The screaming had been going on for three hours. Everyone on the lower floors of the castle was sick of it. They were used to screams, certainly, even used to some screaming sessions lasting twenty minutes or more. But three hours! It got on one’s nerves. Everyone who could found work outside or on the upper floors of the castle where the sound did not reach, but some servants and creatures were assigned posts they could not leave. A few resorted to shoving small twists of cloth into their ears in an attempt to block out the grating sound.
But not the gnome. For him, the screams were music, and the longer they went on, the sweeter the music seemed. For the screams were being produced by a prisoner being tortured on a device of the gnome’s own fashioning, an ingenious combination of rack and iron maiden. It even contained special troughs to collect the bodily fluids of the victim and neatly siphon them into glass jars. The head torturer had not wanted to use the device, calling it newfangled and overly complicated, but the Lord Baltrog had taken the gnome’s side and insisted that the machine be tried on the next torture victim. And here it was, three hours later, and the victim was still alive and suffering. The head torturer had never accomplished that duration of pain in a prisoner with his hot irons, clamps, or whips.
The gnome chuckled as the howling reached a new crescendo. Yes, he thought, a good machine. I’ll have to build another.
Reluctantly he made his way up the stairs to the main level of the castle where the screams were barely audible. He carried his scrolls in a leather bucket and his writing material in a small sack. It was almost dinnertime and the Lord Baltrog liked to go over the books before he ate.
The gnome raised his hand to knock on the door to Baltrog’s library, but before his hand descended a voice came from within. “Come,” it said.
The gnome pushed open the great door and entered the room. It was two stories high, the second story being comprised of a balcony that ran around the wall and allowed access to the second level of bookshelves that covered the walls. The shelves were filled with books, but also scrolls, maps, jars of unidentifiably substances, stuffed animals, curious carved figures, religious icons, alchemical equipment, and arcane weapons. In the center of the room was a vast table covered with just as many things as well as heaps of paper, account books, and magical devices including a crystal ball. The gnome did not like the clutter and mess of the room, but he had not been allowed to clean it the way he did the rest of the fort.
The Lord Baltrog, dressed in his robes of power, was toiling over an ancient manuscript set on a stand on that table. His reading light was a crystal bottle filled with a green gas that cast a bright light. It sat on a tripod in the middle of the great table.
“Grimestoke,” said Baltrog, not looking up, “Sounds like your machine is a winner.”
The gnome bowed, acknowledging the compliment. “I’m glad if it pleases you,” he said.
“Hmm,” said Baltrog. “Any news?”
Grimestoke pulled some papers from his bucket and spread them on a clear space on the table. “The accounts are looking good in our original towns,” he said. “Taxes being paid on time. No dissent. We may find ourselves a bit overstretched when we get the last two towns on the road, but I’m sure we can compensate.”
“What about that place in the mountains, where we caught the dwarf?” asked Baltrog, still reading his book.
“Oakborder,” said the gnome. “No new is good news. On the other hand, that bugbear we left there is not exactly going to be sending detailed reports. Might be worth a look-see. It’s been a week.”
Baltrog sighed and closed his book. “Really?” he asked.
“Your decision,” said the gnome.
“Oh, all right,” said Baltrog. “Then dinner.”
“Yum,” said Baltrog
He walked over to a small stone shard set in an elaborate stand at the far end of the table. He put his right hand on it and held his left in the air.
“Who is it in Oakborder?” he asked as he closed his eyes.
“The blacksmith,” said the gnome.
Tom Irontone sat at his dinner table trying to light his pipe as his wife cleared the dishes and his two daughters worked on their lessons in front of the fire. He was worrying over the events of the past week, trying to find a way to excuse the village from the Lord Baltrog’s wrath and trying to imagine where he could find his share of the taxes without ruining his family’s life. It all came back to Harry Bandle, he decided. If worse came to worse the town would have to hand Harry over to Baltrog. It would be a terrible thing to do to a friend, but Harry had brought this trouble on himself and he would have to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Tom’s wife Goodrun, a woman as small and delicate as he was large and burly, sensed his worry and tried to move as quietly as possible. She knew her husband was upset but she also knew that they were in better financial straights than a lot of people in the village, and if they cut a few corners they would be able to weather their share of the new tax. But the big blacksmith was a worrier. All she could do was try to make life easier for him.
She wiped the last of the dishes and decided she would use the last of the fruit preserves to bake something special for dessert. Her husband had a sweet tooth.
One of the girls looked up from her writing lesson at her father. He was sitting stock-still, staring at the wall but not blinking. His pipe had gone cold in his hand.
“Daddy’s having one of his spells again,” she said, and turned back to her work.
Goodrun put down the dishes and crossed over to her husband. About six years ago he had begun to have these moments when he would seem to freeze, to lose consciousness, in the middle of a sentence of even an action. It always happened in the evening, sometimes in bed. It never lasted long and when he came to he was no worse for the experience. Indeed, the first few times it had happened he had refused to believe his wife’s description of his state. Only when she let him sit with a fire stick burning in his hand during a spell had he come to realize she was telling the truth. His children soon came to accept the spells as part of their father’s personality.
She waved her hand in front of his open eyes. He continued to stare into the distance, not blinking. After the first few times it had happened she had gone to the town healer, Doctor Halsontell, and he had assured her that it was a common ailment. Many famous people had suffered from such spells and went on to live long productive lives. Had anything unusual happened to Tom that might have sparked the sessions? She could think of nothing except the time he came home drunk, something he never did, and bearing a tattoo on his shoulder that he claimed he couldn’t remember getting. But that had been an isolated incident. The doctor told her just to be sure that he was never left alone in the evenings especially around a fire.
Tom blinked and looked at Goodrun.
“Something smells good,” he said.
Baltrog took his hand off the stone and opened his eyes. The gnome looked up at him curiously.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Baltrog said. “But we’ve got some work to do before dinner.”