The stone wall of the musty cell felt cool against his bruised back. Slumped over in the corner, he tried not to think about the way his knees clattered together. Anguished wails ripped through the air from somewhere down the hall, filling him with terror anew.
Before long the door threw upon and jeering guards shoved a moaning prisoner inside, tossing him as if he were a heap of trash. Without even the strength to fight back, the quivering man let himself be shackled. Then he curled up into himself and sobbed.
It was there, lying beaten and bloodied, limbs aching and head throbbing, that Hart decided he would never do this again.
Enduring amateur torture wasn’t even the worst of it. No, it was the performance. The feigned anguish, the wild thrashing, the howling screams. It was wearing on him mentally–and physically, he thought, noting the burn in his throat.
Amusingly though, it seemed to scare the piss out of his cellmate.
“What did you do, man?” he heard a weak voice venture. “Why do they beat you like that?”
Hart looked up at the man cowering in the corner. Fear certainly accentuated the stranger’s youth. Disheveled dark hair topped a pale face, and dark spots decorated a pair of sullen, hazel eyes. Judging from his foppish attire, he could have been a jester or bard.
“I–I’m just a thief,” Hart said back weakly. “I was only stealing a few horses when they grabbed me.” He choked back a sob. “A spy, that’s what they called me! Gods–me? I know nothing about anyone!”
He considered devolving into hysterics when the jester squirmed closer.
“They dragged me out of the palace last night,” he said with a tremble in his voice. “Said I was sneaking into the Queen’s bedchambers, but I wasn’t trying to seduce Her Majesty. I wouldn’t dream of it!”
It was no secret that the Queen held a certain fondness for young, vulnerable men. Neither was it a secret that the King was a jealous, insecure sort.
“Will they kill us?” Hart asked, urgency rising in his voice.
“Well, gods, they just might! It’s no wonder they torture you so, they treat spies almost as badly as they do traitors. As for me?” He groaned pitifully but said nothing more.
Silence came over there, but Hart could sense that the man had more to say. Finally, the patience paid off.
“I heard them,” the jester started wryly, “the other guards. They were talking that Gilmere the Merciless will be rejoining them tomorrow after dusk.”
In the dark, the man could not see the thrill that flickered across Hart’s pale eyes.
“Gods, no–not Gilmere the Merciless.”
“You heard of him, then? Well, who hasn’t?”
“B-But can you be sure? Maybe it was all just rumors?”
“How I wish it were! They sounded so sure of it, and if they are right… the torture may kill us well before the executioner’s blade does.”
At night the torture ceased and all that was left was the sound of whimpers, ragged breathing, and groans from men trapped in nightmares.
“I never got your name,” Hart said after noting that his companion hadn’t yet fallen asleep.
The man slouched over in the corner said, “Judice of Rosemont.” There was a pause. “What’s yours?”
Hart had already concocted a suitable alias–name, history, family ties, false stories behind real scars. But all of that unraveled when he was asked the question.
Hart wasn’t sure why, but in that moment, the word that came out of his mouth, the name that felt absolutely right, was:
Judice snapped awake when Hart was thrown back in the cell after a fresh round of beatings. But rather than curls into a sniveling mess of sobs, he propped himself up on his elbows and looked Judice straight in the eyes.
“I hear Gilmere likes to go for the genitals.”
Judging from the peculiar unease on Judice’s pasty face, Hart knew his sudden change in demeanor had alarmed his new friend. Gone was the trembling, the fragility, the fear. Hart’s face was stoic and steeled, his voice low and even.
“Seeing as you tried to bed the Queen,” he went on, “you can say goodbye to your–”
“I wasn’t!” Judice gasped, sounding as if he were about to cry. “They have it wrong!”
“It’s your words against theirs,” Hart said, making a slicing motion across his groin.
“Yldir, have mercy–!”
“Now, how would you like to be gone before that bastard can get his hands on you?”
Hart didn’t think it possible, but the man’s eyes bulged even wider as he lurched forward and nearly shouted, “You mean there’s a way out of here?”
“Shh!” Hart hissed. “Don’t get so excited. We’re going to sit here until the Great Castrator arrives–perfectly quiet, perfectly still, like neither of us knows a thing.”
Judice nodded, his head knocking up and down like it spun on a loose joint. But it was the only agreement Hart required.
Gilmere’s greatest mistake was a bar fight that had cost him several fingers, thus stripping him forever of the ability to play his precious lute. Torture, he’d decided, was an acceptable outlet for his pain.
His second greatest mistake was bleeding dry the husband of a very determined and vindictive woman. She gathered up every last coin she had, savings and all, and spent it on one final act of revenge: an assassin.
She’d met Hart on the edge of the forest outside of town. She handed him the heavy purse, then immediately tore her tunic off.
“Nothing matters anymore,” she’d told him, blond hair whipping in the wind. “My love is gone, and I have nothing. I am going off into the woods to join the witches. Goodbye.”
And so she did, walking naked into the darkness beyond the trees.
Hart knew nothing about her up until those few minutes, but he did remember thinking that to her this must have been a moment of empowerment.
Gilmere’s arrival that evening was no secret. The fanfare–cheers from his fellow brutes, hard rasps on all the doors, the threats made against the prisoners’ peckers–made it plain.
Yet, Gilmere did not grace them right away.
It was about an hour of watching Judice pale and tremble before Hart heard boots shuffling toward them and the sound of something heavy and sharp dragging along the ground.
“Spine,” Judice hissed desperately. “Spine, he’s coming.”
Hart stood up as far as the chains would allow and pressed himself against the wall. In the night, their cell was almost completely bathed in darkness. He breathed in deeply through his nose then whispered, “Do you hear that?”
Judice’s brow furrowed, confused as to why Hart would sniff the air then alluded to another sense entirely. “Hear what? Gilmere?”
“The shadows,” Hart said. “They whisper to me.” He then pointed to the old bandages covering his left eye. “Want to know how I lost this?”
“You mean the torturers didn’t do that to you?”
“No, no. I made a pact with a devil, years ago. Paid one hell of a price. This,” he motioned to the rags once more, “was part of it.”
Suddenly Judice’s face darkened. He scampered backward as if scurrying away from a poisonous snake.
“You’re—you’re not a thief, you’re a heathen! A fiend worshiper!”
“Not all devils are evil,” Hart said as the shadows on the wall curled around his limbs like misty tendrils. “Some just want to have fun and make love.”
And then–the blackness swallowed him.
The shackles fell to the ground with a resounding clank. Judice watched in terror-stricken awe as a blotted shape slithered unnaturally long the wall of the cell, creeping out and into the hall through the cracks in the doorframe.
In Hart’s wake, there was a terrible silence.
But it was short-lived.
The door of the cell flew open and Judice was looking at the massive frame of Gilmere the Merciless. The fingers of his that remained gripped the hilt of a double-headed ax nearly as large as the man wielding it. He grinned at the fear in the victim’s eyes.
Judice was already flailing and begging for mercy when Gilmere stomped over to him. But just as he felt a broad hand yank him forward, a black figure dropped down behind the brute without making a sound.
The very next moment, blood sprayed from the back of Gilmere’s neck. The limp body fell to the ground with a satisfying thud.
Judice stared breathlessly at the cloaked killer in front of him–Hart, fully clothed in leather armor, two blood-soaked daggers in his hands. Lowering his weapons, Hart turned toward the door and looked down the torchlit corridor as the sounds of chatter approached.
“Start running,” he said in a voice so steady and low that Judice could not tell if it was a suggestion or a threat.
But then he swore he saw the assassin lift his eyepatch and wink before pulling the cloak over his head and shooting up into the ceiling like a raven taking flight, disappearing once again into the shadows.
I really couldn’t find a stock image that I liked so I used an old screenshot I took of Hart when I recreated him for the game Tera Online. It’s a very accurate picture (although the setting is terribly off), but I’m still a little embarrassed!