Erron awoke late to a boot in the stomach and the sound of raucous dwarven laughter. The guard captain for this part of the hold, Lidûr, took particular pleasure in tormenting the young human. He was tall, standing easily two feet above the dwarves, but thin and weak – an easy target.
“Get up, Runt!”
Groaning, he dragged himself to his feet and pulled on his rough tunic. Every day was the same – exhausted from the previous night’s work, he would inevitably sleep in and be awoken by some form of blow from Lidûr. Aching and coughing, he shuffled his way to work.
Because of his physical inadequacy and his literacy, a rare thing among the slaves, he was assigned as a scribe and assistant in the library. Every day he would be working from dawn until long after dusk cataloguing, copying and sorting books. It was, all in all, one of the best jobs he could have got, even with the librarian constantly berating him for not doing it properly – often accompanied by a harsh blow. He had plenty of opportunities to sneak peeks at the books, and had gleaned much from them, including a knowledge of history, near-fluency in the languages of the elves and dwarves and, most importantly, a basic understanding of magic.
Magic was the greatest power in Vaurona, and each race had their own sort. Humans had a raw, deep-running connection to the roots of the world, and were the most unpredictable of mages – all the greatest magic-users in history had been human, but the biggest magical catastrophes had also been human in origin. Humans were at greatest risk from the magic, as their spells were hard to control and liable to consume the caster and everything around him if he made a misstep.
The elves and were a different story. Only one of the three clans of elves held any magical power – the Woodsingers, inhabitants of the Great Jungle that stretched far to the northeast. They had an unconscious connection to the natural world – they could calm animals, instinctively know the uses of a herb or plant and much more. When raised in song, their voices had the power to heal or harm, soothe or befuddle. Although risk-free, their magic was comparatively weak against the other two sorts.
Dwarves were again different. Their power lay in their runes, very strictly defined and barely adaptable, but extremely easy to use and much stronger for a given amount of effort than any human spell. These runes were the foundation of all dwarven power. Watch-runes sat over gates, fire-runes lined alleyways and escape routes, death-runes lay atop the locks on the slave-collars.
Erron had long been aware that he was a mage. At five he had discovered that he had the power to make objects move by thinking about it, and had amused himself for several minutes by causing small stones to ping from the helmets of the guards... until they decided it was his father doing it and cut him down where he stood. He had never used his magic again.
Making sure the librarian was out of sight, he held out a hand, palm-up, and stared at it intently.
A silver flame blossomed in his palm, flickering merrily. Dancing in glee, Erron stumbled and grabbed at a shelf for support, only for the magefire to latch onto it and its books and begin eating away at them with frightening speed.
The fire disappeared abruptly, leaving half a shelf and a pile of ash and charred books. Looking around gingerly, he began to creep away, but running footsteps and metallic clanking heralded the arrival of the librarian. Even a scholarly dwarf such as he wore armour and carried a weapon at all times, and the librarian’s weapon of choice – a brutal spiked mace – was held ready.
“What is this? I saw fire - my books! My precious books! You’ll pay for this, boy!”
A wild swing of the mace was narrowly dodged, but the second swing was made with more precision and the last thing Erron saw as his vision faded into blackness was the floor rushing up to meet him.
When he awoke, he was crammed into a dwarf-sized bunk with bedding made of reeking straw. It was set into the wall of a tiny cell, maybe two meters on a side, with thick metal bars separating it from the corridor and the adjacent cell. The librarian and a dwarf he didn’t recognize were standing outside his cell. The unknown dwarf was clearly of high standing, as his armour was of fine workmanship and his beard was braided with bands of gem-set gold and silver. He stepped forward.
“This is the Hall of Punishment. Every day, the pain runes on the wall will activate for twenty hours and you will be plunged into agony. The remaining four hours will be yours to eat, sleep or do whatever you wish. Your first session starts now.”
The two turned and left. Sensing a build-up of magical energy behind him, Erron turned to see a rune blazing on the wall above his bunk, and was consumed by the pain.
However many hours later – for all he knew, it could have been two or twenty or two hundred – the runes faded into inactivity and the echoes of the screams died away. His were not the only cries; in the neighbouring cell someone huddled on their bunk.
They didn’t look up.
Stumbling over to the bars that separated them, Erron’s fellow prisoner – a young woman who seemed about his own age – leaned heavily on the metal, drawing in shaky breaths. Her rough cloth shift was stained with food, blood, vomit and more. It was clear she’d been in the Hall for a while.
“Is there any way out of here?”
“You think I haven’t tried? The bars are solid, the rune can’t be damaged with what tools are available to us, and we only have four hours a day in which we aren’t in crippling agony.”
Although she was trembling like a leaf in the breeze, her green eyes held a great depth of unbroken determination. As she lifted her head to speak, her long brown hair fell back from her ears, revealing their pointed tips.
“You’re an elf! I’ve never met an elf before. What clan are you from?”
“I didn’t think humans knew about the elf-clans. If you must know, my father was Icefall, my mother Shadowpath.”
Cross-clan marriage was rare, and often frowned upon, according to what he’d read, but Erron made no mention of it.
“I worked in the library, so I often had a chance to read some of the books. I accidentally set a shelf on fire, that’s why I’m in here. What about you?”
Sitting down on her bunk, the elf shivered and drew herself up into a tight ball, hugging her knees. Her eyes were just visible over the tops, and suddenly were brimful of fear.
“One of the guards... took a liking to me. I resisted. Violently. Please don’t make me think about it. How did you manage to set the library on fire? Slaves aren’t allowed anything that could start a fire.”
The guard came past on his rounds, giving them a look. He moved over quickly, and Erron could see that he was going to separate them.
We’re not talking. We’re on our bunks, crying like the pathetic creatures we are. There’s no need to come over. We’re in our place. You don’t want to be late to report, do you?
He could feel the magic twining around his thoughts and reaching out to the guard, who stopped, frowned, shook his head and turned away, walking fast down the corridor. Suddenly tired, Erron staggered backwards and slid down to sit against the wall.
“How did you do that? He was about to beat us. We’re not allowed to talk to each other. How did you make him move on?”
Too tired to speak, Erron held up a hand and lit a small silver flame on his fingertip. He let it dance for a moment, illuminating the stunned face of the elf, then extinguished it.
“You’re a mage! My father often told me stories of human magic-users and their powers. Can you get us out of here?”
Sighing, he shook his head.
“I don’t think so, at least not yet. Making that guard move on was tiring, and it will take far more magic than that to get us out of here unseen. I may be able to disable the runes, though.”
“Wouldn’t the guards notice?”
“No. They won’t come down here when the runes are active. They’re basic, wide-range ones. If any guards were around they’d be in as much pain as us.”
Erron dragged himself into his bunk. Footsteps came down the corridor soon after, and a dwarf guard came into view carrying two bowls of gruel. He pushed them through the slots in the bars.
Erron began to greedily devour his meagre fare. He had not had any food since his breakfast the day before. The elf was less eager, carefully raising the bowl in shaking hands to her lips and taking long, slow draughts. Once the guard had gone and he’d eaten all his gruel, Erron moved over to the bars.
“So, what’s your name?”
“I am Sanastael.”
“I’m Erron. I’ve read that the Icefall clan are great warriors, and the Shadowpaths are masters of stealth. Did your parents pass any of this onto you?”
“A little. My mother died when I was young, so I never learnt stealth, but my father raised me as a warrior. I’m no good now, of course. The pain has made me shake and tremble at the slightest movement. I can barely walk. What about you? Where did you learn to use magic?”
Closing his eyes for a moment, Erron fought against the memories that threatened to overwhelm him.
“It just happened naturally. When I was five, I discovered I could move objects by thinking. I thought it was funny to ping stones off the guard’s helmets. Then they decided it was my father throwing them and killed him in the street.”
Her expression softened.
“It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter.”
Kneeling on the bunk, he started to work on the rune carved into the wall. He kept his face turned away so she wouldn’t see his tears.
After three hours, Erron had succeeded in disabling the rune in the wall of his cell. His hands were scorched and tender from the magical feedback.
“Erron! We’ve only got forty minutes! Hurry up!”
Sighing, he pressed his fingers to the bars, one hand on those separating him and Sanastael and one on the cell door.
The bars Erron was touching immediately glowed red-hot and collapsed into a pool of molten iron. The air was filled with the stench of scorched flesh from the globules of heated metal that had splattered across his hands. With difficulty, he stifled a scream, cursing his stupidity, and slowly peeled the solidified droplets away, taking patches of skin with them. When he was done, his hands were a mess of black and red and stung appallingly at the slightest movement, but the joy he felt eclipsed the pain.
“It’s time to get out of here! Let’s go!”
Moving unsteadily, Sanastael tried to climb through into Erron’s cell, but stumbled and fell onto the floor.
“Who am I kidding? I’m a cripple now. I can’t even walk. Just go. Save yourself.”
“I don’t think so. Come on, get up.”
Gritting his teeth against the pain in his hands, Erron dragged the elf to her feet and pulled her arm across his shoulder. Supporting her, he began to move slowly down the corridor. She resisted feebly, pulling back in the direction of the cell.
“Don’t, you’ll get yourself killed. Leave me. You’ve got a far better chance of making it if you’re on your own. I’ll just slow you down.”
Erron walked on silently, pulling her along with him. After a few moments, she gave up and started to move with him rather than against him. Even being as weak as he was, Erron had no difficulty supporting Sanastael – she weighed barely anything. Her constant trembling often caused a misstep or stagger, and his burnt hands sometimes made him lose his grip, but they made steady progress towards the stairs.
As they reached the first step, the pain runes activated, making both of them stumble. Although it hurt, their distance from the cells considerably lessened the effect, and they were able to keep moving. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, the power of the runes had completely dissipated.
They were now in the main prison, a huge room containing hundreds of small cages, each with an occupant. Dwarf guards patrolled the walkways.
“Erron, now would be a good time for you to do some magic...”
“It’s not just something I can do at the snap of a finger! I have to visualize it, and my hands are killing me at the moment. Besides, what should I do? Disguise us, or make us invisible, or -”
<"Escapees! Kill them!">
One of the guards had seen them, calling out to his comrades in Dwarfish, and now several battle-hardened dwarves were closing in. Erron and Sanastael backed up, but one of the dwarves had cut off the stairway and they were herded up against a wall. The leader stepped forwards, hefting his axe, and Erron felt something blossom inside him. He raised an arm, and in an almost dreamlike way saw the silver fire he had conjured before leap from his hand, magnified a hundredfold into a blazing sheet. It died away almost as quickly as it had come, leaving only ash where dwarves had stood moments before.
Sanastael’s shocked cry rang in his ears as he collapsed.