Hunger. It was the only thought in Merew’s mind, the only feeling he could remember. His tired feet dragged from one dust-blown street to the next. Searching for food. Fighting hunger. It consumed him, wrapping its foul jaws around his stomach and biting down again and again.
Did his back still hurt from the whipping? He could not say. Every ache and sting was drowned out by the ripples of hollow pain spreading across his abdomen. But still no food. He was not the only person going hungry in the town that morning. There were always others and they were quicker than him, cleverer, more brutal.
Curse the beasts and pray I never become one.
Nobody displayed food in public. It was more than foolish. Flaunting your wealth was madness. That was why he kept his treasures hidden. There were thieves and beggars enough to form a town of their own.
Merew staggered through the streets and took care. He might be half mad with hunger, but it would be sheer insanity to let his guard down. Walking skeletons wrapped in tight, sunburned skin. The hungry were everywhere. They stared in through shuttered windows, scratched at bolted doors. He saw them fix their bleary, hollow-eyed stares on mangy dogs which dozed at the crossroads. It made him sick. However starved he became, Merew would not eat a dog. He was no beast.
“I’ll give you a loaf if you have the coin,” a friendly, warm voice said.
He saw an old woman with sagging, wrinkled skin and a drooping bosom. Her body was wrapped in a heavy dress of red linen, bound by a green sash. Did she have food? Others were limping towards her, following the promise of bread into a shadowed alley.
He had no coin, but he still might eat. If he was quick. If he stuck to the crowd. At the very least, he might steal a crumb or two from one of the other gaunt wanderers.
“Where’s the bread?” one of the hungry asked.
“Show it to us,” another said.
Their voices rose in a weak, angry murmur which filled the alley. The old woman waved her arms for silence and stepped into a narrow doorway. Her crackling voice reached out over their heads.
“If you have coin, lift it so I can see,” she waited until the air was filled with grubby hands holding up discs of copper and tin. Merew shuffled into the centre of the emaciated crowd, shivering with excitement. “Wait here.”
She ducked inside the doorway and slammed the door behind her. The crowd groaned and tucked their coins away. He could feel the hunger spreading, making his limbs shake. It was too much. The sun was growing hotter by the second. If food did not come soon, Merew knew he would pass out.
Pray gods, don’t let me fall at the mercy of these savages.
Dying did not concern him. In his mind, there was no choice between eating and death. Both would bring an end to the pain. It was hunger he feared. The idea that the agony could become worse, the sawing knives in his belly might grow sharper. It terrified him.
A racket went up at the entrance to the alleyway. People were groaning and raising hoarse shouts of fear. What was it now? Had the priests returned? Merew elbowed his way towards the sound. He had forgotten his fear of the seshem. There was no way for them to make his torment worse. If there was a fate worse than death, he was surely living it.
Up ahead, a man seemed to be climbing up through the air. Merew blinked, trying to understand. He saw what he thought was a ladder and edged closer. It was a gate. A tall barrier of crossed timbers had been dropped into the alleyway, blocking the starving inside.
Something hard hit the side of his head and Merew fell. A woman, so thin that her bones jutted out and formed weeping red sores, was lashing out on all sides with her jabbing elbows. Feet stamped down around him. He would be crushed if he did not move. They were panicking. People screamed and threw each other aside. The man climbing the gate dropped onto those below. The feathered flight of a short arrow trembled in his chest.
“We’re trapped,” a man shouted, leaping up to hang from the ledge of a low roof. “Gods save us, we’re trapped.”
Merew saw a dark shape appear on the rooftop. A leg kicked into the climber’s face. He screamed and dropped back into the crowd. Another arrow flew after him and lodged in the woman’s throat. She dropped onto Merew, crushing him.
Please, not this. Hunger, starvation, death. Anything is better than this.
With a creaking groan, the gate lifted. Merew dragged himself out from under the woman. The crowd caught him up in its flight. They poured under the gate and their feet clattered on a wooden ramp. He did not remember it being there before, but he might have forgotten. Hunger made his memories dim, even recent ones.
Then silence fell over the people huddled around him. Somewhere close by, an ox snorted at the heat. The large cart creaked beneath his feet. They had been captured, taken prisoner, but for what?
Several objects thudded on the cart’s wooden boards. The beggars jostled and fought. Some struggled to get closer to the centre, while others pressed their way to the walls of the cage. Merew dropped onto his hands and knees. He could see something through the tangle of scrawny legs. It was brown, round. The shape was familiar, but it was so long since he had seen one.
His eyes widened with joy. He could not believe what he was seeing. A loaf of bread, lying untouched on the cart’s floor. It was a gift from the gods. A gift meant for him alone. He would kill the beasts if they tried to steal it from him.
“Food,” someone said, their voice breaking with excitement. “It’s food.”
Merew crawled forwards, ignoring every shin which kicked into his side, every foot which trod on his hands and legs. He was getting closer. The rest were fighting over the bread, but his loaf had not been discovered yet. His hand closed around one end as a set of grey, crooked fingers snapped shut around the other half.
“It’s mine, you filthy urchin. Hands off.”
An old man with wispy strands of grey hair sprouting from his chin and head. His green eyes were cruel, chilling. He snarled at Merew, baring a set of chipped brown teeth. How hungry was this man? There was no gauntness in his cheeks, so not starving. Merew’s belly was twisting itself into burning knots. The gods could strike him down then and there if he let this greedy old man take his bread.
Merew was no urchin. He was rich and the loaf belonged to him.
The thick crust slipped out of his hands and Merew felt empty despair settling over him. There was a heavy foot pressing down on his calf, pinning him in place. Through eyes filling with dry tears he saw the old man tear at the loaf with his rotten teeth, growling with joy.
Merew prayed for a thousand deaths to befall the old man. What was he thinking? The gods did not help the living. They tortured them with hunger and fear. If he wanted to eat, to live, he would have to take what was rightfully his.
Above Merew, a voice screeched in pain as he tore his fingernails across the ankle of the man standing on him. The pressure released and he scrambled at the old man. A grey hand tried to push him back and he bit down on the palm, as hard as he could. More screams and curses, seeming to come from all around.
The cart was moving, but he hardly noticed. Its rumbling wheels were nothing compared to the thunder of his heart. This was his moment. He dragged his nails across the old man’s face until he fell away, howling in agony. Heavy feet stamped on all sides. Merew pulled the loaf into his hands and did not pause for a second. He gulped down one mouthful after another. No time to waste chewing. He swallowed the hard crust one bite at a time.
A full belly. Blessed relief.
Then the movement stopped. The shouting and stamping stopped. A man called an indistinct command and the starving men and women fell silent, stilled by the authority in his voice.
“File out, vermin,” the voice called.
Merew stepped down from the cart with the others. Already he regretted eating. The hunger was gone and with it went any distraction from his other sufferings. Bruises were forming on his legs and arms. His hands were swollen, like raw sausages hanging plump in a butcher’s window.
Am I being whipped? Will the punishment ever end?
The hot knives were raking across his back again. His wounds had been rubbed raw in the scuffle, bleeding through his threadbare rags. Any distraction from the pain would be welcome. He almost tripped and looked down at his feet.
Are they dead?
The floor of the cart was littered with emaciated bodies contorted in death, writhing in agony. He saw the old man there and fought the urge to spit. No, he did not hate the old man. He pitied him and felt guilt for what he had done. They could have shared the loaf.
“Eyes front,” a man shouted in his ear. Then his voice softened in amazement. His rough hand dragged Merew out of the crowd by the scruff of his collar. “Look what I found, satraph.”
He had heard the title before, satraph. They were soldiers, Merew realised. Whoever he was being displayed to was a leader, a warrior. It made no sense. There was too much confusion. What brought soldiers into the town, where their presence was forbidden? Why would they kidnap beggars, feed them and cart them away?
“What is it, soldier?” the satraph asked. Merew could not see him well. The sun was too bright as it climbed towards the sky’s summit. All he could see were dark, hazy outlines against a sea of white. The short silhouette turned and let out a wheezing laugh. “Is this a joke? Are you yanking my arm? There’s no way he was in there.”
“I was,” Merew said, squinting at the warrior. Why had he spoken? It was dangerous to even look a soldier in the eye. He did not care. They were speaking as if he was not there, as if he was a bush or a pile of bricks. He would set them straight. “You can’t be out on the streets. The seshem will find out and then –”
“The seshem?” the satraph asked in mock terror. “I beg you, have mercy on me! Not the dreaded priests. I’m pissing myself with fear.” his thick, scabbed hand reached out and tousled Merew’s hair. “Look around you. Do those feel like cobblestones under your toes.”
Dutifully, Merew wriggled his toes. Hot, fine sand crunched between them. Cold dread swept through his body as his vision began to clear. He could see the great humps of dunes stretching out to the horizon, sand blowing in ribbons over their sharp summits. Endless ranges of them. An empty blue sky, clear as glass.
Dear gods, please not this.
He knew where they were. It was not the town. They had travelled beyond the reach of the seshem to a place where the gods ceased to be. He was dead. Not yet, but in a short matter of time. He knew it.
Cruel gods. Vengeful fate. Cursed luck. It can’t be real. I must be dreaming.
“Welcome to the wilderness, rat.”