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|Prisoners of War|
Prisoners of War is the thirteenth chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
In the continuing Battle of the Five Armies, in which all Liberation Alliance Generals except Anyang, alongside Chief Gangtok, die, the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe troops are forced to retreat, before most of the Liberation Alliance troops flee, amongst them also Noki, Skado, Anyang and Ranju. Despite fighting valiantly, Shizon, Senqok, Zoruka and Kabura cannot escape and are taken prisoner.
Chapter 12: The Battle of the Five Armies, Pt. 2
No matter whether his eyes were open, or he thought they were, or closed, blackness remained all that he could see. Had it been hours, days, weeks? He couldn't fathom. With this blackness surrounding him, time seemed to become-
"Stop it already! Do you think I can heal you in any way if you won't stop fidgeting?" With the silent yet penetrating hiss of a female voice, the darkness ended. Closing and reopening his eyes repeatedly to get used to the brightness that wasn't really too bright, he remembered why he had preferred the dark. Kabura sat to his left, seeming a bit haggard and paranoid, and not without reason, Shizon found. The cell was big enough for fifteen of them to fit in it, but, except for those two, no one was inside. The massive, windowless walls of rammed earth, and the equally massive wooden door were not what he found disgusting - it was what could be found on the floor. Certainly, it hadn't been cleaned after the previous occupants, no matter how long that was past - in the dry desert air, everything preserved itself, and the dried traces of urine and ordure were no exception. Obeying his friend's order, he ceased moving as far as he could, and let her work with her with the water around her right hand.
"Do I even need to be healed?" Shizon felt himself in a state he would describe as rather great, that was, except the constantly prevalent hunger and his disgust for his surroundings, save for Kabura, of course, coupled with a feeling of uncleanliness. But except that, he felt what he would describe as great.
"That I am about to find out. Now quiet, or do you want us to be tortured?" Kabura's tone wasn't threatening, it indeed carried a hint of fright, and both knew that if she was caught handling water in any way, she wouldn't be pardoned, and he would too be punished, as to prevent such occurrences. After a few seconds more, she let the water resume its previous position, in the metal jug it had been delivered in, and stood up, concluding, "Nope, you're alright. Well, you don't have any injuries I could cure right now, let's say it this way."
Shizon let out a bitter giggle as he stood up, warily, and made his way to the door, where he tried to make any kind of guess regarding their approximate location. All that he could assign to a certain location, however, was their guard's uniform, of which he caught a brief glimpse as the guard rose to his feet from the bench opposite to the door to shout at Shizon, ordering him not to stare out of the cell. The light outside the cell was, much like inside it, very dim, and made it hard to make out any concrete colours, even if the firebender's eyes had already adapted to it. However, he could identify the uniform's colour as some kind of yellow or tan.
"And? What about this one?" asked Kabura. She had retreated into the darkest of the corners after Shizon had moved from the door, as ordered by the guard.
"I think my suspicions were confirmed. This guard too wears some yellow or tan, you know, the kind of it they use in the deserts." Shizon explained, seating himself across Kabura's position, then concluding, "Thus, we must be in a desert."
"...which is, naturally, kind of bad." Kabura was obviously displeased by the not exactly surprising news, given the dry air.
The firebender looked at his friend, smiled slightly and spoke, "Well, at least they give us enough water and food to survive... Could be worse."
Kabura nodded, before she seemed to have heard something suspicious. She rose her head and slowly inched towards the door. In the very moment Shizon opened his mouth to inquire her about this action, she rose her right index finger to signalise him to keep quiet. As Shizon too could hear two people conversing, he ceased all other actions of his, not that there was anything he was doing, and started listening.
"What do you mean, you confused the waterbender with the firebender!?" one voice shouted, nearing fast.
"Sir, the former's armour had turned red from the blood, and as both fought with swords mainly, and that they did very fast, we couldn't remember which was which, and, well... " the other one defended himself.
"Maybe, but still - how!? How could you confuse those two?" the first one shot back immediately afterwards.
"Sir, in the heat of battle- " The second one's voice was almost begging now.
"This is unforgivable!" The two had reached the cell door, and the shout was almost deafening. Then, the first one continued in a seemingly normal tone. "Or would be, in Ba Sing Se. Here, out in the sticks, I guess we can pardon such mistakes." A relieved sigh briefly interrupted. "I mean, what did those morons think, that a waterbender could cope with the Northern Air Temple's climate better than with Misty Palm Oasis', and same for firebenders, only vice versa? I mean, have you ever been to the Northern Air Temple? In winter, like it is now, I mean. To describe it in a few words: windy as fuck and cold as fuck. And here? Windy as fuck and hot as fuck and dry as fuck. People weren't made for either climate, right?"
The two inside the cell crept back to their darker sleeping corners, where they started whispering, Shizon being the first to do so. "Confuse a waterbender with a firebender? With whom could someone confuse me?"
"Senqok. You two look much alike. Except you've got red hair and pale skin and all kinds of allergies, but that's trivial." Kabura switched topic swiftly to the current outside conservation's topic. "But you know what that means? We know where we are, and where Senqok is!"
"So? All we need now is a chance, right?" Shizon concluded almost inaudibly, referring to a certain plan the two had worked out. Kabura nodded in response, and intended to reply, but then, both of them caught a snippet of the outside conversation neither found pleasing.
"Well, it doesn't matter where we interrogate them, right? Of course it doesn't, we've got the necessary equipment everywhere. Speaking of which, shouldn't we start interrogating soon?"
Whatever he did, every time it was the same. His eyes shot open after a series of nightmares at first not seeming to be such, only to then, after being used to the darkness of the dreams, get struck by the harsh light the day brought, and the coldness that was omnipresent, no matter what he did. For the first time he remembered, Senqok was actually cold. And the more he was surprised the same couldn't be said for his companion in the cell - Zoruka seemed to manage the cold far better than he did, ironically. Another burst of wind delivered another bit of snow inside through the window, knocking it at the thick wooden door with bars covering a window in it, through which came the babbling of a drunk man.
"Awake?" Zoruka stated more than she asked, raising from her small bit of hay she had been granted. Her armour was greatly intact, but seemed to have lost a bit of its colour. As had the whole of her, alongside with strength - she appeared a bit haggard.
"Indeed." Senqok's reply was spoken with a broken voice, as he managed to lift himself up from the corner he had cowered during his restless sleep, up to the window. Once again, he was temporarily blinded by the light, only this time, it lasted longer, and he had to blink to adjust to the immense light. After this had happened, he could make out the surroundings of the cell, once again attempting to figure out their approximate location. High, cragged, partially glaciated and covered with metres of snow mountains were all he could see for kilometres, but nothing of the building the cell was located in.
"The blood's finally dried." Zoruka noticed as she joined Senqok at the window, which lacked, other than the door's window, bars to contain anything in the cell, but the height the cell was located was a sufficient security measure. And indeed, the warrior's wolf armour had assumed a dirty brown colour instead of the crimson one it had had for days, weeks, months even. Zoruka had decided to mark every day in the wall with a small rock she had found to keep track of time.
"Look, some part actually retained their blue colour beneath the blood." Senqok discovered, immediately showing the Crown Princess his right elbow as a proof, where the brownish, dried blood had been rubbed off, revealing the blue colour beneath again. "It's not all brown."
For the first time, the two could understand what the man who was supposed to be their guard - but instead simply sat there, drinking - had babbled. "Blue... Brown... Where's... the difference?" The sentence was followed by a banging noise, as the guard had fallen from his stool onto the floor, and then snoring, as he began sleeping. The two prisoners decided to exchange worried glances, before resuming their observation of the surroundings, as far as the window allowed it.
As the time passed, the two left each other's sides at the window to inspect what the guard had slid them through a small hatch at the door's base some hours before he had fallen asleep. It consisted of a relatively small piece of some kind of sausage, a whole bread, a piece of cabbage and a bottle of whatever alcoholic brewage the guard himself had drunk. Senqok was the first to reach the scanty food, and first took the loaf of bread, and sniffed on it. After a few seconds sniffing all over it, the waterbender passed it to Zoruka, followed by the piece of sausage and the piece of cabbage, but when he offered her the bottle, she seemed rather shocked. "You don't think we're going to drink this... disgusting brewage?"
The Water Tribal opened the bottle nonetheless, and sniffed at its content as well. "I do. I mean, what we've got would be enough for one of us, but not for both - we need to stay warm somehow, and this stuff would- er, could help us with that. It's not like I'll just lay in a corner and drink all of it alone till I pass out, we'll share it."
Zoruka was obviously displeased. "Oh, of course, we'll share it, and if it is just a bit stronger than it seems we might join each other under the non-existent sheets as well, right?"
All Senqok could do was to roll his eyes. "Trust me, I've got some experiences with alcoholic brewages, over the time we need to hold out without hunger, and by that I mean till evening, when we get our next ration, coupled with the stuff we're going to eat, it won't get us that drunk. Sleepy, maybe, but not drunk."
Somehow, Senqok's voice - the one of someone with a broken spirit - had a soothing effect on Zoruka, and she decided to abandon her resistance. The two sat themselves in their sleeping corners, both cross-legged and across each other, and the firebender laid out the food in their midst. Wordlessly working together, they halved the three pieces of food, and began eating it almost immediately afterwards, but only in small bits, in order for the eating itself to last longer, believing it to also effect the satiation. After half an hour, even the last bit of their scarce food was eaten, and, as much as the Crown Princess still hated it, they began drinking the brewage. Senqok laid back in his sleeping corner, and took a sip, then closing the bottle and passing it to Zoruka, who followed his example and sipped from the brewage as well, before putting it in their midst again. All of sudden, the waterbender then cleared his throat, catching Zoruka's attention, and began speaking, as he began easing due to the consumption of alcohol. "When... you know, in the battle... you picked me up, why... why did you show such... such understanding? You know, when my... my... "
" ...when you suffered your loss." Zoruka answered unasked, her voice somewhat bitter. "Yes, well, I... I don't think I can... retell that... that story. I don't think I'd be able to, sorry."
With a sorrowful expression, the waterbender stared at the floor, concluding, "The same happened to your father, right?"
The Crown Princess merely nodded, her expression afterwards darkening, which Senqok deemed to be a sufficient answer, but then, she burst into tears, beginning to retell the story nonetheless. "Yi Ming slayed my father before my eyes. He just... he just submerged... submerged him into the earth, and... I watched the whole time."
From a previous sitting position, the firebender had broken down into a lying, foetal position, sobbing silently. Feeling guilty for this, Senqok, himself not in much higher mood, crawled over to her and supportingly laid his hand on her shoulder. After a minute or two, her sobs slowly succumbed to a certain need of hers, and so she reached for the bottle, drinking a mouthful of whatever its content was. After that, she sighed, and, with a glassy stare resumed her sitting position. Senqok retreated to his own corner, and, after taking a sip himself, couldn't help but wonder. "Then why... why did you still serve him? Why did you still serve Yi Ming?"
Zoruka didn't even flinch this time, instead she spoke completely monotonous and void of emotion. "I locked myself into my room for three days straight afterwards. My room was cut off of any water supply, and so I almost died of thirst. When Yi Ming offered me water, he offered it to me under one condition: that I would serve him loyally afterwards. I asked him what else he would do to me, what else he still could take from me, and so he took me on a stroll through his dungeons. Do you know what slow slicing is? Well... he threatened to do that to me, to just barely keep me alive, barely enough for me to live the rest of my life in constant pain. In the end, my survival instinct was the victor, and I decided to take his offer." Tears once again flooded her eyes, and she pulled her knees to her chest, sobbing again. "I didn't want to, he threatened to also punish me for lacking ambition - I was forced to choose between becoming his right hand and years of pain which would make me wish I would've died. What choice did I have?"
It was just another day, almost indistinguishable from the dozen of previous ones, or at least thus far. Shizon yawned and opened his eyes, but remained in his position, and didn't intend to move for the next half of an hour, partially for his laziness, partially because of his tiredness, but mostly because he was kind of weak after hours, days, perhaps even weeks of only barely sufficient nutrition. He tilted his head a bit towards his chest, only to see Kabura in a similar situation.
"G'morning." she said monotonously.
"Hey." came the equally monotonous reply, distinguishable from the first sentence in terms of tone only by the pitch.
Neither made any attempts to move for the first minutes, but then, someone, most likely their guard, slid a tray through the small hatch at the door's base, waking them from their returning doze. "Food. Eat it or starve."
Shizon looked at Kabura, who looked back, neither bearing any specific expression. The firebender rose both his eyebrows, to which Kabura would've responded with a shrug, but instead, she imitated Shizon's expression, only additionally crooking her mouth's corners downwards. After beginning with an annoyed, silent sigh, Shizon shot the healer an even more annoyed glare, which she answered with a slight nod into his direction, the firebender replying with an agreeing nod. He then pressed himself against the wall and slowly extended his legs, until he stood at his full height. He made a few steps to the door, picked the tray up and walked back to his sleeping corner, where he sat himself cross-legged, laying the tray halfway between Kabura and himself. The latter had already sat herself upright, and halved everything on the tray, except the bottle of water they had been provided. Just as both intended to start their meagre meal, there was, much to their surprise, a knock on the door.
"But simple enemy soldiers awaiting their execution aren't all the prisoners we've got here. Here, sir, we have members of the commando unit that assassinated Imperial Marshal Han. They were extremely close to General Anyang as far as we know." The words were spoken by some kind of warden, and addressed to a relatively high-ranking officer he accompanied.
"So? Why weren't they interrogated yet, and afterwards executed?" The officer had briefly cast a look inside the cell.
The warden became nervous, and began, "Well, we intended to... torture them a bit first and to- "
"Unlock the door." The order interrupted the warden's explanation, and he decided to obey. Immediately afterwards, the officer, wearing the yellow-lined black uniform of an officer from Ba Sing Se, entered, and stopped only centimetres before the tray. Looking from Shizon to Kabura and vice-versa, he issued yet another order, "Rise."
The two prisoners obeyed instantly and without question. The officer, who had some kind of moustache and a goatee, examined the two for almost two minutes, before speaking again. "Torture, you say? Torture only is effective if it is conducted immediately prior and during the interrogation, else you need to make use of psychological terror." He looked back at the two comrades with a twisted smirk, focussing on Kabura. "Feed them better, they're only skin and bones. Especially... " He grasped Kabura's chin, and she felt too exposed and powerless to resist. " ...this one."
The officer quickly turned and left, the door being locked afterwards. The firebender and the healer looked at each other as they resumed their cross-legged sitting position, both with worried expressions. Shizon grasped the piece of bread he could claim for himself and began to chew, whereas Kabura attempted to mirror his actions, but halfway through it, she failed, she simply stopped moving. Her thoughts had just gone where the officer's likely had gone, and it frightened her. "Shizon, I'm- I don't think- ...Are we safe? Can you protect me when it comes to the inevitable?"
The firebender ceased eating as well, and looked at his fearful friend with an unsure expression, before he laid his hand on her shoulder. "I can't promise I'll... be able to, but I will do my best. You can count on me, Kabura, you can count on me."
Senqok found it most unpleasant to be fed, to be chained to the wall of a freezing cell in a fortress atop a mountain that was likely amongst the highest in the world while being fed was even more unpleasant. He had been chained to the wall when he awoke, while Zoruka was free to move. Given the ordinary treatment by the guards, both expected the worst, but still attempted not to give their guards the pleasure of being witness to those two mighty warriors fearing something. Zoruka had divided the sausage-thingy so that Senqok would receive more of it, and attempted to stuff it into his mouth, but he still could evade her hand.
"I want you to have it, I don't want it! I mean, else I always received more- ", the waterbender began, but was interrupted by his royal comrade by both, action and speech.
"Eat. It." Zoruka shoved the piece of sausage into Senqok's mouth, afterwards doing the same with a few leaves of cabbage. She wanted Senqok to receive more food for his temporal immobility, and so she also given him more of the bread and water, and all they had received of cabbage.
"What do you think... they'll do?" spoke the chained warrior, briefly interrupting his speech with swallowing.
"I'm a girl- er, woman... or... female, generally regarded quite beautiful, or as such lowly creatures would express it, hot, and still young. They're likely the worst scum the Earth Empire has enlisted." She looked out of the window as she stated her assumptions. "What do you think?"
"I know, I know... But what if that isn't the case, the latter I mean, what if they want something else than your... body?" Senqok attempted to find a more comfortable position to hang from the wall, but failed.
"What else? Information? You do realise that torture is a common method to get information? And what could be better torture for someone like me than- than- ", the Crown Princess hissed, ending in a kind of cry. Then, however, she looked up as she had spotted something in the skies outside.
"Yes, but... " The waterbender tried in vain to find an argument, then his attention was caught by whatever Zoruka had spotted. "What is this?"
"It's a bird, it's- too big for a bird. What- What kind of animal has orange wings and- oh. Wait. That's an Air Nomad. I think I just figured out where we are." A figure clad in various shades of orange, yellow and red sore past their window, flanked by four more of such, who seemed uniformed. Zoruka had retreated from the window in fear, and now was crouching with her back to the ground. Only slowly, she erected herself again, to see a completely baffled Senqok. "We're in the Northern Air Temple."
"Correct." The voice came from beyond the door. The guard of their stood up and looked through the window in the wooden door, before he unlocked it. Footsteps, racing closer, could be heard, from five pairs of feet. Then, the door was flanked by two of the Air Nomad soldiers, while the other two flanked the fifth person, who wore an adapted kind of armour, and also carried a sword hilt. He flung the door open with an air swipe, and entered. Fearful, yet showing determination in her eyes, Zoruka pressed herself against the wall, and slowly moved into a bending stance, not unlike a cat readying itself for defence. She, however, was not the first one the armour-clad man approached.
"Senqok of the Southern Water Tribe, son of Gangtok, soldier in the Four Nations' Liberation Alliance and, as a commando of said organisation, assassin, co-conspirator and co-preparator of the assassination of Imperial Marshal Han, if I am not misinformed." The man forced Senqok down with the stern look of his eyes. "I am Head Elder Dalit. Now, if you understand what that means... you will provide us with information. Understood?"
Senqok refused to let go of his pride, of what he called dignity. "If you ask like this, your excellency, no."
Dalit merely shot up his hand, and Senqok began to struggle with breathing. The air was only shortly gone from his lungs, but it was sufficient to make him black out - almost. Dalit smirked. "You will provide us with information. This is not open to discussion."
Dalit was about to turn away, when Senqok, still heavily breathing from the brief asphyxiation, shouted at him. "NO! I'd rather die than collaborate with you!"
Dalit amplified his voice with his bending, making it almost deafening. "THEN DIE!" Dalit finally turned away from him, and commanded the guard, "Put him to death some time later if he doesn't collaborate. I don't have time for stubborn terrorists like him."
Zoruka had been kept at bay by the spear-glider-staffs Dalit's guards wielded, until Dalit himself approached, smirking. "Now, who do we have here... Crown Princess Zoruka of the Fire Nation, only daughter of the late Fire Lord Tokai, rightful heir to the throne of the Fire Nation, wife to Earth Emperor Yi Ming, former Grand Secretariat of the Earth Empire and traitor to both, the Earth Empire and Yi Ming personally, am I correct?" Dalit's words had a greater effect on the royal before him than anything else, especially the mention of her father and her treason. "I believe I don't need to introduce myself a second time? Good. Now... You will tell us what we need, or else Yi Ming will get you. Oh, wait, he will have his fun with you anyway... So, if you misbehave, if you resist, then Yi Ming will get to play his games with you earlier, and we will advise him to... well, to be what he considers cruel. Do you understand?"
Other than the ever resistant Senqok, Zoruka replied by slowly and cautiously nodding.
"Excellent!" Dalit clapped his hands together in faked euphory, but then lowered his voice, and especially its tone, speaking, "Now, tell me, traitor, how does it feel to conduct treason? How, hm?"
"If you are referring to Li Di Ce, then, well... great. It felt great. And considering everything up to the battle, I think it was the only thing I've ever done right." Zoruka may have been weak, but she believed that, if she acted fast enough, could take out Dalit and his four guards, and so - confident, threatening - also sounded her voice.
The Head Elder once again demonstrated his technique of asphyxiation, almost suffocating the Crown Princess. She fell to the ground, accompanied by a cry of Senqok's saying, "NO!", and breathed as fast as she could, and, making use of his opponent's weakness, Dalit asked, pinning her to the ground with his foot, "Are you sure?"
"Yes." came the answer. Dalit pressed his foot into Zoruka's stomach.
"Really?" As to force a clear answer in his favour, the airbender pressed even harder.
At this point, Zoruka could only nod. She believed her treason was what she had done best in her entire life, and nothing would change that belief of hers. When she had finished her gesture, Dalit decided to let go of her and turned around, ordering his guards, "Interrogate them, especially her, in a fortnight."
Their guard, who was an ordinary Earth Empire soldier, unchained Senqok, who then dared to inquire, "Why in a fortnight?"
Dalit turned around in the doorway, and let his gaze wander from Senqok to Zoruka and vice versa. "Because then, it's her father's death's anniversary."
With those words, the Head Elder turned and continued his walk outside. The door was closed and locked again, and left the two inside, with only each other. Zoruka decided to move into her sleeping corner, Senqok mirroring her action, before, after a few minutes, the former stated, "We need to get out of here before my interrogation." Senqok lifted his head to look at her with an inquiring glance, and so she explained. "I have a feeling I won't survive it, and only together, we can break out."
Notes and Trivia
- The sentence the drunken guard speaks (Blue... Brown... Where's... the difference?) has a hidden political meaning: in Austria, the so-called Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) uses the colour blue, and as it undeniably is a haven for many neo-Nazis, being partially nationalistic, it is often (mostly humorously) compared to the NSDAP (Nazi Party, colour: brown), mostly done so by those opposing the party, such as myself.
- Slow slicing (or lingchi) was a form of capital punishment (or rather, torturing to death) in Imperial China, comparable to flaying, particularly as depicted in Game of Thrones.
- The conversation between Dalit and Senqok somehow reminds me of something I've once read: "The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is a matter of perspective."
For the collective works of the author, go here.