9 Months Ago
Only a dim small light reflected from the plain stone walls surrounding David. A tray of food lay uneaten in the corner of the makeshift cell. David lay stay staring at the ceiling in the opposite corner. He could hear the scuffle of guards coming and going as their shifts changed above.
Holding cells in New Dorf were in a narrow building with only one floor above the perpetual flood. There were no windows on the next floor down, where David was jailed, and the stairways had crumbled years ago. The only way out was to travel down into the waters or through a shaft that had been cut open in the ceiling. When someone was put down there for holding, the rope ladder providing access to the floor was pulled back so they couldn’t escape upwards. Even if someone could, they’d be escaping into the local constable’s headquarters.
David had been down here for almost a month, which was highly unusual. New Dorf didn’t tolerate high crimes and had no form of prison for long sentences. He would have been exiled weeks ago except that Steven and Dr. Leah had been campaigning on his behalf. The two had argued that it wasn’t fair for a young boy who had lost everything to be sent off on his own into the wild world. Such a sentence would all but certainly mean death. His crime had been the merest moment in a fit of rage, and one that many would sympathize with.
David wasn’t sure he cared anymore.
The teen had had plenty of time to contemplate what he’d do if the charges against him were dropped. The boys from the netters had been by a few times to let him know he wouldn’t be welcome back there. They had been sure to threaten to make his life more of a living hell than it already was if he should return to threaten their jobs.
Dr. Leah had assured him that he would be acquitted and that there was enough of his late parents’ inheritance to support him until he got back on his feet, but David felt like his life in New Dorf had died long ago. It was as if this life had ended before he struck the old drunk, before Elise grew ill, before they’d lost their parents…
Crawling over to eat the last of his twice-daily rations, the memory of his crime burst into his mind. Ol’ Ephraim toppled from the window, hitting his head against the building on the way down. The constable had sent the medics to pull him from the waters below. The men had hurried down with their stretcher to find Ephraim floating, but unresponsive in the water. The medics had even managed to get hooks in him and began to reel him in. If there was a bubble of hope that the veteran was still salvageable, it was burst when one of the great lizards appeared and snatched Ephraim’s body away. The incredible beast had pulled with such force that one of the medics was almost yanked into the water, and the men were forced to let the portly drunk go.
David could only imagine what all these events must have looked like. After punching the drunken vet, he’d shrunk to the floor where Dr. Leah met him and cradled him in her embrace. His mind was already trying to heal over the trauma of tragedy, scabbing over the great pain of loss. All he could feel was heaviness. A great weight, like the world pressing down on him, seemed to be pushing him into the carpeted floor of his cell. He shoved the plate of food away and lay prostrate on the floor. His stomach wrenched, and his lungs spammed as if trying to produce great grieving sobs. No tears came, however, and David was afraid he’d never shed them again.
A knock came from the floor of the adjacent room before the trap door fell open and a rope ladder began its descent. An unseen voice cried, “It’s time, David. Let’s go.” The young man didn’t move, but after a moment, the head of a man with long black hair tied back in a ponytail peered in from the makeshift portal. He scanned the area until he saw David face-down in the room. The head disappeared, and then reappeared with another guard; both men descended the ladder. David remained on the floor until both men walked over and lifted him to his feet. They half carried him back to the ladder, and strongly encouraged his ascension with the ends of their short clubs. This putrid room, exile, the swamps themselves… it was all the same to David.
The guards escorted the morose teen through the next building and the bottom two floors of the constabulary headquarters, eventually coming to a bridge that connected to the building after that. Catching views from the windows they’d passed, David could tell that it was nearing evening, and wondered why he was being taken to court so late in the day.
In two months, this would be his fourth time at court, and each time before, the High Council had tried to get David to admit regret for his actions and the resulting death. Much to Stever’s and Dr. Leah’s chagrin, David had refused on all counts. The young man’s two advocates had had to pivot tactics by arguing that no one could prove that David was directly responsible for the old drunk’s demise. In fact, Ol’ Ephraim’s remains had “never been found”.
The building doors to the bridge opened, and a faint gust of orange and violet wafted past David and the guards. The Mannah wasn’t low enough to have formed its evening fog but had fallen to the point that it was slightly more difficult to see the other side of the bridge. David’s cell guards were finished, and two more guards waited just outside the doors to escort David the rest of the way. The first was slim but solid and David was surprised at the firmness of his grip on his arm. The second guard was both portly and muscular, and the way he looked at David and grabbed his shoulder seemed almost endearing.
As the three walked across the bridge, David eyed the murky waters below. They were about four stories up above the swamps below. He remembered the way Lukas had wriggled from his grasp and dived into the water. For a moment, he wondered if he could pull off the same maneuver. Not that he wanted to escape the imminent verdict from the Council, more that he dreaded the tongue-wagging and futility of the entire ordeal. David thought back to how Lukas had taken a final look back and swam down, never to resurface; wondering if he could do the same.
The grip on David’s shoulder tightened ever so firmly, and he glanced up to notice the portly guard eyeing him warily. Could he have sensed the boy’s contemplations? That grip seemed to indicate that what David was considering was out of the question. The leaf-like flakes were crashing harmlessly into their face and clothes as they reached the other side of the bridge. Unlike a watery mist, the Mannah were hardly ever felt and too dry to affect skin and cloth.
Once the three had exited the bridge, they only had a few steps until they reached the Councilhouse doors. David’s escorts escorted him inside and to the trial room. Once again, the young man was brought before matriarchs and patriarchs of New Dorf’s founding clans. They might as well have been extraterrestrials to David. His family had never really been part of New Dorf’s “inner circle”, and he thought the panel of nine council members were little more than pompous old geezers of a swampy little village in the middle of nowhere.
“David, we meet again.”, Tomisa Flores sat dead center of the panel. As head of the council, he was the only one adorned in a purple robe, while the rest of the council wore alternating green and blue vests. He sighed deeply before he began, casting a tired glance at Stever and Dr. Leah. Those two stood behind a table to David’s right while David stood at the “trying stand” directly in front of council leader Flores. “This will be the last time we bring this matter before the High Council.”, Flores motioned to the constable standing behind the table on David’s left, “Constable Vasquez has testified that she did attempt to bring the deceased to justice before the council, but that the accused did strike Ol’Ephraim, causing him to fall to his death.”
“Your Council!,” Stever slammed his fist on the table, “the accused cannot be proven to have caused-”.
“…his death. I know, Stever” the Head Council raised his hand and gave the dark figure a warning glance, “but if the accused had never struck the man, we’d have Ol’Ephraim before us instead of the accused.” Flores looked down at his notes and carried on, “As such, the accused stands responsible for Ephraim’s death, the only matter in question being how directly. David Colbert has been given the chance to plead his innocence – or ignorance – and has refused. He’s been asked to plead remorse and refused. At each interval he’s been asked to comply, he’s refused. If it weren’t for his strong community advocates, he’d have been exiled months ago.”
Exile was as appealing an option to David as being exonerated. Lying alone in his cell, he’d even wished they’d given him their capital punishment. Because the village was mostly water, Mannah fell sparsely in New Dorf. Homes in this village were built atop buildings with at least a story above the waters for protection against frequent flooding. There were places atop old buildings where the water was shallow enough for wild plants to grow, but obviously too dangerous for homes to be built there. Atop one of the driest of these buildings, a roofless hut was erected where a substantial amount of Mannah would clump overnight.
If some crime was deemed too vile for the verdict of exile, the convicted person would be made to enter the hut at dusk. At night, a torch within the room would be lit from the outside, and soon there would be a swirl of murderous Mannah. The tiny, leaf-like beings would attach themselves to the skin of the convicted person while injecting them with a poison that spread under the skin. The doomed would suffer excruciating pain as the poison multiplied and was carried through the body. Even if the convicted were to be pulled away from the deadly torrent, there was no known cure for the toxin, and the person would just die more slowly under the same agonizing pain. Surrounded by the Mannah, a person typically died within minutes while a “rescued” person would be writhing and screaming in agony for hours before it finished. Despite the promise of a torturous demise, David wished for the sweet oblivion thereafter.
Head Council Flores continued, “It is the inclination of this council that David be exiled for this crime. However, based on the testimony of advocates in this room and on the accidental nature of the crime, the court is willing to order that the accused be put under the custody of New Dorf’s Head Physician, Dr. Leah Fenty. The accused will remain under the guided supervision of Dr. Leah and Stever Hamill of StoneB for a probationary period of one year. During the probationary period, if the accused should be found guilty of any crimes, he will be subject to immediate and non-negotiable exile.” Tomisa paused and looked at David, who was looking at the floor. The Head Council held out his hands as if preparing to catch a beach ball, “All this is contingent upon the acknowledged compliance of the accused.” He widened his arms and turned his hands out toward the accused, “David, do you agree to these terms?”
David was thinking of ways to start fires out in the wild. Once exiled, he planned to do so on his first night in a dry place. The portly guard walked up and gently nudged him in the back. David awoke from his contemplations to find the entire assembly gazing at him. “Sure, sure, yeah.” He said half-heartedly, “I did it, I’ll take exile.”
Dr. Leah’s gasp was so loud that it caused David to jump in surprise. Flores, looking exasperated now, said, “No one is exiling you just yet, boy! You will be allowed to stay in New Dorf, under probationary terms. Will you accept the terms!?”
“It really doesn’t matter,” said David, “there’s nothing for me here anymore, anyway.”
“But surely you would rather go on here than face death out in the wild, right? Just promise us you won’t be any more trouble?”
“David, please!”, Stever spoke out of turn, “Just accept the terms. Just say you’ll accept the terms!” He was doing that thing again: yelling without quite yelling.
Looking at Stever with a face twisted with grief and embarrassment, David replied, “I can’t promise anyone I can’t be any more trouble, Stever. I can’t promise anything anymore…”. He glanced at Dr. Leah, who seemed to have given up. She was sitting now, with her head face down on the table. Her body convulsed with heavy sobs. “I’m done,” David continued, “I’m sorry, I-”.
“Enough!”, Flores clapped his hands once loudly, bringing all attention back to himself, “The accused is clearly not in his right mind! I recommend that David be put in the custody of Dr. Leah for two weeks of recovery. When he is more composed, he will formally apologize to this council and accept the terms of his probation. Agreed?” Flores looked around at the other High Council members, who each nodded in agreement. He clapped his hands loudly once again and said, “Amen!” Each of the other council members did the same, and David’s escorts returned him to the constabulary for processing.
. . . . .
As the constables were finishing up with David, Constable Vasquez approached and offered to escort the lad to Dr. Leah’s loft. They released him into her custody, and she took him up a flight of stairs that connected to yet another bridge. Night had fallen by now, and the moon was clear in the starry sky. They walked together in silence until eventually she halted, tapped him on the shoulder, and spoke in her strangely raspy voice.
“I didn’t want you to have to go through this. If I’d had it my way, I would’ve come up with some story for how that old drunkard fell through that window. There were just too many people in the room…”, she sighed deeply, “There’s no way my story would hold…”. They took a wooden walkway around a building and were crossing another bridge before she continued, “Dr. Leah was… is, my sister-in-law. My brother, her husband, died while you were still a toddler. She was pregnant then, but shortly after, she suffered a miscarriage.” David glanced up at her sheepishly, but she continued, “I think something about you reminds her of him… my brother. I think I see it too. I’ve never seen her fight so hard for someone. …So invested…”.
She fell silent for a while until eventually, they came to a final bridge. Halfway across, she stopped him again. Tears seemed to be forming in her eyes, but there was no other evidence (in her voice or demeanor) that she was crying, “Please don’t cause any trouble for her. Over the years, we’ve grown quite close. She is my sister, now. I don’t know what it would do to her to see the Council exile you.”
For the first time in what seemed like forever, David felt a wave of emotion other than grief. He struggled briefly to understand what it was he was feeling. Hope?, he wondered, Is this hope I’m feeling? The teen looked Constable Vazquez in the eye and spoke firmly, “I will always remember the care she gave my sister. I will do what it takes to make sure I’m not the source of any more of her troubles.”
Vazquez stared at David for a few moments, but his answer seemed to satisfy the Constable. She wiped her eyes with her hand, and continued on their path like it was any other night.
. . . . .
Dr. Leah had made brief preparations in an unused room in her loft. It was clear that it had originally been intended for an infant. While the room still held a crib in the corner, there was a comfortable mat in the available corner for David. Dr. Leah had placed the rest of David’s inheritance in a small chest and had placed the chest in the room. She’d given the chest’s key to David so that he could see to his own things.
The two ate a quiet dinner together, then retired for the evening. David’s belongings, including the spear he’d received from Stever, had already been placed in his room, but Dr. Leah planned to take him to get a proper bed in the morning. She said that she’d been planning to repurpose the room for a long time.
David packed a backsack with essentials and another bag with foods from Dr. Leah’s pantries. While she was asleep, he left the key to the chest on the dining room table and left the loft quietly. Under the moonlight, he took the series of bridges and wood walks to the edge of the village and left New Dorf forever.
This is my first web-published story. Please let me know what you think in the comments below. To get the bi-weekly chapters I send out, just click here.
Special Author’s Note
David’s backstory ends here and sets the stage for his relevance to the greater story. All those things that filled his life with joy are lost, so he walks away from the memories that bring him pain. All that’s left ahead of him is Destiny.
Reading over this chapter, I’m happy with how these characters are alive in the telling, even though they may be rarely mentioned in the story at all. I’d like to know how you feel after reading this chapter, and what you feel about David’s decision.
I’d love for you to leave your thoughts in the comments.