As he awoke, Hollis Marshall decided he had never had a headache this bad, at least not without it being caused by a savage hangover.
He opened his eyes and immediately shut them with a pained hiss as they were seared by cursed sunlight. He turned his head and opened one, testing his vision to see if he had indeed gone blind, as he feared. He saw only a bare brick wall. He opened the other eye and looked around, taking in the details of the jail cell he found himself in. He lay on what was technically a cot, but in reality was a wooden plank nailed to the wall. The door to his cell looked to be wrought iron, as did the bars on the single window on the opposite wall. The window through which the piercing rays of the harsh midday sun were shining, directly onto the place where his head had been laying. The headache was making it difficult to even see straight, and the sunlight wasn’t helping one bit. He wondered darkly if that was intentional in the design. If so, the designers of this jail were a level just beyond sadistic. Wait, why was he in jail?
He sat up, or rather, attempted to. The moment he tried, blinding pain flared in his belly. With a stifled cry, he flopped back onto the cot and tried to recover. What in gods was wrong with him? His hands felt a cloth wrapping around his abdomen. He pulled up his shirt and craned his neck to inspect the injury. A bloody gauze covering over his right side was all the reminder he needed of the gunshot, and of the violent events that had led up to it.
He lay his head back with a groan and tried to concentrate, but was interrupted by a sharp clang on his prison door. His skull reverberated from the sound, and he swore by all of the gods above and below that he would punish whomever was making that sound.
“Wake up, Marshall!”
Hollis turned his head away and tried to fake being asleep. He was in far too much pain right now to deal with any and all possible consequences of his criminal life.
“Hey! Wake up!”
He heard a jingling of keys and then the telltale squeal of rusty hinges as his cell door opened. Apparently, whoever it was couldn’t take a hint. He heard footsteps approach and tensed, ready to jump into action if need be. With a sharp intake of breath and a stab of blinding pain, he realized that tensing anything, especially with his wound still fresh, was a horrifying mistake.
Whoever it was that was approaching had apparently seen his painful writhing. “Good, you’re awake. Saves me the trouble.”
Hollis opened one squinted eye to see a rather powerful looking woman in a guard uniform standing there. He didn’t recognize her. “What do you want?”, he hissed through gritted teeth.
“I need to check on that wound, make sure its not getting infected. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for a few days now. We need you alive and healthy. Until the trial, at least.” She smiled sweetly. “Then you’re on your own.”
He closed his eye and leaned back, feigning submission but mind racing furiously. Maybe when she came closer he could…
“Arms behind your head. In the manacles.”
Marvelous. He let out his breath in a disappointed huff and complied, feeling the cold metal spring shut around his wrists. These were surely barbaric times, when jails had lost their faith that prisoners would stick to the honor system. Where’s the trust?, he thought, staring at the ceiling. “You know, I usually need a few drinks before I’m game for being shackled.”
“Shut up. Now lay still.”
“Forceful. I like it.”
As she knelt beside his cot, he saw that she had no visible weapons on her at all. A quick glance at the closed cell door told him everything he needed to know about his situation. They weren’t taking any chances with him. They not only knew who he was, but what his reputation told them he was capable of. He felt her hands tugging lightly at the edges of the gauze, her eyes focused on her work.
“I know what you’re thinking, Marshall.”
“Yeah? You were born with the Gods’ Eye? What am I thinking?”
She grinned, but kept her eyes on what she was doing. “That door behind me is locked. It won’t open until I bang on it and another guard lets me out. See him back there, watching?” She raised her voice. “Simmon!”
Hollis saw a man’s head immediately peek around the edge of the wall, on the other side of the bars. “Anders! Is that prisoner giving you trouble?”
“Not a bit. Just ensuring our guest behaves for us. Now go away.” Simmon disappeared from view. Anders glanced up at Hollis. “Point taken?”
“Point taken.” He didn’t like her grin. He didn’t like her knowing glance. Something about her entire manner was starting to raise the hair on the back of his neck. “So, what happens now?”
“I wrap you back up and you sit here quietly.”
“Of course, but I meant after that. Am I just going to be left here in the dark until I die of old age?”
“You’ll go on trial for the many, many crimes committed by you and your gang.” Her hands were rough. Hollis doubted her capacity for soothing bedside manner.
“That’s hardly sporting. I mean, they did commit their own crimes. Why should I be held accountable for someone else’s actions?”
“You were their boss. Most of those crimes were committed under orders from you.”
“That’s ridiculous and I’ll prove it. Take old man Terrus, for instance.”
“What about him?”
“Am I to also be held accountable for his various misdealings and delinquencies? Or the things he made us do while he was boss? He’s been gone nearly a decade now.”
“Are you trying to give us more reasons to send you to the gallows?” She raised an eyebrow. “He was never brought to justice. Legally, we could still hold you responsible, by proxy.”
“The gallows? That’s harsh. But you see the point I’m trying to make, right? That proxy stuff is bad law. Entirely unfair.”
“Unfair? People died, you scum.”
“People should have the good sense to get out of the way when danger is about.”
Anders finished with the gauze and stood up. “You know, when word got out that we caught the leader of the Terrus gang, the other territories all wanted a piece of you, too.”
“That’s very sweet. It’s nice to know I’m so popular.”
“Some of the deputies here came up with a rather clever way to make that happen.” Oh, this doesn’t sound good.
“My ears are simply tingling with anticipation.” But on the inside, Hollis’s stomach began to knot. He had seen what happens when the accused are given over to mob law. Law being something of a euphemism here.
“Instead of a hanging, it was suggested we tie you spread-eagle to a table and have a team of horses pull your limbs in various directions.” She mimed her limbs being pulled apart. For Hollis’s benefit, to be sure. “And then representatives from the territories all get a piece of the infamous Hollis Marshall, like a souvenir. Everyone would be happy.”
Barbaric. These people had no sense of decency. He should have taken Jimmy’s suggestion after Terrus died and moved operations to Nurem. At least there he could have a civilized execution. “I don’t like that plan. It, uh, it doesn’t make me happy.”
“Well, that’s hardly up to you.”
“Okay, compromise? Hang me first until I’m dead and then, now follow me here, and then pull me apart. I can’t stress the being-dead-before-the-pulling-apart part enough.”
“I’ll pass along your wishes, but…”, she flashed a sunny grin, “I think people are in the mood to see some of the pain and misery you’ve visited upon them all these years repaid in kind.”
“Then those people are twisted. And morbid. And seriously, consider this: wouldn’t that make all the pain and misery I allegedly caused over the years kind of justified then?”
“I’m leaving now, Marshall. You had best make your peace with whatever gods you worship, not that it would do any good. The Gates will be barred to you, as they are to all of your kind.”
“Then I’ll just stand outside of them and make a terrible racket until they let me in.”
“Good luck with that.” She banged on the cell door. “Simmon! We’re done!”
She stopped and looked back at him. “What is it?”
Hollis rattled his shackled hands. “A little help here?”
Anders smiled and came back. She leaned in close, like she was going to undue the shackles. Hollis caught something in her eye, something dangerous, manic even. It was his only warning. Her fist came down on his face, smacking his entire skull to the side. The burst of pain darkened his vision and he saw stars. Without thinking, he looked back at his tormentor just in time for her fist to come down again. This time he felt a tooth come loose. He spat it at her face. Her smile became a grin, her lips pulled back to show far too many teeth, a death rictus. Her eyes blazed with insanity. “Good, Marshall. Very good.” Her tongue traced the edge of her mouth, tasting his blood. She wiped most of it away. She leaned in even closer, her mouth inches from his, her breath on him. “If you keep that up, I could see you and I having some real fun.” He could only blink his eyes to keep the blood from pooling in them. Anders giggled and gave his face a playful smack, a parting gift of face-numbing pain for him to remember her by. She did reach up and undue the shackles, at least, before sauntering away. Before long, Hollis was left alone with only the blessed sound of her boots fading into the distance.
He supposed Jimmy wasn’t the only one who let his mouth get him in trouble. Not my finest moment. He turned his head and spat out more blood. Now what?