Metal Fatigue — Daniel Enderle
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief. They crouched on the rough wooden planks of a stone walled room on a top floor of an ancient keep. Not all dungeons are in basements. The tall slit window, set deep in a niche with angled sides designed for archers, was too narrow for either of them, gaunt as they were, to fit through. And it was far above jagged boulders piled against the walls. There were the bodies of barbarians down there; some old, some fresh. The old ones, with protruding bones, lay unmourned. The fresh, still bloated, ones were attended by carrion crows.
The joker could observe that spectral tableau as the window was just wide enough to allow his head to pass through. But it was narrow enough to abrade his ears when he retracted it. He kept doing so despite their now scratched and bloody condition because he savored the outside air compared to the fetid atmosphere of their shared quarters.
Also, the section of his vineyard visible on the hill above the ruined village remained intact. He harbored few illusions regarding its long term survival, now that the king was dead, but, damn, for long moments, he almost felt he could flutter up there to usurp his old haunts.
He was a relative newcomer to this cell compared with the thief who wore a thick leather collar tethered by a square linked chain to a spike set in the wall. His right arm ended at his cauterized wrist covered in angry, freshly healed scars.
“This situation is getting way too hairy for me, man. There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief. I should have known. Everything was going too fucking well. Businessmen drink my wine at court and I start making serious coin. And you know what else, man? The ploughmen dig my herb. The serfs like getting high. I was growing the best bud in the realm. I spent years developing that strain. That made me quite popular among the rabble, but none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“Then I tell one little joke, the king clutches his arm and dies laughing. Suddenly, I’m the asshole. It’s not my fault he bit the big one and it’s not my fault he left no male heirs. God knows he did enough boinking. I guess all his shots banked left. Now we’re getting invaded every fucking weekend.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief he kindly spoke.
“You’re pretty sanguine for a guy sporting a brand new stump.”
“Ah, it’s not that big a deal, really.”
“How can you say that, man?”
“Well, I’m a lefty.”
The joker had to laugh. Then he said, “Right on, man. I gotta hand it to you. That’s some cold blooded shit, right there.”
“There are many here among who feel life is but a joke.”
“Life is funny, but it’s not hilarious. It’s kind of a deadly joke.”
“Like the one you told the king?”
“Very funny. We could die right here in this room, man.”
“But you and I we’ve been through that and this is not our fate.”
“You’re pretty optimistic for a guy who’s chained to a wall. What’re you gonna do when those fuckers come back? You know, next time they’ll breach the gate and here you are chained like a dog.”
“It’s no big deal. My old man was a blacksmith.”
“What’s that got to do with it, Jethro?”
“Well, he was a lot better than the drunkard they had here in this pissant little castle.”
“So? What? Are you telling me you can break the chain?”
“Probably not, this one’s old school, but this pin ain’t worth much and they didn’t bother setting it in very deep.”
“Still, I don’t think we can yank it out.”
“I appreciate you saying “we”, but we don’t have to. We can bend it.”
“What good will that do?”
“Bend it back and forth long enough and it’ll break right off.”
“Well, hell, let’s git after it. I get the feeling some shit is fixin’ to happen.”
“I think you’re right about that. So let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.”
The joker stood up and stretched. He put his face to the window, but not through it. He looked back at the thief and said, “There are some really dark purple clouds blowing in.”
He grabbed onto the spike and began worrying it. The drunken blacksmith must not have been entirely inept because it took a good long time and he had to rest several times and his hands were bloodied before the spike gave it up. When it did, he extended his left hand and pulled the thief to his feet. They both raised their brows and nodded. The thief wrapped the chain around the remains of his right arm, went to the window, and stuck his head out into the fresh air. He looked down at the corpses below and spit.
He pulled his head back and said, “OW!”
Something hit the door. There ensued a protracted series of rattles and clanks from the other side of the metal clad wood. The heavy crossbar clattered unceremoniously to floor and the hinges creaked open revealing a portly woman wearing a dainty gold leaf crown, a finely made soiled dress, and sturdy shoes. She bent over, grabbed three broad swords from the floor at her feet and bellowed, “We’re running low on soldiers and we’re going to need every swinging dick we can muster. Your only chance is to fight with us.”
She tossed a sword at the thief and he snatched it from the air and swung it with a flourish. The one she threw at the joker hit first his chest and then the floor. He said, “I don’t know how to use that.”
The princess bellowed, “Fill your hand, you bastard. We’ll get you an instruction manual. If that doesn’t work you can always tell that joke again. Follow me, dogs.”
She led the way down the dim passage to an arched doorway onto the landing of spiral stairway inside a stone tower. It was dark. The clamor of worried voices and frenzied movement from far below sounded up the stairwell. They climbed. The stairs treads were cupped into concavities where the balls of many generations of feet had worn them down. They passed one small window before they emerged onto the battlements.
A female sentry shouted, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, dipshit. I brought the prisoners. We need all the help we can get.”
The princess directed them to a watch room and told them to eat. A ladle brought up bones and root vegetables from the bottom of the cauldron. There were no spoons. They also ate coarse bread and hard white cheese while all the women came and went. Barefoot servants too.
They dropped their bowls in a wooden bucket, picked up their swords and walked all along the watchtower. The air felt great to the two men. Some people were busy moving about. Some watched the horizon. Others stared off at points within themselves. On a small round tower, at the highest part of the fortification, the princess kept the view.
The joker said, “Man, I don’t care what happens. I’m glad to get out of that dungeon.”
“Tell me about it. I was in there a lot longer than you, ya whanker.”
“Hey, you’d still be chained to that wall if it weren’t for me.”
“Good point, sorry.”
There were hills behind them and they faced a vast empty plain. The wind seemed to come from several directions and each brought the fragrance of dead things dissolving into the earth. The big dark clouds loomed closer now. Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl.
The joker cocked his and asked, “What was that?”
“Sounded like a mountain lion.”
“Really? I never heard of them being around here before.”
“Civilization collapses and nature makes a comeback.”
“You call what we had here civilization?”
“It’s as close as we’re likely to ever see.”
“I guess you’re right.”
An electric urgency crackled around them and more people materialized and stepped up on the parapets all looking in one direction. Two riders were approaching.
The joker said, “Oh shit, this don’t look good.”
And the wind began to howl.