Chapter 16 : Dakhal
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The Sun's unfettered rays were already intense, and it was still within morning. Its heat emanated back up from the hard ground in an undulating haze. Already beads of sweat formed and rolled down his brow to join that already soaked into his ratty shirt, and they'd only just begun.
The small and jagged rocks cut into Harry's bare feet as they shuffled along in quick succession, restrained by the short shackles about his ankles. The metal cuffs bit into his skin, leaving it raw and blistered. He carried a heavy pick in his hands like this others in the long line, which left him nervous. The one behind him need only raise it and bring it down upon his skull and it would all be over. 'Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all?' Harry thought deprecatingly.
Harry shook his head as if in an attempt to shrug off such morbid thoughts. He tried to think back over his last few days, make some sense of what was happening around him – to him. It hadn't taken him long to heal of his wounds from the interrogation. At least, he didn't think it had taken him long. He'd been in and out of it laying within the bed of the infirmary, the light of day sometimes piercing his sore eyes, darkness at others. It slipped by him.
No one bothered to inform him of the status of his injuries, the nurses simply coming and going to change out his bandages as often as his consciousness skid by. If they ever did speak, it was only to one another, and always in their very foreign tongue. He had taken such a rough beating at the hands of Raj that without the skills of a Healer, he thought he should have been out for a month, yet, here he was. Maybe it had been a month and he'd just missed it all?
Once able to stand on his own two feet again, they had taken him from the infirmary only last night and delivered him to a small, sad cell. Alone... it was a despair worse than the pains of the injuries. He was alone in his head, alone in the world, unable if he wanted to talk to anyone.
The cramped cell on that first night only helped to solidify his isolation. Ten square meters at best, it was all of cold, damp stone with a solitary window perched high above one wall so small, that Harry had laughed to himself at the iron bars across it. As if it were even large enough for one to stick their head through.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of small tick marks, grouped into sets of fives, seemingly adorning every spare inch of wall space. A calendar system. Artwork left from previous prisoners, a type of pass time to cling to some sense of their sanity.
Needless to say, Harry did not get any rest that first night. He did not cry or break like he heard two other new guests of Dakhal down his cell block. He did not curl up by the door, begging for them to let him out, groveling that this was all some type of mistake. No... Harry lay within the bunch of soiled straw, stained by the sweat and the tears and the louse of its previous tenants, staring at the ceiling.
He was unsure of his fate, but then again, when had he ever been? Would they hang him, like his interrogators had so often threatened? Leave him here to rot? In the end, Harry found himself uncaring. He had been born for a purpose, as the prophecy so rightfully foretold. He'd served his purpose. What happened now did not matter.
The next morning they came for him. The guards had barked a couple quick orders, and when Harry had hesitated, unsure of what they were saying, they took pleasure in reopening his so recently healed wounds once more with their short clubs. Harry would quickly learn and not forget his first word in Hindi, “Cala!” or “Move!”
Without so much as an offered breakfast – he wasn't quite sure when the last time he ate was – Harry's first task of the day had been to retrieve the waste pales from each of the cells along his block. All the prisoners filed out as Harry filed in. It was a disgusting task, rising the gorge in his throat, and would only grow worse when he'd later learn that these would be the same pales that the guards would deliver their meals into. The day was just beginning however. Done with that task, Harry was lined up with the rest and the shackles placed about his ankles and a pick ax in his hands, a days hard work ahead.
Harry kept his head down, mimicking the sad others as he followed along in a shuffling line. Only the bravest took their eyes from the ground or from their work ahead of them. The guards were always looking for an excuse to give someone a good beating, and the slightest transgression was an open invitation to do just thus. But the anomaly of this young, white boy mingling within this sea of brown seemed too much for many to resist stealing a few menacing looking glances his way.
Most eyes were broken, looking far away to another place, another... better time in their lives. Most their frames were thin and boney within their shaggy, loose worn clothing. But some, the newer ones like himself, or the fiercer ones he'd later learn who preyed and took from the others, still had meat on their bones, and they all stared at him now, like new bait, only awaiting their moment to pounce.
The rock quarry their guards snaked them through was massive, a city of pits and mines and stone cliffs in and of itself. Thousands upon thousands of thin, trodden prisoners, dressed just the same as Harry, labored away within its shafts and alleys.
Harry's crew was delivered into a long, open gut near the heart of it all. No instructions were given, at least none that he could understand, but as the others began lifting their pick axes and sledged away, Harry mimicked them.
It was back breaking, grueling work. They hammered away all morning, Harry's palms and fingers turning into painful blisters, until they turned the hard rock before them into gravel. Others with shovels and carts were brought in behind them to carry it away as Harry's group was led to another rock face not far away to start all over again.
Noon lunch, with the blazing Sun high overhead, was a short reprieve from the tiresome affair. They all sat just where they had been standing as a posse of old men, too old now to lift the hammers but with crooked, bent backs proving they'd done their fair share in their own time, came around to offer each a single ladle of brown water. It tasted of dirt, Harry cringed at it, but his cracked dry found a way to savor it nonetheless.
A second passing group offered them each a small piece of hard, stale bread. Harry had barely managed to pluck at the corners of it when a large prisoner sitting two down from him leaned right over and snatched it out of his hands.
Harry balked incredulously at the man, but the thief, just like any of the others around, completely ignored him, as if that were just the way of things here at Dakhal. Harry looked to the thin man who sat between them, his bones so frail that it seemed that the gentlest of breezes could break him in twain.
Harry's next actions came almost compulsively, without thought to the consequences. He was never one to be walked over. Harry lunged over and snatched his piece of feeble bread right back. Unlike before, this managed to catch everyone's attention.
Harry ignored their leers as he went about poking at his bread again. The large prisoner, the one who had so ungraciously helped himself to Harry's only food and who Harry had likewise reclaimed his bread from, sat shell-shocked, as if he could not conceive what had just transpired.
And then it all hell broke loose. The man came at Harry once again, though this time with no intention of going for the meager morsel. His large frame toppled Harry over onto his back as the man's giant hands clasped about Harry's throat with all the intent to choke the life right out of him.
Harry reeled beneath him, half his size and weight, there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop the assault. A mob of the other prisoners surged around them, cheering “Lara'i – lara'i (fight)!” with great enthusiasm.
Harry's face turned from a burning red, to an ashen pale, and then a deepening blue as blackness began to seep into his vision. But then, sweeping up his knee, Harry managed to pull off a lucky shot, slamming it right into the man's groin as he straddled across Harry's abdomen.
The man's eyes lit up and his grip on Harry's neck weakened. With all the strength he had left, Harry pushed the thief off of him. The mob swirled about the two in a frenzy as both struggled to get to their feet. Harry had no sooner managed than the man swung out the back of his hand and caught Harry right across his face. Harry was sent flying, once again landing on his back, the now familiarizing taste of metal flooding his mouth.
The unsteady shadow of the large man hovered back into his view as Harry tried to collect himself upon the ground. Harry kicked futilely at him, but the man caught his ankle and as easily as if he were swinging a child, the man slung Harry around, sending him flying yet again until Harry landed hard, rolling atop the lose rock of the quarry.
From his peripheral, he saw the man charging at him like a rabid boar, foaming at the mouth. And then... something happened. It was fast, too fast for Harry to make sense of any of it, a reflex, like a jolt of electricity sweeping through him. Harry bounded up off the ground to meet the charging boar.
He felt something solid connect with his face, splitting his brow, but Harry somehow weathered it and caught the charging man right in his ribs, thrusting him up into the air before tackling him over, slamming him hard onto his back.
Arms and legs, fists and feet began to flail and strike and punch. The shriek of the mob was ear splitting. And then... then came a rain of clubs, like pieces of hail pelleting down atop him. Harry covered his head with his arms from the blows before angry hands clenched at his shirt and pulled him off and to the ground where they picked back up the beating with their clubs.
Before they tired themselves out to drag a bloodied Harry off to the stockades, Harry caught a glimpse of the thief lying sprawled out on the ground, unconscious, where Harry had left him. Had they attacked him with their clubs as well? He couldn't remember them doing so, but it wasn't as if he'd had a chance to get a good look around either.