Marcus Ridgewater walked slowly down the main hall of Gateway Keep, the links of chain in his armor less than perfect after the previous days’ battles. The broad sword at his side came within a foot of the ground as he half-walked half-loped toward his rightful leader, Goren Winston, Lord Keeper of Gateway Keep. Marcus’ wounds were many. Arrows which had grazed his armor left bruises on his skin. Sword cuts left loose links hanging from his armor, and blood stains on his shirt and pants. He looked nothing like the epitome of chivalric knights in shiny armor. But then, he was not a knight.
Goren Winston sat in his father’s seat at the head of the table. The chair was large, with ornate patterns carved into its heavy wood, and almost made Goren appear to be a large child. Goren, however, while not his father’s size and bulk, could not be mistaken as such. His beard was thick and unkempt, and the sadness in his eyes hinted at more than his 23 years. In the last year, he had killed both his father and his brother. Only one had been an accident.
He rubbed his fingers through his beard, scratching along his jaw, and stared vaguely beyond the table. His leg ached where a shard from a magical stone had pierced his skin and muscles. The rest of the cuts and bruises on his own body had faded into a single, continuous, dull pain which generally permeated his whole being. The salves which he had administered to the cuts would heal them, in time, but his right leg would forever burden him with a slight limp.
“Lord Keeper,” Marcus spoke in his most formal tone. Goren had all but ignored Marcus’ approach, and was slightly startled at the sound.
“What is it, castellan?” Goren sat straight in his father’s chair — his own chair, now — and looked at Marcus.
“My lord, with the assistance of Lord Morion and Sir Luthias, the Beinison threat has been forced into retreat. Furthermore, with Lord Morion’s men continuing presence at Gateway Keep, and the military advice of Lord Morion himself, I’m confident that Gateway Keep is not in need of my services, at this time.”
“What are you talking about, Marcus?”
“Now that my presence is not required, I intend to take a leave of absence from Gateway, my lord. My son is missing, and I intend to find him.”
“You can’t leave, Marcus.”
“Have you got the slightest idea where to begin?” Goren looked at his father’s best friend. A man who had been almost a father to him. “You are under orders from the Crown. You serve in a military unit dedicated to the service of Baranur, and Baranur is at war. You can’t leave now just because you’re going through a personal emergency. You’ve got a responsibility.”
“My lord, some men have found a drain in the dungeons that has been uncovered. It leads into the Vodyanoi, and it’s large enough to fit a small man, or a boy. I’ve also discovered a youth who saw Thomas leave with … Captain Clay.”
“Aye. The boy was told to keep quiet about it. Clay cooked up some story about a mission he and Thomas were going on. But not that Beinison is gone and they haven’t returned, I suppose the boy thinks they might be in a bit of trouble.”
Goren stared at the floor in front of Marcus. Captain Bartholomew Clay was the mercenary that had plotted with Goren’s brother, Ne’on, to kill their father and usurp the seat of Keeper of Gateway. They had succeeded on both accounts, and imprisoned Goren for months before he was able to escape. Goren owed a debt to Bartholomew Clay that he dearly wished to repay. “I suppose you’re right. Let’s check out that drain.”
Goren squatted by the edge of the drain while Marcus held aloft the oil lantern. The flame afforded little visibility in the dark stone passages of Gateway’s dungeons, and almost no light shone down into the drain.
“Can you see anything?”
“Yes,” Goren replied, looking at Marcus. “Darkness. The lamp casts its own shadow into the drain. I’ll have to go down into it.”
“Goren,” Marcus put his left hand on Goren’s shoulder. “Let me. If anything should happen-”
“What? Marcus, look at you. You’re almost twice around the size of me. I’ll be hard put to get into that drain, but you could never fit. And if you did, how would we get you out? Besides, I’ve got a stake in this, too. I want Clay’s head.” Goren searched around the floor. “Why isn’t there an old torch or something around here? What happened to castle dungeons with wooden planks and torch ends littering the ground?”
Marcus smiled. “She’s less than thirty years old, Goren. And your father wasn’t the type to send every peasant who couldn’t pay taxes into the dungeons. This area wasn’t used but more than two or three times.”
“Yes.” Goren’s gaze seemed to focus beyond the wall. “And I was one of them. Tell me, Marcus … where exactly was my cell?”
“That direction,” Marcus pointed down the tunnel. “Go right. Only cell on the left.”
Goren started walking toward it with Marcus at his heels. “Is it unlocked?”
When they came to the cell, Goren entered it. Running his hand through the straw pile that passed for his bed, he found the object of his search. He pulled out a half-burned torch. “I was going to use this on the guards, and try to escape,” he explained to Marcus. “But I never had the strength for it. It was all I had.”
Goren’s feet found small footholds in the drain’s walls as he lowered himself waist deep into the hole. It was a close fit. By the time his shoulders were in, he had only a few inches to spare. The air was stagnant, and the closeness of the walls seemed to press in on him. He had a sense of the drain hole getting smaller, and the passage shrinking. He knew it was only fear playing tricks with his mind, but his heart beat faster. He had to will himself to breath slowly, relax his body. He knew that if he panicked he could be stuck in that hole for a long time.
“Goren, I don’t like this.” Marcus scolded him. “Ol’s balls, we’re grown men. We should get one of the guards to go down there first.”
“Well,” Goren gasped out in between steps. “You name a guard you can think of that deserves to go through this, and I’ll send him through. But most of the men are wounded, and besides …” Goren looked up at Marcus and smiled. “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Now hand me that torch so I can work my way down.”
Marcus sighed and reached for the torch. As Marcus’ hand closed on the handle, he noticed a surprised look come over Goren’s face. A soft “ulp” escaped Goren’s lips, and the Lord Keeper of Gateway began to slide away through the hole.
“Goren!” Marcus yelled. He dropped the torch and nearly kicked out the lantern in an effort to grab his friend, but Goren had slid beyond his reach. Slowly, a few feet at a time, Goren’s face began to disappear from view. “Goren! Are you alright?”
“Fine.” Goren replied. “I’m moving slowly, at the moment. The walls of this drain are a little slimier than I thought. I think there’s an opening beneath me, if I can get down a little further without breaking my neck.”
“Do you want the torch?” Marcus called.
“No! My hands are wedged at my sides.” After a moment he added, “And I don’t much fancy the smell of burning hair.”
Two shadows separated themselves from the walls of the dungeon. One drew a long knife from it’s sheath. The other removed a crowbar from beneath its cloak.
“Evening, Castellan. Can we be of help?”
“Yes,” Marcus replied without turning around. “Go get a rope and a few more lanterns. And a couple of the young guards in training. They can fit through the hole easily.”
“I’m afraid I’m too tired to run all the way back up those stairs, sir,” said the shadow with the long knife. “Maybe my friend, here-”
“No, no, sir,” his friend replied. “Me leg’s still sore from fightin’ off Beinison, and livin’ down here these past few days, we ain’t had but much to eat. I don’t think I could muster the strength.”
Marcus turned around slowly to see the two figures before him. Thin, ragged, desperate men with weapons. And no room for Marcus to draw his broadsword. Were they deserters? No. Their faces looked familiar, though.
When a sparkle of recognition entered Marcus’ eyes, the first one spoke. “Aye, Ridgewater. The last of the Black Arm. Now step away from that drain.”
Marcus looked down the hole. “Goren, here comes the torch,” he said, and kicked the torch down the hole before stepping away. Goren’s yell began to rise up from the drain and then stopped.
“Me and Nick, here, seem to have come across a bit o’ luck,” the first one continued. “We wanted you for offing our mates. But getting the Keeper with the same deal is a bargain we hadn’t dreamed of.” He looked to his friend. “Clay will have to pay us extra for Winston.”
“Not if we don’t bring back a piece of him, Will. One of us’ll have to go down there in a few days and get an ear or somethin’.”
“What has Clay to do with this?” Marcus asked cautiously. He glanced around for something he could use as a weapon. His armor would probably protect him from a stab or two of the knife. Possibly soften the blow of the crowbar. But with nothing to strike at them, they could keep their distance and beat him senseless.
“The Captain found us,” Nick said. “Last of the Black Arm. Gave us two gold marks apiece, he did. Told us you’d be comin’ this way, probably alone. And that if we got rid o’ you, we could get out of here without havin’ to crawl through that hell at your feet.”
“So Clay did go through that hole?”
“Aye,” Nick answered.
“Was there a boy with him?”
“Goren, here comes the torch” were the last words Goren heard before the torch slipped over the edge of the drain. Goren couldn’t reach out to grasp it. As it landed on his head, he let out a short cry of pain. The smell of burning hair quickly filled his small confines. There was only one thing to do. He let go.
The rough walls of the drain, covered in the slime of decade-old garbage and excrement, were uncompromising. But as he slid further down the drain, he was able to move his left arm up to grab the base of the torch. If he was going to die, at least his scalp wasn’t going to be burned off in the process. His decent accelerated gradually. He was unable to prevent his fall. His boots kicked uselessly against rough edges, and with his right hand he grasped fruitlessly at ridges and knobs in the rock.
After almost a mene of slipping and sliding, he fell out of the hole and into the air, and landed on a bed of sand and grime. The torch flame cast odd shadows on the rough-hewn walls. Long-tailed creatures scurried at the edge of the flickering light, and the sound of running water emanated from his right. At the sight of one of the red-eyed creatures, he nearly cried out. Rats. Some with bodies almost two feet in length, and tails slithering along behind.
Goren’s sudden landing and the introduction of light into their otherwise dark demesne scattered the rats away from Goren, but they began to sense his fear. He was trapped, he knew, and had no idea what had happened to Marcus. He remembered hearing voices, someone telling Marcus to step away from the hole, and then his slide had begun.
“Marcus!” he called out. “Are you there?”
No answer. He did not think he would be receiving help any time soon. And the rats were getting brave. He stabbed the burning torch at one of the nearest rats, searing it. Its squeal and the smell of burning meat let the other rats know that Goren was capable of defending himself.
They were wary. They almost seemed to be gauging him, planning their attack. There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of them. Crawling and squirming on the ground, fighting for space. Several of them crept closer, still out of range of his torch, and began to circle him, looking for an opening. How close could they get? How quickly could he defend himself? He knew they were pushing his limits, weakening their prey, just as he had weakened animals he had hunted.
As a few more of the rats began to circle him, he noticed the light was getting dimmer. His torch was burning low. When it went out, his life would be over. He desperately looked about the area. Refuse, human waste, rats, and water. There was a small crack in the wall where the water entered the cave, and a larger one where the stream left. He noticed that while some of the rats entered and left the cave from the one crack, they avoided the crack where the water exited the cave. Why?
He did not know. In the faint light remaining, he did not care. His only chance to escape from a painful, agonizing death was to follow the current. Retrospectively, climbing down the hole that had led to this room seemed to be a bad idea.
Nick charged Marcus with the crowbar, swinging wildly as he came. In the few moments since the melee had ensued, Marcus had noticed they were weak. They must have been telling the truth about being here for several days without much food. And since there were no prisoners for the dungeon, and all the guards were reassigned to defend Gateway and initiate its rebuilding, no one would be delivering food to any guards stationed in this part of the castle.
Still, the crowbar Nick used had struck him several times, leaving him winded and bruised. But the low-cut stone ceiling which felt so oppressive was inhibiting to Nick’s swing. As he charged this time, the bar knocked the ceiling, stalling his swing. Marcus struck upward with his fist, catching the man in his throat.
Nick dropped the crowbar and gasped for air. Will had kept his distance, staying away from Nick’s wild swings and gauging the castellan’s ability. As Marcus picked up the crowbar, fear seemed to settle in the knife-wielder’s eyes. Marcus swung the crowbar hard at Nick’s head. He heard the cracking of bone as Nick’s skull spilled blood and brains against the impacting weapon. Then he advanced on the other.
The knife shook in Will’s hand as he extended it in defense. Marcus walked confidently toward him, striking the knife aside and breaking Will’s hand in the process. Will turned to run, but a kick from Marcus swept his legs out from under him. Marcus grabbed the thug and turned him over, staring hatred and pain into Will’s eyes. He raised the crowbar.
“Kill me now, castellan,” Will managed to cry, “and you’ll never find your son.”
The crowbar hesitated. “Bring me to him.” He hauled the thief up by his neck, grasping the lantern with the same hand as the crowbar. “And he’d better be healthy.”
“My life for his,” bargained Will. “You let me go if I show you where he is, okay?” Marcus’ stare was his only reply. “Right. Mine for his. He’s real close by, see.”
Will brought him down the hall and through a door. That door led to another hall, which led around a corner, to a secluded section of the dungeon that was unused. Had never been used, in fact, until now. And there was Thomas.
Thomas was chained to a wall, gagged and blindfolded. By the looks of his head and the skin on his bones, he had been beaten and starved for several days. He was unconscious and hanging by his swollen wrists. Marcus ran to him, setting the lantern on the floor, and tried to wake him.
Thomas was beyond reaching, for the moment. He was breathing, barely, but only just hanging on to life. With the lantern’s light closer to Thomas’ body, Marcus could see the extent to which the thugs had punished his boy. He turned toward Will, hatred and pain filling his eyes again. And, this time, a touch of … revenge? The smell of urine filled the thug’s britches. Marcus advanced toward him, raising the crowbar with a sinister grin.
Goren was surrounded by a swirling mass of water, tumbling and tossing him in each direction. There was no way for him to see where he was or where he was going. One moment he had been crawling backwards through the stream, using the torch’s remaining fire to ward off the rats. The next, he had slipped, landing face-first in the water, dropping the torch, and being swept away by the current.
There was no light without the torch. He had been pulled under to a deeper, faster moving current. At the first turn, he had been slammed into a stone wall of the underground waterway, and the air had been knocked out of his body. Now his lungs screamed for air, and the tightness in his chest seemed ready to burst. As he was hurled through the water, he wondered how the water would taste. He tried not to imagine the choking feeling of his lungs trying to breath the liquid. It would be better than being eaten by rats, he thought momentarily.
Suddenly, bubbles surrounded him. Light emerged into the watery passage, and he began floating upward, no longer knocking against the passage ceiling. He emerged, exhausted, into bright sunlight. He was floating on a river, less than ten yards from one shore, and the current was slowly edging him towards the overhanging trees. He let it.
When his feet finally touched ground, he had regained enough strength to drag himself out of the water and crawl to the shore. His remaining clothing — breeches, a shirt, a belt, and a pair of boots — hung heavily on him, filled with the waters that had almost claimed his life. His injured leg throbbed, but held his weight. He was alive. It felt good.
He looked around. He was on the Laraka, about a quarter of a league north west of Gateway keep. He could see Gateway’s walls in the distance, and he instinctively backed into the brush at the river’s edge.
“Why did I do that?” Goren asked himself. “All I need to do is hail them, and they’ll send a few horses out to get me.
“And then you’ll be back in Gateway, sitting on your father’s chair, presiding over your father’s business. Bored depressed, and lonely,” he answered his own question. “And probably talking to yourself more than anyone else.”
Face it, he thought, you don’t want to go back. And this is the perfect opportunity to leave. They’ll think you’re dead. “If you keep talking to yourself,” he continued out loud, “you might be dead anyway.”
He checked his resources, as if he had already made his decision: he had clothes suitable for the summer season, although not perfect for travelling; a long knife was sheathed in his left boot; and a small pouch with one … two … three marks and … four rounds. “A treasure for a king,” he remarked dryly.
Still. What reason could take him away from Gateway? Had he not just denied Marcus, less than a bell ago, the right to go searching for his son? What about responsibility? What about his father’s legacy? Had he the right to remove himself from the duties the King had entrusted him with? As keeper of Gateway, did he not have a responsibility to the men within the keep, as well as the townspeople in the villages under its protection? Would he be the hypocrite, saying “follow my thoughts, not my actions”?
As he thought about this dilemma, his mind a pendulum swinging from responsibility at one end and freedom at the other, he spied a small stack of dead branches that had been used as a campfire. He made his way out of the scrub he had hidden in, and approached the old campfire. Kneeling down, he smelled it, ground some of the dead soot through his fingers. There were boot tracks nearby: one man, small feet. Possibly a heavy child? No … Clay.
The name sprung to mind instantly, and he knew he was right. Clay had taken the waterway out of Gateway, also, and landed on this very shore. He kept a small fire at night, hidden from both Beinison and Gateway by the trees on the shoreline. But he could not have left until the battle was decided. If Beinison had entered Gateway keep, the scouts would have been brought in, and Clay could escape the region. If Gateway’s troops had held out, as they had done with the timely assistance of Luthias Connall and his cavalry, then Beinison would be fleeing with all speed, and the scouts would move with them.
Either way, with the battle for Gateway Keep ended less than two days past, Clay’s trail was relatively fresh. There had been no rain. Goren was an accomplished hunter. And Clay had no idea that Goren was following him.
Now Goren’s debate was ended. He would not return to Gateway. But he would send Marcus a note, once he reached a civilized town, and let him know he was on Clay’s trail. In his own mind, he had justification. He had tracks.