Back in 2009, I put together this short little introductory story for Entombed after a discussion on the Entombed mailing list about conditions outside the dungeon and how criminals might end up there.
Kesta was cold, wet, bruised, severely uncomfortable and, ---- if truth be told, ---- afraid.
The cold, the wetness and the bruises were all things she could live with. Afterall, five nights on the stone floor of the cell in the Barron's castle, ---- not to mention more nights than she could remember sleeping under the stars (or not infrequently, the rain clouds), on hard unforgiving earth beside the road, ---- no, discomfort wasn't a problem, ---- fear was though, --- and like the cold and the discomfort, --- it was only increasing.
With every bounce and judder of the tumbril's rattling wheels on the ill-used, stony road, every sling of sleet which wracked her body in its thin grey shift, ---- every jerk to the chilly iron cuffs about her wrists, every foot closer to the waiting maw of her approaching fate, ---- the cold, the pain, --- and above all the gnawing, numbing fear grew worse, rattling at the edges of her steely self-control like a caged beast.
It was almost shocking how quickly she'd come to this pass.
Had it only been a quarter moon before, ---- the crowded tavern, the drunken guards with their beery, sweating faces, ruddy in the greasy torchlight, ---- the captain's snarling voice.
"That was my ale you snivelling son of a goblin!"
The thin old man raised his eyes from the broom he was pushing about the spittle and sawdust strewn floor.
"i'm sorry Sire, ---- I ----"
The captain's big calloused fist swung downwards like a stone from a catapult.
"You clumsy oaf! ---- my best tunic!"
He slapped his other hand at the spreading stain across the red embroidered cloth at his chest, while the old servant got groggily to his hands and knees, ---- white hair disarrayed, a smarting bruise appearing on his lined cheek.
"I can pay for the laundering of your tunic sire, --- it was only an ----"
One of the other soldiers stuck out a booted foot, pushing the old man hard down into the rubbish strewn floor.
"Show more respect to the Barron's good captain peasant! ---- it's only by his graces that your miserable Hyde is kept safe from goblins"
the old man tried once again to rise, his face, apron and hair now smeared with a hundred times more indeterminate tavern muck than the stain on the captain's expensive tunic.
Around the guards table the floor was empty, a silent tidal hole opening in the crowd, ---- a reef of pending violence in a sea of indifferent folk.
"I know sire, ---- that's ----"
the captains fist hurtled downwards again, this time connecting with the old man's frail shoulder.
"maybe if you lick the muck from my boots I'll let you keep your worthless head"
"That's enough ---- Captain Rylem"
Kesta elbowed her way through the unmoving crowd, --- regretting (as she always did at these times), the short stature her father had left her.
Still, as she finally pushed out into the impromptu arena surrounding the soldiers' and their victim she made an impressive enough figure. A girl in her early twenties, ---- smaller than most but broad shouldered and stocky, dressed in well-worn leathers with a long sword strapped across her back and the firm stance of one who knew how to use it.
true, her round blunt face and short mousey brown hair were long way from being pretty, ---- but for a mercenary, prettiness wasn't particularly essential.
The captain spun blearily, his attention momentarily distracted from the old servant.
"mistress Runthorn, ---- come to join us for an Ale? ---- I was just teaching this fool a lesson ---"
Kesta kept her tone quiet, planting hands on her hips.
"You were being a bully and a coward. If this man has stained your clothing, --- let him pay"
the captain's already ruddy face darkened, eyes blazing with the kind of fury which only comes from an excess of power and drunkenness.
"Oh he'll pay Alright, ---- and so will you for such an insult!"
in a flash of torchlight steel his sword was out, hovering dangerously above the prone man. Even as chatter in the tavern ceased and some of the wiser patrons started to edge towards the door, the captain's sword chopped downwards in a vicious stroke aimed at the cringing man's neck.
There was one supreme advantage to being short which Kesta often made full use of in her profession. Her knees were in a perfect position to exact swift, violent justice upon a male opponent.
The captain gurgled in pained surprise, the sword falling from his hand with a clatter as he reached to cradle his new injury. With a single relieved glance towards Kesta the old man scuttled thankfully off, slipping into the silent tide of tavern customers, ---- now rapidly making for the door.
One of the captain's two companions spat, his own sword suddenly appearing in one hand as he lumbered towards her, chain mail clinking.
Kesta didn't flinch or even respond to the insult but stepped swiftly towards the guard's off side, balling her hands into fists and scanning the man's body for convenient target’s. if these idiots wanted a fight, ---- they'd get one.
The soldier swung his sword in a hasty arc, ---- taken off balance balance by Kesta's unexpected advance. With a quick brutal violence she stepped forward, driving one well aimed fist into the guard's belly beneath his breast plate. As the big man grunted in pain and started to fold she thrust her other fist upwards connecting with the guards stubbly jaw with a satisfying crunch.
As the man fell, Kesta scooted swiftly backwards, putting a mug laden table between herself and the remaining two soldiers.
She'd been hoping her recently acquired reputation and a few calming words would resolve the situation before things got ugly, ---- but Captain Rylem plainly had other ideas. That didn't matter though, ---- Afterall, she was no stranger to fights when needed.
"Do you really want to continue this?"
The captain straightened, wheezing like a bellows, hands on his thighs. There was no change in the lethal anger soaked look of his eyes, or the snarl that curled across his face, ---- obviously the justice of the knee wasn't enough in this case.
"You may have saved the Barron's son from goblins Runthorn, ---- but that gives you no right to interfere in the Barron's justice!"
Kesta scooped a heavy puta tankard from the table and weighed it thoughtfully in one hand.
"the same could be said of you, when you attack defenceless old men"
With no further words the two soldiers rushed forward, boots crunching through the sawdust, breath blowing, swords aimed and ready.
Kesta swung the tankard up and hurled it with all the strenghth of an arm she'd trained over long years to handle a sabre as well as men half again her size. It struck the captain squarely in the face, shattering his nose in a spray of brilliant blood and sending him staggering backwards several steps before his boots slid out from under him and he sat down with a thud into the muck on the floor.
the second guard took no notice of his commander's injury but came speedily on, fainting to one side, then thrusting his sword forward at kesta's chest across the scarred surface of the table. She twisted sideways, letting the blade pass harmlessly by her.
the guard crashed heavily into the table, half falling across it with his sword arm extended, sending crockery and tankards flying. Taking advantage of his moment of weakness Kesta smashed down with both hands onto the back of his skull, driving the man's forehead into the tough, ale soaked wood.
the soldier slumped to the floor in an ungainly tangle of limbs, bringing the table and a rain of dirty tavern wear down with him to lie in a sprawled, splintered heap.
Kesta kept her voice level as she watched Captain Rylem climb unsteadily to his feet, one hand covering his still bleeding nose, legs moving gingerly as evidence of the accuracy of her knee.
"----- you haven't heard the last of this"
The captain turned, and taking no heed of his comatose drinking partners staggered from the now deserted inn, leaving in a puff of cold vengeful night air.
Kesta cursed herself. It had been stupid. ---- it was of course the right thing to do, no less right than the hundreds of times she'd defended a caravan or lone stronghold against marauding goblin raiders or prowling packs of ogres. She'd always tried to do the right thing, ---- even if it was keeping the wolves from a solitary cotters' door for no more payment than a meal and a bed.
Still, it had been stupid. Everyone knew the Barron wasn't a forgiving man, --- -and his guards took full advantage of that fact. rumours of what happened to those who displeased the Barron, ---- things that made hanging or beheading seem a kindly fate had been whispered among the town's people, ---- breeding in dark corners and crowded places, ---- the whispering flees of fear. but when it came right down to it she'd charged blindly in like a fool and as good as put a noose about her own neck. She gave a sudden violent shudder, a tight cold fist clenching at her belly. None of the rumours even approached the truth, ---- a reality she'd gladly exchange for a hempen noose or the headsman's block.
Kesta winced as the tumbril hit a particularly large rock in the centre of the road, throwing her backwards to jar her shackled arms painfully against the bare wooden boards. One of the guards glanced down at her, looking at the rain sodden shivering girl in the thin shift, short hair plastered to her head with the streaming water, naked muddy feet still pinned by a pair of leg irons drawn up close to her body to preserve what little warmth she could.
"no funny business!"
the guard grunted, ---- then huddled down into his thick woollen cloak again.
Kesta Tried to stop herself shivering, but the night wind only seemed to blow harder, slapping streamers of wet hair against her face. The tumbril juddered on, the two horses plodding patiently up the stony track with the dim silhouettes of rain washed trees on one side, and the land falling away to the scarcely seen ocean stretching out on the other like a void of sighing darkness.
The driver's sputtering torch smoked and guttered wildly in the wind as thunder growled a low ominous note.
Yes, ---- stupid! stupid to go against the Barron's captain, ---- and equally stupid to go against the Barron.
she'd lost track of time in the cell. there was a small barred window which let a shaft of light down onto the bare stone floor, ---- but she'd never been good at telling time by the son. Nor were the intermittent times one of the guards shoved a hunk of bread and a bowl of water or thin gruel through the door any help, ---- since it seemed they didn't do this with any sort of regularity.
Why had she stepped forward? Why not kept quiet, --- - could she have perhaps resolved the situation without reliance upon her fists. The questions rattled around her mind like angry stinging wasps, ---- but still she couldn't find an answer. The worst question of all was, ----- what now.
thoughts of the gallows outside the town walls, the block, ---- or a thousand other more hideous rumous she'd heard about the Barron's displeasure seemed to play themselves out before her one after the other.
Yet there was that other fight, ---- that small chance of hope born On a warm still day, where the main north road cut through a long defile and chattering goblin's swarmed towards the stranded train of wagons and carriage’s. They advanced in ungainly rows, hurling insults and arrows in equal measure. She'd just been another guard then, ---- one of many hired by the Barron to protect his trading interests.
she hadn't even known the young boy in the richly embroidered silk doublet was the Barron's son, --- all she'd seen were the two goblin soldiers dragging the boy from the interior of a stalled waggon, their knives gleaming hungrily.
Just like in the tavern she'd charged forward, thoughtless, fearless, hacking down the goblins in a flurry of unthinking strokes and spirting blood, then standing before that one stalled wagon, dripping sword flashing as she warded off yet more attacks until the raiding party had finally had enough.
they'd called her a hero for that, given her a medal and a pile of gold, let her stay in the Barron's castle, eating fine roasted peacock and drinking spiced wine like a real lady.
Now she was here, huddled in the corner of a stinking cell, hungry, weaponless, turning over the memory of that bloody sunlit day like a gambler with a lucky charm.
she'd been sure it was the fifth day they'd taken her before the Barron, two soldiers, swords drawn watching her carefully as a third entered the cell and secured her wrists with a pair of handcuffs. She'd said nothing, simply allowed herself to be led through heavy bronze bound doors, up flights of stairs first stone, then richly carpeted marble, through shafts of sudden golden sunlight and past all manner of ornate beautiful things, ---- bright and uncaring as stars. Eventually the guards lead her through a richly calved oaken door into a room who's colours of tapestry and furniture seemed almost obscene after the flat grey colourlessness of her cell.
"Well, ---- mistress Runthorn. ---- and your opinion of our accommodations?"
the Barron was a study in relaxation, from his light airy tone to the almost insulant way he sat, ---- one thin leg cocked over the arm of his overstuffed chair. He played idly with his long glittering golden hair, pale fingers and flaxen strands dancing.
Abruptly, the parade of grisly images of execution were washed from Kestas mind in a rush of cold clarity, almost as though a sword had been put into her hands. Fear this man? fear this thin drawling man who spoke so calmly to his prisoners and employed bullying guards like captain Rylem? ---- whatever else she would not give him that satisfaction.
"The food is terrible, ---- and the beds hard as stone"
the barron laughed silkily.
"My apologies. Doubtless you found your accommodation on your last visit more to your liking"
So he did remember.
the baron shifted in his seat, leather cushions creaking. slowly he ran his eyes appraisingly over her, from her naked dusty feet on his polished marble floor, to the dirt in her disarrayed hair, her thin, ragged prison shift, her smudged, implacable face.
"I value my friends mistress Runthorn, ---- you are my friend I assume?"
Kesta didn't trust herself to answer.
"Captain Rylem is also my friend. He tells a most unfortunate story about how you were intoxicated and thus, ---- unwittingly I am sure, interfered with him and his men in the course of their duties protecting the piece of this town"
Kesta straightened, her chin jutting defiantly, staring hard into the Barron's relaxed, half laughing eyes.
"if you call bullying a harmless old man justice"
The Barron reached one long, graceful hand over to a small table containing a delicately patterned decanter and some crystal glasses. Slowly he poured a measure of pungent smelling ruby wine, the liquid making a polite little sound in the sunlit silence.
"A friend of mine, ---- one who has proven herself in the past would certainly not make such accusation’s against the good captain"
He raised the wine to his lips and sipped delicately, ---- a man discussing a mildly interesting topic at table. Kesta fought to keep her tone level, looking at the opulent, beautiful room it's walls' lined with intricate tapestries, rugs with patterns of red and blue in the centre of the marble floor, catching the yellow light from the broad glazed windows.
"would a friend of yours tell the truth?"
"oh but of course. ---- and such truthfulness would be worthy of reward"
He idly reached one pale hand down beneath his chair and produced a soft drawstring leather pouch the size of Kesta's fist. Like a child with a ball he bounced it on his palm, then shook it gently from side to side like an alchemist shaking a delicate solution. From the pouch echoed the unmistakable clink of gold.
Kesta felt the rage rise like a tide, the image of an old man shaking on a spittle strewn floor floating before her mind, eclipsing all caution, all fear like a line of advancing goblins.
"You’re asking me to lie! Just so your hired thugs can -----"
for The first time the Barron's voice had lost its relaxed tone. he sat up straighter in his chair, setting down the wine glass and fixing Kesta with a hard, implacable gaze.
"I'm asking you not to ferment discord and spread malicious rumour, ---- and I would think five hundred gold pieces is more than sufficient incentive to do so"
"and if I refuse? ---- you have me hung I suppose"
The baron raised his eyebrows, seeming genuinely shocked as though Kesta had said something disgusting. quickly he took another fortifying sip of wine.
"Of course not. Do you think I have no gratitude for my son's life?"
The mercenary gazed around in confusion, her rage suddenly seeming pointless, ---- childish. were the rumours false after all? Perhaps the Barron was not such an unforgiving despot as the word on the streets suggested.
"Have you heard of the lost empire mistress Runthorn? ---- my sooth sayer tells me it is but a myth, ---- yet some believe it to be true. They say it held riches beyond the dreams of men ---- "
Once more the Barron's tone was light and conversational. Kesta opened her mouth to speak but the Barron waved her imperiously to silence with the half full glass.
"--- Some years ago the entrance to a series of underground catacombs was discovered on the coast. many entered in seeking for the lost city and it's treasure, ----- none ever returned. It is as if ---- they vanished from the world"
the Barron paused significantly, sipping from his glass, gazing coolly at Kesta from over its rim.
Slowly, like a knife hidden up a silken sleeve the Barron's meaning became clear.
Kesta felt the enormity of it settle down upon the soft sunlit room, a crushing velvet weight heavy as years of lead. Endless passages of murky stone, ---- lightless halls stretching away into darkness like the coils of a thousand twisted snakes, doors slamming shut, ---- light and time lost forever.
"the choice is yours mistress Runthorn. be my friend, ----"
the Barron jingled the pouch again.
"----- or vanish"
Kesta's gaze moved slowly over the pouch, the smiling lips, the glowing crimson wine, the sunlight gleaming on flaxen hair. She thought of the time she'd spent in her cell, ---- grey hard stone, cold and darkness. And who knew what creatures lived in such a place, ---- goblins at the least.
She felt her hand twitch involuntarily towards the pouch, as though moved by the will of another not herself. Then abruptly, like the blow from a basalt club it hit her Captain Rylem's snearing voice as cold and scornful as though he loomed behind her. "lick the muck from my boots"
She saw the captain's sword falling in a vicious arc, ---- his huge calloused fists, his sneering drunken face. Was he any better than the foulest goblins? and she, ---- she! was being asked to lie. to be a part of that just as if she'd hit the man herself.
Just as once in a defile when she'd charged towards a band of goblins, unconscious, blinding rage draped her in a male coat of pure, cold clarity. There was only one thing to do, ---- only one thing she could do! one right course, one action to be taken.
"go to hell!"
Stupid! Once again, ---- just completely and utterly stupid! She tried to huddle tighter over her bound naked feet, feeling the rain lash down across her back like whips of water. There was nothing to be done now, no rage, no decision to take, only the prospect ahead. Endless black passages, days of cold stone, ---- the sky and sun and stars forever lost. At least she'd be out of the rain.
A flash of lightning lit the sky with a sudden violent radiance. in its light everything seemed to stand out black against a white background, ---- the cloaked ghosts of trees, the looming mass of the hilly promontory up which the track climbed, ---- and what lay ahead.
the track petered out in a wide stony clearing, ---- open to a long sheer drop down into the sea on one side. In its centre was what appeared at first site to be a floor of wood so weathered it seemed barely distinguishable from the dark soil which ringed it. but as the tumbril creaked closer and the arc of bloody light from the guttering torch fell across it, Kesta could see the thick ring in its centre and the heavy length of rust splotched chain connected to a small block and Iron wheel lurking nastily at the clearing's far end.
it was a trapdoor, ---- leading down.
As another flash of lightning cracked across the sky the tumbril creaked to a halt. Two of the cloaked guards slipped from the cart and walked quickly towards the block, their boots scuffing through dead leaves and squelching in the mud. Kesta's fear had faded now to a numb, cold resignation. She didn't even bother un curling herself from her protective crouched posture as the guards began cranking on the ancient windlass.
The sighing melody of wind sea and rain was suddenly cut by an agonized shriek of metal as the chain began to move, links snaking through the littered ground in slowly unfolding coils.
half unseeing, Kesta looked on as the wooden slab first rose up towards her, then fell ponderously forward with another shriek of protest from its hinges and a soft thud. Now behind it an irregularly shaped hole was visible, ---- deep black in the night's lesser darkness, it's edges crumbling with loose soil and routes, ---- -a few stray flickers of light from the torch catching the unmistakable sheen of wet stone from further down.
was this happening? ---- after all the rage, all the stupid things she'd done it still seemed hardly believable she was here now, in this midnight wood, about to be fed to an ever hungry stone mouth. As another flash of lightning illuminated the clearing she half expected to wake in some modest inn room, sword and clothing strewn untidily about the floor, the latest in a long succession of guard contracts fresh in her mind, ---- the grim stone throat and range of mistakes that marked her path to it just a forgotten nightmare.
Her reverie was abruptly stopped by a violent yank on the chain about her wrists. Suddenly she was lying on her side on the clearing floor, feeling her wrenched shoulder joints flaring with pain, the smell of wet earth and decaying wood strong in her nostrils.
"shall we leave those chains on?"
the voice floated down from above flat and unconcerned as the rain itself. ,
"What for? ---- the smith will just have to make more"
a dark shadow stooped over her, reeking of sweat, wet wool and bad breath. with two swift clicks her legs and hands were free and she got gingerly to her feet, rubbing the soar welts the cuffs had left across the skin of her wrists.
once more Kesta's gaze was drawn to the gaping pit in the clearing's centre.
"You expect me to go down there?"
One of the dim muffled shadows that were the guards gave a derisive sniff.
"well, ---- the Barron expects it. ---- you can always go that way if you prefer, ---- it's all the same to me"
One arm swung nonchalantly out at the wide open side of the clearing, ---- the black drop which lead down to the roaring rushing sea, ---- a cold and unseen force hundreds of feet below.
Kesta hesitated. Surely, ---- that would be better. a plunge down through black air and blacker water, ---- the cold grasp of the ocean, ---- then she'd be with the gods!
Even as the thought formed she felt a change. In one swift stroke the cloak of numbing fear fell away to be replaced by a flood of bitter, diamond hard rage! She imagined the Barron's pleasant warm smile, ---- captain Rylem's far less pleasant grin, ---- the old man in the tavern lying weak, defenceless and vulnerable in the dirt.
But she was not weak, ---- or defenceless. This was but another battle that was all. the memory of a thousand days watching the horizon, ---- a thousand nights expecting cold steel death to come shrieking out of the darkness abruptly rose in Kesta like a tide.
Thunder cracked across the sky, a hard percussive challenge against the night, the pit, ---- the sneering smile of fate.
the shivering girl bent and plucked a stout length of wood from the clearing's floor, holding it in one well practiced hand, ------ loose and ready.
Around her the guards tensed, and another flash of lightning caught the glint of Iron from drawn blades.
"don't worry, ---- I'm going"
Kesta turned on her heel, taking no more notice of the cluster of guards than the pelting rain. With three quick steps she reached the gaping hole, ---- no longer the opening mouth of death, but simply a hole in the floor of a clearing, ---- just another obstacle to be overcome, another enemy to be faced and conquered.
In two swift steps she was at the uncertain lip of the hole, her bare feet scuffing on dead branches and slipping on muddy stones. not giving the guards the satisfaction of looking back she stepped forward into empty space, ---- legs braced for impact.
the pit swallowed her with the swift greed of gravity, clearing, night sky rain and thunder gone in a single plummeting second.
then her feet struck cold stone and she dived into a roll to break the impact, feeling her already ragged shift tare on a snag the wet rocky floor. A second later she was up again, the stout branch held ready in one hand eyes peering ahead into the impenetrable darkness.
from above there was first a long drawn out rattle, then a deep, ominous boom, and the storm's sound abruptly faded to a low murmer.
Kesta groped forward, holding the branch out ahead of her as both ward and probe. Air currents caressed her rain wet face and lifted her filthy hair, the uneven rocky floor bit unpleasantly at her feet. she'd have to find some shoes, ---- not to mention light, ---- and water to bathe wouldn't be a bad thing either.
Abruptly she laughed. she hadn't even started to explore her new prison, ---- and already she was listing supplies.
Behind her was the Barron in his soft lying cage of golden light and opulence. Behind her was captain Rylem, cold face sneering over his latest victim. Ahead was the dungeon, ---- unknown and waiting.
she was entombed, ---- but she would survive, ---- and one day she would escape.
With our dreaming and singing, Ceaseless and sorrowless we! The glory about us clinging Of the glorious futures we see,
Our souls with high music ringing; O men! It must ever be
That we dwell in our dreaming and singing, A little apart from ye. (Arthur O'Shaughnessy 1873.)