He swam towards his father, who was slowly sinking deeper into the abyss. What frightened William at first wasn’t the thought of his father drowning, but rather the complexion of his sunken face. His skin was pale blue, his hair had thinned considerably, and his glassy eyes were impossible to recognize. They seemed distant, alone and afraid, like the eyes of a motherless child. If not for the desperate flailing of his arms, William would’ve thought his father to already be dead.
The deeper he swam, the colder the water became. Then, suddenly, his father disappeared into the darkness of the ocean. He was gone, and as William quickly realized he would never save him, he began swimming back to the surface of the water. The surface seemed to stray further and further with every passing stroke. He now felt like he was the one sinking.
But he continued to fight, inching his way to the wavering peak above. Every time he thought the temperature of the water was getting warmer, his lungs would tighten, forcing him to scream out in agony. It was an excruciating pain that seemed to last an eternity. He was so close to the surface, and yet he felt he would never reach it.
The sudden sound of a man gasping for air echoed throughout the dungeons of Havelmir. William had awoken from yet another nightmare. This recurring dream had haunted him for some time. He’d been in his dark cell for nearly two months now, though he had no true way of knowing this. There were no windows in the depths of the dungeons. The only light that made its way in came from the burning flame of the dungeon keeper’s torch.
William sat up and leaned against the cold stone wall of his cell. He clenched his chest in an attempt to catch his breath, but he found it hard to calm himself in such a dark, unsettling place. Every time he emerged from this nightmare, he felt as if he had woken up in another, like some cruel twist of fate. The solid darkness was taking a toll on him. When he’d first been imprisoned, he had assumed his eyes would adjust to the darkness. But that hadn’t been the case. He could still only see a few feet in front of him.
This place was built to drive people mad, to break them of any hope, he thought. This idea frightened him from time to time. However, he refused to let such a thing happen. He promised himself that much. He had been through worse, and now he felt there was nothing that could beat him down any further.
At least they feed me down here. He hoped the thought would somehow make his situation seem better. He found this odd, especially due to the fact that not every prisoner in the dungeon was being fed. Every day or two—he assumed—the dungeon keeper would come by and toss him and a few others a small waterskin—which was always near empty—and a few scraps of bread or meat. Most likely the leftovers from the soldier’s meals, he always thought as he savored the gifted remains. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. He could hear the pleading and begging from the other prisoners, the ones who were given nothing. He felt bad for them, and he couldn’t help wonder why they were deprived of food. He figured it was due to the severity of the crime they had committed on the outside. If they did something bad enough, they were just put in here to rot. This was one of the many explanations he convinced himself of so he could enjoy his food guilt-free.
Aside from the solid darkness, it smelled something awful in the dungeons. And it wasn’t just the smell of the living. The air was thick with the smell of death and decay. William would watch the dungeon keeper as he made his rounds, hoping to get a better idea of how big the sunless tomb was. He realized its magnitude when he saw how small the flame of the dungeon keeper’s torch got the further away he walked. He was a fat, burly man with a mess of a beard and a nose that looked like it had been broken more times than one could count. He wore black leather boots and a thick, brown tunic. A wooden club hung from his belt. William had once heard a prisoner call him Odo, which he figured must be his name. The next thing he heard after that was the loud cracking sound of wood meeting skull, followed by “Shut it, slug!” From then on, William decided a simple nod was the most interaction he would put forth.
Time stood still in the dungeons. The absence of daylight made it impossible to judge how many days had passed. William would often ponder how long he had been locked away in the somber bastille. If he had to wager a guess, he would say at least a month, although sometimes it felt more like five. His first few weeks went by at an unbearable pace, yet the last week or two drifted by much faster—thanks to Gus.
Gus was an old man who was put in the cell next to him. William found having someone to talk to made all the difference down in the gloomy keep of the Castle. Gus was a jaunty old fella, known for his farfetched stories and foolhardy shenanigans. He had spent so much time in the dungeons over the years that he had even come to refer to it as his second home. Most people couldn’t understand his brash personality, and yet he was still loved by all. He would refer to everyone he spoke with as his friend, whether he knew them for ten minutes or ten years. Even Odo called him by his real name, rather than “Slug,” which is how he referred to all the other poor souls in the dungeon.
“Another nightmare, laddie? That’s the fourth one this week. You’ll have to talk about it sooner or later … unless you’d rather be haunted by your past every time you close your eyes,” Gus said with his face pressed up against the bars of his cell.
The last thing William wanted to do was talk about the night responsible for his nightmares, but he knew Gus was right. The longer he held in the pain, the longer he would be tortured by the malevolent memories stirring in his mind.
“I’ll be fine,” William replied. “It’s this place, is all. Once I get out, the dreams should stop.”
“I’m sure you're right, laddie. Most people go crazy down here, although I don’t see why. It’s not all that bad. I find it rather relaxing myself.”
William laughed—something he never would have thought himself capable of in his current situation. But everything had changed after he’d met Gus. That was one of the benefits of having him around; no matter how terrible your day was going, you could always rely on Gus to brighten your mood.
“No, really think about it,” Gus continued. “You have no responsibilities. You are fed without need of any coin. And the dim lighting sets a great mood for daydreaming.”
William shook his head. “You truly are one of a kind, Gus.”
“Well thank ya, Will. I like to think I’m rather unique myself. You know, you’re a good man, you are. When we get out of here, I’m gonna bring ya to the Maidens Pearl. Best tavern in all of Havelmir, or so I’ve been told. Strong ale at a good price and the women promise to get better lookin’ with every drink.”
“Looking forward to it,” William replied with an unseen smile. “Fresh ale with a good friend sounds like just the thing I need. My time in Havelmir thus far has been nothing but demoralizing.”
“Hmmm, yes. Havelmir can seem like quite a grim place, but it’s a strong kingdom. This lifestyle is a bit of an acquired taste, is all. Once you get used to it, it’s not all bad. I may not be the most upstanding citizen myself, but that’s just me. I act purely on instinct, which may not have worked for me so well over the years, but I still love it here. Dadro is a fierce king and I believe he’ll fight to make Havelmir the strongest kingdom in the land.”
“Dadro’s laws placed me in here. I never asked anyone to be a slave. I’m no servant,” William said. He hated Dadro, the tyrannical King of Havelmir. He had never met or spoken to him, but his kingdom seemed like a slave-driven community, where your surname came first and everything else second. William had grown up at sea, where there was no form of law. The thought of monarchy made him feel sick.
“The laws of the realm have stood for hundreds of years, laddie. They may seem harsh, but our freedom far surpasses the freedom of those who live in Raktonn or Talfryn. A respected skill can go a long way in this city. I’ve yet to find mine,” Gus said with a smirk. “But I’m still able to reap the coin needed to fill my belly and my bed. Any kingdom that grants me that is worth livin’ in.”
Once again, William found some reasoning in Gus’s words. He still didn’t agree with many of the laws in Havelmir, but he found himself apprehending the true nature of things. He was able to somewhat comprehend the mentality behind living in such a place. “Maybe you’re right. I’m just not accustomed to the life they live on land. It seems so routine and restricted. Have you ever traveled anywhere by ship?” William asked.
“I’ve many friends who are sailors, but I can’t say I’ve ever spent much time at sea myself. It’s a fine life, I’m sure. Drinking and fishing are some of my favourite pastimes. But the harsh seas cast a shiver down my spine. I’m not sure I’d have the ballocks to survive more than a week out there in the unpredictable flow of the waves.”
“The ocean is quite unpredictable, yes. But it’s as beautiful as it is dangerous. I have a feeling you would like it more than you think.”
“One day laddie, one day. If it’s all you say it is, I’m sure I would enjoy my time as a deck hand.”
The loud sound of creaking iron interrupted their conversation. Only one thing was capable of making that noise down here—it was Odo opening the heavy iron door to the dungeons. A sudden clamping jolt followed, as the door was shut and locked behind the beefy brute.
“Alright, slugs. Feeding time. Any beggin’ and you get the club!”
William watched as Odo lit his torch and walked down the long corridor towards them. He made a low grunting noise with each step. His breathing was loud and strenuous. He wasn’t in the best of shape, but he was strong nonetheless, and it would take a lot to knock him down.
William thought back to a story Gus had told him: he claimed to have witnessed Odo beat down five prisoners who managed to pick the locks of their cell doors with the bones from a chicken leg. Gus had told him that Odo snapped one of their necks with a swift backhand to the face. William didn’t believe the entire story, but he wouldn’t doubt Odo capable of such things.
Odo flung scraps of food at the prisoners as if feeding dogs. There was a smug, joyous look on his face. “Eat up, slugs. You won’t be gettin’ any seconds today,” Odo said. He followed up with a deep-bellied laugh. When Odo reached Gus’s cell, he handed him a full loaf of bread and a chicken leg. It looked like it had just come off the spit.
“Thank you, Odo. You look like you’ve lost some weight,” Gus said, greeting him as if they were old friends.
Odo slapped a hand on his belly and smiled. “Me? No, Odo has always been big.”
No one understood how Gus could befriend such a brute; there was just something about Gus everybody seemed to like. William wondered if maybe Odo knew he was friends with Gus, he could get some fresh food. But he knew he’d better not test his chances.
At least I’m one of the few who still get fed, he thought. Odo then threw a half-eaten chicken thigh at him, along with a stale piece of bread and a half empty waterskin.
“That’s for you, slug. And don’t go askin’ Gus for any of his food, ya hear?” William had never asked Gus for any of his food, nor did he have too. Gus would always share his rations with William once Odo had left the dungeon.
“It tastes better when you share,” Gus would always say.
William often found himself wondering how old Gus really was. At first, he pictured him as a frail old man well into his seventies. That quickly changed after his first time catching sight of Gus, under the flickering light of Odo’s torch. It was obvious that he was well past his youth. He had long golden-grey hair, which was tied back in a thin mess of a bun, and his wrinkles grew deep around the eyes, mouth, and forehead. However, he was anything but frail. Thin, yes. But to call him frail would be an insult. He was lean and muscular, with eyes that glimmered with joy—like those of a young boy eager for adventure. After William learned what Gus truly looked like, he often found himself picturing his friend as both an old man and a young lad. And thanks to the pitch blackness that surrounded them, either version was easily obtainable.
“Mmmm, yes … you must try this, Will. It tastes just like the bread Dellora used to make. Best baker in all of Havelmir, she is,” Gus proclaimed. He tore off a generous piece and passed it to William. “It has that sweetness to it. I guess someone in the castle got a hold of her recipe.”
William reached through the cold bars and took the bread. He could smell the sweet dough as he brought it closer to his mouth. His first bite brought back a nostalgic flavour, one he had long forgotten. The thought of savouring this soft snack entered his mind. But patience was no longer a virtue—by the time the thought had exited, he’d already finished the bread.”
“You’re right, Gus. That was some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted.”
“Ha! I told you,” Gus said with a smile. “Dellora is a master in the kitchen. I worked with her for a short while, but I wasted more food than I made. Cooking is one thing, but baking is a whole other story.”
William couldn’t picture Gus in a kitchen. He found the thought rather amusing. “You worked as a baker?” William asked with a subtle grin. He knew Gus had worked many jobs in his day, but a baker was the last thing he would have guessed. He tried to picture Gus in a white apron with a rolling pin in hand. It was hard for him to hold back his laughter.
Just then, he caught the distant sound of a wooden club cracking against bone. Next came a high-pitched shriek, which echoed throughout the dungeon. William’s thoughts of laughter quickly faded.
“You sleep now, slug!” Odo bellowed out.
Gus was unfazed by Odo’s routine brutality. “Yes, yes I spent the better half of a fortnight rolling out dough and dusting flour,” he said. “It wasn’t my most successful job, but I gained a lot of respect for bakers and I got to eat my fair share of pastries in the process. It was a great experience altogether, and now I get all my baked goods at half price.”
“Every time I think I’ve gotten to know you, you surprise me again,” William said. “You’ve been a plowman, a fishmonger, a butcher, a stonemason, and even a baker. You’ve truly lived your life to the fullest, haven’t you?”
“Every day, laddie. Life is short. I’ll be dammed if I don’t make the most of it,” he said with a yawn.
William nodded. “I never thought I’d meet someone like you down here Gus. But I’m glad I did. You’ve kept me from going insane, and you’ve given me hope for humanity. For that, I am grateful. I hope you realize how much you have done.”
Gus was greatly appreciative of William’s words. He never thought simply being himself would mean so much to one person, and with that thought he drifted off to sleep like a baby in its mother’s arms.
Once William realized Gus had fallen asleep, he shrugged and shifted away from the wall he’d been leaning against. He tried to find some comfort on the damp, dusty floor, but had no luck. He then closed his eyes and tried to remember better days, before once again falling into the heinous grasp of his recurring nightmare.