Thanks to Dern for supplying lots of Valjean angst.
11. Fallen so far
It had begun to rain, at first gently, then more steadily. Soon the sky was steel grey, the clouds forming a solid blanket that extinguished the sun. With his arms wrapped around his knees, Valjean ignored the moisture dripping down on him through the iron bars as best as he could and studied his surroundings instead as he passed them. The cart with the prisoners trundled along slowly, the pair of stout horses pulling it moving without hurry. Paric was riding ahead with one of his leather-clad henchmen on either side, while the other mercenaries were surrounding the cart on their horses, alongside it and behind.
This was complicating things, of course. As was the cart with the iron cage built on top of it.
They were planning to take a hostage, Valjean thought grimly. They were planning for it all along! Because Paric knows Orvar well enough to think he will come to get me back.
Which makes a quick flight even more important.
Valjean's gaze flickered from the receding edge of the Rosendale forest to his left to the woods of Greengrove at his right. If he managed to flee now, the mercenaries would never find him again.
However, he could not just tear the cart in two. He had rattled the bars already, and it had been of no use; all it had earned him was a sharp poke with the blunt end of a lance.
And there still was the question of what he should do with Yossi, of course. He could not leave the lad at the mercy of Paric and his men, yet on the other hand Yossi would be nothing but an impediment for an escape attempt.
Lord, what am I to do?
He turned to look back, but there was no pursuit he could make out, none at all, only five leering men on horseback, most of them with teeth just as yellow as their mounts', following the cart.
What is Orvar going to do? Does he know already? Has anybody told him?
Where is he hiding at the moment, anyway? With Sophia?
And how comes nobody warned us of Paric's arrival? Have the men on guard been killed?
Shuddering, Valjean let his head sink down onto his knees. Why did a peaceful village have to fall victim to the horrors of war? Why did people have to die for just one man's ambition?
Whoever this one man might be. A sorcerer they had spoken of back at the forge, the Sorcerer of Norgard, but that was a legend, or wasn't it? A legend from a long time ago? Or was there some truth to it, after all?
"Yossi," Valjean whispered, and the boy lifted his tear-streaked face from his arms. "That Sorcerer you all spoke of – when exactly did he live?"
Even in his lying position, Yossi somehow managed to shrug. "Nobody knows. Perhaps Dolorin did, but Dolorin's dead, and so will we be."
"Don't talk like that. They need us alive." The question is, for how long? "Why did you try to fight Paric, anyway? It was brave of you, but you had better not done it, I can take good care of myself."
"It works like that in the stories," Yossi replied defiantly, his bright eyes meeting Valjean's gaze. "The young hero takes up the sword and fights the enemy. That's what it's supposed to be like."
Valjean sighed. This one was just as much a child as Gavroche. "In the stories, yes. In the stories a peasant boy takes on a hundred men."
"Galahir could have done it!" Yossi protested. "Galahir was a great hero, the greatest of all times!"
"Yes, but you're not Galahir, and neither am I." And besides, that's only what the stories say. Because in the stories everything has to end well, whereas in real life only God knows how it ends.
"You're making fun of me," Yossi said bitterly.
"I'm not. I'm just trying to keep you from doing anything of this kind again." Somehow Valjean doubted that the boy would listen. Brushing his moist hair out of his face, he wondered how to best cross the country once he managed to slip off. If he could steal a horse from one of the men… He had to get them to stop the cart and be very occupied with something, but how? And would he reach the forest fast enough, before one of them had the time to nock an arrow? Furthermore, he would have to abandon the horse and continue on foot once he had made it as far as the woods, because a horse would not be of much help amidst the trees. So, what to do?
"Nobody trusts me to do anything extraordinary," Yossi stated bleakly, staring into the empty air before him.
"It need not be done with a sword." Perhaps there was a way of yanking out one of the planks he was sitting on, but how should he distract all the mercenaries long enough?
"You don't understand! I want to do something brave and glorious, something people will remember me for!" Suddenly it seemed to Valjean that the lad's bright eyes were gleaming as if in fever – or was it only the glitter of tears? "I want to slay the villain and save the world!"
"Life never is as simple as that." Oh, curse that cart! Why couldn't they have brought another one, one with less massive bars?
"Why can't I play a role in this story?"
"Everybody plays a role in a story," Valjean answered, his eyes following a small swarm of crows that briefly whirled across the sky, then disappeared into the green crowns of the trees to his right. "It may not seem important to you, but you have your place in this world, and your part to play. You have your parents and your friends and lots of others to whom you matter."
"But you heard that man!" Yossi whispered hoarsely, his gaze flickering from side to side uneasily, but the mercenaries were not really watching them. "There's glory and riches in the world out there! Why should it be kept from me, only because everybody thinks I can't have it?"
Fool, three times fool! "Do not listen to a man like this Paric! You see where his ambition and avarice brought him!"
It came out sharper than intended, and Yossi swallowed and fell silent, but not without a gaze of helpless fury at Valjean. Wiping his eyes with his sleeve defiantly, he took to staring ahead, towards a cloud of smoke that seemed to be hovering above Stonesend.
And above the village at the foot of the mountains, high above, small points of light shone like a ring of stars crowning the place that was known as Norgard.
Later on Valjean could not tell how long it had taken for them to be brought past the burning village of Stonesend and up the steep mountain road to Norgard. It could not have been a long time or else the horses pulling the cart would have appeared more tired, but it had seemed to him just like the eternity spent on the wagon that had taken him to the galleys a long time ago.
Back then he had cried. Now his eyes remained dry, but his heart was not less heavy. For some reason, while he warily watched the mercenaries and studied his surroundings, the image of Fantine's goat trampling the flowerbeds repeatedly came to his mind – one small thing of many he would not be able to put right now.
At last they passed a gate hewn into the stone, flanked by quiet sentinels clad in black, and darkness swallowed them. Torches on the tunnel wall cast a ghostly light over the winding way. Was this the entrance to Norgard? Valjean shivered in his moist clothes. Was it the only way out, or were there others? And if there were, how would he find them?
He would. Come what may, he would.
Before them another gate swung open, and at once they were back under the sky. There was a parapet on one side, so that Valjean could not see the valley spread out far below, and on the other the mountain's flank rose up steeply, lines of windows and parapets interrupting its smoothness. As he craned his neck, he perceived a tower high above, sleek and steep, as if grown from the core of the mountain itself. Several walkways originated from it and led away towards other towers, as Valjean assumed, he could not see much more of the structure above since the rock wall was high and slightly overhanging. Was there a fortress above him? The fortress of Norgard?
As the cart trundled on along the paved road, he watched the men and the handful of women outside and wondered whether Norgard was a castle, as he had originally believed, or an actual city. Most men were clad in plain brown and busy carrying loads or driving laden carts, and some worked at the fence along the edge of the road. One was sitting on the parapet on the other side and apparently doing nothing, but judging from his ill-assorted attire of black and brown leather and the sword he was girded with, that one was another mercenary, and he and Paric greeted each other with a lazy salute as they passed. From an opening in the mountainside several men in green breeches and tunics emerged and hastened upwards without paying heed to the cart with the prisoners. Hardly anyone did, Valjean noticed. A green-clad woman raised her head briefly as one of the mercenaries cursed at the horses, but she returned to her occupation quickly enough. Valjean could not quite make out what she was doing, but it seemed to him that she was repainting a wooden gate that led into the mountain just like the tunnel opening from before. There were such gates at regular intervals, he noticed, most of them closed, but some were wide open, and brown-garbed workers carried sacks and rolled barrels in and out.
Storerooms, then. How useful to know.
The road curved upwards and through another tunnel. They passed an open space like a square, many small huts built along its sides. From its opposite side another road forked off and disappeared into a tunnel mouth bathed in the light of two massive torches. Here some of the mercenaries left Paric's train and heeled their horses into a loose trot, disappearing into the shadows. The rest chose the way that took them through a high arch of black stone that was carved with what appeared to be runes, along another curve of the road, with the valley becoming visible far below – wasn't this the forest of Rosendale, this distant patch of green? –, and then to another gate that suddenly loomed before them. Guards in mercenary costumes flanked it, three on either side, and raised their lances in salute to Paric, who answered with a curt nod of his head. There was a brief exchange between one of the guardsmen, a stout fellow with a face dark as ebony, and one of those accompanying the cart, then the rider saluted Paric and galloped ahead. "Mind you mention the purpose!" Paric called after him, then he clicked his fingers at another of his companions, who tugged at one of the horses' reins, and the cart moved on.
Valjean had thought the streets he had seen until then were busy already, but it was nothing compared to what awaited them now. Mercenaries in their usual leather attire, most carrying swords and daggers, hurried this way or that or stood together in small groups, watching those who passed by warily. Once again there were several of the men and women clad in green, all busy going about some chore. The dresses and tunics were seamed in yellow and embroidered with what looked like an ornate dragon's head on the chest, as Valjean now saw. Was this the symbol of Norgard? He considered asking Yossi for a moment, but the lad was crouching in the hindmost corner of the cage, his hands clenched around the bars, gazing out and demonstratively away from Valjean, his chin pushed out in defiance, his eyebrows lowered to what almost seemed a caricature of fury. Some of the mercenaries pointed at him and laughed, but he stared through them, a statue of quietly seething, helpless rage.
It's the dark seed of Paric's words, Valjean thought as he studied the youth's angry profile. It's already growing…
Lord above, Yossi, what am I to do with you? How do I get you out of here and back to your parents?
Past walls and bastions they were transported, past stone buildings and barracks, past lanes and crossings. Valjean did his best to keep their route in mind, and it was not particularly hard, because they were heading more or less straight ahead and slightly upwards. After some time they passed another post of guards and entered into a narrow gauge lined by high stone walls. At its beginning a huge fire burned on a stout pillar above them, hissing in the rain. Here Paric turned his tall steed and headed away, back into the city of stone that was Norgard, and Valjean saw how Yossi followed him with his eyes. Above the cluster of stone buildings climbing up the mountain that now lay behind them, the tower he had seen before had become visible now, a steep spire rising into the grey sky, and many more, connected to it by narrow walkways high above the ground. And above them, above parapet-crowned ramparts, rose the fortress of Norgard.
As their guards dragged them out of the cart and pushed them into separate cells built into the side of a low, narrow building, as the massive metal door slammed shut behind Valjean and he was left alone in the cold, damp darkness, the image still was visible against the inside of his eyelids: the walls and towers of Norgard, black against the empty sky.
Sitting with his back against the wall, his arms wrapped around his knees, Valjean at first attempted to count the passing minutes, but soon gave it up again. It was of no use. For now, there was no getting out of here – there were no windows, and the door was too strong to be lifted out of its hinges –; all he could do was wait.
If he managed to escape, which path should he choose? Back through that narrow road between the steep walls? No. It was too well guarded. Was there another way out? The low building that currently held him cowered against another wall, a high one that encircled something, whatever it might be, but maybe there was an escape route out if he chose to turn left, where naked rock rose up in nature's bizarre pattern. It would not be easy to climb there, but it was the only chance he had. Or perhaps the opposite way? He had not seen where that lead – theoretically down the mountainside, but a wall had hidden the valley from his sight. He assumed that he could climb that obstacle, but it was risky, not knowing what lay beyond. It might be a meadow as well as a deep chasm.
And moreover, there still remained the unsolved problem of how to save Yossi from Norgard's clutches. The foolish, foolish boy…There was something about him and his manner that made Valjean recall that other lad, Enjolras, although Valjean could not honestly say he knew either of them well. Enjolras was a natural-born leader, that much was obvious from the moment one set eyes on him. He also lacked the rashness more prominent in Yossi, even though he sometimes displayed something similar to it when it came to one of the subjects he was passionate about, but even then it was not something exactly like rashness. Perhaps it was his single-mindedness making itself known; the boy could go on ignoring everything else around him when he had his will set on a certain goal, or some aspect of his constant yearning for something more, his adherence to higher standards and ideals. But the Enjolras Yossi resembled in a way did not seem to be the one from the barricades, judging from what little Valjean had seen and learned of him. No, it was the distinct air about the boy as Valjean had met him in Rosendale, as he was now, after death – no matter how abstract and alien the concept might be and how difficult, maybe even impossible, in the end it was for Valjean to get used to the idea.
To be exact, everyone seemed changed somehow. It was to be expected in a way, but it still took a fair amount of getting used to. Some changes were far more subtle, and Valjean was often left wondering whether what he had just noted about someone in whose company he found himself was something previously unknown to him because he had not talked much to or even known the person well at all, or some new trait of character caused by the mystifying yet serene environment that was Rosendale.
Yes, but hardly serene, was it now? There had been something distinctly calming and comforting about the place even after the chaos and shock of the initial attack. At the moment, though… Perhaps, Valjean mused, it was his separation from all he had come to know in the short time he had been given that was causing the amount of turmoil he sensed growing within himself, even though he tried hard to ignore it. Perhaps if someone could somehow come at that very moment and take him back to Rosendale he would quickly put every unpleasantness behind him and find what joy was to be had in all those small things demanding his attention every day. The joy, he realised, was far greater than one would expect. The simplicity and soothing quality of tasks such as needed to be seen to around Fantine's household could work wonders on a man's peace of mind. Yet only now did Valjean fully realise this, and how much it had truly meant to him.
With a soft sigh, he shifted to try to find a more comfortable sitting position against the wall. The uneven stones were digging into his back painfully, and the dampness of the cramped space was unpleasant, to say the very least. Unpleasant, too, despite or perhaps even because of its calming and comforting effect in other surroundings, was the trail Valjean found his thoughts wandering down now, yet he could not keep himself from thinking of Fantine. What he had done in the smithy had certainly affected her; she had not been able to hide it, if she had tried to do so at all. Was she perhaps angry with him for acting as he had? Could she understand why he had felt compelled to take Master Wenslow's place? Maybe she even could, yes. Valjean had not met many people in his life for whom he could have said so, but had Fantine not sacrificed herself many times and in some of the most degrading ways possible, always putting the needs of her daughter above her own? Valjean hoped she would understand what he had done and why he had done it, without being unnecessarily saddened or worried, no matter how much he secretly enjoyed the realisation that there was someone, somewhere, concerned for his well-being and safety.
Maybe Fantine was even awaiting his return. It seemed an encouraging notion, but Valjean forced himself to focus on conserving his strength, in case an opportunity for escape presented itself. Fantine. The feeling the name recalled in this most unfriendly environment was not one Valjean could readily place. It evoked many things and, most of all, memories, but on the whole it was a matter as of yet unclear to him, completely impossible to define or explain. Was this what missing someone felt like? No, perhaps it would be best to describe it as fear of never seeing the person in question again. Why, he could only ask himself then, was it different than what he had felt when he had been imprisoned the first time, torn out of his surroundings and away from his family to be thrown into a completely alien and frightening world? Questions were simply all too eager to present themselves sometimes, especially in situations when Valjean had only himself to keep him company, and questions were not something he particularly enjoyed. Still, there was not much here to distract his attention, so a perfect opportunity for thinking everything over arose.
Had at that very moment some sort of deep rumbling sound warned him of the walls of the small cell beginning to shift and close in, Valjean would not have felt surprise. Knowing not what was to come, if anything was, he simply let his mind wander, hoping that perhaps by some stroke of improbably good fortune an idea worthy of a mastermind would come to him and a miraculous way of escape would make itself known. He had spent a lot of time musing, in situations not unlike the one he found himself in now. This time, though, the wanderings of his mind were somewhat different, and in many ways less grim than before. He found he did not feel the need for any thoughts of a bitter or hateful nature, and there was no one he could be angry at, no one to resent almost single-mindedly. Long ago, it seemed, he had readily aimed all his anger and his hate at the very concept of humanity, human society as it was. He might have, now, deliberately and carefully brought himself to hate the very name of Norgard, or convince himself that that Rendon Paric was the cause of all his troubles and worry, thus making him the target of every bit of anger Valjean could find in himself. While perhaps even not so long ago this would have been the reaction which would have come naturally to him, he simply could not bring himself to view matters as such now. Norgard was most certainly a synonym for evil, yes, there could be no doubt about that, and Paric was in every way a scoundrel and the very opposite of what could be called a decent man. But there was something different at work behind both, or so it seemed to Valjean, and he did not see it as his place to feel anger towards either. Disgust, yes, mistrust, of course, it came almost naturally, even, this he had to admit, a touch of what might be fear. But anger such as he had even taken pride in some time ago was not something Valjean associated with Norgard, or anything of this world at all. A part of his life best left behind, Valjean decided, shifting uncomfortably as a physical manifestation of the shame and even guilt he felt when recalling the strength of his emotions the night he discovered Cosette's letter to Marius...
The muffled sound of voices outside made him raise his head. At once he tensed, ready to leap up if any way of escape should suddenly open up to him. There were men outside once again, several men, at least three, and they were coming closer while speaking loudly, yet he could not make out the words…
It seemed to him that there was the sound of huge bars pushed back from nearby, though he could not say it with certainty. Was this where they kept Yossi? Had they come for the boy? Had they come for them both? Slowly he got to his feet, his thoughts seething and raging inside his head. Hide behind the door and push through once it's opened. No, cower in a corner and then slip past them when they can't see you. No, they'll have torches, you need to snatch one from them and – No, you'll be easier to find if you carry a torch. You might use it for a diversion, though, a diversion of any kind, no matter what…
It seemed that the voices were receding again. Valjean strained his ears, standing close to the door, but still he was unable to understand what was going on. The tension was beginning to leave his limbs again – not his turn yet, not yet – when suddenly he heard a distant scream of agony, long and drawn-out, and at last dying away, swallowed by the silence of the dark cell.
Yossi! Was that the landlord's boy's voice? Had they done anything to him?
And just then, the bars outside were shifted and the door swung open, and the light of the torches, glittering on two sword blades pointed at him, blinded his eyes. "You there," a man bellowed, a silhouette against the dimly lit corridor, "come out, move!"
Valjean blinked into the firelight, already looking for a gap that might open, a way of escape… But then his arms were grabbed from both side, and he felt cold, pointy metal pushed between his shoulder blades. "Watch that one!" someone warned at his left ear, and the grip on his right arm tightened. "Come on," a dark-faced man snarled at him, baring a set of teeth of which some glittered with gold. "Get going, you damn sluggard!"
As he was dragged out, he was surrounded by leather-clad men, five, no, six, no, rather seven, he could not quite count them, and they marched him down the narrow corridor surprisingly fast for such a huddle, with a tall, bald fellow carrying a torch leading the way, jingling a huge ring of keys at his belt. Keys? It briefly occurred to Valjean that he had been kept behind bars, not behind a lock, but the thought slipped away again as they pushed and dragged him around a corner and into a low room brightly lit by a roaring fire. Beside it and with his back to him cowered Yossi, whimpering and covering his face with his shirt that he held in his hands, his spine and ribs visible under the skin in sharp relief on his narrow back.
One of his captors called out a command Valjean did not quite understand, and one of the leather-clad men in the room reached for the handle of something that was kept on a rack in the fire –
And then Valjean knew what was coming. Hardly aware of what he was doing, he struggled against the mercenaries' grasp, for a moment succeeding in breaking free before yet more hands clenched around his arms and shoulders, an image turning up before his inner eye, a recollection he wanted to forget. He shook off another man, but then someone kicked him in the knee from behind and he fell over, with many hands holding him down. Two cursing men had taken each arm and were twisting him around so that he came to lie on his back, while another held a sword under his chin. One kicked at his side, waving for others to join them. "Get him out of his shirt!" a lean fellow barked, his scarred face appearing in Valjean's vision for a moment. At once he felt fingers clench into the cloth and beginning to pull at it, and once again boots dug into his ribs and curses sounded above him. "Lie still, you hound!" "Will you hold him down, damn you!" "Out of my way!" "Get the whip, you moron, get the whip!" "Curse you, you half-breed, stop fighting!" Momentarily his vision was darkened by the linen of his shirt, but then it was yanked away from him, and he perceived a narrow, impassive face above him. "Hold him tight," the man said, speaking out of the corner of his mouth, which gave him an expression of contempt. "Golrath's blessing, ain't that a beast."
Two strong men knelt on each of his arms now, and one sat on each leg. Valjean tried to move, but was unable to. The narrow-faced man approached, his bloodless lips twitching into a lopsided smile as he brought down an intricate pattern of brightly glowing metal on a long stick –
Valjean clenched his teeth and made no sound as the red-hot iron was pressed onto his skin. His breath caught at the feeling of the intense, burning heat on his chest, his fingernails boring into his own palms. The seconds elongated into eternity as he lay there helplessly, blinded by bright dots dancing before his eyes. At last the instrument was lifted again, and he gasped for breath. The pressure on his arms was released as well, but he was too dizzy to get up. Still little points of light filled the chamber, blurring the faces above him. His limbs felt heavy, and the left side of his chest throbbed with a pain that had hardly lessened. He thought to make out the strangely sweet stench of burned flesh mingling with the odours of smoke, sweat and mould filling the chamber. What now? Would they return him to his cell now and leave him there, like they had done when they had brought him to Brest and branded him with the letters standing for a lifetime of slavery?
A lifetime of slavery. He had believed that he had escaped his fate when he had come to Rosendale, but his sentence had caught up with him once more.
Someone kicked him in the shoulder, and he sat up, suppressing a groan. Slowly the room shifted back into focus, and the shiny dots faded away, leaving nothing but the pain. Looking down himself, he saw that the skin on the left side of his chest was raw and red, forming an ornate dragon's head seen from the side, about as large as his palm. The same symbol he had seen embroidered on the tunics and dresses of Norgard's green-clad servants, he recalled. The symbol of Norgard.
"Here goes the brute," one of the men above him jeered, and there was rough laughter that did not quite succeed in drowning out a long-drawn whimper from Yossi. "Back up you get!"
"Put them back into their cells," another voice commanded. "Let them get some rest for tomorrow. You, Snaruk, bring them a bowl of water each. Then get their names and add them to the list. Understood?"
"Aye," replied the narrow-faced man who had just branded them, turning on his heel and hurrying out. The others closed in on Valjean and Yossi, and Valjean felt himself being pulled up roughly. His legs carried him, though the dizziness still held sway over him and his knees felt weak.
One of the men tossed his shirt at him, and he automatically caught it and meant to pull it on again, yet the mercenary beside him slapped his hand. "You won't want to wear a shirt for some time, pal," he advised him in a strangely slurred accent. "Trust me to know that."
As the heavy door closed behind Valjean once more, he felt the small spark of hope he had harboured in his heart flicker and die, swallowed by the burning monster upon his chest.