Way back in the medieval mists of time, long before most people counted which century was which, Tung shivered violently on the ice-cold, stone floor of the executioner’s dungeon.
Dark, dank and putrid were the words an unscrupulous property merchant might have used to glamorise this miserable dungeon, no words were hideous or nauseating enough to describe the true horror of this dreadful place. To be fair though, it wasn’t all bad, at least the green slime, which oozed like pus from small cracks in the walls, added some colour to the drab greyness.
Tung huddled in the darkest corner of the freezing, granite cell wishing he was dead. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his wish to come true because he was due to be tortured to death the very next day. Roll on death, it couldn’t come a moment too soon. He was soaking wet, bruised, starving and parched with thirst. Yes, roll on death.
All he could do was pray for the merciful nothingness of sleep before the excruciating morning. He tossed and turned like an agitated foetus. How could anyone sleep in this frightful place? Hands over his ears, he tried to shut out the sounds of torturers’ hammers smashing bones, the heavy clunk of ratchets on the racks and the anguished screams which echoed forlornly down stone corridors. Rank stenches crept under the door to assault his nostrils, the acrid smell of flesh seared by white-hot branding irons overwhelming the other odours of human sweat, urine and excrement. Wails of despair reverberated inside his head. Did these evil tormentors never rest?
By some miracle, his brain dragged his racked body into an uneasy slumber. Praise the Lord for the gift of sleep, at least he still had this last sanctuary. His nightmares replayed his pathetic life as his subconscious tried to figure out how he’d ended up in this God-awful mess. The work of the devil, no doubt - with a little help from his fiends.
The dreams relived sixteen years of poverty, every day a battle to find enough food to survive. His mother had battled relentlessly to try and stop his father from drinking and gambling away whatever meagre wage he had earned. She’d been drained dry by the futility of her struggle to turn beer-money into food-money. Most of the time, the family went hungry and, adding real injury to insult, a beating was the reward for anyone daft enough to complain.
Tung doted on his mother, so it broke his little heart when, just before he turned twelve, the will to fight for her kids deserted her, and she deserted them. She’d either died or run away, he never discovered which.
Without anyone shielding him from his father’s drunken wrath, the beatings increased in regularity and harshness. His childhood descended into a nightmarish hell of torment and deprivation. To make matters worse still, he’d heaped a couple of cartloads of guilt onto his tiny shoulders because he couldn’t protect his little sister from the torrent of paternal abuses. His father only brought pain into their lives. No support, no money and no food. Tung had become the man of the house and stealing was his only option to put meals on the table.
As he drifted in and out of sleep, his memory reconstructed his first theft, an event destined to determine how the rest of his life would play out.
He was a mere child, and his victim was a giant of a man whose purse bulged with gold and silver coins. He’d watched the man for weeks and resented how he seemed to have an endless supply of money to waste on fripperies. Resentment was to become an enduring theme in his life; resentment sprinkled with an unhealthy dusting of jealousy, spite and bitterness.
The sight of a fat man buying a gaudy hat at an up-market market stall wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, although there was something a little bit different about this fellow which piqued Tung’s interest. He followed him for the rest of the day and on many occasions after that, creeping in the shadows, always ten steps behind.