The Fate of Paul Twister
Being stuck in a dungeon really sucks. But you know what sucks even worse? Staying stuck there. For two months.
I wasn’t being beaten or chained to a wall or stretched on a rack or anything like that, but being confined to a stone cell, maybe ten feet by ten feet, with nothing to do was torture enough. I was fed slop and water a couple times a day, and about once a week I was allowed out of the cell, under careful supervision, so I could bathe and receive a change of clothing. That was also when they emptied the chamber pot, which, by the way, did not actually have any sort of lid. Also once a week, on a different day, I got to spend a few hours outside, in a fenced-off yard, to walk around a little. Aside from doing some exercises in my cell every day to try and keep my body in shape as best I could, that was all the physical activity I got. I suppose it could have been a lot worse, theoretically, but that doesn’t mean it was in any way good!
Well, I suppose there was one good thing about it: I didn’t have a cellmate. That almost certainly would not have ended well. I’d talk with some of the other prisoners in nearby cells sometimes, to maintain my sanity if nothing else, but I really didn’t want any sort of personal contact with them. Some of them were really scary guys. Murderers, rapists, predatory moneylenders. All I’d done was steal something. Or try to, at least; I got caught in the act.
The worst part about it was that I knew four words, and all I’d have to do is speak them, and it would get me out of this cell within hours if not faster. But the problem is, that would inevitably lead to me ending up in a status not easily distinguishable from slavery, whereas right now all I had to do was endure enough of this and I’d be a free man. Sure, I was tempted sometimes, (especially when the chamber pot got too full,) but having something to look forward to really helped me keep a grip. And so I never ended up telling any of the guards to tell the Duke who he really had in his dungeon.
No, to them I was just some ordinary guy from out in the country who’d been angry at the Duke’s latest tax increases. Plenty of folks had, of course, but most of them hadn’t tried taking it upon themselves to even the balance sheet a little. A sharp-eyed guard had spotted me breaking in to the treasury, and now I was here. The Duke had just about hit the ceiling when he found out, hauling me before a magistrate and demanding penalties way out of line with a failed burglary attempt. He wanted me locked away for ten years! Luckily, the magistrate’s commission was from the king, and he had the authority to overrule him. When the Duke couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for his high demands, I was given five months. And now here I was, two months into a five month sentence.
It was Yard Day, and I was looking forward to being able to stretch my legs some, and to getting out of the cell for a while. The whole place stunk like a sewer, and in the last few days it had gotten worse; one of the prisoners in a cell near mine was badly sick, and he had vomited several times each of the last few days. They eventually took him out and had someone look at him, but the smell hadn’t gone away, and it was driving me up the wall. So yeah, I really wanted some fresh air. It’s funny the things you can get used to, the way your expectations and desires can change. A couple months ago, living free was something I took for granted, and I could breathe clean air whenever I wanted. Now, I was resigned to not even thinking about the whole “living free” bit, and a few hours of fresh air was my fondest desire.
The minutes came and the hours went, and finally the guards came and rounded up a group of us, letting us out into the yard for two short hours of the closest thing we were going to get to freedom around here. I walked around, mostly, avoiding contact with the other prisoners as much as possible. A lot of them were in here for a much better reason than I was, and I really wanted as little to do with them as I could. I’d made the mistake of talking with one of them early on, and apparently I “didn’t show him enough respect”. I ended up with two cracked ribs for that mistake. Lesson learned.
They took us back after a while, and I was just getting back to rotting away in my cell when I heard a commotion near the door to the dungeon. I couldn’t exactly make out the words, but I recognized the voices of two of the guards. They were talking with a woman, and their tone made it sound like they were on the defensive, like they wanted to argue with whoever it was but really couldn’t. The woman spoke firmly in reply, like someone who was used to being obeyed, and after a few rounds of back-and-forth, in which the guards’ protests got weaker and weaker, I heard the door being opened, and heavy bootsteps came up the hall. It sounded like four people. No, five; one just stepped a lot softer and it was easy to miss.
I was a bit surprised when the guards showed the woman to my cell. I probably shouldn’t have been, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting. She stepped up to the bars, and I looked up at my visitor, wondering why a woman who appeared to be traveling with a pair of Royal Knights as an escort would take an interest in a failed thief. “This is him?” she asked one of the guards.
He nodded silently, which was sort of a first for the guy. I could see the fear on his face. Whoever this woman was, she had him pretty well cowed by this point if he wouldn’t even speak.
“Very well. He is to be remanded into my custody forthwith,” she said imperiously.
It was written all over the guard’s face: he didn’t like any of this. But whoever this woman was, she apparently had her papers in order, and since I knew nothing about her, I figured that meant my life was right about to get even worse, not better. Maybe she was a sorceress of some sort. That would really suck. That was probably the other minor good thing about being here: no magic-users. They were almost always bad news, but at least I didn’t have to have any dealings with them down here.
And I did literally know nothing about her, not even what she looked like. She was of about average height for an adult woman, and wore a hooded cloak that made it impossible, in the dim light of the dungeon, to get any good look at her features. From her voice I’d say she was around my age, maybe a bit older, but it was hard to tell for sure. But at least the thing she was wearing looked like a long traveler’s cloak, and when I glanced down at her feet I saw the distinctive legs of a pair of trousers poking out below the cloak. Not a robe, then, so (probably, at least) not a sorceress. That was good… probably.
One of the guards produced a ring of keys, found the one that opens my cell, and unlocked the door. “He is to be made presentable,” the woman said. “Then bring him to me.” She turned and left with one of her knights, leaving the other one behind to supervise. So I was taken to wash up, given a clean tunic and pair of trousers that almost fit me, and my boots were returned to me. Then they finally let me out of the prison, and the knight led me to the local barber, who shaved off a couple months’ worth of beard and trimmed my hair. Then it was time to be hauled before Ms. Woman In Charge.
I was expecting to be taken to some sort of inn, but instead he led me through the streets and to the west gate of the city. The woman he was accompanying was actually camped about half a mile outside of the city gates, with an entourage of seven knights and a wizard wandering around. At least, I assumed that’s what the guy in long, flowing blue robes carrying a staff with a crystal on the end was. There were a handful of tents, most of them plain canvas, but the central one was larger than the rest, and it was dyed red and brown, the colors matching the royal coat of arms. That’s when I knew I was in real trouble! Either the king had somehow gotten involved in this and had sent some agent to retrieve me, for whatever reason, or something even weirder was going on.
The knight brought me into the tent, and there was the woman. Her hood was down, and she looked to be in her mid-twenties, a little bit pretty but not remarkably so, with green eyes and dark brown, wavy hair falling down to her shoulders. She was sitting at a table, looking over some sheets of paper, when the knight brought me in. She looked up at me, then nodded slightly. “Hello, Mr. Jefferson,” she said.
“Thomas, please,” I replied, bowing my head slightly. “And I’d like to express my gratit–”
“Very well, Thomas,” she cut me off. “Perhaps, as a token of your gratitude, you can explain to me why the Archmagus of the Circle would take such an interest in the well-being of a simple farmer who thought he could implement a better tax policy than the King’s representative? He called in some very valuable favors to secure a royal pardon for you, and that makes me curious. I’d really like to know the reason for it.” She had that syrupy-sweet-yet-also-hard tone that some people take to underscore just how happy with you they are not.
Well, at least her question preemptively answered the first question that I had wanted to ask her. There was one wizard who I was unequivocally on really good terms with, and ironically enough he was essentially the guy in charge. I’d have to remember to thank Gerald the next time I saw him. I wasn’t even going to bother wondering how he’d known I was in there. Wizards just have ways of finding stuff out. I’d learned that lesson long ago, but it had rarely worked in my favor!
“Very well,” I replied. “It’s a bit of a long story.” And one I really didn’t want her to hear. I needed to stall, while I thought up a good cover story. So, first thing to do is to keep them talking instead of you. “But may I ask one question of you in return, m’lady? You know my name, and in this you have me at a disadvantage. Might I know the identity of my benefactor?”
She had been seated at the table, but when I asked that she stood, drawing herself up tall and straight. She was a few inches shorter than me, even with me slouching a little, but when she looked straight into my eyes with a fiercely proud expression, I almost felt as if she were somehow looking down at me, our difference in height notwithstanding. “My name is Ashley Rebekah de Morgan,” she proclaimed.
It took a moment, but any thoughts of coming up with a believable alibi went to pieces when I recognized the name. I’d assumed I was dealing with some agent of the Crown, but this was soooo much worse, both objectively and personally. I almost felt like I’d been punched in the gut as the full weight of my situation dawned on me. On a certain level, hearing that name was even worse than anything I’d experienced in the two months I spent down in that dark cell.
Now, I’m a pretty forward-thinking guy. By some ways of measuring it, it would not be at all inaccurate to call me the most modern man in the entire kingdom. But even so, there’s just something viscerally humiliating, and maybe even a little bit emasculating, about realizing that you’ve just been rescued from a dungeon… by the Princess.