0037 – Cap: Step Up, Part 1

Cap licked his finger, and pressed the saliva-soaked tip against the cell’s table, collecting the last of the crumbs. Over a week had passed since the invasion, and he had only, so far, been fed on whatever his mother could slip between the bars of the window. This had limited him, essentially, to dry, unleavened bread and sliced, cured meat. He was by no means starving, but days of poor nutritional balance had worsened his mood considerably.

He had not gone thirsty, thanks to a clever system his mother had devised involving two flasks of water. She would pass a fresh one to him, squeezing the thin leather pouch between the bars, and take his empty one in return. She could hardly visit as often as needed to keep him properly hydrated, though, and this had resulted in a level of dizziness and enervation.

Suddenly, Cap heard voices from outside the jailhouse. He had been expecting a visit from his mother at about this time, and sure enough, her voice had been one of them – but the conversation scarcely made sense to him, involving a lot of complicated-sounding words that he didn’t fully understand. It did sound, though, like his food was about to “go to waste” and “be dumped,” and this made anger flare inside of him.

A key turned in the lock. The jail door opened. Cap sprang into furious action.

He was not a heavy boy, but he succeeded in bowling over the black-clad man who entered the cell, knocking him against the wall. If he had thought of it, he could have used this opportunity to escape through the open door – even with another soldier on the other side of it – but he was furious, focused on raining punches and slaps on the officer.

The officer who had come through the door holding a big basket of food. In his mother’s hamper.

It occurred to Cap too late that he might have got the wrong end of the stick.

The lower-ranking soldier, who had been waiting outside the door, picked Cap up by his shirt and lifted him clean off the floor. Cap struggled, kicked, and flailed as he was deposited back in the chair. As the officer picked himself up again and closed the jail door, he could hear his mother calling from outside, telling him – only now – that it was alright.

Thanks, mum. Would have been nice to know that sooner.

“Look, kid.” The masked soldier whispered to him. “I get it. But F’knah’s alright. He’s not like the other screws.”

“What’s a screw?” Cap asked.

Before the man could reply, the officer, F’knah, interrupted.

“Tel hymm tou set’l douwn, Ey’m nott gunnu hertt hymm.”

The occupation of Dark Hollow had given Cap his first ever opportunity to experience a foreign language. He was familiar, in broad terms, with the theory – that people from “other places” talked in strange words, and he sounded strange to them in turn – but the snatches of conversation he’d heard from inside the prison had done little to normalise the odd phonemes of the soldiers’ tongue.

The shabbier soldier seemed to speak his language, though. “What did he say?” Cap asked him.

“He said settle down, he won’t hurt you. I told you, he’s alright, this one. By their standards.”

F’knah rattled off a long explanation. The soldier, his head half-turned back towards his superior, listened intently, before offering a translation to Cap.

“He says he wants to help you, but he has to fill out a few papers first. Stuff to do with why you’re in prison in the first place. He’s going off to get his clean papers and all that now.”

F’knah waited for the soldier to finish interpreting, and then departed with a small, friendly wave at Cap. After a few moments, he could be heard through the wall, trying to reassure Cap’s mother in loud, slow enunciations, as though this would enable her to understand his foreign tongue.

Now that they were alone, the interpreting soldier sighed. “Sorry about this.” The man said. “You can’t get anything done in this bloody army without paperwork.”

Cap couldn’t wait any longer. He tore into the basket, and nearly wept with joy. It was stuffed to the brim with sandwiches, cakes, fresh fruits and mushrooms, and little parcels of meat and sweet jam wrapped in pastry. These were his favourite. He picked one up and stuffed it hard into his mouth, not even bothering to separate the meat compartment from the jam one, gratefully chewing into the explosion of flavour.

The soldier’s mouth wasn’t visible, but his eyes were smiling. “Good lad.” The man said. “My name’s Button. Nice to meet you.”

“Mine’sh Caph.” Cap told him, spitting flecks of pastry all over the table.

“Before the boss gets back,” Button whispered, “Tell me what happened. Why you’re in here. If it’s too bad, we might have to tone it down a bit before he gets it down on paper. He’s a decent bloke but there are rules to follow, so let’s make sure you get out of here, aye?”

“My sister.” Cap explained. “She snuck into the armoury, and broke all the spears. I took the blame for her.”

Button thought. “So that’s why we found all those spears, cut in half. Why did she do it?”

“So that our friend Grazer couldn’t get himself hurt.” Said Cap. He cut his explanation agonisingly short. “Did he come back? Did he win?”

Button looked confused. “Grazer? We took a census. There’s no Grazer here.”

Cap looked panicked. “What about my sister? What about Stem!?”

A solemn look came over Button. He realised that whatever was going on here, it was probably quite the tragedy.

“I’m sorry. There’s no record of a girl called Stem, either.”

Cap’s expression froze. “But mum would have told me. Surely, she would have told me.”

The soldier placed his huge hand on Cap’s shoulder. “Sorry, lad. We counted everyone. There’s forty-seven, including you.”

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