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Escape

Chapter Text

It was . . . Oh, I can no longer remember the exact day, after all these years. At any rate, it was just past winter when I finally escaped captivity. And that, I immediately realized, would be the easy portion of my journey.

"Naive" is not a word anyone would have applied to me in those days, but a certain lack of experience did cling to me, young as I was. I had spent days poring over my plans for how to trick my way out of captivity. So much time had I spent on my machinations, in fact, that not until I had succeeded did it occur to me that I had no directions to my refuge, nor any means by which to reach that destination.

I found myself upon a night-dark street outside the high, black-stoned walls that surrounded my former prison. I stood under a street-lamp, which blinded me at first to the rest of my surroundings. I tried looking up, to see whether the moon or stars would tell me the direction; I did at least know that I had to head south. But the moon was down, and any stars were too faint under the flickering lamp.

I heard a step and whirled, my hand automatically moving to my blade, before I recalled that I had brought no weapon with me. No belongings at all, other than my clothes, stolen from a newly arrived prisoner.

And one other belonging, which I'd shoved into the inner pocket of my thin jacket.

What was approaching me was not one of the guards, nor even my master. It was an elderly gentleman, out for a midnight stroll, his cane tucked under his arm in a sprightly fashion.

His eye fell upon me. In a not unkindly manner, he asked, "Lost?"

I hesitated, worrying that the guards who would inevitably hunt me would learn of a boy who had been asking directions in this place. But at that moment, my vision cleared enough for me to see my surroundings. I heard myself exclaim, "What happened here?"

He raised his eyebrows, apparently surprised to be asked such a question by a boy in the middle of the night. But he answered readily enough, "Raiding expedition. They burned the town."

I vaguely remembered hearing shouts and screams outside, a week before, but I had paid no mind to it, being absorbed in my plans. I looked again at what lay around me: the blackened remains of houses, all roofless, some with barely a foundation left. Only the prison I had left behind remained untouched.

A shiver journeyed through me. In an attempt to cover that, I said, "We're mighty far from their nation, master."

"Not so far as that." The gentleman took on a prim tone. "Twenty miles to the no-man's-land both they and we claim. From there, forty miles to their border proper."

I might have thought him sent by the gods to deliver this information to me, if I had not known that my recent treachery had doubtless caused my god to turn against me. Uncomfortable thoughts, best left aside. I said, "Is their palace close to the border? We could burn it, as revenge for this." I gestured toward the ruins around me.

It was the wrong remark; the gentleman's lips thinned. "Revenge is best left to the gods. Now, if you will excuse me . . ."

I stepped into his path, desperate. "I just need directions, master. That's all, and I'll let you go. I came to visit my family – my uncle's family. He said he lived near the train station, but I've gotten myself all lost."

"Hmm." The gentleman looked me up and down. "I could take you there myself, I suppose."

Something about the way he was looking me up and down made me decide this was the time to part. The last thing I wanted was to be dragged behind a bush, my naked corpse to be found when the guards discovered I was missing. I said quickly, "Never you mind, master. I see my uncle up ahead. —Hoi!" Waving wildly at my non-existent uncle, I darted past the gentleman. When I glanced over my shoulder after I'd run a bit, I found that the gentleman had lost interest in me and was continuing his walk.

I slowed down. I'd chosen my route as the best means to escape the gentleman; the road was taking me further away from the prison, but in what direction I did not know. I could see no stars in the sky; the night must be overcast. Since I did not know where to go, I continued in the direction I was going. Eventually, I reached light and sound and people.

A saloon. I didn't need to see the sign over the doorway to know what the building was; three men were staggering out of its doorway as I arrived. One of them, clutching at the arms of the others, said, "Let's see theatuh— Theatuh— Play. Let's watch the actors. Good and bawdy, they are."

"Fool." The man next to him, though no steadier upon his feet, appeared to have retained more sense. "They're holding the rites tonight. Prayers for the dead. It had to be done in the theater; none of the temples are big enough for all the townsfolk to attend."

"Actors will be there." The first man seemed in the mood to argue. "Always are. They speak the words of Mercy and Hell."

The third man hissed, as well he might, hearing the name of the High Master of hell spoken aloud. "Watch your tongue. I'm not going to spend an eternity being tortured by the High Master, just because you can't hold your drink. Anyway, you don't want to go to the theater now. You'd vomit all over the ancient floor tiles depicting Mercy and Hell coupling. We're lucky enough to still have a theater, after the raid."

I yawned from where I stood, peering round the corner of the saloon at them. I'd heard all about those tiles from my master, and about the marvellous acoustics of the theater, and the beautiful backstage . . . My master had gone on about it for an hour or more. I liked a good play as much as any other boy of my nation, but I'd been bursting with impatience to leave my master's presence, so that I could put my plans for escape into motion.

"Not enough bawdiness, anyway," concluded the second man. "We'll go to the theater on a day when there's a comedy about the gods. Tonight, let's go visit the whores."

This was my cue, or ought to have been, but caution made me shrink further back into the shadows till the men were past. I bit my lip, wondering whether I should go into the saloon itself. But even I had enough experience not to go into a place where dozens of drunken men might lay their hands on me. By the time they gave me over to the guards, I'd likely be grateful to be returned to captivity.

Instead, I followed an old trick of mine: I grew very still as I listened to what lay around me.

It wasn't easy, when what lay right next to me was a noisy saloon. But gradually, I began to hear what else dwelt in the grey night: A hooting owl. The swish of wind in nearby trees. Wheels.

My heart pounded. Slipping my way round the saloon, in such a fashion that I remained untouched by the light spilling from its door and windows, I followed the sound of wheels over tracks.

The clacking brought me, before long, to a bewildering maze of railroad tracks going in different directions. There was a freight house nearby, where a train was being loaded. I looked at the train carefully. I'd never ridden the rails, myself, but I'd heard about it often enough from others who had done it. If the train was going where I needed to go . . . But how could I be sure?

One of the men loading a box car slid the door shut with a slam. The door sprang open a bit, the latch not quite catching. Dimly across the side of the car, I could see a single word: "POTOMAC."

The train had not quite begun to make speed before I swung myself into the car.

o—o—o

If I had to do the journey again, I wouldn't be such a fool as I was back then. A map was what I needed, and a map would have told me that the only way to get from where I was to where I wanted, without interruption, was by water. It would have been a long journey, not without its own hazards. But a boat would have provided me with a place to sleep, and the water would have provided me with fish to eat.

By the time the rocking car reached the Potomac River, I was thoroughly famished. I set aside all thoughts of my growing hunger, though, in favor of sliding open the door to look at the night-darkened water that the train was passing.

That it was the Potomac River, I did not doubt. It was too wide to be anything else. The track had turned, and the train was now moving parallel to the water, which meant we were going— I poked my head out of the gap to check the newly risen moon. We were headed west, racing at full speed.

Feeling uneasy now, I ran to the other side of the car and looked through a crack there, wondering whether we would stop at a station. All I saw, against the newly visible stars, was a mountain, towering high above me. I raced back to the open door, nearly losing my footing in the process, which would have caused me to tumble from the train and fall down the cliff to drown in the Potomac's dark waters. I couldn't swim.

But at the last moment, I managed to save myself. Clinging to the door, I bent the top half of my body out the opening, feeling smoky air buffet me; the locomotive poured out more steam as it began to climb higher. A bridge was approaching, one that would take me over the water. I was coughing from the engine's soot, yet I felt my spirits soar as high as a bird circling the water for prey. I was that close. Once over the water, I'd be free from the guards' pursuit. No doubt I'd have to go a little further to reach my destination, but I'd have escaped from the nation of my captivity. I would not be returned to my master.

Amidst my exultation, I felt a queer uncertainty clutch my throat.

The locomotive tromboned a long toot as it approached the bridge, as though it were greeting my new homeland. A sign, dimly lit by moonlight arched over the far end of the bridge – perhaps a greeting to visitors. I strained my eyes to see the words of welcome.

Then I saw the words, and it was as though I'd been kicked in my baubles.

"Harpers Ferry." The train wasn't taking me from the no-man's-land to the Queendom of Yclau. It was taking me back into the Kingdom of Vovim, where renewed captivity awaited me.

Chapter Text

Not long afterwards, I crouched in the shadows of a lamplit railroad yard, nursing my knees and my anger.

My knees I had hurt when I scrambled off the train, which had not stopped but only slowed as it passed through Harpers Ferry. My anger was spurred by my own stupidity.

I wasn't an innocent baby. I knew well enough that Yclau wasn't the only place south of the Potomac River.

That I was now in the province of south Vovim, I had no doubt; from where I crouched, half-hidden by crates, I could hear a couple of railroad men talking together in the old tongue, which was still spoken in south Vovim. If that wasn't clear enough indication of where I was, the men's skin was as dark as the railroad ties.

I knew the old tongue well enough that I could have walked up to them and asked directions. But south Vovim had its reputation, deserved or undeserved. I didn't want to become a victim of one of the posses they sent out after runaways.

So I waited there, brushing dirt off my scraped knees, and feeling the fury of my anger wash through me like a wildfire. What should I do now? Walking back over that railway bridge would likely get me run over by the next locomotive to pass over the bridge. Yet there was no way I could swim over those broad, swift waters.

From where I sat, the land fell abruptly toward the river, which appeared to split at Harpers Ferry, one half going west, the other half going south. The western half, which divided east Vovim from south Vovim, was of no use to me; I needed to get over the southern half, which divided south Vovim from Yclau. I couldn't swim, and I couldn't see a ferry – not that it would have been wise to place myself at the mercy of a ferryman. How was I going to . . . ?

Oh. I could see a passenger bridge.

With that matter settled, I began to think.

I had left my prison with nothing except my stolen clothes and one other belonging, the one that had driven me this far. That had been a deliberate decision on my part; I had wanted to leave behind anything that might remind me of the place I was escaping. But it was well past time that I thought about the practicalities of this journey.

Having never learned Yclau geography, I had no idea how far I would have to travel to reach my destination. I did know that Yclau was a large nation; it might take me days to reach my goal. In the meantime, I needed to survive.

Nearby me was a shack that I had seen the railroad men walk out of. I waited for them to move on; then I entered the shack. I did not need to use any skills to do this; the shack was unlocked.

Moonlight spilled through the windows. I found myself in a little room that was obviously intended for the railway employees. It included a section for the paymaster. I went over there immediately. Within seconds, I had the cash-box open and was reaching in, when something occurred to me.

I rifled through the cash. All of it was the King's bills and coins; I recognized his face, from the one time he had visited the prison. He'd been accompanied by his two-year-old son, who spent the entire time throwing a screaming fit because his father wouldn't let him play with the instruments. A spoiled brat, all of the torturers had agreed afterwards, and had exchanged grim looks, knowing that the spoiled brat would one day be their top boss.

I closed the cash-box, sighing. Vovimian money was no good to me; I couldn't expect to get away with walking into a bank and exchanging it for Yclau money. I'd have to wait till I reached Yclau before I funded my journey.

In the meantime, the shack held more than money, I found as I searched further. One of the men had left behind his lunch-pail; I quickly ate the food in it. The man's wife must have loved him, for neatly piled at the bottom of the pail were a spoon, fork, knife, and napkin.

I pocketed the silverware and napkin. The knife was of no special use to me, being a butter knife, but a well-placed fork could serve to protect me. Besides, I liked the idea of picnicking till I reached my destination; it was safer than eating inside.

Further inspection turned up, in a dusty corner, an old-fashioned tinderbox, with flint and steel. Now, here was a real find; matches would run out, but flint and steel could strike fire forever. I quickly placed that in my other jacket pocket. I was beginning to feel weighed down, but I made a final, rapid search of the shack, keeping my ears perked for danger.

I found what I needed in the final moments of my search; it had fallen under a table. I held it up, inspecting it thoughtfully.

One of the reasons I had not brought weapons with me was that I had not wanted it to be obvious where I was coming from, should I be searched. But this was just a little pocketknife, such as any boy might carry. It was less likely to cause comment than the silverware I was carrying.

Even so, I hid it with care. I took from the inner pocket of my jacket the object I had brought with me during my flight. It had a little flap inside it – for holding papers, no doubt, but the thin pocketknife slid into the flap as though it had found its home.

I felt a sense of satisfaction as I placed both objects back inside my jacket. At least I would arrive at my destination with some proof of what I was.

o—o—o

If only I had known, I was but a few miles then from my mother's home village. I could have gone there . . .

. . . and seen the remains of what was left after my father and his fellow soldiers visited there. It was just as well I never saw the village.

o—o—o

Once over the bridge, the rest was easy, at least at the start. I hitched a ride with the first traveller who came by. I had to bargain him down for the ride, but I'd been expecting that.

That night, though, lying beside him as he snored in his bed, I gave further thought to the matter. My throat was sore, but my bottom was untouched; I had much experience in making bed-bargains.

The first time I lay with a man, I was forced. I never told my master that; though he would have dealt sharply with my rapist, I was ashamed and humiliated. I was fifteen; I should have known better. With my past, I should assuredly have known better.

So instead of telling anyone, I plotted my revenge. It was surprisingly easy. One would have thought that my rapist would be wary of tales of a lovelorn victim – but no, he was too vain for that. I waited till his second drilling of me had put him to sleep; then I searched his room.

The money was stashed under his mattress. He had no need of it, of course, but I'd never yet met a torturer who didn't fool himself into thinking that someday he'd be released from the King's service and be able to live like a rich man. I sometimes thought that was why the King gave the torturers money: so they could delude themselves that way.

As I'd guessed, my rapist was too humiliated by my revenge to tell anyone. He kept well away from me after that. But having tasted from that sweet drink, I wanted more. I dared not force anyone – that was how I'd ended up in captivity, after all – but seduction was another matter. Even my master, though usually strict with me, simply shrugged away the news of my ill behavior. Anyone who was fool enough to accept protestations of love from me deserved what he got, I heard him say to another torturer.

By the time it occurred to me that there might be more reasons to lie with another person than rape or seduction, my tastes were so firmly fixed that it had seemed useless to try to change them. The miller I lay beside hadn't known that; his final words to me had been talk of love. I didn't bother to tell him that I'd only gotten through the ordeal by thinking of the revenge I'd have upon him.

Now I slipped out of his bed, went downstairs, and began searching for something valuable to steal.

I found his treasure almost at once; he hadn't been very imaginative in choosing a place in which to hide his life's savings. I was about the pocket the bills when something made me hold one of the bills up to the light.

An unfamiliar face stared at me from the bill. A stern face that reminded me, in an odd way, of my master's. She looked at me, waiting.

I chewed my lip. One of the first lessons I remembered receiving from my master, after he brought me to his place, was that I must never, ever try any of my tricks against the head torturer. "He's master of everyone here," said my master. "You don't steal from the boss – not if you want to keep your place."

I was in Yclau now. And one thing I knew about the place I was going was that the Queen of Yclau was its top boss.

I slowly put the money back. I'd find some other way to get where I was going. If nothing else, I could eat off the land.

Chapter Text

Town boy though I was, I don't think even I was that naive. It was early springtime. Nothing was growing in the fields.

What saved me from starvation, during those first few days, was the Yclau tradition of hospitality. I don't know where the tradition came from. We certainly had nothing like that in the part of Vovim where I'd grown up, and I should know. But I soon found that, if I hitched a ride, or if I showed up at someone's door around the time that they were going to eat, they'd feel obliged to share their meal with me.

Women were the most generous with their food, but women asked too many questions. I grew to favor rides on wagons with men and their young sons. The young sons inhibited the men from taking advantage of me, but if the boys were young enough, I could easily stave off their questions by asking questions of them. I received my first few lessons in Yclau life that way.

The question that I most wanted an answer to, though, my hosts were all too vague about. These were country folk who had never been more than a few miles from their homes. "South," they always said, when I asked about the location of my destination, and they'd wave a vague hand toward the south, as though that was all anyone would need to know.

Eventually, I reached a point in my journey where the road no longer went south – only west and east. I managed to hail a man driving a wagon full of logs. I told him where I was going.

He seemed amused. "I ain't going that far," he said. "I'm delivering to the tollgate at Snickers Gap." He waved toward the mountain range to the west.

I looked at those mountains warily. West meant Vovim, and a tollgate sounded like something that would stand at a border. Still, I could always slip away if it looked like we were coming to a border crossing. I begged a ride to Snickers Gap.

I was just in time for lunch. The man tossed me the half of the chicken leg he hadn't yet finished gnawing. By the time I was through with that, I'd had the opportunity to think. "Is it far, where I'm going?" I asked.

He shrugged. I'd grown to hate the taciturnity of country folk.

I tried again. "It's south of here?" One of my growing fears was that I'd travel too far south and have to back up.

He nodded. Then, though he appeared to grudge the need for words, he added, "In the valley. East of the river."

I thought about this as the horse trotted along, taking us past farms and fields. The "river" was likely the river I'd crossed at Harpers Ferry, if the river kept going south. If my destination was in a valley, there must be a second mountain range beyond this one, so either the river or the second mountain range was the border with Vovim. As long as I followed this mountain range south, then I'd eventually reach my destination, without any danger that I'd cross the border.

(Much later, looking at a map, I saw that I'd underestimated the complexity of mountain ranges and river forks between me and Vovim. But I had myself headed in the right direction, at least.)

We passed through a village, all neat and picket-fenced, and then the horse was huffing as it pulled the wagon up the mountain road. I looked over my shoulder at the countryside I'd left behind. It seemed enormous. It was a wonder I hadn't gotten lost yet.

The tollgate was a modest affair: just a long pole over the road that could be pulled up to let through vehicles. A couple of men were coming out of a nearby house when I slipped off the wagon, into the woods nearby.

I had a town boy's healthy distrust of forests, but at this time of year, when the leaves were just beginning to bud on the trees, the woods looked safe enough. I followed a dirt path through them. Stepping carefully to avoid snakes (all I knew about woods was that they had snakes in them), I didn't notice till it was too late how far in the woods I'd come. By that time, the path was gone.

Looking around frantically, I saw that the trees thinned out nearby. I went in that direction and just managed to save myself from falling off a cliff.

From where I stood, the ground dropped away abruptly. The view throttled my throat. Far below was an enormous valley that stretched toward the horizon. Beyond it, dark blue against the light blue sky, were range upon range of mountains.

My first thought was, "I will never be able to find anything in that big valley." My next thought was that I needed to find a way down. But though I valued my skills at climbing the walls of a house, I wasn't so sure of my ability to climb down a cliff.

Finally, I turned away, deciding to retrace my path in the woods. It couldn't be that hard, I thought.

o—o—o

Six months later, I emerged from the wilds of the Blue Ridge Mountains: scratched, gaunt, and ragged-clothed, but at least the wound from the panther's claws had healed up nicely. It hadn't even scarred.

In my defense, I must point out that I was a town boy. I'd always lived in towns, or in town prisons. Hitherto, my only acquaintance with the countryside had been stealing apples from farmers' orchards when I was very young. Wildernesses had been beyond my imagination.

I needed no imagining now of what they were like, but I'd survived, in the same way I'd survived my boyhood: through my sheer, gritted determination not to be beaten by . . . whoever was doing this to me. I wasn't quite sure whether it was the gods or my own stupidity.

It mustn't be thought that I'd been lost for those entire six months. Civilization lived in the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains; I'd chopped many a log to earn a day's meals and the privilege of sleeping in the barn. Then I'd be off again, following the skyline, getting lost for days, and more than once falling afoul of injury or disease. All of this delayed me in my journey, which ought to have taken no more than a few days.

Every now and then the skyline would cross a gap in the mountains, similar to Snickers Gap. When that happened, I'd lie in wait till a traveller came along, and then I'd ask directions. "South," the traveller would reply each time, in short or long words.

By now, my destination was beginning to seem as fabulous and far off as Mercy's heaven. And I was wise enough now that I knew I needed to reach a destination. The days were growing shorter, the nights colder. Soon it would be winter. Though my tinderbox had served me well during my journey, I doubted I could survive the first snowfall without shelter.

So when I reached a crossroad at yet another mountain gap – Thorntons Gap, for I learned its name later – my first thought was to take the road somewhere, anywhere. Find a town, find a job, or else do what I'd done as a young boy: find others to huddle with on the streets for warmth.

By that point, I would willingly have sold my body every night for the rest of my life.

Standing there indecisive, I heard a sound and whirled to face it. Rising up toward the crest of the hill was a young man, five or so years older than me. He wasn't travelling in a buggy; nor was he riding a horse. Like me, he was travelling on foot. His beard was neatly trimmed, and his hair was cut close. He had decent clothing on – commoners' clothes, but the suit, shoes, and cap all looked new. His suit squeezed him tight, as though it had been handed down to him by a younger brother. He had a walking stick in hand – I eyed that thick stick warily – and he seemed in a cheery mood, for he was whistling.

He stopped dead when he saw me. I suppose I must have looked a little alarming by then. He glanced around, as though expecting to see someone with me. Then he asked, "Do you need help?"

Yclau accents, I'd learned, were of no help in determining class, but grammar was. He had the grammar of a mid-class man, not a commoner. Intrigued by this mystery, I asked him the same thing I'd asked the previous travellers: "Capital?"

He pointed with his thumb. "West." Then, as my breath shot in sharply, he added, "Whereabouts in the capital?"

It was a question no one else had thought to ask. I was still trying to think of an appropriate lie when his mouth softened into a wry smile. "Luray is a big city, lad. If you don't know where you're going in it, you could wander for a year."

After a minute, I said, "Palace." My destination had to be somewhere near the Queen; that's why I'd been trying to reach the capital.

He raised his eyebrows but asked no more questions. "That's easy, then. Once you reach there, you keep on the main road. It'll take you through Alleyway district, but Alleyway is safe enough in the daytime. Then it'll look as though you're leaving the capital for the countryside, but that's just the land owned by the Queen. Stay on the road as it starts to curve south. Not far, and you'll see a fancy building on a low hill. That's the palace. Go round the high stone wall that surrounds the palace grounds, and you'll see the gate."

It sounded straightforward; but then, directions always do. Half of those six months in the woods, I'd spent getting lost to someone's directions on how to reach a path.

The young man must have sensed my doubt, because he said, "I could take you there. I'm going in that direction." He was more gentlemanly than the others; he didn't let his gaze fall below my face.

I sighed inwardly. This again. Well, as long as it would get me where I wanted. At least I'd have a soft bed at night again.

o—o—o

I was wrong about the bed. I slept that night in a haystack.

Before I talk about the haystack, let me say that I spent some time, afterwards, wondering how I could have been so naive. I knew as well as any lad did where the sun lies in the sky, so I couldn't have failed to notice that we were walking in circles – or rather, along roads that encircled the capital. There is a veritable cobweb of country lanes surrounding the Yclau capital; we must have travelled along every one of them.

And yet, I never questioned him about this. That wasn't like me. And so I can only suppose that part of me knew that he was delaying our journey's end, and this part of me didn't mind. I guess I wasn't ready to enter my destination – not quite yet. Or perhaps I needed to figure out the right way to do so. And it was rather nice, having someone there to help me figure it out.

Not that he probed me for information, at first. He pointed out interesting sights, that's all: a bird building a nest, a farmer bringing in logs in preparation for winter, farm boys playing around haystacks. We were somewhat past haying season, but a lot of the farmers left up haystacks as decoration at this time of year, as the Commoners' Festival approached. Or so he told me. I didn't ask him what the Commoners' Festival was; I didn't want to appear too ignorant.

It was well past dark when we found an appropriate haystack to sleep in. By this time, if I'd asked directions of any other traveller, I could have been sleeping in Luray; the capital was only a three-hour journey by foot from Thorntons Gap. But I asked my guide no questions about how many more days our journey would take; I was hungry and tired, and I wanted to make my payment for the day, so that I could sleep.

He shared his dinner with me. We had stopped along the way to buy some bread and cheese and apples from a farmer's wife, and I'd noticed then – in the automatic manner of someone of my former trade – how little money he had in his wallet. After dinner, he led me over to the haystack and showed me how to hollow it out to form a bed.

Then he went over to sleep in another haystack. Like I said, he was gentlemanly.

I waited just long enough to make clear to him that I'd taken the message; then I went in search of his haystack. I couldn't afford to have him lose interest in me and abandon me.

He didn't bother to look surprised when I showed up. But after we'd done a bit of kissing – he was one of those slow starters – it became clear that I'd have more tests to pass. "How old are you?" he asked.

I was about to lie and say, "Seventeen." I knew that eighteen was the age of manhood in Yclau. But then it occurred to me that I didn't know the laws in this queendom. Maybe the laws were reversed here. Maybe it was only lawful to drill a lad if he was over the age of manhood.

I hesitated too long. He sighed as he pulled back. "Just tell me the truth," he advised.

So I did. For a while, it looked as though I'd given him the wrong answer. Then he shrugged and said, "Close enough. You can say you're my ward."

I guessed eighteen was too old for him, though, because he didn't kiss me again. On the other hand, he didn't shove me out of the haystack either. So I sat there, unsure of what to do. Finally I said, "How old should I be?"

"Depends on what century you were born in." He was staring up at the stars now, his arm still around me. "Last century, it would have been between eleven and twenty-one. Yclau still followed the old traditions till that time. Then they decided eleven was too young for that sort of thing, and they pushed the age up to seventeen. Then, a few years ago, they decided they should make the older age match the coming of age, which had changed two centuries ago. So now you have to be between seventeen and eighteen, mostly. A few guardianships last a bit longer, though."

"Guardianships?"

It was my tiredness that made me blurt out the question; I'd known enough not to ask any questions, before now. The young man raised his head and stared at me. "Where do you come from, that you haven't heard of guardianships?"

I shrugged. After a while, he seemed to realize he wasn't going to get an answer to that question, so he answered mine.

It seemed fairly odd to me, the way he described it. There are easier ways for a man to get his hand in the trousers of a handsome lad. All that endless negotiating, contract-making, lessons in deportment . . .

Then something he said penetrated my consciousness. I sat up abruptly, nearly causing the hay to bury us. "You don't have to be drilled, if you're the youth?"

"Not unless your parents specify that in the contract. You're supposed to be training for manhood and marriage, and some parents consider it better for you to do the marital training by verbal instruction, rather than through practicing with your guardian. You're from Vovim, then?"

His tone didn't change at all, with the last sentence. It was my first clue as to how good he was at pushing the conversation the way he wanted.

It was my use of the word "drilled" that had betrayed me, of course. I was still speaking the Yclau tongue, but I'd never learned a certain vulgar Yclau term from my mother, so I simply translated the vulgar Vovimian term into the Yclau language. I should have said 'make love'; the refined term is the same in both languages. But I had never been refined.

Thinking rapidly, I decided to give him the truth – at least, as much of it as he needed to know. "Born there, but I'm half Yclau too. My parents died, and I was apprenticed to a master I decided I didn't want to work for anymore. I'm a journeyman now, so I figured I should have the choice. I heard there are better jobs down in your capital, so I thought I'd try for one of them."

"Better jobs in the palace?"

I'd forgotten I'd told him that was where I was going. I could have cursed myself.

He laughed lightly at my expression. "Never mind; it's your business. You have any family here who can help you obtain a position?"

That was easily answered. "None that would want to be associated with me. I'm a bastard."

"War baby?" He was a canny man; that was becoming clear. "Well, you do your mother proud; your Yclau accent is perfect, and so is your grammar. I'd have thought you high-born if I hadn't found you standing in rags. I'll tell you what; let's figure out a way to get you decent clothes. If you can read and write well, then you can pass yourself off as a former servant in a lord's household who fell upon hard times. Somebody might pity you enough to give you a job in the palace."

So that is how the young man became my guardian.

Chapter Text

He wasn't my first guardian, of course. My master had played that role until now. But my master had focussed his energy on making me behave like a civilized human being. My new guardian set out to teach me about my world.

He talked about everything in Yclau: the people, the places, the language, the customs, and (through absence of mention) the utter lack of arts. That would have shocked me if I hadn't been forewarned by my mother. I remembered, with brief longing, the town theater I'd so blithely left behind.

My new guardian didn't talk about the Yclau prisons. I would have liked to have heard more about them. But gradually, I was building up a fuller portrait of my new home than I had received from my mother as a small, barely interested boy.

Besides, hearing about Yclau houses in the abstract was different from running my hand over the foundation stone of a centuries-old manor house as my guardian described how slaves had sweated to obey their masters. I could easily imagine that.

My guardian told me nothing about himself, not even his name. I was considering this one day when we found the pond.

It appeared to be abandoned, close to a woody area that led toward that range of mountains I had once seen from afar. We were both valiantly trying to pretend we didn't see a nearby road-sign that said, "Luray – 1 Mile." Perhaps in quest of this collective ignorance, my guardian suggested we swim.

It was a mild day for autumn, and both of us were dirty. It had been many days since I had last dabbled in a mountain creek. We stripped off our clothes; I had no qualms about this, because I knew he hadn't made this suggestion in order to see me naked. Or not only to see me naked. I knew by now that I'd been wrong in thinking he lacked carnal interest in his fellow grown man (it felt odd to think of myself that way), but he had good self-control, I'd learned. He hadn't even kissed me again.

I soon forgot about such matters in the joy of the bathing. He even taught me the rudimentary rules of the science of swimming. As I was turning over to try swimming on my back, he said, "We have to get you cleaned up. You can't make a good impression on your new employers if you're dirty."

"They taught you that in prison, did they?"

He was good, very good. I had my head tilted his way as I spoke, but he never so much as blinked. Nor did he hotly deny my accusation, nor innocently ask me what I was talking about. Instead, he laughed. "You've been telling tales about me in your head, have you?"

Yes, and I'd narrowed my tales down to two. I twisted in the water, dived under, grabbed his wrist, and brought it above the waterline, showing him. "Scars. You've been chained, more than once. You're either a prisoner or a slave."

"Yclau abolished slavery centuries ago." He was definitely amused now. "And there's more reasons for being chained than being a con. We're at war with Vovim, you know."

I shook my head emphatically. "You're not a soldier. I know soldiers. I've—" I caught myself in time. "I've met them, where I used to work. And my father was a soldier. You're not like soldiers. You're not good at receiving orders. And you're not good at giving orders."

"Aren't I?"

There was the faintest vibration of hurt in his tone. That made me pause. I suppose it signified how far along I was on my journey that his hurt didn't cause me to press harder.

Finally I said, "You give good suggestions, though."

He laughed again. We floated alongside each other for a while, staring up at the clouds scudding across the sky and watching an occasional leaf float by in the air. The leaves were brown, now.

Eventually, my guardian said, "Charlottesville Prison. Five-year sentence. They let me out this month."

"You're not a runaway?" I was genuinely surprised. "I thought—" I looked over at the bank, where his too-tight suit lay entangled with my stolen clothes.

He followed my gaze. "The suit that doesn't fit? That's just lack of tailoring. Prison workers aren't going to tailor a store-made suit on a con they're letting go."

I said skeptically, "They gave you a suit?" And then, with a sudden shock, I realized they might very well have done so. Perhaps it wasn't just one Yclau prison that the book had been talking about.

He nodded as he tilted his body upright, treading water to stay in one place. "The suit's supposed to help you find a job after you're released. They give you a train ticket back to your hometown too. I sold my ticket and walked here. I figured I could use the money for housing till I fixed in my mind what to do."

I thought about this as I stared up at the dying leaves on the nearby trees. "You've nobody to turn to for help?"

"Not my family." His voice turned grim. "My parents were the ones who turned me in for arrest; my father said he'd shoot me if I came near my family again, and he meant it." My guardian swam to the edge of the pond and back again before he added, "I thought of approaching my guardian."

"You had a guardian?" I pulled my attention away from the dying leaves. "What was he like?"

His mouth remained grim as he quirked up the side of it. "Deeply disappointed in me, by the end. He gave me a farewell that was almost as bad as my father's. . . . My father was shocked at the scandal to our family, but I think my guardian was angry at me for not living up to my potential. He's a terribly moral man, my guardian. My parents had given me over to him in hopes that I would rise above my scampish ways. He used to talk to me about different ethical systems of the Midcoast nations; ethics was his passion."

"And you think he might help you now?"

I must have sounded unbelieving, because my guardian laughed in a humorless manner, splashing water my way. "Probably not. It's worth trying, though. There's no one else, and . . . he does believe in rebirth."

"Rebirth?" The word went down my spine like a flaying knife. Until then I'd had no proof that what I'd read was anything except someone's fanciful daydream.

My guardian frowned. "I'm not sure what the Vovimian word is. In Yclau, 'rebirth' means being born once more into a new life. For me, I mean figuratively, of course; I don't plan to die any time soon. But if I can convince my guardian that I'm a new man, one who has pledged to live a life without crime . . ."

"And have you?"

It was not merely idle curiosity that made me voice my question. Where I came from, it was common knowledge that criminals did not mend their ways – that they could not be reformed. I'd never been sure whether the one case I knew of had been an actual reform, or simply a case of a very bad criminal putting his talents for evil to better use. I didn't know myself that well. But if my guardian had genuinely reformed – had been "reborn" as the book described it. . . .

He turned without a word and swam away from me. I caught up with him as he was about to climb onto the bank. "What was your crime?" I asked, now desperate for an answer.

"Does it matter?" He paused, not looking my way.

I ran through the possibilities in my mind before saying, "It had something to do with . . . lying."

He gave a humorless laugh as his hand reached out to crumple a dry leaf on the bank. "Good guess. I was a con man. I'd convince young widows that I was going to marry them, and then, when I'd persuaded them to sign over their inheritance to me, I'd find an excuse to break off the engagement."

I had always thought conning wasn't a wise choice of a career. If you were bad at it, you were caught. If you were good at it . . . He'd been good at it, I figured, and he'd been caught. It was too easy to be traced at that sort of thing.

I hadn't said anything all this while, which he must have taken as a commentary on what he'd done. He scrambled onto the bank and reached for his suit, though he was still dripping wet. As I climbed out of the pond, he yanked his suit out of the pile of our clothes. My jacket fell awry, and out of the inner pocket fell the book, with the knife sliding neatly from its hidden sheath.

o—o—o

Before I could decide whether to snatch it back or pretend I hadn't seen it, he picked up the knife. After contemplating it a moment, he looked at me.

I said angrily, "It's just a pocketknife. I need it for food."

The anger gave me cover to kick the book under a bush. That was the actual revelation I needed to hide.

He cocked his head at me. "Oh? Show me."

"What?"

"Show me how you use this knife to get your food." He tossed it into my hands.

Deciding I'd stumbled across another portion of his lesson plan, I did my best. We were close enough to the woods that squirrels were scampering about, playing in the autumn sunshine. I coaxed one to me with a nut in my palm. When he was eating from my palm, lulled by my apparent generosity, I seized and stabbed him.

I tried to be quick about it; I didn't think my guardian would be impressed by a lingering death. So the squirrel was dead by the time I began skinning it. Something about my technique must have betrayed me, though, for when I looked up from my work, the young man was standing above me, very still.

"Murder." His voice was quiet. "That was what you were imprisoned for, wasn't it?"

The least of the charges that had been placed against me. I abandoned the squirrel's body in the dirt, going down to the pond to wash off the blood. I'd gotten the blood on my hands, my arms, my shirt.

He trailed me down to the pond. "Come on," he said, in a voice just as coaxing as my hand had been to the squirrel. "One con to another; I'm not going to give away your secrets. You're a runaway?"

"No."

He looked at me. I found I couldn't meet his gaze.

I said in a stumbling voice, "It's just . . . It was a long time ago." Three years, in fact; I was fifteen when they caught me. "I'm reborn now, like you said." I tried to say it as though it was the truth. I wondered whether it was.

"Runaway?" He was quietly persistent.

This was trickier. I tried to stick as closely to the truth as I could. "I wasn't sentenced to a prison term. They decided I was well suited for prison work. So I was apprenticed, like I said."

"Provincial prison?" He waved his hand toward the countryside.

I shook my head as I wiped my hands dry on my napkin. "King's dungeon." It had a new name now, but he wouldn't have heard of that yet.

He gave a low whistle. It made me warm all through, to know that my prison had a reputation, even on this side of the border.

Of course he didn't let matters go. "So why did you leave? You said you were seeking a new job."

My breath halted in my throat. Quite a space of time followed before I reached over and pulled the book out from the shrub. I handed it to him.

He opened the book to its title page and read aloud: "The Code of Seeking of the Eternal Dungeon." He raised his eyebrows and flipped through the book before pausing at a page. Reading aloud again, he said, "And in token of acknowledgment that all prisoners are of the same humanity as their captors, the prisoners shall be given clean cells, with regular deliveries of clean water and food, and such sanitation as is similar to what the Queen's Torturers themselves receive. For at no time should the Torturers consider themselves in any way superior to the prisoners whose care has been entrusted to them. . . .'" My guardian's voice trailed away.

"Is that passage important?"

I didn't succeed in keeping the eagerness out of my voice. I had been starved for information, during all these long months, as to whether there was any truth to the book that had upended my world and propelled me onto my dangerous journey.

"It's important to me. This book is the reason nearly all the prison cells in Yclau are clean." He placed the book back into my hands. "My guardian told me about this Code. He said the prison workers at the Eternal Dungeon know more about ethics than some clerics do. . . . Yes, I'd say that the Eternal Dungeon is a better place to work than the King's dungeon. That is, if you don't mind working under torturers. I suppose you're used to that by now."

I didn't move my gaze from him. The first lesson of conning is never to drop your gaze.

He didn't notice anyway; he had laid back onto the ground, still naked and vulnerable like a prisoner. Staring up at the sky, he said, "Yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes, I've decided to be reborn." His voice was soft under the soft sunlight, but he sounded certain.

I was reasonably sure he hadn't been, till that moment. It was then that I realized he had needed me during this time, as much as I'd needed him.

Chapter Text

Neither of us saw any point in extending our journey after that conversation.

That morning, my guardian took me straight into Luray. After paying ahead for a night's lodging for us, he used the last of his money to get me barbered.

"We can't have you looking like a wild beast," he said as the barber scraped off my beard. "Clean-shaven is the style among prison workers, even the servants who remove the prisoners' night-buckets."

It was clear that he didn't expect me to rise any higher than service rank, but he did his best for me. Since he had no money left to buy me a suit, he gave me his. The suit and cap fit me quite well, and I was able to make the shoes fit by wearing both his socks and mine.

In exchange, I gave him my silverware, napkin, tinderbox, and pocketknife. It had occurred to me, after further thought, that it wouldn't be wise to carry a weapon to where I was going.

By the time we were through with this exchange, my guardian looked like a beggar. We managed to find another commoners' outfit for him to wear – it was tossed in a trash heap – but he was in barely more than rags, and he was barefooted and bareheaded now.

I barely noticed. It was time for us to depart.

o—o—o

I suppose that, if I had been at all attracted to him, I would have faced a different sort of problem when it came time for us to part.

I didn't find him attractive, though perhaps I would have if I'd met him later. Indeed, he now seems like a foreshadow of what would come into my life: a man who was vulnerable yet strong, teaching me much about both skills.

But in those days, it was only pure victims I was drawn toward, and so I was not forced to ask myself whether what I wanted most was a love-mate or work in the Eternal Dungeon. The young man's clear affection for me did tug enough at me, though, that I allowed him to escort me to within sight of the palace gates.

These gates were enormous affairs, designed to hold back armies. I heard later that the gates had been added after a particularly unfortunate battle with the Vovimians allowed the Vovimians to come within twenty miles of the capital. At this time of day, though, the gates were only lightly manned. I narrowed my eyes, picking my victim.

My guardian waited until we had withdrawn out of sight of the gates before saying in a low voice, "You think you can get past them?"

My only response was a snort of disdain. Then, eager to get on with my task, I said, "This could take some time. You'd better go back to the hotel and wait for me. As soon as I'm hired, I'll ask for an advance on my first wages. Then I'll come pay you back for the suit."

He was very still a moment, standing there barefoot in his ragged outfit. Then he said, "Goodbye," and turned away.

"Wait!" It was a sign of how much had changed during my journey that I didn't simply let him leave. It would have been an easier parting than I'd planned. As it was, I grabbed him and swung him round to face me.

He gasped. Remembering that I really should learn not to grab people tightly, I let him go. "Why did you say goodbye?" I demanded. "You acted as though . . ." My voice trailed off.

Rubbing his arm, he gave me one of his grim smiles. "One con man knows another. You're not planning to pay me back. You're not planning to see me again."

"It's not—" I bit my lip. This should have been easier than it was. Just get rid of him and go. There was no need for a prolonged scene between us.

But something made me say, "If I tell them who I am, either I'm going to be arrested and made a prisoner . . . or I'm going to be hired and made a prisoner."

Now it was his eyes that were narrowed as he scrutinized me. "You make mock."

I shook my head. "It's like that in dungeons all over the world. People like me are too valuable, and too dangerous, to be allowed to wander around free." My master's words. I had not entirely forgotten that roughly affectionate man.

"So you were indeed a runaway," my guardian said slowly.

I nodded. "I'd meet with you again if I could," I said. "But it's a choice between that and doing the work I've come to do."

He looked at me while I waited, holding my breath. It isn't easy to pass off a lie to a con man.

Finally he said, "Joshua Daniels."

I blinked. This was not the response I'd expected. "Is that your name?"

He shook his head. "It's the name of my guardian. You go to him. He works somewhere in the palace; he might be able to arrange an interview for you with the head torturer or whoever does the hiring in the Eternal Dungeon."

"And then you'll go to him for help?" I tried to make sense of his plan.

That wry smile again. "Once you're done with him, he's not going to be in the mood to do me any favors. Good luck." He turned abruptly away.

I returned my attention to the guards. That one, right there. I had overheard him mention his children to one of the other guards. If I could persuade him that I had come to seek my father . . .

"Wait!"

With a sigh, I turned back. I found that he was at the curve of the hill, nearly out of sight. He said, "You never told me. What's your name?"

After weighing the risks, I decided to give him the part of my name that couldn't be traced. "Smith."

He flashed a smile, like the first rays of dawn. "Goodbye, Mr. Smith. I'll keep my ears open for news of an Eternal Dungeon torturer of that name. I'm sure you'll do well at your work."

He was good at his own work; that I already knew. Even so, it felt odd: he'd figured out what I was, and yet he continued to treat me with courtesy. I wasn't used to that.

As he began to turn away, politeness prompted me to ask, "What's your name?"

Again, that flash of a smile, in the second before he was gone. "It doesn't matter. You won't remember me."

He was right, of course.

In this place of darkness and mourning, I tell you all this, High Master of hell, because you alone remember what I was like at that time, so you alone can judge who I was, and what I did, and what I became.

Chapter Text

The year 374, the tenth month. (The year 1886 Clover by the Old Calendar.)

From the private journal of Joshua Daniels, Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon.


While at work today, I received a letter from an old friend I have not heard from for many years. Fearing bad news, I paused work to peruse the letter. It was a brief notice that my friend's wayward son, to whom I had served as guardian many years ago, had been found expired by patrol soldiers. He had apparently been sleeping under a bridge and had died of the cold after the first snowfall of the season. His body was not stumbled upon for another fortnight, making the coroner's work difficult. But the soldiers eventually established the deceased man's identity by questioning other indigents who had known him, and who recognized the clothes he had worn for many years.

I would describe my friend's recounting of these facts as dutiful rather than grievous; I gathered, from a passing mention he made of the matter, that his son had attempted to reconcile himself with his family after his release from prison, and had been spurned. From what the patrol soldiers were able to learn, it appears that the man whom I had once trained spent the last thirty-six years of his life homeless, unable to find work other than odd jobs, because of his ragged clothing and his long-ago prison term, undertaken when he was barely more than a youth. However, the patrol soldiers could uncover no evidence that my erstwhile charge had engaged in his previous selfish behavior since his release from prison. On the contrary, he seems to have acquired a reputation among the indigents of our city as being a generous and honest man, always willing to lend a helping hand to another fellow.

I had made no previous effort to learn what had happened to my young charge after we parted ways, a matter that now disturbed me, for I had lived in the same city where he was shivering on the streets. Indeed, I wondered at first why he had made no attempt to contact me over these many years of homelessness. But I supposed my previous, fiery denunciation of him had left him no openings to approach me.

I happened to read the letter silently when Mr. Smith was visiting me. After a while, he asked me in what way he could be of assistance to me. (It is really quite dangerous to read correspondence in the presence of that man.) I handed him the letter to read, and once he had read it, I began to explain my connection with the deceased. But to my astonishment, before I had gone far in my account, I saw tears well up in Mr. Smith's eyes.

I loaned him my handkerchief. After he had wiped his face, he apologized and recounted for me his own connection with the youth I had known – a lengthy story I do not have time to record here, except to say that the connection occurred not long before my own first meeting with Mr. Smith. Indeed, it is now clear to me that the latter meeting would not have occurred without the former connection.

Mr. Smith then asked my permission that he should take a leave of absence, so that he might mourn the man's death. During the thirty-six years he has worked in this dungeon, Mr. Smith has only once before made a request of this sort, and that was for someone who had a profound effect in shaping his life. I of course granted his request, but I felt compelled to point out that, by his own account, he had cared nothing for the youth he had known so briefly.

His reply was so striking that I have taken the time to write this entry, that his words may be preserved.

"I cared for no one in those days," he told me, "and if it had not been for my Yclau guardian, I would never have had the opportunity to come here and learn that I should."

Chapter Text

The Thousand Years' War between Vovim and Yclau does not correspond chronologically with any war in our world, but this particular alternate-universe story is set (except for its epilogue) in the equivalent of 1874, close to the time of the USA's Civil War. The town that the narrator escapes from corresponds to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which was raided and burnt by southern forces during the Civil War. Chambersburg's "Old Jail," built in 1818, survived the 1864 burning. The jail (now a museum) has underground cells that are dubbed "the dungeon."

The railroad from Chambersburg, the train bridge over the Potomac River, the roads that the narrator travels, and Harpers Ferry (of course) all correspond to places in our world in the 1870s. East Vovim takes the place of Pennsylvania, southern Vovim of West Virginia, and Yclau of Virginia.

In the 1870s, the Appalachian Trail had not yet been blazed; nor had Skyline Drive yet been built atop Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. However, the mountain gap roads I mention did exist at that time, and Snickers Gap did have a tollgate that looked like I've described it.

The small town of Luray, Virginia, is home to a famous cave inside a hill.