Published on 2013/01/06

The Black Box

Lee Wright

For ages, the unlit stone chamber beneath the Royal Courtyard had been known simply as the Black Box. Its original use was long forgotten and even the chilling tales of the contests held there had passed from history into legend and nearly into myth. One person, however, longed to relive the dark days of the Old Kingdom.

Ordinarily, in such a relatively civilized kingdom, this young lady’s wish would have been laughed off as the foolish fancy of a spoiled girl who spent too much time alone in her tower with ancient books. No one dared laugh at her, though—not even behind her back—for she was the king’s only heir and her words carried much weight with him.

What drove this beautiful young woman to dredge up such a nightmarish horror may never be known, for the cold, grey stones of the castle walls whisper no secrets. Perhaps it was intended to diffuse her aging and ailing father’s insistence that she choose a mate and bear him a grandchild—a male grandchild, preferably. Whatever the reason, when the Princess spoke her wish, the king’s voice echoed her words thunderously through the valley with the force of law.

And so it came to pass that, on the first day of the Spring Festival, all the eligible men in the kingdom drew lots and, in accordance with the old traditions, thirteen were chosen to enter the Black Box. That day, as the sun slipped below the distant mountains, the First Lieutenant of the Royal Guard tore away the rusted chains and locks and threw open the great iron door for the first time in more than half a millennium. Some people claim to have seen tortured spirits rising from the pit; however, spirits had already been flowing freely all afternoon so not all accounts of that day’s events are credible.

One-by-one, as a lone drummer played a martial rhythm, the thirteen contestants descended, naked and unarmed, into the darkness. When the last man was in, the guards withdrew the ladder, slammed the door shut then locked it once more with the same heavy chains. From a tower high above the courtyard, a trumpet sounded majestically and the celebration began.

All through the warm night, the citizens of the kingdom ate, drank, sang, drank, danced, and drank some more. Few in the kingdom remembered such a splendid Festival. Yet, while they reveled in the bliss of tradition and ale, the thirteen men in the Black Box were killing each other with their bare hands, feet, and teeth.

No one alive today truly knows what it’s like to be in that dark pit with a dozen men, all of whom want to nothing more than to kill you. What is known is that when the door to the Black Box was thrown open the following morning, several bystanders were overcome by what one described as “the smell of death” and another called “the breath of fear.” Later there would be reports that some of the bodies had been decapitated, eviscerated, or worse. Even Roland, the Champion, was said to have, at first, been presumed to be among the dead.

Before that morning, Roland had been just another lanky, young sharecropper, barely of a man’s age. Uneducated, he worked in one of the king’s distant fields to support his parents. Not much else was known about him. Some said there was a girl he loved—a red-haired lass, possibly a miller’s daughter. Others, who knew him somewhat better, said he was far too shy a boy to have a requited love. One thing everyone agreed upon, however, was that he was certain to die in the Black Box. No one had ever expected much from him in life and, when the steel door of the Black Box had been slammed shut, not even the most reckless wagered their coins on his victory.

Yet that spring morning when he pulled himself out of the darkness and ascended the ladder, even the dullest of wit among the assembled subjects sensed an air of nobility. One of Roland’s legs was obviously broken, yet he walked with hardly a limp, traversing the traditional burgundy-carpeted aisle without assistance. Behind his grisly mask of torn flesh and slowly coagulating blood, he wore a solid smile. The eye that remained was bright and clear. As he neared his intended upon her golden throne, Roland extended swollen, blue, and bloody hands.

“This man,” the citizens proclaimed proudly to one another, “is truly fit to be the groom of our fair Princess and the father of our future king.”

A great cheer went up among the throng when Roland slowly scaled the steps to the trio of bejeweled thrones upon the altar. Some even wept when he approached the center throne and gently laid his trembling hands on the delicate cheeks of the princess. The crowd was suddenly silenced, however, when Roland twisted the Princess’ head, snapping her neck, ending her life.

Lee Wright is a fat, surly, bald man who lives near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his beautiful wife (who is only a little surly) and son (who is not at all surly and has made his parents considerably less surly). He is the author of several short stories and a couple of plays. One of those plays, Haint Blue, won the grand prize at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's 2008 Festival of New Plays and received a fully staged production. His hobbies are writing and collecting rejection letters from publishers of all sizes and reputations.