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The Thief

The Frankish army’s siege engines had been bombarding Pamplona for a week. Pale streams of dust drifted down to where Christóbal lay as the dull thud of stone on stone shook the dry well. A sliver of sunlight touched one corner of the damp circle of packed earth as the sun traveled past its zenith. The splash of warmth against the laid stone walls momentarily relieved the chill that caused his joints to ache. Christóbal pressed one ear to the cool dirt floor and stilled his breathing. There it was, the sound of running water. The water table had retreated during the dry season but rain in the mountains had slowly filled the aquifer until water flowed mere feet beneath him as an underground stream.

The world is neither fair nor unfair. When the Moors caught him stealing, they were busy attending to the defense of the city and threw him into the well until they had time to deal with the thief. Christóbal had previously been a prisoner of both the Franks and the Moors and generally preferred his treatment at the hands of the latter. He could only assume that his current state of neglect was due to their attention being split by the ensuing siege rather than any willful malice. Still, between the afternoon and evening prayers, Al-Salat Al-Wusta and Salat Isha’a, the Muslim clerics would bring him a loaf of bread and refill a clay jug with water by raising it by the leather cord it was tied to.

In addition to the pitcher, Christóbal had a shallow wooden dish and a clean linen cloth. He had convinced the clerics to bring these to him by claiming he needed them to perform ritual ablution before prayers. After drinking what water remained, he untied the pitcher from the leather cord and struck it against a sharp corner of rock shattering it into several fragments. Gripping an end of the linen cloth in his teeth he wrapped his right hand before grasping the largest of the ceramic shards and beginning to dig into the damp clay beneath him.

It was slow work and the sharp edges of the improvised pick cut into his hand, staining the cloth wrapper with blood. As the earth loosened he scooped it into the wooden dish and piled it against the far wall of his prison. His progress slowed as he hit chunks of limestone, the largest stones as big as his head. He rolled them out of the pit and then carefully stacked them into a cairn.

He abandoned the improvised tool when he struck still water and instead hurled dishes of sandy muck over his shoulder. He was crouched thigh deep in muddy water when he finally broke through to the underground stream. He carefully traced the path of the loose red clay as it swirled in the current and was swept away. The water was flowing left to right. Christóbal removed the top stone from the pile and rolled it down the right shoulder of the pit. It disappeared into the dark water with a gulp. After the last stone slid out of sight he crab-walked down the slope and dropped into the cold water. Holding his breath he ducked and felt around his feet blindly. When he found a stone he pushed it tight into the corner of the stream bed and then came up gasping for air. Slowly, he began forming a rough stone wall. When his lips became numb and his scalp hurt he dragged himself out of the water and hugged his knees until he stopped shivering. As circulation returned, his palms itched.

When the stones were in place he took handfuls of sand, gravel, and mud and crudely filled the gaps. By the time he had clawed his way out of the water it lay ankle deep over the well’s floor. Christóbal climbed on top of the dirt pile to wait. The shadows began to fade into darkness as the sun, which had long since passed the well’s aperture, now began to set. As he sighted the first star in the night sky the water was waist deep even when he stood at the highest point of the mound. He took a hold of the thin leather cord and wrapped it twice around his wrist.

The water rose steadily throughout the night and Christóbal pulled himself higher and higher on the slender umbilical cord extending out of the well. When he succumbed to fatigue he dreamed about drowning and when he awoke he was choking; the water had risen over his mouth. As the stars faded and the sky grew light the lip of the well was almost in reach. The city was quiet; at some point during the evenings the siege engines had ceased their bombardment. He found a toehold and sprung upward throwing the crook of his right arm over the edge of the well. He pulled himself, dripping, into the pale daylight and lay still for a while, catching his breath.

In the distance he could hear the sounds of battle within the city, the Franks must have breached the fortifications overnight. He hoped he might be able to escape in the confusion. As he headed toward the city outskirts he heard shouts behind him, the fighting had spread to the center of the city. When he arrived at the city walls he ascended the stone steps hoping to get a better vantage point in order to choose an escape route. When he reached the top of the wall he was seen by two Frankish men-at-arms who gave chase. They pursued him along the top of the wall and he ran directly into the arms of soldiers coming from the other direction who roughly led him into the presence of a white bearded Frankish lord.

“I am a Christian–.” Christóbal protested.

“He is a thief.” A man at arms interrupted.

The Frankish lord spoke.

“Ostendo mihi vestri manuum.”

Show me your hands.

Christóbal raised his right hand and, after a moment, his left arm, ending in a stump at the wrist.

The world is neither just nor unjust. The first time the Moors had caught Christóbal stealing, they had taken his hand. But their treatment of him had been fair. In contrast, the Franks would surely hang him as a thief. Christóbal turned towards the battlement, said a prayer, and jumped. His fall was slowed by the canopy of a supply wagon and he painfully twisted an ankle as he hit the ground awkwardly but was otherwise unharmed. Silently thanking whichever God, Muslim or Christian, had been listening Christóbal detached the horses from the wagon and rode away–throwing axes and javelins landing all about him.

One response to “The Thief”

  1. Avatar llxt says:

    "The world is neither fair nor unfair" – I lke that line. If only I hadn't already found a quote for today…

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McKnight About McKnight

By day Mark McKnight is the Principle Software Engineer at the Yale Institute for Network Science. On the side, he organizes Netrunner games and fixes bugs on this and other websites that his partner, Lee Lee, has dreamed up. Somehow he also manages to keep a cadre of growing boys (humans and dogs) alive and happy.

Read more by this author on 30POV .


December 2010
November 2010
On My Honor
October 2010
Witch Hunt
September 2010
If, Then.
May 2010
Small Crimes
April 2010
February 2010
"It's Complicated"
January 2010