There is no way out, my lady,” said Trenn in a voice fraught with despair. “I have searched every bolt and every brace of this dungeon. There is no way out. Except through the door, and Nimrood holds the key.”
The queen, arms folded and legs drawn up, did not lift her head. “It is no more than we expected.” It was the deepest of sighs.
“Do not lose all hope, my friends.” Durwin had been standing in the small patch of light that fell from some unseen loophole above. He came to where Trenn and Alinea sat huddled together. “The god will set us free from this pit.”
Trenn sneered. “Since when did any god care what happened to a mortal? Look at us—what has your god to do with us now? If he cared, we would not have suffered as we have, as we will yet, I fear.”
“The God Most High has his ways. They are not always the ways of men.”
“Do not talk to me of the ways of the gods. I am tired of hearing it.” Trenn turned his face away. “I care only for what a man can do.”
“Do not go on so,” soothed Alinea. She placed a hand on Trenn’s knotty arm. “We must endure in any case; let us do so with dignity.”
“Do you see?” said Durwin, waving an arm overhead. “This is Nimrood’s doing—this hopelessness that creeps over us—that makes us turn on one another. Cast it off. It is a trick of the enemy.”
Trenn turned a stony glare upon Durwin.
“Besides, as long as Theido and Ronsard remain free on the outside, we have hope. Even now they are working for our freedom and the king’s.”
“If they are not already dead,” replied Trenn bitterly. “The storm, Nimrood’s men . . .”
Durwin said nothing, but went back to his patch of pale light and his prayers.
The dungeon was a misbegotten hold in the lowest part of the castle. There was no opening, save the rusting iron door and the unseen grate of the loophole. The floor was bare earth and slimy with dank moisture that oozed from the walls and dripped from the ceiling. Snakes could be seen slithering among the cracks and fissures of the castle foundations, for that was where the dungeon was—at the very roots of the castle.
The floor being wet and reeking of age and the obscenities practiced upon it, the prisoners had heaped together what they could of some mildewed straw that had been placed there as a bed sometime long past. It was here they sat, in the middle of the foul chamber.
In the darkness of the dungeon, only that thin shaft of light gave them to know the passing of the day. They watched it creep along the floor until it vanished in the gloom of oncoming night. Then they huddled close together to endure the bleak misery of the blackest nights.
Then, on the second day, as the pale patch of light marking the passing of the day moved closer to the far dungeon wall, there came a sound echoing down the low rock corridor that joined the dungeon, beneath one tower, to the main basement maze of cells and subterranean chambers.
“Footsteps!” said Trenn, rising stiffly to his feet, a hand pressed to his wounded side. They could be heard distinctly now. “Someone is coming this way.”
It was true; the footsteps of what sounded like a whole regiment were undeniably shuffling closer. A rough, unintelligible voice could be heard grunting orders. And then, with a rattle and a clank, the bolt of the iron door was thrust back and the door slammed open.
Two of Nimrood’s soldiers carrying torches stepped through the narrow opening, followed by another with a wicked-looking halberd. “Stay back!” snarled one of the soldiers as Trenn hobbled closer.
Then through the dungeon portal stumbled a tall figure, shoved rudely through from behind to fall face forward down the crude stone steps to the stinking dirt below. The man grunted as the air escaped his lungs. He lay there without moving.
The two soldiers with the torches stepped down, and each seized an arm and hauled him up to his knees. “Make our work more difficult, will you?” one spat, then raised his foot and placed it on the man’s back and kicked him forward. The prisoner’s hands were bound to his sides, so he was helpless to forestall the fall. His head snapped back and banged down upon the dungeon floor. Then the two turned and went out.
The door clanged shut, and the footsteps receded again down the corridor.
Durwin raced to the fallen prisoner with Alinea, who stood at his side. Trenn lurched forward and bent over the body. He looked up at the others. “Here is our hope,” he said quietly.
“Theido!” cried Alinea as Durwin rolled the man into his arms.
The knight’s face had been beaten bloody and bruised; dark purplish marks swelled beneath his eyes and over one temple. His eyes were open but unseeing, cloudy from the torture he had just undergone.
“If only we had some water,” said Alinea. “There is none left of the ration we were given this morning.”
But Durwin was already at work. He placed a hand over Theido’s forehead and, speaking strange words under his breath, made a sign with his fingers and then lightly touched each bruise. A moan of pain escaped Theido’s lips.
“He will sleep now. Here. Help me get him untied.”
In fact, the sturdy knight hardly slept at all. No sooner had they loosed him from his bonds than he awakened again. The cloudiness was gone from his eyes, but he seemed a moment coming to himself. He blinked and peered into the faces of each of his friends. “You are alive!” he cried at last.
“Oh, Theido, we have been worried about you,” said Alinea, reaching out her hand to clasp his.
“They told me all were killed in the wreck. They said you had drowned and they had left you on the beach for the birds.”
“Lies!” Trenn, his face black with rage, ground his teeth and clenched his fists.
“Where is Ronsard?” asked Theido, pushing himself slowly off the filthy floor.
“Have you not seen him, then?” questioned Alinea.
“No, I saw no one—not even my captors. I was dragged from the beach half full of seawater and still groggy. I didn’t even hear them coming.”
“When was this?”
“I do not remember . . . midday perhaps, or close to.”
“We were taken at dawn yesterday,” explained Durwin. “They must have gone back and searched the beach more thoroughly.”
“Then Ronsard is gone?” The queen’s voice quavered.
“Now we do not know that for certain. He may still be alive—we all survived the wreck.”
“But were not injured as he was,” said Trenn roughly. “Ronsard is dead.”
“We will not think on it for the time being,” advised Theido. “Trenn, have you made an inspection of this cursed place?” He looked slowly around in the gloom.
The queen’s warder nodded silently and spread his hands in frustration.
“I see. Then—”
“Listen!” said Durwin. Theido, the words still on his tongue, fell silent. Far down the corridor the sound of returning footsteps could be heard. “They’re coming back.”
“Probably for another one of us to torture,” said Trenn. “I’ll go, and welcome it!”
“No, they will not take another one of us,” replied Theido. “We will fight first.”
The footsteps were now just outside the dungeon entrance. The sharp grating of the bolt thrust aside and the creak of the opening door on its rusting hinges filled the chamber.
Once more two soldiers ducked in, throwing their torches ahead of them; then the guard entered, with his long halberd glinting cold and bright in the glare of the torches.
Following the guard came a short, hunched figure who stood quietly behind the others, off to one side. Behind him came a dark shape that thrust itself through the door and into the sphere of light cast by the torches. The prisoners saw the black hair with its shock of white streaks.
“Nimrood!” cried Durwin.
“None other.” The sorcerer smiled treacherously. “And now I see our little party is complete.” He gazed on them one by one and then drew himself up to full height and shouted, “You fools! Trifle with Nimrood the Necromancer! I shall blast you all to cinders!”
He swept down the steps, his black cloak fluttering through the damp air like a bat’s wing. He came to stand in front of Theido, who did not move a muscle but stood his ground, unperturbed.
“I will begin with you, my upstart knight, my ‘Hawk.’ Oh yes!” he hissed at Theido’s recognition of the name. “You see, I have long had my eyes on you. But you’ll not burn, like these others. I have better plans for you. Much better. I’ve a special place for you, my knight.”
“I will die before I serve you,” replied Theido coolly.
“You will. Oh yes, I daresay you will,” cackled the evil wizard. “But not before you’ve watched your friends die screaming.” Spittle flew from his foaming lips. He threw a fearsome scowl to the others, whirled, and flew back up the steps.
Nimrood stood again in the torchlight, looking like a phantom in the darkness that surrounded him. He hesitated as he turned to leave, then turned back. “I would begin at once with you”—he smiled at the captives, again that treacherous grimace—“but that will have to wait,” he continued. “I have a coronation to attend—it might interest you to know. There will be time enough for our diversions when that is done.”
“What coronation?” asked Durwin.
“Oh, you pretend not to know. I will tell you—Prince Jaspin, of course. Midsummer’s Day. Very soon Askelon will have a new king! Ha, ha, ha! I leave you at once. I shall relay to him your warmest regards. And you, Queen Alinea—you think I did not recognize you? The prince has wondered after your disappearance. I will tell him what you have been up to—tell him about all of you, and my plans for you.”
Nimrood turned at once and vanished through the doorway, followed by the stooped man and the soldiers. The prisoners could hear his insane laughter as he fled down the corridor. His voice echoed back to them like a thunder of doom.
“Sleep well, my friends! Pleasant dreams! Ha! Ha!” His laughter became a strangled choke. “Ha, ha, ha-a-a-a!”