Djaq was not afraid.
She had stopped feeling fear, along with pain and various other useless human sensations some hours ago.
Now, there was only darkness.
There was the darkness of the stinking little cell into which she had been stuffed with a dozen of her countrymen. There was the darkness of her own eyelids, which she kept firmly closed as if to shield herself from whatever horror was next coming her way. And there was the darkness of evil inherent to the sounds and smells and sights of this forsaken place.
She stood straight and still and kept her forearms up over her face, thinking only of the dark, of nothingness, of a void in which she was floating.
Then there was the clank of a door opening somewhere and her countrymen beginning to wail in fear again. Djaq bit her lip and stayed still, trying not to shiver.
An arm grabbed her. A heavy, thick-fingered hand closed round the scruff of her neck and suddenly she was being yanked over backwards and dragged. She screamed, because it had become an absolutely natural reaction to pretty much every human contact she had had over the past couple of hours, and twisted, and nearly broke free, but for another arm roughly hooking over her shoulders and continuing to pull.
She was jostled out from between other bodies, other whimpering, crying men who huddled and cowered and were glad, all of them, that they were not in her position. She opened her eyes only briefly to see a few faces watching her. She heard someone shout after her, scream something about the wrath of Allah, about the evil curs who would torture children, heard angry hisses and cries.
But no one came to save her.
(Not that she expected it).
Even if someone had tried, the fruitlessness of the act had been made obvious several times already. They would die in this place, without courage or dignity or honour. There would be no saving of each other, no sacrifice, no martyrdom. No bargaining or pleading for the life of the youngest of their blood – the loyal, funny little lad who had capered and joked for them all on that hellish journey to this country, who had sung and laughed and urged them all to freedom when they had broken loose, and who had been the first under the whip when they had been caught again. No bargain would be accepted. No pleas for mercy would be heard. They were to feel pain and then die, as was commanded by a pale skinned demon hailed as the Sheriff, and there was nothing to be done.
So Djaq emerged into the belly of the dungeon, coughing and thrashing and screaming as she was dragged over the flag stone floor. She began to beg, loudly and desperately, and then realised that she was doing so in Arabic, her English seeming to have fled her completely, and that those solid arms about her body could not hear her (probably wouldn’t, even if she managed a few words in his tongue).
But she realised that they weren’t stopping, in that terrible place. She was being dragged through it, out into the dark corridor beyond, and then up a steep flight of stone steps – the same ones she had practically been hurled down some hours before.
“Shut up, you little mutt!” Came the hiss in her ear, and suddenly the arm was at her throat, pressing down, choking her, and she was being shaken like a rat. “Shut up – do you hear me? Shut up!”
Even if Djaq had not been able to comprehend a word of English, she would have recognised the sentiment behind those words. She managed to loose squeak of agreement, and was dropped again, at the top of those stairs, where she bent double and coughed, drawing in quick, ragged breaths and rubbing her throat.
Then there was an arm under her shoulders again, the door at the top of the stairs was being pulled open and she was being dragged into the blinding light of day. Cold air hit her feverish skin like an icy sheet of rain and she began to shiver more violently than she had ever thought possible. She could not see, the sky over head was too brilliant, the sun unbearable, the breeze utter torture. She thrashed and coughed and cried out again and then felt a stunning blow to the back of her head.
“I said, shut up!”
Djaq gasped, and fell silent as the glittering world spun before her eyes. She could feel the ground slithering away beneath her bare feet (her shoes long lost) and realised that she was being dragged again. Her mind still spattered like blood across the inside of her skull, possibilities began to skitter through her head. Blindly she felt herself beginning to hope that they had decided to hang her early. Because almost any other possibility suggested more torture, and that possibility was utterly, utterly unbearable.
Another flight of stairs, and suddenly darkness again – they were inside a corridor. Djaq saw torches blurring bright gold before her eyes, heavy oak doors, stone floors – wooden ceilings. She pulled up her hands to claw at the sturdy arm across her collar bone, but found it covered in the thick leather of a guard’s uniform undershirt, impervious.
Then they were outside again, and she was being dragged along an open run way. Djaq looked down to see a great grey courtyard and a terrible gallows, far below her, rope swinging in the breeze. A single body swayed limply, a wretched thing, ragged and broken. Djaq gagged reflexively, coughing.
The guard promptly dropped her again, and Djaq rolled onto all fours just in time to be sick, vomiting up what little was left in her stomach, spilling raw yellow bile onto the flagstones. The guard groaned but waited for her to finish, most likely not fancying the idea of having her be sick all over him.
The retching was so violent that Djaq felt tears being forced into her eyes – but, after the first mouthful or so, nothing else came up. She was empty, no matter how hard her body tried to cleanse itself. She had nothing else to expel.
Exhausted and shaking, Djaq’s arms gave out beneath her and she barely managed to roll aside to avoid landing in her own sick. For a moment she lay still on her stomach, trying to breath normally – and then the guard had her by the back of the neck again and she was being towed like a great sack of rocks, towards the door at the end of the walkway.
Another guard was standing at it, and he stopped them, blinking.
“What’ve you got there, Shep?”
“What does it look like I’ve got?” Came the gruff reply.
“Well – why’re you moving ‘im?” The other guard tipped his head suspiciously.
“Sheriff’s orders,” replied Djaq’s captor, “he says bring ‘im, I bring ‘im. What – you want to double check with ‘im? And make me late? And make the Sheriff angry?”
“Alright, alright!” The other guard waved a hand, “I was only asking. Go on then – hurry up.”
In the gloom of another indoor space, the door clanged shut behind them. Djaq opened her eyes and saw above her the looping pattern of a spiral stair – a turret. They were inside a turret.
Not for long, however. The guard was hauling her down it at a rate of knots, and Djaq yelped involuntarily as her feet smacked the hard stone stairs uselessly behind her. The guard tossed her out into a corridor and then picked her up before she had even had a chance to catch a glimpse of her whereabouts. She was being heaved passed more heavy doors, a tapestry, torches, a glass window – and then, finally, they stopped, and the guard was using his free hand to knock on one such great oak door.
Djaq felt as if she would be sick again. They were not going to hang her. You did not hang someone indoors. What, in the name of all the greatest torments of the age, were they going to do to her now? Merciful Allah what was this decrepit hell that she had been dragged into? What terrible sin had she committed to disserve this?
Unbidden, she began to sob, as the absolute terror of the situation engulfed her. As a general rule, Djaq did not cry. She hadn’t since her brother had been killed. She hadn’t cried when she had cut off her hair. She hadn’t cried when she had been wounded in battle. She hadn’t cried when she’d been captured and taken prisoner. She hadn’t cried on the journey to England. She hadn’t cried when she was beaten. She hadn’t cried when re-captured after their escape, or lashed as a result. She hadn’t cried under torture in this God-awful place.
But this – this was too much.
Then the guard opened the door, at a muffled command from within that he do so, and Djaq was being tossed unceremoniously into a bright, warm room, to land with a crash upon a woollen rug – which did little to soften her impact.
There she lay perfectly still and sobbed, pitifully, all dignity gone, all resolve fled. She wept like a child, until, to her absolute shock, she heard a woman’s voice speaking calmly and clearly from just behind her.
“I suppose that just about counts as ‘all in one piece’, Shep.”
“’E gave me some trouble, m’lady.”