|Perilous Jack wakes to the sound of dripping water, the echo of scales sliding across stone, the smell of moldering straw and unwashed bodies, of wet stone and open latrines, the cloying stink of rat hide, the musty smell of cave salamanders.|
Even before he opens his eyes, he knows that he is in a dungeon below the castle, in a cell. He can even smell the iron in the bars.
He opens his eyes and confirms his impressions. He is lying, bruised but unbroken, on a mat of damp straw, his face scant inches from a wall of stone that seems to exhale bone-dampening cold. For the moment he remains unmoving, moderating his breathing in the hopes that his jailers – if they are near – will not know he is awake.
“You might as well cease to feign slumber, human,” a gruff voice says behind him. There can be no doubt that the voice belongs to a Dwarf, although he speak with a more cultured accent than his kind normally use. “I heard the hitch in your breathing the moment you woke. Never fear, I am no enemy of yours – at least not that I know.”
Jack rolls over with a groan and finds a thick muscular hand thrust in his direction. He takes the hand and the Dwarf hauls him to his feet and brushes away the straw that still clings. Jack’s vision slowly clears, although his head is still groggy from the aftereffects of the paralytic magic. First, he checks himself, to learn without much surprise that all of his equipment is gone. Only the Seven League Boots remain of his treasures. He examines his surroundings and his new companion.
The cell in which they stand is long and narrow, perhaps ten feet wide and thirty long, with a high arched ceiling. Three walls, the floor, and ceiling are all made of heavy stone blocks sealed with crumbling masonry. The fourth wall consists of stout iron bars running from ceiling to floor. Jack can tell at a glance that the bars are too thick to bend, too close to squeeze through. The room’s furnishings consist of straw strewn across the floor, which past inmates have gathered into two sleeping nests, and an open drain in the floor that serves as a latrine. A steel plate and cup sit near the bars, containing some gray paste and dirty water. The Dwarf gestures toward this poor fare.
“Your supper awaits, young sir. I advise you to partake without qualm, as you will require all your strength for the difficult task ahead.”
Jack rubs his head and squints into the dim torchlight, the better to take stock of his fellow prisoner. The Dwarf is tall and powerfully built, a natural commander among a race that places such importance upon the physical features of its members. This fellow has a huge barrel chest and a broad face with lines so sharp it appears chiseled from stone. Voluminous red curls fall from his head to his waist, intertwining with an equally curly and lengthy beard, to the point that it is difficult to imagine him possessing a neck at all; his head seems to float in a cloud of flame above his huge body. Jack can imagine him clean and polished, his coppery locks blazing like fire, his hard face shining like ebony. There is a haunting familiarity about his features; in a moment Jack makes the connection – he looks like a smaller cousin to the Fire Giants.
“Colonel Firebrand of the Eglantier Crest,” the Dwarf booms, proffering his huge hand again and gesturing to the insignia on his tunic, an elegant crest featuring a wild rose bush in radiant bloom. Jack suffers the Dwarf’s bone-crushing grasp and introduces himself in turn.
Suddenly they hear the sound of marching feet and the Dwarf stiffens and gestures for silence. Colonel Firebrand retreats to his straw bed and Jack follows suit. A moment later Jack glimpses through the bars a pair of huge, orange-skinned Lizardmen armed with swords. The guards give a cursory glance into the cell and march on.
When the sound of their clawed footsteps has faded to echoes, Jack turns back to the Dwarf. “What is this task you foresee?” he asks.
The Colonel turns away and peers through the bars, looking left and right. Jack joins him, peering out into the torch lit hall. The hallway is perhaps twenty feet wide, the flagstones littered with broken skulls and bones, many of them Dwarvenkind. Across the hall, Jack can make out at least three more cells. The Colonel sniffs his nose twice, and across the stone hallway, Dwarven faces appear at the bars of their cells. Like the Colonel, they look left and right, their different locations in the line of cells affording them a broader view of the dungeon. They nod their heads silently at the Colonel, and the message is plain: all clear.
The Colonel turns away and crosses to a wall of the cell, plants his stout fingers in the crumbling masonry, and shifts his great shoulders side to side. The block he grasps wiggles, sending a shower of mortar dust to the floor.
“Escape, my good man. That is our task.”