Rofe the Younger returned to consciousness after the battle. His head ached. Disoriented, he opened his eyes. It took time for his eyes to adjust to the faint flickering light. It took even longer for him to realise he was not lying on the battleground but on a damp stone green-slimed floor covered in the mouldering bones of previous occupants.
He sat up slowly. Torchlight flickered on the stone walls of the cell. Outside the cell, a blank faced guard in the dreaded Black City armour leaned against the wall and stared at him.
Rofe absorbed his predicament. Stripped of his armour and weapons, he wore only his soft cotton tunic and leggings. He dwelled regretfully on the loss of his linked-chain shirt. Apart from his sword, it was the only thing he had inherited that he valued. There had been some curious legends around the linked shirt. It had been softer and stronger than any other, no matter how skilfully made. It had protected his body from the pain and cuts of broad swords.
He set up a makeshift altar on the stone platform that rose from the floor. He hoped the long-dead owners would forgive him his disrespect in tying two of the bones together to make a cross, but he would seek their forgiveness when he joined them. It was his duty to spend his last night of life praying for the soul of his young squire, and forgiveness of his sins. He squeezed shut his eyes and bowed his head lower ignoring the stench coming from the floor. Again he saw his young squire crumple, a poisoned dart falling from his jugular vein and the ferocious battle waged amidst smoke and stench of death around them.
This alien world had been a complete disaster despite the righteousness of their crusade. There had been the hellish journey to transport everything across the swamp when the army disembarked from the galleys and barges. Then the days spent dragging the horses, as they heaved and strained to pull the wooden-wheeled siege machines through the swamp. Then more tedious days floating the wagons, siege machines, and horses over the treacherous waterways and the valuable equipment lost through the quicksands.
The Crusaders had succeeded in setting up their fortified encampment on the high ground above the swamp almost within sight of the sinister dark walls, but the attacks towards the Black City always ended in disaster as the slightest scratch from the enemy’s weapons poisoned and paralyzed the attackers.
They had suspected that there were secret routes in and out of the swamp. Otherwise, the Black City raiders could never have made such lightning raids and vanished so quickly, but no one had ever found them.
His concentration was disturbed as two soldiers came down the steps heaving a barbarian and came to a halt outside Rofe’s cell. They stripped the barbarian of his heavy helmet, breastplate and greaves, two large worn and balding bear skins, the knee-length leather jerkin with its overlapping discs, his tunic, and the studded belts carrying sword, axe, and daggers.
The guard on duty gestured to the barbarian. “He looks more beast than man.”
“That he is,” said the bigger of the two solders. “He fights like one too.”
In a coordinated action, the soldiers pitched the longhaired man face down into the slime on the floor of the cell floor. His arms and legs flung out as he thumped into the stone. They did not even glance at Rofe kneeling on the platform in the gloom of the cell.
The taller soldier spoke to the guard. “This one brings tomorrow’s feed count to three hundred. Our Dark Lords will grow even greater when they feed on the undamaged, healthy bodies we offer.”
The cell doors clanged shut. The two soldiers left carrying the barbarian’s weapons, armour, and skins. The guard resumed his stance against the wall staring at the prisoners in the cell.
Rofe counted the soldiers’ paces up the steps until he could no longer hear them. From the sound of it, they had passed through three heavy iron barred doors. No escape that way.
The burbling sound of the barbarian breathing in the slime brought Rofe to his feet. It took sweat and time to pull the barbarian out of the grunge and onto the platform. Exhausted by the effort, Rofe sat on the edge of the platform and wondered at his odd weakness.
Rofe lifted his head at the sound of the tread of a single man descending. He held a tray with two stone plates and two mugs on it. The smell of the food on the plates preceded him. He came closer. The plates of high piled roasted meat, bread, and cheese looked appetising.
The guard spoke to the newcomer. “By the looks of it a heartier meal than I’ve had for weeks.”
The newcomer said, “Food for these bodies is food for the Dark Lord. Be glad he has no need for your sacrifice. He will soon be strong enough to claim the three kingdoms.”