Chapter Twenty-Five

The opening of the cell door jerked Rolf back to wakefulness. A sergeant entered with one of the guards.

“Come on.” The sergeant’s breath fogged the dungeon air.

“Where am I going?” Rolf peered up but only saw the man’s silhouette. 

“You ain’t in no place to ask. Anywhere’ll be warmer than in here.” The older man smelled of sour beer and sweat. He led Rolf up stairs, across the landing, and into a familiar room. 

Konrad, flanked by Captain Ulrich and the steward, sat in his Roman chair. “Do you grow weary of my dungeon? What have you to say for yourself this evening?”

Feelings of awe flowed over Rolf. Again Konrad disappeared, replaced by the huge reptilian shape larger than Rolf knew the room to be. He fell to his knees. He feared disappointing this man as much as he feared for his own life. He didn’t understand why. “Only what I said before, my lord Dragon. I mean you no ill. I’ve been drawn into things far beyond my understanding. I think—that is, I believed Jordanes and Columba to be honest men. I’m not wise in the ways of the world. If I deceived you, it was because I was deceived myself.”

“Rolf, if you believe that, and if you’ve told me all you know, then you are of no further use to me.” Konrad sat back but continued to stare at Rolf. “However, if I release you, you may yet do me great harm. So, I must put you where you can’t.”

“My lord, I apologize if I have hurt you. Please hold my brother blameless for whatever evil you pin on me. And the kitchen girl. She was sincere, but I think as ignorant as myself.”

“A fine sentiment, boy, but I’ll keep my own council as to the disposition of your brother and the girl. You I will send to the dungeon.”

Rolf stood. “Yes, my lord.”

The Dragon nodded to Ulrich, who called the sergeant back. 

“Down the hole,” Ulrich ordered.

“Right. This way, boy.” 

As the sergeant led Rolf out of the throne room, the Dragon bellowed about having to do everything himself. A whiny voice questioned what he meant. Konrad ordered Ulrich to take care of the other loose end. He specified that Ulrich to do it himself. Then he said, “Mind the girl. I want her unmarked and untouched. Do you understand? Untouched!”

Rolf wondered whether his brother or that girl represented that loose end. He didn’t wish ill to the girl, but he hoped they spoke of her and not his brother. No, not if she was to remain untouched. Mulling what he’d heard, Rolf followed the soldiers across the landing and down the stairs to the kitchen level, then back toward the second dungeon. 

The sergeant led him past the dungeon’s door. The hall ended a short way beyond, but no doors opened off it. Rolf looked about, wondering why they’d brought him to this apparent dead end. Not until a soldier lifted it, did Rolf notice the wooden panel on the middle of the floor. Under the board a barred hole opened into darkness. The stench Rolf had smelled from the drain in his former cell rose from that hole.

“Oh, no.” Rolf shrank back. “You can’t put me in there.”

“Them’s my orders,” the sergeant said.

Rolf saw that the sergeant had several more soldiers. They anticipated resistance, but he had nothing to lose. He threw himself toward the passage behind. Strong, hard hands lifted him into the air. He twisted and fought, but he was too small and too weak to resist so many. 

Somehow during his struggle, the bars in the opening had disappeared. The dark opening loomed under him.

“Boy, it’s some drop down,” the sergeant said. “If we toss you in, you’ll break something for sure. No sense adding that kind of pain. Why don’t you let us let you down on this here rope?”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Orders is orders. You want it harder, we make it harder. Up to you.”

If he broke a bone being thrown into the pit, his end would be quicker but more painful. He stopped struggling. They held him tightly as he panted. He closed his eyes, so he wouldn’t see that gaping horror. Maybe he could get out. Or maybe the dragon would change his mind. Or maybe … No, there were no more maybes, just the certainty of that hole. He tried to swallow the lump that closed his throat. “The rope.”

“That’a boy. Reach out and get a good grip. Wrap it around your leg and trap the knot like—that’s it. Now, hold tight.”

Rolf kept his eyes closed, but he felt himself bumping the hole and then, through his tightly squeezed eyelids, the light fading. He descended into cold as well as darkness. As soon as his toes touched the sloping floor, he clung to the rope and looked up. The bars had been retracted into the stone surrounding the hole. A soldier slid them back into place, then set something to block them. Two crossing two others. No hole in that lattice was more than a hand span in width.

“Come on, lad. Let go of the rope.”

Rolf hesitated.

“Let it go.” The guards tugged on the rope but did not pull it upward.

“I don’t want to die.” Tears streaming down his face, Rolf loosened his fingers. When the rope jerked, he convulsively grasped at it, but it jerked out of his hand. He screamed, “I don’t want to die.”

They raised the cover. 

“You’d have been better off if he’d killed you outright like that other,” one guard called.

“Leave him be,” the sergeant ordered. “Close it.”

Rolf bit his lip to keep from crying out again as the wooden lid crashed over the entrance, cutting off light and hope.

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.