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By nightfall, he was begging to die.
In his old life, he could never have imagined that a simple beating could bring him so far, beyond hope, beyond shame. The last flurry of kicks had broken ribs, and a jagged edge of bone sawed upward with every breath, threatening to break through his skin from the inside. Instinct and reflexes had him curling in on himself, trying to protect vital organs, but even that caused searing pain to tear through the deep bruises in bone and muscle.
His eyes were long since swollen shut, but he could hear their voices, track their movements, vibrations of footsteps stalking around him.
"What do you say we take his tongue, lads," the Scottish one suggested, and then he felt all their hands under his arms, all together now, boys, lifting him to some slumped imitation of a sitting position propped up against the wall.
Earlier that dayminutes, hours, impossible to judge anymorethey'd dragged a body past the shed where he lay shackled. A hole gaped in the middle of a face where a snub nose should have been, but he recognized the dead boy from the bottle-blue patches on his shirt. They'd all been rounded up together by the ragtag soldiers. He didn't know why. The boyhe couldn't have been more than fourteenwas chained next to him for a while, sobbing something like a prayer in an unknown language. Then they'd taken him away.
He'd discovered there was nothing he could say to make the soldiers stop. He wasn't a spy, wasn't a rebel, he wasn't even a "native," as they called him, spitting the word like venom. And then he said he was a spy, was a rebel, anything to make them stop, and they still kept beating him.
Through the slits of his bruise-swollen eyes, he could see one of the soldiers coming toward him, a knife in one hand. He tried to crawl away, but a burst of pain in both knees sent him back to the cold ground. He turned and tried to read the expression on the closest soldier's face, but that part of his brain must have shut down. He saw eyes, a mouth set in a firm line, isolated features only, couldn't puzzle out the meaning of the whole.
"No," he whisper-croaked, trying to ignore the sensation of blood gargling in the back of his throat, but the soldier just took hold of him by the hair. The knife bit into his ear without warning, sawing through the cartilage in a series of rough strokes, each one a new burst of agony, fresh sharp pain overlapping the relentless throbs from before. It was sensory overload: he didn't know if he was screaming or moaning or if no sound was coming out at all. Hot blood soaked the side of his neck.
"It's too dull," the soldier complained, seconds before the last stroke.
"No such thing as too dull," another replied, "not for this lot."
That earned a grim laugh. He saw his ear on the ground, a pale, waxy-looking thing under the slick of blood. A boot kicked it away, out of his narrow field of vision.
"We need a real saw or we'll be at him all bloody night."
A new wave of fear came over him, not of dying, but of the sudden vision that death wasn't the end of his pain, that he'd gone through this beforeand they would hold him down and saw his heart from his chest with a proper surgeon's saw to see exactly how long it would take him to dieand he would go through this again, and again, and again. And yes, there it was, the pocketknife working the buttons off his shirt one by one, from the hollow of his throat down to his belly.
The pop of the buttons. The teeth of the saw. Over and over again, the inevitable pain, looping forever.