They chained the soldier to the wall. They locked the door and left.
There was little hint that they might return for him at all. A trial seemed out of the question. He cupped his hands together (there was no better way to keep the manacles from abrading his wrists) and inspected his cell. The hay on the damp stone was brown and fetid. A fresh hill of it had been planted in the corner, and it was infested with mice. A recessed window revealed the bright dust of the city’s main street; he saw sandals and carts, between the bars, and the dust drifted down from the sun.
Messages had been carved into the stones, some too faded to read, others in the language of the world outside, and some in angry slashes no sane man could safely pronounce. I will aby here a long time, the soldier thought, if these symbols are any indication. Fingers clasped, he traced the exotic grooves in the rock with the heels of his fists.
“The last man to share this cell died an old man,” said a little mouse. Its brown head surfaced from the hay. It gnawed loudly at a greenish shoot.
“I do not care to die an old man,” said the soldier. “Here.” He offered his bound wrists. “Gnaw open my veins. There is some nobility in that.”
The mouse twitched its whiskers in disgust. A second mouse joined it, head crowned by bits of hay stuck in its lumpy fur. “Is he joking?” asked the second mouse.
“I do not think they make jokes,” said the first mouse. “I say, soldier, do you make jokes?”
“Sometimes,” said the soldier. “Do mice joke?”
“Oh yes,” said the second mouse, taking a thread from the first’s rapidly disappearing snack. “I can tell many good jokes that end with cats choking on their own tails. I also know jokes about ratters chewing their paws off, and I know one about a flea that jumped so hard its legs fell off. And it starves to death.”
The soldier glanced once more at the scratches in the wall. Their manic edges seemed to take on a ripened lucidity. “Are all your jokes so morbid?” asked the soldier.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said the first mouse. “That’s vermin humor for you.”
The soldier sat himself beside the hill of hay and pulled forth a long stem. Munching thoughtfully, he said, “Then I have several great jokes for you. Most of them begin with me in the desert, and all of them end with everyone else dead. Would you like to listen?”
The second mouse gave a shiver of delight. Bits of dust and legumes flew in all directions. “Brother!” he cried. “They have sent us a comedian at last!”