The familiar scratching noise had started off as what seemed like a mere whisper in the back of his mind until finally, after hearing it for a longer while, he realized it wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Borus rose to his feet and kept still, not even breathing, as he turned towards every corner of his cell to locate its source. It almost seemed like it was coming from within the surrounding walls themselves.
Could it be rats or cockroaches making their way through hollowed out cavities within? That didn’t seem likely as he’d never spotted either of those in all the years he’d been there. Nor was there any other living soul this far deep into the dungeon. He was in a dungeon, wasn’t he? A prison? Even he couldn’t tell anymore.
He squatted down during his examination of the wall to look at the familiar bird-shaped stain on the wall, wings spread out mimicking flight. It had almost become a friend to him; something he could talk to.
‘They’re at it again… I fear it’s all tricks in my mind,’ he complained to it with a wavering tone. The scratching continued, rhythmically, like the steady beating of war drums upon a distant battlefield. Scrrr-scrrr-scrrr. Scrrr-scrrr-scrrr.
‘What did you say?’ he asked it. ‘Oh yes, you’re very right. Working up a sweat does usually work.’
His muscles ached as he lowered himself into push-up position and felt the brunt of his bodyweight, but he kept pushing and pushing, counting as he went along.
19… 20... 21...
He focused on his breathing, drawing breath deeply through his nose, holding it in and then releasing it through his mouth.
33... 34… 35...
He knew the lack of daylight had taken a toll on his body. His bones felt brittle, his joints ached and his muscles felt much older than they should. The only sunlight he ever got was during the few brief moments at midday when the sun passed over the ventilation shaft in the ceiling and shone straight down onto a circular patch of dirt in front of his cell. On some days he was fortunate enough that if he stretched his arms out through the gaps of the metal bars, he could just enough reach the light to feel its warmth on his fingertips.
Other days, when that shaft overhead was closed off or when the day was overcast, he was left alone in the cold and darkness.
His muscles trembled with exhaustion but he realized the scratching noise had finally stopped. He let his arms give out beneath him and his chest hit the ground with a thump.
Over the duration of his incarceration he had, in his boredom, gathered all the dirt and dust into one of the cell’s corners, exposing the cobblestone flooring that had previously laid hidden beneath. He’d always made sure to keep his nails short, either by biting them or by filing them against one of the coarser stones in the ground. He’d habitually break off his hair and beard, now streaked with gray, whenever they’d get too long and cumbersome. His rags were tattered and torn, even falling off in parts where they had more wear.
The tunic had been a rich blue once, part of his attire as a traveling merchant. Clumsy makeshift stitchwork was all that kept it from falling apart. It was the only earthly possession he had retained. They’d offered him no blanket or shoes—not even straw to soften the hardness of the floor. Even cattle lived in better conditions. All he had was the cold floor.
The sound of metal shrieking in the distance alerted him. A door had opened down the hall, meaning someone was coming. He cast his vision to the two bowls sitting at the base of his cell’s door and his expression became puzzled. He’d already had dinner that day, so whoever was coming was not coming to bring him food—they were here to collect him.
He felt his blood run cold as the sound of footsteps grew louder but he focused his hearing to at least be somewhat prepared for them. Three sets of footsteps; three people. By the sound of their shuffling, he could tell one set of boots was more expensive than the others, and that one of the three walked with a slight limp.
When they reached his door they stopped. Borus crawled into the nearest corner and got to his feet, standing up straight and flexing his shoulders to loosen his muscles in preparation for the inevitable struggle that awaited him. Not once in the eight years he’d spent in the prison had he cooperated with his jailers during their forceful relocation towards the torture room.
He heard them draw the lock back and the door finally opened. Only one of them stepped inside the cell, taking two steps and halting.
‘Hello, Borus,’ the familiar deep male voice spoke, his more refined accent giving his identity away even in the darkness. He was the well educated one, the one with finer footwear. Rotgar. ‘I do hope we can all be civil today. I’ve got something nice to give you… if you cooperate.’