The king sat in darkness in the deep dungeon of Kazakh, Nimrood’s walled mountain keep. Around him lay the scattered pieces of his armor, now rusting in the dank jail’s seeping damp. His once-proud head fell forward dejectedly toward his chest, and his sunken eyes were closed against the disgrace of his surroundings. His long black hair and well-kept beard, once curling with vitality, now hung in limp tangles, filthy, matted, and graying at the edges.
Inwardly he cursed himself for his own stupidity and lack of foresight. So intent had he been upon returning home, so full of good spirits, he had dismissed his men to his commanders and, taking only a small bodyguard of knights, had set off straightaway to catch the last boat before the raging seas of autumn brought an end to the shipping season. They had boarded the ship and had, with some misgivings of the captain, sailed forth upon a sea running to chop and a sky glowering with pent-up fury.
The storm had broken the fourth day out, and the captain had made for the nearest port, the harbor Fallers at the far southern tip of Elsendor. The captain had wisely refused to go farther, so Eskevar and his knights struck out cross-country. A day and a night out, they were attacked. A force of armed men had been waiting to take them as they entered a narrow canyon.
The king and his knights fought valiantly, though greatly out- numbered, but at last had been overpowered. They were bound and thrown into wagons and covered with sailcloth and traveled for many days through rocky country. One of the knights, Ronsard, had been able to work free of his bonds and had escaped, recovering his horse and weapons but having to leave behind his king and comrades.
Ronsard had followed the wagons to their destination, a ship with black sails standing off a lonely stretch of coastland, hoping to seize an opportunity to free his companions. But when he espied the dark ships and its stout occupants, he despaired of loosing his friends with his lone sword and turned toward Mensandor with his message for the queen.
The months passed, each day more unbearable than the one before it. King Eskevar refused to surrender to the hopelessness he felt closing around him. At first he had railed against his captor, his mighty voice kindled in righteous rage. The halls and galleries of Kazakh had reverberated with his angry thunder.
Nimrood had paced his chambers, cackling maniacally, his wild eyes kindled with a fierce, unearthly light.
After many weeks of captivity, Nimrood had descended to his dungeon to at last cast his wicked eyes upon his prize. The king had challenged him, had begged for the freedom of his knights, had promised a stunning ransom, had demanded to know the reasons for his kidnapping. To this latter demand he had been told that his brother, Prince Jaspin, had arranged to have him kept comfortably and safely locked away until Jaspin wore the crown.
Nimrood had left then, leaving his miserable prisoner alone with his anger and frustration. The king had seen no other living person since that brief interview.
Eskevar heard the scraping clank of an iron latch lifted and dropped into place again, followed by the squeal of unused hinges. Then he heard the pinging echo of footsteps on the spiraling steps descending to the dungeon. The jailer comes with food, he thought.
Then he saw the flickering light of a torch playing on the rough rock walls of the narrow gallery that led along the row of cells. He listened and waited. From the shuffle he heard in the gallery, he guessed there were more than the jailer alone. A torch was thrust into sight, blinding his clouded eyes with its unwonted brightness. Sharp pains stabbed into his brain as he forced himself to look at the jailer.
Eskevar struggled to his feet uncertainly, coming to tower over the jailer and his two scurvy guards.
“You get back there!” screamed the jailer, thrusting the torch through the bars of the iron door. The old, rusty door swung open, and the two guards, with lances at the ready, stepped gingerly in. One prodded the king forward with the butt of his lance, and the king tottered like an old man into the gallery. The dripping passageway was so narrow and short he had to hunch himself together, bending low to proceed. For good measure, and to remind the prisoner that he was under guard, the spear would jab him in the back periodically as they made their way to the spiral steps.
Eskevar stumbled twice as they climbed the steps, but caught himself and continued to climb slowly and with great deliberation. He was buying himself some time to restore some part of his strength and allow his eyes to become accustomed to the pale light that grew brighter as they ascended upward out of the dungeon.
At last the king stepped out into fair light again; it seemed to dazzle his deprived senses. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with cool, clean air. He found his head cleared from the confusion he had fallen into of late. He straightened with difficulty and squared his shoulders and raised his head high.
The party was ushered into the great hall where Nimrood sat waiting on his high black throne. “So our prisoner lives still, does he?” hissed the necromancer. “Too bad; our pets will have to wait a little yet for their meat!” He laughed to himself, and Eskevar noticed the huge, ugly head of a tremendous snake leering at him from beneath the throne.
“Set me free or kill me,” said the king. “You shall receive no ransom, and my brother will never sit upon the throne. The regents will never allow it.”
“Perhaps not your regents, proud king. But several of your regents seem to have come under suspicion of certain foul deeds. Two of them are even now locked away in the bowels of Askelon Castle, awaiting their impending fate.”
“You fiend!” shouted the king, dashing forward. One of the guards sought to block his path with lowered lance, but the king grabbed the lance and wrenched it out of the man’s grasp and shoved him back with the butt of his own weapon. He then swung the lance in a wide arc around himself, keeping the jailer and the other guard at a distance. Eskevar lowered the lance and advanced on Nimrood menacingly. The sorcerer raised his arms above his head and shouted an incantation. “Borgat Invendum cei Spensus witso borgatti!”
“Your powers cannot—,” the king started; then something like a leaden net dropped upon his limbs, and he felt his strength leave him. He raised his mighty arm to loft the lance, but the weapon suddenly seemed to weigh as much as the dungeon door. The throw went soft, and the lance skidded weakly upon the stone floor.
“You shall see what my powers can do!” snapped the wizard. “I have been waiting for just this moment. Bind him! Take him to the tower.”
King Eskevar cried out in rage. “Kill me now! If you miss this chance, you will regret it for all eternity, black wizard!”
The guards rushed upon the helpless monarch and bound him in chains. They dragged him out of the hall and to the tower, where he was locked again in a strange room, not a cell, but a high-domed room painted with grotesque shapes and strange inscriptions. No sooner had he entered the room and the door slammed behind him than King Eskevar felt himself overcome with an unnatural urge to sleep.
The heavy vapors of slumber seemed to drift out of the very floor beneath his feet. His head nodded and lolled on his shoulders, eyelids fluttering. His knees buckled, and he crashed to the wooden floor, where he attempted to rise again. The king gained his knees and knelt awkwardly, for his chains would not permit but limited movement.
“You will find the rest here refreshing, I think,” hissed Nimrood. Eskevar jerked his head up to see the sharp, twisted face of his tormentor at the barred slits of the door.
“I curse your bones, Necromancer,” spat the king. But even as he spoke, his tongue went slack in his mouth, and his eyelids fell shut. He tried again to rise, but his legs could not support him, and he dropped senseless to his side, fast asleep.
“Look your last upon the world as a mortal, great king. It is a rare gift I give you. When you awaken, you’ll be one of my own Immortals. Sleep well.”