Rolland woke on the ground. His head pounded. It felt like he’d been dreaming, though that was impossible. Something was in his hand. The hilt of a dagger. His clothes were wet though it hadn’t rained. He opened his eyes and sat up on the hard stone.
Two men lay dead beside him. His purple robes were soaked with blood. He dropped the dagger and stared wide eyed at the bodies. He was about to get up, run, but he heard voices, shouts. Two inner guardsman ran down the street, swords drawn and shock written on their faces. Rolland didn’t know what to do. The guards stopped running as they neared, approaching slowly. Rolland stood, careful not to make any sudden movements. He raised his hands to show he held no weapons, and waited.
The guards were not gentle.
Rolland woke in a cold cell. He’d read about the king’s dungeons in books. They always mentioned the cold. They mentioned the smell, too, but he hadn’t known it would be this bad. The smell didn’t just fill his nose, it was strong enough for him to taste.
The cell was dark. Was it night? How long had he been here? His head still throbbed, but different to before. He touched his face gingerly. Dried blood, from when the guards had taken him in. He barely remembered it.
Rolland felt around the cell in the dark. He lay on a bed of straw. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He got up from the straw bed, wincing at the gifts he’d received from the guards. He was bruised all over. He no longer wore his purple robes. The guards had forced him into tattered rags before throwing him in here. There was a torch somewhere out of sight from his cell. He saw small, flickering shadows in the hallway past his bars as his eyes adjusted further to the light. He limped to the cell bars. His legs, stomach, chest, back, face. Everything hurt. He was relieved to find no bones felt broken. Though he didn’t know what broken bones would feel like.
He’d dreamed while unconscious, for the first time since coming to the academy. Lighttouched suffered from horrible nightmares, a gift from their curse. At the academy, at breakfast and dinner, they drank that bitter root tea to banish their dreams. Here in the cell, he’d drunk no tea, and so he dreamed.
In the dream, he’d been someone else. A tall man who carried a sword. A guard of some sort, though he did not recognise the places the dream took him. He’d fought a duel, and lost. Rolland had woken as the tip of the other man’s sword had entered his neck.
Woken to this cell. To his reality—a reality he only wished was a bad dream.
Had he really killed two men?
He remembered somehow getting the dagger from his attacker. Feeling the blade slide into the man’s gut. Slashing the other man’s neck. How had he done that? He’d been locked up in the academy for five years. He was no fighter, yet he’d taken down two bigger, more experienced fighters with ease. None of his movements had felt like his own. It had been like a dream, like the one he had during the night. Like the ones from before the academy.
Would there be a trial? Would he be executed for the murder of two men? He’d acted only in self-defence, but he was lighttouched. Lighttouched were not allowed to touch a blade. They weren’t even allowed to prepare a meal with a sharp knife. The punishment was… vague. He’d done more than pick up a blade. He’d killed two men, in broad daylight. There would have been witnesses. By now, everyone in the city would know that a lighttouched had killed two people. They would be afraid. They would call for retribution, just like in the past.
Had Adviser Jolm set those men on him?
Rolland held onto the bars, his head resting on the cold steel, easing his pain ever so slightly. His stomach rumbled. His mouth was parched. He couldn’t tell what time it was. He shuffled to the corner of his cell, back to his straw bed. He lay down, mindful of his bruises, hoping for sleep.
Hoping he wouldn’t dream.
A heavy door slammed and Rolland’s eyes sprang open, his head jolting in pain. He stared through the bars as torches were lit down the hallway. Boots scuffed stone and keys rattled. He sat up, hoping they would bring food and water. The guard stopped in front of the bars. His short hair was matted and black with grit. He smiled at Rolland, showing scatterings of missing teeth.
‘You’re new.’ The guard slipped in a metal bowl with foul looking food on it and threw in a water skin, the contents of which were surprisingly generous. Then the guard moved on. With the torches lit, Rolland noticed a man in the cell across from his, still sleeping.
Once the guard had passed through the halls, Rolland moved for the food. It tasted worse than what they served at the academy, and for the first time he wished to be eating something bland. He devoured it all the same. Too fast, he learnt, as his stomach churned. That’s when he realised where that horrible smell was coming from. There was a bucket in the corner of the cell that he’d not seen when he’d woken in the dark. The bucket was by no means clean, but at least it was empty.
Though, not anymore.
As the hours passed, or what felt like hours, he wondered if he’d simply been abandoned down here. The thought was ludicrous, however. There would be a trial. And because of what he was, it would be a public trial. He would have passed the time by sleeping, but when he fell asleep, he dreamed. Always nightmares, always dying.
At what he thought was late afternoon, he heard steps coming down the hall. He recognised the tap of a cane hitting the stone floor and it filled him with hope.
The tall, frail form of Master Willem came into view through the bars. His face was drawn, staring at Rolland. A guard brought a stool for the old master to sit on. Rolland stayed quiet, waiting for his teacher to talk. Master Willem watched the guard retreat down the hall.
Willem sighed. ‘We think the men who attacked you worked for Alrin, or at least, they have been associated with him. Something must have spooked Jolm.’ He looked at the wounds on Rolland’s face, the bruises exposed on his arms an legs. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘What’s going to happen to me?’ Rolland blurted in a weak voice.
Willem went quiet. He sat on the stool with his hands on his cane in front of him, resting his head there just as he would at his desk. He looked tired and, somehow, even older. ‘They will have to make an example of you.’
‘I was defending myself—I don’t even know how I did what I did.’ Rolland looked into his master’s eyes, losing all pretence of formality. ‘Are they really dead?’
Willem nodded, his face hard, emotionless, but his eyes telling all.
‘Will I be executed?’
The master shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, there will be a trial. The king himself will preside. He knows about Jolm, but we can’t make that knowledge public. The implications of having two lighttouched on trial…’
‘If I were anyone else—’ Rolland shook his head. The last week, Rolland had felt himself getting emotional. With Jolm’s threats. Seeing his family. Now he just felt numb. ‘Is my family safe? Did Jolm—’
‘They’re safe, Rolland. We made sure of that. Adviser Jolm, on the other hand, has gone missing. Two of the king’s guard were sent to apprehend him, discreetly, after the incident. The king has more people looking for him, he shouldn’t get far.’ Willem looked away from Rolland. ‘The trial will be tomorrow. In your own words, you will testify to what you have done, then the king will decide what happens.’ Willem stood, leaning heavily on his cane. ‘I’m sorry, Rolland.’
The next few hours passed by uneventfully. He tried talking to the man in the cell across from his, but he was either ignoring Rolland or completely deaf, for he never looked his way. Dinner finally came; there had been no lunch. It was more of the same slop. He ate the food slowly, mindful of his restless stomach. Before the guards put out the torches, he had another visitor.
‘Detector?’ Rolland stared up at the big man standing in front of his cell. He wasn’t supposed to talk to Jedri unless he was spoken to, but he’d already broken the law, he didn’t think breaking manners would make his situation any worse.
‘It’s very strange.’ Jedri didn’t look at Rolland. ‘Jolm didn’t show up this morning. Instead, I got a new adviser, who came bearing a petition for Trey Alrin. Not a Captain’s Petition, mind, a King’s Petition. Then I heard about what happened with you.’ The detector sighed. ‘I have been suspicious of my adviser for sometime. Ever since that interview with Trey Alrin… You may think I pay no attention to the two of you, but I do. Your interactions had changed. That’s why I brought you into the office yesterday. I thought if something was strange, it might force Jolm to show his hand. I didn’t think he would try and have you killed, though. Your trial is tomorrow. In case you don’t survive, I thought I should apologise.’
The detector didn’t wait for Rolland to reply. He simply turned and left.
In case you don’t survive...
Rolland slept. His nightmares were starting to feel more appealing than his life.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.