Content Warning: Violence
Already poised at the very edge of panic, he responded quicker than thought. Reaching up with both arms and grasping his assailant by the shoulders, he jerked forward to send the knife-wielder flying over his own head. With a cry of surprise, the attacker slammed into the wall of the cave. The bones rattled on the floor as the other man leapt up, and he scrambled backward to avoid the renewed assault that must surely be coming, but when no further sounds betrayed his enemy’s position, he grew still again, straining his ears for some sign of danger.
“You are strong,” said a soft voice from the darkness. “What is your profession?”
“I make—made weapons for the household of the king,” he said, only a hint of bewilderment and fear in his voice.
“So,” said the voice, then paused. “And you have some ration of food to sustain you in this pit, as seems to be the custom?”
“Yes,” he said and, growing bolder, returned a question of his own. “But who are you to be down here, alive, and a foreigner in this land?”
“You would not believe my story if you heard it,” said the stranger, with a short gasp of a laugh.
“Tell it to me anyway,” he said. “Better a story I won’t believe than to dwell upon how we must starve to death in this pit. Then, when you have told me your tale, you can take my life as you planned, quickly.”
“No, I don’t think I will do that,” said the other. “But we have time for a short tale, wondrous beyond comprehension though it may seem to you.”
He heard more rustling and divined that his companion had sat down on the floor of the cave. He likewise settled himself in the sand, sweeping aside the bones that nestled about him as the stranger began to speak once more.
"Know, then, my brother in this half-death, that I have long been a wanderer, traveling from place to place, never resting or finding a home for myself but always seeking out some new challenge or adventure to stave off the weariness of this life. Some little time ago, tiring of dwelling among other men—whose days are so often filled with meaningless and selfish pursuits—I left the great city and traversed the desert. I roamed long in solitude, meeting only a few other travelers who desired peace. At last I descried, in the distance, the peaks of the mountains jutting up from the sand. I made for them, having been driven nearly to the edge of sanity by the unchanging, endless sand and longing for the feel of a cold wind on my face.
"Reaching the feet of the nearest mountain, I began to ascend, and ever as I climbed I felt my spirits rise with me. When I reached the summit, I rejoiced in the name of God to be so close to the heavens and to breathe the fresh air that drifted down from the clouds. It renewed my limbs after the dryness and the heat of the plains, and for a long time I stood with my eyes closed, letting my other senses enjoy the change in climate, free from the distraction of the scenery.
"When at long last I opened my eyes, I marveled to see below me, far beneath my feet, but still high up on the other side of the mountain, a city built upon its slopes. A great wall ran all about it, enclosing it on three sides, with the cliff face of the mountain as its rear defense, but within it was vast, rich, and mighty.
"I descended quickly, with eager but stumbling feet. I have always gone where I wished, unobserved if need be, and soon I found myself once more walking the streets of men. I was no longer reluctant to mix with others of my kind, but curious to know more of the fortress built so high and guarded in a solitude of its own. I soon learned what I wished, and the story of the enclosed city and its wall is perhaps the strangest part of my tale.