Vengeance of Hope - Opening Scene
Book One of P.J. Berman's 'Silrith' series - Medieval Epic Fantasy Fiction
KRIGANHEIM, KINGDOM OF BENNVIKA, 1520 YEARS AFTER UNIFICATION – SPRING
With a start, Afayna came to as icy water hit her face, swiftly followed by a stinging slap to her cheek. Sprawled on her back, she attempted to rise but realised with terror that each of her limbs were tied down with rough, coarse rope.
‘Help! Gods! Where am I?’
Laughter rang out from the darkness. Only the smallest flicker of brazier fire lit the room through a window in the door, but as her eyes adjusted, she made out the shapes of two men.
‘Awake again are we Afayna my sweet? That’s a good girl.’
‘Why am I here? Tell me,’ she pleaded. The two men smirked at her distress.
‘How strange it must be for you,’ one of them said; his neat blonde hair and chiselled cheekbones more visible now. ‘One moment you’re just another maid going about her daily business in the palace. The next, you wake up here.’ Afayna scanned the room, desperately trying to control her panic. She was spread-eagled on a torture rack and now she could see that the walls had many shelves and hanging hooks that were littered with various blades of different shapes and sizes. Yet it was not the weapons that filled her with dread, but the man’s calm and yet sinister tone. Every word sent paralysing fear shooting through her body once again.
Strangely, something about his confident manner and educated voice reminded her of Lord Jostan, but it wasn’t him. From his dark profile, she could tell that this man lacked the foreign nobleman’s exotic virility and rugged handsomeness.
‘Let me go. Princess Silrith will hear about this and when she does, she’ll tell the King and then you’ll be sorry.’
‘You honestly think you’re in a position to threaten me?’ The interrogator gave a nod to his accomplice and the other man, a hulking, musclebound type with short hair, moved round to the end of the rack to stand behind Afayna’s head. He heaved on the roller and stretched the ropes tight, drawing an inhuman howl from the girl.
‘People are always so cocky at the start. They forget who’s got the power here. You see Afayna, and it surprises me that you don’t already know this, the King is dying and the Princess, like you, is a traitor.’
His final word turned Afayna’s blood to ice, yet her fear was laced with confusion.
‘What? No. It’s not true.’
‘Do you deny that you served the King his last meal?’
‘I did, but-’
‘Oh! So you knew it’d be his last meal then, eh?’
‘No! I meant-’
‘And is it true that you stole the Amulet of Hazgorata?’
‘No! Why would I? How could I?’
Afayna bellowed in pain as the torturer heaved on the roller again, stretching her limbs while the rope tore into her skin.
‘You were seen with it Afayna. One of your fellows has testified against you. Now, I’m going to ask you once more. Did you steal the Amulet of Hazgorata?’
Afayna’s reply was to spit at him in defiance, launching a good amount of sputum at least three feet in the direction of the interrogator’s face, though it only hit his shoulder.
‘Your passionate defence is impressive,’ he laughed. ‘But I’m afraid the question still stands.’
‘I didn’t steal it.’
‘Then why were you seen with it shortly before the King was taken ill, carrying it, then twisting the lid and pouring the contents onto the King’s meal?’ Afayna’s eyes widened in horror as she realised what she had done.
‘It was given to me. I was told it contained some new flavouring that the King liked.’ She realised she’d been foolishly trusting.
‘Well unfortunately for you, you left some inside the Amulet and on discovery, it turned out to be poison hemlock. Deadly. What’s more, you added just enough to kill him, without it being instant, giving you a chance to make your escape. If only you hadn’t been seen. Looks pretty bad for you now doesn’t it?’ He gave a disturbing smile. ‘So, if it was a gift, as you claim, who gave it to you?’
‘Lord Jostan,’ Afayna said eventually, still breathing hard. She suddenly became aware that her body was now soaking with sweat.
‘Don’t play around with me. I know Lord Jostan. It’s not him.’ He nodded for her to be stretched again. Afayna gritted her teeth, but nonetheless, she couldn’t hold back an animalistic scream.
‘It’s true!’ she shrieked in desperation. The effort of each breath sent searing pain burning through her body.
‘I was in…Princess Silrith’s entourage when…when she and the others welcomed him…into the Palace,’ she gasped.
‘So you’re saying that Lord Jostan Kazabrus, our King’s own nephew, sailed from his lands across the sea, marched all the way from Asrantica to the palace under escort, just so that he could plot with some inconsequential maid? Somehow I find that a little hard to believe. I doubt that if he had planned on undertaking regicide, he would have chosen you as an accomplice, instead of a person of rank and consequence.’
‘It was him! He noticed me…soon after he arrived last summer.’
‘So you say he was an opportunist?’ the interrogator asked.
‘Yes. He took…an interest in me. I thought…I thought he cared for me. He said he’d marry me if I-’
‘-He said he’d marry you? A maid? I don’t believe this. Don’t waste my time. Just because he had his way with you doesn’t mean he cares about you. The King is on his death bed because of your treachery. Now, who gave you the Amulet? How about Princess Silrith? Wanted to be Queen, did she?’
‘No! How can you say that?’ Afayna couldn’t believe he was making such an implausible accusation.
A laugh escaped him once more.
‘She did have the most to gain out of his death and through you she had the chance to bring it about. Anyway, you were heard by one of your fellow servants only days ago talking to her about what she’d do when she was Queen.’
‘She wasn’t talking about that.’
‘She wasn’t. She…she was talking about the King of Gilbaya…and how he dishonours…his Queen. She was talking…she was talking about what she would do if…if she were the Queen of Gilbaya!’ She used all the strength she could muster and yet her words only came out in gasps as her body endured the waves of excruciating pain.
The torturer began to stretch her again. The ropes dug deeper, ripping the skin from her body, pulling at her joints so that her bones threatened to dislocate from their sockets.
‘A likely story. It’s interesting that you were so quick with an explanation. Anyway, you prepared the King’s meal and you were the food taster. You must have known that the food was poisoned. It’s hard to believe that just by chance, you tasted a bit that the poison hadn’t touched.’
‘But that’s what happened,’ Afayna whimpered.
‘Sorry, I don’t believe you. Now, did Princess Silrith give you the poison? Gods. You disgust me.’
An acrid stench filled the chamber. In her terror, Afayna had lost control of her bladder and part of the rack was now soaked in urine.
‘No,’ she said eventually, overcome with humiliation.
Another stretch. Afayna endured it, forcibly silencing her scream. The ropes slackened again a little and she felt her whole body heave involuntarily, causing her to cough and splutter as she was almost choked by her own vomit, before it ran down her cheek.
‘Did she give it to you?’
‘You’re really not getting this are you?’ The interrogator gave another nod and the torturer stretched her again. This time Afayna felt pain like she’d never experienced before as her shoulders were wrenched out of their sockets. An unearthly scream escaped from her mouth and pierced the air before faltering as she slipped into unconsciousness.
She was slapped back into reality and looked straight into the eyes of her interrogator. Was death truly near?
‘I didn’t hear an answer. Did she give it to you?’
‘No,’ she spat, in one final attempt to summon up the strength of the damned.
He stretched her again.
Delirious with pain, barely a feeble whimper escaped her as her joints tore apart.
‘Stop. Please. I confess. I confess.’
‘About time. And who instructed you?’
‘Silrith,’ slipped from her lips. The interrogator smiled at the torturer in dark satisfaction. He walked to the door and opened it.
‘That’s it, boys. Home to Asrantica tomorrow. We’ve got our confession.’
His words were met by a merry cheer.
‘Untie her and take her to her cell,’ he said matter-of-factly as he re-entered the room followed by two guards.
‘She dies on the morrow.’