Spring 1635, Chateau d’If

 

Roderik’s knees buckled.

A strong push from behind hastened the fall. His face slid on the cell’s stone floor, dirt and grit scratching his cheek.

“We’ll have no more trouble from you.” Eloy’s sunken cheeks tightened and he spat. The prison’s jailors reveled in cruelty.

Roderik rolled over and rubbed his face. “What are you doing? Don’t be so rough.”

“You’re a prisoner now. Governor says so,” Eloy said. “He told us what you did; betraying your fellow knights on Malta and turning pirate.” The gaunt jailor stood over him grinning. The other jailor, Gilles, stood near the cell door, flab jiggling as he fidgeted.

Roderik sighed. Of course the Chateau d’If’s governor, Michel, hadn’t informed the prison’s jailors of the ruse. Roderik stood and spun on the jailors, glaring. Both men jumped back.

Eloy recovered, stepping forward and raising an open hand with bony fingers.

Roderik arched an eyebrow and folded his arms across his chest.

Gilles grabbed Eloy’s arm and pulled him back before the hand connected with Roderik’s face. “Governor said put him in here and leave.”

Eloy’s lips retracted in a feral scowl over brown and black teeth. He shook off Gilles and made for the door, turning around for one last hateful stare before departing. Gilles shambled out of the cell after Eloy.

The door slammed against the frame, shaking dust and bits of plaster from the wall. Eloy’s face appeared in the barred window—the fool grinned as the key clanked in the lock.

Roderik turned his attention toward the cell itself—luxurious compared with the usual accommodations at the chateau. The ceiling arched, dark stones punctuating the more common beige and tan ones lining the cell. The wall jutted out on one side, providing a stone ledge on which a layer of straw acted as a bed. A stained bucket reeking of feces and a squat wooden stool rounded out the amenities.

Some plan the governor had devised, and Roderik, both desperate and eager for redemption, had agreed. Beyond his need for redemption, refusing the governor meant possible reprisals such as a prolonged stay on the isle and removal of privileges befitting his station.

Michel wanted information, and by having Roderik pose as a prisoner, would leverage his past life as a pirate for information from other prisoners. First, though, Roderik’s appearance needed altering—how clever of Michel. While dirtying in a cell for a few days Roderick would ponder the situation and acclimate to the life of a prisoner.

Gloom from the bay intruded through the window and water sprayed through the opening. High winds dragged an unusual amount of moisture down through the Rhone Valley from Lyon to Marseille and across to the accursed rock jutting from the waters off the city’s coast.

His life had twisted so many times, sending him down paths his younger self would never have believed. Jean de Lascaris, the Knights of Malta’s new grand master, arranged for Roderik’s penance to be served at the Chateau d’If—the one-time fortress turned prison. Roderik’s sins included piracy and murder while in the service of the former grand master, Antoine de Paule, in a plot to incite the Ottomans to war using a forged papal document supposedly sent by Urban VIII, secreted in a statue of a falcon. Would it have even mattered now with Urban VIII on the run and Cardinal Borja claiming the Holy See?

If Roderik completed the sentence handed down by Grand Master de Lascaris to the satisfaction of the governor, he was promised an opportunity to regain his knighthood and rid himself of the pirate stain he’d worn so brazenly in the service of the former grand master.

Roderik leaned against the cool wall, slick with water from the constant winds blowing across the bay. Sleep called—despite the musty straw bedding and hard ledge.

****

Water crashed against the rocks below, and the wind carried moist, brined air—tickling Roderik’s lips and stinging his eyes. Spray reaching where he slept meant the winds picked up while he rested.

A bell rang.

Roderik rolled off the ledge and peered through the window’s bars. A discolored bell in a lonely tower to the north rang, trapped within its own iron-barred prison. Michel must have chosen this cell specifically for the view, as Roderik could see all the way down to the dock, where men now gathered in response to the clanging bell.

Part of the Chateau d’If’s assigned garrison lined the crest of the craggy path leading to the water. The governor picked his way down, boots slipping on mud-slick gravel. Four of the garrison, along with Eloy and Gilles, waited near the dock. Slate-gray water lapped against wood planking, coating the slimy surface before slowly draining off.

A boat with a single mast approached under oars. Traveling across the bay in this weather meant either the cargo or message carried was important.

Michel stood hunched over, holding the hat’s waterlogged brim and shielding his face, while water sheeted down his flanks and domed belly. Gilles rushed forward, fat visible and jiggling beneath his soaked shirt; he tossed a heavy rope to a man in the prow of the boat. Rowers shipped oars as the boat rocked against the dock. A man clad in unusually matched garb—military of some sort based on his bearing—stepped from the boat, ignoring the flabby jailor’s extended hand.

Roderik grinned.

The distinctively clad man withdrew a folded letter from inside his water-darkened jacket and slapped the paper in Michel’s hand. The man gestured and guards shoved two hooded men off the boat, sending them sprawling across the slick dock. Without a word the man turned and stepped into the boat. His men untethered and pushed away from the dock.

Gilles grabbed one of the hooded men, while Eloy yanked on the other. Jailors and prisoners alike slipped and stumbled up the path.

Roderik squinted against the spray and remained at the window as the men worked their way closer. Michel labored up the path, his huffing visible even from a distance, holding his hat and yelling, but not loud enough to cut through nature’s words.

The jailors yanked the prisoners’ hoods free. One of them, an older man, glanced up. The other, a younger redheaded man, kept his head down.

“Huh.” The plan had been for Roderik to glean information regarding recent activity along the coast from a couple of captured pirates, but he thought he recognized these men, which could complicate matters. For now their names escaped him, but they’d likely recognize Roderik despite his shorn hair and lack of beard once they were in the cell together.

The pirates were pushed forward. Neither of them ventured another look into the blowing rain and kept their heads down.

****

The constant moans of prisoners and wind mixed with the surf provided a constant barrage of noise. He itched a lot and the draft kept the cell intolerably damp and cool. There was no cure for the draft, and the itching’s source was probably the straw or the dingy gray rags he wore—likely stripped from a recently deceased prisoner and, if he was lucky, dunked once in a bucket of water.

The jailors, Eloy and Gilles, grinned and giggled like children every time they brought his food and water.

Counting cracks and reading the scratches of previous prisoners once, maybe twice, was enough. The process of examining the cell had taken two hours—possibly three, the first time.

He laughed and for a moment thought madness seized him, but quickly dismissed the idea. He’d only been in the cell for two days. At least his couple days of isolation were just that—a couple of days. He’d be in with the pirates soon. Until that happened, counting provided distraction and a way of passing the time.

The wind whistled and the sea slapped the little island once for every five times the water whooshed. A rare cry of a gull cut through the wind and surf. The outside noises were constant, but the inside noises were, aside from the moaning, far more interesting and instructive.

The moaning never ceased. The perpetrator resided one cell over. A mystery scream punctuated a moan on occasion. All sorts of explanations played in his thoughts over this. Was the moaner also the screamer or someone from another cell waiting for a brief moment of silence to provide an exclamation point? Or was the screamer someone being tortured or tormented by a jailor?

Shuffling and scraping steps were the jailors, while the even stomps were the patrolling garrison.

The smaller noises and one-off sounds were intriguing and more mysterious. If he spent any amount of time in the cell, he’d figure them out as well. Rodents or insects or settling stones and wood—noises were plentiful.

On the third day of his incarceration, the governor sent for him. The mistral passed and the sun shone bright upon the miserable little rock in the Bay of Marseille. The sudden light stung his eyes; bonds on his wrists and ankles clanked and rattled; sharp pebbles jabbed his bare feet.

The jailors marched him into the courtyard at the heart of the chateau and into a small room on the first level. The governor sat on a chair too small for his enormous body. One of the jailors pushed Roderik into the shaft of light penetrating the only window.

“Leave us.” Michel’s breathing sounded like sluggish wet hisses.

Michel stood and leaned close to Roderik. His portly frame momentarily blocked the shaft of sunlight. He walked around Roderik sniffing all the while. “Smelling like a prisoner.” Each word pushed a fetid cloud of rotten cheese and wine gone the way of vinegar up Roderik’s nose. “Good.”

Roderik gagged, but resisted vomiting.

“My boy,” the governor said, “you’ve done well so far and your appearance is deteriorating quite nicely. Don’t give up yet.”

Roderik concentrated on tamping down the nauseated feeling.

A few moans and unintelligible babbling issued from the cells ringing the courtyard.

The governor leaned close once more. Roderik held his breath.

“We’ll speak in a few days,” the governor said. “Remember what we discussed before you agreed to imprisonment. These pirates harbor information regarding their treachery along the coast as well as their means of communicating between ships. If they’re harboring any information regarding the USE’s ship movements or plans I want to know. The mainland wants to know.”

Roderik doubted the pirates would know anything about the USE, Grantville, or other pirates—these two men weren’t captains.

****

Roderik awakened in his new cell. The guards had come for him last night and moved him to a larger cell he’d share with the pirates. His cellmates hadn’t yet been brought in, so he studied the room. Nothing special. Three beds with rope tied across the frames supported thin bedding likely filled with old straw teeming with fleas. He scratched his arms. This cell was underground and without light other than from the torch burning outside the door. Perhaps the pirates would not recognize him right off.

The isolation so far had allowed him time for pondering how he’d react to the pirates when confronted with them. Would they wonder how he had ended up at the chateau? These two, at least when he knew them, were crewmen of a minor captain who’d joined up with Roderik’s captain and ship.

Their captain was a Dutch corsair turned Muslim while Roderik had served a simple English sea dog. The two crews had joined forces for the ease with which prey fell. Roderik had freely given away the tactics and practices of the Knights of Malta’s navy, a betrayal he now regretted as he sought atonement. The pirates had been wide-eyed, but grateful.

Clanking and shuffling echoed from the hallway. He glanced at the beds. Each of them equally soiled, but he quickly moved to the one farthest in and away from the door and slapped the stained bedding: musty and covered in dirt. Still a luxury compared with a hard floor and one the pirates would notice, but also a luxury befitting a former knight of the order.

Grunts and muttering filtered through the door as a key rattled in the lock. The door squeaked on its hinges and banged against the stone entryway.

“Get in there with your own kind,” Eloy said. “The likes of you don’t deserve your own cells.”

The jailors each pushed one of the pirates, sending them to the stone floor. Eloy glanced over, smirking. Gilles, flab jiggling, departed the cell followed by Eloy who pulled the door closed.

The two pirates stood, but were hunched over. They wore an odd assortment of varicolored clothing which now resembled nothing more than dirty and ripped rags. The closer look confirmed he knew them, but neither of them paid him any attention, other than a quick glance, and shuffled to their beds where they collapsed.

“They’ve tortured you,” Roderik said. “I wondered when I’d be forced to share this opulent cell.”

Neither of them responded: either they ignored him or were already sleeping. Perhaps the governor purposely kept them up most of last night for torture and questioning.

Roderick rolled off his bed and edged closer to the pirates. The man in the bed nearest the door was Bart, a scraggly, redheaded man now nearly black from filth and with a stench to match. If memory served, both men hailed from England, which probably accounted for them being together. Bart was an able-bodied sailor, so he might have useful gossip, but likely nothing of strategic value. Roderik withdrew and wished Michel had given them a cell above ground with better ventilation.

Roderik turned toward Edmund who lay flat on his back snoring. The gusts of air pouring from his mouth hardly moved the matted and clumped beard and mustache. He reeked of urine. Edmund was a sailing master, and would likely know something of ship movements and communications between pirates along the coast.

Roderik backed away and sat on his bed, watching the two men sleep. Michel hadn’t provided him with any details of their capture or subsequent transfer to the chateau. Roderik wasn’t tired, but what good was being awake if the pirates slept? He took a deep breath and eased back. What he wanted more than anything was a bath. He closed his eyes.

****

“Hey,” a gruff voice said. Something thin—likely a bony finger—poked Roderik. “Wake up.”

“Disturbing a sleeping man isn’t polite,” Roderik said. “What do you want?”

“I know you,” the gruff voice said—the sailing master, Edmund. “In fact, we both know you.”

Roderik swallowed and licked his dry lips, his tongue rolling over the seemingly large cracks. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Give me a moment.”

“You’re Rodrik,” Edmund said. “Rodrik, a knight of Malta.”

“Former knight, remember?”

“Rodrik who struck an e from his name,” Bart said, his higher-pitched voice was unmistakable. “Went from Roderick to Rodrik he did. Forgot his vows and left Malta.”

Roderik winced at the mention of his betrayal. “You have me there, but I’ve gone back to my old spelling.” Upon turning pirate Roderik had dropped the e from his name—a funny tidbit for Bart to remember. “Now, who are you two?”

“You don’t recognize us?” Edmund asked, stepping back.

“Should I?”

Edmund plopped on his bed. “Yes, you should. We sailed together—kind of. Different crews and ships, but our captains made a pact.”

Roderik squinted and looked each man up and down, rubbing his chin.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” Edmund said, “you being somewhat cleaned up and with shorter hair and no beard. You haven’t been here long have you?”

“No. Not long at all.” Roderik ran his fingers through greasy hair. “Kept the hair short after a bout with the louse.”

“You’ll likely get the louse anyway. Those nasty jailors and governor will likely let your hair and beard grow or get you sick in another way.”

“How long have you two been here?” Roderik asked.

“A few days, and in separate cells. Last night they came for us and kept us up all night with questions and beatings.” He rubbed his side and the back of his head.

Roderik snapped his fingers. “You’re Edmund, a sailing master.”

Edmund nodded.

“Your appearance is somewhat alarming, but your voice gave you away,” Roderik said, and turned toward the man with the higher voice. “And you, I remember you as a sailor. Can’t remember your name though.” He remembered, but perhaps the lie would lend him more credibility rather than all the sudden remembering them both. If memory served, Bart was easily angered, so he didn’t mention the man’s stench or filthy appearance.

“Still an able-bodied sailor,” Bart said.

“What brought you to the chateau?” Edmund asked Roderik.

“I’d taken up with a bad lot, but discovered my mistake too late,” Roderik said.

“Shoulda stayed with your old crew,” Bart said. “They’ve done well.”

Edmund scowled.

Perhaps the pirates would let the manner of his imprisonment drop and refrain from further questions.

“So, these men, pirates?” Edmund asked.

Roderik shook his head. At least he prepared a partial explanation—a few days of staring at walls and counting cracks did wonders for the imagination. “No, I decided I’d attempt something different, so I joined with men willing to take wealth from the local government in Marseilles.”

“Interesting.”

“Yes, but not all of the men were trustworthy, and decided the safer, more prudent course was to turn me in along with the other man who masterminded the plot,” Roderik said.

Bart’s eyes narrowed. “Huh?”

Edmund shook his head at Bart. “Was there a reward for the scoundrels who turned you in?” He asked Roderik.

“They got their reward,” Roderik said, looking at the ceiling. “Or perhaps damnation.” He gazed at the floor.

No one spoke for a few minutes. Both pirates sat on their beds rubbing their chins as if in deep thought.

Roderik coughed. “Tell me, how were you two captured? The entire ship’s company taken?”

Bart glanced at Edmund.

“What’s wrong?”

“Our ship was taken.” Edmund’s eyes watered, but he quickly covered them with a crusty hand. “Beyond hope or help she was.”

“What of my old ship and crew?” Roderik asked.

“They fled, but only because our captain stalled the privateer,” Edmund said. “That privateer taking on two ships was bold.”

“The navy of the order may have been that bold,” Roderik said, “but their tactics depended more on deception and forcing their quarry into untenable positions.”

Bart scratched his head as if not completely understanding, but Edmund nodded.

“Aye, a true statement. This was no ship of the order,” Edmund said, “but some ship in the service of the French with much better armament than ours—and more seaworthy.”

“A tough admittance for a sailing master, eh?” Roderik asked, but was met with silence. “Well, you two remain. How is that? Certainly you’re not the only survivors.”

“No, there were others, but the more agreeable ones were pressed into service aboard other ships while the others were, well . . .”

“I understand,” Roderik said, “but why are you here?”

“We’re not sure,” Bart said. “We were meant for the gallows, but one night a man comes and takes us.”

“We were brought before the governor in Marseilles who told us he’d rather see us rot at the chateau,” Edmund said.

“I see,” Roderik said. Michel must have either paid or made a deal with the governor of Marseilles to have the pirates sent to If.

Puzzlement filled Bart’s face. “When we was thrown in here, one of the jailors said something about our own kind, but you said you’d quit the life. How did they know you’d been a pirate?”

Bart was not as dumb as he looked. Roderik glanced at Edmund who raised an eyebrow at him.

“My name is known, as are my deeds. My old grand master was from Provence as well as the new grand master from what I understand. D’If’s governor assured me I’m much better off here at the chateau than in the dank dungeons on Malta.”

“Debatable,” Edmund said.

Bart shrugged.

“You two were like beaten dogs when they brought you in this morning.” Roderik hoped to steer the conversation from him.

“They questioned and beat us, but got nothing useful out of us, right?” Edmund stared at Bart as if not entirely certain the younger man had remained loyal and not given away any secrets.

“I gave them nothing,” Bart said.

Steady footfalls echoed outside the cell. Roderik held up a hand and then put a single finger on his lips. The stomping faded.

“Don’t want them thinking we’re getting along too well. As for me, I wasn’t tortured, only slaps and a good beating—no questions.” Roderik shrugged. “I suppose my crimes were obvious and of no use to the governor.”

The two pirates shrank on their beds, faces sullen.

Roderik sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “No fresh air down here, only our smell and other rotten prisoners. I’d gladly go back to the open seas—wind breezing across the deck filling the sails, and seawater spraying as the prow dips. Not a bad life.”

Both of the pirates’ faces were wistful behind the layer of grime, but it faded.

“Easy to look back fondly.” Edmund brought his arm up quickly and coughed. “But there’s always a price.”

“Aye. But I’d take my chances out there,” Roderik said. “Well, they’ll be coming around with watery slosh and hard bread soon.”

“Agreed.” Edmund’s hand flew to his mouth as he repeatedly coughed. Once finished he pulled his hand away and rubbed the contents on his breeches. In the dim light and from across the room Roderik couldn’t tell if Edmund coughed blood or phlegm.

“Down here we’ve no way of telling if the sun’s up or down or right overhead,” Roderik said. “Guess we’ll gauge by the guards and when the jailors feed us. Both of you should rest.”

They nodded and dropped on their backs and closed their eyes. Edmund hacked dry and hoarse—not the sound of phlegm. Roderik had seen others with this illness and they’d all suffered a slow and withering death.

Roderik sat back on his bedding. He’d learned a few pieces of information, but was thankful the two men remained friendly toward him—at least they didn’t know much about him once he’d left the ship. Maybe one more day and night and he’d have all the information he needed to satisfy the governor.

****

The door creaked and slammed against the stone entryway. Roderik’s head snapped up. He blinked a few times and started to roll off the bed, but two men yanked him off and dragged him. Both Edmund and Bart sat on their beds, staring at him, but a guardsman with a drawn blade stood over each of them.

The stone floor scraped Roderik’s legs. The two men dragging him each squeezed one of his wrists. His arms strained against the sockets as if wrenching from his shoulders. The stone floor scraped the tops of his bare feet, flaying the skin. The governor’s zeal for realism took the act a little far. Penance, he reminded himself.

As Roderik crossed the threshold he heard Bart protest followed by a slap and a thump. Eloy grinned as the men dragged Roderik past.

Few torches lit the hallway. They reached steps leading up and for a moment they paused—perhaps they’d allow him to ascend on his own. Both guards breathed hard, almost panting like dogs.

No.

They got their wind back and dragged him up the steps. His knees slammed into each step and his toes stubbed. More than one toenail must have cleaved or ripped clear off. He closed his eyes. No sense in fighting any of this.

After what seemed an eternity, but was likely a minute, the men released his wrists, dropping him to the gritty floor. He raised his head. He didn’t recognize the room they’d placed him in. A table and two chairs adorned the room illuminated by a single torch behind him unable to penetrate the darkness shrouding the back of the room.

Roderik rolled over and sat up, but dared not peek at his ravaged legs, knees, and feet.

Anger replaced the pain for a moment, but his desire for the order’s forgiveness won. Grand Master de Lascaris had placed him at the mercy of a governor who enjoyed inflicting pain on him—surely Lascaris played no part in this madness for he would never have sent him to the chateau. Would his penance be served after this and allow for an early release with the governor’s good graces?

Roderik got to his knees. Pain spotted his vision and he fell over. He grabbed his knees, but released them as shards of agony stabbed his legs.

“Please understand, you’re a prisoner now and authenticity is of the utmost consideration,” Michel said.

Roderik rolled on his back, wincing.

“Please,” Michel said, “sit in a chair like a civilized man. You’ve only been in a cell for a few days now. Surely you haven’t yet succumbed? We need to discuss what you’ve learned.”

“I’ve only been with them a few hours.”

“You’ve had an entire day,” Michel said. “Please, sit in the chair.”

Michel turned toward the door and motioned. A man entered, placed another torch, and exited.

“You need those guards?” Roderik asked. “I’m not a real prisoner here, you know.”

“But we all must act as if you are. There are some simple jailors amongst us and I fear they’ll ruin any chance of obtaining information from those filthy pirates.”

Roderik got to one knee, closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He stood, but wobbled. A breeze light and fresh sailed through the door. Freedom. Life existed beyond these walls. He took a deep breath and sat in the chair.

He swallowed—a struggle against dry mouth and throat. “How long must this continue? A few more days?”

“Depends,” Michel said, sitting in the chair across from him. “Depends on the usefulness of the information you provide.”

“So, if I’m not getting anything valuable you’ll pull me out of there?”

“Not precisely.”

“What?”

“I paid to have those men brought over here and I intend to glean by any means at my disposal all the information they hold in their puny minds,” Michel said.

“What if they don’t have any timely or useful information?”

“Pray they do.”

“You can’t do this,” Roderik said. “My order—”

“Your grand master willingly turned you over and you’re willingly participating in this plan of mine. If you fancy leaving not only the isle, but also the cell one day, you’ll play your part and do what I say. Now tell me what you’ve learned so far.”

“I’ve learned nothing. Their ship was taken. That’s all, but I’m sure you knew that. Now, I’ll do what you ask,” Roderik said, “within reason.” He ran his tongue over cracked lips. God was testing him. Yes—or God had abandoned him as Roderik had abandoned his vows.

“How inconsiderate of me,” Michel said. “You out there, bring some water. Quickly.”

One of the guards outside stomped away.

Roderik stared at the governor, but the man did everything but look him in the eyes. Roderik’s health was apparently secondary compared with Michel’s lust for information. The trick would be for him to give the scheming rotund man as little as possible by way of information, but satisfy Michel enough to be released. Roderik harbored no ill will toward the pirates, Edmund and Bart, and wasn’t looking to get them tortured or executed. However, like everyone else at the chateau, they were doomed to a life sentence.

The guard returned with a flagon of water and two cups and promptly departed the room.

“Drink as much as you like.” Michel smiled widely.

A few minutes passed while Roderik drank and Michel watched.

“Enough. Perhaps you need more incentive to obtain what I need from those pirates.” Michel’s face darkened. He stood and exited.

A minute later, the two guards entered and dragged Roderik from the room as roughly as before and obviously unconcerned with his already abused body.

****

“Where are you taking me?” Roderik asked. His legs numbed. He imagined black and shriveled toes at the ends of his feet and cringed. “I’m confused. Isn’t my cell the other way?”

They dragged him down a flight of steps and into the courtyard. Roderik squinted against the sun resting directly overhead obscured by no building or cloud. Three gulls perched atop one of the walls overlooking the courtyard, emitting not a single chirp or coo. Even the crying and moaning from with the chateau waned, leaving only the sounds of the surf tossing about in the breezeless day.

The governor waited near a large pole jutting from the ground. “No time to waste.” Michel grinned.

Roderik struggled against the guards.

“Good.” Michel winked at Roderik. “Good.”

“Wait, you can’t do this. I’m a—” Penitent prisoner—Roderik ground his teeth.

“Be careful,” Michel said, “don’t make me order the guards gag you.”

Michel actually intended to publicly thrash Roderik, a knight of—nothing. He hadn’t regained his knighthood yet. He let his head drop and gazed at the dirt and stone of the courtyard. The guards tied him to the greasy pole.

“This will soften your insolence,” Michel said, his voice louder than usual and echoing in the courtyard.

No crying or moaning escaped the chateau’s innards.

“Lord,” Roderik said, “give me strength against this madness.”

A line of pain crossed his back followed by a snap. His head rolled back and red filled his vision behind his closed lids as if he stared at the sun.

He refused to cry out.

He refused to beg mercy of this sick man, this governor he’d come to know the past three months and now witnessed a cruel side that had lingered under the fake docile surface.

“He won’t cry out, not this one,” Michel said, “he’s too proud. A former knight, a knight Hospitaller turned pirate. You see?” Michel yelled. “Even a man such as this has no proof against me and the Chateau d’If.”

“What do you want from me?” Roderik forced out between hoarse rapid breaths. A long, agonizing moan escaped. Roderik closed his mouth—realizing the pitiful noise had emitted from him.

“Ah, so pain does visit you after all,” Michel said. “No more. He’s finished for now and learned something about himself I’d wager.”

Roderik twisted his neck, but saw nothing other than red—both from pain and anger at what men like the governor were capable of. Sure, Roderik was responsible for deaths outside of battle, but the power Michel wielded against sick and dying prisoners meant nothing, was worth nothing. Even if he got the pirates to talk, the information would likely be useless as most admissions provided under duress were usually to escape torture or death.

Roderik’s hands were released from their binding and he slid down the pole.

“Give him a few seconds respite,” Michel said, “then drag him back to his pirate cohorts.”

Roderik’s lips pressed against pebbles and dirt, the grit sticking to his lips. Sour wine and rotten cheese invaded the copper and salt tinged air. He vomited. The liquid pooled beneath his head and seeped into the dirt.

“Excellent,” Michel whispered into his ear. “You’ll be accepted and perhaps pitied by your friends waiting for you below.”

Roderik kept his eyes shut and concentrated on not allowing the governor’s breath to overpower him again. Retching now wouldn’t produce anything—the vomiting of water dried him out, but had been a satisfying release. “Eloy,” Michel said, “a few drops of water here. Our prisoner has seen fit to waste the generous amounts given him earlier.”

Drops of water pelted the side of Roderik’s face. He titled his head in an attempt at guiding the drops into his mouth.

“Give him more you dunderhead,” Michel said. “We don’t want him to expire—at least not yet.”

A trickle ran down Roderik’s cheek and he found the correct angle immediately, but the pouring ceased after a second or two.

“Get on your feet,” Eloy said. “I’m not wasting anyone else’s strength on the likes of you. Get up.”

Roderik rolled over and struggled to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain in his legs. His banged up knees took his mind from the gashes he knew crisscrossed his back. He’d never received such treatment at the hands of the order, and the pirate crews had never been so evil-spirited. Perhaps his loyalties rested on the wrong side—even now; perhaps the pirate crews were more honorable than he’d given credence. The cost of redemption was high, perhaps too high for his weakened will to absorb.

He staggered as one guard led and another stood behind him pushing and poking. He stumbled and fell forward, his face slapping the guard’s boot and then smacking the stone.

****

“Roderik,” a voice said. “Are you all right?”

“What?” Roderik asked. “Yes . . . no.”

“They made us watch the whole thing,” Bart said. “Not so bad a lashing, eh?”

“As if you’ve experienced the like,” Edmund said.

“I got whipped bad once. Maybe not as bad as all that down there,” Bart said, “but they bled me good enough.”

“Look at his legs,” Edmund said. “They handled him rough.”

Roderik licked his lips and pushed the words out. “Water? Food?”

“No, not yet. But we missed the first round of water and food on account of them having us watch,” Edmund said.

The bedding was cold and hard. Roderik opened his eyes and lifted his head off the stone floor, wincing.

“We didn’t want to move you,” Edmund said. “The guards dropped you where you now lay.”

“Last thing I remember is falling into a boot and hitting the floor. Even waking in the flea-ridden bed would have been better than this.”

“Aye, but we were afraid we’d cause you more pain—”

“More than I’m already in?” Roderik pushed himself up and leaned against the bed and flinched—the gashes in his back lit up like trenches of fire. The blood on his back had dried causing the cloth of his thin shirt to stick in patches against his back.

A torch from outside the cell provided dim lighting, but the concern on the pirates’ faces was noticeable. The thought of these men tortured as he had been filled Roderik with sorrow. Keeping them healthy and alive, as well as the governor sated, would prove difficult.

“I didn’t give him anything,” Roderik said after a few minutes, breaking the silence.

“We know,” Edmund said. “We won’t give them anything either, right Bart?” Again he said this as if he didn’t quite trust the younger pirate.

“No, I’d never.”

“I know,” Roderik said, “but I’m not even sure what this crazed governor wants from me. Do you know what he’s after from you?” Roderik got to his feet slowly, pausing to allay the pain coursing through him, and sat on the bed.

He sighed relief at the brief contentment and lack of immediate pain he enjoyed by merely sitting on his backside. “Well, I’ll tell you something. Just before I parted ways with my old captain I learned he considered moving on and leaving the agreement the two crews forged.”

“We thought so, rumors and all,” Edmund said, “but as the days and weeks and months passed, your captain remained. The thought back then was that he’d repair his vessel over the winter and then go on his way.”

“But he didn’t,” Bart said.

Edmund nodded. “Yes, and a new plan arose, I’m guessing after you departed. Before the ship and crew were taken we were handsomely rewarded for agreeing to take part in a larger plan.”

“Oh?” Roderik asked. “No. You can’t tell me. Me knowing can only cause you harm.” He didn’t want to relay any useful information to the governor, not now, not after the torture, but perhaps the knowledge would help the Knights of Malta if he were released.

“I only knew there were more pieces from overhearing the captain, but our two ships were supposed to join with two more and sail through the Strait of Gibraltar and not only provide advance warning of danger, but create fear and confusion.”

“And we’d fly different colors.” Bart grinned.

“Fairly standard procedure, correct?” Roderik asked.

“Yes and no. If we took a ship no one complained, but our main purpose was disruption and creating panic as far north as possible and all the while sending what we learned back along a picket.”

“To where?” Roderik asked. Interesting, but without knowing the ultimate recipient the information was not as useful.

Edmund shrugged. “Don’t know. I’m a simple sailing master.”

“I’m not saying anything,” Roderik said. “This means nothing to me, and frankly, won’t help me any. I suggest if you want to ease your pain, and time here, consider giving the governor your information.”

Both men scowled at Roderik.

“Listen to you,” Bart said. “You think we’d give them anything? These French pigs deserve to rot. I’d die here before giving up when our captain takes a piss even.”

“You’ll most certainly die here regardless,” Roderik said. Bart was as foul-tempered as he remembered, but how long would the defiance remain? Surely after years of imprisonment he’d give up or give in or perhaps force an early death on himself.

Roderik squirmed. No matter how he positioned himself the pain ignited wherever his body pressed.

“Get rest if you’re able,” Edmund said.

“We’ll get your food and water,” Bart said.

“Thank you.” Roderik closed his eyes. All efforts at ignoring the pain failed. The governor had taken too many liberties with him, and as a result would learn much less about the pirates than he would have before the torture. These men he shared a cell with were decent concerning their own kind, or at least when they thought of someone as their own—and that shamed Roderik. He no longer cared for the deception, but he had few choices—keep the secret or tell these men his purpose and allow whatever is supposed to happen, happen.

****

Roderik sat up soaked with sweat and the sting of the day’s abuse tormenting him. A lone torch outside the cell flickered, the light playing off the metal in the door’s window.

“They took Edmund,” Bart said. “You didn’t stir. The jailors thought you were dead for a moment and the skinny one almost kicked you.”

Roderik squinted. Bart sat in the corner near the door wearing the dark like a shroud.

“What are you doing over there?” Roderik asked.

“I tried to stop them.”

“You shouldn’t have,” Roderik said. “I’m afraid you’ll only succeed in harming Edmund and us if you continue resisting.”

“What else do I have? What kind of person am I if I gave up like you? I’m an able-bodied sailor and proud. I don’t serve the governor—never will. That’s who I am, and now, locked away forever, why should we consider changing who we are? What we stand for?”

“But as pirates we stood for taking from others—”

“We stand for making our own choices and—”

“I’m not so sure,” Roderik said. “You worked for someone else and they told you what to do and where to go. Doesn’t sound like freedom.”

Bart got to his feet and stood next to Roderik’s bed. Blood streaked his bruised cheeks and carved trails down his grimy neck.

“The crew agreed with the captain, thinking a contract necessary,” Bart said.

“But you have no idea who contracted your ship?” Roderik closed his eyes against the pain shooting across his back and took deep breaths. “Probably not French since we’re in one of their prisons, but what if they were involved and plotting as they are so inclined?”

“I’m not quite sure I understand you, and I don’t care,” Bart said. “I don’t want to see the old man hurt is all. He was kind to me and he’s the reason I’m alive right now. I owe him.”

Stomping, shuffling, and rattling broke through the door before the key hit the lock and the door slammed against the entryway’s stone.

Edmund fell into the cell, face meeting stone and remained where he landed without so much as a twitch. The door swung shut.

Bart went to Edmund’s side and brushed back the long greasy strands of gray hair. He rolled the old sailing master on his side, revealing a blackened and bulging lump covering an eye hiding somewhere under the mess.

“Take my water,” Roderik said, “but only if he’s conscious. No sense in washing his face.”

“He’s breathing,” Bart said. “But his mouth is swollen.”

Michel had broken through Roderik’s level of tolerance. What had he hoped to extract from the old man? And why was Roderik in here with them to gather information if Michel was going to have the men tortured anyway?

“They’ll probably grab you next,” Roderik said.

“Let them.” Bart cradled Edmund’s head in his lap. He tilted his own cup near the sailing master’s mouth, but the water only ran off his cheek and chin.

“Don’t waste the water,” Roderik said. “He’ll need as much as we can spare when he wakes.”

“They’ll pay for what they’ve done.”

“So, they’re trying to beat us and starve us into confessions or providing them with information,” Roderik said.

“I’m not telling them anything. Never will.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Roderik said. But the words sounded hollow. “No. You’re right. We’re going to die in here regardless. Why not speed up the process rather than suffer.”

Bart shook his head violently. “You still don’t understand.”

Roderik realized he didn’t understand. In the three months he had spent at the chateau he’d learned nothing other than he shouldn’t have trusted Michel. Perhaps learning the value of loyalty and integrity were the key to his redemption. “Make me understand.”

“Whatever secrets we have stay with us,” Bart said. “I don’t want to die. Freedom is mine if I remain true to Edmund, and true to myself.”

“You’re unlike any pirate I’ve ever dealt with,” Roderik said.

“I learned from Edmund,” Bart said. “You know, he was a real sailing master aboard an English vessel many years ago. They forced him into service as they do with so many people. Me? I wanted that life and worked my way up to where I am now. I miss my old crew and the captain. This old man is all I have left.”

“What about joining another crew?”

“We’re locked in here, and don’t see how we’d escape,” Bart said.

Right. Roderik was the only one with a hope of escaping the chateau, but doubt crept into his heart. His assumed role as a prisoner vanished, leaving him a denizen forever trapped in the bowels of the chateau. Perhaps imprisoning him was Grand Master de Lascaris’s plan all along.

Roderik’s forehead burned and his ears were like two coals in the bed of a fire. Perhaps ague labored behind his thoughts and affected his judgment. His raggedy clothes clung to his sweat-covered body and his bedding was damp. Rot and decay hung in the air mingling with shit and piss and blood.

And despair.

Roderik hugged himself against the unexpected shiver wracking his body.

Freedom.

He desired freedom from pain—

Cell.

Isle.

Deceit.

Had he traded his freedom on the seas for a life of imprisonment—not at the chateau—but for a life of servitude as a knight of the order?

Tired.

****

A weakened, hoarse voice whispered in the dark.

Roderik sat up and winced. What the governor had done to him, a young man, nearly rendered him lame, but how had Edmund, an old man, not succumbed?

“What?” Roderik asked into the dark. The perpetually lit torch was extinguished—unusual. “Edmund, is that you?”

No reply. No whispers. Perhaps he’d dreamed.

A gasp pierced the dark followed by unintelligible whispers. Roderik eased from his bed, his hands pushing on shaky legs and stumbled toward the whisper’s source, each step a bolt of pain. A man in his twenties should not hobble about like a crippled old man.

“What’s wrong?” Roderik asked.

“They took Bart,” Edmund whispered.

“And you’re worried he’ll betray you?” Roderik asked.

“No. I’m not worried about the boy. He’s loyal—almost too loyal—and without question once he finds a cause or quarrel.”

“What are you saying?” Roderik asked.

“He didn’t know anything important. I did, however, and I’ve something to tell you.”

In the black night a hand fell on Roderik’s arm and grasped.

“Before I pass,” Edmund said, “I want to—”

“No,” Roderik said. “You’re thirsty and hungry, you’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

“I’m afraid you’re wrong. I’ve betrayed you both. The governor knows everything. I was weak and now they’ve taken Bart, and I fear they’ll have no use for him.”

“What did you tell them?” Roderik asked.

“There’s something else,” Edmund said. “Listen to me. I do not know much, but—”

“I am not going to give the governor anything. I won’t provide him information to save myself.”

Edmund coughed, a slight chuckle perhaps. “Oh, I’m sure you won’t. Not after he betrayed you.”

“What?” Roderik asked.

“You don’t have to pretend with me. I may be old, but it’s no secret you sought a way back into the order once you left your captain—”

“No, I—”

“Please. I’m dying.” Edmund’s breaths came fast and ragged. “My eyes are trained to see through bad weather and I saw you, a fleeting moment when they yanked off my hood. I wondered why you were locked up here—the order would have thrown you in their dungeon. But it’s your order—there is something amiss within your order, and not simply those on Malta—”

“I’m not a knight—”

“Not yet,” Edmund said. “But please, I only overheard a small piece, but an innkeeper in Marseille, Claude, knows of the plot against your order.”

“I don’t understand. What sort of plot? And why tell me this if you’re against the order?”

The old man coughed. “I don’t know details, only the name I gave you. I was never against the order, your order was against us, and I never harbored any ill toward the knights—even if they were only glorified corsairs themselves.”

Edmund arrived at a salient point—the order sailed on the edges of piracy themselves. However, the former grand master, de Paule, upon learning how history regarded the order had sought a way to decrease their involvement in such matters. The order’s current grand master, de Lascaris, however, sanctioned the practice where he deemed appropriate. But a plot against the order? Roderik needed off the isle to investigate and alert the order.

“I tell you this so you’ll understand us and perhaps find a way of helping Bart,” Edmund said.

“I don’t even know if I can help myself.”

“Tell the governor whatever you wish to secure your freedom,” Edmund said, “just don’t endanger Bart. I care for him as if he were my son.”

“I understand, but I’m in a precarious situation. I have no idea if the governor will honor his promises to me,” Roderik said. “If I manage to get out, I will try to help your young friend. I swear. But you said earlier you betrayed us, how?”

“I’m afraid I told the governor I knew you were not a real prisoner. He grew angry and swore you were, but when I presented what I knew of you, well—”

Roderik nodded.

“Then he asked if Bart knew—which he doesn’t and I swore to that fact. I gave the governor information on my old ship and yours, information he’ll find false upon investigating.” Edmund held his head in his hands. “But I was weak. I should have told him nothing and now the governor will take out his frustration on Bart and my guilt is too great to bear. I betrayed not only you and Bart, but my own ideals.”

“You’re a sick man—frail and weak. You had no other options,” Roderik said. “I’m the traitor. I’m the one who cannot choose a path and honor vows. I allowed myself to be used in this manner. I’m ashamed—”

Footsteps stomped or shuffled toward the cell.

The lock rattled.

****

Two guards pushed into the cell followed by Eloy carrying a torch and flashing his horrid teeth.

Gilles pushed Bart into the room.

Michel’s face sheened with sweat as he lumbered in, barely balancing his rotund body upon smallish feet.

Roderik took a deep breath and shrank away from Edmund and back to his own bed.

“Ah, you two are awake and well,” Michel said.

“Awake, but not well.” Edmund’s voice was weak. He coughed, spitting up blood.

Michel brought a handkerchief to his face, covering his mouth and nose and stepped away from Edmund.

“I’m not interested in your opinions on health and well-being,” Michel said, handkerchief muffling his voice. “What I am interested in is how you will react to what I’m going to tell you.”

“Everyone is aware of who and what I am,” Roderik said.

“What do we know?” Bart asked from his knees.

Bart’s hands rested on the tops of his legs, but they were not bound. Gilles stood behind him while Eloy moved to Edmund’s side. The two guards stood off to the sides of the room, blades sheathed.

“You know nothing,” Michel said. “However, there’s a traitor amongst us.”

“They know,” Roderik said, raising his voice.

“I’m afraid not,” Michel said. “It’s—”

“Me,” Bart said. “I’m the traitor.” He sprung to his feet and lunged for Michel.

“No!” Roderik yelled. “Don’t—”

Bart rammed into Michel’s rotund body, his feet staggering backward in tiny steps. They hit the corner of Edmund’s bed, which collapsed. Michel landed with Bart on top. Beside them, Edmund coughed and released a pain-filled groan.

Eloy and Gilles stared at one another as if frozen from the sudden and unexpected action.

Roderik stood and took a step toward Bart, but was pushed sideways by one of the guards and stumbled into Eloy who flailed at his face, connecting with Roderik’s jaw and crashing the two of them against the wall.

The guards pulled Bart off the governor who remained on the ground puffing out quick breaths. Blood covered the governor’s side.

Gilles’ eyes widened. “The governor. He’s—”

“That filthy pirate stabbed the governor.” Eloy shot to his feet.

The guards pushed Bart to his knees.

“With what?” Bart asked. “Though I would if given a chance.” He spat.

Eloy drew a dirk. “Hold him.”

“Wait,” Roderik said. “He didn’t do anything. He—”

Edmund choked and gasped and coughed. Roderik’s head spun toward the old man. Blood spewed from Edmund’s mouth.

“Look,” Roderik yelled.

“Please,” Edmund said. “I’m the traitor.” Each word from the old man screamed pain and a life ending.

Eloy shook his head. “You’re trying to confuse me with all this talk.” He pulled back his arm, preparing to run Bart through. The young man remained on his knees chin held high, awaiting his freedom.

Roderik rolled forward, ignoring the stabs of pain coursing through him. “No!” He grabbed for Eloy’s arm, but Gilles kicked his hand away.

Roderik glanced up as Eloy’s dirk pierced Bart’s chest. The young man gasped and slumped, his knees slid apart sinking him closer to the floor. His red hair fell in front of his face. The chest puncture oozed.

Roderik closed his eyes. Senseless. The entire imprisonment and suffering of these men was pointless.

“What have you done?” Michel’s words were labored.

“I thought you’d been—”

“Been what?” Michel asked.

“The blood, you’re wounded,” Eloy said.

Roderik sat up. “Look at Edmund, he’s sick.”

All the men stepped away from the old man.

“You’ve likely killed this man for no reason.” Roderik went to Bart’s side. His breathed, but said nothing and his eyes remained shrouded by stringy red hair.

“Quiet, prisoner.” Eloy huffed and waved the bloody dirk in Roderik’s face. “Look at the governor. His side and back are soaked with blood.”

“You half-wit,” Roderik said. “Edmund coughed blood on the governor.”

Bart’s head rose, his eyes peered from under the veil of hair. “Traitor.” He gasped and coughed. “How? Why?”

“Me, Bart,” Roderik said, “I’ve betrayed us all.”

“I’ll finish you.” Eloy leveled his dirk at Bart.

“You already have,” Roderik said.

Bart’s head slumped, and his body collapsed.

Michel’s face reddened beyond its normal pinkish hue; a vein on his forehead bulged. “Get out of here, Eloy. You’re lucky I don’t throw you in the darkest cell and let the rats pick at you.”

Eloy’s eyes squinted in confusion. A second later, he ran out of the cell.

“You.” Michel pointed at Gilles. “Take the corpse out of here.” He pointed at the guards. “Help him.”

“But what of the other two prisoners?” one of the guards asked.

“Don’t worry about them,” Michel said.

Gilles stomped from the cell followed by the guards dragging Bart’s body. A thin trail of blood stained the stone. The footsteps faded.

Roderik’s legs wobbled and he dizzied. Michel’s fetid breath blew across his face. He turned his head to the side and held his breath a moment. Once his stomach settled, he licked his cracked lips, scraping caked salt from them.

“Roderik,” Michel said, “I never meant for this. I—”

“You what?” Roderik spun, raised a hand, and took a step toward Michel. He didn’t care what happened to him now—he meant the governor harm. At least that’d be a form of redemption.

“Don’t,” a weak voice said. Edmund groaned and got to his feet. He shook and shivered. Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth atop the blood already crusted there.

“What’s this?” Michel asked.

Edmund fell against the rotund governor, the unexpected weight—even that of an emaciated old man—toppled them. The old man landed on Michel who gasped for air, sucking in ragged breaths. The sailing master coughed, spraying blood on the governor’s face and neck.

Roderik stooped, attempting to pull Edmund off of the governor, but Michel rolled, ending up on top of Edmund.

“Michel,” Roderik said. “Get off.”

Michel rolled off the sailing master and managed somehow to get to his feet. He dragged a sleeve across his face and spit. “Guards,” he yelled and stumbled out of the cell.

Roderik went to Edmund’s side. “You didn’t have to interfere. I was ready to pay the consequences of attacking the governor,” Roderik whispered in his ear.

“I couldn’t allow such a folly,” Edmund whispered. “You’ve duties regarding your order. Find the innkeeper in Marseilles—Claude.”

Edmund coughed. Warm droplets of blood and spit hit Roderik’s cheek, but he didn’t care. Not now. Not when Edmund intervened and prevented Roderik’s certain life imprisonment or execution.

“I’m sorry,” Roderik whispered. “I should never have pretended to be a prisoner. My deceit cost you and Bart your lives.”

“The poor boy,” Edmund said. “I never wanted him hurt and now he’s dead.” He coughed and coughed.

The slapping of uneven footfalls echoed. Roderik glanced up from the dying sailing master. Michel stood in the doorway; his face had turned from red to bone white.

“Roderik,” Michel said. “Get away from him, he’ll spread his ill.”

“You’ve killed him, and for what?” Roderick asked.

“Answers. Information.”

“Old information and likely of no use to you.”

Edmund groaned, but a cough interrupted the sound. “Go, Roderik. Do good for your order, but remember, even pirates have honor and some deserve forgiveness and redemption.”

“I’m afraid I’m the one in need of both of those,” Roderik said.

Edmund gasped and his breathing ceased. Roderik smoothed the dead man’s hair and mouthed a quick prayer.

“You can return to your quarters,” Michel said from behind. “You’ve done your part.”

“I did nothing other than betray these men. I betrayed myself.” Roderick stood and shoved past Michel. “We’ll speak in the morning.” Roderik walked away, standing as straight as his broken body would allow, determined Michel would not see how physically weak he’d become. “The topic of discussion will be my departure from your beloved chateau.”

His penance was far from over—had hardly begun in fact. Marseilles—perhaps his redemption awaited in an inn run by a man named Claude.

****