An Outlaw's Honor - Terri Brisbin
Early March, In the Year of Our Lord 1193
Thomas of Kelso, though lately of the castle’s best dungeon cell, moved his gaze from the door to the large rodent that sat in the corner opposite him and back to the door. Both of them waited on the same thing—the bucket of slops that would be brought in shortly. The rat had gained in boldness with each passing day, and now it no longer hid in the shadows. Its snout wrinkled and wiggled, clearly smelling the coming meal before Thomas even heard the guard’s approach.
“Not this day,” he whispered in warning to his competitor. “Not this day.” Attempts to kill the vermin had been unsuccessful so far. Between Thomas’s waning strength and the rat’s speed and ability to escape through the small breaks in the stones, he knew the rat would survive him in this place.
The rat had learned to knock over the bucket once it was placed inside the cell, spilling its meager contents onto the putrid mess of the floor. Thomas was hungry enough to eat the scraps off the king’s tables, but not off the disgusting mud and straw that lined this room. Though he might be desperate, he would not sink to that...not yet. Another few days without food? Well, he might do things a bit differently then.
When the door at the end of the corridor opened, Thomas crouched down, rocking on his feet to be ready. He remained in the opposite corner, away from the door, or the gaoler would not open it. He counted the steps, knowing it was but six paces to reach this cell. Pulling in a breath, he held it when the guard took that sixth stride that placed him outside the cell.
“Now, laddie, we will see which of us is the faster this day,” he whispered to the rat.
Nodding his head at the creature, Thomas readied for the task. The rat began chattering then, as though in reply to his challenge. Or mayhap, the creature was just as hungry as he was. Thomas’s long-empty stomach rumbled then, a reminder that the animal had beaten him the last three days. His dry mouth watered at the thought of any bit of sustenance he could grab, be it stale or rank or rancid. It mattered not, for Thomas must win this battle to live another day.
The guard stopped and slammed his gauntleted hand on the wooden door, the only warning Thomas would get to move away. More than once, he had not, and the guard made free with that gauntlet on Thomas each time. The rat now rose on its hind legs at the sound. The door swung open, revealing the guard there...the empty-handed guard. Thomas looked up from the guard’s hands to his face.
“Put out yer hands,” the guard ordered.
So attentive to the demands of his belly, Thomas never noticed the second guard until he held out his hands. The other one watched as cuffs were locked around Thomas’s wrists, and he was tugged out of his cell by the short piece of chain connecting them. The scratching of the rat’s claws on the stones in the corridor made Thomas look back.
“You lose, laddie,” Thomas said before the guard slammed a fist against his head.
“Silence!” the guard yelled.
At that, he was grabbed by both guards and hastened along the hallway, up a steep flight of steps and into a large chamber. By then, his strength gone, the guards simply dragged him. When they went through a doorway, the brilliant light from the sun made him throw his hands up to block his eyes from the stabbing pain of it. The movement caught them unawares and they dropped him onto the ground at their feet.
Even that did little to slow their pace, for they half-carried him once more, relentlessly on to some place or person. Shame coursed through him at how low he had sunk in life. Once a mighty warrior, fierce and unwavering, to a traitorous criminal, left to starve to death in the king’s dungeon. He had not even the strength to defeat a wily rat or to stand and walk to his fate like a man.
The only good thing now was that, if he were going to his end now, it would be quicker and less painful than starvation.
Their progress took them back inside, and Thomas could open his eyes. Drawing on his last reserves, he stumbled to his feet and walked the final steps to the door ahead.