The opening vignette in which we are introduced to William Wandesford, and something of his current situation
“I…I do not know,” he said; each syllable was excruciating, more painful than any bodily torture they’d put him through. It was the first time he’d admitted the fact that he had lost his sister, and it cost him something precious, something indefinable that pulled at his chest.
Dim blue eyes shut with the confession and he turned his thoughts instead to the room that surrounded him, seeking at least a mental distraction. It was tiny, big enough for maybe four people, and bereft of anything most people would find interesting. There wasn't even the smallest of windows; William hadn’t been aware of the weather in at least a fortnight. He had already counted the thirty seven stains on the walls, of various dubious colors and origins, tried to guess what they’d come from until speculation became too gruesome for even him. He couldn’t guess what color the partitions had been to begin with. The only thing about the room that changed was the dirt floor"it had soaked up copious amounts of his blood since he’d arrived and was darker now than it had been.
Blood was in his hair, too, sticky and indiscernible in the inky tangles. It left almost black marks on his crimson uniform jacket, burgundy blotches on his white pants that had stiffened into coarse patches. The captain’s insignia was no longer discernible. The grime of what felt like months was caked on his skin. How long had he been here? How long since he’d been torn from his sister, heard her screaming for him to stop her, save her from herself?
“You finally speak,” came a thickly accented voice from somewhere above the man’s head, shattering his momentary distraction, “only to say you do not know.” The voice contained a hint of surprised laughter through the foreign lilt. “William and Claire, never without each other, like little children. She cannot take care of herself? Needs her brother? And now you have lost her, is that it? This is supposed to be believable?” Now almost gentle in its tones, the taunting accusation finally caused William to look up.
The man that stood before him was deceptively slight and unimposing. Though the room was poorly lit by one tiny oil lamp, William didn’t need much light to make out the man’s features; the stranger was scant inches away and William could feel his breath as he spoke. Most of him was swathed in layers of dusky, light-weight fabric and he wore slippers, not boots, beneath billowing pants. He had the same bronzed skin of all his kind, dark from the desert sun, with coarse hair like pitch. His face nearly always looked angry, with the seemingly permanent glare. Sheer force of the man’s personality and the subtle, skillful manipulation that lay behind the tiny build were enough to make the captain forget himself. He’d been bigger than his captor when he was 15. It was hard to feel he had a height advantage, tied up as he was.
“Yes.” It was as nonspecific an answer as William could give. Let the other man decide which question he had answered.
A surprisingly deep rumble came from the dark man’s chest, recognizable as laughter after a few moments before it turned into his usual sibilant hiss. William understood the noise to be part of what had earned the man his moniker--Cobra. Should the hissing laugh not be enough by way of comparison, two bejeweled, fang-like knives hung on his belt and he used them with devastating accuracy. William had been sorely mistaken in thinking they were merely for decoration, worn for show like so many fancy weapons, and would bear the scars to show his error in judgment.
Barely restraining his laughter, Cobra called out a few words in the smooth, flowing language that was his native tongue. William didn’t know it, though he guessed it to be Persian; his military journeys had taken him across the Far East before. Presently another man entered the room with a creaking of the battered door, inclined his head to Cobra. They jabbered for a few moments, rapidly and without seeming concern for William at all, before Cobra began laughing again. Despite being much more intimidating physically"bald, well-muscled, and at least six and a half feet tall"the newcomer didn’t have Cobra’s inherent commanding presence. He gave a harsh laugh as well before speaking. William recognized it as a question despite the language barrier.
Cobra seemed to consider, wiping away a few mirthful tears from the corner of one eye. “Kill him,” he said in English, “he is of no use to us now.” He turned to William, serious for the moment. “It is a pity you do not know. I should have liked to have you on our side, Wandesford. I had heard you were good, and now I shall never see it with my own eyes. Perhaps I will take yours, when Atash has finished, to see through the eyes of my enemy. A prized ability, you know.”
Atash nodded in mute agreement and fumbled in his deep pockets for a moment, pulling out a skinny metal rod that was perhaps a foot long. It was blackened at one end.
“You must be purified by fire and iron first, however, as our god Atar would have. It is Atash’s specialty. I bid you peace, and am sorry we could not have met in better circumstances.” Cobra gave an eloquent bow, cordial despite the barbarous things he’d done to William. It was his way, William had learned, and even now he couldn’t help but admire the baffling formality, the well wishes through the inhumanity.
With only a look that seemed to convey pity for wasted opportunities, Cobra left the room, shaking his head.
Atash handled the long piece of metal with certainty, and William had no doubts he’d had many occasions to use it prior to the captain’s incarceration. He seemed to ignore William for the time being, busying himself with the lamp in the corner; comprehension clicked in the Captain’s mind"fire and oil. Purified by fire and iron. The lamp no longer seemed like an innocent source of light. Strangely, however, William was not afraid. He was blankly unconcerned for his life, his well being. Cobra had been right"he was of no use now. He had failed Claire, and would've taken his own life if he didn’t feel it to be cowardly.
He hung his head and closed his eyes once more. Memories flooded back to him, unbidden, but a welcome companion of his last few moments.