This story is by Stephen Brown and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Today was Trimalchio’s anniversary. It was not his wedding anniversary, nor his birthday, nor any sort of holiday that anyone else might recognize. No, it was an anniversary of a very different kind.
So mused Trimalchio, count of Agreonne, as he descended down into the stygian depths of the earth. Beyond the little bubble of flickering lantern light, the stone steps faded off into deeper darkness. Trimalchio’s feet on the steps, which were slick with subterranean dew, sounded very faint and muffled in that breathless space. Even the tune which he hummed to himself was swallowed up by the gloom. But despite a locale that would have made grim Hades feel at home, Trimalchio walked with a light step, almost skipping down the stairs. A smile played on the count’s wrinkled face.
For today was the anniversary of his winning the countship of Agreonne and the downfall of his hated rival Fortunato. That same Fortunato who had mocked Trimalchio at the Masque Carnival, who had spurned Trimalchio’s invitations numerous times and in turn refused to invite Trimalchio to even the most important banquets. The same Fortunato who had thrown down his glove before Trimalchio in the Vivari Piazza for all the city to see. But now that Fortunato was paying his dues in a Purgatory of Trimalchio’s own devising.
Trimalchio had brought about Fortunato’s downfall during that fateful carnival twenty years ago today. After months of play-acting, Trimalchio had shown that he was a weary, humbled old man no longer with the will for showdowns with the spry Fortunato. Trimalchio had played his part well. Soon the whole city believed Trimalchio really wanted peace with Fortunato. Slowly, ever so slowly, even Fortunato wanted to make amends with his elderly rival. Then Trimalchio knew his time had come. At that momentous Masque Carnival, Trimalchio had paid a beggar a hefty sum to wear the exact same costume as himself. Then Trimalchio had come to Fortunato, playing his familiar role.
“Let us be friends, Fortunato my dear man! I am too old for war,” Trimalchio had simpered.
Fortunato was reluctant at first. He pulled away, acted the part of the proud count. But of course making peace with Trimalchio meant one less person he had to watch out for. Trimalchio proposed a toast, then another, then he suggested they open a new cask of wine. Fortunato heartily agreed. That night later found the two strolling amiably through Trimalchio’s garden.
“You know, friend, I have an old cellar with a fine cask of wine that I was saving for just such an occasion. Shall we fetch it?” Trimalchio had asked.
“Lead on!” Fortunato had declared with an exaggerated sweep of his arm.
Then Trimalchio had pulled aside the veil of ivy to reveal the door cut into the granite wall. Above its arch was carved in sharp relief the heads of three dogs, fangs bared. Fortunato, on unsteady legs, veered over the threshold. And just like that, Trimalchio had him. And to anyone who asked later, Trimalchio could honestly say that he had been at the carnival the whole time. There were in fact many who had indeed seen him there all through the night. The beggar, of course, was never heard from again.
Back in the present, Trimalchio alighted at the bottom of the stairs. In the stuffy air and suffocating silence, Trimalchio tiptoed down the passage. The lantern light revealed this to be a natural grotto with uncut stone walls, used by his ancestors to store wine, to hold secret meetings, and for trysts with favored mistresses. And now it was Trimalchio’s own private realm of Hades. He had come down here before, on anniversaries such as this, to gloat over Fortunato, to jeer at him, to vent all of his frustrations upon his hapless prisoner.
“Fortunato. Fortunato!” Trimalchio called out in a sing-song voice as he neared the end of the passage. “Do you know what day it is, Fortunato?”
Trimalchio reached the end of the cellar. Along the way he passed a pile of bricks and mortar leftover from when a wall had been shored up. The passage widened out into a large alcove much like the apse of a church. In fact, the space very much felt like a church. It had a kind of holy stillness to the air and the weight of something grand bearing down on you, whether it be the darkness or the tons of stone above your head.
Trimalchio grinned widely, “Fortunato, my dearest friend, do you know how long you’ve been down here?”
Trimalchio’s lantern light illuminated the back of the apse. Trimalchio gasped, a cold shock running through his body. He nearly dropped his lantern. For there, in the small alcove at the very back of the natural cavern lay a pile of iron chains. But no Fortunato.
“Happy anniversary,” came a voice from the shadows.
Like a ghost emerging from a crypt, the husk of the man who had once been Don Fortunato of Agreonne appeared in the flickering light of Trimalchio’s lantern.
“Fortunato! How did you escape?”
Fortunato gazed, his stare unblinking, at Trimalchio.
“The rats helped me, old friend.”
Fortunato tilted his head. His wooly locks of tangled gray hair shifted in the still air. His glassy eyes stared past the shining eye of the lantern to Trimalchio’s starch white face. Fortunato took a step forward. Trimalchio’s gasp echoed in the empty stone chamber as he leapt back. Fortunato grinned, revealing pointed canine teeth. He chuckled deep in his throat, filling the cave with a sound very much like the growling of a mad dog.
Fortunato took another step forward, then another Each time Trimalchio leapt back as if he had been pinched. But then the back wall was against Trimalchio. He could leap back no more. Fortunato, his face less than an inch from Trimalchio’s, grinned once more.
“You’re all out of room, Trimalchio friend.”
Then Trimalchio heard before he saw, the rattle of chains. Cold iron links dug into his waist.
“No, Fortunato, do not! Please, don’t do this to me!” Trimalchio screamed.
But it was too late, Fortunato had already locked the chain in place, pinning Trimalchio to the wall by his waist. Then Fortunato got to work. It was slow going for a man who had been imprisoned in the dark for years and who had been fed on nothing but rats and thin gruel all that time. Fortunato got the bricks and buckets of mortar. Brick by brick, Fortunato built up a wall around Trimalchio. With each new layer, Fortunato scraped on mortar with a trowel. When the wall reached Trimalchio’s head, Fortunato left a window open for his face. When he was finished and Trimalchio was encased behind the freshly-laid wall, Fortunato rose slowly to his feet with a contented sigh.
“Goodbye, Trimalchio. I’ll see you again soon enough. I wouldn’t want you to starve on me. Until then, the rats will keep you company. Now, I am going to make all that is yours mine.”
“Fortunato, release me, please! Don’t do this to me! I’ll do anything! Anything!” Trimalchio cried as tears streamed from his eyes.
Fortunato stopped at the bottom of the steps. He turned to look back at Trimalchio down the long nave between the jagged walls of granite.
“Happy anniversary, Trimalchio.”
Then Fortunato, the lantern in hand, was climbing up the stone steps, taking each one at a time. But his strength increased the closer to the surface he got. For that long lost pleasure—the sun—awaited him. Before long, Fortunato and his light were gone. Trimalchio screamed himself hoarse in the blind darkness. His screams went unanswered. Trimalchio devolved into blubbering and whimpering. He wept for his life, now lost, and for the cruel injustice of fate. When at last he had cried himself dry, the cellar room fell silent. And then he heard it. The pitter-patter of so many tiny feet. Then came the hiss of whiskers and tails, the curious squeaks. Here or there now flashed a small, black eye in the dark. Something brushed against his ankle. Trimalchio shuddered and tried to kick, but his leg could hardly move an inch.
“Get off me!” Trimalchio screamed in a panic.
But the rats paid no heed to his quavering voice. Another furry shape rubbed against his leg, then another. Then he felt the tiny paws digging into his pant leg. Trimalchio screamed and thrashed, banging both knees into the brick wall. Snot dribbled from his nose as new tears of panic flew from his eyes. Trimalchio screamed Fortunato’s name. He begged for mercy and cursed Fortunato with the most heinous words in the same breath. But there was nothing to be done. Trimalchio was entombed with the rats.