Twenty-seven

I arrived at the prison's gate and knocked. Suddenly black spots were dancing in front of my eyes and I had to lean against the prison wall to keep from falling. A hatch in the door opened and a male face peered out at me.

"I'm a prisoner", I said. "They were supposed to take me here but there was an accident." I hoped he wouldn't ask me to explain.

The hatched closed and the gate opened. The guard was chuckling as he stepped out. "Well, that's for the first time a prisoner " He fell silent when he saw me. "Man, you look awful. Can you walk?"

"Yeah", I said. He helped me inside and I leaned against the wall while he closed the gate.

"Merran was with you, right?" he asked me as we made our way through the corridor.

"He's here? Is he alright?"

He hesitated. "He's fine. When the four of you didn't show up we got worried, and this morning Jarvik took out a search party. They came back about an hour ago. I hear things got pretty strange out there. Merran's fine though, but one of the guards who were with you got injured and the other didn't make it."

"He didn't make it? What happened?"

"Apparently his horse bolted and he was thrown out of the saddle. He got his foot caught in the stirrup and was dragged up the mountain. It was the head injury that did him in."

He used a key from his ring to unlock the door in front of us. We went through and he locked it again. He guided me to a small cell, not unlike the one where I had spent the night before, and unlocked the door.

"I'm sorry to have to do this", he said. "The bedding's clean, though, and the food's not too bad." He helped me lie down on the bunk.

"Thanks", I murmured, already half asleep. I never heard him leave or close the door. I started to drift off, too exhausted to heed the little voice at the back of my mind that was telling me that something was very, very wrong.

The pillow was yanked out from under me, and sparks started flying in front of my eyes when the back of my head hit the wooden bunk. I couldn't breathe. Little sounds began to escape from my throat. My back arched as my chest tried to expand and my limbs were twitching. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe. Then the fireworks died down and all went black.

I was crouching in a corner of the cell, and I could see the guard press down on the pillow that covered my face. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and his lips were moving though I couldn't make out any words. Please let it stop here, I thought. I don't want to die but if I must, please let it end with that. And please don't let my soul fall into that foul beast's hands.

The door crashed open, and then I could breathe again. I gasped and sucked in the air, even though my throat and my lungs were on fire. Someone made me sit up to help me breathe easier, and I leaned against his chest. From a great distance I could hear the sounds of a struggle as the guard was led away. His screams of "He's one of them! Can't you see, you fools? He's one of them!" seemed to go on forever.



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