He woke up.
On a much later day he would recall the warm spring sun filtering through the fresh green leaves on the gently swaying trees. He would think back to the sensation of the cool damp soil against his skin and the sound of the nearby brook—so swollen with water from snow melting off the mountains. Not today, however. Today he was not yet ready to understand the world around him. Today was the first day of his life and sensations alone were enough to occupy him completely.
Vision was pretty exciting and it grew to be even more intoxicating as he learned to focus his eyes. The blues, browns and greens of the forest swept through his vision filling him with wonder as he rolled about. A pinkish shape flew past the periphery of his vision. He craned his neck awkwardly to follow it and was thrilled by his discovery. It was a wonderful little thing with five wiggling protrusions and a trunk that led all the way back to his very own body. Another discovery! He had a body! It also seemed that he had three more of these flaily appendages. The two farther from his eyes were somewhat different than the closer ones, but all were quite exciting in the way they waved about.
After some time, he found that he could control these mysterious things. With a great deal of concentration he managed to get the wriggly ends of the longer thrashy bit nearer to his eyes for closer inspection.
While he was engrossed in the minute details of the newly discovered fingers on his left hand, his right was left unattended and free to explore on its own. It roamed across the skin of his naked belly and, of its own accord, dug in its nails and clutched quite firmly. This was also a new sensation and he decided quite quickly that it was not one he enjoyed.
He let out an extraordinary scream. It was the sort of unrestrained yowl that only a child in great pain can generate. It frightened him so much that he let go of himself and refused to move or open his eyes for quite some time. When he finally did brave another look around, he found that something new had come into his world. It was large and dark and standing quite close to him. It was shaped somewhat like himself, but substantially larger and not at all pink.
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Georg had earned his position. He had shown his grit as a gaoler in the deepest dungeon of Irsank Prison, had proven his strength fighting the uprising of rock trolls in the mountains of Nordan and had fought his way to the rank of captain. He had been bodyguard to Lord Cailo himself. He had served the land of Ashun since he was first carved and this was his reward in what he hoped to be a very long and uneventful retirement. He had earned a peaceful patrol through uncontested lands with no trolls, wolves, wars or anything of particular interest. Here, he could wander his woods and slowly grow moss until he finally eroded away. He had walked this patrol for over three years with the most noteworthy event being putting an unfortunate faun out of its misery after it had stumbled into a glade of thresher vines.
He heard the scream. He heard it and somehow he knew that his last three years of peace was ended. It was horrible. It was pained. It was unnaturally loud and uncomfortably close. He considered briefly the possibility of walking away but his duty to this land and its people were as much a part of him as his own hands. So he approached the sound.
He was not at all pleased with what he found. Bandits he could have dispatched with ease, even a troll would have been manageable. This, however… this was trouble.
What Georg found was a young human male, almost an adult based on his size, but utterly hairless which made it hard to be sure. He was skinny, naked, and lying in what appeared to be a fresh crater. He was writhing about like an infant just out of the womb.
All the trees to the Southwest had been smashed as if a massive boulder had been flung through them. This was an anomaly, and anomalies have to be reported. This meant that Georg would have to carry this anomaly for three days back to Irsank Prison. To make matters worse, this ruined one of the loveliest glades in the forest. Georg was very upset and Georg is not someone that anyone with any sense of self-preservation would choose to upset.
“Useless grub,” grumbled Georg. The deep, rumbling noise startled the boy and he tried to move away. He flopped and rolled much like a fish might if it suddenly found itself lacking water and burdened with limbs. He failed entirely to make progress towards moving in any direction.
“Not getting away like that friend,” chuckled the old captain as he reached down to grab the man-child by the neck. The kid clutched wildly at the huge granite hand as it approached. Almost by chance, he managed to grab hold of Georg’s arm and then flung it about wildly. Georg landed upside down nearly ten feet away, his arm in pieces. This had just moved from being a nuisance to being a threat. Georg, however, knew exactly how to deal with threats. He grabbed one of the nearby fallen tree trunks with his remaining hand and brought it crashing down toward the head of the troublesome youth.
The boy saw the tree coming down. He recognized the danger. He tried to move, but his arms and legs didn’t obey, they just lay uselessly at his sides. He felt no pain as the trunk splintered on his head, just an enveloping darkness, and then all was silent and cold.
Georg was surprised that the blow had not crushed the boy’s skull. It seemed that the loose soil beneath him had given way instead.
He looked with some pride at the dent he had made in the ground—then at the thoroughly unconscious boy himself. Remembering his shattered arm, though, brought him back to his military mindset. He shackled the boy roughly with his remaining hand and began the long drag into the mountains.
Georg was not at all considerate to the boy as they journeyed to Irsank Prison. The constant hurt of his broken arm gave him more than enough cause to be cruel. He dragged the limp body behind him even though carrying it would have been of little burden to the stony captain. If ever he showed signs of waking up, Georg clubbed him again with the nastiest looking rock he could find.
They travelled like this, sunrise to sunset, for three days. Georg found particular delight in the last leg of the journey up the broken and jagged steps to the mountain prison. A usually cold and tiring climb was made substantially more tolerable by the boy’s head bouncing sharply on every step. By the time the young man was thrown into the dungeon, he was bruised, bleeding, and most definitely broken. They shackled him heavily, threw him in a cell with no light, barred the heavy iron door and left him. There he lay undisturbed for nearly three weeks immersed in his misery.
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The three of them had been on the run for two weeks now. Their pursuers had been chasing them ceaselessly. They finally eluded them as they crossed the northern forest of the Haelund Kingdom into the lands of Ashun. Thinking they had escaped, they were quickly proven wrong as they were picked up by a border patrol. Now, Kish and Cariolta were under guard, sitting with hands bound, in an uncomfortable cart that was jostling northward behind an ill tempered mule. Kazé lay muzzled, bound, and unconscious at their feet.
Had they their wits about them, they might have avoided this situation. Unfortunately, in hindsight, they had made a few mistakes. At first sight of the Ashunian patrol, they had elected to run. Of course, if one runs from the law, one must have cause to do so, so the patrol gave relentless pursuit. When caught, they were unable to come up with a viable story as to why a woman in thoroughly filthied court dress of Haelund was hanging about with a blood-soaked eastern girl in servant’s clothes and a High Wolf in the southern forests of Ashun. Finally, they had entirely failed to conceal the rather sharp and bloodstained sabre in Kish’s possession. Thus, they found themselves prisoners of the law in a foreign and hostile land.
“Any idea where they’re taking us?” whispered Cariolta.
“None.” replied Kish “I’ve never been this far north. I know we’ve passed into Ashun, but this forest spreads for a hundred leagues in all directions. We could be anywhere.”
“What are the chances that we’ll find a sympathetic host when we get there?” asked Cariolta, though her voice seemed to be asking for a comforting lie rather than what she knew to be true.
“It’s about as likely as showing up on the Sorcerer King’s doorstep and being invited in for tea and a friendly chat,” said Kish, while shifting around to get enough of her red servant’s gown beneath her to cushion the wooden bench she was tied to. “People don’t get to be in charge around here just by being savvy and diplomatic; they do it by being able to keep trolls out of the farms.”
Finding no comfort in her words, Cariolta sought to find some in her actions. She tried to bunch up the yellow pleats and ruffles of her impractically elaborate petticoat beneath her as Kish had done. To her great surprise she found that she had actually managed to become less comfortable and was now struggling to undo her work. “What do you think they’ll do to us when we get there?”
Kish thought for a moment. “If we’re lucky we’ll be imprisoned and forced to do hard labor, and maybe someday be sold into slavery. If we’re not, we’ll be tortured and in all likelihood executed.”
“And what about him?” Cariolta said, gesturing to the great black wolf at her feet. “Do you think he’ll be alright?”
“Kazé?” Kish whispered “He’s a tough old wolf, he’s probably just pretending to be unconscious so that the guards don’t club him again.” At that comment one of Kazé’s eyes opened a crack and his brow furrowed slightly at having his ruse found out.
Amused at the shared secret and fed up with the uncertainty in their journey, Kish decided to strike up some conversation. “Would any of you gentlemen know where we might be headed?”
One of the guards, who was big enough to be half-ogre and smelled bad enough to be all-ogre smiled. His teeth looked like they had tired of mistreatment and were trying very hard to escape his mouth.
Some of them appeared to have succeeded. “Yous are gueshts of Lowd Cailo,” spat the guard. “Alls the pre’ey getch questions from Lowd Cailo, and yous ah eshpeshially pre’ey.”
Both women knew that name. They recognized it even through the tortured mess their captor was using in place of normal language. They knew what that name represented. They were being brought to Irsank Prison. The prison itself was legendary. It was carved from the obsidian cliffs deep in the Nordan Mountains and had a dungeon that was said to run deep enough into the mountain that a river of lava ran through it. It was unassailable; it was inescapable and it meant certain death for anyone who passed through its gates.
Lord Cailo, one of King Ashunar’s five generals, was head gaoler. He was almost as legendary as the prison. He was said to be cruel, sadistic and very creative in his methods of torture. It was said that he was always masked because to see his true face would kill any mortal man. At least those were the stories that their mothers had told them when they had misbehaved as children. Now all of those terrible tales were suddenly real again as they bounced northward.
By sundown they had reached a small settlement. There they got a couple sips of water, a new mule and a new retinue of guards. Much to the dismay of the passengers, they did not get any rest or a more comfortable cart. This process was repeated at every settlement they reached. They travelled day and night, hardly saying a word; lost in their own imaginings of the horrors that may await them at the end of the journey. What little sleep they got was filled with the terrors that had forced them into this land and those that most certainly lay ahead.
By the end of the fifth day, they were exhausted, starved and sunburnt. Their whole bodies ached from the horrible cart ride and they were getting cold. They had been climbing steadily into the mountains for the last day and a half and finally they had reached a set of obsidian steps and the cart could go no farther.
“Get out!” ordered a guard, whose tone indicated he felt their position riding in the cart to be enviable. “You’re walking from here.” Their bindings were re-tied such that they could walk, but they had a rope tied around their necks like a leash.
“I was wrong,” sighed Cariolta, her soft voice falling into despair. “Wrong about what?” countered Kish, trying at last to comfort her companion. “You’ve made no mistake at all. This is not your fault and I’ll gut anyone who says otherwise.”
Cariolta smiled weakly. “Thank you. That’s … kind. I simply meant that I was wrong about the cart ride. I thought it was the least dignified way to travel. I was wrong, this is worse.”
“Shut your gobs, wenches!” shouted a guard, whose face looked as though his mother had tried to beat the ugly out of him.
The ladies shot back a glare that only the highest of noble born women can muster in times of the deepest insult. The ugly one actually took a step back in fear and very nearly apologized. As they turned and began to march up the stairs in imperious disdain, the ugly guard turned to the one who wanted to ride in the cart and whispered, stunned “Ass’s pox! I think those two might be princesses.”
The troupe marched silently up the seemingly endless steps into the black prison. It was as terrible to behold as the stories told. The outer walls were pure obsidian and decorated with gargoyles and serpents. The huge iron gates were covered in reliefs of people being tortured and executed in a variety of creatively horrifying ways. It appeared as though someone had gone to great lengths to ensure that anyone crossing the gates would know exactly what kind of place this was.
Passing through the gates, though, the three prisoners beheld the rather anticlimactic prison grounds. They were herded past a couple of shabby wooden barracks with some laundry strung between them on a line. There was a pen in which some sheep milled about. There was also a ramshackle hut in which a plump jolly man was serving dinner to a pair of off-duty guards. Off to the West side of the compound, there was a large, opulent, and entirely out of place white manor house. Here and there guards lounged about enjoying the late afternoon sun. A huge animated stone statue with one arm lurched menacingly across the courtyard, and then stopped to tend to a sheep which had strayed. The party marched on in stunned silence as their nightmare of this prison was shattered. The whole thing looked like a circus on its day off. Cariolta even let out a giggle when a man, decked out in terrifying black armour, clanked by chasing after a dog who appeared to have stolen one of his gauntlets.
“Yous won’t be laughin’ when you meets with the Lowd tomorrow.” said the ugly guard with a sadistic grin.
“You might, actually,” interjected another man with lieutenant’s stripes that had joined their procession. “But it’s not advisable if you like having all of your fingers attached.” He seemed to be involving himself more out of boredom than any sort of duty. “I’d recommend being very polite to the Lord. He’s just getting back tomorrow from trip over the mountains and he’s rarely in a good mood after travelling.”
“Um. Thank you” stuttered Cariolta, surprised at the first friendly voice she’d heard since their capture. “Is there anything else we should know?”
“Yes, don’t let appearances fool you. This isn’t the prison,” he said as he gestured around the courtyard. “That is.” He pointed toward a small, but very heavy looking steel door which led directly into the sheer cliff face out of which the fortress had been carved.
As they were led through the door, their hearts sank. The comical courtyard felt instantly like it was miles behind them as they started to descend hewn stone steps into the depths of the prison. Lit only by the torch held by the helpful lieutenant, they could barely see a thing. Although, the tortured wails of the poor souls below told them enough about what lay in store for them.
They were thrown unceremoniously into the first two cells they came to. Kish and Cariolta into one, Kazé into the other. The solid steel doors were slammed and barred behind them. Moments later the doors reopened and a couple of pieces of dried meat and a bowl of water were tossed into the room.
“That’s all you’ll get till you meet Cailo tomorrow,” said the lieutenant from the dark hallway. “Try to get some sleep, you’ll want to be at your best to meet the Lord.” With that, the doors were slammed again and the prisoners were left in absolute darkness, free to contemplate their fate. The footsteps of the guards faded away as they ascended the stairway and the outer door crashed shut, echoing ominously down the long, dark hallway outside their doors.
In a brief pause between tortured wails from the dungeon below, the women heard some muffled growling from across the hall. “Kazé!” Cariolta’s shrill voice bounced around the cell painfully. “Are you there? Are you okay?”
“As good as can be expected” growled the wolf. “I’ve been muzzled for almost a week! Muzzled! Like a dog!” Kazé’s rage was apparent, though so was his hunger. His words were muffled by the jerky on which he was gnawing. “Do they have any idea who I am?”
“No,” Said Kish plainly “And I think it’s best if it stays that way for the time being. We don’t know who was chasing us, or who attacked the castle. Until we do, we can’t trust anyone.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on trusting the Sorcerer King’s most notorious general,” grumbled Kazé, still munching on the meat. “But, you’re right. We have no idea who’s hunting us, or even which of us is the… Quiet! Someone’s coming!”
Moments later the two women heard the footsteps as well, clomping up from the depths of the dungeon. A door squealed open and there was a sound like a sack of potatoes being dropped. “Thanks for the lift boys,” chuckled a pained voice. “I don’t think I could have made it up all those stairs without you.”
The men who had been carrying the man were clearly unimpressed with the humor. “Shut it poacher! You’re making our job harder than it needs to be,” one of them shouted.
“Oh come now,” said the voice, its tortured owner reveling in his captor’s suffering. “We were just starting to get to know each other. How ’bout one more round with the branding iron before bed?”
The cell door was slammed in response and the two gaolers tromped up the stairs in annoyance. The voice cackled at its victory, half mad with pain.
“Hello?” queried Cariolta tentatively after she was sure the guards had left. “Are you alright?”
“At last!” groaned the tortured man. “They’ve brought me that concubine I asked for. Now be gentle, I’ve had a hard day.”
Kish was unimpressed. “We are not concubines. We are prisoners like you. Now who are you?”
“Two! Two concubines! Oh they’ve outdone themselves. I knew those fellows were alright.”
“He’s probably in shock,” deduced Kazé between bites of jerky. “They probably tortured the sense right out of him. Sounds like they didn’t get what they were looking for, though. If he’s this far gone and still conscious then this guy’s tough, and probably trained.”
“Oh my! Now, I don’t much like the sounds of your sister. Has she caught a cold? Never mind then, call the whole thing off. Get her to bed, I need a nap anyway.” The last few words drifted off into nonsensical mumblings as the disembodied voice drifted into a more private lunacy.
“Well, we’ve lost him” lamented Cariolta. “How is it possible that you’re still eating Kaz? We only got one strip of meat each.”
“There was some in here already. There’s a human in here with me. Doesn’t seem like he’s been eating his rations for the last few days. He smells half dead—probably not long for this world. I haven’t heard him move at all.”
Kish decided that she was done with speculation and planning for things well outside her control. “It looks like we’re going to need to have our wits about us tomorrow if we’re going to have any chance of not ending up like him. I’m exhausted and despite all the screaming, this cell is actually nicer than that cart. I’m going to get as much sleep as I can.”
With that the three fell into silence and drifted into their respective nightmares.