Vygeas drew a sigh from deep within him as he stretched his legs in the small cell; a metallic rattle filled the confined space, vibrating deep into his hearing as his boot connected with the iron door.
“Guard. Guard!” The gravelly voice of the poor sod in the next cell rang in his ears and had done so since they threw the man beside Vygeas in the cart that had brought them back to Lord Ciaran’s dungeon. “This ‘ere slop bucket shud hae been emptied twa days ago, aye?” His fellow prisoner addressed the question to him.
Vygeas grimaced. Their cellmates used the far corner now. His acute awareness was a curse under these circumstances. His nose burned as the ammonia from the turned urine wafted into his nostrils, but it was nothing compared to the fear of which his fellow prisoners reeked.
“Deserters all, we are.” The man pressed his face against the bars between their two small cells. “The hangman’s noose for us,” he said with a sigh. “Or maybe a sharp blade against our necks. That would be merciful.”
They wouldn’t get that. It was Lord Ciaran to whom Vygeas had sold his sword… and turned his back.
The constant comments and whimpers continued in his ear. The sharp faecal scent of fear came in waves from the farmer turned soldier.
Some people never cease the chatter. The wretch’s pitch rose with every utterance.
Vygeas’ forehead tightened in a scowl as he danced his fingers on his thigh.
Blades and bows! He could not blame his overloaded senses and exhaustion for his capture. It was his own utter stupidity.
The thud of hardened leather shoes clumping on the sandstone steps echoed down the stairwell. The steps formed the circular stairway that led to the dark dungeon in the depths of the tower. The scrape of a wooden torch-pole as it travelled along the curving cut-stone wall, accompanied the sound of footsteps and increased in intensity, announcing its arrival. Vygeas’ cellmates in the other chambers of this dungeon stirred as the burning torch illuminated the surroundings and revealed what he perceived—dirty straw, ragged breeks and leather armour, lice infested companions, and a guard who couldn’t care less.
The guard directed his cockiness at Vygeas as the cast-iron key clunked into the heavy lock and clanked its turning.
“Out.” The guard’s curtness was no surprise. “The lord and master wishes to see ye.”
Vygeas’ muscles screamed as he stood after days of inactivity cramped in the tiny cell. His grey coat trailed in the muck as he ambled out, holding his breath against the sour vomit-like odour that came from the guard’s mouth. Vygeas had detected it from the back of his cell and now must walk right past it.
He raised his face to the cool breeze swirling down the stairwell and sucked in its freshness. Out of the cell—at last. Days of incarceration made a man think on life—and death. The sandstone glowed a dusky yellow in the burning torchlight as the guard led him up the circular stone-stairway.
Vygeas held tight to his memories of his father, a peasant farmer with no aspirations other than to survive; a man who had never understood his son’s desire for something more. With a sigh, he acknowledged another memory he could never escape. Holding his love in his arms—his dead love, but he pushed it down. Nothing could change that now.
The tower’s exit brought him into a courtyard. The daylight assaulted his vision and the chains around his wrists clattered as he lifted his arms to shade his eyes. The guard’s vice-like grip now encircled his upper-arm, digging a band of pain as an armlet, while he marched Vygeas across the flagstone-paved yard to the opposite door leading to Lord Ciaran’s Great Hall where he performed his lordly obligations.
It would be official then.
So be it.
Vygeas’ insides coiled at the recollection of this lord’s dealings. He could easily do his work on those who deserved it, but the innocents caught in the recent skirmishes for which Lord Ciaran had hired him…that had turned his stomach and was enough to make him risk his own life by running. He pressed his lips around a curse and ground his teeth.
Noble sentiments had brought him to this place.
He had deserted hoping to start afresh.
No chance of reforming now death was near. It was too late a repentance.
They reached the tower entrance and the guard shoved him through to where Lord Ciaran awaited. Sunlight streamed in long oblong blocks onto the hardwood floor of the Great Hall of this fortress. A fire raged in a stone fireplace large enough to fit the living quarters of the steading house in which Vygeas spent his formative years. Lord Ciaran stood before it; a tall, greying man with a clear mind and sharp tongue. Vygeas’ heightened sense of smell detected the early singe of the lord’s clothes. Lord Ciaran narrowed his eyes at his entrance. Pleased anger radiated from the nobleman and hit him like a wall along with the heat of the flames.
“Thought you could desert and remain undiscovered?” Lord Ciaran said as Vygeas came to a halt before him. “You’re a good assassin but a poor warrior, boy.” His growl vibrated out of his throat. “You deserve death by hanging.” The nobleman’s nostrils flared as he inhaled.
Grasping the chains that dangled from his wrist irons, Vygeas remained firm against the waves of anger coming from Lord Ciaran, curious as to the source of pleasure they contained.
“Nothing to say for yourself?” Lord Ciaran’s chest rose and fell in a steady motion.
Vygeas swallowed. He’d learned silence was the best option when Lord Ciaran was in a mood such as this.
“Want to live, do you?” The man’s stare held firm.
“Aye.” Vygeas’ hoarse words came through a dry throat.
“I’m in a magnanimous mood.” Lord Ciaran’s hands jiggled behind his back. “You’re fortunate, for as you know, that is a rare occurrence.”
Vygeas stood taller as, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a sage; one of the wise masters in their fields of knowledge who advised and provided tutelage to the nobility and privileged landowners. Entering the Great Hall, the swish of the sage’s black hooded-robe accompanied his passage across to his lord, its colour signifying his status as a mage—one skilled in the magical arts. Anticipation oozed from this man’s very core. The mage gave Lord Ciaran a scroll and then turned to him.
Vygeas’ heart leaped into his throat. Before he had time to settle himself, a smile had encompassed the mage’s face.
“Greetings, Vygeas.” The mage’s smile was self-satisfied.
“Drostan.” Vygeas breathed his composure back to normal.
“Ah, you know him, Drostan?” Lord Ciaran’s falsehood shot across to Vygeas. The scent of deception and the barely restrained smirk which stretched Lord Ciaran’s mouth revealed this was common knowledge to him.
“Aye, I have had dealings with the lad in the past.” Drostan slid his gaze away from Vygeas as if he was of little consequence. “All you need is there, my lord.” He pointed to the scroll that Lord Ciaran held, then stood back, taking his place beside his master.
Vygeas clenched his fists by his sides. How this evil man could remain alive Vygeas would never understand. How many other young men had he deceived and how many—?
“I have a job for you, Vygeas.” Lord Ciaran pointed the scroll at him.
“A job, my lord?” Vygeas’ gaze flicked back to Lord Ciaran.
“Aye. Your forte. A contract on a mark.” Ciaran locked his gaze, ensuring he had his attention. “Do this and you avoid the gallows.”
“Aye, my lord.”
What choice did he have?
“I’ve heard you have to justify the death of your victims. Eases your guilt somewhat, I believe.” Lord Ciaran paused and sneered. “A merchant in Eilean isn’t cooperating. Gille Fhialain. I need him to be an example to others. Access to the trading routes to which the island clings is vital for my army’s supplies. That salve from the east accelerates healing and will return my warriors to the field in short time.” He leaned closer, the aroma of smoked salmon—no doubt the food Lord Ciaran had eaten to break his fast—wafted into Vygeas’ face. “Do it. Prove it, and you are free.”
Vygeas nodded, the prospect of life and liberty tasting sweet as his guts complained at the lack of food. Experience had taught him to not trust every word that passed Lord Ciaran’s lips. But freedom awaited, and a chance to escape this lord’s cell and his own death. And rid himself of Lord Ciaran’s hold over him and be a truly free man; he would not dismiss the opportunity. Vygeas turned and walked toward the Great Hall’s main doors. He would pursue this task with watchfulness.
“Guard, I’m feeling generous today.” Lord Ciaran said. “Remove his chains and feed him. Restore to him his weapons and his horse.”
“Aye, my lord,” the guard grunted.
“And Vygeas,” Lord Ciaran said to Vygeas’ back.
There was always a catch.
“Aye, my lord?”
“In four days, this merchant, Gille Fhialain, plans to sail to the east on an extended trip to gather wares. Complete your task before then.”
Four days to get to Eilean?
The welling rage emanating from Lord Ciaran, and the dusky hue now on his face, stopped Vygeas’ protest. “Aye, my lord.” Vygeas bowed and exited the hall, making his way to the smithy and freedom.
Well, freedom from his chains at least.