Holk stood with forehead pressed to the bars of the window. Outside, another beautiful day had dawned, a day he was prevented from sharing. For the last two hours, he had looked out over the wide expanse of ocean stretching away to the horizon. Birds there were aplenty, but no sign of people. He wondered how remote this place could be.
A growl disturbed his quiet solitude, an incessant need that could no longer be ignored. He was hungry, yet still hadn’t figured out a viable solution to his lighting problem. The only course of action he had thus far come up with was to tear strips from his leggings to use as fuel. But that would be a short lived solution, and over time, would render him less able to keep the cold of his new environs at bay.
Turning from the window, he again glanced to the locked door that had so far resisted every attempt at opening. What he wouldn’t give for an axe right about then. The wood, drawn from a very hardy variety of tree, gave up little more than tiny splinters to his efforts. After ripping off a fingernail during his latest attempt at prying a section loose, he gave up trying to use it for fuel.
Again his stomach voiced its need for sustenance. He could put this off no longer. He reached down to the bottom of the legging around his left ankle and ripped off a two inch swath. Holding it in his hand, he contemplated what would happen when he lit it. If he held it in his hand, it would burn him; allowing it to dangle free while it burned would only allow the fire to consume the material all the faster. He needed a way to carry it so the flame would last the longest possible time while avoiding serious burns.
Something in which to hold it…
Catching sight of a torch sconce upon the wall, the idea came that it would be ideally suited for his purpose. After a quick inspection revealed the sconce to be securely fastened to the wall, he turned his attention to the other three. The next sconce tried was just as securely attached to the wall, the third wiggled slightly, and the fourth resisted all attempts at movement.
Returning to the one that wiggled, he took hold of it with both hands and started wrenching it forcefully back and forth. Aside from acquiring a holder for his burning material, the effort afforded him a much needed avenue to vent his pent-up anger and frustration. Back and forth he pulled, each wrenching loosening the sconce from the wall a little bit more. Finally, it came free.
Wadding the swath of cloth taken from his leggings, he set it within the base of the sconce. He then took his makeshift torch over to the mirror, removed his flint and knelt. Using swift strokes he began striking sparks. Following the third strike, he was able to encourage one of the sparks to ignite the cloth. Immediately, he stood and placed his hand against the mirror. The mirror and wall vanished only to be replaced with a forest of mushrooms.
Holk knew his “torch” would not last long as the material was being consumed rapidly. Looking about, he scanned the room for something to add that would keep the flame going.
Unlike a forest of trees, this expanse of mushrooms held no dead material. If Holk would have been less pressed for time, he would have thought it odd. With no ready fuel available, he turned to the large, red-capped mushroom before him. It had the consistency of a tree, perhaps it would have a tree’s combustibility as well.
After setting the makeshift torch upon the ground, he picked up a hand-sized rock bearing a somewhat-sharpened edge, and proceeded to drive the rock’s edge into the side of the mushroom. His first strike sank in an inch. Using the rock as a wedge, he worked a section of the mushroom’s outer skin loose. Taking hold of the loosened piece, he pulled and peeled off a strip all the way down to the stalk’s base. Two inches wide and four feet in length, the strip had the consistency of softened leather. A thick moisture oozed from the recently bared area of the bole. It looked akin to tree sap.
His light was burning out fast. Now little more than a small, flickering flame, it had consumed nearly all the material torn from his trousers. Holk quickly balled the strip of the mushroom’s outer skin into a loose package, then set it into the top of the torch sconce.
Pushing gently, he pressed it closer to the dying flame. At first, when it came into contact with the fire, the mushroom skin did little more than smolder. But with a little spate of gentle, encouraging breaths, he managed to get it to catch. Darkness rolled back as the flame spread to engulf the ball of mushroom skin.
Sweet. He had light!
Mighty proud of himself, Holk returned to the mushroom stalk and proceeded to remove every bit of outer skin the mushroom held. Using his rock, he hacked and peeled until seventeen separate strips lay on the ground near his flickering torch. By the time the last strip had been peeled away, he added another to the torch as the first strip had been all but consumed.
After that, he set about eating his fill of the little gray mushrooms. Not the most appetizing of meals, it at least satisfied his hunger. He took a dozen with him when he returned to the Prison Room.
For the remainder of the day, he set to meticulously search the rooms of this world for a way out. During his search he used ten of his “mushroom strips” for torch-fuel, all of which proved futile as he failed to uncover a means of escape. Before returning to the Prison Room, which had become his base of operations, he gathered more mushrooms.
Now, as he stood at the window looking out over the panoramic scene created by the setting sun, Holk was at a loss as to what to do. His thoughts kept returning to that mirror positioned in the ceiling of the ‘Tite Room. He couldn’t shake the memory of how the torch had been drawn into the mirror’s black vortex. Could that be the way out?
During his recent exploration, he had sought a way to scale the walls of the ‘Tite Room in order to reach the mirror. But the walls had proven too sheer and his climbing skill insufficient. There was no other way he had yet to try. It was either that, or the door that withstood his every attempt to breach. Even using the torch sconce had been ineffectual.
Sighing, Holk looked out through the barred window to a world unattainable. Wisps of clouds went from brilliant scarlet to a deep purple as the light continued to fade. When the first stars appeared and night set to with a vengeance, Holk turned in. Sleep, however, was proving to be an elusive goal. But by the time the moon had risen, and its ethereal light fell upon him, sleep came.
Why get up?
Time dragged by as he grappled with that question. What was there for him to do? Gather mushrooms, perhaps? Take a dip in the lake? Stare out a window? He was certain he would be doing all three before the day was through.
Morning’s light had dispelled night’s hold upon his world, but he didn’t care. When a man is trapped in a place from which he can’t escape, it sucks all life from him. If only there was a way out. Correction, if only there was an obtainable way out.
There were still two possible avenues, the door, and the mirror with the vortex that drew in his torch. Neither one, unfortunately, could he avail himself. Hours of early-morning brain-wracking over a way of reaching the mirror and its vortex had birthed no viable solution.
Holk glanced to the window, could see the blue sky, and birds flittering far out over the water. How he longed to be out there with them. But such was not to be. Sighing, he reached for the torch sconce and the strips of mushroom skin that together, would form his makeshift torch.
The skins had shrunk during the night and no longer had the consistency of softened leather. Instead, they felt like tough rawhide. He took hold of a piece in both hands, and snapped it hard. It didn’t break. Trying again, Holk was surprised at its ability to resist coming apart.
“This could come in handy.” A quick inspection of the rest revealed how each had also become like rawhide. It was definitely an odd occurrence, especially seeing as how the strips had come from a mushroom.
Tearing off another strip of cloth from the right leg of his trousers this time, he set it within the base of the torch sconce. With his flint, he struck sparks and soon had the material smoldering. A few short breaths encouraged it to life, after which he added one of the toughened, leather strips wadded into a loose ball. The dried strip caught much more readily and didn’t appear to be consumed nearly as fast as when newly peeled from the mushroom stalk.
During the igniting of the material, the idea came to him that if he were to twine three strips fresh from the stalk, after they dried he would have a very durable rope. He could even secure several strips end to end in order to form one of sizeable length. Such an item would assuredly come in handy.
He glanced to the window. If there was but a way to remove the bars, he might be able to make a rope long enough for him to climb down to the water below. How he would remove the bar remained to be seen. At least this gave him not only a tentative hope of escape, but more importantly, something to do. With makeshift torch in hand, he quickly went to the mirror and translocated to the Mushroom Room.
The tall, red-capped mushroom from which strips had been harvested the day before, had been seriously affected by the loss. No longer did it stand erect and proud. Where it had been bright red and ramrod straight, today it was splotched, bloated and no longer able to support its cap. Bending beneath its weight, the stalk had sagged to such an extent, that the cap now rested upon the ground.
But there were dozens of the tall mushrooms, more than sufficient for him to harvest all the strips required to make a rope, roughly a hundred feet in length. Choosing one of the taller specimens, he used the same rock as before and climbed up the stalk as far as he could go. Once there, he began hacking into the stalk.
Since he planned to weave three strands together, he ensured that each strip removed measured roughly an inch. Together, the tri-ply stalk-rope should allow for adequate grippage as well as making it lightweight.
Once he had completely stripped the tall mushroom, he laid the strips out near the makeshift torch. He added one to the fire burning within the torch sconce to ensure the light would continue, then moved on to the next. It took him a solid hour before he had enough to form the rope.
He was one big, gooey mess when he gathered the bundle of strips and lantern for the return trip to the Prison Room. During his harvesting, once a strip had been removed, a sap-like discharge would begin to be secreted. Unable to avoid contact, it now covered most of his exposed surfaces. A trip to the Lake Room would definitely be in order once the rope had been completed.
Back in the Prison Room, he set about weaving the strips into a tight cord. When he finished the first trio, he tied three more strips to the first, then continued. Each addition added a knot to the rope, but it would hardly prove a hindrance. In fact, since every strip was roughly the same length, it gave him a marker, something to use to gauge length if that should ever prove needful.
The weaving process took much longer than he had thought it would. Where it had been late morning when he began, it was early evening when the task had been completed. He looked with pride upon the rope coiling about the room. Satisfied with a job well done, he relit his sconce-torch and adjourned to the Lake Room for an extended period of washing.
From there, he returned to the Mushroom Room to gather the smaller variety for his evening meal. Upon arrival, he noted how the tall stalks stripped of their outer shell had already begun to droop and splotch, and that the one from the day before had completely collapsed. A pungent odor now permeated the room, and after a few minutes, Holk started feeling a little queasy. Hurrying up his harvesting, he gathered a score of the smaller mushrooms then beat a hasty retreat back to the Prison Room.
Once there, he went to the window and pressed his face against the bar. It took a period of breathing the crisp sea air before his head cleared and stomach settled down. The decomposition of the tall mushrooms after having their skin removed must have put something unpleasant in the air. Tomorrow, when he went to collect his morning meal, he would have to be in and out fast.
Now that his hunger had been satiated with an unappetizing feast of the smaller mushrooms, he turned his attention to one of the narrow windows and its pair of bars that prevented his escape. Using the torch sconce, he struck one of the bars to test the strength of the metal. It proved quite strong. Twice more he struck it, hoping that repeated blows would loosen the bar from the stone which held it in place. The stone failed to relinquish its hold.
When he turned his efforts to the stone, he made little headway. A score of strikes did little more than chip away a marginal area and leave his hand raw and throbbing. The metal of the torch sconce was not constructed to accommodate such use. Each blow did more damage to his hand than to the stone. Also, the torch sconce began buckling beneath the inappropriate treatment. Holk was forced to give up.
Hopes dashed, he left the window and returned to his place against the opposite wall where he sagged to the floor. The last vestiges of the evening sun found him curled up against the wall, depressed and saddened. He was never going to get out of there, and with the availability of food and water, his imprisonment could be long indeed.
The following morning, the rope was ready; a hundred feet of sturdy, rawhide-like material. He tested its strength by tying one end to a bar and yanking several times. It held up with no sign of fraying or wear. Now, if he but had a way to use it.
Later on, around noon as he figured it, he again stood at the window watching the waves flow across the surface of the water and the birds dance upon the breeze when a dark spot appeared far out on the horizon.
At first he took it to be a bird in flight, but as it drew closer, realized a ship moved across the water heading northward. He shouted and waved, but it was much too far away to hear or see him. But that didn’t dissuade him from continuing his efforts until the ship sailed out of sight.
There had been a ship! Where there was one, more were sure to follow. Excited, hope of escape restored, he considered his options for alerting them to his presence. Obviously, unless they were much closer, what he had done earlier was a waste of time. He needed something more spectacular, something which would pique their interest and prompt them to take a closer look. But what?
He could make a signal fire. Doing it during the day would have little affect, but at night? From as high above the water as his prison stood, it was sure to be seen for miles and miles. Ideas and plans coursed through his mind. The one he settled upon involved using the now-battered torch sconce, his newly created rope, and a whole lot of freshly harvested mushroom strips.
The mushroom strips burned best when freshly harvested, so he waited until the sun was low on the horizon before he returned to the Mushroom Room and began removing strips from the tall mushrooms. The air in the room caused his nose and eyes to burn, his stomach to roil, but he persevered. As bad as the air in this room made him feel, he wanted to be rescued even more.
Once two dozen strips had been torn away, he returned with them to the Prison Room and waited for the stars to come out before implementing his plan. It was simple, really. Secure one end of the rope to the torch sconce. Loosely weave the strips in and around the metal of the sconce, and light it. He would then shove it out the window, allow twenty feet of play in the rope before bringing it to a halt. After that, begin rocking it back and forth like a giant, fiery pendulum. Such a sight would have to draw the interest of any ships in the area.
When the light faded and the stars began to appear, the rope, sconce and strips were all in readiness. All he now had to do was light the small bit of cloth torn from his trousers that was nestled within the base of the sconce, and begin. This he did with a few strikes of his flint. Once the cloth caught and began to burn, he quickly brought the sconce to the window and waited for the flames to ignite the strips. First one then another ignited, and the fire quickly spread throughout the interwoven mass.
Pushing it through the window, Holk lowered it to a spot twenty feet below. Gently at first, but then progressing to an ever increasing arc, he rocked the fiery mass back and forth.
“Come on,” he mumbled as his eyes scanned the inky darkness that overlaid the oceanic expanse. There had to be a boat out there!
Lying upon the floor behind him were enough strips for another two tries. He figured to make three attempts a night until all but the last half-dozen of tall the mushroom stalks remained. No point in ruining all of them at this one attempt, he might be in this place for some time.
Minutes ticked by and no lights appeared upon the water. Holk prayed to the gods that someone would see his signal. Put it down to fate, or perhaps the gods were feeling uncharacteristically mischievous this night, for his signal did attract someone’s attention. Or perhaps it would be better to say, something’s attention.
A shriek sounded from out of the night. So animalistic in its intensity, the cry made Holk’s blood run cold. Massive in shape, a shadow flew from out of the night and struck the burning mass at the end of the rope.
Holk stood dumbfounded for only a split-second before a second cry broke him from his paralysis. The second cry heralded the emergence of a second shadow from the darkness. He had no idea what they were, gigantic birds of prey perhaps? After the second one attacked his signal fire, he began pulling it back with all speed. He couldn’t afford to lose it.
Again, the calls of the nocturnal aviators broke the stillness of the night. As one dove for the rapidly ascending burning mass, Holk was able to see what it was; a bird with leathery wings, completely devoid of feathers. It had a wingspan that easily reached thirty feet, deadly claws designed for ripping and tearing upon each foot, and perhaps the most terrifying aspect of all was its elongated beak. It alone measured three feet in length with a trio of nasty “teeth” at the end, one jutting down between a matching pair that projected upward.
Its taloned feet struck the fiery mass, the resultant, spark-filled collision jerked the rope from Holk’s hands. He managed to reacquire his hold after losing a solid ten feet of length. Drawing in the rope again, he once more strove to bring it within the safety of the room.
The second bird emerged again out of the night. “Hyah!” he shouted, attempting to scare off the monstrous bird as it swooped in for its attack. But his shouts had little effect. Once more, the fiery mass was struck. This time he retained his grip. Jerking hard, he yanked the rope from the bird’s taloned feet and resumed drawing it ever closer to safety.
Twice more the fiery mass was attacked. Twice more he braced himself and managed to retain his grip. Now, it was but five feet below the window. Scanning the darkness, he saw a shadow detach from the greater blackness of night. Midway in its flight, it split into two. It looked like the birds planned to attack in tandem.
Holk failed to comprehend why these birds were attacking the flames. Weren’t birds supposed to be afraid of fire?
Pulling for all he was worth, he brought the flame-shrouded torch sconce the rest of the way to the window and pulled it in just as the birds struck. Holk jumped backward, he went one way and the fire went another. With a crash of sparks, the burning mass slammed into the back wall. Holk hit the ground just below the window. Sensing more than seeing the attack, he rolled to the side just as an elongated beak thrust through the window toward him.
A shriek reverberated throughout the Prison Room as the bird voiced its displeasure. Stretching in farther, the bird sought again to sink its trio of “teeth” at the end of its beak into him. Holk rolled out of reach.
“What are you?” he shouted. Coming to his feet, he saw the malevolent glow in the creature’s eye. It wanted him. Whether as food, or plaything, it wanted him bad.
A second cry drew his attention to where the bird’s partner, or mate?, had its head stuck in through the other window. With the twin bars in place, neither were able to squeeze its bulk through the opening. For the first time, Holk considered the possibility that the bars within the windows weren’t necessarily designed to keep him in, but perhaps, to keep them out. If so, that put a whole new spin on his situation.
“You want me, huh?” he asked.
Moving closer, he taunted the bird only to jump back as the neck of the bird stretched to impossible limits and almost allowed the deadly beak to fulfill its lethal intent.
He waggled his finger at the bird. “Not nice, now. Here you come for a visit, and right off you want to play.” A shriek that sent his ears ringing was all the reply he received. He went over and collected what remained of the torch and the much diminished mass of burning strips.
Taking hold of the rope three feet from where it was tied to the torch sconce, he returned to stand before the bird, only this time at a more reasonable distance. The bird’s eye tracked the flame.
Holk held it up. “Oh, you want this?” Dangling it before the bird, he almost lost it when the beak unexpectedly shot forward. “Why?” A glance at the bird’s partner showed it to be watching the proceedings with keen interest. Intelligent interest?
As he rocked the burning torch-sconce, he saw how the bird’s eyes followed the fiery arc. When his empty stomach growled its desire to be filled, he got to thinking how right before him stood a hefty chunk of meat. How he wished he hadn’t discarded his sword back in the Kiln. Despite his lack of weaponry, his mind slowly crafted a plan that might yield results.
Bending over, he began gathering slack in the rope with his other hand. Once he had sufficient length, he rocked the torch sconce away from him. The bird’s head swiveled to follow, and Holk tossed the coil of rope around its head.
A momentary flinch was all the reaction the bird gave as the rope draped across its neck. Its attention was firmly fixated upon the fire. Repeating the process a second time, he managed to put a second loop around the bird’s neck. This time he placed the burning sconce just out of the bird’s reach and slowly drew in the slack until the rope fit snuggly about its neck.
With a rope in each hand, Holk yanked with every bit of strength at his disposal. The neck didn’t snap like he had hoped it would. Instead, the sudden jerking of the rope caused the bird to duck out of the window.
“No you don’t!”
Dragged off his feet by the bird’s sudden withdrawal, Holk slammed into the wall beneath the window. Refusing to let go, he held on.
Shrieking, the bird tried to escape, but Holk had too good a grip. Darting up and down, the bird sought to break free. When the bird’s gyrations allowed slack in the rope, Holk quickly tied one end around the bars. It took him three attempts before a suitable knot was produced.
The bird’s partner hadn’t sat idly by throughout this unfolding drama. Adding its shrieks to the chorus, it joined its comrade in the aerial ballet. Holk thought perhaps it would attack the rope, fortunately though, it didn’t think of doing so.
With the one end now firmly secured to a bar, there was but one rope with which to contend. During momentary lulls when the bird’s erratic, panicked flight created slack in the rope, Holk managed to wrap the other end once around the second bar. It was easy to maintain his grip now that the bar took the brunt of the beast’s efforts. Whenever slack developed, he hauled it in. Bit by bit, the bird was drawn ever closer to the window.
Once he had it within a few feet of the window, its great wings no longer had the room needed to keep it airborne. Unable to provide adequate lift, the bird finally lost the fight and fell. The rope snapped taut. Outside, the world grew quiet.
Holk held still for a minute as he tried to ascertain where the bird’s companion had gone. But the darkness was absolute and silent. Figuring it had flown off with the death of its comrade, Holk began hauling up the bird.
It was within arm’s reach of the window when the second bird attacked. Having taken a stance out of sight just above the window, it shot its beak through with a blood-curdling cry.
Taken completely by surprise, Holk was knocked backward when the beak struck his chest. Snapping with its three teeth-like protrusions at the end of its beak, it caught hold of his tunic.
Panicked, Holk let go of the rope and used his fists to beat against the side of the bird’s head. When it discovered the inability to draw him through the window, it snapped its beak again in an attempt to acquire a better grip. In that instant, Holk used his legs to thrust backward off the wall.
The beak shot forward and narrowly missed sinking its teeth in the fleshy part of his calf. Upon hitting the ground, Holk rolled until he was completely against the far wall and out of reach.
Suddenly, the torch sconce jerked across the floor and slammed into the wall beneath the window. The blow against the stone caused the remaining burning material to fly apart in a shower of sparks. With the bird in the window shrieking at him, Holk watched the sconce move up the wall and out the window. The releasing of the rope had allowed the dead bird attached to it to plummet. Without a secure knot about the bird’s neck, the rope continued to slip around its throat, drawing forth all slack until reaching the torch scone, which was then drawn through the window.
An hour, maybe two, the surviving bird remained at the window voicing its displeasure as to the outcome of their contest. It would fly away for a moment only to return and renew its shrieking. Sometime around midnight it finally flew off and failed to return.
Holk remained where he was against the far wall until the sky began to lighten with the coming of dawn. Even then, he waited a full hour before daring to brave the window. Approaching hesitantly, he came to where the one end of the rope was still attached to the bars. Pausing a foot away, he hollered, “Hey!” When no response was forthcoming, he moved closer. “Are you there?”
Neither shrieks nor aerial displays answered his inquiry. Tentatively, he reached his hand out between the bars until it had gone a foot past. Waving it, he snatched it back. Again, no response.
Maybe these creatures are nocturnal.
That would make sense as he had never before seen their like during the day. Hoping that to be true , he took hold of the rope and found it to be taut. Looking out, he saw how the one he had killed was still attached to it a hundred feet below. Its fall must have been halted when the torch sconce reached the rope looped around its neck and jammed. Birds were already flocked around it, trying to get their share. Taking hold of the rope, Holk pulled it up.
It was a grisly mess when he drew it to the window. The carcass was still far too large to fit through the bars. So, after tying it off, he scurried off toward the Mushroom Room, retrieved the rock with a semi-sharp edge, and returned.
It took him some time, but he managed to acquire the first real meal he had had in days. After that, he used the rock and several well placed yanks of the rope to sever the bird’s neck. He would have liked to have kept it, but without salt, it would not have kept well.
He put together a fire of freshly cut strips and roasted the meat. The aroma given off as the flames did their work caused his stomach to cramp with hunger.