The bolts of the cell door were withdrawn, and a flood of light suddenly entered the Pit.
Two of the tower guards pushed a girl into the cell, manacling her beside the other prisoners. The guards left quickly, slamming the iron door behind them, the clang reverberating down the passages and tunnels.
It was dank and dark in the dungeon. The only light issued weakly from a narrow shaft to the surface. Three other shadowy figures sat there, chained by the wrists, manacled in the condemned cell.
The prisoners peered at their new companion. Silver thread and gems glittered from her dress, but little else could be seen in the gloom.
“So,” said a cold voice, “you, too, have come to join me dancing at the end of a rope.”
The girl choked, and then broke down and wept.
The Pit was now as black as a coffin buried deep in the bowels of the Earth. Out of the cloying and claustrophobic darkness came a long deadly cry of fear and anguish, rising like an evil spectre, then dying suddenly.
The girl tensed, then broke down afresh.
The cold voice muttered and cursed her.
“Peace,” said another voice to the girl, that of a woman. “Please don’t cry any more. Please. You must try to be brave.”
The girl struggled to control her sobbing.
“Forgive us for our companion here,” the woman went on, “I’m sure he meant nothing hurtful. We’re all to share the same fate so we might as well be friends.”
“I’m sorry ...” started the girl.
“Well don’t be,” replied the woman. “Not on our account. I am Margaret, daughter of Kenneth, of this town. This is Fergus of Duncreag, and this friendly fellow is Revile of Llaith, a stranger in these parts – or so he says. What’s your name?”
“I’m Alwyn nic Whiteadder,” the girl said a little proudly. “My father is the Lord of South Caerwinnion.”
“So you are of noble birth then?” said Fergus.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Alwyn, “my father and mother were never married.”
“Well, we’ve that in common as well,” he said. “What did they do you for?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” replied the girl.
“Very well,” said Margaret. “For my part, I robbed a burgess of a little trinket, a ring. He was furious when he found out, and had me arrested. God damn his soul to hell!”
“And I,” said Fergus sourly, “stole a loaf of bread.”
“They will hang you for that?” asked Alwyn in surprise.
“Indeed,” Fergus replied, “and they’ve as surely damned my wife and children to death.”
“I’m sorry,” started Alwyn.
“Forget it,” muttered Fergus, “it’s not your fault. It was that pig of a baker. And the loaf was stale, stale I tell you, hard as a stone! I can’t believe he would do this to me. I’ve known him all my life. Bastard! Bastards!”
“Shush,” said Margaret, “we’re all in the same boat.”
Alwyn paused for a moment, then said slowly: “I’m to be hanged because I refused Prince Bregorin, because I would not lie with him. He wanted to take me as a mistress. I couldn’t ...” Her voice tailed away and fell silent, her body shaking.
“I see,” said Margaret softly, then nodded. “Yes, we’ve all heard the Prince is a difficult man, that it is he who wields the real power in Bamburg. Anyway, not to worry. I hope he didn’t hurt you?”
“No,” replied Alwyn in a whisper, “he never touched me, thank God.”
“Good,” said Margaret more brightly, “I’m glad. As for our other friend: he’s been here for two days already. I guess that helps to explain his foul mood: that and being hung in the morning. Fergus and I have only been here for a couple of hours. Anyway, Revile here murdered old Rule – you know, the furs merchant – in his bed. Him and his wife and servants.”
“O really?” said Alwyn, “I’d heard he’d been assassinated.”
“Killed them in their sleep,” continued Margaret, “although I don’t know why, to be sure. Rule was as slippery as a serpent, and twice as nasty: but to be slaughtered in such way. Why did you do it?”
“I was paid,” said Revile shortly.
“Really?” said Fergus. “How much, I wonder?”
“Ten gold pieces,” replied the assassin.
“My God!” said Fergus in wonder. “That’s a fortune! How were you caught?”
Revile shrugged slightly: “I was betrayed by the man who employed me.”
“Where are you from?” asked Margaret. “You said you were a stranger.”
“I’m from here and there,” replied Revile with a sigh. “I travel about a lot, although I’ve spent too many hours in the taverns of Llaith, in Lothland, to the north. Have you ever been there?”
“No,” said Margaret, “I’ve never been far from Bamburg.”
“Same with me, except during the war,” added Fergus. “Duncreag is just outside the town walls.”
“How about you?” Margaret asked the girl. “Alwyn was it?”
“Me?” Alwyn replied. “I lived happily at my father’s house at Caerwinnion until a few years ago. Since then I’ve worked in the tower here. I’ve never had the chance to travel. And I so wish I’d never left my home, that I’d never come to the court here, and that I’d never heard of Prince Bregorin.”
There was a pause. The drip of unclean water ticked away the seconds into the darkness.
“So, friend Revile,” said Margaret eventually. “What is your profession? Or is killing helpless merchants and their wives and servants all you do?”
“I’m an adventurer,” he replied. “What did you do?”
She laughed. “Well, I suppose we need no secrets now,” she said. “I am a whore. I make money selling my sex.”
Revile grinned. “So,” he said, “I am an adventurer and back-stabbing assassin, Margaret is a whore, and Alwyn a servant in the tower, despite – or even maybe because of – her noble blood. That just leaves you, Fergus. I reckon you were a farmer, and a poor one at that.”
“I am,” said Fergus, “although I am a freeman, and held some land. It wasn’t really enough to make much of a living, though. Poor. Stony. Your could hardly grow a thing.”
“O, that bad,” said Revile.
“We’re a mixed bunch, to be sure,” said Margaret. “Strange we should all go to the gallows.”
“What time do you reckon it is?” said Fergus. “It feels late.”
“About ten o’clock,” replied Revile.
“And the hangings take place about ten tomorrow,” said the farmer sadly. “We’ve about twelve hours altogether. Not very long really.”
“It’ll seem it,” said Margaret, sounding gloomy.
“It could be worse,” said Revile. “At least we are only to be hanged. In Thule they are less kind. They flay all the skin from your body, then boil you slowly in salted water. It is said that the screams can be heard from the mainland.”
“Hush,” said Margaret sternly as Alwyn choked. “There’s no need to be talking that way.”
The assassin smiled crookedly.
“What exactly does an adventurer do?” asked Fergus in a less-than-friendly manner.
“Depends what’s on offer,” replied the assassin easily. “Thievery and murder, peril and adventure. Boring stuff. Not like being a brave farmer: fighting the elements, the soil, the wayward frolicking sheep. Just robbing tombs, killing noblemen, fighting endless wars. Dull stuff.”
“Tell us about it, anyway,” said Margaret. “Waiting for the morning is hard, even if it is really just a short time.”
“If you’re sure,” laughed Revile.
“Yes,” said Margaret cheerfully. “What else would we do but worry about the morning.”
“Very well,” said Revile, not at all displeased.