Chapter Twenty-One

The throne room door opened, and three cloaked soldiers, one covered with snow, dragged the old hermit into the room and threw him on the floor. Waves of despair swept over Rolf. He had failed in his quest and betrayed those who trusted him. He looked out the door. The hall beyond was empty. Had Jordanes and Columba escaped? Seeing no one else, he turned and saw the Dragon watching him. For what seemed like a long time, no one said anything. Rolf wanted to look away, but he couldn’t shift his eyes away from the Dragon.

“What’s your name?” the Dragon asked.

Silvester groveled and whimpered but said nothing intelligible.

Rolf started to say that he had never heard Silvester speak and that he might possibly be mute or have taken a vow of silence, but once again he could not speak.

“Prepare him,” the Dragon said.

“Strip him,” Ulrich ordered. The soldiers took off all Silvester’s clothes, which amounted to several tunics, each more threadbare that the former. Silvester’s wiry frame bore witness to his meager diet and acetic life. Ulrich inspected each garment but found nothing.

“Rolf, you know this man. What is his name?”

“Silvester, my lord Dragon.”

“Correct. How are you not always telling me the truth?” The Dragon turned his attention back to Silvester. “Silvester, do you know this young man?”

Silvester cringed and whined.

The Dragon clapped his hands. Everyone in the small room jerked at the loud noise, except Silvester. “Partly deaf, too. You men, tell me where you found this man.”

The three newest arrived soldiers crowded against the back wall. They looked at one another and at Ulrich.

“Fulco, speak,” Ulrich ordered.

One soldier stepped forward and half-bowed. “Yes, my lord. When we saw this boy out in the forest, Warin said that he might try tricking us again. So we split up. Warin followed the boy, and the rest of us backtracked his route. It eventually went back to the old man’s shelter. The old man greeted us, without speaking as you see, and invited us in. His shelter is no more than a closed off cave. He’s got nothing much, but we searched for what might have belonged to someone else. We found nothing, but I noticed the fire had a good pile of ashes. Him burning what he could gather, I doubted if he would have kept such a large fire just for himself.”

“Good,” said the Dragon. “What else?”

“Well, we looked around in front of his cave and found lots of prints. Some distinct—made today. Some less so. I’d say there were two or three other men there at one time or another.”

“Including young Rolf here?”

“Hard to say, my lord. Certainly he had been there because following his tracks back lead us to the hermitage, but I thought maybe one or two more. Older men.”

“Why do you say that?” Konrad asked. He watched Rolf, not the soldier, as he spoke.

“One set of tracks showed the person dragging his feet. This boy’s tracks were far apart and distinct. Vigorous, you know.”

“I do. Excellent work, Fulco. I wish we’d sent you out yesterday. We might have found not only Silvester, but the others. Anything else?”

“No, my lord.”

“Then you are dismissed. Ulrich, see that all six men draw an extra ration of strong beer. Reward Fulco and Warin and flog the fool who led yesterday.”

“Yes, my lord,” Ulrich said, but he stayed after the soldiers left. 

“Now, Rolf, what have you to say to all that?” Konrad asked.

“Nothing, my lord. As the soldier said, I was at Silvester’s hermitage for several days. I went in and out setting and checking my trap lines. I was powerful tired when I got back from here yesterday, so I—”

“There! Right there.” The Dragon sat straighter. “Do you see it, Erdmut? He tells the truth, but only partly. Clearly, he evades telling me something else. Yet I have bestowed the full benefit of my personality upon him. A simple boy, resisting me. What’s the world coming to?”

“Not much good, my lord,” the steward said.

“I certainly hope not.” The Dragon smiled as if he’d just eaten something pleasant. “He could not possibly do that on his own. He must be getting help, but I can detect no devise or block set within him. Well, if the subtle doesn’t work, let’s try a more direct approach. Beat him.”

“The boy, my lord?” Ulrich asked.

“Of course not. That would merely harden his resolve. To attack him most effectively, we’ll attack his mind and emotions. Beat the old man. Use the boy’s staff, to emphasize his role in betraying this poor, simple man into the clutches of monsters like you and me.”

Without another word, Captain Ulrich picked up Rolf’s staff and struck Silvester on the upper arm. Ulrich struck hard enough to trigger a cry of pain from the hermit and raise a red welt.

“Again,” the Dragon said.

Silvester had doubled into a ball, so Ulrich’s next blow was across his back. 

“Talk to me, boy. Don’t prolong this poor fool’s agony. Again.”

Ulrich struck Silvester’s back again.

“Stop!” Rolf shouted. “Don’t hurt him. He’s done nothing. We forced ourselves on him.”

“We?” asked Konrad. “Who is we?”

“Three of us.” Rolf slumped. 

“Tell me more.”

“I met two men on my way here. They were coming this direction, too. One was weak and needed help. I traveled with them, catching game for them to eat and building fires.”

“And you knew where to find this man’s cave, even though you said you’d never been here before?”

“No, they—one of them knew about Silvester’s hermitage.”

“Do these men have names?”

“Yes, my lord.” But Rolf didn’t say them.

“Look how he continues to resist. Amazing. Were he not such an obvious threat, I would keep him to train myself. It’d be amusing. Kind of my fool. Rolf, what were the names of the men?

Rolf wanted to tell. He didn’t want Sylvester hurt. But he couldn’t make himself form the words.

“Ulrich, again. Harder.”

This blow sent Silvester sprawling and certainly broke something. The old man lay on the stone floor, cradling his arm and whimpering.

“Jordanes, my lord. Jordanes and Columba.” Rolf berated himself for betraying the ones he swore to defend, but he couldn’t let poor old Sylvester suffer this way.

“Jordanes,” the Dragon responded. “That can only be our Jordanes, Ulrich. Raise the bridge and double the guard.” Ulrich stepped to the door and whispered instructions to someone outside. “What a fascinating coincidence. Rolf, do you believe in coincidence? No? I don’t either. Ah, this is very good. And who is this Columba?”

“A holy brother, I think. He dressed like a Franciscan, but … well, he looked too well fed.”

“Well, you know how corrupt those supposed contemplative orders have become.” The Dragon smiled. “And where are Jordanes and Columba now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Shall I have Captain Ulich hit Silvester again?”

“No, my lord Dragon. I really don’t know. I left Silvester’s hermitage before they did this morning. I don’t even know which direction they went. I don’t think they’d go back north. Too much snow and no shelter.”

“‘Back north?’ Why you’re a treasure room of information when you set your mind to it,” Konrad said. “None of it useful. Withholding the truth is lying, too. And I won’t tolerate people lying to me. That’s my domain. Down to the second dungeon with you. And Silvester, since he is of no further use, can be deposited in the third dungeon.”

“You can’t,” Rolf said. 

I can’t? Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t do?”

“But he’s old and injured. He’ll die.”

“That’s what the third dungeon is for.” The Dragon’s smile caused Rolf to shiver. “You know what they say: the only way out is the drain. Once we drop you into it, you’re never seen again.”

“I’ve told you everything I know.”

“I doubt it.”

“But he’s innocent,” Rolf said.

“Hardly.” The Dragon studied Rolf through half-closed eyelids. “If you’re not for me, Rolf, you’re against me. Silvester is definitely against me.”

“You can’t put him in the third dungeon. Please, your lordship.”

“Ah, the pleadings of the naïve innocent. What am I to do, Erdmut? All right, Rolf, your pleas for mercy have moved my hard, old heart. I will have mercy on your ancient friend.”

“Thank you, my lord.” Rolf smiled at Silvester.

“Kill him.”

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