A small room on the ground floor was filled with the sound of drugged snoring. Two wooden cages sat at either end of the room, made of the firmest wood known to the kingdom, lashed together with dried sinews. Inside one cage was Barris, on his back, snoring with such enthusiasm that his lips and cheeks flapped together. In the other cage was Orteg, not snoring quite as loudly but making his best showing.
With a snap, the bolt to the door was drawn back. The hinges groaned in harmony with Orteg as he sat up, wincing at the noise. Barris jerked awake, drool dripping from his chins as he struggled into a sitting position.
Zavier swept into the room and knelt between the two cages, grinning. “You pathetic inferior fools! Did you really expect to deceive me?”
Orteg was terrified but had never backed down from a fight. He managed to adopt a scornful tone, even from his position on the floor. “Do you expect us to be so terrified of you that we don’t even try?”
Zavier’s face grew red. With an invisible quickness, a dagger appeared from within his sleeve. He tapped it on the bars of Orteg’s cage. “Orteg, I can do horrible things with this blade. Would you like to see?” He rapped the cage of Barris. “I can show you on this piece of offal,” he said, and swung the blade to point at Orteg. “Or I can show you on yourself. Maybe once you see how many pieces into which you can be divided, you will wish you had held your tongue.”
“Please,” Barris said, his voice quavering. “If you have to, kill him. Torture him. Not me. Just…not me.”
“You spineless worm!” Orteg spat.
Zavier laughed. “For once, I agree with you,” he said, returning his dagger to whence it came with one quick movement. “For that astonishing display of cowardice, Barris, you shall be the first to die. And you—” Zavier said, spinning from the former’s horrified face to spear Orteg’s expression of relief. “—will watch him. You shall be there, hale and hearty, for every step of his death. Who knows, if it goes well, perhaps I shall dispose of you in the same fashion, Orteg. If not, I have an entire tome of excruciating dispatches at my disposal.”
The cage of Barris was opened and he was dragged, screaming, from its interior, pleading that he would comply with whatever was asked, even as he was taken to a nearby swamp and put into the hollowed-out shell of a log which resembled a canoe. It was only then that his cries ceased, only because the torturer’s head was swollen with drink from the night before and insisted upon a gag for the screaming condemned before proceeding.
Once the man had been gagged, an identical but smaller canoe-shaped log was placed atop him. The torturer’s assistants guided the unfortunate’s arms and legs through the holes which had been bored in the smaller log shell while Barris tried to yell, plea and bargain through the gag. Large stones were piled atop the smaller shell, pinning the man neatly between the two. The torturer pushed at the smaller log shell and felt a little give.
“Can yeh breathe?” he asked, and yanked the gag free, holding it ready should the fool resume his racket.
Barris’s chest hurt, but he could breathe, and he answered “I have money. Gold coins, buried in a swamp. I’ll take you there. You can have it all. Please…”
“’e can breathe,” grunted the torturer, and signaled. Two of his assistants hurried forward, each carrying a large ceramic amphora. The first handed it to the torturer, who took it and tilted the mouth of the amphora toward Barris.
“Drink,” he said, and tipped. Barris was drenched in a tide of thick, sweet liquid. He sputtered and gasped, turning his head this way and that, spitting and wheezing.
“’ere,” said the torturer, lowering the amphora and gazing at Barris threateningly. “Either you drink it, or we ‘old your gob open an’ you drink that way. Now, drink.”
The torturer poured. Barris drank. It was sweet and cold, fresh milk with a taste of honey. For a moment, Barris’s qualms were forgotten and he drank greedily. The torturer tipped the amphora up still further and Barris’s eyes widened. There was a lot left. He tried to speak, but the thick sweet milk slopped into his mouth and down his chin. He choked, spraying the torturer with white drops. The man frowned, lowering the amphora. “’ere…that’s fuckin disgusting. You do it again, it’ll be the worse for you.”
“I can’t,” gasped Barris. “I can’t drink anymore.”
“You’ll drink it,” the torturer said grimly. “Or it’ll be worse still.”
An hour later found Barris sobbing as his mouth was held open, a sixth amphora of honeyed milk being tipped, overflowing, into his yawning mouth. One torturer held his nose, forcing him to swallow. Pinned between the two hollowed out logs, his stomach bulged, distended with gallons of milk. His stomach groaned as he swallowed yet another mouthful, excess trickling down the sides of his head into his ears, sticky and wet. He sobbed, gasping in air as the amphora mouth withdrew, only to sputter and gasp as it was upended over his face, the thick milky honey coagulated at the bottom of the amphora splattering like excrement all over him.
“That does it for now,” the torturer said, turning away and tossing an amphora to the side with indifference. “Good ‘nuff for a start, leastways.” His assistants snickered as they followed, pausing only to pick up the amphoras. As their footsteps faded, the only sound left was that of Barris’s ragged breathing as he labored to catch his breath. Orteg had watched with revulsion, neither moving nor speaking in his cage lest he draw the attention of the torturers.
Barris’s face was red and sweating beneath the drying glaze of milk and honey. He licked his lips and gasped “Water…my entire soul…for some… water…”
Orteg said nothing, and wondered, if he could get it for Barris…would he?
A fly settled on Barris’s face and he blew a puff of air up his face, dislodging it, but only for a moment. It returned, bringing one of its brethren. Another joined. Barris’s breath refused to move them this time. “Curse these…flies…” he grunted. His face screwed up in agony and the sound of diarrhetic voiding echoed from the interior of the two logs. In a moment, the smell reached Orteg.
“By the gods…”
“I can’t help it!” Barris moaned over the sound of more voiding. “All that milk…an’ honey…I didn’t want it, but they kept—”
Orteg turned away, raising his jerkin over his face and replacing the smell of sick feces with his own spicy aroma. Behind him, Barris’s body continued its purge. Glancing back, Orteg could see Barris’s face speckled with more and more flies as the smell attracted them. Averting his eyes once again, Orteg breathed as lightly as possible into his makeshift mask, hoping the night would bring relief.
By the time dark had fallen completely, Orteg had begun to wish half-heartedly for death, for both of them. Barris’s innards had not ceased in their efforts and every quarter hour or so another explosion would come from beneath the log, bringing with it another wave of ghastly stench. Barris moaned and sobbed, treating Orteg to a litany of complaints, so detailed that Orteg felt as though he were being tortured as well.
So the night went, until the wee hours of the morning, when Barris’s lamentations had ceased and only snoring came from that part of the swamp. Orteg lay down in his cage, thanking the gods for this brief respite, and shut his eyes.
Orteg heard his name being screamed as though from afar and forced his eyelids to open. He squinted at the sun. Nearly up. Already it was warm.
The panic in the voice brought him to his senses as quickly as a slap to the face. Wrenching his face from the sky, he looked at the cage opposite his own.
“Barris? What is it? What’s—”
His voice stopped, his mouth frozen in horror. Barris had completely disappeared under a seething black mask of insects, crawling and buzzing and every one dedicated to obtaining the sticky residue completely covering him.
“By the gods!” breathed Orteg, his flesh crawling.
“Orteg! Help me!” Barris was hysterical. “They’ll eat my face and I can feel them crawling down! Help me! Help meeeeee!” His voice atrophied into a pleading mewl, completely forgetting that they were both imprisoned and no help was to come. Not to them, not to anyone. Orteg could only look on in horror as the black mask moved and shifted over the features of the wretched man.