They met their first prisoner a few dozen paces beyond the staircase. As the light of the lantern glanced along another set of bars, a scrap of shadow shifted, scrambling up. Knobby knees stuck out under the remains of what might have once been trousers, a dirty shirt hanging off the top of his body. A massive beard twisted on his cheeks, falling halfway down his tunic. A thin hand came up, shaking as it tried to ward the light from its owners eyes, but at the same time, the man tried to catch a glimpse of the light.
In the next cell, there was another unfortunate, and another in the next with a few more beyond, all crowded into one cell. A woman was in the next one, her face thin in the light of the lantern. She squinted against the light, just as her fellow prisoners had done. Jakov stopped dead, staring at her.
Her hair was dark and tangled, her face pointed and, perhaps pretty once, her skin perhaps once darker. She extended a hand through the bars, a hand that had known privation before the prison. She was Yahafin. Jakov took a step toward her, hand fumbling for the key, hoping to find it, hoping to let her free, but a heavy hand landed on the back of his coat and pulled him back around.
“Ya can’t go lettin’ ‘em all out, boy.” Till growled. “We’re on a mission, ain’t we?”
“Kojnebi,” the woman called out as loudly as she could. It came out as little more than a whisper between her cracked lips. Her hand trembled as it stretched towards him, begging, pleading with him. “Kojnebi.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he murmured back as Till put him back on the path and gave him a none-too-gentle shove forward. He glanced back once, just as the light fell away—she had sunk down to the ground, her dark eyes still looking after him, pleading.
Jakov’s body felt empty as he walked through the dungeon. People looked up at him from their cells. Some had torches burning on the walls opposite, evidence of the guards they’d not yet seen. Some seemed newer to the prison, not yet completely broken, with enough energy to scramble up and try to attract the newcomers’ attention. Most just lay on the floor, managing to lift their heads or open their eyes. Some could summon only a weary twitch of their fingers.
Some lay still and cold, the pallor of their skin and the unnatural stillness of their forms evidence that they would never rise again.
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