I walk down a hallway towards the dungeons of the Nepeth castle. There is a new prisoner, apparently extremely dangerous, and I am freshly assigned to guard him. While dungeon duty is not usually considered the most glorious work for a Knight of the Rose, being good at it does keep you out of having to stand guard at more stressful environments.
Such as the Hall of Audience, where I was posted only recently. The very thought makes me shudder.
Honestly, when the minor nobles are not bickering amongst themselves or quietly grumbling about His Highness not having yet granted this or that petty wish of theirs, they take all their pent-up frustration out on the guards. Either your helmet is not polished enough, or your armour squeaks whenever you breathe, but in any case, you are obnoxiously intruding upon their personal space and in need of a serious talking to.
This prisoner, on the other hand, sounds like a challenge of his very own kind. As the General briefed me, I learned that the first guard assigned to guard him had to be relieved of his duty due to an acute mental breakdown. While I did not learn all the details, I would have to agree that shouting death threats to a prisoner and having to be restrained by three other guards is not normal behaviour for a trained Knight at all. As I reach the dungeons and greet the guard on duty outside the door of my cell, I idly wonder what kind of baiting it must have taken to get under the skin of my predecessor so badly.
I step into the high-security cell; it consists of two halves separated with steel bars. The guard half is the only one with a door out, while the prisoner half has a door to get to the guard half. This dungeon, deep under the castle, is not one to break out from.
Taking a moment to consider the battered, bruised and cut prisoner, I find it just slightly excessive that someone found it necessary to also chain the skinny elf to the wall like a dangerous beast. But I'm not one to needlessly argue against my superiors; chains or not, he's my assignment for now.
The door closes behind me, leaving me alone with the prisoner. There is a peephole on the outer door; the guard on the outside is not to open the door for me if the inside looks suspicious. I do not find being locked in disturbing; it is calm in here, with ample opportunity for meditation. I find it rather soothing.
At the sound of the door closing, the prisoner slowly raises his head. "A new guard? Oh dear, was it something I said?" His blue eyes gleam with malicious pleasure through loose strands of a black mess of hair. I have only barely had time to sit down, and he is already baiting me; this man has no sense of the situation he is in.
I return his gaze calmly; I've dealt with his sort before, and I have been chosen for the job for my ability to keep a cool head. "I hear you have been busy with sweet talk here. Too bad you didn't manage to sugar up those bounty hunters, eh?" I keep my tone neutral; I'm prepared to return random jabs, but I have no burning to "get back to him" for driving a fellow Knight into a rage. Nor should I mindlessly follow it even if I did.
He seems receptive enough, chuckling drily at being reminded of his painful method of arrival. He shifts his position slightly to show off more cuts and burn marks. "Yeah, the pair warmed up to me so hard I'll be shitting acid and brimstone for a week. Caught me off-guard, the lucky bastards; I was being distracted by the fattest earbags you've ever seen." He grins innocently.
I choose to ignore his jab at stealing bags of trophies taken from dead enemies. I've certainly heard of fellow Knights noticing their hard work has been lost in the hands of thieves, and he is clearly not going to spare any offence at his disposal in order to stretch my patience.
My patience can stretch far longer than he realizes, however. I settle down on a chair. That and a small table are the furniture at my disposal while here. I settle my gaze on the prisoner coolly, and he too seems to decide that enough introductory pleasantries have been exchanged. A silence falls into the room.
It may be an hour or two pass in quiet before the first knock on the outside door. I hear a key being turned in the lock and go to it to see what goes on. The guard on the other side looks embarrassed.
"Uh, there's a visitor."
I frown; it is not usual for the high-security prisoners to get any kind of "visitors". They get tortured for information, sometimes, but that kinds of visits are by shared agreement only announced by a meaningful silence. So, why is this prisoner different? "What kind of visitor?"
"Er, Lady Rosmarine is here to see the prisoner. I'm afraid she is quite insistent, and she has this note from the General..." He hands me a document with an official seal. I begin to understand what must have befallen: the only people able to force our head commander into abandoning all sense would be the gaggle of noble women who hold the Queen's ear. If they jointly decided that we should just release all our prisoners, we would be hard pressed to stop them.
I push aside any budding treasonous thoughts about wishing the King had some actual control over his Queen's whims. It is not my business to question my superiors, after all. I nod resignedly at my colleague. "I see. Do let Her Ladyship in."
A flurry of lace and silk bursts through the door in a regal manner, and I take a few steps back to accommodate for the Lady's luxurious dress as well as the space her position (and personality, I might add) should require. She barely even registers my presence; the Lady has only eyes for the prisoner. She pulls in a dramatic gasp.
"Oh, you poor darling! What have they done to you!"
For a moment I wonder if the quiet prisoner had fallen asleep, but the shrill question should certainly snap him out of it. However, as the elf proceeds to remain quiet, I take the liberty of clearing my throat and answering for him. "My Lady, the injuries were inflicted during his capture. He was brought in last night." After pausing for a moment to consider, I also offer, "The injuries are mostly superficial."
Lady Rosmarine seems to jump slightly at finally noticing my presence, but she does not let this surprise bother her for long. "Well, superficial or not, we cannot have this! Honestly!" She clicks her tongue disapprovingly. "Chained to a wall like an animal! We will send for a healer, who *will* attend to the gentleman's wounds!" The Lady finishes her statement by wafting the air with her fan, probably in the hopes of getting the smell of the dungeon and blood away from her nose.
I withhold any comment on the gentlemanliness of the creature hanging on the wall, and utter a noncommittal "Yes, Madam." I wonder what would make this cream of nobility so committed to the well-being of a dangerous villain. Lady Rosmarine lets out a noisy sigh and turns to leave, after stealing one more suffering glance at the prisoner.
When the door closes, gratefully shutting us from the Lady's ongoing expressions of disapproval at the treatment of prisoners, I turn to look at the prisoner, who seems to be stirring - no – he's chuckling to himself.
"You seem to have made quite an impression. I wonder when you've had the chance for that." I mildly berate myself for showing any hint of curiosity; it will not do to give the likes of him any edge in a conversation.
He seems to be too amused to take advantage of the opening, however. "Oh, I have quite the reputation outside these walls. I might imagine you'll have to be battling swarms of noble women who want to come confess their undying love to me." He smirks lewdly. "It's such a shame they fail to find anything but pale imitations of men at the court, really. After all, there is only one of me..." He finishes the thought with a lascivious grin that makes my stomach turn. Could it really be that an outlaw like him could crawl his way into favour of the Queen's court? Surely there must be only a few exceptions, women who do not know any better!
I bite my teeth together to keep exasperation from creeping to my face. After I check that the door is indeed closed and locked again, I sit back down on my chair. This unexpected setting has unsettled me more than I would like, and I wonder what will become of the imprisonment if the "swarm" of ladies is indeed determined that they should have access to the prisoner. To send a healer, of all things! Why do they think he is locked up so tightly? Definitely not so that he could be taken down for a daily massage and bathed in scented oils.
It has to be the pointed ears. Elves are known to attract awe from shorter-lived races; rumour has it that they even have some kind of magical glamour cast on themselves for the specific purpose. But still...
As hours pass, I manage to hope that the Lady's threat had been deflected by our good General. My relief is premature, however; inevitably, the door is rapped again and after a brief exchange, the outside guard shoves in a petite half-elf in clerical robes, carrying the leaf symbols of Antana. To top it off, she looks quite young and inexperienced, and shies away from me.
She peers at the prisoner through the bars, looking nervous. I think I see a glint of recognition in the elf's eyes, which seems strange. On the other hand, the way the cleric cringes under his gaze makes me decide the two can't be the most heartfelt of friends. I'm determined to keep an eye on her now, though.
The girl seems to collect her courage enough to speak. She addresses the prisoner directly. "I've been sent to heal you. I..." she glances at me. "The guards have been told to not interfere if something, uhm, happens." She looks like she might bolt at the smallest provocation from either of us. What on earth would have prompted someone like her to sign up for the job, anyway?
The prisoner grins. "Why, sweetheart, are you asking me to not kill you out of sheer vengefulness while chained to the wall?" He makes a dramatic pause, as if to consider this. "You know I might have a serious problem just controlling myself." He rattles his chains, and the jumpy cleric takes a step back.
I shake my head. She is way too soft, and hasn't even grasped the basics of how to deal with gutter rats like him. He'll prod around for weaknesses without even thinking about it, and she's responding with a full list of suggestions on where to strike next. For a moment I ponder if I should just send her away, but she seems to settle down after taking a few breaths and asks me to let her in with the prisoner. I oblige, if somewhat grudgingly. If it's not her, who knows who the relentless flock of lovesick ladies upstairs will send down next.
I lock the door behind her. She hesitates for a moment longer, then approaches her battered - if not appropriately humbled by far - ward. I idly wonder just how surprised she will be to not promptly die from touching the thoroughly restrained prisoner. She does make me wonder what god it is she thinks she is worshipping.
I find, to my mild irritation, that I'm somewhat disturbed to watch the cleric study the elf's injuries at length. Despite my initial intention to keep a hard eye on the girl to make sure she does not try to slip anything to him, there are moments when I seriously consider just looking away from the hands roaming across the half-naked elf's skin.
I quietly snort at myself. I must be getting influenced by the swooning airheads behind all this; I force myself to breathe deeply to cool down my head. Honestly, he would probably be an arrogant enough bastard even if he didn't have the flock of naive young nobility drooling after him, but as it is the gutter punk is seriously forgetting his place. I don't intend to start adding to his delusion any time soon.
For a while, the healer works in silence. I can't help making a mental note that the rogue probably doesn't look half bad when patched up and scrubbed. He does have some nasty-looking scars here and there, but...
Gods, I hope she's done before I seriously have to look away.
The cleric kneels down to heal a gash in the rogue's thigh. After being silent during the entire operation, the prisoner suddenly makes a comment in elvish. I frown; the cleric looks up, puzzled. Before I have a chance to tell her to translate for me, he continues in the same melodic and entirely undecipherable language.
This time the cleric blushes violently, stumbles up and retreats a step. I demand her to explain what's going on, and she blinks at me as if I were from another reality altogether. Then she shifts to stare at her feet. I repeat my command, more impatiently now. "Translate."
She swallows, opens and closes her mouth, and wrings her hands before complying. Careful to not look at the elf, she explains, "He was... implied that... indicated having a, ah, kind of... itch and how..." she's visibly squirming now; "instructed how it should be, er, treated." She looks like she might drop down and die of shame if I ask her to give any further details.
Luckily, I can fill them in fine by myself. "I see." Oh sweet heavens; do they grow these children of Antana in carefully-sealed barrels? I turn to the elf and comment, with dry amusement, "I didn't know you even could be vulgar in elvish; it doesn't sound like it works for that."
He answers me in an excruciatingly beautiful, singsong verse that sounds like a stream of honey flowing from his tongue. It spontaneously almost forces me to smile blissfully and forget all the cares in the world. The only disturbance to the beautiful imagery is my awareness of the rapidly changing facial colour and expressions of horror on the cleric, who seems frozen stiff. When she turns to look at me pleadingly, I raise a reassuring hand at her. "No need to translate, I trust he would make milk curdle if only it understood elvish." I try to sound as calming as possible, but it doesn't seem to do much good. "Just do your thing. And you," I point at the elf, "stick to common from now on."
"If I don't, will you come tongue-lash me into submission?" He grins gleefully.
"No, I'll just maybe forget that even elves can't sustain themselves on wit alone." I figure he'd manage a couple of days without food or drink, but the sheer additional boredom is the level of threat that should be suitable for this kind of aimless mischief.
"Fair enough." The rat bastard regally nods permission to the cleric to continue. I briefly meditate on telling the girl to only heal the wounds on the surface and leave the rest of the damage to fester in peace, but decide against it. For a while, the cleric just rubs her eyes with the heels of her hands, as if to clear bad mental images. Then she settles back to her work.
Once the cleric is finally finished, I let her out and we settle down for the night. It passes uneventfully, and I thank the gods for small blessings. I am not certain if I will have a replacement waiting for me the next day, and being on the edge all the time would wear me out all too quickly.
Late next morning, the interrogators arrive. There are two of them, and they wear ominous masks; I figure the purpose is to appear more intimidating. The first one to enter takes one look at me and darkly intones: "Leave us."
I do not wait to be asked twice; I am not particularly keen on following their work. I reflexively glance at the prisoner as I step out, quietly willing him to not make the mistake of trying any tomfoolery with these people.
The interrogators tend to take a while, so I take the opportunity to catch some sleep. As I suspected, it turns out that there are few guards who are willing to be locked in with this rogue, after word of my predecessor completely flipping has spread. So much for getting relieved regularly. I fall asleep on a bench.
Several hours later, the guard in charge of this side of the door wakes me up; the interrogators are coming out. One of them addresses me; the masks muffle their voices enough that I notice I cannot really tell if this is the same one or not - I figure that is another part of the job description, though.
He observes: "The prisoner said he has been visited by a cleric."
I nod. "A civilian, as far as I could tell. Before that, he has also been visited by Lady Rosmarine, who was quite horrified of the wounds he had sustained on capture. I expect there was some pressure applied to send the cleric in to heal him."
The interrogator seems satisfied with this, then speaks to both me and the other guard. "You may allow a healer to visit him tomorrow. For tonight, no food, water or healing. This should prove... educative."
I resist the slight urge to roll my eyes. So, the rogue could not control his tongue after all, huh? One would think he knew the consequences. I nod and snap a smart salute, before I am let back through the door by the outside guard.
Once my eyes adjust to the slightly different light in the cell again, I almost feel sorry for the elf; it looks like he's been whipped with something barbed, and his head is covered in a black sack, leaving him in utter darkness. I decide to decline any comment until I can trust voice to not show too much sympathy; he did bring this upon himself. Luckily, he seems to focus on his private pain as well.
A few more hours pass without the prisoner even flinching. I grow suspicious; is he still breathing? I cannot tell for certain from this side of the bars. I decide to risk calling out to him, already mentally preparing for the snide remarks the gesture will buy me.
Nothing. The prisoner remains quiet and immobile. I rub my temples tiredly; he is my responsibility, even if I should also see this kind of ploy coming stadia away. I call out to the outside guard to come let me into the inner cell, and stroke the hilt of my sheathed sword grimly.
I approach the prisoner slowly, looking for any signs of anticipatory tension in his muscles or other indicators of an intent to pounce on me. The level of caution taken would be ridiculous if only it would also not be extremely embarrassing to get subdued by a scrawny elf chained to the wall. If anyone could pull it off, he would be the one - if the rumours are to be believed, that is.
When a small cut from the tip of my sword not only earns no reaction, but also does not seem to be bleeding, I step closer to the prisoner and pull the bag over his head.
He is indeed dead, his face cut in strange patterns previously concealed by the dark cloth. I do not try to decipher the meaning of the strange symbols, for now, as there is a more pressing matter to attend to. I turn to the other guard.
"Sound the alarm. The prisoner has escaped."
The corpse, it turns out, is not his at all.