Fallen Victors - Jonathan Lenahan


Eyes blacker than the bottom of a deep well opened, and Prisoner Twenty-Four blinked away the remnants of his sleeping nightmare. The pungent odor of unwashed bodies mixed with the earthy smell of the dirt floor violated his nose. Brick walls stole warmth from the air. His arms interlocked, he burrowed further into the straw mattress, his thin body rubbing against the splintered wooden slats. Above him, close enough to bang his head against, a bed shifted, his cellmate’s ankles hanging over its edge. Prisoner Twenty-Four closed his eyes, shudders shooting through him as he imagined his death, courtesy of the ancient bunk’s inevitable collapse.

He swung his feet onto the grimy floor and walked six tiny steps to the opposite side of the room, careful to avoid the raw filth seeping from the overflowing rusty bucket in the corner. On the top bunk, his cellmate’s thundering snores sounded like the beating of a hundred hammers against a hundred oaken shields. Trusting the noise to cover the movements of air, he began a series of exercises, the last remnants of his days on the outside, before they’d sentenced him to this prison where the spoken word was more valuable than a warhorse in an army of foot soldiers.

Pushups became one-handed pushups, which then became wall-assisted handstands, and finally, freestanding handstand pushups. Lunges became squats, which then became pistols that segued into planches. A sweat built upon his brow, but still no emotion crossed his face. Breathe in. Breathe out. Wipe sweat from forehead. Breathe in. Breathe out. His joints, filled with dead air, popped in relief as his body warmed to the task.

Another day in Whispers, a name appropriate for a prison where talk was forbidden and contact was forcibly kept to a minimum. A place where the silent seconds turned into minutes, hours, days, months, and finally lapsed into years as he languished away with only his thoughts for company. A muscle in his back twitched, and he clenched his jaw to keep the pain from escaping.

His cellmate’s rhythmic breathing sputtered, stopped, and then restarted. In the cell across him, Prisoner Twenty-Two stood and yawned, arms stretching to brush the low-hanging dirt ceiling. Mindful of the shuffling feet and creaking wooden bunks echoing down the passage, Prisoner Twenty-Four finished his routine and tiptoed back into his bed. While he waited, he idly scratched phrases into the dirt floor, never building past nine words before erasing and beginning anew.

His fingers smudged a word from existence, and then added another. A beautiful red rose is worth little in a sea of them, but when grown in a desert, it is beyond worth. Here, in Whispers, where silence and pain were layered atop one another, leaving small room for anything else, the spoken word had become equivalent to that desert rose. He found himself mouthing the words scratched on the floor, not daring to voice them aloud.

On the wall next to the Prisoner Twenty-Two, a palsied hand had etched a crude number eleven, its ends jagged and uneven. Inside, the prisoner’s gaping mouth finally shut and he leaned against his cell’s iron bars, each the size of a big man’s wrist. Thump. Thump. Thump. Prisoner Twenty-Two kept a steady beat against them, the sound barely audible a few feet past the cell.

On the hundredth beat, footsteps approached, muffled by a thick curtain of dirt. Prisoner Twenty-Four rose. The cell’s bars felt cool against his face. A trio of guards walked down the passageway, at the front a strong-jawed man, two thick-necked companions close behind. They passed cells One and Two, and then Three and Four. Prisoner Twenty-Four wondered at his own steady heart rate: when had this become the norm?

Stopping at Cell Eleven, Strong Jaw said, “Prisoner Twenty-One, you have saved a total of zero words. How many would you like to save?” The prisoner in question, possessed of a round head atop a spindly neck, sat mutely on the bed, eyes studying the floor.

Strong Jaw nodded. “Prisoner Twenty-Two, you have saved a total of six words. Would you care to use them now?”

A slow shake of the head.

“How many would you like to save?”

Prisoner Twenty-Two raised a hand with dirt-encrusted nails. He held up two fingers, and then, wincing, unfurled a third.

“Very well,” said Strong Jaw. He inserted a small, golden key into Eleven’s only door, grinding it against the rust that clotted the lock’s mechanisms. Prisoner Twenty-One moved farther onto the bed, bringing his legs to his chest.

Prisoner Twenty-Two backed against the