They numbered in the hundreds; their shoulders rubbing against the last and the next. Their clothing roughly sewn, the more fortunate were trimmed with bits of fur while the others made do with linings of woven straw. Their dark, knife-shorn hair was smothered beneath caps with flap coverings for their ears and asymmetrical brims to keep blizzards from their eyes.
As their rank stretched into the distance, many knew quaking knees and bleeding feet in the hand-sewn boots that trod the deadened steppe. They stood, to a man, convinced that their fear proved conviction. Their bravery, although useless, would earn them a hero’s telling in the flames of campfires for generations to come. The enemy appeared invincible, yet to a man, each in the line knew he would make the difference in victory.
Before them, a thousand strides away, stood the fortress built of lashed, vertical logs from trees felled in a land these men had never trod. The heighth of six men, rushes burned as torches where the lookouts watched with warm bellies and the assurance of impenetrability. They saw the assault forming, but gave it no thought. They were secure in their evil, as evil always is.
One man was left aside to the telling that would warrant the valiant effort. The rest crossed their hands behind their backs, gripping the man to his left or right. Thus, they had become a human chain; a link forged in bravery that could not be broken. Each clutched between their wrists and body, a handful of dead grass from the steppe beneath their feet.
A low roar could be heard, its cadence indefinable but its intent undeniable. It was the music of rebellion; the sound of long denied freedom accumulated deeply in the chest. It was the dirge of death to be claimed as a reward.
As the witness nodded, the man closest at the end of the line lifted high his torch, swinging to his side to light the straw clutched against his own back. It flamed and caught the man next to him and each in turn until the hundreds became human torches. There came the din of excruciating pain and a resolve that would not fail. The hundreds began at a run; their goal to burn the wooden walls built to repel them. As one would fall, the others would strengthen their grips, for not one link could fail lest the impetus become nothing more than small mounds of human ash.
The witness watched, tears upon his weathered cheeks; not for the vain bravery of the men in the line, but for the assignment that denied him the equal chance to be one of the many.
The standing threw themselves at the wall while the witness cried and the lookouts laughed. The screams of anguish were now gasps, for that one last breath…that one last stand…that the witness would remember.
As the witness turned, a horseman slid through the gate, his stead heavily coated in the cold that burned the night. A single arrow let loose and the witness watched no more.
The night reclaimed its stillness and the line had become just ash. The story untold; it was not to be remembered.
* * *
Her screams awakened her and she heard the blood drumming in the side of her neck. Her feet fought at the blankets that bound her legs, making them useless. Heavy eyes urged her back to sleep but terror powered her to rise and leave it behind. Her arms batted invisible flames as she leapt to her feet and turned on the light. She collapsed then, tears washing down her flaming cheeks.
There were long moments before she knew where she was. Time felt suspended between that world and her own and as her own reality took over, the pain returned.
She had become an unwilling sycophant; obliging his demands in the faint hope that she would spot a pattern and effect an escape. She traversed a high wire between analyzing his insanity and maintaining her own. Sometimes misplacing the latter seemed the better option; until rebellion rose and with determination to prevail, she endured a bit more. She continued to bargain with herself; the gamble rising in stakes as time passed.
She had carved a world for herself; one that supported most of her needs, but none of her desires. It had become a plausible tradeoff; surely the rest of the world lived the same way. How could it not?
Were humans designed to be ever-changing mates?
Was their role to reproduce themselves and then get on with the business of enjoying their own lives?
Surely not, for who was to instruct the young in survival skills? So, she stayed and pretended.
Each day that she betrayed herself, a part of her died. The dreams had long before disappeared, replaced by the routine of getting through one day at a time. As this, too, seemed unpredictable, she began to establish safe havens. These were places he neither cared to follow nor realized held value, or they, too, would have been destroyed. She discovered that a moving target suffered the least attacks and thus decided to walk. With religious fervor each day she left the house early and walked. She wore headphones so the sounds of the world would fall away, leaving her eventually in darkness, as others would seek their beds or fall into drunken stupors from which they were harmless. The streets became bastions of independence that no one could take away.
Two miles became three and three became five. At ten miles she was absent for almost three hours and this generally provided enough cover. She had taken to sleeping in the guest room, pushing the heavy dresser over the door’s edge and making a pallet in the closet where she would be out of line of fire.
She defined a syndrome, or rather it defined her and while there was a diagnosis, no one magically appeared at the door to rescue her. Indeed, the fateful night he held a pistol to her head and she called the police, the officer convinced her that taking him to jail would only heighten his need for revenge and he would likely lose his job and the family’s only income. Now her life became survival on two levels.
She dreamed within nightmares; a conflagration of being pursued and outwitting the pursuer to survive just long enough to enter the next nightmare. There were no three-digit numbers to dial, no valiant friend to place a ladder against her tower in rescue. She was on her own.
So she continued to walk…and with each mile came resolution. With each mile she grew braver and was able to envision a life in which she deserved to be happy. Suddenly the walks became training; preparing for battle against the impenetrable.
Then came the night she knew would finally appear. She armed herself with resolve and the armor of no longer caring what happened to her. Death could be no worse than the hell in which she lived.
She waited until he relaxed in superiority, unsuspecting and taunting. She faced him but inches away and said in a voice that could freeze molten lava, “You have had all of my life that I will give you. I am taking it back now. Get out.”
With these words she stood her ground and watched as he physically moved beyond her reach. There was no mistaking the danger in her rebellion. His next move could be his last for he had underestimated his opponent. He had not watched the game, sequential and calculated; he had not seen the strength building.
The witness had not fallen. She had finally stood and now walked away the victor. The stories would be told and the enemy’s fort burned to the ground.