Ch. 8 Forgive Us our Sinews
Oland sighed. Nightmares still plagued him every night. Of course, that wasn’t uncommon in the Ice Box. At any time during the night one could hear screams and groans of agony and terror. No one spoke about the hidden abuses, such as starvation as a means of punishment, tortuous beatings from the guards, or worse, the rapes-be it from the inmates…or the guards.
Fortunately for Oland, he didn’t have to worry about that last one much. The few who were foolish enough to try no longer bothered him…or anyone else, for that matter. The other prisoners were smart enough to know one does not mess around with a hallucinating, seven and a half foot giant who could separate a dog’s head from its body with his bare hands if necessary.
Oland’s biggest worry was his level of sanity. Although the headaches had faded, he never did fully recover. The only difference was that he could usually tell when he was seeing things…usually. He supposed it was because he had been so close to death that Hell chose to cling to him. It had touched him once, and liked it. The hands still clawed at him every now and then. Strange…even though he knew it wasn’t really happening, he could feel every bony finger crawl along his skin. Every single one of them belonged to someone he’d killed. They deserved their revenge. He knew he deserved every second of torture they gave to him. Death was too good for the likes of him and what he’d done.
Oland groaned. Another spectre started showing up as well in real life. At first Oland would only see him in his dreams, but now...sometimes he’d see himself…but a different self, in the real world, when all was quiet. He once read a story that reminded him of this. It was called The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This other Randel Oland was fearless the way he wished he could be, without the use of his lantern.
You can’t deny it, can you? You’re not just a murderer. You like killing. People use a different word for that, don’t they?
This…darker Oland would echo the things he’d never allow himself to say or do. Oland called him Snafu. It was a word soldiers invented during the war, code for Situation Normal-All Fucked Up. It seemed to suit him. It was either that or Fubar, which stood for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.
You’d kill them all, the Snafu Oland growled, if given the chance. You’d kill every last one of them and enjoy it.
Shut up, was all Oland could counter. Of course, his dark self was absolutely right. If escaping meant killing everyone, he’d do it and not be all that sorry.
It would be the understatement of the century to say that Randel Oland was a very repressed individual. For most of his life, Oland never had much in the way of free will. As a soldier, he was compelled by the urgings in his mind to follow orders, to walk toward a tank bearing down on him when everything else in his mind screamed to run, to raise the gun in his hand and destroy the men and women inside so completely that there weren’t enough bits left to be able to identify them, to plow ahead even if every bone in his body had been shattered. It was only after the war that he’d had true freedom for the first time in…how long had it been…a decade? More? And then, it had been so long, he had no idea what to do with himself. He didn’t have a purpose. He had no family nearby, not that he felt he could ever go home again anyway...and no comrades left. He didn’t have much skill in anything other than killing people. So when he heard Alice barge in to The Lampe that day…Oland found something to do…and a reason to live.
Oland pushed back the sleeve on his left arm and stared at the hateful scar on his wrist. Alice wanted to know how he’d gotten this one. She probably thought it was a terrible war injury. The truth was much more horrible.
He thought about the animals he saw at the zoo in Rodelia. He’d gone there on a rare day off, alone. He’d wanted to see the big cats mostly, but he also stopped to see the elephants. When he got to their pen, what he saw broke his heart. Some of the older elephants had scars much like his own. It wasn’t so much a scar as an overgrown callus. He could see where the metal cuff had rubbed their skin, and their feet had grown around it-exactly the same as his. He’d seen it on some of the dogs as well, only on their necks where the collars were much too snug. The skin underneath was smooth and thinner and often rubbed raw. His wrist knew that feeling all too well.
Once upon a time, Randel Oland was a slave.
As a young slave, he was whipped for every minor infraction, until he was completely subdued, until he saw the punishment as almost a comfort. Still, being a slave was better than being dead. Despite his horrific conditions, Oland was glad to be alive. He knew he had been brought back for a reason…if only he could figure out what it was. His near-death experience clarified many things for him, most importantly, his feelings for the tiny Lieutenant. He knew he didn’t have a chance in hell. She was royalty; he was not. She was honorable; he was anything but. Still, if there was any way to see her, even from afar, just to make sure she was safe…
Oland sighed again. Two years. Was she safe? Happy? Did she marry? Would she have kids by now?
You’d fuck her if you could, Snafu muttered from the corner, chuckling.
Oland grimaced. Not again.
Oh, come on! Who’s going to know? You’ve pictured that petite thing in minute detail. Why not go all the way?
Even though he knew the entity wasn’t really there, Oland blushed.
Shut up! I would never do…that…to her. I couldn’t…s-sully…her like that. Never…never!
But if you could…you would. You’d hold that itty bitty-
I’d rather die.
Sure, Randel, sure.
I would, you jackass. I’d rather die than hurt her in any way.
Then do it. Kill yourself. Monster.
Because you’re afraid?
Damn straight I am. I know what’s waiting for me. But I came back! I came back to-
To what, you overgrown mama’s boy? Pussy! To fucking what? To be some sort of hero?
No, I know I’m no hero. I’m not a leader…not like her.
You’re going to die here. You know that, don’t you?
Then what the hell are you waiting for?
Answer my question, pussy. What. Are. You. Waiting. For?
What?! You expect that little honeypot to save you again? You really are a mama’s boy.
No one will save you. You can’t be saved, lunkhead. Besides, she has no idea where you are.
And probably doesn’t care.
“LIAR!” Oland screamed aloud, bolting upright on the cot that was still too small for him. Panting, he shivered in the cold, damp air, drenched in sweat. He looked around but saw he was alone.
Another nightmare, he thought. I’ve got to be careful, or I’ll really start losing it.
Suddenly, he heard a voice.
“Psst! Big guy! Hey, big guy! You okay?”
It was Toothry, the inmate in the next cell over. He was one of the only inmates who dared to speak to him now and then. Oland didn’t even know his real name. He only knew him by his number, which had since grown into a nickname. Number 157323 became Three Two Three, which evolved into Toothry, likely because he smiled so much, and not because he had nice teeth…or even all of his teeth.
Toothry was neither big, nor all that tough, but he was one of the few who could talk his way into getting his hands on stuff. This made him valuable, and gave him a little bit of pull with both inmates and guards. This also made him too useful to be killed for his sometimes irritating, too cheerful personality. Randel always observed all people within his vicinity. He knew Toothry was one of the most cunning inmates in the Ice Box, with a penchant for manipulating others.
“Come on, War Vet,” he said in a cheery tone, “you can talk to me. Are you all right?”
Oland was wary. He couldn’t decide if the small, ratlike man was friend or foe. He grimaced. Whether he answered or not, the little guy would probably pester him all night.
“Yeah,” he muttered to Toothry.
“Oh, so the man can respond to questions!” Toothry said in mock wonder. “Well, I just won myself a nice bet, ha ha! No worries, mate. I’ll split it with you. Do you smoke?”
Oland chose not to reply. He wondered where Toothry came from, with such a peculiar accent.
“Oy, are you there? Was it something I said?”
Oland smirked. If he was to have any allies in the Ice Box, Toothry was probably a better choice than most.
“Yeah,” he repeated. “And no.”
“ I don’t smoke.”
“Oh, I see. We’ll just have to work out the details later, eh?”
“Right! Sorry! Keepin’ you awake, am I? I’ll shut up now.”
Toothry listened as hard as he could, but after returning to bed, the big man never made another sound, not even snoring. Unlike the other prisoners, he saw Oland differently. To him, the scarred giant was a mystery and a challenge-a powerful ally at best, and a fantastic distraction at worst. Just who was this oversized ox who seemed almost gentle, yet could tear men apart without so much as blinking? He could probably take on at least ten guards or more, yet he never tried, not even once. Why not? If he was feeling guilty, why didn’t he just kill himself? He had plenty of opportunity, being a pit fighter and all.
Toothry reached under his mattress and pulled out a faded newspaper. He held it up in the moonlight and looked at the front page again. There was no mistaking that hunched, hulking frame.
This newspaper didn’t seem like much, but it was DeValt, the most popular and widely read newspaper in the Imperial Empire, and that made it especially valuable in the prison, even though it was years old.
Toothry read the story again, even though he had it practically memorized.
State Section Three, Pumpkin Scissors Platoon Leader, Second Lieutenant Alice Malvin, of House Malvin, the Thirteenth Imperial Grand House and youngest daughter of Lord Alexander Malvin, is a beacon of hope for the future. Her vision: “Just imagine…”
Toothry looked at the Lieutenant’s face, captured in a moment of breathless, determined hope.
That’s it, isn’t it? Toothry thought. You’re waiting. And that’s who you’re waiting for. You want to get back to that vision, don’t you? Hmm…I could help you do that…maybe. But you’ll have to help me out first, big guy.
He also noted who else was standing with her in the background, his lantern clearly showing the numbers 901.
901? The Gespenst Jaegers? That was just a war story to tell around the fire, wasn’t it?
Good gods, Toothry thought, does the warden know just who he’s holding? Probably. That lantern is likely locked away in the evidence locker. But...but if that’s true, then why is he keeping this guy alive? The Ice Box often executed war criminals in very public spectacles. Why not make an example of him?
Toothry thought for a while and came to two possible conclusions. Either both the warden and those in the Republicant army that captured Oland wanted him to suffer, to rot away or be killed in the pit…or they were also waiting. Waiting for what?
Toothry rummaged around again and pulled out a much more recent newspaper for the Republic. He reread the bold headline.
Crown Prince to Meet in Private With Imperial Royalty-Is a True Peace Near?
Interesting, Toothry thought. This could be the key to everything.