Virtue’s Forge – ch 10 – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius
Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a further chapter in this great story by Ulf Berht, entitled
Background music by Smartsound
Chapter 10, “Epitaph”
“I am told you are awake. Welcome to the Epitaph, Outlander. I see you are not too badly damaged. Satyrs are not known for their gentleness. You may call me Lord Talon. I am the Grand Imperator of the Obsidian Empire. I am a direct descendant of the great General Karcheck and destined to rule all Novia.”
Ulf, too weak to say anything, struggled to piece together the world.
“Your life was in immediate peril, assassins were closing in, and I needed you here without delay. The trip would have been exceedingly uncomfortable had you not been drugged. No time…no time at all for food and whatnot. Damned meddlers. Meddlers always getting in my way.”
Talon turned to his attendants and pointed at Ulf. “I want him tidied up and ready to talk this evening. Yes, for supper, suitable clothes….suitable clothes and not stinking of satyr.” With that, Talon strode out and Ulf faded back into oblivion.
Several hours later, Ulf was awakened by three aged attendants, one carrying a large bowl of stew and water, another with clothes, and the third with bandages and various unguents and ointments.
“A hot bath awaits, sire, through that door. After which we are told to attend to any injuries you may have and to help you dress. Talon will also expect us to trim your hair and beard. We can tell you nothing, so do not ask.”
“Then get on with it. I will wash and dress myself.”
No longer starving and somewhat refreshed, Ulf could begin to take stock of the situation. He was in a windowless room with worn tapestries hanging over stone walls, presumably a forlorn attempt to bring some cheer to the drabness. The door opened with a creak of ancient hinges, but no bars or lock blocked the way into a long corridor dimly lit by glowing crystals. Ulf stepped out, hoping for some obvious escape route.
“Don’t wander too far,” a leather clad fighter said while passing by, seemingly on some errand. “It’s a maze in here and there are many unpleasant surprises lurking in darkened hallways.”
One of the aged attendants materialized beside Ulf. “Please don’t wander or they will make me into spider food. Let me show you around a bit. You can get more food in the dining hall,” he said, pointing down the hall behind them. “lt would give me great pleasure to take you to the library. Talon will send for you. Trust me, you cannot get out of here without his permission.”
“I have been drugged, kidnapped, and made a prisoner in a dismal dungeon, and you think I am looking for a library?”
“Apologies, Sire. Please take no offense, but Lord Talon has amassed a considerable collection of rare editions, some of which may be of interest to you, perhaps even vital,” the attendant whispered to Ulf. Then he hurried off down the orange lit corridor. Several open doors between massive stone columns revealed additional well appointed rooms.
The attendant stopped partway down the corridor. He looked back to see if Ulf followed, and waited until Ulf caught up with him. Stone dragons’ heads, lit by yellow crystals, lined the wall. The old man pointed left down some stairs. “Do not go down this corridor without an escort. The satyr guards will not treat you well. This hallway leads to the old Chamber of Souls that Talon calls his council chambers and it is strictly out of bounds. Not that there is a Council any more. It also leads to places you don’t want to go, places no one returns from.”
In the dim light, Ulf could just make out a hallway guarded by two very large and very pale horse-like creatures standing on two legs.
“Are they satyrs?” Ulf asked. “The ones that carried me here?”
“Indeed they are satyrs, Sire. Lord Talon has many. He claims to have created this particular breed. Underdwellers, he calls them. They hate the sun, run around in the dark, and squeak like bats, they do.” The old man shivered. “I hate them even more than the pale elves.”
“Elves? Here? Underground?” Ulf asked.
“Quick, we must go before they report us,” the old man said, and continued down the corridor. It ended with two doors. The old man put his finger to his lip and whispered, “Talon.” He pointed to the right hand door, opened the left one, and whispered, “library.”
Once through this door, they reached the entrance to the library. Although the dimly lit chamber was not as big as Ulf had imagined, rows of bookcases almost filled the room completely. A few brown-robed individuals were seated around long tables trying to read by candlelight. “Follow me. Speak to no one,” he told Ulf.
They wormed their way between bookcases and the wall until the old man reached a corner of the room and began working on a loose brick. A secret door opened and they entered a small hidden room.
After carefully closing the door, the attendant spoke. “We can speak more freely in here. My name is Jaren and we all have to get out of here.”
“An excellent idea my friend, but this room goes nowhere that I can see,” said Ulf.
“No it does not, but we have been digging a tunnel that does. This is just a good place to talk. The tunnel is accessed through a secret door in your room. It makes me wonder if Talon suspects something and put you in there to trap us.”
“And here you are confessing to me. That cannot be wise.”
“A risk we had to undertake. Talon has plans for you, and I am sure they will not be pleasant. We are but a few days from breaking through and, unless you want to die right now, say you are with us. You may be able to stop me from sticking you with this poison knife, but one tug on this string and that spider above you will be released.”
Ulf looked up a saw a giant, red-spotted spider suspended in a net, mere feet from his head. “I have no love for Talon, nor for his lovely accommodation. Your secret is safe with me, but truly, what are the chances of success?”
“Much better than they would be by staying near that madman. Remember, this is a prison, not a fortress. The outer wall is to keep prisoners in, not invaders out. We would never be able to dig deep enough to get under the wall, so we have sought other ways to get out. Some of the southeastern part of the inner wall has collapsed, and if you get to the dining hall you will see where an old entrance is blocked. We have found a secret door in your accommodations that leads around the rubble and connects to a hallway.
“I assume you remember nothing of the entrance to The Epitaph. The guards occupy a large balcony that overlooks the entrance to the prison, the pit, and the stairs down. The balcony once encircled the pit but no longer does. A section of the wall out there has also collapsed, and we have found another blocked entrance high up in the rubble. All our tests convince us that the secret door in your room leads to this entrance and, once cleared, a way out.”
“These plans have been long in the making. Can you not just walk out of here?” asked Ulf.
“No. Talon’s men have orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to leave without permission. He pays the guards well and they are loyal. Over a decade ago, I was part of a group of scholars studying the Epitaph. We discovered a secret room above the old dragons’ pen. Before we realized what we had found, Talon and his men marched in and took over. Three of my students were killed trying to get out, and the rest of us were forced to serve.”
“And I, here for less than a day, get to just enjoy the fruits of your labors?”
“Essentially, yes,” said Jaren. “But it is highly unlikely that all of us will manage to escape before the guards are alerted and kill the unlucky ones. We will draw lots in order to determine the order of escape. Neither of us may live to see the light of day.”
“Your truthfulness gives little comfort,” said Ulf, just as there was a light tap on the room’s door.
Jaren opened it. “Talon has summoned you,” said a pale brown-robed man.”
“Quick! Back to your room. Some finery has been laid out for you. Get dressed and I will escort you to Lord Talon.”