A Trial by Darkness
This cannot be real, he thought. But it was.
Two strong men opened the heavy iron grate with a piercing screech, uncovering the dark pit below. They forced the prisoner forward, standing him on the edge. He looked down into the black hole at his feet. Cool, wet air came up to meet his face. The stench of rot rode upon it.
“I have not had a trial,” he said to the magistrate at his shoulder.
A crowd formed, filling the town square as they always did when the pit was opened.
“This is your trial,” the wrinkled man said, sweeping his arm over the pit. His dark robe sleeve streamed through the stinking, musty air as it had done many times before. He took a deep breath and spoke so all could hear. “For the crimes of thievery and murder, you are on trial. Because you maintain your innocence, you have been allowed a trial in the eyes of Kyrseg, the Judicious.”
The old man lowered his voice and leaned toward the prisoner. “Pray she is not hungry this day. If God loves you, he will allow you to pass. If God finds you indeed guilty, he will allow Kyrsig to have you, and her hunger will be satiated for another day. For this, I must thank you.”
“Thow him in. Throw him in,” the crowd began to chant, growing louder and louder.
“This is no better than a death sentence and you know it,” the prisoner said. One of the magistrate’s assistants unlocked the shackles on the prisoner’s wrists and removed them.
“You must have faith,” the magistrate said. “If you are truly innocent in the eyes of God, he will spare you.”
Before the prisoner could object any further, the magistrate’s assistants threw him into the pit. Cold air rushed in his ears, drowning out the cheers from the crowd. An instant later, solid stone rushed up to meet him and he crashed against it. Every joint in his legs called out in agony all at once.
The prisoner rolled to his back and groaned. Above, the grate swung closed with a deafening clang. The sound reverberated off the walls around him and down an unseen tunnel in the dark.
It might as well be a dinner bell.
The prisoner sat up with some difficulty, his joints cracking and popping with his every move. He remained where he was for several moments, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Slowly, the cavern became clearer to him. He sat in a room hardly wider than a small house. On the other end, the mouth to a tunnel opened like the mouth of a large sleeping beast. It might as well have been. Going down there would be certain death. None had ever passed Kyrsig the Judicious. None that the prisoner knew of.
I should call her Kyrsig the Ravenous, or Kyrsig the Insatiable.
The prisoner saw through the lies. Those who passed Kyrsig did not continue down the mountain to another village. They would freeze to death before they reached a warm hearth. The only logical thing to do would be to climb home to the village. Because none have returned, the prisoner knew none had passed Kyrsig alive.
He wondered how many innocents had been thrown down here to satisfy her hunger for human flesh. Then something caught his eye. Against the wall, a figure sat with its back to the wall. Bloated and stinking, the prisoner recognized the figure. The last prisoner allowed a trial. The accused witch must have remained here to freeze rather than continue down the tunnel.
Looking around the cave, the prisoner noticed many more bodies. Most have rotted away to bones. Kyrsig had not killed these people. Fear had. At that moment, the prisoner had decided not to become one of them. He knew he would not survive the first night.
Warm liquid splashed against the back of his neck and the stench of urine assaulted his nose. The prisoner jumped to his feet and moved out of the stream. Small chuckles grew to hearty guffaws from above.
“I’m just marinating you for Kyrsig,” a young man called down to him, earning renewed laughter from the others. “Go on then. Go and meet her.”
The prisoner clenched his jaw and brushed the urine from his shoulder. He did not look upward. He wouldn’t give that boy the satisfaction. Instead, he limped to the tunnel’s gaping mouth and leaned against it for a moment. It led down steeply into blackness. There would be no light down there.
He took a deep breath and forced his first step into the narrow passage of jagged rock. The tunnel turned sharply, cutting off all that remained of the light from above and the prisoner was left to stumble forward in the dark. His knees ached as he fished around in front of him for the next foothold. As he continued down, the air grew colder and colder. Winter had not gone away. It had retreated inside the mountain, ready to leak out as autumn died.
The prisoner continued to descend for an eternity. Though his progress was slow, it felt as though he descended to hell itself, and it was colder than the average person might believe.
Rock crumbled underfoot and the prisoner came tumbling down with it. He dropped into blackness and rolled across the jagged stone over and over. It tore at his back and cut into his arms and legs. He tucked his chin to his chest and brought his arms up over his ears to protect his head.
Slamming onto a flat ledge, the prisoner came to an abrupt and excruciating halt. He lay there for a moment in ruin. A roaring filled his skull, drowning out every other sound, though he was certain he was whimpering. Once he opened his eyes, he blinked to clear away the flashes of light in his periphery. When they were gone, a faint glow remained. He blinked again to discover that it would not clear away. Light.
The prisoner rolled over to discover the source of such a faint glow. The tunnel continued down a short distance and opened into a much larger chamber. The roaring in his ears did not go away either. A fine mist danced in the faint light.
The prisoner’s stomach churned and he thought he might be sick. If the waterfall was indeed in the next chamber, then so was the exit...
He sat up carefully and checked himself with prodding fingers. Sore spots covered his body. Hot blood ran onto his icy fingertips from his numerous cuts and scrapes. Nothing that would prevent him from continuing. The prisoner carefully swung his legs over the edge of the ledge and lowered himself. He padded on the balls of his feet to the end of the tunnel.
Why am I sneaking? She wouldn’t be able to hear me over the rushing water.
He poked his head through the opening and the light nearly blinded him. Slimy algae and moss covered the walls. A gradual slope of loose rocks and boulders led to the cavern floor below. He searched for Kyrsig but he couldn’t see her. Perhaps she was out.
Out getting what? All her food is brought to her.
He craned his neck further into the chamber and there it was beyond the curtain of falling water. Outside. Safety. The prisoner carefully limped out of the relative security of the tunnel and slowly moved toward the light.
A low rumble shook the cavern and he pressed his back into a boulder, flattening himself against it. After waiting several long moments, he peeked slowly around the edge of the rock, and there she was.
Her long scaly body lay curled on the cavern floor, rising and falling with her silent breaths. Her leathery wings were folded on her back. Her long tail flicked rhythmically. She faced away from the prisoner, sleeping directly between the prisoner and the waterfall.
The prisoner stepped lightly, choosing each step down the slope with care. The wet air smelled of charred meat. When he reached the bottom, he put a hand on the wall and it came away black on the palm. A thick layer of dark soot-covered that portion of the wall except for a strip at the center. He passed this unburned spot and realized the strip was as tall as he was.
A man stood here and was burned alive.
His eyes flicked back to the sleeping beast. She had not stirred, so he continued along the wall toward her. As he drew closer, she grew larger. Larger than he could have imagined. Larger than any animal he had ever seen. She could swallow a horse whole.
Step by step, he crept along the wall. Kyrsig twitched and stretched one massive wing up to the ceiling of the cave, and the prisoner froze in mid-step. He caught a glimpse of a massive hind leg and an enormous forelimb folded on top of it. Her claws seemed longer than the prisoner’s legs. She had made a sort of nest for herself.
She sighed and let her wing fall back down. The wind it created knocked the prisoner to his backside in the mud. He carefully stood on his shaking legs and noticed some of Kyrsig’s nest had blown around the cave. He looked at what he thought were sticks and realized they were, indeed, not sticks. She had made a bed of charred human bones.
The prisoner swallowed a dry lump and continued to the waterfall, inching along the wall, eyes locked on the sleeping beast. The frigid mist had soaked his clothes and the skin underneath. His jaw trembled and he willed his teeth to stop their chattering. He approached Kyrsig and was suddenly aware that he had been clenching his hands into fists. He squeezed until his forearms ached.
He drew to the point where he would have to pass her. If he could do this, the waterfall would only be a short distance beyond, and freedom waited on the other side. Without moving his eyes from Kyrsig, he took another step to the side, but his foot fell upon something unstable.
The skull slipped out from under his foot, and he fell to the cave floor. The resulting clatter was far too loud for his liking, thought the waterfall was louder. He picked himself up off the floor, cursing under his breath.
When he turned back to Kyrsig, he found a massive eye peering at him from under the leathery wing. She moved the wing away, picking her head up off of her nest of bones. Horns and spikes bristled the top of her skull, leading down her neck. Though her jaws were closed, her sharp teeth glistened from under her scaled lips. Thin wisps of smoke snaked from her nostrils. Her eyes seemed to burn the prisoner from the inside.
For a long time, Kyrsig only stared at the prisoner. He did not move. She did not move. He did not blink. She did not blink. Slowly, the prisoner made the sign of the cross. She stared for several more long moments before laying her head down on a massive clawed foot.
He backed away toward the waterfall while she watched him with her unblinking yellow eyes. As he moved backward, the spray became a torrent and still, she watched. The waterfall soaked him to the bone, but he dared not shiver. He took several deep breaths and threw himself backward through the curtain of water.
The wind rushed in his ears as he fell to the pool below. He broke the surface and tumbled into the depths in a column of bubbles. He struck the bottom with a thump and tumbled in the waterfall’s push. He flailed to right himself and finally found the bottom with the heel of his foot. He kicked against it, launching himself to the surface.
His face broke into the air and he wasted no time taking a gasping breath in. He kicked and paddled wildly to reach the edge of the pool. He pulled himself onto a smooth river rock and lay there panting. He watched the waterfall without lifting his head. She did not follow.
Perhaps she is not hungry. Perhaps I am loved in the eyes of God.
The prisoner forced himself up. The sun was dropping quickly and he must make the trek back up the mountain before it was gone completely. Every inch of his body ached as he made his first step as a liberated man.
“You should not have returned,” the magistrate said. “You should have died in that cave as you were meant to. Your body should have fed the beast.”
“I passed the trial,” the prisoner said. “I am an innocent man.”
“How many innocent lives have you endangered?”
“I am loved in the eyes of God as you said I would be if I made it out alive.”
The prisoner rattled his shackles at the old man.
“Do the right thing and free me.”
“It is you who must do the right thing,” the magistrate hissed.
The strong men flipped open the iron grate and the crowd gathered again. Again, they forced the prisoner forward, standing him on the edge.
“What you do is evil,” the prisoner said. “You are condemning an innocent man to death.”
“For the crimes of thievery and murder, you are on trial,” the old man spoke loudly. “Because you have escaped Kyrsig’s cavern through means of trickery and manipulation, you are hereby also charged with sorcery and consorting with the devil.”
The assistants unlocked the prisoner’s shackles.
“Go now and die in the cavern of Kyrsig as you are meant to. May your flesh satisfy her.”
The old man pushed the prisoner into the blackness below.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my novel, Well of Bones. It is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. Or you could sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive a FREE .epub download file of Well of Bones.
Until next week,