In which Valarien finds himself in very uncomfortable
If Kai was having a Bad Time, Valarien was having a Much Worse One. Dwarves are at least civilized. Humans aren't. It took three days to reach the border. During that time, as Ardino guaranteed the wizard's co-operation in not casting any spells, Valarien was given water and food. They even loosened his bonds a little when Ardino pointed out that Valarien's hands were not normally that particular colour.
The journey through Lascany, even with Ardino's ameliorating influence, had been uncomfortable in the extreme. It was about to become unbearable, yet it had to be borne.
Once the honourable knight had departed, the Saghan îl reverted to type. Under Glitch's orders, the wizard was stripped naked and returned, spread-eagled again, to the framework. Someone covered him with a rough blanket - "To keep the birdies off . . . " said a leery-looking trooper - but this was small comfort during the long chilly nights.
Valarien's clothing was transferred to another wagon. It was treated with a fair degree of caution. You never knew what you might discover tucked away in a wizard's robes, and most of them didn't want to find out. One who did let out a loud screech. He withdrew his hand sharply with a mouse trap clamped firmly across his fingers. Valarien would have smiled but for the gag.
It discouraged curiosity in the rest, however, for which he was very thankful. There were certain other things which he would have quite liked them to find. On second thoughts, perhaps it was well that they hadn't!
It took another seven days to reach Archduke Zervan's stronghold. During that time, Valarien had very little to drink and even less to eat. No one was particularly keen to remove the gag lest the wizard turn them into a toad merely by saying the word. He couldn't have done in any event, for that spell was not in his repertoire. His guards did not know that however, so they waited until he was on the point of unconsciousness before they risked uncovering his mouth.
If it was any consolation at all, it appeared that they did not intend him to die - at least, not yet . . . Death began to seem an attractive proposition long before they reached Istvan's great fortress, and its desirability increased with every passing hour, but that relief was withheld.
He was semi-conscious and bordering on delirium when they reached the foot of the cliff on the top of which towered the Eyrie. The trip up the rough steep path that zigzagged across the face of the cliff, piled agony upon agony. There was a pounding in his head and every joint and muscle screamed in protest. He vaguely registered that night was falling as they entered the narrow courtyard within the forbidding walls.
Then torches went spinning by as, draped over someone's shoulder, he was carried into the depths of the mountain. On the way down, he drifted into unconsciousness.
When he came to, his arms were outspread and were being chained to the wall in a large vaulted chamber, the groins of it were supported by immense columns. The floor, rough-hewn out of the fabric of the mountain, was covered around the edges with matted straw. There was the sound of water trickling down the walls. A reddish glow across the chamber proclaimed the presence of a fire, though the view of it was obscured by one of the columns. It was not likely that its prime purpose was for the comfort of the prisoners. Valarien shivered.
There were not many prisoners in the chamber, but there were a lot of bones. There were also a number of remains that were in an intermediate state . . . The stench was appalling.
Valarien looked around groggily. There were three others that he could see, strung up like himself. Another had his arms chained back around a pillar and a fifth was dangling by his manacles from a hook in the ceiling.
A groan from nearby drew his eye to a solid-looking cage some four feet high by around two and a half feet square. It housed a full-grown man who had not room to stretch out or lie down. Valarien found out later that its name was Little Ease.
Close to the fire, he could make out an anvil. On a tripod was a metal basket containing a number of implements, and in the centre of the chamber was a rack.
Besides the prisoners and the men who had brought him down to this hell hole, there were two others. One was a great, thickset man built like an ox, who looked like a cross between a blacksmith and a butcher and probably was. The other was a deformed, weasel-faced creature, apparently human, but with a definite hint of goblin about him.
They seemed to be involved in trying to suspend a large iron sphere from a pulley above the rack. Valarien was too far gone to wonder why. His head sagged on to his chest and he drifted in and out of consciousness. Somewhere in between was a world of nightmare. The boundaries were indeterminate.
Someone felt his pulse which was faint and rapid. His head was dragged up roughly by the hair, and a deep grating voice said, "You better give 'im some water, or 'e'll not last much longer."
Another voice asked, "Is it set up yet?"
"Ay, just about," replied the first voice, "but I doubt 'e'll tek it in right now. You better water 'im first."
The gag was slackened and water was tipped into the wizard's mouth. He swallowed with difficulty. His tongue had swollen from lack of fluids. Most of it spilled down his chest. More water was poured in. He choked on it and spluttered. A little more care was taken with the next mouthful. He began to take the water greedily despite the somewhat tainted flavour but before he could slake his thirst fully the vessel was taken away and the gag thrust back in place.
He was more or less conscious as they moved him on to the rack.
"Do I gets to turn the screw this time, boss?" came a whining voice. It belonged to the weasel-faced man.
"Don't you ever listen?" asked the gravelly voice, which belonged to the human ox. "We're not workin' on 'im yet. 'E's in no fit state. It 'ud kill 'im."
Weasel-face moaned his disappointment.
"Nah, listen You," said Human-ox, ignoring his assistant, "I'm goin' ta take your gag off. But you isn't goin' ta cast any nasty spells, see. 'Cause if you does, Hully over there, is gonna let go of the rope 'e's 'oldin'. An' if 'e does, that big 'eavy ball, what is 'angin' from the roof, is gonna drop on your 'ead, and splatter your brains all over my nice clean walls. An' we wouldn't want that to 'appen, nah, would we? So you be a good boy, an' you might live a little longer. You savvy?"
Valarien nodded slowly.
The gag was removed and the wizard drew a great breath of air into his lungs. Being on the rack turned out to be an improvement. At least, being horizontal, his arms were no longer supporting his weight. Although his captors did not know it, it was doubtful that he could summon up enough magical energy to light a candle in his weakened state, but he had no intention of giving away such information. They probably wouldn't believe him, anyway.
"Just don't let Hully doze off," he whispered, and drifted into sleep.
He had no way of knowing how long he'd slept, only that it was not long enough. Hully was still there, holding the rope, and everything was much as it had been when he'd arrived except that the prisoner dangling from the hook had been removed.
"This is your lucky day, fella." It was Weasel-face talking. "Today, ya gets ta eat."
He thrust a crust of bread, dipped in greasy gravy at Valarien's mouth.
"Drink . . . I need a drink first," the wizard croaked painfully.
"Your wish is my command, fella. Gotta build up yer strengf, so's we can work on yer . . . "
The drink was welcome, even if the conversation wasn't. While Weasel-face, who introduced himself as Vayadir, fed him the bread and gravy, another lackey came to replace Hully. Vayadir leaned away as the heavy metal ball swung slightly when the rope changed hands. Valarien swallowed, though there was nothing in his mouth at the time. Beyond his range of sight, someone screamed. It was a scream that encompassed agony and despair and all points in between. Vayadir grinned with pleasure.
"Sometimes we 'as quite a cat's chorus in 'ere," he informed the wizard cheerily. "Tomorra, they mights let you join in an' all. Won't that be nice?"
Valarien suddenly didn't feel at all hungry, and what he had eaten seemed much inclined to do a bunk.
"Come on fella. Ya gotta eat. Ya don't wanna to peg out on us, do ya? Not afore we 'as a bit o' fun anyways."
The wizard turned his head away. There was a creak from the rack's mechanism that brought a sharp gasp from his lips, and Vayadir took the opportunity to pop another piece of bread in his mouth.
"I told yer 'no'!" bellowed the chief torturer.
"I was only openin' 'is mouf, boss . . . " whined his assistant.
"Oh, very well, but keep it gentle, aw right. I don't want to 'ave to explain away another stiff this week, and that one's important . . . "
"Right, boss. I'll be ve-ry gen'le wiv 'im," Vayadir promised. "Now, are ya gonna eat, or shall we play a bit more?"
Afterwards, he was left alone for some time, while the everyday trade of the chamber went on around him. He tried to shut his ears to it, but it was a futile effort. It seemed he had merely exchanged one hell for another, though he felt his strength had returned a little. When no one was paying attention, he tested his powers a little.
"Ar-ayer tollay," he whispered, concentrating on the sphere.
He could feel its weight, and also that it was beyond his capability, as yet, to support it. He must wait and hope - and pray.
During a lull in the proceedings, he heard footsteps coming purposefully down the stone stairs into the chamber, and an authoritative voice spoke.
"I sha'n't be needing you for a while, Sterkvarl. You may go - and take Vayadir with you."
"As you will, my lord," responded the gravel-voiced torturer. He and his companion left the vault, and their victims.
The newcomer came to the rack where Valarien could see him. He was tall and elegant, with steely grey hair swept back from his strong aristocratic face. This must be the Archduke himself, thought the wizard.
"Welcome to my humble abode," said Zervan with a faint ironic smile. "I fear you cannot be very . . . comfortable . . . down here?"
Valarien looked him in the eye, but said nothing.
"It would give me great pleasure to provide you with quarters more . . . agreeable to one with your personal . . . talents. My staff inform me that you are a most competent . . . magician "
He paused and let the word linger in the air. The wizard remained inscrutable.
" but I think they are in error? From their reports, your abilities far exceed those of a mere magician . . . . "
"No, no," protested the prisoner, "you were right first time - just a simple m-magician."
"Indeed?" Zervan raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Then you are the first one I have ever met who owned it. Mostly they lay claim to being wizards."
Valarien cursed inwardly. He was not only in a weakened state physically and magically, but mentally as well.
The Archduke continued.
"I could find a place for you - a very exalted place - among my people. With your powers - and my army - we could build a mighty empire. The world would tremble before us . . . "
His eyes glittered in the torchlight.
"You would have a position of great honour - and power. The people would fall at your feet and worship you. How different - how very different - from your present . . . position. How much more . . . comfortable "
Valarien remained mute.
"You do not choose to join me?"
There was an inflection of mild surprise in his voice.
"Think about it - the adoring crowds, the immense wealth, the beautiful women The comfortable bed, the fine wines, the magnificent - food . . . "
Valarien was salivating despite himself.
"You would prefer this, to all that could be yours . . . if you chose to join me?"
"You would trust me?" Valarien asked in imitation of Zervan's sardonic style.
Zervan gave a soft laugh.
"I . . . can arrange things in a way that will ensure you will not . . . betray me," he said with quiet assurance.
Valarien's voice was equally quiet.
"I could not betray you," he said in measured tones, "because I would never serve you."
Anger flashed in Zervan's eyes and his lips compressed into a hard line.
"You will serve me - you will join me," he swore, then, in softer tones, added, "One day - sooner or later - one way or another - you will do so. I would rather it was sooner, and I would rather you did so of your own volition. The choice is yours, but you will work for me."
He turned abruptly and marched off up the stairs.