Saturday, June 18, 2011

Freedom's Sword Sample - Chapter Nine

The drip of water... Not another sound. It must be night. Andrew prayed so. He pushed himself up on his elbows with a groan. Every movement grated. His face felt like a bag filled with pebbles. He ran his tongue over splits in his lips and the rough edge of a broken tooth.

He scooted sideways off the pile of straw. The floor was the same--cold, damp, flat and smooth, stones laid close. He felt his way to the wall and ran his palms up it--rougher, grittier stones joined with lines of mortar, part of the wall of the keep. Shivering, he crawled back onto the straw.

There would be a window slit high in the wall. If he waited, it would get light. It had to get light. It had to.

He lay huddled for hours, quiet. Thinking thoughts he could have done without. Like that, he'd heard of prisoners left to starve to death in dungeons. Like that, men were sometimes gnawed by rats as they died. Like that, he might go mad if it didn't get light.

It didn't. He counted his breaths to keep from screaming. Pressed his fists into his forehead. Nothing changed. He had to move--to know where he was. He licked blood off his lips, his tongue so dry it felt like leather. Perhaps he could get to the water dripping somewhere.


On his hands and knees, he crept across the clammy floor, pressing a shoulder against the rough stones of the wall. Otherwise, he might crawl in circles. He swept his hands ahead as he went. A well or hole could be in front of him, and he wouldn't know. He trembled, half from weakness and half from fear of what he would find. A few feet of crawling brought him to a corner. The next wall was rough stone set with mortar as well. Pressing against it, he explored that way. He came almost at once to another corner. Around that one. A few feet down that wall and he knew where he was. The wooden door they had thrown him through. He stroked his way up it, the greasy wood slick under his palms, fingering wide strips of iron when he came to them.

Solid. Merciful God. He clamped his teeth on a whimper.

In the fourth corner, he came upon a clay pot. A slops jar, empty but still reeking of old piss. Surely that meant he wouldn't be left here to die. Why would they give him a slops jar and let him die of hunger and thirst? He realized it must have been a day since he'd pissed. He inched his back up the wall and breathed a sigh of relief as his heavy bladder drained. He'd not known
how much his belly had been aching until that moment.

He shook off the last drop of piss. The stink added to the musty smell.

Then he sank down onto the floor, arms around bent legs and head on his knees. His head was pounding again. His mouth was parched. Curse them. Trice-curse them. What had he done but follow his king? What any knight was sworn to do.

Cressingham's face seemed to float before him in the darkness. His fat lips sneered as he pointed and pronounced: ...traitors and criminals... "No," Andrew whispered.

He had fallen into a doze when footfalls echoed in the quiet. At first, it was part of his dream. It seemed years since he had heard anything but the distant, tormenting drip of water.

They couldn't be real. He shivered with chills, his lips cracked and leaking blood. When the heavy wooden door creaked open, he raised his hand to shield his eyes from the glimmer. A gaoler bent, watching Andrew closely, and put a bowl and cup on the floor.

"Is it day?" Andrew croaked.

The gaoler was a barrel of a man with a pebbly face and beard down onto his chest, clad in a dark leather jack studded with metal. "No talking." He slammed the door.

Andrew blinked as the light vanished. On hands and knees, he crawled towards the precious cup. It was cool and beaded with water. Grasping it with both hands, he took a mouthful and let it dribble down his parched throat. Careful not to let a drop escape, he sipped until it was gone. He used a finger to wipe out the last drop.

A wave of despair washed through him. How could he do this? It was too much. He leaned his forehead against the wood of the door and choked down a sob. He had to get through it. That was all.

The bowl had beans in it and a lump of bread. He scooped them up with his fingers and shoveled them down. Then he wiped the bowl clean with the bread, too, and licked the juices off his fingers. He crawled back onto the straw and curled up in a ball. He was cold... so cold. After a while, he slept.

Eons seemed to come and go. He couldn't tell when he woke if it was day or night. He could feel that his eyes were open when he touched his face. Open or closed, there was no difference in the darkness. He lay huddled against the chill and sang "Turn Ye to Me" to hear something besides the drip of that water he couldn't reach. He hummed every tune he could think of. He took to cursing to make a change.

Another gaoler came to leave another bowl and cup. This one was a scarecrow of a man. Andrew begged him to say if it was day or night. A blow of a truncheon was his reply.

He lost track of how many times they had come--of how many days he had been here. He had no sun and no moon. He had nothing to make marks on the wall. His stomach ached with hunger, the bowls of beans never quite filling his belly, but his fever and chills passed. He sat up and realized that the pounding in his head was gone. His muscles were stiff and every move hurt,
but no worse than from a fall in a joust.

It had to be faced. It would go on. It was no good sitting in a miserable huddle. He might as well explore what world he had left to him. If they were feeding him, they meant him to live.

Perhaps execution was in their plans for later, but Cressingham had said not. So one day, somehow, he would get out.

With a steadying breath, sliding his back up the gritty stones of the wall, he got to his feet. He inched his way around the dungeon again. The walls were built of stones about four hands wide and a hand high. The front was broken by the shape of the door. He touched every inch of the greasy wood and the iron bands that crossed it. There was no handle on the inside. He
smiled at himself as he felt for one.

He came to the slops jar. It was brimming by now. Would they empty it? He shuddered at what it would be like if they didn't.
After that, he sat down again. He was still cold, but not with the bone-shaking chills of injury and fever, even if every move still brought a twinge to remind him of the blows he had taken and the sores that were crusted over.

One day Scarecrow held open the door after he sat down the bowl and cup, motioning his chin toward the reeking jar in the corner, and said, "Shove that into the hall." He lifted his truncheon and he stepped back.

Andrew half-smiled as he moved the slops jar into the hall. Did Scarecrow fear him?

When the man motioned him back, he went. The few seconds' view of the hall had been worth it though. He sat shoveling up the beans and examined the pictures still in his eyes. Even in the dim light, with his eyes adjusted to the greater darkness he'd been able to see that his was the only door in the narrow hall. The other prisoners must be somewhere else. And there was no other guard, only one. There might be one outwith the shining light of the doorway up the steps. He hadn't been able to see.

He listened for sounds, quieting his breathing. No matter how quiet he was, all he could hear was that dripping. No horses. No talking. No pace of a guard. Nothing.

The first guard returned and Andrew decided that one must come in the morning and one at night. But which?

"Just tell me if it's day or night," he said.

The gaoler slammed the door, shutting him back into the dark. He knelt holding the cup of water, fighting down a hot tide of fury. How dare they treat him like this? Imprison him like a traitor. Starve him. Leave him in the squalor of unwashed, stinking sackcloth like a murderer. He would go mad and smash his head into the wall until he died... or get hold of himself and eat and
drink and find a way out.

Damn them. Damn and curse them to hell. Bugger them all. They'd not drive him mad. He'd not let it happen.

He shook so hard a little water slopped onto his fingers. He forced himself to lick the water off and drink what was in the cup. He ate most of the beans. When he came to the last few, he stopped--shoved them around the bottom of the bowl with his finger. At Dunbar, how had the Comyn moved the lines of chivalry? Had he planned the battle at all? He stared at the far wall he couldn't see and set the bowl aside. Could they have won? When the beans had dried out, he arranged them on the floor by feel, strung out in lines and moved them about. How could the Comyn have given such orders? What would he have done if the command had been his? He rearranged the line of withered-feeling beans on the floor.

He moved the beans about again, trying to remember everything Sir Waltir had told him.

It helped keep his mind off the drip of water, the itch of lice in his hair, and the reek of piss and crap and sweat and his own filth.

The next time Scarecrow opened the door, Andrew looked up. "Is it morning?"

Scarecrow looked surprised. "Yes." He sat down the food and stepped back.

After that excitement, he sat down with his morning rations and remembered Sir Waltir's lessons about war. Sir Waltir had talked while training him, time out of mind. Told him things the Comyn either hadn't known or had ignored. Never believe war is based on courtesy. It is based upon trickery and deception. Hold out your bait, so your enemy grabs it. Then crush him. Just as the English had crushed the Scots.

Sir Waltir had said other things he hadn't thought much about at the time, but now he heard them over and over, his only company in the dark chill. If your opponent is stronger than you are, flee him. If he has more men, divide them. Never play his game. You must play your own.

That night after the second gaoler closed him back into blindness, he sat with his arms around his legs and his forehead pressed into his knees. It was all very well to tell himself to be brave and strong and prepare for the next battle, but brave and strong was not how he felt. A scream was trapped in his throat that he daren't let out. If he did, he would never stop.

At last, he forced himself to his hands and knees and once more began to feel his way around his dungeon, stone by oblong stone. He tried to move each one, trying to shove it, knowing he'd find no way out. But he had to try. One stone moved a hair's breadth under his hand. The mortar must be brittle there. Perhaps they'd used too little or the leaking water had weakened it. It wiggled so little. It was stupid to think he could work it loose. If he did, what good would it do? On the other hand, he had nothing better to do except move the beans in their lines and despair over the charge that had led to their defeat. Nothing better to think of but that he might go mad.


Freedom's Sword is available on Amazon and Smashwords now only 99 cents. Please also check out A Kingdom's cost also available on Amazon and Smashwords.

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