Of Palest Ebony

Another story idea I played around with for a bit. Probably isn’t going to go anywhere. If you like it, though, let me know, maybe I can come up with the next part. If not, well, here’s a short story idea for you today. Food for thought. 

The cell was dark and cool, like a pantry. Unpleasant smells filled it: urine, old body odor, stale food, stale straw—but underneath it all was a tantalizing smell of wet stone and something akin to rain. It was almost worth it to breathe through all the foulness to get to that one, wet breath. It reminded her of storms and waterfalls. It reminded her of freedom.

Breathing carefully, as though trying to teach herself to shift through certain air, the small, incredibly pale girl looked up to the ceiling. Long, curling and dirty light blond hair sunk down her back as she did so. Above that rock somewhere was the sky. She could almost feel it.

But in the end, all she could really feel was the cold stone around her and that almost out of reach smell of wet rocks. Sighing, she hugged her knobby knees closer to her. Her skin nearly glowed in the small light from the tiny bared window in the door. Had she always been so pale? Perhaps not. But how long had she been away from the sunlight? Perhaps too long. She didn’t care to think. At the same time it felt as though it hadn’t really been that long since the day she was finally caught with the stolen food in her arms; the day her limber legs had failed her.

Somewhere in the distance, a door opened. Its hinges creaked like a canon. She flinched.

“Dinner time, you louses.”

Footsteps. Tiny, squeaking doors. When it came her turn a tiny wooden tray was pushed through a small flap at the bottom of her door. She stared hard at it, wrinkling her nose.

Unfortunately for her, the guard had been watching.

“Aw, don’t give me that face, darling, or you may find yourself eating worse with the dogs. If you had only accepted my offer—“

But by then she had already scrambled back into the deepest darkness of her cell, far from the light of the window. The guard rolled his eyes and left her door with a few well placed female slanders. She stayed still and quiet in the darkness until she heard that thunderous squeal of the door closing. Even then she eyed her food distrustfully.

A minute later, the sound of rock grinding against rock broke the silence of her cell. Barely visible through the small light, a large portion of brick wall scooted out and to the side and a lanky form squeezed through. A boy in his teens with a horse like face and scraggily orange hair grinned at her.

“He gots a point you know.” he nudged the tray with his foot, which at the moment had a dark piece of bread, a rather tiny bruised apple, and a bowl of watery soup. “You should be grateful. I don’t know what’s gotten into you.”

“I’m just not hungry.” she murmured. Truth be told she was ravenous, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.

“Are you sick?”

In a way, she felt she was. Sick in spirit, for her spirit only wanted one thing: that big blue expanse above her. But instead of answering, she buried her head in her arms. She could feel his worried frown on her without having to see his expression. His ratty shoes scuffled against the floor as he picked up the tray and came over to her.

“Ebony, please. You need to eat or you’ll get weak and…oh, come on! You don’t want to get smaller and scrawnier than you already are, do you?”

“I just don’t want to.”

“Then can you at least talk to me?”

“About what?”

“About what’s going on. Does your stomach hurt? Are you sad?”

Without really wanting to, she got angry at such a stupid question. “I’m in a dungeon underground away from my sick mother eating half rotten food and sitting in my own waste, Ethan, am I suppose to be happy?”

And as she expected, he fired up right back in response. “Forgive me for being concerned, princess! Would you like me to just seal you up all nice and tight in your little angsty corner and not care if you die?”

“I don’t even know why you care.” she mumbled, half ashamed of her outburst. “We just met.”

“You injure me. We’ve had a whole month to get all cozy in here.”

“Glad I could entertain you.”

A familiar silence fell in between them, although somewhat awkward. The ginger sighed heavily and plopped himself next to her. He dropped the tray at her feet, sending the pathetic little apple rolling away.

After a few minutes he asked, “Have we tried prying at the hinge bolts with the tray yet?”

“Enough, Ethan.”

“What?”

“We can’t escape. We just have to wait until our sentence is done and they let us out.”

“Which should be soon, right? Only, what, three more months?”

She let out a long breath and turned her head away from him. “There’s no use.”

“Huh?”

“She’ll be dead by then anyways.”

Another long, awkward quiet. Alone in this darkness, the two had become quite accustomed to this. But this time they both could feel the weight. The young man, quite at a loss of how to bring cheer into this particular topic, leaned his head back against the stone wall.

Suddenly, Ebony gave out a small gasp and tensed, instantly sending Ethan into alarm.

“You all right? Ebony, do you hurt?”

“It’s just my back.”

He furrowed his eyebrows. “I know the floors are hard, but—“

“Not like that. It just flares up now and then. I think it’s just growing pains.”

He tried to sound cheerful with this—at least they weren’t talking about dead mothers anymore. “Then that’s good! You’re getting bigger! Another good reason to eat.”

She seriously doubted the gruel they fed them could be considered nutritious enough to grow off of. She was quickly becoming tired of his and her stomach’s nagging, however, so she reached out for the abandoned apple and wiped it needlessly on her grungy clothes. Ethan positively beamed.

“That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it? Growing bigger? Then when you get out you can finally look your 16 years and reel in a rich duke or something.”

She snorted. “Why don’t I just get a prince while I’m at it, eh? Disgusting, unlawful gypsies and street waifs are all the rage in court nowadays.”

“If that’s the case, shoot, get me a princess while you’re at it.”

“What would you like me to look for?”

“Well, I like them tall—really tall, with lots of dark hair and big, pretty dark eyes. Should be easy enough to find. Just look for anyone who is the opposite of you.”

“And rich, I suppose?”

“Of course. But I figured that was a given. Oh, and I would like her to be a dog person, love her coffee, and, uh, oh yes, have the figure of two silver pieces tied together by a jerkin.”

This finally made her lift her head from her arms and stare at him. “Two silver pieces tied together by a jerkin?”

“I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Who ever heard of such a description? And what kind of lady would ever be wooed by such a remark?”

“The said princess that you are going to find for me, of course!”

She looked to the ceiling. “Oh, lord.” And to stop herself from saying anything more she took a few bites of the apple. Already she was half way done with it, and Ebony did not have a large mouth at all. No sooner had she swallowed when her back gave another burning, painful twinge. At the same time, her head gave a nasty throb near her forehead. A small noise of pain escaped her lips. Her companion looked at her in concern.

“Do you want me to try and rub something?” he asked.

“I think that would just make it worse.”

“Oh.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, were you excited for that?”

To this, he scowled. “Who do you take me for?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“Besides, you are defiantly not two pieces of silver and a jerkin.”

“And I am fairly glad for that. I may just snap in half.”

“Women of true beauty outstrip the laws of nature.”

But she wasn’t listening. The back pain had come again, this time more consistent, as well as her headache. She leaned over herself, groaning. For nights she had thought these occasional pains were simply from sleeping on the pathetic excuse for a bed on the floor. Perhaps there was something truly wrong with her back because of it.

“I’ll be fine.” she said before Ethan could ask. “I just need to lie down.”

He hesitated, as though testing her words in the air, then said, “All right. Just try to eat.”

“I will.”

And he left, sliding the portion of the brick wall separating their cells between them as she went. Once again she was alone in the darkness and silence. She sighed and finished off her apple. She hardly noticed the rest of the sad excuse for food go down her throat as she listened to the murmurs of the other prisoners and the occasional crackle of torchlight. Instead of lying down, however, she hung her head in her hands and let her tears trickle onto the floor. Somehow, crying made the pain seem less. At least the pain in her back and head.

Images of her passionate, gypsy mother passed through her mind. Wild, passionate, and with that thick mane of dark hair—so unlike her own. She could hear the drums and guitars of her grandfather’s music, and high above that her cousin Cazet’s keening violin, as she danced before her mind’s eye. How she missed the hot fires and open skies framed by their colorful caravans. How she missed the freedom. And how she missed them all.

It was a pity she had been caught so soon. She had not always been such a common thief, for her people did have their pride, against popular belief. Her family had always been able to provide for themselves. But when her mother had fallen ill, and the only relief for the illness being too expensive for even their combined efforts, she had grown desperate. And it had just been sitting right there in front of the merchant’s carriage, gleaming in bunches of bumpy, golden berries: starberries. In her mind it was simple: throw away her pride, or throw away her mother’s life. There was no indecision.

So when the plump merchant turned to check on the back, she dashed forward, snapped them down, and ran for it on her long, skinny legs.

Of course the whole family only had to look at the berries to know what she had done. Starberries were a rare commodity like unto diamonds. For the most part, though, they seemed to understand how she had reasoned and didn’t reject her. For a full three days after that the color had returned to her mother’s grey face and she was able to stand without fainting or breathing hard. But soon, sooner than Ebony wanted, her mother returned to her bed, barely able to breathe, with her complexion greyer than ever.

Desperate, she had hunted down the merchant again. Sadly, she was never born to be a thief, and the merchant knew better than to leave his merchandise hanging again. Caught with half her body thrown into his wagon, searching for berries, she was grabbed, handed into the authorities, and with the price of rare star berries on her brow, was thrown into the cell she was in now.

If her poor, beautiful mother wasn’t dead already, she would be when they finally released her. Few survived from black fever as it was.

Yet it was impossible for Ebony to imagine her sarcastic, fiery mother giving in so easily to the whims of any sickness, let alone death itself. She had been born to grow into one of the old that surprised the world with their fire. The passionate woman who had her way, stubborn, willful, but more loving than the angels themselves, couldn’t be meant to die in such a simple way as by sickness. It just couldn’t happen.

And Ebony just couldn’t shake the thought that it was her fault. If she had just been smarter and not so desperate; if she had simply not stolen at all and stayed by her mother’s side when she needed her most…maybe it would have all turned out differently.

Then a new thought: how would she be able to face the rest of the family, knowing she had abandoned her mother, their sister, cousin, daughter, aunt, when she had needed her? She had stolen. She had dishonored them.

When these thoughts came, the darkness was almost comforting.

Her scalp hurt from her tugging on her hair.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I’m sorry, mother. I’m sorry.”

She had only wanted to keep her mother. Why did God have to be so cruel as to throw her in here instead? Was it because she was gypsy? Or had she defied him in wanting her mother to live? Sometimes she really wondered about the power the priests called benevolent and all loving. If God were so loving a being, would he take anyone’s mother away? Wouldn’t he have helped her, even though she was stealing? Weren’t there any lines that God did not cross out of mercy? With endless mercy, endless forgiveness, one would think he had enough to spare.

Or perhaps it wasn’t God at all, but just her own mistakes.

With these thoughts, the pale girl tipped over onto her side and fell asleep on the cold stone.

***

The night rent apart when she awoke to an itching fire in her back. She never knew itching could be such pain, but it tore out a cry from her throat. Torchlight flickered madly in her blurring vision.

She had no thought for what could be happening. The bricks were already sliding past when the terror began to overwhelm her.

Ethan fell at her side as she cried out.

What’s wrong?”

My back,” she gasped.

Without asking more he turned her towards him and gently prodded his fingers along her back for knotted muscles—but didn’t get very far when his fingers brushed near her shoulder blades and she hissed with pain. He snapped his hand back. He had felt something, and it did not feel like a knot. A tremor of fear ran along his spine.

You don’t think…” he started, then stopped as she gave a pitiful cry. He could think of a dozen reasons someone would have firm, long somethings underneath their skin, and none of them were pretty. Nonetheless, Ebony was already frightened as it was, so it wouldn’t do any good to talk of sickly bone growths or gaelic worms to her. That didn’t leave him with many options, however.

Ethan, it itches—I’m going to go mad!”

You won’t, just make sure you stay on your side and relax. I’m going to go get some water.”

The water he spoke of was a bucket that collected rain and ground water from the dripping ceiling. The bucket was somewhat rusty, with a hole near the bottom plugged up with straw. When he lifted it he could feel it was halfway full. Not what he had hoped, but better than most days.

He waddled awkwardly back through the hole in the wall with the bucket hanging between his knees. Trying to save as much water as possible, he lowered the bucket next to the writhing girl. It took everything he could not to panic. What if she was sick? Prison life was a harsh, dirty life, and when one got sick it usually meant death was nearby. What if she…

Biting his lip, he dipped his hands into the water and proffered them to the corner of her mouth. His fingers held together as tightly as was physically possible.

Here. Water. If you turn your head I’ll just pour it right in.”

When she whimpered piteously and curled deeper into her ball, he couldn’t help his hands from trembling. A few drops tickled off his knuckles.

Please, Ebony.” He said as softly as he could, his voice shaking, “it might help. It’s clean, and water is suppose to heal.”

But she shook her head. “My back. Please, my back.”

He quickly dumped the palmfull of water back. “What do you need?”

A rock—I don’t know, just please stop the itch, it hurts!”

I’m not sure–,” but he gulped hard. That wasn’t an answer. But he couldn’t take something like a rock to her back.

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