For the remainder of his first night, Jawad had to make do with what he could find in his new living quarters. He was left in complete darkness and had to fumble his way around. Moving on his knees, he estimated that he was in a square room about ten feet by ten. To one side, he found barrels. Dipping one hand into it, he could run his fingers through grain. At least he would not starve, he thought, throwing a few kernels into his mouth; chewing them took such effort, his jaw ached soon after.
Next to the barrels, Jawad’s fingers found rough fabric; by the smell of it, they were horse blankets. Food and bed, he considered, continuing his search. It did not take him long to finish as there was nothing else in the small room. He realised its purpose was to store grain, hence the lack of windows; along with the stonewalls and the tightly shut door, it would keep out vermin. He wondered if the blankets had simply been left here by chance, or if Salah had shown him one small kindness. While it was pleasant to imagine the latter, it required Salah to have known he would at some point throw Jawad into this improvised prison, which was a less happy thought.
Tellingly, there was no water. Jawad swallowed the last splinters of the grain in his mouth; they were so dry, he decided against eating more. Instead, he made a bed as best he could with the blankets. The complete absence of light was strange; even the humblest of his previous abodes, usually the gutter, had allowed him starlight to see by. Other than that, Jawad had found himself sleeping in worse places. He was dry, not that cold, and the blankets softened the hard floor; thanking Elat for these blessings, he went to sleep.
Jawad woke from the sound of the door being unbolted. As it opened, the dim light in the hallway revealed a shape placing a jar, a small plate, and a bucket onto the floor. The door was swiftly closed again.
Blinking, Jawad sat up and stretched his neck. He could not tell how long he had slept; it could have been a brief while, it could have been hours. Focusing on what was in front of him, he slid his hands over the floor until they reached his new possessions.
Dipping a few fingers into the jar and then his mouth, he found water. On the plate was what felt and smelled like bread; the bucket was empty, but Jawad could guess its purpose. Furthermore, it told him that he should not expect to be released in the coming hours. Accepting this, Jawad ate one quarter of the bread, took a few sips of the water, and settled up against one of the barrels.
Jawad had known imprisonment before; he was no stranger to its constant companion, boredom. But incarceration in the Finger had been better than this, even under the threat of maiming. The fact that he was more likely to be released unscathed from this particular prison only served to made things duller. Added to that, the darkness robbed him of all his usual methods of passing time.
There were no stones in the wall to count, no straws he could arrange into shapes and use to tell himself stories. There were not even rats that might bite him in his sleep and which he could wage war against. His senses only told him two things. His surroundings were cold, and the bucket in the corner reeked.
Whenever the door opened, he tried to initiate conversation with the servant feeding him or the mamluk guarding him; neither ever responded. Failing that, he tried to figure out how long he had been imprisoned by counting the number of meals. This quickly failed as he realised he did not know if he was being feed once, twice, or thrice a day; he could not even tell if he was being fed on a strict schedule, or simply when someone remembered him. Slowly, Jawad began to lose his sense of time.
When twelve meals had passed, he tried to shout through the door, hoping for anyone to hear him. He yelled questions about how long he would be in here, but there was no response. He asked who was on the other side. None replied. In the end, he begged for any kind of answer, a simple word would do. There was only silence. He banged on the door several times. Nothing happened. He could not even tell if someone was permanently standing outside his cell, guarding him, or if the mamluk was only there when the door was opened to feed him. If the latter was the case, he was not even being ignored, he was shouting at an empty corridor. Despairing, he began talking directly to the door; at least he knew it was real.
After fifteen meals, he became silent again. This was not because his state of mind had improved; on the contrary, he was convinced that he heard the sound of little paws scurrying around him, and he stayed quiet to locate the vermin. Every time he was certain, he lunged forward and caught only air between his hands.
Between his twenty-first and twenty-second meal, he resumed chewing on the kernels of grain in the barrels. His jaw soon complained, but he resolutely continued; the physical ache kept the sounds at bay.
Every so often, he tried pleading with the servant bringing him food. He could not tell if his prayers even elicited the slightest twinge of sympathy; when the door opened, the dim light of the outside world seared his eyes, and he saw only the dark shape of someone replacing his plate and his jar.
When his count of meal times reached thirty, he began to consider escape. He could not risk that they would keep him here until his final breath. He could scarcely remember the specifics of why he was locked away in the first place; likewise, he could not recall the conditions for when he might be released. Even if he had been able to, it would not matter. Time was gone; if he was to stay here for a week, a month, or a year was immaterial. Any duration would be an eternity now that time had ceased to pass.
He imagined it in his head, over and over again. The door would open, and he would launch himself forward, pushing the servant into the mamluk standing behind, and rush past both of them to freedom.
The sound of the door being unbolted caught him by surprise; before he could gather his wits, his food and water had been deposited and the door closed again. His opportunity had arrived and left again before he knew it.
He stared at where he knew the door was, even though he could not see it. It took a moment before tears began streaming down his face, and he sobbed without any pretence of holding back.
When his tears ran out, his mind grew clearer. He grabbed some grain to chew on, helping to reinforce the effect. Thoughts began to resurface that he had forgotten many mealtimes ago. He remembered that it was paramount he endured this imprisonment; he would raise suspicion otherwise. This led him to recall that he was in the palace of al-Badawi and that he was a thief; since he had to avoid suspicion, it stood to reason that he had not yet actually been caught doing anything wrong.
Jawad continued down this chain of thoughts, working backwards. He had been imprisoned in the Finger before arriving at this estate. Before that, he had a plan, and the plan was – he realised that he had been saying his thoughts out loud. He clamped his mouth shut, pressing both hands on top for good measure.
He stared at where the door was. It was impossible anyone could have heard him; besides, he had said nothing to incriminate himself. But he was slipping. Instead, he stood up. With some difficulty, he hauled the barrels of grain into the middle of the room. It was an eerie feeling to use his arms for the first time in however long he had been imprisoned.
Once the barrels were in place, there was just enough space that he could walk in circles around the room. Doing so, Jawad kept himself physically active while returning to his train of thought. Bit by bit, all of it returned to him. When his thirty-second meal was served, the thief was calm and composed.
Jawad eventually stopped counting his meals; it did not allow him to measure time accurately and only gave him something to obsess about. Instead, he focused on his memories, one at a time, dragging each of them forward in his mind and inspecting every detail he could remember. He began as early as possible and continued according to when each had been made; if he was reminded of a later memory, he would push it away until its time came.
His earliest experiences were of Almudaina, living inside its labyrinth with his younger and older brother. Entering the city searching for scraps of food. Begging or stealing coin, depending on the situation. Forced to hand over most of their take to older boys. Fights and beatings, usually the former turning into the latter. The first time he could recite ‘Time and Season’ at the madrasa, how Hasief had given him two figs as a reward, and the look on Kateb’s face when Jawad gave him a whole fig to eat while Jawad and Hakim shared the other.
Eventually, he reached the memory that had been lurking in his mind all along. On most days, Jawad pushed it away; especially when the thrill of his thieving made the blood rush through his body, he felt free, running on instinct. He lived for those moments when he could escape the tyranny of his own mind. Now, there was nothing to distract him. It demanded his full attention, and he had no recourse but to relive every moment of his past.
Every detail was vivid in his mind. Approaching his mark. Sticking out his small fingers holding the jagged piece of glass to cut the purse strings. Hakim’s warning shout that came too late. The rider galloping through the market. Realising he was in the rider’s path, his brother pushing him aside, the sickening sound of Hakim’s skull breaking under thunderous hooves – Jawad gasped for breath. Terror flickered across his expression in the darkness briefly. It took him a moment to realise where he was. When he did, he inhaled and exhaled slowly. Composing himself, he let that particular memory sink to the back of his mind like the others. When he was ready, he continued on his inner journey.
When the door opened, Jawad paid it no heed at first; he only realised something was amiss when it remained open. Looking at the shape illuminated by the faint light from outside, he narrowed his eyes in scrutiny. The person was taller and larger than any of the servants Jawad had seen, even bigger than the mamluks. It took him a moment to speak the name; his tongue felt awkward in his mouth, a muscle that had not been used for days. “Salah.”
“You’re free.” The warrior extended his hand, helping Jawad to stand. Salah almost recoiled as the thief came close to him. “Let’s get you to the baths.” There was kindness in Salah’s voice, and Jawad almost trembled at the sound; he had forgotten the very concept even existed. He had to pinch himself to focus on the pain and keep his demeanour blank. With one hand on Salah’s shoulder for support and guidance, Jawad followed him out of his cell.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.