Desmond woke on his second morning in the Skyreach dungeons to the bell sounding First, the screeching of rusted hinges, and the whisper of feet across the straw-covered floor of his cell. It was the silent guard, the same that had brought him his meals yester morn and mid-day. Meager meals they had been – a heel of bread, a small dish of beans, and a tin cup of water – but Desmond had devoured it, knowing he would need the strength for the battle to come. Desmond had tried to engage the stoic man when he made both of the deliveries but nothing broke his reserve; not insults to his lords, his mother, or his manhood. Des began to wonder if the Fowlers had put a deaf mute in charge of their prisoner.
The guard appeared as he had yesterday – clad in a shirt of mail and heavy trousers of blue wool. His face was common, although scarred and lined, with a broad, flat nose and deep set eyes. In his hands he carried a serving tray with the morning’s meal. He set it down quietly just inside the door and left in the same manner. Desmond rose and crossed the small cell expecting more of bread and beans. He was surprised, and more than a little suspicious, to find a good-sized trencher filled with a thick stew and a cup of wine next to the water.
He was even more surprised when the door opened and the guard re-appeared carrying Desmond’s own armor, his saddlebags, and a bucket of steaming water.
“So, today, is it? Lord Fowler wastes little time,” Desmond said as the guard deposited his load. “I would’ve suspected he would have left me down here to rot months before we arrived at this point.”
Desmond lifted the tray, carried it toward the back of the cell and sat under the thin sliver of early morning sunlight entering through the single, high-set, barred window. Snow began to drift in lightly with the chill air. The steam rose off the food enticingly as he sat down and blew into his cold hands.
“I don’t suppose you’d be so good as to tell me if this were poisoned?”
The guard paused with his hand on the door.
“The Yronwoods do not poison those whom they support,” he whispered before leaving and shutting the door behind him, leaving Desmond in stunned silence.
Yronwood? What reason would they have to support a bastard of a minor house? Piqued though his interest was, he put the matter aside; after all, there were more pressing concerns. He ate the stew as slowly as he could, doing his best to savor the hearty meal and drinking the water down. He ignored the wine, not wishing to dull his wits. When he finished he removed his dank clothing and rinsed off, using the bucket of now lukewarm water – surprisingly, but pleasantly, scented with oils – and the linen cloth contained therein. At least he wouldn’t have to kill a man smelling like a Kings Landing gutter rat.
He threw on a fresh shirt from his pack and his leathers – breeches and the long, light leather coat that made up the first layer of his armor. Black as a raven’s wing, the supple garments fit like a well-worn glove, the coat close-fitting to the waist before flaring out, the bottom reaching to just above his knees. Next came his boots before the shoulder pauldrons, forearm and shin guards, and finally the gauntlets, which were all in leather dyed Oakdown red. The red of his mountain home and his mother’s family.
No matter what any of them thought, he did this for them. Not that any, except perhaps grandmother, would ever understand. He paced his cell, anxious for the battle to begin now that he was prepared. He thought on what little he knew of his opponent, Ser Liam of Bonecross.
He’d seen the knight fight in a handful of tournaments and wasn’t impressed with his jousting skills. But, he’d never seen the man fight in a melee or in single combat. The younger brother of the Lord of Bonecross, he had a reputation as a skilled and capable swordsman, if rumor were to be believed. But, rumor flew faster than a raven and oft carried less truth.
Hours passed. Desmond did his best to loosen muscles stiffened from sleeping on the stone floor of the cell. He stretched and cracked his joints before beginning a series of practice forms. It was difficult in the small space and without his spear and shield but at least it allowed him some measure of preparation. If anyone had happened to walk by and see the fluidity and grace of his movements, they may have mistaken the spinning steps he had learned from Ebben long ago for dancing.
Finally, as the bell rang High, the rattle of keys sounded outside, the lock snapped open, and the door swung outward revealing a new guard. This one didn’t have the others quiet demeanor, smiling devilishly through missing teeth at Desmond.
“Time to die, bastard.”