© Gregor James
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The passageway from the cell block through to the Exit Hall is too narrow for me and both of my guards to fit through, so one of them lets go of me and drops behind. The grip of the remaining guard tightens as he pulls me forward, pulling at my freshly mutilated arm. I wail in anguish and stagger after him quickly to reduce the tension and the accompanying searing pain. We are in the middle of the hall as I turn and straighten up. That’s when I see it. That’s when, for the first time in my story, I believe I am about to die.
The city of Gorodin has four gates:
Newgate, or Main Gate, is at the city’s north-western boundary. Through it comes most of our trade and other visitors - diplomats, pilgrims, spies, refugees and whoever else. The closest habitable places to us are in that direction, though that’s still nearly 100 miles of sand away.
The westerly gate is called Ocean Gate because it is the closest gate to the Western Ocean (or indeed any ocean). It’s still around 300 miles away, but that’s a mile or so closer than the other gates, so hooray for Ocean Gate, I guess.
The southern gate is either called Sand Gate, or Garden Gate, by those with the sort of tired ironic sense of humour that this place breeds in abundance. There is no garden here – the atmosphere is pretty grim on either side. There is, however, plenty of sand.
And I guess that brings us to the East Gate, better known as Bone Gate. Bone Gate gets its name from the bones. No irony or creativity here. It used to be that the ground outside bone gate was littered with bones. Actually it still is, but given that there was such a surplus, someone began to decorate the timber of the gate with them, so now there is a special treat for those who are banished. Firstly, you get to perform the Last Walk – where you get escorted through a huge aisle that runs through the middle of Gorodin’s BoneGate prison, allowing 3 stories worth of howling, cheering and spitting scum of the earth on either side to cheer you on your way. On completing that, the scene that greets you at the end is a giant door decorated completely in bones. It’s eight men high and five wide and covered with human, gorgon, lizard and mantix skulls, toe bones and tail bones and most of those in-between.
They’re not just splattered out anywhere though – there has been creativity at work here, though the origin of the design is disputed. There is a large human-like skull shape made from dozens of skulls towards the top of the door – a meta-skull, if you like. Then numerous clavicles form a collar or neck underneath the head, which joins into a giant meta-ribcage. Six many-jointed, limbs protrude from the side, and a reptilian tail continues the spinal cord that protrudes from beneath the ribcage, twisting to the left and right until it finishes with a flourish of what might be finger bones at the end. Around this mythical creature, a border of more bones are arranged in a spiky, patterned formation.
The first time I heard about this, I was suitably terrified, because I was 5 years old and my twin sister Carla was successfully using the story of it to scare me. Later on though I became cynical. I began to think how typical it was of the mayor, or the prison governor, or whoever’s bright idea it was, to think – ‘hey - I’m not sure it’s quite obvious enough that whoever goes through this door is going to die. What we really need is a spot of macho posturing – a bit of macabre decoration to really ram it home.’
It’s a bit harder to be cynical when you are here though, one guard under each shoulder, the noise of the laughter and jeering of prisoners echoing cacophonously through this cavernous sandrock theatre, and with the Bone Gate looming at the end, growing ever larger and more domineering. I can smell the acrid vinegary sweat of the fat Bakkasani guards under each armpit. I can hear Xaka behind me, complaining half-humorously about his rough handling from his escorts. I can see chinks of blinding light from the centre and the edges of the giant door.
And that’s probably the point – it’s not the creative bone collage that’s the source of the shock and the leg-jellying dread. It’s what’s beyond.
I get marched to within a few paces of the door and then we stop. The guard to my left gives a shout:
“Two going out!”
That’s nice. It sounds like we’re popping out for supplies, and perhaps we’ll pop back with a couple of cabbages and a pail of milk in a bit.
There are a couple of incoherent shouts from a doorway set into the wall by the gate, where I can barely make out some movement in the gloom. There is a mighty clank and a metal bolt as thick as my arm moves back across the middle of the door. Then the side-doorway darkens, and a guard stoops to pass through the doorway, and when he stands up again I see that he is huge – I must come up to his sternum, and I’m not small. He lumbers gracelessly towards the centre of the gate and shifts his weight behind a mighty shoulder. With a slight creak the mutant skeleton splits down the middle and the doors swing ponderously outward.
The blinding light beyond the door fills the chamber, causing me to screw my eyes shut. Slowly, as the door and my eyes gradually open, the scene beyond is revealed:
Above – blue sky sporting one pathetic wispy cloud pales slightly as it reaches the horizon. The horizon itself is crowned with a thin strip of what could be foothills or dunes – it’s hard to tell because they are so far away, and because my eyes have to deal with the sudden inrush of light and the heat haze. It is almost entirely flat with the exception of Mount Carcerus – a solitary curving rocky hill rising from the desert to the north-west. And covering practically all of the yawning gap between that horizon and our gate is barren, flat sandy earth woven with a labyrinth of cracks – some shallow and small, some deeper, and wide enough to fit your thigh in. The crazy lattice stretches as far as the eye can see – unbroken until it reaches the mirage that might be those foothills but for a scattering of intrepid weeds, a couple of wizened spiny trees, a cluster of cactus and - of course - the bones scattered around the entrance. Still plenty of bones left out there. Some with scraps of flesh and clothes still attached, most of them pecked clean of anything by the vultures and other more disturbing scavengers.
I have about three heartbeats to admire the view, before the guard on the left punches me hard in the stomach. I double up in shock and pain, and as I do the guards on each side take the opportunity to take a few more steps forward, with me between them, and hurl me through the doorway and onto the ground.
I land face first. The sand is abrasive and hot, so I instinctively roll to the side and turn to sit facing the guards. I watch them backing off, their faces inscrutable, their hands near their swords, but casually – they can tell I’m not the sort to try anything. Then two more guards bring up Xaka and hurl him so that he stumbles forward and lands next to me. His landing is a bit more graceful, but he still eats a bit of sand, before turning, as I did, to watch his guards retreat behind the now creaking, closing colossal city gates.
We sit there, stupefied and dazed, as the gate barring our route to salvation slowly, implacably closes. The doors issue a final echoing crunch as they grind shut, and a shower of sand is shaken off the gate outside and flutters to the ground, I can hear the rapidly diminishing noises from inside, then there is nothing. No sound, no movement. Just a big, thick solid plain gate – no bone collage on this side - set into a wall of sandrock that from this perspective seems to go up - and along - forever.
I’m not going into the whole mythology of the walls now, but I’ll tell you the important features to someone outside of them: These are no ordinary walls. They are pure sandrock, which is what happens when sand is fused solid – by magical or pseudo-magical means. The colour darkens slightly due to the density, and the texture is smoother – slightly glassy, but the effect – even from a few paces away where I am now - is that the wall has risen out of the desert, which in all probability is just what happened. They are very solid. They are also thick. That Last Walk I took – all that is through the wall. They are thicker than 2 of our houses.
I remember studying them for a few moments after the doors shut and it was just me and Xaka. They look – and are – ancient. They are not as cracked as the ground, but there are plenty of surface cracks and chunks or plates missing and – near where we are – a lot of carved graffiti. They are also impossibly huge. To the left and the right they curve almost imperceptibly out of sight, around the entire city, and Gorodin is not a small place. The walls also curve inward as they extend up. From my spot by the wall I can see them continue for maybe 3 times the height of the gate before the curve removes the rest from sight. Out and out. Up and up. I know the walls eventually stop curving over the city, ending in a set of chaotic jagged peaks, like a colossal boiled egg or an untidy crown. But I can’t see that from here. From here there is just an endless, placid barrier of denial.
So that’s the wall. Now I guess we get onto Xaka. I have known Xaka from since I was old enough to know anyone, practically. We grew up together, went to our studies together, learned our letters and our numbers and our theosophy and our history together. We then became market rats together – fetching drinks, coins, delivering messages and supplies for our fathers and the other market stall owners. And that’s still where we were yesterday.
Xaka looks a lot more normal than I do. He has jet black hair that curls slightly around the fringe and the back of the neck when it hasn’t been cut for a while such as now. He has deep brown eyes and a slightly hooked aquiline nose. His stubble, which has been fast-growing since he was about 8 – about a decade before mine, makes a perfect beard-shape, following a graceful contour from one ear, arcing down the side of the face, up under the nose and back up to the other ear. No tufts or patches anywhere. It’s infuriating - as if he has an army of tiny face-gardeners trimming it full-time. By contrast, I have sandy-blonde hair – practically unheard of around here, and it sprouts up in random tufts, like desert grass. Even now my beard is more like the scant vegetation of this cursed desert compared to his dense jungle. Xaka is quite tall, but not as tall as me, and not gangly with it, like I am. He holds himself well. He moves like a wildcat, compared to my orang-utan.
And that’s not all. Not only is he physically attractive – he’s also blessed with the sort of confidence and charm I’d hack off a gangly limb for. Admittedly he doesn’t hit the mark all the time, but he has that air of someone who knows the next success is just around the corner. We’re both 18 years now, so unsurprisingly we’ve spent most of the last few years working out the better way to charm the populations of the human fairer sex within Gorodin. Well I have - he’s never seemed to need any working out time. He just sees someone he likes and goes over. And then – even when he comes out with the most awkward, corny, half-cooked lines you can imagine (which is about eleven twelfths of the time) he still has them eating out of his hand. There is clearly some sort of secret pass that he picked up somewhere that I didn’t, because when I do the same thing I get looked at like I’m a hungry mantix, and within seconds I have made some excuse and run off to lick my wounds.
But then I do look like some sort of misfit. Maybe Xaka’s pass is his barefaced determination to get beyond those moments of initial awkwardness. That and that face. That meticulously gardened stubbly face.
And he’s funny, did I mention that? The amount of time we’ve made each other howl with laughter. To laugh so hard your stomach muscles go into spasm and you are actually fighting for breath, desperate for it to stop. I sometimes think I forgive him too much for that – more even than the seduction opportunities I inherit through being his understudy.
Because he does need a lot of forgiving. Oh yes.
I’m watching him now. He’s brushing sand off his tunic and squinting back at the closed door.
“Hey Sharm - that big guard was hot for me. I swear he grabbed my arse.”
I look at him for one, two seconds. Then – without really knowing I was going to do it, I punch him in the face.
I should have thanked him, in hindsight.
I should have bowed at his feet for the forced opportunity to flee the city. Xaka and I should have worked or smuggled ourselves North – to Bakkasan, or the Kingdoms of the North, and never come back.
At the very least, I should have urged him to get the hell of there before the next guy showed up, and told us his dark tales of macabre magic, and got us into more trouble than a pair of street rats knew how to deal with.
Of course doing either of those would have meant that the plot that must already have been afoot here would have succeeded – that the city of our birth and all our loved ones would have been obliterated, along with everyone we know and loved inside it. But my fate would have been a hell of a lot better. I wouldn’t be about to die.
But I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I punched Xaka on the nose. But in my defence, he had really pissed me off.
I had better explain what happened last night.
It had been a long day. Xaka’s father was a smith, and a shipment of hard-iron had arrived via a khashimi train the day before, so Xaka had been at the forge. His father makes armaments, but when we get a decent shipment then the forge, which is a district run, shared affair, will be full of other workers, making everything they can from every last scrap of metal – pots, pans, knives, whatever other specialist and peculiar stuff, until it’s all used up. Those workers all get hungry, which is where my father and I and our bread oven come in. We mainly do tapat – flatbreads, which we either sell straight from the oven, or my sister Carla fills them for an extra bit – usually some chutney made from fatboy, a cactus-like vegetable that is Gorod’s staple crop – so called because it has a big fat trunk and often two green ‘branches’ that stick out like chubby arms. The other favourite filling is lizard tail - mainly eaten by lizards. (Now don’t judge – most lizard tails grow back – so is that strictly cannibalism?) And it tastes pretty good as well – particularly if you’re sick of fatboy.
Anyway – we had worked pretty hard, so we were in sore need of a rest and a drink come sunset. Most of the stalls are closed down in the market square at the end of the day, but on a good day like yesterday, most of the traders hang around for a drink served by the remaining stalls – our favoured one being run by Amyx, the guardian of Djibril - a friend of ours, not that it entitles us to any discounts, sadly.
There was a large, good-natured crowd that day – half-filling the square with excitable babble. It’s mainly human in our district, and the mix around the market reflected that, though Amyx and Djibril were not the only lizards around, by any stretch. It’s also mainly males, thanks sadly to the tendency of too many fathers to keep their daughters locked up around here.
We were with Djibril that night. He was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t see anything that was going on because it was too busy; right now he comes up to my shoulder – I don’t think he finds the fact that he’ll keep on growing for another 4 decades, Io willing, as much of a consolation. He can balance on his tail, but only for a second or 2. He did that the first couple of times Xaka urged us to look at this or that, then realised it was a human girl nine times out of ten and soon lost interest.
We don’t get cheap drinks at Amyx’s, but we do get free lizard tears. I know - sounds delicious, right? It’s a fringe benefit of sharing Gorodin with our oviparous cousins that some of them have secretions that are designed to seriously irritate some of their historical predators, but now give quite a kick to us monkeys. You have to be careful who you ask – for socially acceptable as well as chemical reasons, but as luck would have it, when Djibril is riled up – excited or angry - he can make stuff shoot out of his eyes. I’ve not seen him do that, sadly. But if he just wipes a tear and flicks it into our drink, and we give it a stir, then it turns it from fatboy hooch into salamander hooch. He’s not a salamander – don’t ask me how it got the name. Also I’ve heard it works better with brandy, but hey – we’re only street rats. Another thing is that you have to be very careful with your dosage if you don’t want to start seeing very strange things, as I can tell you from some nasty formative experiences. A drop is normally about right. That will get you nice and awake. And a tiny bit giggly, which explains the unprovoked hilarity at the point in the evening where Xaka saw Soraya. And I saw Farah.
Now it wasn’t one of those silly fictitious moments where time stopped and my heart went jiggety-jig or anything. Not straightaway anyway. My first glimpse of her I wasn’t that blown away – she was looking at Soraya, and from side on and frowning a bit – from that angle she seemed a bit snotty. She also looked like she might have a slight under-bite. But then Xaka did something ostentatious - for a change - and they both turned to look at us. And I would be lying if my stomach didn’t do a little flip just then.
Soraya was pretty enough to win any other contest, albeit in a conventional darker skinned, dark-haired, voluptuous sort of a way. Very voluptuous. She had amazing lips – full, pouty – cherry red. You had to stop yourself subconsciously puckering up when you looked at them.
But Farah – I don’t know what it was. Is. Everything. Pale skin and long blond wavy hair – a freak like me. Blue eyes you could lose yourself in. A pert, freckle-strewn nose, a smaller, frillier, more delicate mouth, slightly open, the tips of 2 front teeth peeking out…
Now maybe this might not be your thing, but we all have our weaknesses. You have no idea what sort of insectoid, reptilian, wrinkly or skinless faces are my bread and butter, how relatively rare it is to see an adult female human face of a compatible race to mine. If that gives me a fatal weakness for picture-postcard beauty then that’s where we are. You’re just going to have to live with it.
So anyway, they look over, then just as quickly they return to whoever in their current group of friends is trying to attract their attention, though following them closely, as I was now (trying to keep my tongue in), the rest of their group looked old, self-absorbed and boring. All human, and rich by the look of their silk kaftans and headdresses. From the terraces no doubt – Io knows what brings them down here – a quick tour of the slums I guess. The girls looked back over again a few moments later – clearly their party weren’t giving them the entertainment they felt they deserved.
“Do you see that?” whispered Xaka reverentially.
“Yeah, I see,” I replied with more than a little understatement.
“Not more women”, moaned Djibril, who did his tail trick again to get a better view. “Hmm, OK.” he said, on returning lightly onto his feet “even from a cross-species point of view, they look pretty exceptional.”
“No shit, friend,” replied Xaka. “Blessed be Io’s crusty underclothes. Not often does something like that wander onto the savannah. Question is - how do we lure them away from the pack?” he put his drink to his lips while maintaining watch on his prey.
“Now hold on a minute,” I responded, “That’s royalty over there. Look at those clothes. We’ll get whipped for looking at them. You’re not serious...”
“Oh come on – where are your balls? We’ll only get whipped if we’re caught.” He went for a winning smile. “Look at them, Sharm...”
“Yeah – they are...” I had no words up to the task. “They’re hot, OK. But see these?“ I gestured towards my groin, “I have plans for them that don’t involve them being hacked off and roasted by some councillor when he finds his daughter’s been screwed by a market boy.”
“Oh come on. Will you just trust me? Have I ever let you down before?”
He had of course. By libido-focussed neglect rather than any malice aforethought, but still...
A quick discussion with Djibril reminded us that he knew a few street geckos – agile little lizards used for anything you need swiftness and agility for, including messaging, spying (they can cling to walls), some light-fingered crime. They are mostly in the employ of the big lizard gangs in the shadier districts, but common around our area too. After a bit of asking around, he managed to collar one he knew as they weaved their way swiftly through the evening crowds on some errand, and Xaka asked him how much it would cost him to assist us in his little scheme. On looking at the assembly of quality clothing and jewellery on our targets, he quoted a price that I confidently expected would be an end to the matter, but after a brief, unsuccessful haggle Xaka accepted it. And then asked for help in meeting it from me, obviously.
And of course, instead of grasping the chance to change course, of refusing to pay up, or feign poverty, or run away, I handed over the crowns I’d literally been handed hours ago at the end of my shift. Though as I did so, my stomach twisted a little further in the knowledge that I was been dragged a little deeper.
A moment later there was a shout from one of the older ladies in their party.
“My purse! That lizard has my purse!”
Normally, a stolen purse would raise scarcely an eyebrow round here, but the prospect of some gratitude, or a share of the spoils, from Gorodin upper class caused some disruption on this occasion. Several of the menfolk in the party initially attempted pursuit in a rather awkward, cursory fashion. Then, when other men around the market joined the cause, the rich men, emboldened by the company, went with them, which of course left our ladies standing on their own. Before I knew it I was being dragged by Xaka in their direction.
It felt like jumping off a cliff. I have no idea how my legs kept on moving towards them, but they did – my eyes focussed on the now bewildered Farah, whose eyes predictably fell on us as we approached.
“Ladies, began Xaka, addressing Soraya mainly. “I’m really not sure you’re safe in this part of town without a knowledgeable guide. If you’re willing, my friend Sharmel and I will be able to show you the town, and keep you safer from this sort of thing.”
Soraya looks at Farah with a pouty-lipped ‘what-do-you-think’ type expression. Farah returns a rather inscrutable shrug. They both looked over in the direction the rest of their party disappeared, and then back at us.
“What the hell - I’m game.” Farah says and smiled. (The first of many still etched across my mind).
And so, as it turned out, was Soraya.
So off we went.
We made fairly hurried progress away from the market square, so there wasn’t much opportunity for talking, and given that my tongue was refusing to form coherent words, most talking opportunities that did take place were taken up by Xaka. We found out that Soraya was – surprise surprise – from the terraces – the rich part of Gorodin, as was Farah. Soraya had lived there all their life, but Farah had arrived when she was a few years old. They were a bit vague about what their parents did, and said they weren’t allowed off the terraces much thanks to overbearing mothers.
Xaka and I took them to a bar in Lizardtown called Dionysium, which has served us well in the past. We had a couple of drinks there, which settled my nerves, and then, when a fight broke out between an iguana and a Sulu after someone’s drink got knocked over, we moved onto another place - all the while getting more friendly, in our group of four as well as in our blonde-blonde and dark-dark pairs. Then when the girls said they needed escorting back to somewhere they could head home from, we firstly tried to talk them out of it, then obliged.
We were heading back north-west, and were a couple of blocks from our market square where we started the night when we heard a shout. At the end of the street, looking at us was a tall, stern-looking man in silk accompanied by a guard.
“Quick!” shouted Soraya, “Run!” Xaka dragged us down a side street and we all took off as fast as our kaftans and crappy sandals and respective girl clothes would let us, back through the slums, down one alley, and across another, stumbling past human and lizard hookers and down-and-outs and other night walkers until - at the point we were all exhausted - we had somehow found ourselves in a deserted dead-end alleyway with crates of what looked like rotten fatboy plants at one end. By the time I’d been able to catch my breath and look around me, Xaka and Soraya were kissing passionately against the alley wall ten paces away.
OK. Right. Shit.
Farah was standing right next to me, gasping for breath. She placed a hand on my shoulder for support, then looked over at the gyrating many-limbed beast that used to be our mutual friends.
“Oh charming. Well I’m not letting her have all the fun...”
And all of a sudden we were kissing. Just like that.
Now this is not a fairy tale. I’d had a few drinks, and so had she, so it was bigger in lusty, inarticulate passion than finesse. But it was still fantastic. She smelt vaguely of vanilla, and something floral, and a whole load of things too delicate and refined and beautiful for an undeserving sewer rat such as me to be sampling. But I didn’t let that hold me back. My marauding hands were taking in a smooth, slender thigh, and had just found a gap in her powder blue silks that allowed me to run a hand up her back.
I was just gathering my courage to explore further when it all went horribly wrong. There was a movement behind me, then someone grabbed my hair, and I felt a dull thump against the back of my neck.
I must have been out cold for a couple of seconds because the next thing I knew, I was sat on the ground against the alley wall, and a guard was yanking me to my feet. Another had Xaka in a similarly firm grip to my right, and the girls were huddled together against the wall opposite. Approaching from the alley entrance was one of the silk clad men that Farah had been with at the start of the evening – the same one that had just spotted us. He was tall, with black greying hair, and his face was handsome in a pointy way – all nose, chin and cheekbones – clearly getting leaner and more haughtier-looking as he aged. I’d not been looking at him earlier – I’d had other distractions, funnily enough, but now I got a good look at him I realised just how much trouble I was in.
I’d seen him before. This was councillor Yore – Lord Chancellor of Gorodin - probably the second or third highest ranking official in the city. And boy – did he look pissed off.
“Well girls, had our fun, have we? What joy it has been chasing you up and down the city.” Though he was slightly out of breath, his voice was calm, and all the more sinister for it.
The girls looked almost as scared of him as we did.
“Your mother told me this would happen.” He was looking at Farah. Gods – she’s his daughter. “She said that Soraya was a malign influence, and you couldn’t be trusted together, but I defended you. I defended you.” His voice raised ever so slightly, controlled and quietly furious. I was starting to feel sick.
“But I might just be able to maintain some shred of reputation, if it turns out that you were simply misled, rather than running amok like a pair of lowland tarts.”
“So I shall ask you both this question once. Did either of you do anything – anything at all, to encourage your companions to think they could fraternise with you in this way?”
I looked at Farah, and Soraya. Everyone looked at Farah and Soraya. Farah looked back at her father, her face frozen. Time stood still.
And then - there it was. A very subtle, very slow shake of the head.
Yore turned to Soraya. “And you?” Soraya, looking miserable as sin, shook her head as well.
Yore took a deep breath, offered a hint of a smile. “Very well. As I thought.” He turned to Xaka and me “In that case, as a member of the high council, and with these guards as my witnesses, I hereby convict you both of the charge of the assault of a relative of the high council. The penalty is exile. Guards, take them away.”
“No!!” shrieked Farah and Soraya together. “You can’t do that – it’s a death sentence! You can’t, you can’t! Please Father, please...”
“I most certainly can. The matter is closed. Perhaps this will teach you to consider the consequences of your actions.”
The guards were already pulling me and Xaka away. I had gone from being groggy and half-awake to stone cold sober. You’ll find a death sentence will do that to you. But I couldn’t speak. I could only stare at Farah, willing her with all my being to – I don’t know what – recant? Say sorry? I don’t know. She and Soraya carried on remonstrating with her father as I was pulled away and around the corner of the alleyway and out of sight. I staggered along, listening to the desperate, futile argument fade as we headed northwards around the edge of Lizardtown, to Gorodin prison.
I don’t remember much about reaching the prison – I think I was still in shock. There were some gates, then a large austere-looking building, and after some hanging around in a crowded hall, Xaka and I were led our separate ways. I was stuffed in a small empty cubicle with a hard bed and a pisspot in the corner. I stared at the walls for somewhere between five minutes and 5 hours. I thought about my father, my mother, about Carla, and what this would do to them, and suddenly I was sobbing convulsively. This started and stopped for however long until I heard the lock to my door rattle, and two men came in. One was holding a sweetdream, a short stubby club used a lot by the guards – probably very similar to what I was knocked out with a few hours before. The other was holding a red hot branding iron, in the shape of an ‘X’.
I backed up, terrified to the corner of the cell.
“No – no no no no!”
The sweetdream-holder spoke: “Listen friend, you’re set for exile. You can have your teeth smashed in, and be branded, or you can just be branded. These are your choices.” His smile was – to be fair – more grim and sympathetic than malign.
My hand went idiotically to my teeth. And then my resistance fell away. I had heard the stories about this before. Makes perfect sense I guess - it’s much easier to enforce an exile if they are easy to spot among all the legitimate visitors. I took a small piece of wood offered me by Sweetdream, clamped my teeth on it, closed my eyes shut and held out my arm.
For a second nothing happened, then I felt a bear-like hand grab me at the elbow. Then there was an impact. A sizzling sound. A nauseating, meaty smell.
And then, a moment later, the pain.
Pain the like I have never known before. Pain I never imagined could exist before. My arm felt like it was being amputated. I bit into the wood so hard it must have nearly cracked, while bellowing through my teeth in fear and outrage. The two guards un-fussily made their exit, uninterested in my display, and I was left alone with my slowly ebbing pain.
I tried to distract myself from it by listening out to see if I could hear Xaka being branded. The wall of the prison were thick, and I couldn’t hear much, but I did hear a roar of anguish not long afterwards. It was so wild I couldn’t tell if it was him or not. I don’t know if I was seriously expecting it to give me any satisfaction, but it didn’t – it just made me shiver.
I tried to sleep after that, but my throbbing arm refused to let me get away with it. I might have been in a light doze of exhaustion for what felt like 10 minutes, when 2 more guards showed up, and invited me to take the walk of shame.
And I guess that brings us up to date. So here we are, back in the merciless glare of the morning sun, watching my best pal clutch his nose and swear.
“What the fuck was that for, Sharm? Gods – that hurt! ” - he managed to splutter from underneath a hand holding his nose.
“Oh I don’t know – let me think, Mr ‘Have-I-ever-let-you-down’. Maybe the fact that you and your dick has just got us both killed?”
“Oh right. Of course. I understand now. This is all my fault. I dragged you kicking and screaming through it all. You didn’t want to do any of it - you didn’t remotely fancy Farah, which is convenient by the way, as she seems pretty immune to your charms. So much so she would rather we died a slow miserable death than get a wrist slap from her Daddy-”
“Fuck you!” I roared, and got up and walked off. I felt I had to do this to punctuate my insult, but realised pretty quickly that I was going to end up looking stupid. I had the option of continuing to walk into the desert until I died of thirst, or stopping and lurking a bit further away, like a child in a sulk who’s not angry or brave enough to run away. I was still striding off, trying to decide between these two unpalatable options when Xaka mercifully intervened.
“Ok I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t know it would turn out like this? How could I? I mean we’ve hardly done anything. And I’m trying not to piss you off again, but I’m not the only one responsible...”
I turned around, anger dissipating. I tend to get that - it never seems to get much of a purchase. I guess I should be grateful. “Yeah, but you were one of them” I muttered as I walked back, my sandals scrunching in the sand. I reached him and sat down next to him.
“And you were the only one within punching distance.”
“Well lucky old me.” Xaka had taken his hand from his nose. My right jab had produced a dribble of blood, which he saw on his hands, and tried to wipe on the dusty ground.
I noticed the angry red X on his right arm, below the shoulder, matching mine. “How’s your brand?” I asked, resisting the urge to poke it.
“Throbbing and angry. You scream like a girl by the way.”
“Only when my flesh is being incinerated. So do you.”
“I don’t know, I thought my scream was more of a manly roar of defiance.”
“Nope. Sorry. In fact I’m sure I heard the word Mummy.”
“Yeah – sure you did!”
There was silence for a moment. I looked around. Admired the bones. It wasn’t strictly a pile, more a scattering, with a few piled up where the opening doors would have pushed any outwards. They spread out gradually from there so that there was a skeleton a few paces from where we were sat - a stagger’s distance from the door. There was another one to our left, southwards in the direction of Garden Gate, then another one further off, in the hazy distance. I looked at the one closest to me. He - assuming it was a he - was on his front, the arms raised by his head, the skull facing me, though the jawbone was missing. He was still wearing a few scraps of white clothing. What did he do, I wondered? Was he caught fraternising with a self-absorbed posh girl from the terraces? Did he steal someone’s purse? Or was he actually someone worthy of exile – maybe he killed someone, or abused a child. Ironically he’d probably have been sentenced to death by public execution for that. It’s the minor crimes that grant you the privilege of slow starvation. Of being the next enigmatically–posed skeleton for the next unlucky petty thief to ponder about.
I don’t want to die, I thought. Not yet. Not like this. I was close to tears again.
“You know - we’re not dead yet,” Xaka said, his thoughts clearly not too distant from mine.
“No. We’re not. You know what this sort of commuted sentence is, right? It’s a challenge. If the gods condemn you to death, but leave you with your health and your wits, they want to see what you've got. They want to see how determined you are to hold onto the life that you’ve been given.”
“I don’t see divinity in any of this.” I sighed. “I suppose you’re right though.” I looked around, at the massive door, the wall, the endless barren ground, the pitiless blue sky. “So I’m determined. I’m definitely not going to die. Hell yeah. Let’s go seek our salvation!”
“Damn right!” said Xaka, climbing to his feet. “You know, I have a feeling that something unexpected is around the corner.”
“Unexpected good, or...”
And - just at that point - there was the sound of muted jeering and clanking from the other side of the wall. Both of us craned to listen.
“Someone else is coming out.” Xaka whispered.