"I wonder if God is punishing us."
The words echoed hollowly in the dimness of their prison, their sole illumination a narrow window high in the cellar wall. Its rectangle of light taunted them with all they did not have.
"For what?" growled Morgan, slanting a dour look at Gwilym slumped nearby.
A miserable set they were, battered and weary. Oran started from a doze at the sound of their voices, but Cinuin sat motionless, having spoken but once since their capture.
"I don't know," Gwilym sighed. "Though my own sins have grown to monumental proportions, lately."
Morgan snorted. "Yes, I'm sure at some point you must have slapped an old lady or stole from the widows and orphans box."
"I killed a man, Morgan!" Gwilym's head jerked up, dark eyes ablaze. "Or have you forgotten?"
"I don't forget a thing, boyo."
"Nor do I."
The fire gusted out of him and Gwilym's head hung even lower than before. Morgan had no further words and he sank back into the swamp of his thoughts.
No matter how he looked at it, they were well and truly buggered. He must have missed some sign, some warning or hunch, or a twinge in his big toe, for pity's sake, that would have guided them to a safer route. Surrender in the face of hopeless odds had seemed a good idea. After all, a live man could potentially escape. A dead man seldom got far at all.
But his thoughts shifted to the fanatical vicar and Morgan felt ill. How in God's name--indeed, how in the name of God--could any man consider burning another human being alive? Heaven knew what brutal 'penance' the man planned for Cinuin.
Yet the simplest question remained the largest: why were they not dead? Given current politics, there seemed no reason to take the dragon and its keepers alive, unless as some sort of hostages. Pawns, Oran had named them, and now the game had changed: still chess but with new and unseen pieces in play.
A sudden clanking jarred him alert and his heartbeat jumped as the heavy oak door swung inward. Yet it was merely two of Sir Aubrey's men-at-arms with a pail of water and a handful of cloths. The door boomed shut and Morgan sighed, pushing himself to his feet to retrieve the bucket and bandages. Judging Cinuin the worst, he set the pail down beside the elf.
"Cinuin? You want to take care of this, or shall I help?"
For a moment, he felt unsure Cinuin even heard him and wondered if they had lost the poor devil already.
But the dark head nodded. "If it pleases you."
Clamping his mouth tight against a thousand violent thoughts, Morgan dipped a rag in the water and swabbed at the matted mess of Cinuin's hair until water ran in dirty streams to pool by Morgan's knee. He grimaced when he finally uncovered the injury: a nasty gash, which should have sutures. The wound cleaned, Morgan set about making a proper bandage.
"We'll have to watch this," he said. "If the wound goes bad, it would be a hell of a thing to amputate your head."
"No fear," Cinuin replied. "Once Sir Aubrey's priest is through saving my soul, I may have little need for my head."
Morgan's hands stopped without his bidding, but then he finished off the bandage and shifted to rise.
"Let me." Gwilym stood over him, hand held down.
With a nod, Morgan let him have the bucket and slumped where he sat, and watched the young man kneel to tend Oran.
"Bless you, lad," Oran said with a wan smile. "I'm afraid my old head isn't as hard as it used to be."
From what Morgan could see, as he watched proceedings, the injury at the back of Oran's balding pate appeared more knot than gash. Nonetheless, Gwilym dabbed at it with awkward care.
Finally, Gwilym asked, "Are you a witch, Oran?"
The older man sat up, and Gwilym sank back on his heels to hear his answer.
"No, dear boy," Oran replied. "I am a wizard."
'I'll be damned', thought Morgan, yet by this point, surprise had blunted teeth. However, Gwilym's spasmodic swallow indicated he took the revelation with less equanimity.
"What's the difference?" he asked.
Oran resettled, a scholar preparing to deliver a lecture. "First, I will tell you what a wizard is not. A wizard does not make magic potions or cast spells. He does not foretell, enchant, hex, or charm, and he never, ever grants wishes."
The hermit paused to meet his student's guarded gaze. "A wizard is an academic, a practitioner of the art of observation, both of the seen and unseen worlds. My vocation is the study of how things work. How do birds find their way back to the same nesting grounds every spring? What causes whirlwinds--and can they be caused at will? How much of Man's survival is in the strength of his body, and how much the strength of his spirit?"
Frowning, Gwilym looked to the stained rag in his hands. "But you did things today that ... shouldn't happen."
Eyebrows lifted, Oran asked, "Did I? What did you see?"
The youth's frown deepened to a scowl. "I saw a great bloody fire, is what I saw--we all did!"
Strangely, Oran just smiled. "That, my lad, is what I meant for you to see." He paused, his study of Gwilym's face suddenly intent. "You did not see what truly was."
"But I heard Aubrey's men screaming! I felt heat, I--."
"No. Your mind saw fire and thought it should be hot. Have you seen any man with so much as one whisker singed?"
Blinking, Gwilym joined Morgan in baffled silence.
"Of course you haven't," Oran answered himself. "Nor, you may recall, were the horses frightened--they saw nothing at all. Unfortunately for us, Sir Aubrey realized this, as well."
"But ... I saw ..."
Oran's round cheeks bunched in a smug smile. "Oh, the fire that started it was real enough. Little trick of mine--begin with reality and let illusion build from there. But that meadow is as green this moment as when we first arrived."
Gwilym raised a hand to rub his forehead, realized he still held the sodden rag and let his hand drop.
"How can you make over fifty people see the same illusion?"
"The power of suggestion, lad. The human mind is a remarkable instrument, capable of an unending array of wonders." The wizard's eyes twinkled. "What if, for example, a ghost is simply a potent echo of a dying man's wish to live?"
Warily, Gwilym asked, "You speak with ghosts?"
"No, no. But the mind, dear boy, is able to perceive and accomplish many extraordinary things. How do you imagine Cinuin has been such a comfort to our dragon?"
"He's an elf."
"And you're a man. Is there some reason men may not learn the gifts of the elves?"
"But that's not ... it's not ..."
"Godly?" Oran waited until Gwilym's eyes meet his. "If God created heaven and earth, then surely He created all that goes in it. What if the elves retain gifts and graces that men in their foolishness have thrown away?"
The hermit paused, and his smile took on a gentler cast. "There, I didn't mean to trouble you. You are a brave, goodhearted young man. I should think that counts for something, even with God."
Yet that kindness must have missed its mark, for Gwilym's face contorted and he flung himself to his feet. Morgan and Oran both stared as the youth stalked across the room, where he turned, thumped his back to the wall and slid down to sit in a heap. When Morgan looked back at Oran, the older man pulled a rueful face.
'Bugger off' radiated from Gwilym's hunched pose as clear as shouting. And yet ... Morgan lacked either the heart or the sense, he was unsure which, to let well enough alone. Before he could think better of it, he got up, walked over and sat down beside the sullen youth. Of course, Gwilym ignored him.
After a while, though, Morgan said, "I suppose we could have arranged to get killed back there. Refused to surrender, kicked Aubrey in the nuts, had our heads lopped off. Would have avoided this whole bloody mess."
No answer, unless he counted the tautness in the lean-muscled body beside him.
"But then again," Morgan mused, "it would seem a damn fool thing to volunteer to be dead when the 'alive' option is right in front of us."
He felt Gwilym's shoulder shift against his. Twice, he heard Gwilym's breath catch, as if trying to summon words to speak. When he did, the words took Morgan wholly off guard.
"I should have prayed for that man I killed."
Morgan snorted. "Plenty of time for it, now."
"No!" The whisper came fiercely. "I should have done it then! If we take a man's life in battle, we must pray for his salvation. It may be his only admission to Heaven."
"You are not a priest, Gwilym."
"No. But I was trained to be a knight." The youth's low voice forced out each word spread thick with the sauce of self-loathing. "And a knight defends those in his care. He does not surrender them to fates worse than death!"
A knight. Jaw clenched, Morgan tipped his head against the wall. God help him. Yet before he could muster response, someone blocked the meager light and Cinuin crouched before them.
His face shadowed, the elf asked, "Are you not a knight?"
Gwilym speared the elf with a smoldering glare. "Why are you here? You and Gregory can run faster than any of us--we could have covered your escape!"
"I did that once. I did not like it. Are you not a knight?"
"No. I am the fatherless son of an unwed mother. Though the Temple knights trained and tutored me, the accolade is forbidden to me. I may not take the sacred fraternal oaths."
"Ah." Cinuin briefly bowed his head in thought. Then he fixed his gaze on Gwilym and said, "I find less and less use of spoken oaths. The oaths I have learned to trust are those of the heart." He paused. "Yours is the heart of a friend."
With that, Cinuin stood and passed from them soundlessly as a breath of air. The leaden weight in Morgan's stomach did not feel any lighter, but perhaps, for Gwilym, Cinuin's statement amounted to forgiveness.
"Come on," Morgan said, nudging the lad with his shoulder. "It's cold over here."
In truth, that cellar room owned no spot warmer than any other. But when they sat once more with their friends, the chill of the place seemed to recede just a little.
The guards returned bearing supper, and thereafter the inky darkness swelled to fill every corner of their small prison, pressing each into his own silence. As the night wore on, Morgan doubted anyone slept.
He dearly wished for that first sliver of daylight in the window, for night gave a man too much time to think. But he dreaded the dawn, also, for with it would come Father Basil's piety. Yet he found his fear for Oran and Cinuin washed over with a shameful undercurrent of relief--that he had been omitted from Father Basil's reckoning.
Finally, he heard a heavy and very much awake sigh.
"There must be something we can do," Gwilym said lowly.
"Like what?" growled Morgan.
"I don't know. Something."
Morgan stifled a nasty remark about praying for miracles, and remained silent. A moment passed ere Gwilym spoke again.
"Maybe we can trick the guards."
"We could pretend someone is injured?"
"We have two someone's injured already. One is scheduled to be turned on a spit."
"You are a bastard, Morgan." Yet the youth said it without real heat. "Perhaps we could pretend to be ill."
"And you imagine they would care?"
Gwilym's gust of dejection echoed hollowly. "Then what about an illness with ... spots, or something. Oran, could you make it look like spots?"
A scrape of cloth on stone indicated the wizard's wakefulness. "Why, perhaps I could, but--."
Morgan snorted. "Do that, boyo, and they'll likely nail the door shut and brick up the window, with us inside."
"All right," snapped Gwilym, "let's hear your ideas, O Font of Brilliance!"
It became Morgan's turn to sigh. "I don't have any."
"Perhaps ..." Cinuin's voice startled them all. "... we could dig?"
"With what?" Gwilym retorted. "This room is solid rock! Although ..." He paused. "If we could reach the window, perhaps we could chip loose the mortar between the stones."
Glancing upwards in the blackness, Morgan said, "We'd have to take turns standing on each other's shoulders, but ...."
Gwilym's reply sounded as if he held his head in his hands. "But we'd need hours to do it and that's time we don't have."
Silence fell again, somehow even darker than before--the churning of four frantic minds nearly audible, for all that.
At length Morgan said, "The door."
"What about it?" asked Gwilym.
"Maybe we can do something to the door."
Cinuin suggested, "Weaken the hinges?"
"That requires tools," Morgan replied. "If I had my kit, we could chisel the wood away and pry loose the nails, but ...."
Which of course he did not have.
"Maybe we should just kick the bloody thing down," he grumbled.
"It's four inches thick, Morgan," Gwilym observed dryly. "And if you didn't break your foot, I'm quite sure someone would hear us trying."
"Oh, bloody hell on a Sunday!" Morgan snarled, and slammed an ineffective fist against his thigh. "Why can't four reasonably intelligent people come up with one bloody idea? We might as well wait until they bring our breakfast then bash the guards in the head and run like hell."
Silence. A rather long and weighted silence.
Finally, Cinuin said, "You know, that--."
"That's brilliant!" cried Gwilym. "They have weapons--we'd be instantly armed!"
"You can't be serious!" Morgan exclaimed.
"It's an escape, Morgan," Gwilym said patiently. "By definition that includes an element of risk."
"And you say I'm the madman."
"Morgan, think about it!" Hard fingers clutched his arm from the dark. "It may be our best chance--it will be Oran and Cinuin's only chance."
"Aubrey will have archers--."
"Crossbowmen," Gwilym scoffed. "You know better than I how slow those things are. They get one shot, then they have to stop and reload--and we're still running."
"What, then? We run where?"
"The stables--don't you think, Cinuin?"
"Yes. Gregory is somewhere there."
Dear God, the young lunatic almost made sense.
"We won't have time to take any horses," Morgan noted. "The time we lose saddling up, they'll be outside preparing for us. Our best bet is to stay on foot, grab Gregory and rattle our shanks. Every man we put down, we take his weapons. No 'honorable' fighting. Understood? This is dirty work."
"Of course, Morgan." Gwilym's grin became audible. "Listen, didn't we pass a stream and a pond on the way in?"
"Aye. We might be able to use the shrubbery and trees to our advantage. Now, if we--."
Perhaps darkness made men daft. Or perhaps desperation made them bold. But Morgan bent forward, heads literally together with his companions, and did his best to foment a plan to defy the odds. After all, they had precious little left to lose and everything to gain.