Sunshine warmed his body. Sunshine? The fact that he lived was greeted with no small amount of surprise. He lay in a half-conscious state for some time before the snap-crackle of burning wood brought him the rest of the way to consciousness.
There was no pain. That fact in itself proved remarkable. The last moments before passing out were vague, but that he had been mortally wounded and in great pain remained vivid. He had entered the storeroom in search of mushrooms, but then… his memory grew obscure. Had there been someone else? Armor…sword…feet?
Opening his eyes, he raised his hand to shield them from the sunlight streaming through the barred windows of the Prison Room. From his left came heat from the fire; he turned his gaze toward it.
A lad sat upon a short stool beside a ring of stones in which the fire burned. Maybe eleven years old, he wore a ratty old cloak; the legs sticking out of it were barren of covering as were the dirt-stained feet. Unruly locks of blonde hair cascaded to shoulder length.
On the ground next to the lad, a burlap sack that had seen better days leaned against the legs of the stool. Worn and frayed, the sack bulged, filled with items unknown. Through a ragged hole in the side, a metallic glimmer could be seen. Unfortunately, not enough of it was visible for him to discern what it could be.
A minute rolled by as Holk watched the lad do nothing but gaze into the fire. It was almost as if he was captivated by its brilliance. When he at last tried to adjust his position to one of greater comfort, it broke whatever spell had mesmerized the lad
Hopping off the stool like a rabbit scared by a hound, the lad took three quick steps backward then came to a stop against the wall. In one hand he held a handheld mirror, the other remained poised above its reflective surface. Eyes locked on Holk, the lad appeared set to activate the mirror’s power at the slightest provocation.
Forcing a grin, Holk nodded to the lad. “Hello.”
Remaining stock-still, the boy did not answer.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” When that declaration produced no affect, he added, “I promise.”
The lad appeared unconvinced.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen since coming here.”
Facial muscles moved ever so slightly, but the lad kept his distance.
Holk pushed himself into a sitting position, then had to take several deep breathes to ward off passing out. He held head in hands until the spell passed, but kept one eye pointing in the general direction of the boy.
Once the danger of being rendered unconscious passed, Holk raised his head. For the first time, he saw the mirror-pack strapped around the lad’s waist. It was a match to the one he bore, but where his had but three mirrors, the lad’s looked full.
Fearing his mirrors had been taken, he sought his pouch and sighed when he felt the three mirrors within. He pulled out the first and saw the twin lines drawn by Kiernan. They had not been replaced or stolen.
“What’s your name?” When the lad didn’t answer, he took a calculated guess and asked, “It wouldn’t be Streyan, would it?”
Eyes widening in surprise, the lad nodded.
So, this was the Streyan Kiernan mentioned.
“Look, I won’t hurt you. Why don’t you return to your stool and we can talk?”
The hand moved away from the mirror as the boy relaxed a fraction. He remained where he stood.
Holk shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
His clothes held numerous bloodstained puncture marks, the skin beneath showing pink and new. Flexing one limb at a time, he discovered tightness with only a minor accompaniment of pain when the muscles stretched too far. That dragon had sure done a number on him. He was lucky to be alive.
Streyan watched in immobile silence throughout Holk’s self-inspection.
Once satisfied that all wounds appeared to have been healed, Holk again turned his attention to the boy. Gesturing to the stool, he assumed his most disarming look and said, “Come on. I won’t harm you.”
The boy failed to make any move to return.
Holk shrugged as if he didn’t care, but he did. This was the first person he’d seen since coming to this place. Aside from the fact that it would be nice to talk with another, even if that other was a boy, he figured Streyan could be a great help in his bid for escape. “Suit yourself.”
Slowly so as not to spook the lad, he rose to his feet, stretched, then walked over to the window. Outside, the sky was blue with a band of clouds high overheard leisurely making their way across the horizon. A gentle breeze carrying the scent ocean blew in through the bars.
Glancing over to the boy, he found him still rooted in place. He turned to face him and held out his hand. “Thank you.”
Streyan looked at the proffered hand as if it was a viper. He took one step back.
“Look, I am only trying to thank you for saving my life. Where I come from, a man that has his life saved by another is indebted to he who saved him.” When his attempted show of gratefulness went unanswered, his ire rose slightly but quickly pushed it back down.
“It wasn’t me.”
The voice was soft, quiet, and took Holk completely by surprise. He recovered quickly. “You didn’t save me?”
Streyan shook his head. “It was Kazzra.”
The boy nodded. “He came here to finish you off, but discovered you didn’t bear the mark.”
“Finish me…,” then realization hit. “Are you talking about the dragon?”
Again Streyan nodded. “He was upset when you disturbed his lair. Stealing from his hoard called his wrath down upon you. It isn’t wise to disturb Kazzra while he’s sleeping. He gets cranky.”
The gems! Before he even opened his pack, he knew they were gone. The dragon had retrieved them. A quick search revealed none of his other possessions had been taken. So much for buying his freedom.
Holk turned his gaze back upon the boy who had come a little bit closer. “Why didn’t he just kill me?”
“Like I said, you don’t bear the mark.”
“It’s hard to explain. Everyone who enters this place is marked. You can’t see it, but it’s there.”
“And I don’t have this, uh, mark?”
Streyan shook his head. “When he realized you were not marked, he summoned me to care for you until you were better.”
“But if I had this mark, he would have killed me?”
“Oh, definitely. It is the duty of everyone here to destroy those with the mark.”
The boy paused for a moment before saying, “I don’t know.”
“But you know of this mark?”
“Kazzra told me.”
Holk thought about that. “Then, that would mean you do not bear this mark either.”
“True. You are the only one I’ve encountered who did not bear the mark.”
“Can you sense this mark?”
Streyan shook his head.
“What happens to those that have the mark?”
“Sooner or later, they die.”
He turned his gaze to the watery expanse outside the window. Inside, he quietly debated the merits of trusting what the boy said. Finally, he decided to, but would proceed with caution.
When he turned back to Streyan, he found the boy seated on the stool staring at him.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me how to get out of here?”
After a moment of quiet, the boy replied, “I am not allowed to.”
“What do you mean, ‘not allowed to?’”
Lowering his gaze to the floor, Streyan said, “I’m just not. Each must make their own way from this place without help from another.” He raised his eyes to meet Holk’s. “Or they aren’t allowed to leave.”
“Did Kazzra tell you that too?”
“How do you know he’s telling you the truth?”
“But how do you know?”
“Because I trust him. He’s been a friend for many years.”
That took Holk aback. “How many years have you been in this place?”
The boy shrugged. “Hard to tell. I was three when I arrived. Kazzra found me and took care of me.”
“Judging by how old you look now, I’d say you’ve been here for at least eight years, maybe more.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to leave?”
“No. Why should I?”
“Why should you?” Holk moved from the window and stepped toward the boy. “Because this place is a prison, a hole in the ground.” He pointed toward the window. “There’s a great big world out there waiting to be explored. There are wonders and joys to be found outside this place that you can only imagine.”
The emotion that rose in Holk’s voice as he spoke caused Streyan to rise from the stool and step back. The lad’s hand hovered close to the mirror’s surface. Brining himself back under control, Holk calmed down and gave the lad a grin.
“Sorry about that.”
Streyan made no reply.
“It’s just that I want to get out of here very much. I miss my family.”
The hand moved away from the mirror and the boy relaxed.
“If you can’t help me to leave, can you at least answer a few questions?”
The boy nodded.
Holk gestured to the stool and Streyan hesitantly took a step toward it. To encourage the lad, Holk backed several paces until ten feet separated him from the stool. At that point, Streyan returned and sat. When he once again looked comfortable and relaxed, Holk posed his first question.
“What can you tell me about the Ti-Ocks.?”
“Not much. I stay away from them. They’re mean and will hurt you if they can.”
“Do they know the way out?”
“So, in order for me to escape, I might have to traverse territory inhabited by them?”
“Probably. There are many ways out, none of which are without risk. All are guarded.”
“In one manner or another.”
“I don’t know. That’s just what Kazzra once said.”
“Do you think Kazzra would help me to leave?”
Streyan shook his head. “He doesn’t like you. You stole from him.”
“But yet he saved my life?”
The lad merely shrugged.
Beginning to pace, Holk considered the incongruity that was the dragon Kazzra. Ready to put forth his next question, he was forestalled when Streyan abruptly leapt to his feet.
Snatching his pack from off the floor, the boy turned fearful eyes toward him. “They know you’re here!”
“Who…?” But the boy placed hand to mirror and vanished. A moment later, three Ti-Ocks appeared in the room.
Holk stood stunned.
Three sets of boar-ish eyes turned upon him. One gave out with a squeal reminiscent of a pig, and pulled its curve-bladed axe from off its back; the other two followed suit.
Shrugging off his initial shock, Holk drew his sword. Ever since leaving the Kiln, he had felt like a fish out of water, completely out of his element. But with sword in hand and an opponent before him, all that faded away. He was no stranger to battle, and even though the odds were three-to-one and they were armored where he was not, he welcomed it. The rush of battle was a familiar friend.
The first Ti-Ock swung its axe with more enthusiasm than skill. Holk easily knocked it aside. Then after a quick sidestep to avoid the attacks of the other two, he returned with a slice that created a line of sparks as the first creature’s armor warded off the attack.
Spying an axe blade descending in an overhand hack, he dodged to the side. As the haft of the axe passed harmless by, he brought his sword up against the wooden handle. The snap and crack as the wood parted produced a cry of success. A metallic clang rang out when the axe head hit the ground.
Roaring, the creature lurched forward, but Holk kicked out. Slamming his foot in its breastplate, he knocked the creature back into its fellows. Holk didn’t give them a chance to recover. Rushing forward, he caught the one whose weapon he broke with a downward thrust right where the breastplate met the creature’s neck. Bones and sinews parted as it sank with deadly accuracy.
One out of commission, he pulled forth his sword and backed up. The other two had recovered and moved to flank him. A series of grunts and squeals were exchanged by the pair.
Not giving them the opportunity to get into place, he charged the one on his right. Shouting, Holk shot forward, parried a sideways slice of the axe, then twirled sharply and caught the creature in the side of its head with his elbow. The impact sent the creature stumbling backward into the wall.
The third Ti-Ock gave out with an ear-piercing, high pitched squeal, then charged with axe raised at a forty-five degree angle.
Holk feinted a move to the right. When the axe shot forward, he dodged back to the left.
Not connecting as it thought it would caused the Ti-Ock to momentarily lose its balance. Even such a small span of time was enough for Holk to exploit. With precision honed through numerous battles, he thrust his blade into the gap just under the armpit, seven inches of steel pierced flesh to sever an artery. As the blade pulled free, blood gushed forth. A kick sent it off to the side as the final Ti-Ock moved to engage.
This time, the creature came at him a bit more cautiously. Axe held before it, he slowly circled to the left as Holk matched it pace for pace. Neither made a move to engage.
Realizing the beast didn’t plan to attack, Holk feinted with a thrust. Axe came down to ward off the blow. At the last second, Holk changed the trajectory and ran the edge of the blade along the underside of the wrist holding the axe.
Though the creature roared in pain, it didn’t relinquish its hold.
Holk stepped back and grinned. He saw blood welling from the wound and drip to the floor. “Had enough?” The lack of response came as no surprise. “Then let’s finish this before more of you arrive.”
As if the creature understood what had been said, it squealed and charged. Its axe came forward in a two-handed overhand hack designed to split Holk in twain.
There was little skill in the attack and Holk’s sword readily knocked it downward to the side. A fist struck the now exposed Ti-Ock face, sending it stumbling to the side. Holk lashed out and drove the point of his sword into its exposed side. As the creature fell, the blade came free in a spray of blood. The battle was over.
“Streyan?” No reply, the lad was gone.
His first encounter with the creatures had showed them to possess minimal skill when it came to melee combat. This boded well for his chances should further meetings prove unavoidable. Though if there had been more than just the three, the outcome may have been quite different. Using a somewhat clean section of the Ti-Ock’s garment, he removed the gore from his sword before resheathing it.
The armor worn by the creatures was decent, if not superbly crafted; merely bands of iron interwoven with cloth which gave it some strength. One breastplate proved to be of a size he could don. Not a perfect fit by any means, but it allowed his sword arm to move freely and didn’t encumber him overmuch. A helm was found to fit, though the foul stench coming from within needed to be removed before he could wear it.
Each Ti-Ock carried a belt pouch that had been irrevocably fouled with gobs of rank meat. He tossed them out the window. Further searches revealed nothing of interest, not even a mirror which surprised him. How had they come to be here? And how had they planned to return?
As he gazed upon the dead Ti-Ocks, he considered what he should do next. They had known he was in this room, or so Streyan suggested before vanishing. And that was another thing, how had the boy known they were coming? Thinking back on just before their arrival, he couldn’t recall anything that might have heralded their appearance. Somehow though, the boy had known. If he could figure out how to do it, such a skill might prove handy.
But that was neither here nor there. He needed to do something with the bodies. Already, their foul stench was filling the room, and it would only grow worse as time wore on. After a few moments’ consideration, he decided to transfer them to the room in which rested Kiernan’s remains. He doubted if the scribe would mind.
One by one, he took each Ti-Ock by the hand and used the handheld mirror to translocate to the cavern. Once there, he dragged the corpses to a corner as far removed as possible.
After the creatures had been transferred to their new resting place, he went to the Lake Room and washed thoroughly both himself and the two pieces of armor he had taken for his own.
Clean, and with armor in place, Holk felt like a new man. His recent encounter with the Ti-Ocks had revealed they possessed hardly any skill with their axes. The fear he had felt ever since seeing Kiernan’s drawing was no more. He could take them so long as they didn’t come at him in any great numbers.
Hollering again for the lad failed to produce any better results. There were many other questions he would have liked to pose, but until he came across the boy again, they would have to wait.
The Prison Room could no longer be thought of as safe. Ti-Ocks had come and it would be foolish to assume it was an isolated incident that would not be repeated. From this point on, he needed to exercise caution.
He locked the door to the storeroom, then used the mirror and appeared in the room full of mushrooms. There, he consumed quite a few of the edible one, then gathered a fifteen of the red-capped ones with the healing properties of which three he stashed away in his pouch. Using the hand-held, he returned to the Prison Room where the remaining dozen red-caps went into the storeroom for safe keeping. There might be another incident like what he had experienced with Kazzra, for in a place like this, one never knew.
By this time, it had grown dark and the exertions of the day were finally taking their toll. Despite the threat that Ti-Ocks might return, he remained in the Prison Room to sleep. The benefit of fresh air and a small amount of light from outside outweighed the risk. Settling within the shadows of the darkest corner, he laid his sword on the ground next to him. It took some time, but sleep finally came.
A grunt brought him immediately awake. Two shadows moved in the room not far from where he sat. That they were Ti-Ocks was unmistakable. When one turned, the faint moonlight coming in through the windows revealed its pair of tusks.
Holk remained absolutely motionless as he slowly brought his hand to rest upon the pommel of his sword.
The Ti-Ocks snorted quietly to one another as they stood upon the floor where their brethren had fallen. A crack sounded and light flared to life. One of the creatures held a sunstone.
Should he dispatch them? He could readily do so, but such an action might provoke further complications when more of the creatures came in search of these. Keeping still with only his eyes in motion, he tracked the movements of the two creatures.
The light emitted by the sunstone was enough to push back the shadows and reveal him in his corner. If they but glanced his way, the point of whether he should fight would be moot. Fortunately, their attention was being directed down toward the bloodstained stones of the room’s floor.
Further grunts and squeals came from the pair. One gesticulated wildly to the other as it gave the longest series of “Ti-Ock speech” sounds that Holk had yet heard. When it concluded, the other gave a short burst of varying-pitch squeals. A moment later, the pair vanished.
Holk couldn’t believe they simply left. They hadn’t even searched the room. Merely came, looked at the place where the others had fallen, then departed. The more he learned of these creatures, the less he understood them.
The rest of the night passed in uneasy restlessness. Every noise from the world outside caused him to start awake, each time fully expecting the Ti-Ocks to have returned to extract their vengeance, but they never did.