The bars of the cell cast long, dark shadows across the floor of the jail, falling across the young man who they imprisoned. The silver light of the moon was the only illumination in the dark and dismal room, where not even a lamp was lit. And yet, Eliroh didnt sleep. This was his own fault, he knew it. He had known at the time it was a fools errand, the chances of it working had been slim to none. Yet hed done it anyway. Dont get greedy, wasnt that one of the basic rules of thieving? Greed led to risks, risks led to capture. And in the gang he was in, capture almost certainly led to death.
Struggling to sit up with his hands bound behind his back, he propped himself up against a wall, thinking over the previous days events. It had started off as any other job, just a basic robbery - wasnt that what the Black Rats did? They went in, they took, they got out. Nothing to it. It had only been coincidence that theyd had to go past the castle, guards fast asleep on duty. Hadnt Taron warned him against it? Hadnt it gone against everything hed learned in his lifetime with the gang? But his senses seemed to have taken leave. After all, it couldve been their big break! A chance to pull off the greatest heist since the castle raid eighteen years previous, when Eliroh was just a babe. But he shouldve realised it would end in failure when none of the others agreed to go. Only a fool attempted any heist, let alone one of such a grand scale, alone. But thats what I am, he thought. A fool.
Im sorry, he murmured, knowing there was no one there to hear him. Hed spent his whole life with the Black Rats, an infamous gang of thieves, born into their ranks, only to be orphaned shortly after. But even so, theyd looked after him when others mightve dumped him in an orphanage. Treated him like a son, and a brother. Taught him the trade he now knew so well. And this was how he thanked them? Going and getting caught on a self-appointed mission he should have known to never undertake.
He knew the procedure now, hed been warned of it almost daily in his youth. First, the Black Rats being such a large and wanted group, hed be taken to the king himself, and lashed for his crimes before all the nobles, their blood most likely boiling with their lust for revenge against these common vagrants. Then, in the privacy of the dungeons, where none but the hardest and cruellest of men could hear his screams, he would be tortured, forced to reveal the location of the headquarters of the gang. Only then would he be led on his final voyage, to the gallows.
Clenching his fists to a point where, had they not been bitten to stubs, his nails might have dug into his flesh, his eyes grew cold, determined. No, he thought. They can torture me as much as they like, Ill say nothing! His capture would have caused enough problems for his comrades, he would not cause them anymore. It was the least he could do to atone for his mistakes.
Touching his wrist where he knew his tattoo was, he promised himself that he would not make a sound. He would not even scream, he would deny to them the pleasure of his pain. After all, he had not gotten that tattoo by being a wimp. It was just a small, black cross, but it was the mark that all Black Rats had, given to them when they turned ten, or when they proved themselves worthy enough to join. But even those that had been born to them had to prove themselves, and hadnt Eliroh done that?
A lock of his brown hair that had escaped his pony tail flopped in front of his face, breaking his concentration as he flicked it away. He felt it catch his earring, as it did on so many occasions, and he tipped his head to let it fall away. He had always had that earring, a tiny silver ring that went right through the flesh of his ear, he didnt remember a time when he hadnt had it, and knew by now that it couldnt be removed - and it wasnt through lack of trying. Its origin was a mystery that he had long since stopped caring about. There was a time when hed question his elders about it relentlessly, but none seemed to know why he had it. Or if they did they hid it. But why should he care? It was there, and that wasnt about to change. Besides, he kind of liked it. It was a part of him, he felt that, somehow, if he ever managed to remove it he wouldnt be himself anymore. Or perhaps hed just become too used to it to let it go.
Without him even noticing, the light that fell over him seemed to have gotten brighter, the sun obviously rising beyond the stone walls that entombed him. The first sign to him that day had come, was the guard swinging, menacingly, into view.
Silence followed them as the guard marched Eliroh, roughly, across the castle grounds, towards a side entrance. After all, such a common thief shouldnt be allowed anywhere near the castles front, blemishing the perfection of its view. No one was around, not even the servants - the only sign of life was the buzzing voices of the citizens, outside the high walls, though, in the bleak absence of life around him, this meant little to Eliroh.
He knew where they all were though - they would all be in the grand hall, standing with their masters or their peers, waiting to witness his punishment. He shuddered inwardly at the thought of being the entertainment for such a crowd of heartless, uncaring aristocrats. So long as they maintained their status and power, the lower classes meant nothing to them, they were less than dirt, not worthy of even looking at them. They were selfish, and greedy, but it was these qualities that had made them perfect targets for the Black Rats. They were the true dirt, that had coated itself with gold. True enough, the Black Rats robbed out of necessity, but these rich folk needed to be put in their place. That was their motivation, and their reasoning. Every Black Rat hated the nobles, and Eliroh was no exception. How dare they look down their nose at us, hed thought. Like theyre better than we are!
And now here he was, at their mercy. This isnt just entertainment, he thought, or punishment. Its revenge.
Halting at the door, the guard twisted Elirohs arm painfully. Grabbing a fistful of his hair, he wrenched his captives head back to stare at him with maniacal glee, before shoving him roughly to the earth. He loosened his grip on his hair only slightly, causing the string that tied his pony tail back to snap, releasing it in an annoying fashion across his shoulders and back. His hands still bound, Eliroh was unable to break his fall, and he landed, face first in the dirt with a thump. The small, sharp stones bit painfully into the side of his face, drawing a small amount of blood.
Rolling over, he glared at the guard.
What was that for?! he barked.
The guard chuckled, and dragged him up off the floor.
You are a common thief, he growled. You should bloody well look like one.
Though he didnt understand it, Eliroh didnt protest his supposed logic, lest he should want a black eye to accompany his dirt-encrusted scratches.
The wooden door creaked open, revealing a dimly lit, stone passageway. Clearly, this was one of the servants passages, the grander corridors untainted by lesser peoples such as himself. Their footsteps echoed around them, and he wondered if such echoes would be heard outside of the passage, though he doubted it.
They passed several doors before he was eventually pulled into a halt. Keeping an eye on him at all times, the guard released Eliroh, needing both his arms to push the door open. Though he neednt have worried that his captive might escape - after all, there was nowhere for him to go.
With a click, the door opened, and, with such force that he almost fell again, Eliroh stepped out, into the corridor. Nearby, to his right, a towering set of double doors loomed over him. Presumably, these were the doors he was to go through to receive his punishment.
A click sounded behind him as the guard closed the door, which he now saw had been disguised as a painting, and his arm was seized again as he was thrust towards the door. The doors opened, seemingly of their own accord, though Eliroh knew that it was just someone on the inside, and the guard marched him in.
As hed assumed, a horde of nobles and their servants were here, piled together on benches that were pressed against the sides of the hall. Before him, a wide empty space stretched out to the dais, on which the king and queen sat on their thrones, a younger woman, who was obviously the princess, seated on a smaller, but no less grand, seat next to them. At the end of the room, off to one side, was a wooden frame, no doubt the one hed be bound to in the not so distant future.
A murmur swept through the crowds as he was walked forward, towards the king, who had grown plump with greed. A few feet away from the dais, they stopped, and a sharp kick to the back of the legs made Elirohs knees buckle, forcing him down onto them. Staring hardly at the floor, he refused to make eye contact with this heartless bastard - people suffered all over the country because of things he, or anyone in this room for that matter, could fix, and yet he didnt lift a finger to help them. Didnt even acknowledge them as equals, just the lower peoples he should not have to deal with. Eliroh didnt want to look at a man, nay, a family like that, a family without honour.
The murmurs died down, and after a few minutes of silence, the king spoke, but not to him.
This, he addressed the guard, is the Black Rat, you say?
Yes, your majesty.
Hes awfully young, isnt he? a female voice stated, though he couldnt tell if it belonged to the princess or the queen.
Theyre all ages in that lot, the guard explained, all as vulgar as each other.
Thats true enough, once more, the king voiced his opinion. Well lets get on with this. You! Do you deny the accusations against you?
Deny? Why should he deny anything? Yes he was a Black Rat, and he was proud of it too! But these were thoughts he kept in his head. He had no intention of speaking to this bastard, to follow his rules, and play his game.
With all due respect, your highness, the guard answered when it became clear that Eliroh would not reply, he could deny all he wanted, but the evidence is clear. Not only was he caught, red handed, having broken into the grounds, but he bares the tattoo on his wrist that marks him, clearly, as a Black Rat.
Very well, very well, the king shushed him, eager to get on with it. String him up then. Its about time these common thieves got what was coming to them. The usual number for a thief is twenty-five. However, anyone here can tell you how much I despise you Black Rats, so for you Ill make an exception. Forty lashes!
If Eliroh was shocked by the judgement, he didnt show it. True, he wasnt expecting quite so many cracks of the whip for his crime, but it would not change anything. He had promised himself he would not scream in pain, and he wasnt intending to break his vow. It was exactly what they wanted.
Two new guards appeared, seemingly from out of nowhere, though they mustve been there all along. The guard that had brought him here stepped back, as the others wrenched him to his feet and thrust him at the wooden frame. Taking an arm each, they cut the bonds that restrained him, stripped him of his shirt and tied his wrists above his head, to the corners of the structure. His feet remained unbound, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before he was too weak from the pain to support himself on them. He was facing the wall now, could only hear the tittering of those around him, though he probably could have seen them too if he had turned his head. Instead, he looked at the ground, focusing on one spot. After all, there was little else he could do.
There was a scraping sound behind him as the whip was dragged across the floor. It sounded as though it had multiple tails, but Eliroh didnt know how many exactly. Silence descended across the room, and he realised whoever it was wielding the whip was obviously preparing for the first strike.
A loud crack echoed around the room, and a searing pain erupted across his back. He gasped in agony, almost crying out but catching himself at the last minute. He felt blood spill from the tears in his back, warming his skin, though the pain didnt die down. It was as if the flesh had been ripped from his back.
Clenching his fists and gritting his teeth against the pain, the second blow struck. His eyes watered, but he squeezed them shut so as to stop them overflowing. The only thing worse than yelling at this would be crying.
Again, the whip struck, and his legs gave way. What, he thought, so soon? Hed just reached the third kiss of the whip, and already he was too weak to stand? The ropes that bound his wrists dug in as they held him up, straining his shoulders, chafing his skin. And still the lashes kept coming.
His back in tatters by now, he swallowed the many screams that came crawling, unbidden, to his lips. He could feel his blood now, pouring in rivers from his wounds. His trousers were drenched in his blood, and it dripped and collected on the floor. Could he even have any skin left on his back by now?
Once more, the whip came down, tearing into his flesh. What was it now? Fifteen? Damn, he thought. Twenty-five to go. But he could survive this, couldnt he? It seemed like hed lost too much blood to be able to live much longer, but that couldnt be right could it? After all, if this was designed to kill, surely they would have interrogated him first, had that been then case. Still, he thought as another hit came, fatal or not this fucking hurts.
The blood from the wounds across his shoulders matted his hair, which had been slung across his chest. He wondered, if he ever got out of this place alive, how long it would take to heal. Not that he expected to live for long - if hed been in any other place, his comrades would have come for him by now, but it was an unwritten rule that you never messed with the castle, no matter what the circumstance. They would be worried for him, certainly, but they wouldnt come for him. And he didnt expect them to.
Twenty-two wasnt it now? Or was it twenty-three? Hed long since stopped caring, existing only in his pain. His skin, by now, was in ribbons, and yet he still didnt scream. Over the cracks of the whip, he heard displeased murmurs again. But he ignored them. He was not going to give in to their attempts, he was tougher than that.