He wore his silence proudly like a cloak, stepping on the soft moss and slippery stones noiselessly. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had giant antlers branching endlessly, forever reaching. He walked with slow deliberation, taking in every scent, every sound: the jumping of the water in the stream nearby, the hoot of an owl out for a night hunt, the smell of fallen leaves rotting in the mud…
Indigo eyes glowed in the dark and the vertical pupils jumped from tree to bush. Several steps away from a giant oak, he stopped. There was a shiver in the bushes, barely a movement. The tall creature slowly approached and saw a gazelle. It was badly wounded and couldn’t even get on its legs. The creature stepped closer, knelt, and laid both hands on the bloody fur of the animal. He whispered something, his pupils fixed into the very essence of the gazelle. It was as if he could see beyond the flesh; he could see its spirit—gentle, proud, afraid, contorted under the burden of loneliness.
He touched his forehead to the gazelle’s in a bow of some sort, all the while whispering in some demonic tongue, faster and faster. The spirit of the animal suddenly began to glow with all the unthinkable colors of the universe. As if pulled down with exceptional gravitation, the creature slowly directed his long arms toward the sky, struggling to maintain balance. Every inch of moving upward seemed to be a victory. With a gust of wind, the nearby oak creaked and cringed, its branches moving wildly but there was nothing natural about it.
The demon’s arms reached up and above his head, as his long, thin fingers stretched out intensely, and with every passing second, the animal’s wound grew smaller and smaller. Another moment and the wind disappeared. The gazelle jumped up and into the bushes, its wound completely gone. The creature, still kneeling on the ground, breathed heavily in pain for several long minutes. Finally regaining himself, he got to his feet and continued his soundless path to the unknown.
There was light, and the dancing flames of the prison torches looked like gnomes in a wicked ritual on the walls of the cell. My stomach had curled into a knot after several days of wet bread. I knew it was only a matter of time till they banished me into the desert. But it was all the worse since Jochi, the only friend I ever had, was also dragged into this. We would either die here in this cell or die out there in the desert. Either way, we weren’t going to make it out of this alive.
The three guards outside my cell were gathered around a wobbly table, rolling dice and cursing at each other. Jochi was asleep. Covered in a scruffy thin blanket that smelled musty, I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. Flashes of our lives back at the barn kept scrolling in my head until I was finally about to drift asleep, but the loud banging on the cell bars shook me awake in a matter of seconds.
A guard unlocked the door while another, a huge-looking man, pushed someone in and immediately locked the door.
“Think ya so smart, ey? Well, ya ain’t gettin away this time, bastard,” he spat and locked the cell door.
The new prisoner made no sound. Good for him, I thought, there’s no point arguing with dumb brutes like them.
It turned out our new mate was a boy, not too much older than myself and Jochi, dressed in dark clothes that had seen better days. He had ash-white hair that was completely shaved on the sides but was left untouched throughout the center. Braided neatly, it reached his waist, which struck me as odd. I’d never seen anyone so young have completely white hair, but the weird thing was its length. It meant he belonged to the Old Religion. But that was impossible…
A series of the most peculiar noises from our new neighbor caught my attention. “Shhh,” he whispered into his lap.
“Here,” I stretched out my hand with a small piece of bread I had tucked away before. “They won’t give us anything else till tomorrow noon”.
The prisoner looked at my hand and then into my eyes, and then away.
“Rude,” said Jochi, making a face at the white-haired neighbor, “Here, Hinto, I’ll take it.”
“Hush, Jochi, all you do is eat.”
“What else would you have me do here?” Jochi laughed.
Hour after hour passed in silence. Each of us was immersed in our own thoughts and—seeing as we were soon to die—regrets. The prison cells were underground, and the only way you could tell day from night was the meaningless bustle of the guards walking up and down the stairs in their heavy metal boots. It was quiet now, which could only mean it was nightfall. With nothing else to occupy myself, I thought of all the stories I’d heard about Old Religion followers, how their gods were forgotten, their temples destroyed, and they themselves were eliminated hundreds of years ago.
Suddenly, our neighbor made a swift motion upwards with both arms pulling his thick shirt over his head. A small creature emerged from under his clothes, after which he pulled his shirt back on. It was a tiny fox with gigantic ears. “What the…” Jochi let out a wondrous gasp, but before he could finish his sentence, our neighbor covered Jochi’s mouth with his hand. Jochi began to struggle but his opponent seemed to be much stronger.
“Stop making noise,” he said as calmly as chatting with a neighbor about the weather. His voice sounded so deep and confident that it had an immediate effect, and Jochi stopped moving and talking. Our neighbor let go of him and gave both of us a chilling stare. “If you make a sound…” he never finished that sentence, leaving it to our imagination to figure out exactly how dangerous he was.
Then leaning down, he looked at the white fox and made a series of movements near his mouth that produced the most quirky noises. At the sound of it, the little fox made its way across the cell and then through the bars. Everything occurred so quickly I didn’t even have a minute to catch my breath, let alone grasp what was happening. The fox disappeared from our view, but our neighbor, more mysterious by the minute, kept standing at the locked door, waiting. Then we heard laughing. It was Jochi.
“What a plan! Your furball is going to overpower all the guards and save us all?” he said.
Soon, though, the fox ran back into the cell, undetected as it seemed, and let our neighbor take something out of its mouth. Keys!
“How did… How could…”, I mumbled, too stupefied to say anything else. The white-haired guy put a finger to his mouth as if telling me to shush. A thrilling thought flashed inside me: Maybe this was our chance to get out, to run away. Somehow through all this time spent here, I never once thought of escaping.
But the real question was, how far would we make it before the guards detected us? This was a small prison, as was our province—small and insignificant. There were less than two dozen guards altogether. Even so, we were just three boys; none of us could fight and win a single guard, not to mention ten or twenty.
While I was thinking, our neighbor threw his arm out through the bars and easily unlocked the door. Jochi and I were about to follow him, but before we knew it, the door was locked up again. Both me and Jochi were too stunned to talk or do anything. I’m not sure why we expected him to help us get out.
My thoughts were interrupted by Jochi’s comment: “We should make as much noise as we can so the guards can arrest him again!”
“He left us behind to rot in a prison! Why shouldn’t we return the favor?”
I knew Jochi’s temper, but I couldn’t bring myself to ruin our neighbor’s escape, even if that meant we wouldn’t be getting out. Then I had an idea.
“Jochi, this is our chance to get out!”
“He just locked us in! Or did you miss that part? I’m sticking to my plan.”
I pulled Jochi’s sleeve to get his attention. “Listen to me, he went to the left, that’s the warden’s rooms, remember? My guess is, he’s looking for something, and when he finds it, he’ll want to get out. To do that he’ll need to pass by our cell.”
“And you think just because you ask him nicely, he’ll open the door for you? What is wrong with you, Hinto? The guy was thrown in here for a reason, who knows what kind of a traitor he is!”
While we were discussing our plan and bickering like a pair of kudu, our neighbor walked by the cell without a word. There it was, our one chance of eluding death, and it walked past us as if we didn’t exist.
“Hey! Stranger! Come back! Let us out, please!” my half-whisper half-scream surprised both Jochi and myself.
Disappointed and angry, I closed my eyes, imagining the scorching heat of the desert and the scavengers that would claw my eyes out and swallow them whole. For several minutes it was completely quiet, letting me explore the endless ways of dying in the desert.
But then we saw him again, standing right before the cell door. He put a finger to his mouth while looking into my eyes, then Jochi’s, and unlocked the door in a smooth, noiseless motion.
“Who are you?” I asked, tightening my grip on the metal bars.
I caught a glimpse of a half-smile on the corner of his mouth and before I knew it, he was already climbing the spiraling staircase to the prison’s top floor.
Jochi and I looked at each other. Leaving was dangerous, even if we made it out of the prison—hell, if we made it out of the village; what kind of life would we live? Could we survive all on our own? Perhaps not, but how tragic would it be to not even try? A silent moment of consideration and we were out of the cell, on our way to the top floor.