The Daughter of Fire
Far below the city of Trazelik, beneath shining minarets of bright alabaster gleaning in the sun, beneath the numerous majestic domes of the golden palace, and beneath the feet of every soul that strode in its streets there was a something locked away. In the bottom of a pit that stretched deep into the earth, a place nearly frozen cold from never having been touched by sun's warmth, was a girl. Her limbs were mere grisly cords of muscle attached to bone. Her flesh, what remained of it, was a cold and soft. The last time she remembered seeing her hair it was composed of voluminous raven waves, but now her locks were matted and oily, smeared across her face and rolling down to her waist. Her hands were heavy due to their iron cocoons, which were in turn chained to the ground. The chains were exactly two-hundred and thirty three links long. She would count them with her toes whenever she got too bored. Sometimes she would jingle the chains around and make music, or something approximate to it, but the weight of all that metal meant her arms would quickly tire and she'd have to find something else to keep herself amused. Sometimes trying to think of something fun was a game in itself. She had no friends in this place; not even the rats and roaches came to visit. Perhaps the odor of her own accumulating waste was too much for even the vermin to tolerate. There was a grate somewhere in the blackness, but it was by chance that she'd find it in time to be used appropriately. She just remembered that the stinky side was where she slept and the truly revolting side was where she did her business. Isolation was her only company, and poor it proved to be, as the one thing she looked forward to more than anything else was meal time, those brief moments when a slit in the door to her prison is opened to receive her daily ration of tepid gruel. As far as she knew, she received her meal daily, so unless they occasionally changed the pattern, it was a useful way to keep track of time.
Her next meal would be her two-thousand five-hundred fifty-fifth meal here, and she wondered what it would taste like. Normally they were all the same, but sometimes there was a hint of something else, like the remnants of a previous meal that had been cooked in the same pot. There times when she almost thought she tasted the faintest flavor of lamb or chicken. Those were good days.
The grinding sound of metal scraping stone echoed in her hole and amidst the black canvas before her there was a slit of radiant orange hovering on the ground. With her heavy iron-laden hands clanking against the damp floor, the young woman scrambled towards the light. Meal time had come yet again. From the other side of the door she heard the sound of what she imagined to be the bucket of gruel hitting the ground with a heavy thud. How many other prisoners were there that needed to be fed, the girl always pondered. Certainly none were down this deep with her, she was special after all. She pressed her face against the ground and looked through the slit. A pair of leathery boots stared back at her.
"Hello, boots!" she said.
"What?" a voice asked beyond the door.
Something wasn't all quite the same. No, that voice definitely not the one she had been hearing the last two-thousand five-hundred fifty-four times before. It was younger, definitely younger than the old one, who was old in more ways than one. Now that she thought about it, the boots weren't quite the same either. A little less worn, there was even a bit of polished sheen to them. They were nice boots indeed.
"Where's the other one?" she asked.
"What are you talking about?" the man behind the door asked.
"The other voice, the other boots. You're not the same. But don't take offense, those are really nice boots. You should be proud."
"Mezzim retired yesterday, I'm taking his shift."
"Mezzim? So that was his name, was it? Would you believe he never told me?"
The voice paused a moment before lowering to a coarse, uneasy whisper. "Well, the guards aren't really supposed to be talking to prisoners, especially you."
"Personally, I'm happy you're gentlemanly enough to spare a few words. Truly an improvement over your predecessor. Though, you sound younger than I do. Are you still a boy?"
"I just turned twenty-one."
"Ah, what a coincidence…" The girl let her words trail out into time and space.
"And what would that be?" the boy queried.
Her voice full of exuberance, the girl happily shouted, "We're almost the same age!"
The boots shifted themselves around, and then a knee came into view, then some hands, and finally the helmeted face of a young man with a healthy dark, dusky complexion, a face familiar with the sun. His eyebrows were thick and furrowed with frustration, and his nose arched downward like hawk's beak ready to strike. His gaze in turn fell upon a pair of the most unusual eyes he'd ever seen. They were wide and black with brilliant flecks of yellow and orange about them like embers dying on coal, with ocre eyelids.
"I'm sorry," the girl said. "You shouldn't worry though; it's just us two down here."
The young man noticed an impish smile stretch across her face that begged him to ask, "What are you?"
"I'm just a lonely girl in a hole, obviously. What's your name, guard?"
The girl's thin eyebrows arched with anticipation. "Sahl what?"
The man's face turned dour with a hardened scowl. "Sahl is all you need to know."
The girl pouted. "How rude of you. You won't win over many wives with that attitude. Speaking of which, you're twenty-one, correct? That means you should have at least one wife by now."
The young man stood up, lifting his face out of sight, but not before giving the woman one final glare. A tin platter clattered on the ground, splattering droplets of milky green broth across the floor. With a swift kick Sahl pushed the platter into the girl's cell.
"Eat your food and be quiet," Sahl said from behind the door. "I'll collect your plate in an hour." The slit in the door promptly slid shut.
Hearing the man's footsteps begin ascending the stairs, the girl barely had time to utter, "thank you."
Alone again in her darkness, the girl carefully lowered her face towards the bowl until she felt her lips touch the barely warm slop. She lapped it up like a starving dog, stopping only to lift her face and catch her breath for a few seconds. Sadly, there was no slight taste of lamb in today's meal. Within minutes the girl's tongue was licking against the bottom of the platter, searching for every last drop. By the time she was through, her platter was cleaner than it was before it was given to her. All there left to now was wait, and wait, and wait, in the darkened silence.
In her mind she still had memories of the outside world, and though they were distant and somewhat distorted by time, they provided enough material to be woven into dreams while she slept. Often she'd dream about sitting under cooling shade of towering palm trees beside the oasis in the heart of the city above. She would stretch her arms freely over head before lying not on cold, hard, wet stone, but soft, warm sand that she'd endlessly comb through with her fingers. However, there were many times where she had no dreams, and those were the times when the sensation of waking up felt most arbitrary, regaining sensation of a body she couldn't even see.
This nap had no dreams.
The noise that riled her back into consciousness was that familiar grating sound of her doorway slit opening. It was time to return her platter. It was against the rules for her to keep it, lest she somehow utilized it in such a way to somehow possibly escape from her cell, maybe. There were times before when she refused to give up her platter just to see what would happen out of sheer curiosity and each experiment proved the same conclusion; she would be beat senseless and have the platter forcibly seized from her.
"Your bowl," said Sahl from beyond the door. His voice had taken a more official, imperious tone.
The girl pushed the platter out of the slit with her foot. "I'm sorry if I offended you. I hear not being married by twenty-one is common these days."
"You hear nothing down here." Sahl scooped up the platter.
"You're right. I was just trying to make you feel better."
Sahl's reply was simply the sound of footsteps growing fainter as they ascended the staircase. That staircase, the girl remembered well having walked down it when she was first imprisoned. To think someone had to descend and ascend such a distance twice a day was nothing short of impressive. If the girl's memory served, which on occasion it did, it took the better part of fifteen minutes just to come down. She'd guessed it took considerably longer to get back up again.
The girl started to feel a tingling sensation along the back of her right hand, an itchy feeling that simultaneously enraged and delighted the poor girl. Getting an itch underneath an inch of iron was an unholy inconvenience that no amount of thrashing about would rectify. Of course, that didn't inhibit the young woman from proceeding to do so anyway, and she wriggled her arms furiously in an attempt to scratch the skin of her hand against the inside of her metal mittens. On the other hand, however, her discomfort signaled to the young woman that the flesh on her hands was indeed still alive and hadn't rotted away. Her animated writhing jingled her chains to the point of creating a wild cacophony, but the melody of her crude metallic notes were lost as her the girl beat her bounded hands against the floor. In the darkness she could feel bits of splintered stone spray against her face and she pressed her eyes shut before any shard flew into her eyes. Sooner rather than later, the girl relaxed her arms and lay down on her side, letting out a feral moan that echoed in the blackness. The itch was still there, of course, but besides that she had beat her hands numb and all she could do was grit her teeth and wait, and wait.
And then food slot slid open again. This time the jarring noise was not accompanied by the sensation of regaining awareness of unseen limbs, giving the young woman her only indication that she hadn't fallen asleep even once. Letting out a meager groan, she rolled onto her stomach.
"Sahl," the young woman said, crawling towards the slit of glowing orange light. "Sahl, I'm sorry."
"I don't want to hear it."
The girl pressed her face up against the slit, peaking out at Sahl's immaculate boots. "But I can fix your problem."
"I don't have a problem."
"Don't be silly, Sahl. I know the first wife is always the hardest to find, so why don't you marry me?"
Sahl knelt down and looked through the slit, meeting his eyes with hers. "You truly are insane, aren't you? What makes you think I would ever entertain such a ridiculous idea?"
"You and I are going to be spending a lot of time together, so we might as well be friends."
Sahl barred his teeth. "Not spouses!"
The girl smiled. "It would be fun to pretend. It would help the time pass."
Sahl stared at the girl with intense, silent incredulity, as if he was waiting for the woman to call off the suggestion as a bad joke. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Do we have anything to lose?"
Sahl was silent for a second. "If you are so desperate to talk then we can talk, but that's all. I'm breaking enough rules already."
The girl responded by letting out a tiny squeal of joy.
"So what did you want to discuss?"
With that, the guard began to describe himself in extremely trite sentences, pausing after each detail in hopes that his listener's curiosity had been satisfied. This just prompted the inquisitive girl to throw out another question, and before long the stilted conversation took on the guise of an interrogation rather than a friendly session of bantering. As the girl pressed on with her queries, she slowly squeezed information out of him, bland and inconspicuous information, but it was enough to form a better picture of her caretaker. Sahl was youngest of three brothers, and by most standards of measure they were fairly successful in their lives. The oldest was heir to the family property, and was surpassing his father in the family trade, which after many questions the girl discovered it to be cheese-making. The second son had gone off to join the sultan's army and was, based on his last correspondence, had been given a rank of minor importance after pillaging barbarian tribes along the eastern frontier. Both brothers had no less than four wives, and the eldest was in position to acquire his fifth.
It took days for the girl to collect information in piecemeal from to form a more complete story. Sahl preferred to only spare a few concise sentences before filling the girl's plate with gruel and climbing back up that long staircase. With each passing day, however, he seemed more willing to spare one extra sentence, perhaps without even being aware of it himself. Before the end of the month, Sahl was articulating complete paragraphs without more than a single question from the young woman. From Sahl's stories it certainly seemed that he had a lot of work to do if he ever hoped to stand out amongst his siblings. He came to the capital to work as a dungeon guard, assuming it to be an easy route in which to climb his way up to palace guard, or even royal bodyguard.
"I don't think Mezzim ever got a promotion," the girl said, staring out the feeding slit.
"He was old," Sahl said, staring back at her. "There's no point in giving him a nicer station."
"You'll be old too one day. Be careful they don't forget about you down here."
"Isn't my pretend wife supposed to be supportive?"
The girl smiled. "Wife?" The girl's voice took on a flirtatious tone. "I thought you said you only wanted a conversation partner."
Sahl sputtered and his tongue locked up as he failed to come up with a sufficient rebuttal in time.
"Don't be ashamed," the girl said. "It's natural. Trust me."
Sahl brow furrowed again, and his glare became pursed and scrutinizing. "Still, I shouldn't be so familiar with you. I've told you about myself, but I still don't know anything about you."
The girl rolled her eyes. "Everyone knows about me…at least they think they know. My version of things is a bit different, but it's not like any of that matters now."
"You don't match any of the stories I've heard, that's for sure. You're nice, you're friendly, you're…"
"Isn't that what you were going to say next?" The girl stared at Sahl for moment with her fiery eyes, unblinking. "Yes?"
Sahl sighed. "If I said no I would be lying."
Sahl pushed the filled platter of watery gruel through the slit and walked away. For the next few days there was little communication between the two. Sahl had tightened his lips and despite the girl's best efforts to open them back up, he seemed impervious to her solicitations. The girl wouldn't say it out loud, but he thought the young man's behavior was borderline childish for someone his age, but she dared not to push her only human contact any further away. She did her best to redirect the subject of conversation to less personal topics, such as the weather. Sadly, that proved to be a poor discussion starter as the weather in Trazelik was always predictably warm and dry.
"I'm sorry, Sahl," the girl said one day. "I never meant to make you uncomfortable."
"You have nothing to apologize for," Sahl said.
At least he admits it, the girl thought.
Sahl's immaculate boots began pacing back and forth. "To me you are just a voice and a pair of eyes. Our relationship seems…unnatural, don't you think?"
"If that's all that troubles you, open the door and see for yourself." The girl wiggled her bounded hands, making her chains snake along the ground in a raspy clatter. "I'm quite firmly secured."
"I've been given clear orders to not open this door without appropriate cause. There are lines I simply cannot risk crossing."
Sahl shoved her platter of gruel through the slit, closed it, and walked away without saying a word. The girl sighed and having nothing else to do, slowly lowered her face until her lips met the tepid slime, and with shallow, insipid laps of the tongue, began to eat. Her hunger was negligible and there were greater distractions brewing in her own mind. The guard was starting to prove to be just as boring as his predecessor, and if he continued on this path of dour professionalism, things would decay back to a state of drudging boredom. As she dipped her tongue into the gruel, tasting the nuanced blending flavors rancid vegetables, rice and perhaps a faint tinge of lamb fat, the vaguest beginnings of an idea took form in her head. She laughed, and then coughed, as laughing had sent some of her gruel straight down her trachea, where it most certainly did not belong.
Before long there was the familiar sound of metal scrapping and the sound of Sahl's immaculate boots tapping the door. The young guard waited on the opposite side, hand lowered in anticipation to receive the platter that the prisoner was required to return after finishing her meal. Moments turned into seconds, after which time the guard tapped the door again and called to the young girl. He received not the faintest reply. His courteous boot taps strengthened into impatient kicks against the metal door, and his polite addresses were growing into agitated shouts.
"I know what you're trying to get me to do!" Sahl shouted.
"I know you know, you know. You're smart."
Sahl got on his knees, pressed his face to the floor and stared through the feeding slit. There were no orange-flecked eyes staring back this time, only impenetrable darkness. Unable to rationalize why, the darkness sent a chill through his nerves. He strained his eyes to seek out any shadowy silhouette or shadowy movement, but there was nothing to be seen.
"Nora?" Sahl called into darkness. "Where are you?"
A rasping clink of chain links grazing the floor was all that could be sensed. "I'm here waiting for you, Sahl."
"I'm not in the mood for games!"
"What are you in the mood for?"
"Give me your bowl!"
"You can come and take it anytime you want, I'm not stopping you."
The young man curled his hand into a fist and struck the floor, then he shot back up on his feet and reached for the keys hooked to his belt. There was one key, big and rusted, with myriad of strangely shaped teeth reminiscent of the tails of a solidified flame. This was the key to her cell. He put the heavy key into the lock and gave it a firm turn. The loud clunking of tumblers falling into place echoed on both sides of the door. Sahl pulled door handle, heavy and rough from rusting for years in the moist bowels of the earth. The door itself was surprisingly easy to open, so much so that Sahl almost fell over from his own unnecessary pull-strength.
The orange torchlight flooded into the pit for the first time in years just as a gust of foul, damp, chilled air rushed out. Sahl could feel the wet stench cling to his skin and he shuddered. Sitting against the far wall of the pit was its sole occupant. Her yellowish tawny skin starved of sunlight, that once upon a time may have been a robust bronze, clung to emaciated limbs. Sahl swore he could wrap his thumb and index finger perfectly around her forearm. Her hands were clasped individually in iron bonds attached to chains connected to the center of the room. Rolls of unkempt hair grew out of her head in soggy greasy lumps, like a crown of dead desert weasels. They provided the closest thing to clothing she had, for the remnants of her prison robes lay in degraded shreds on the floor. As Sahl's eyes wandered over her naked body they gradually moved up towards her face, getting drawn in by her large eyes. The golden flecks blazed with an unsettling ferocity in the orange light. Her face overall was angular and pointed with her cheekbones and chin exaggerated by the emaciation.
"Your mouth is hanging open, dear" she said.
Sahl closed his mouth and took a sharp breath. "Where is your plate?"
Nora shrugged. "Somewhere around here."
Sahl gave the pit a cursory glance with the turn of his head. There wasn't much to see, and certainly no place to hide anything. It was a barren space without a single feature to speak of other than a grate surrounded by unmentionable mess. "It's not here. I don't see it."
The girl smirked. "You haven't checked everywhere."
Sahl noticed a pewter glint coming from behind the disheveled woman. He looked back at Nora's smiling face and swallowed hard. Despite the cold he could feel beads of sweat itch up through the surface of his skin.
"Relax, dear. Remember, it's just us two down here, and anything that happens would be our little secret." Nora lifted a foot and tapped it gently below Sahl's belt. "Don't be ashamed. You're my beloved husband, after all."
Without speaking any further, the guard pounced on the woman and the two became quickly entangled. Sahl was amazed by how warm her body was, stunned by the smoothness of her skin, and perhaps slightly confused by how salty she tasted. It became hard for either of them to breathe as they smashed their faces together, each having to fight to surface for air just long enough to exchange a groaning breath. In a matter of moments the cell was filled with a resounding cacophony of grunts, cries, and tussling limbs that went on for a length of time that neither party paid much attention to. By the end of it, Sahl and Nora were lying on top of each other in a pool of sweat, heaving with bated breaths like winded horses collapsed from over-exhaustion.
Nora gave a faint chuckle.
Sahl was the first to get up and tidy himself the best he could, but his boots had been scuffed in the engagement. Nora, with no place to go, continued to lie sprawled out on the ground. Sahl grabbed the platter, exited the cell and closed the door behind him, locking it shut.
The following day Sahl returned to Nora's cell and without coaxing entered her cell. The ragged girl was caught unawares, jerking her head up off the ground, having been jolted out of her dreamless slumber. She blinked slowly as her glossy stare steadily sharpened into focus.
"Well aren't you bold," Nora chuckled, "coming into a girl's room unannounced. Where do we go from here, I wonder?"
"What do you mean?" Sahl asked.
"Are we going to rut around in the muck every day until you get caught and executed, or until you bored? Or maybe there's something we can do to help each other more substantially."
Sahl crossed his arms and leered at the woman before him. "Yes?"
"When I told you I we were almost the same age, I was lying by about a hundred years or so. They say I'm a sorceress, but in truth I'm much more than that. I'm an ifrit, and I was imprisoned here for trying to reclaim this city. What no one tells you is that this city was the home of my ancestors before we were displaced. Release me and I'll finish what I started, taking my rightful place as sultana, and you will be my prince."
Sahl's expression didn't flinch over Nora's revelation. "You just admitted lying to me once. How do I not know you aren't lying to me again?"
Nora's lips curled into a mischievous grin. "Hmmm. You have point. But would you really want skip this chance and live in the shadow of your brothers forever; working in the dungeons until you are as old as Mazzim? It doesn't matter to me-I can wait for the next guard to come. Maybe he'll be my prince."
Sahl stood silent for a moment, his face remaining stoic and unreadable. He rubbed the short stubbly whiskers on his chin and kept his gaze away from Nora's beaming eyes. The smirk on her face was something predatory, the sort of smirk one makes in a game when they know they've already won. Sahl let out a sigh and unhooked the keys from his belt and filed through them until he singled out a thin onyx key. Nora was quick to raise up her bound hands, expectantly. Sahl knelt down and ever so slowly and delicately inserted the key into the lock and with a turn her metal shackles fell off her right hand. Sahl looked at the remaining hand and hesitated, but Nora was quick to use her free hand to caress her lover's cheek with her sticky, damp, but warm hand in an effort to console his wavering nerves. It was enough to urge the young man to continue committing what would be deemed by any peer to be nothing short of treason. With a second turn of the key Nora's hands were free and she brought them before her face, staring at them for the first time in over six years.
"Thank you," Nora said, her eyes blazing to life from charcoal black to burning orange. "Now, you may want to step back."
Sahl retreated to the outside of her cell and watched with his slacked jaw hanging agape as Nora's hands began to smolder as her palms turned burned black with threads of white smoke rising from her fingertips before bursting apart to release crackling flames that slithered up her arms soon engulfed her entire body. In an instant she had transformed herself into a being of fire and Sahl had to back up several steps up the staircase to keep from being burned by her sheer radiance. In a flash she shot upwards and seconds later there was a tingling tremor of buckling earth and a faint murmur of a distant explosion. Sahl had to shield his face with arm as large chunks of stone started plummeting from high above, shattering on impact, filling the air with dust and grit. When the debris had ceased falling, he permitted himself to look again into Nora's cell to see a pillar of blinding yellow sunlight shining into the pit.
Sahl's attention turned to the sound of a thunderous stampede of guards coming down the staircase. His heart began to pound so hard it risked bursting out of his chest and a cold sweat began itching out of his skin. There was only one place for him to go, so he dashed into Nora's cell and shut the door behind him, but before he pulled out his key, his heart skipped a beat realizing there was no way to lock the door from the inside. He was no safer in this cell then he was outside, and the footsteps and shouts of the guards were growing louder. Sahl did not even bother with the thought barricading the door with rubble; the door opened outwards. The only thing the young guard could do was press against the opposite wall of the pit, pushing his back against the slick cold stone as if it would eventually budge, but it didn't. From beyond the door Sahl could hear that the guards had arrived at the base of the stairs and would open the door in moments. Sahl looked up at the hot sunlight pouring down on him. Screams and explosions resonated high in the city above, and as the clamor of heavy boots gathered outside the door, he heard his name being called, but Sahl couldn't answer. The heavy door opened and Sahl turned his head to the burning sky, and with desperate breaths called up to the sun.