Father stirred and opened his eyes. He need not have bothered. The darkness that met him was as thick as that behind his eyelids, and it leapt and danced with the same writhing phantoms that had been with him since the journey to Padascel. He was suffering now. He would need some soon, or the phantoms would become unbearable.
He rolled over, his eyes flicking to and fro constantly, his mind straining for some glimmer of light, some faint glow from somewhere. There was nothing. Not a crack, not a beam, no faint highlight on anything around him. He wondered idly how long he had been in this room, how long it had been since the light had been shut out and the key had turned decisively in the heavy iron lock, and the footsteps had gone away and left him in darkness and silence. Hours? No. Days? Maybe.
He reached out with stiff, aching hands and felt around on the floor. It was hard and cold, made of tightly-fitting flagstones with barely a crack between them. He did not bother getting up or feeling for the wall. He had been around this cell so many times he knew its dimensions off by heart: twenty-two hand-spans long and wide, and the ceiling low enough that he could brush it with his outstretched fingertips. No windows, no features of any kind except the heavy wooden door with its cold metal fastenings, rough with flaking rust. By now he was familiar with every line, every knothole on that door, every dip and impression in the age-old wood. He had run his trembling fingers over it many, many times, simply to give his starving mind something to feed upon in the absence of light or sound.
He reached up and felt his own face. His fingers were strangely cold as he brushed them over his nose, his eyes, his cheeks, his beard. He put them in his mouth, tasting the dirt on them, sucking idly, losing himself in every detail of that taste. He reveled in the distraction, just as he had done many times since he had been shut in here. It was his only joy, the tang of the dirt in his mouth.
There was a movement in the corner of his eye. He jerked back in fright, his bubble of comfort punctured, every nerve in his body jangling hotly. He raised his head and looked back and forth in the blackness. There was nothing. The tension receded. Of course there was nothing. There never was. Maybe there never would be again. Maybe the Scholar had left him here to die, to waste away without food or water or light, to grow pale and thin and pathetic until there was nothing left of him. What then? What would death be like? Darkness? Cold nothingness? How would he tell the difference? How did he know he was not already dead?
As if in answer his stomach contracted painfully, stabbing at him, and he curled over in agony. There. He was not dead. Dead people did not starve.
When was the last time he had eaten? He remembered the morning in the castle, when someone
had brought him breakfast — if thin gruel and water could be called breakfast. When had that been? His stomach growled, angry at him for bringing back the memory of food when there was none to be had.
There was another movement in the darkness, off to one side. He looked, and this time he stared. A figure stood before him, a long way away, much further than the limit of his prison’s walls. She was dressed all in flowing white, and her long hair billowed around her head in an auburn halo. As he looked at her she smiled and began to walk towards him, stretching out her arms in invitation. His heart convulsed as he saw who it was: his own Becana, his beautiful wife. Tears rolled down his face: she had come for him! She had found him, even here in the deep darkness!
He struggled to reach out his own hands to meet her embrace, but his arms were leaden and he could not move them. Even his fingers felt as though they were weighted down. He peered down, trying to find them, and when he looked up Becana was closer, almost upon him, her radiant face serene and smiling.
He laughed hoarsely as his arms came free of their invisible tethers, and he reached up to touch her — but even as he reached out a blinding light shone from behind her, lashing at his eyes. He cried out in shock and flinched away, and when he looked up his wife was gone, and in her place stood a robed figure with a leather hood covering its face.
Dread filled him, and he scrambled away. They had found him! Even here in the deep darkness they had found him! He closed his eyes tight, hoping that it was just another vision, willing it to disappear; but when he opened them again it stood there still, the faceless figure looking down at him through its blank eye-slits.
Then the figure spoke, and to Father’s surprise its voice was soft and gentle.
“Beorod, son of Baered,” the figure said. “You have suffered much. Here. This will ease your pain.”
A hand emerged from the robes, holding a silver box. Father recognised it with a jolt, but he hung back, afraid that it might be a trick.
The figure laughed kindly. “Don’t be afraid,” it soothed. “Take it.”
Father hesitated, then reached out slowly, tentatively. When his fingers were inches from the box he stopped, his hand trembling, then with a last sudden movement he snatched it and scuttled into a corner, clutching it to his chest.
The figure laughed again, like a father watching his child at play. “It is all right. Ease the pangs.”
Father did not take his eyes off the figure, even as he flicked open the silver lid with his thumbnail. Only when he was sure the figure was not about to move did he risk a glance down. His stomach twisted with an ecstasy of relief. There it was!
With trembling hands he dipped a fingertip into the tiny pile of white powder that lay inside, then raised the finger and dabbed it on his tongue. At once a wave of white-hot pleasure swept through his body, spreading from his face downwards. It probed deep down into his belly, quenching the gnawing pangs of deep need, loosening his joints and relaxing his muscles. He slumped, a stupefied grin spreading slowly across his face as the edges of his vision flickered with white tendrils and his limbs spasmed of their own accord.
The figure in the doorway smiled under his mask and waited for the episode to die down. The powder he had given the prisoner was not a pure mix, and its effects would not last long. Just long enough to make him lucid and leave him craving the real thing. The man in the mask always made sure his followers had the very best of the haeg; once they had tasted the best nothing else would satisfy, and the only way they would ever be able to taste it again would be by coming to him. It was such a simple method of control, so much more effective than threatenings or punishment. And the best thing was they loved him for it.
A few minutes later the spasms grew less, and the sweet ache in Father’s muscles ebbed away. He gasped and laughed, exhilarated by the rush, and lifted his head as his sight cleared and he was able to take in what he saw.
For a moment he forgot where he was; then he saw the figure standing in the doorway, and the events of the past days tumbled back into place. Realising who stood in front of him he scrambled to his knees and bowed his head.
“My lord,” he said, pressing his fingertips to his lips and extending his palms in the masked man’s direction. “Forgive me. I did not know …”
“Hush, Beorod.” The man held up a black-gloved hand. “All is forgiven. I have forgotten it already.”
Father bowed his head lower towards the floor. “Thank you, my lord,” he murmured gratefully.
* * *
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