Ben sat upon the floor of his prison cell, leaning against one of the walls for support of his weary body. The silver specks ingrained in the rock around him burned his skin, searing it until his flesh bled and blistered. The previous evening, before the change, he moved around to find a suitable spot to sit where he wouldn’t be tormented by his one weakness. But, the mine was unfortunately rich with the valuable metal and he found no place of relief. Resigned to his fate, he sat there, half naked and ravenous with hunger.
In his human form, he could reason. But the beast that rampaged the night before wasn’t so. His body and spirit was broken when the animal threw itself against the walls of his prison, cracking rock and bone in an effort to escape. And with the affects of the silver weakening his ability to heal, Ben could still feel the fractured bones and torn muscles throughout his body.
He had never felt this close to dying since before he became a werewolf. Nothing he experienced in his years of wandering could compare to the suffering he felt now. And his punishment was far from over.
The sheriff, Bart, had been in earlier that morning to give him a pair of trousers to conceal his nakedness as if it mattered. At high noon, he would be executed. The only reason he didn’t do so before the change was for the sake of the humans that Ben had tried to help. Bart’s men, some werewolves and some not, needed to rest and resupply for the trip back into civilization.
Ben had no concept of time. It all felt too long and too agonizing. At least his suffering would be over. He had been too much of a coward to do the job himself besides that one time long ago when he was still with his mentor, his sire.
The hours ticking by until his execution gave Ben time to think, which was a marvel considering how intense the pain was. Most wouldn’t be able to do anything through such torture. But Ben was able to recall his memories perfectly, reliving them as his flesh was charred by the silver.
It was his senses that were weakened somehow. And when the hem of a plain lady’s skirt came into view, he was surprised that he hadn’t smelled or heard her coming. His bloodshot, tired eyes traveled up her dress until he was entwining his gaze with Sarah’s. She held a lantern in one hand and the other was wrapped around her stomach as if she were on the verge of vomiting. Ben couldn’t have been a pretty sight to look at in this condition. Why she was there at all was a mystery to begin with.
“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice in a hoarse whisper after all the inhuman growling and roaring he had made the night before.
She didn’t flinch at his voice and her face held no anger or fear. Only pity for the monster she stared at, a set of silver plated bars separating them. No doubt, she must have been thankful for the protection. Although he didn’t remember much from his change, he did know that she witnessed it. He remembered the scent of her fear, the scream she let out when he tried to attack her. But it wasn’t him that wanted to kill her. But, she wouldn’t have known that.
“Why did you lie to me?” she asked, her voice trembling with an emotion he couldn’t name or distinguish.
“I never lied,” he replied. “I just didn’t tell you the truth.”
“Then tell me now,” she demanded.
It was in that request, that command, that Ben no longer saw a frightened orphan, but a strong and determined woman bent on finding the answers to all her questions she hadn’t voiced before. He admired her courage, now more than ever.
Ben swallowed hard, straining with the effort to find the words to begin. If he was to die soon, then someone should know his story.
“I was born in Georgia in 1840. When the war for southern independence began, I enlisted. I was in the 7th Georgia regiment under Colonel George Carmical. I was twenty-one when we went to the battle at Antietam. I remember we were given orders to move to the west side of the pike fence and fire on the 7th and 2nd Wisconsin division. My regiment was demolished by troops that came out of no where and surrounded us on three sides. I was struck down just before I heard the order to retreat. In their haste, my comrades left me on the battlefield among the dead. I had a bad wound in my side and I would have died. But I didn’t. Hours dragged on until the next morning. The fighting had moved on and I was still there, lying among the corpses. I remember the pain, the buzzing of flies, the stench of death around me. But mostly the pain.
“It was around then that I heard life walking through the battlefield. He was a civilian, not a solider. I tried to call out for help, but I couldn’t hear my own voice. But he came to my side, just the same. He asked me a question, I can’t recall his exact words. But he asked me if I wanted to live. I had a girl back home. We had eloped just before I went off to war. I wanted to be with her more than anything. I could only nod before everything went back.
“When I woke up, I could feel my whole body and soul being ripped in two. I felt neither human nor beast. Just this thing. I was starving, craving raw meat. I wanted to destroy everything around me, kill anything that moved. It took days for me to settle down and resemble something human again. My mentor, the man who changed me, said that he had never had that much trouble when he turned. But he was born a werewolf, I was not. Even after my initial rage, I could feel the wolf inside me. And these eyes are a testament to my change.
“He taught me how to change at will and control myself during the changes that were against my will. But I couldn’t grasp the lessons. It was too hard when the instincts of the beast roared in my ear every waking hour. I tried to kill myself once by swallowing silver, our only weakness. But my mentor intervened and extracted the silver before it could do any serious damage. I didn’t want this. I wanted to live, but not in this prison made of flesh and fur. I hated myself. I hated my mentor for doing this to me.
“I wanted to visit my wife, to tell her what had become of me. My mentor refused to let me go, saying that she wouldn’t accept me as I am. He said the same for my family. I had a mother, father, and a brother who probably thought I was dead. I couldn’t let them believe I had been killed. I badgered my mentor. We fought and argued on the subject for months before he finally gave in and abandoned me to whatever fate was in store for me.
“I went to see my family first. I found my mother, alone in the house that I had grown up in. She looked older than I remembered. In her starving delirium, she said her family was gone. Both her sons died in the war and her husband would have the same fate as he had gone off to avenge his family. When she had a moment of clairty, she saw my eyes and went into hysterics, calling me a demon. My heart was broken to see her that way and I had almost given up on seeing Abigail, my wife.
“But I needed to know if she was alright. I found her living with her parents. I peaked through the window and saw her in black mourning clothes, looking sick with misery. I couldn’t bear it. I wrote her a letter, playing as if the letter had been intended to be sent to her at the time of my death. I told her to be happy and move on with her life. And she did. I stuck around for a few years and watched her marry and have her first child. She blossomed in womanhood while I remained the same.
“I fled to the west after the war was over. I didn’t want to be around anyone, humans or werewolves. I had been doing fine… Until now.”
Sarah had become transfixed by his story, waiting patiently until the end before he saw a glistening tear roll down her freckled face. Ben turned away, intolerant of her display of sympathy. He had a heart busted up enough for the both of them. It were these memories he had been reflecting on before she came back.
He wondered what had become of Abigail. Was she happy? Did she remember him? What of his mentor? Had he traveled abroad like he threatened to when they parted company? What of the survivors of his regiment? Did they see the war through or earn the glory that a soldier’s death bestowed? And his mother? Father? He hadn’t set foot on their farm since he dropped off some secret provisions to get her through the winter of ’63. They must have been dead by now.
He heard the clanking of metal at the bars and turned back to see Sarah with a set of heavy keys. She was sliding each one into the lock, trying to find the one that would open his cell.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m getting you out.”
Ben felt his chest tighten. “Why?”
Sarah shook her head, refusing to answer his question. Why should this girl, who had seen more of him than most other humans have ever seen in existence, want him free? She knew what a monster he was and yet, she wanted to let him loose. There was no logical explanation for it and Ben imagined it must have been some feminine notion stuck in her mind, a twisted view of her own sense of justice that took pity on the suffering of inferior creatures. Perhaps she didn’t believe he was a monster like Bart had tried to show her. But that was assuming too much.
Finally, the lock gave a loud click and the cell door swung inward. Ben didn’t move at first, but waited to see what she would do next. Sarah entered the cell, the glow of the lantern making the bits of silver glitter brilliantly in the light. She stooped down and without an single sign of apprehension, tucked herself under his bloody and scarred arm and tried to pull him to his feet.
Although the movement was painful beyond measure, Ben stood to his feet and they hobbled out of the cell together. Sarah served as little more than a crutch as they limped slowly down the cavern halls of the abandoned mine. His strength returned and his flesh had a chance to heal the farther they walked. Slowly, he was able to take his weight off the girl at his side and stand on his own feet without too much difficulty.
When Sarah declared that they were close to the entrance, Ben could just faintly begin to smell the fresh, hot desert air 0f the outside world.
“Take a left, a right, and then you can see the exit from there,” she advised him.
Sarah stopped and stood aside to let him go the rest of the way alone. Silently gauging his own strength, he determined that he could make a fast run for freedom as long as Bart and his men didn’t shoot at him first. It was a gamble and there was no guarantee that the sheriff would come after him again and arrest him for the crime of living.
He looked to Sarah. “What will you do?” he asked.
“Bart agreed to take me to the nearest town and he would ask if the local sheriff there knew anything about Clarence. I might never find him. I might never avenge my family. But I’ll keep trying.”
Ben felt ashamed that he couldn’t have helped more. They were so close and he was completely prepared to take on the challenge she had asked of him days ago when they first met. But now, she was accepting the fact that this was the end of the trail. Perhaps he would begin his own search and give his life a new meaning. Sarah would hear the news about Clarence’s death and perhaps that would be retribution enough.
With this renewed sense of purpose, Ben gave a nod and dashed out of the mine, taking the turns she directed and he was in the sunshine within a few seconds. He heard shouts and gunfire, but he left it all in the dust.
To Be Continued…