braid an affectionate tug. “Go back to your cooking, Nivin. You know I do not like for you to see the prisoners come in.”
“Well, there is no danger of that, now is there?” Nivin whispered.
“Shh! Do not say things like that—do you want to be found out? It’s a miracle you have made it to seventeen, as it is.”
Nivin hung her head. “Yes, Father.”
Her father heaved a sigh and continued down the hall. Nivin waited for a few moments before quietly following after him. She knew the dungeons well and could navigate them with ease. It was only on those few occasions she left the dungeons that she had trouble finding her way around.
She lingered behind a bend in the passage, listening intently. It sounded like a large crowd of people were around the corner.
Her father gasped and swore. “An abomination? You said he was an abomination, not a boulder. Where exactly am I to house this thing?”
The prisoner moaned indistinctly in response and her father shuffled back a few steps.
“That is your problem, Jailor Benin,” barked one of the soldiers, his voice haggard. “Now, you and your men solve it quickly, before he breaks his bonds.”
“All right, all right,” her father said. “I have a cell that can hold four men—perhaps that will work.” His footsteps went further down the corridor, and he unlocked the more spacious cell. “Bring him down here.”
There was a moment of silence, followed by the sound of several feet shuffling away from the prisoner.
“Well, come on then!” her father shouted. “Do you want him to break loose from those ropes, you worthless idiots?”
Finally, the guards took over for the soldiers and goaded the prisoner down the hall. Bolstered by the prisoner’s compliance, they grew rougher and laughed as they drove him. As soon as the prisoner was inside, Nivin heard her father leap forward and slam the door shut, then go to lock it.
Nivin listened as the soldiers walked down to the cell. She guessed they still held their weapons at the ready, in case this “violent prisoner” decided to escape. She imagined they all looked into the cell, marveling at whatever they saw.
“You think this cell alone will hold him?” said one of the soldiers, his voice filled with skepticism.
“Better than those ropes will,” her father snapped. She heard the distinct sound of a key in the lock.
“He could still break those ropes should he get a mind to,” said the soldier with the haggard voice. “The lock might not be strong enough. Get him in those manacles while he’s still docile, or you will regret it later.”
With a huff, her father unlocked the cell again. “Do it,” he said sharply.
The guards once again reacted with silence.
“Just do it, you cowards,” said another of the soldiers. “I’ve seen what this abomination can do.”
“Then why don’t you go in and shackle him?” said one of the guards.
There was a tense moment of silence.
“Oh, fine, I’ll do it, you useless lot,” her father growled. He hurried into the cell, and tried to place the manacles around the prisoner’s wrists. He sighed in exasperation. “They won’t even fit.” Chains rattled. “All right…just join them in the middle…there! That will have to do.”
The loud click of the lock was met by sighs of relief from the soldiers and guards.
“Don’t you think for a minute he won’t put up a fuss, now,” said her father. “He might be strong enough to break those chains.”
“He is still bound,” replied one of the guards. “Maybe together it will be enough.”
“He makes me nervous, nevertheless.” Nivin could hear the fear and tenseness in her father’s voice. “I want a close watch on him.”
The prisoner, however, simply moaned softly.
Nivin hugged herself. What manner of abomination was this? Surely it was no ordinary man, brought in for the crime of a typical deformity. He must have been huge and incredibly powerful.
“Well, that is all your responsibility now,” snapped one of the soldiers. “We have to tend to the families of our dead.”
“Dead?” her father said. “I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. How many?”
“Three,” the same soldier answered, his voice tense with anger. “They were completely brutalized. This abomination practically crushed every bone in their bodies. Like they were nothing more than bothersome beetles.”
“Save the king,” her father whispered.
“This is one abomination that truly deserves to die,” said a young, angry voice. Nivin did not recognize it. It must have been one of the soldiers, and by the way his voice broke, she guessed he was just old enough to serve.
“Silence, you fool!” said the soldier with the haggard voice. Based on the volume and direction of his voice, he had turned around. “All abominations deserve nothing but the death set for them by our king! Watch your tongue, lest you be hanged for treason!”
“Ah, yes, all abominations,” Nivin’s father said. “But surely you must agree—well, not all are as perverse corruptions of nature as this one.”
Nivin balled her fists.
“Indeed,” replied the soldier with the haggard voice. “And there are some who are more abominable still.”
“Yes,” her father said, clearing his throat. “Of course, all of them deserve death, whether more perverse or less.”
“Indeed,” the haggard-voiced soldier said again.
Nivin’s eyes stung with tears for a moment. She forced them away. It was not as though she could truly expect her father to say anything different—if he did, then both of them would die. But every time she heard him say something like this, Nivin wondered if he did, on some small level, actually mean it. After all, he still held his position as jailor—he had not given that up for her sake. His role in Zerabar’s twisted justice system remained the same.
She knew this was why he hated for her to be present during prisoner intake. Because she would have to hear him say this kind of thing as though he believed it.
Maybe he wondered whether he believed it, too.
“My thanks, lads,” he said, a little too heartily, with a slight chuckle. “You have done honorably in bringing this piece of hideousness to justice. I’m sure his execution will be finished on the morrow.”
Presumably catching the tone, the soldier with the haggard voice instructed his men to leave. He turned around again toward the youngest and murmured, “Perhaps another abomination shall be dead ere then.” Raising his voice, he continued. “Neither of them deserves the courtesy of a last meal.” With that, he turned and proceeded out of the moldering halls of the dungeons. The rest of the soldiers followed behind him.
As she listened to their footsteps fade, Nivin drew a deep breath and tried to quiet her stomach. It was no secret to her that people hated her activities, but something in the haggard soldier’s tone made her afraid.
Her father laughed nervously and turned toward his guards. “Keep a sharp patrol, lads.”
The guards dispersed. One of them came toward Nivin. His footfalls paused in front of her, and he murmured her name by way of acknowledgment. She turned her head toward the sound of his voice and nodded. He continued without another word, the sound of his clothes and equipment following him.
Once again, the halls of the dungeons were filled with damp quietness. She heard her father sigh softly and walk toward where she hid. For a moment, she thought about running, but he would spot her before she could make it back to her kitchen.
When he rounded the corner, he drew a sharp breath and cursed. “Nivin, how long have you been standing here?”
“The new prisoner sounds massive,” Nivin said, folding her arms across her chest. She was not about to back down under whatever upbraiding her father was preparing for her.
“Yes—he’s hideous. His face is all misshapen, he’s nearly twelve feet tall, and has a girth as wide as three of you. I have heard of gigantism, but not until today have I ever witnessed a man deformed by it. I cannot believe he has survived as long as he has—he looks almost forty, if I had to guess. With his strength, it’s a wonder they did not kill him instead of going to the trouble of bringing him here.”
“Doubtless, a spectacle like this will help King Temere keep the public afraid and on his side. After all, how can the people of Zerabar disagree with a man who slays monsters? It makes it easier to justify the slaughter of innocents.”
“Watch your tongue, child. Do you want to be on the other side of these bars?”
“Why not put me behind bars, then, if you are so dedicated to your cause?”
Her father put his hands on her shoulders. “There are days you tempt me, little one.” He chuckled and laid a gentle kiss on her forehead. “You know I love you more than life itself. I will keep you safe, whatever the cost.”
Nivin balled her fists again, drawing a deep breath to steady herself. “I am going back to my kitchen.”
“Wait. Do not bring that monstrous creature a last meal. You heard what the captain said. It could be the final straw for my men—I do not know what they would do if you treated this thing like any other condemned man.”
“But all abominations are equally monstrous, are they not? The Law of Condemnation is universal and impartial.”
“Please.” His voice was pained. “Just listen to me this one time.”
With an exasperated sigh, Nivin turned and walked back down the familiar dungeon passages to her small kitchen. She went in, shut the door, and slid to the floor, leaning her back against the door. She drew her knees close to her chest and rested her head on them.
Silently, she wept.
Gurgle. Murmur. Moan. Even from where she sat, she could hear the giant man’s noises punctuate the quiet once again. But this time, they were softer, almost mournful. She heard the jingle of mail and keys as guards walked their patrol.
She was not going to let her father stop her from what she had come to consider her purpose. It was who she was: she, who labored over her deep copper pot. She, who sweated as she kneaded bread and baked it in her clay oven. She, who pared away the spoiled bits from old root vegetables, who simmered into tenderness the toughness of least choice meats.
She, who brought the savory food to the prisoners in a solemn solitary funeral march.
She could not save them, but she could soften the harshness of their last hours. That included even this man—however grotesque others might consider him.
Her purpose called her.
She rose from the floor and went over to her cooking station. It was small, since the only food she prepared was for the prisoners’ last meals, but to her, it was the altar of her mission. She stirred the stew and tasted it. It had been simmering for most of the day already and had turned out nicely. After easily finding her knife, she sliced off a large chunk of the bread she had baked earlier and placed it on a tray. Then, she ladled the thick stew into a large clay bowl, adding an extra spoonful for good measure. Once the tray was prepared, she braced herself for whatever consequences might come and exited the kitchen.
As she approached the giant’s cell, she heard the soft sound of someone moving. She thought she heard a sniff, as if someone stifled tears. Unsure who it was, she decided ask a question she might ask someone who knew her. “What are you doing here?”
“Pardon me, Mistress. I am in your way.”
It was the young soldier’s voice. He must have remained after the others left. “No,” Nivin said, “not unless you determine to deny this man his last meal.”
“He does not deserve it,” the soldier said, his voice choked. As he turned to face her, something scraped along the floor—most likely, a spear. “He killed three of Zerabar’s finest men, soldiers with families and young children!” He took a deep breath. “But I am not here to stop you.”
“Why are you here, then?”
There was a long pause. “I…am making sure this monster does not escape.”
“He is bound and chained. You have done your work already. Leave it to the guards’ care.”
“I must do this.”
The soldier sighed. “I did not…had I been…braver, some of the men need not have died.” Pain filled his youthful voice.
Nivin felt a pang of sympathy for him, despite his clear hatred for abominations. “Be brave now. Help me give this man his last meal this side of living.”
“What, and break Eschewment?” His voice cracked. “If you were any other man’s daughter, you would be put to death for doing so!”
“Breaking Eschewment?” Nivin gave a forced chuckle. “Giving a little meal to a condemned man is hardly breaking the spirit of the law. He will still die.” She crossed over to the cell and briefly probed for the small horizontal gap in the bars of the door. Fortunately, she had a good idea of where it was and found it quickly. Otherwise, she would have given up and returned when the soldier was not there to watch her. She wondered whether she ought to do that anyway, since her father had cautioned that giving the giant a meal might be the last straw.
No. She was not going to let her father—or anyone else—stop her. She gently slid the tray through the gap and waited.
The giant did not even acknowledge the food’s presence.
“Eschewment requires that no comfort or quarter be given to any abomination,” the soldier said emphatically. “How can you say you are not breaking the law?”
“We don’t always slay them on sight. We put a roof over their heads while they wait for death. That is quarter, now, is it not?”
The soldier drew a breath as if to reply, but was silent. Nivin suspected he could not think of any retort for her. She smiled at the thought.
“Eat,” Nivin said, nudging the tray in somewhat farther.
“You know he cannot reach that, don’t you? Not the way he is bound.”
She should have taken that into consideration. They had even said the giant was tightly bound. “Then take your spear and push it to where he can reach it.”
“I? I will take no part in this.”
Nivin folded her arms. “How strange. Jailor Benin usually demands his guards do whatever I ask them.”
“I—I am not one of your father’s guards,” the soldier said, his voice wavering.
Nivin smiled. She had him on the defensive now. If he had suspected anything based on her failure to notice the giant’s restraints, it was driven from his mind. “Yes, but surely our king, whom you so loyally serve, would not wish for you to disappoint his jailor. Need I remind you who the most favored men in our king’s court are?”
“I will not—“
“The jailor and the executioner. Two men you mustn’t cross.”
The soldier sighed. He came over to the cell and used his spear to slide the tray along the ground. “There. Even bound, he should be able to reach it and eat it like the animal he is. Are you pleased, Mistress?”
Two dungeon guards passed by. They began to mutter to each other quietly. Nivin did not need to hear them to know what they were talking about. Either it was about her, or it was about the fact that the soldier was there with her. Normally, she would have simply ignored them, but she did not want to put the young soldier in danger, particularly since he had just aided her.
“Silence, you! This man is not breaking any laws. I ordered him to assist me, by my father’s authority.”
With a scoff of disgust, the two guards departed.
“There,” Nivin said. “Now they shall have no cause to think you are doing this of your own will. I should hate for them to think you are freely associating with me. Much like you, they despise that I give last meals to the prisoners.”
“As I said,” the soldier said, “were you any other man’s daughter, you would be put to death for doing so.”
“So I have been told.” Nivin leaned up against the bars of the cell. “Come now, eat,” she urged the giant.
The giant did nothing but moan softly.
“His mind is void,” the soldier snapped.
“You cannot know that,” Nivin said.
“I saw him kill in mindless violence.”
“Someone loved him.”
“That makes no difference.”
Nivin clenched her fists. “It makes all the difference!”
The giant erupted in gurgled shouts. “Murm! Hurt murm! Kill murm! Mu-u-urm!”
Nivin jumped. Gasping, the soldier grabbed Nivin by the arm and clung to her like a frightened boy.
The giant fell quiet again.
Nivin shook free of the young soldier’s grasp. “Are you sure he can reach the food? Push it in farther.”
“Are you mad?”
“Just do it.”
With a grunt of assent, the soldier slid the tray in a bit more.
The footfalls of two men pounded down the hall. A spear whistled through the air. It tore into the young soldier. He let out a strangled yell and collapsed to the floor.
Horrified, Nivin stumbled back.
The footfalls drew closer. “It wasn’t enough that you failed us in the fray?” It was the haggard-voiced soldier. “You had to help this abomination-lover, too?” A sword rang as it was drawn from its sheath.
“No!” Nivin ran forward to interpose. “No! Stop! Leave him alone!”
The soldier grabbed her arm and pulled her away. Another man immediately seized her. A sword swished as it swung through the air. There was the sickly paper-tearing sound of flesh parting from flesh and then metal scraping against the stone floor. The air grew thick with the reek of blood.
“No, no, no!” Nivin fought against the man who held her.
“And you!” bellowed the haggard-voiced soldier. He grabbed her by the collar of her dress. “You seek to comfort this abomination? You have evaded the Law of Eschewment for far too long!” He dragged her forward and threw her onto the hard stone surface.
She tried to scream for help, but the soldier clapped his hand over her mouth. He knelt down over her, pinning her to the ground with her arms behind her back. “Kill the abomination,” he growled to his comrade. “I will teach this abomination-lover a lesson.”
Laughing, the other man wrenched the spear out of the dead young soldier and advanced toward the cell.
“Death is too good for people like you,” the haggard soldier said. He reached his other hand down toward the buttons of her dress. “Someone should have done this to you a long time ago.” With a fierce yank, he ripped the buttons open. He ran his fingers across the fabric of her undershirt, then grabbed it tightly at the neckline.
Nivin screamed against the soldier’s hand.
The giant bellowed. Shreds of rope went flying and chains clattered as the giant tore the metal restraints from the wall. He attacked the bars of the cell, bending them open. The metal creaked as it gave way to his force. Nivin heard the other soldier scream, and not a moment later, her captor was lifted bodily off of her and slammed into the wall. His bones cracked from the impact. She scrambled up from the ground and ran, so disoriented that she was not even sure which way she was going.
The other soldier shouted for help. The echoes of charging armored feet filled the halls. The giant roared. He lifted the soldier and threw him down on the ground. Metal scraped and the soldier let out a strangled yell.
The smell of blood intensified.
Massive footsteps thundered after Nivin. The next thing she knew, the giant reached down and hoisted her up. When he stood up, Nivin’s head banged against the ceiling. The giant barreled down the hall with her slung over his shoulder.
Struggling and fighting, Nivin cried out for help.
Prison guards arrived from around the bend of the passage, but the giant’s momentum knocked them over and his massive form collapsed on top of them. Nivin flew forward from the giant’s shoulder, slammed into the wall, and slid to the floor. Dazed, she pushed herself up, squeezing tears of pain from her eyes. The air had been forced from her lungs. She gasped to catch her breath. As she tried to get her legs under her, the sounds of the fray assaulted her. She heard the crunching of bones and the tearing of flesh and the screaming of grown men, magnified a thousand times by echoes. Crying out, she clapped her hands over her ears and fell back to the floor. But there, the sounds pulsed and vibrated through the rock. She was lost in a world of violent auditory. The sounds echoed so loudly that she could hardly hear herself screaming stop.
The giant broke free of the soldiers and grabbed her, dragging her back up onto his shoulder. More soldiers awaited them at the foot of the steps, but a swing of the giant’s massive arm knocked them aside.
Twelve feet tall, the giant ran up the stairs and out of the dungeons.
Nivin lapsed out of consciousness as she lay dangling from his shoulder.
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