Arcanum 1780: A New World
Tale - Asking Questions
The low-ceilinged room was alternating between frigid cold and ghastly heat. Colonel Hugh Fordham – ex-colonel, now, since his assault and subsequent desertion – sat barechested and bound in a rigid iron chair. His sweat, by turns, became unbearably sticky when he was blasted with heat, only to switch unpredictably to a sheet of ice when the frosty wind blew in through the open window. There was no doubt the room had been set up like this for his benefit. No man in their right mind would tolerate a room like this by choice.
His captor, his one chance at salvation and freedom, sat by the roaring fire. He made no sound as he slowly turned the white hot coals with a sharp wrought-iron rod. Every turn caused the breath to catch in Hugh’s throat, his eyes drawn to the glowing tip of the metal, knowing full well it was far too thin to be of much use manipulating the sturdy logs in the fireplace. Hugh’s attention was so focused on the crackling of the fire and the poker slowly lifting out of the flames that he almost missed the soft words that came from the figure standing at the hearth.
“I’m going to begin by asking you some questions. You will answer, as I am sure you are well aware. You will answer until you run out of words. If your words ring false, I will know.” The tip of the poker briefly wavered out of the flames before plunging back into the coals. Hugh thought he detected perhaps a moment’s hesitation, but that could have been primarily the fear and hope pulsing through his brain.
“I feel I do not need to impress upon you the extreme displeasure I feel when I am lied to. It is the small betrayal which hurt the most, is it not? The little lies. To betray one’s country, it weighs on the conscious not at all, does it, Hugh? But the little lies we tell ourselves every day, they are what rots the soul. Erodes it away until we are nothing more than a creature of instinct, primal and raw. I tell myself each day that I dislike my work. That I despise what I do to men such as yourself.” The poker angrily drove deeper into the embers once more, sending a cascade of sparks upward. The sparks glinted angrily off of the metal implements sitting on the table next to him. Hugh found his eyes locked at the array of knives, hooks, and other items he had no proper name for. Is that rust on those blades? Blood?
“All lies, but what is a man to do? Admit he is a base monster who relishes the suffering of others? That he enjoys seeing the truth laid bare as he gently flays back the skin of dishonesty? Hardly a pretty sentiment, but the truth rarely is beautiful. What about you, Hugh?” The poker came out of the fire once more. “Are you ready to show me the ugly truth that you are filled with?”
And Hugh was. He spoke the truth of everything he knew. Of everything he thought he knew – of troop movements, motives, strengths. A scribe was brought in and he spoke at length of the fortifications he had seen. All told, the truth of what Hugh knew filled perhaps half of a book, closed and wrapped with twine once he could speak no more. The book sat on the table in front of him, taunting him in the blazing light from the fireplace, filled with every tidbit of information he had relied on to keep himself useful and alive. He had been laid bare in mere days after crossing the border, with all of his secrets on display. His head hung low, as he lacked the strength to look at the man standing once again at the fireplace. With a decisive click, he set the poker down on the mantle of the fireplace. There was the slow and all-too familiar sound of metal being drawn along rough leather, and Hugh could almost feel the light glinting off the knife in the man’s hand. As he felt the weight of his shadow falling across his back, Hugh took one last breath. He had failed.
“The punishments of the mind are always worse than the abuses of the body, I find. The knowledge that you have betrayed everyone that you have ever known, in the hopes of saving your own pathetic skin. That you have somehow convinced yourself that you were saving your life by sacrificing all of them.” There was the slow and agonizing tearing of fibers as he felt the knife sawing back and forth, making a horrendous tearing sound, causing Hugh to grit his teeth until his jaw felt like it would fracture.
Suddenly, he was free. The pressure on his wrists was gone, the tightness of his bound chest suddenly no longer a concern. Hugh didn’t quite understand the reality of his situation until he felt the cords around his chest slithering into a loose pile on his lap. A soft voice, breath hot and wet with closeness, spoke into his ear. “There was never any need to fear, my dear Hugh. You will be a valued asset for many years to come. I hear they’re considering reinstating your rank for everything you have done. And, I trust, will do for us in the future.” There was a brief chuckle as the figure slipped from the room, leaving Hugh alone to weep with his unblemished body and shattered spirit.
- Rase Cidraen