There were countless differences between the royal dungeon and the streets it lurked beneath, but only two registered in Rohman’s mind while he waited for Marius’ arrival.
The first was the smell, which had assaulted his nostrils as soon as his escort had unlocked the steel door that separated the courtyard from the stairs leading down to the cells. It was as though all of the detritus and filth which had been washed away from the streets above had been collected and deposited down there to give the dredges of society who occupied the space some company.
Before they had even reached the empty cell which was to become his home, Rohman could feel the odour of the place settling on his skin like rotting oil and his clothes had become saturated with it. He made a mental note that the first thing he would do after regaining his freedom would be to burn all that he was wearing. Then he would shower and bathe and, if required, shave the hair from his head to remove all traces of the stench.
The second difference Rohman noticed didn’t occur to him until he had spent nearly an hour in his cage: the silence. It was as though he had been stuffed into the middle of a giant haystack. The sounds of the city did not penetrate the paving stones and his fellow prisoners were completely silent, save for a low moan or two. He would not learn until much later that this was due in large part to most of them having had their tongues removed for various offences against the crown.
The woman had freed his hands while the man had held the tip of his sword to Rohman’s throat and his cell was just wide enough for him to extend his arms straight out to the sides without brushing any of the four walls with his fingertips. He could see by the flickering light cast by a torch outside his door that the only other occupant of his cell was a bucket that sat ominously on the dirt floor that was meant to be used as a toilet. It smelled like it hadn’t been emptied in months.
“So what time are meals served down here?” he asked, pressing his face to the tiny barred window that sat at waist level on the door. “Whatever the chef is cooking sure smells good!”
“Shut up,” the woman replied from where she sat on a stool across the hallway from the cell. Her partner had won their game of Dragon-Knight-Ogre and had escaped back to the surface shortly after the lock had been snapped into place.
“There’s no need for that,” he replied with a smile. “What’s the harm in being civil with each other? My name is Rohman – what should I call you?”
“Well, isn’t that a unique name? I like it! So, Silence, how did a pretty girl like you end up serving a soulless, craven king in a grimy dungeon like this?”
“I wonder,” she said softly as she drew a short, curved dagger from her belt, “would you be so clever without a tongue?”
“You’ll have to come in here to find out,” Rohman replied brightly. “But I should warn you: I really don’t think they made these with double occupancy in mind.”
“Is that so? Well then I’ll have to put in a request to have the Watermen brothers placed in separate cells. I just don’t know what they were thinking, putting all four of them in one!”
Rohman swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and remained silent for a few moments as he did his best to avoid thinking about sharing his cramped space with three other men. He was unable to suppress the shudder that ran its cold fingers up the length of his spine.
“Is Marius your captain?” he asked, changing tactics.
“You are very fortunate, then – he is a very brave, capable man.”
“He seems to have done a fine job of taking you into custody,” she said with a smirk that killed his good mood like the well placed thrust of a sword.
“Yes,” he observed flatly as he straightened to his full height, “it certainly appears that way.”
* * *
Earlier that day
“No.” Rohman shook his head, his ponytail brushing the tops of his shoulders. “Absolutely not.”
“The city walls will be visible from the crest of the next hill,” Marius replied, the muscles along his jaw line bulging slightly. “I have allowed you to come this far like this but I cannot risk any further approach. We could encounter another patrol or a merchant heading south for Targosh or even a local farmer. How would I explain you then?”
“We could just kill them and not have to worry about it,” Rohman countered with a thoughtful expression, his eyes scanning the treetops to their right.
“You are too quick to resort to swordplay and dismiss words too easily,” the captain said with a shake of his head. “We have already left four bodies in our wake but at least their hearts were already rotting in their chests. I will not turn my blade on an innocent citizen who knows not the true nature of their king.”
“So you expect me to ride the rest of the way defenceless? I would be easy prey for any predator that happened to cross our paths!”
“Do you forget that you ride with a captain of the royal guard? I did not attain my rank without proving myself on the battlefield; in fact, because I was not born into one of the already serving bloodlines, I had to show my worthiness more than any other man who currently holds my station.”
“You must have been very motivated indeed then,” Rohman said, his tone softening a little. “Your mad scheme had better work, or it will mean both of our heads will decorate the walls of the king’s feast hall.”
“You agreed to do this my way. Have you changed your mind?”
“No,” he replied with a sigh as he turned his back and allowed Marius to secure the rope tightly around his wrists, “but I’m beginning to fear that I have lost it.”