The stench of rotting meat roused Hack from a restless slumber. He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. What he saw chilled him to the marrow and he blinked, hoping he was caught up in a nightmare. The barred windows, the foul-smelling straw and the white of bones with the blackness of rotten meat still clinging to them, were real. The cell was designed for a normal sized prisoner, so he could not look out though the window above his head. There was no sun, so he could not judge the time. He wiped his sleeve across his runny nose and looked up at the barred window. The land of the Erebans was a place of endless night.
Footsteps sounded again in the passageway, and jangling keys found the lock on his door. Hack stayed sitting among the straw as one of the giant Erebans approached and grabbed his shoulder. He tried not to scream, as the talons pierced the fabric of his tabard and hauled him to his feet.
“Walk,” the command rumbled from deep within the Erebans throat.
Hacks legs were like jelly as he walked towards the door of the cell. The passageway was narrow but rose in towering height above his head. The floor stony and so uneven, he stumbled in the darkness. He felt along the walls, his fingers encountering the cotton wool softness of cobwebs. His foot knocked against stone and he realised they had come to a stair. The steps were so high and wide, he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get up them. The huge corridor of the castle was not as dark as the cells. He could make out the silhouettes of furniture and the giant figures that were Perius’s court.
“Faster,” a talon poked into his back.
For the first time ever, the skin on his body split and he felt the warmth of his own blood. To his surprise, torches were lit in the great hall, and he saw in their light the black pathway he must walk to reach the throne. He kept his head down and stopped when he reached the steps.
“Bow,” the sharp talon pierced the skin on his back again.
Hack bowed, and then crossed his legs as fear irritated his protesting bladder. His quaking legs were an obvious sign of his terror, the last thing he needed was to pee in his pants.
“So, you are the dwarf who is privy to the King Karone’s secret.”
Hack put his head down even further until his chin was resting on his chest.
“Answer me, dwarf.”
The growl sent shivers through Hack’s small body.
“No, sire,” he mumbled. “I just print a small newspaper. I know nothing about the king’s secrets.”
“What is this,” Perius stood and looked at the hags.
“He lies, sire,” Lora said. “He is the one who carries the news throughout the hidden world.”
“Is that so?”
Hack was lifted off his feet by the hair. He kicked and tried to struggle, but it was hopeless. What he dreaded happened, when he found that he was face to face with the terrifying leader of the Erebans, he wet himself.
“I will ask you once again,” Perius sneered at his discomfort. “What do you know about the king’s secret?”
Despite his mortification and terror, Hack would not betray the king.
“I know nothing, sire,” he said. “You have been misinformed. I am just a reporter of the daily news.”
“Very well,” Perius threw him down on the ground. “We will see how much you have to say for yourself when Keyos is done with you.”
Keyos, Perius’s general, stepped out from the crowd. This man, this thing, was bigger than the others and the scars on his face were hideous.
“Take him away and see to it that he talks,” Perius waved at the dwarf at his feet. “It should not take too long, if his actions here are anything to go by.”
Hack heard the laughter bubble all around him, and his cheeks flamed as the acidic fumes of his shame rose. His head ached, and he tasted the coppery blood from the wound in his mouth. He stumbled and fell.
“Move, dwarf,” the command came from behind him.
He was a little dwarf in a land of giants, and no one cared about him. Something tickled his ear and he swiped at it, imagining it to be one of the countless spiders from the webs overhead.
“We are here,” the tiny whisper said. “Make ready to run.”
Lord Fabien and his fairy court kept watch all through the night. They made their encampment on the borders of the Ereban forest, hoping the dwarf would return. Now, as the rays of the morning sun pierced the earth, they knew he could not, he was taken prisoner. Every tree and bush were lined with fairies.
“We are ready to go on your word, sire,” Tromp, the king’s general said.
“We have no other choice,” Fabien said. “We must at least try and get the dwarf out.”
At his signal, the fairies took to the air, each carrying a light-filled crystal. Those gathered in the great hall were unprepared for the brightness, as the fairies swooped among them. The Erebans cried out and shielded their eyes with the arms of their cloaks. Even the hags covered their faces as the light blinded them. No one noticed the dwarf who was running as fast as his unsteady feet would allow. The fairies disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and it was then that Perius realised his small prisoner was missing.
“Find him,” he roared. “He must not get away.”
He curled his fists into tight balls, his nails reefing his skin as he imagined what he would do to the dwarf when he caught him.