Dungeons of the Bagne of Toulon
I awoke to the sound of nails scampering over stone.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
With my eyes closed, I lived in a world of darkness, where memories of mistakes stalked my conscious mind, and the vengeful ghost of Jean haunted my dreams.
I cracked my lids open and was greeted by an even bleaker reality. My prison cell was five feet by six, with barely enough room to lie down. Not that I did. The unforgiving slab of stone beneath me hadn’t been washed since it was laid, covered in years of grime and stained so dark with grease, excrement, and bile that it might have been shellacked brown.
I spent most of my time propped in the corner farthest from the leaking bucket that served as my chamber pot, shifting from one side to another when the pain in my hips became unbearable, or my ass went numb from the cold. I wore nothing but the thin, itchy shift that served as my prison garb, and though it was still summer, no warmth penetrated my subterranean confines.
Then again, I could have been wrong, and summer had already bled into autumn. Time, I’d found, was a fickle bitch. It didn’t help that I was deep beneath the ground, without the luxury of a window to help mark the passing of days. My door only made matters worse. It was crafted from solid oak, with a seldom-opened food slot at the bottom and a minuscule peephole at the top. So little light penetrated the room that it had seemed as dark as a tomb when I first got dragged inside. Slowly, my sight had adjusted, and the subtle, horrific details of my new home were revealed.
What a nightmare that first day had been. I was frightened, grieving, out of my mind with pain. At least I’d had enough sense to realize that hurling myself at the door would prove a useless endeavor. Its surface was scarred by the claw marks of prisoners who had lived and died within these walls before me, a testament to futility.
By what I thought was the third day, I could make out the graffiti scrawled over the sweating bricks of my cell. By the fourth, I saw that their colors ranged from the black of fecal ink to the fading red of blood. I’d poured over the words in those early days, desperate to distract myself. Many of the stories claimed innocence, and still more, injustice. Some proved difficult to decipher, their sentences marred in places by the large white letters painted over them when the prisoners of the Ancien Régime were freed during the initial uprisings fifteen years prior.
REVOLUTION, it said.
Horseshit, I said.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I glanced down and focused my gaze on my plump little visitor. Like those who had come before, it slithered in through a small hole in the corner of my cell, squeezing its nimble body through an opening the size of an acorn. Our eyes locked, and it rose on its haunches, using its tail to balance as it stared at me. Could it hear my heart beating, slow and lethargic? The painful hunger cramps that twisted my empty stomach?
I stared back at it, unblinking.
Brave little rat, wandering into my cell. Can’t you see the rotting carcasses of your brethren piled in the corner? Can’t you smell them? Or is that what drew you here? Have you come to feast on the fallen corpses of your comrades?
It lifted its muzzle, whiskers twitching as it scented the air. When it lowered its head, its beady little eyes snapped to the corner, and with a greedy squeak, it dashed towards the small pile of decomposing flesh and fur.
Ah, a cannibal.
I waited until it was within reach, and with speed born from the desperation of the dying, I snatched it off the ground. The vermin of the Bagne of Toulon had clearly found a way to thrive within this forgotten layer of hell – the rat was warm and fat and oh so alive within my frail grasp.
It shrieked in outrage and twisted viciously to sink its teeth into my skin. I barely felt the pain over the joy that coursed through my body. Its cries cut off as I grabbed its head and snapped its neck with a violent twist.
Today was a good day. Today I had food. Today I would not die.
Sometime later, hours I thought, I swallowed the last edible bite, cringing when the wet, slimy morsel slipped down my throat. As much as I wanted to save some for tomorrow, I knew better. I’d learned the hard way just how long rat meat kept. I’d tried to conserve a portion of my first kill, countless days past. I thought my dungeon cell was cold enough to keep it from rotting for a day or two. I’d been wrong and was violently sick as a result, my already weakened body losing precious strength to the energy it took to expel the contents of my innards.
At least I’d had the mind to strip off my clothing to keep it clean until the worst of it had passed. I’d conserved my water too, and once the sickness ran its course, I quenched my ravenous thirst and used the last of it to clean myself off as best I could, shivering and shaking as I scrubbed at my skin with a strip of fabric I’d torn from my shift.
The last of my breakfast gone, I tossed the remains into the pile with the others. Flies rose from it, buzzing angrily before dropping back down. I looked away, too tired to summon disgust over what I had been reduced to; eating rats and drinking their blood and my own piss to survive.
No one to blame but yourself, I thought, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. Jean and I had grown cocksure with our victories over Napoleon’s spies, so much so that we hadn’t seen our demise coming. We might have if we hadn’t been so drunk on our successes, so drunk on each other. That senator had dropped into our laps out of nowhere. He’d been too easy a mark, too helpful, too open.
I leaned my head back against the bricks, staring at the ceiling for a few minutes before letting my heavy lids fall shut. Though I could close my eyes to block out the sight of my surroundings, I had no such defense against the noises. The hallway outside my cell was made of the same ancient stone the rest of this godforsaken fortress was, and though our doors could block a body, they proved worthless against sound. At all hours, I was plagued by my fellow inmates’ piteous, echoing moans – a haunting cacophony that could drive a lesser mortal to madness. Judging by the hoarse cackling that intermittently burst from somewhere to my left, and the answering guffaws that came from the right, it had already broken the mind of more than one person.
I swore beneath my breath when the wild laughter rang out once more, like I’d just summoned it with my thoughts. The answering crowing came mere seconds later, as if the two prisoners, separated by an entire length of hallway, were somehow in on the same macabre joke. Closer to my cell, someone shouted at them to shut up, “For the love of God, just shut up!”. Then another joined in. Soon the walls around me rebounded with their cries. I plugged my ears before being tempted to lend my own angry words to the din. It did little to help. With the sounds muted, they became distorted, until they morphed into one familiar, screaming voice: Jean’s.
Oh, Jean. I’m so sorry.
He died believing that he was just an assignment, that I didn’t love him. And I’d allowed him to think those things because I was as heartless as I claimed to be. No, I hadn’t loved him, but he hadn’t been a simple assignment. He’d been bold, brave – an honorable man. He was quick to laugh, had a wit as sharp as a knife, and could set my blood on fire just by glancing in my direction. The only reason I didn’t love him was because I hadn’t let myself. I’d been in this line of work much longer than him, and I knew firsthand how fleeting life was. How many allies and informants had I lost over the years? Too many to count by now. Jean should have been just another. I should have mourned him and moved on.
Perhaps I was becoming sentimental. Perhaps my imprisonment was breaking me. I’d faced the same ordeal twice before, and both times with commendable bravado in the days leading up to my escape.
Ah, escape. Would I get another chance at it? Or had word of my capture reached the other British spies stationed nearby? Was I to be saved this time instead?
The laughter to my right cut off abruptly, and soon the other voices began to fall silent. I removed my fingers from my ears. Boot steps sounded on stone. I canted my ear toward the door, listening to the steady cadence.
They’re not here for you, I told myself. The reassurance did nothing to slow my spiking heartbeat. I pulled my knees to my chest and withdrew farther into the corner as if doing so would make me a smaller target, keep me from drawing their attention.
Fool, I scolded, there’s a wall between you. They can’t see you.
Clearly, madness wasn’t as far off as I thought.
More footsteps joined the first, and then another pair, and another, until I counted five distinct sets. Whoever they were after, they meant to take them by force. I thought it might have been the prisoner across from me. His voice was deep, guttural, the mark of a massive man.
They’ll need five men for someone like him, I thought. Not me. I’m just a starving woman. Weak, pitiful. But these lies I told myself just wouldn’t stick.
The boots stopped in the hallway just beyond my door. I dragged in a deep breath, trying to calm my racing heart. They could still be here for him.
Keys jangled outside and then slid into my lock with ominous finality.
Fuck. They were here for me.
I gathered my courage and forced my knees away, pushing my feet through the layers of filth as I shifted into a more relaxed posture. Once settled, I assumed a bored expression and traced lazy patterns in the dirt.
The door swung open. I could make out nothing at first, not with the hallway sconces backlighting my visitors. They were little more than murky outlines, monsters made of smoke and shadow. Then someone stepped forward, bringing their torch into my cell and burning away the darkness. Features came into focus: hair, lips, eyes. It was strange, after sitting here alone in my squalor for so long, to look upon my fellow humans.
I shifted my gaze and blinked. I must be seeing things. A man stood amidst the brutish prison guards, a man of such striking beauty that I questioned whether he was real. Was I on the cusp of death? Was he an angel, hiding amongst my jailors, visible only to me, here to give me strength in my final moments?
To my light-sensitive eyes, it looked as if the sun had broken through the Bagne to shine down upon him. I must be hallucinating. His hair was the color of gold. Not blond, gold. His brows were darker, framing striking blue eyes. Aristocratic nose. Full, pouty lips. Defined cheekbones and a square jaw. These were the features that made up his face, but if I gave the list to an artist, they would still struggle to capture the image of the man without looking upon him themselves, because how could I describe the way these features stood together? How could I direct someone to paint someone so inhumanly striking?
I cocked a knee up and sent the newcomer a bawdy grin. “You’re a bit finer than my usual customer,” I said, voice hoarse from disuse.
The man arched a brow at me, amusement dancing in his eyes. His gaze went around my room, and he ignored my comment completely, addressing the guards instead. “See that this cell is cleaned while I speak to her.”
I nearly shuddered, and not in the way Jean’s voice could make me. My reaction came from the inflection in this man’s tone, the obvious sound of good breeding. Paired with his spotless, fashionable attire, I worried about who he was and why he was here.
“Yes, my lord,” one of the guards answered.
My lord? Shit. He was either a noble who sided with the revolutionaries or one newly risen to his rank by Napoleon, who handed out titles like flutes of champagne at a ball. Either way, it boded ill.
“Get her up,” he said.
Was this the moment? Had they left me rotting in this cell for so long because they thought it would make me a more compliant torture victim?
Death is the father of all fears, my mentor had taught me. He is as inevitable as he is inescapable. Accept the fact that he will come for you, and eventually, you will lose your fear of him and your fear of everything else along the way.
Though I had accepted the inevitability of my death, I hadn’t yet reached the point where I no longer balked when I felt the chill of his icy fingers brush over me. My knee-jerk reaction was to spit in his face. To do the same to anything I still feared.
These guards made a fine target.
I smiled, showing all my teeth, and held eye contact with the nearest one. “Who will be first?”
The guard hesitated. Behind the beautiful man, the others shot looks at each other and shuffled their feet. My grin turned feral. They were still wary of me, and I was glad to see it. How many had I killed when the cart I rolled in on ground to a stop in the courtyard above? They’d thought me an invalid, that my head wound had kept me on my back during the long journey south through France. Fools. I’d laid there biding my time, eating everything they gave me to build my strength, feigning the worst symptoms of a brain injury to keep them coddling me.
But I was a fool as well. I should have attempted escape earlier. Unfortunately, the spy in me needed to know my destination. If I were a political prisoner of the revolution, I’d be brought to a place where my peers were housed, a place my superiors would want to know about so they could find a way to free the French king’s supporters. Only when I saw the fortress did I realize what a mistake I had made, and that my time for escape was now or never, damn the circumstances, damn the narrow odds that I might actually break free.
And so I laid there, my head lolling in the hay, waiting for my first victim to approach. I struck as they lifted me from the cart. At that moment, I knew three things: Jean was dead, we had been betrayed, and the men around me were clothed in the colors of my enemy.
That first idiot hadn’t even seen it coming. He’d been too close, looming over me in the pre-dawn light. He gasped like a fish when I yanked the knife free from his boot sheath and shoved it beneath his sternum to pierce his heart. The man helping him died just as easily and just as quietly, the skin of his throat parting like silk as I dragged my blade across it. I’d stripped him of his sword as he fell, leaping from the wagon as the first warning shouts broke free from the onlookers.
I cut down the third guard before the others realized I was more than the cheap whore they’d thought and that they’d unwittingly let a wolf in amongst the sheep. His sword joined the one I already wielded, and I turned from his lifeless body and bore down on the rest of the men, swinging my weapons in front of me using a technique I’d picked up from a slim, ruthless Turkish swordmaster.
I only had vague memories of the rest of the fight, so consumed was I with bloodlust and desperation that the smaller details were lost to the twisted visages of the dying. A fourth guard fell. I took a stab wound to the thigh. A fifth breathed his last. I suffered a crushing blow to my left shoulder, my numbed fingers releasing the hilt. A sixth guard dropped to his knees, clutching his ruined stomach. A seventh followed a heartbeat later.
By the time their peers poured forth from the nearest doorways in response to the melee, my escort had fallen to the last man, and I had reached the gates. I froze as a bullet ripped past me, close enough to stir my hair in its wake. There I stayed, rooted to the ground, weighing the odds. Blood slicked my skin. The tortured sounds of the dying filled my ears.
“Stay where you are, or we’ll kill you!” someone yelled.
I lowered the tip of my sword to the dirt. My chest heaved with exertion, steam rolled off my fevered skin, and though I bled from several wounds, I felt nothing save the yawning pit of grief and rage that threatened to swallow me whole. I had failed. But perhaps not all was lost.
I turned to take stock of the carnage behind me, lifting my gaze from the battlefield to see twenty or so men close to the building. They’d formed a firing line, musket muzzles trained on my head, my heart. All was lost. To flee now would spell my doom. There was only one thing left for me to do. I dropped to my knees and flung the sword aside.
It took a full five minutes for someone to pluck up the courage to approach me. I wondered how long it would take the guards in my cell to do the same.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.