The slow tick of liquid hitting stone echoes through the dungeon cell. A winged man hung suspended in the middle of the room by a chain connected to a spike that had been plunged through the man’s torso and split into two curled tendrils around his sides. Occasionally a drop of blood fell from the split spike onto the stone floor and into a small pool that never quite made it to the drainage grate. Every once in a while the man took a quick, rattling breath, then let it out in a long, low hiss. The skeletons manacled along the wall watched in frozen, timeless interest at the man who doesn’t die.
Suddenly the stillness of the cell was broken by the jingling of metal and the scraping from the turn of a rarely-used lock. The heavy wooden door swung open on the squeak of rusting hinges. A larger winged man with soot-colored hair and eyes that shone with mischief stepped silently into the room and looked up at the suspended man.
“Oi,” the mischievous man said to the suspended man, “You gonna ‘ang up there ol day again?”
The suspended man did not reply.
“Ah go summin yeh migh loik,” the mischievous man continued unabashed. “iz a announcemen’ bout da chris-ning o de royal bastard.”
The suspended man said nothing, but his arm twitched and he took a sudden, rattling breath.
“An dey still ‘aven found a sui’or the be ‘is new dad. Shame, too. Wot wit bein able the rule da kingdom jus by bein de kid’s dad. Fink any man in ‘is righ mind ‘ould wanna take dat up.”
The suspended man said nothing
The mischievous man brushed off his hands in a finished gesture. “Whelp, ah tried. Guess man news innit as fun as ‘angin ’round ol day. Be-uh give da guard back ‘is keys.”
A quiet, rasping voice came from the suspended man, “Fred.”
The man took a rattling breath, paused, and rasped out, “Help. Me. Down.”
Fred clapped his hands together. “Aye mate.” He sauntered up to the suspended man and took hold of both sides of the split spike. With a groan he pulled on the spike, causing the chain and hook in the ceiling to groan with him. Finally a link in the chain gave way, and the macabre chandelier of a man came down, taking Fred with it to the ground. He rolled his companion off to the side, still holding the spike, and pulled it and the chain through and out of the man with a long, wet syncopation. The man gasped and gargled and coughed on the floor before going still again. Fred pulled some cloth and a salve out of one of his many pouches and proceeded to doctor the wound in his friend’s torso. He then picked up the man and left as silently as he had entered.
“Fred, you need to stop bringing wounded things to my shop. I run an apothecary, not a bleeding charity clinic,” said a winged man in a dapper, but dingy vest suit.
Fred shrugged his massive shoulders. “Wut can ah say, Charles? Drag’ns go-ah take care o each otha, righ?”
Charles ran a hand through his short hair. “Yes, but there’s the little things, like costs and space.”
Fred pulled a large bag of coins off his belt and plunked it onto the counter. Charles’ eyes widened hungrily.
“Fink ovit as back pay,” Fred stated. “Now,” he shrugged the limp man that was draped on his shoulder. “‘Ow ’bout we get ol Jack ‘ere someplace mo’ comf-erble?”
“Jack?” Charles asked unbelieving. “You didn’t tell me you had Jack. Why do you have Jack?” Charles gave Fred a very serious look. “What did you do?”
“Nuffin much,” Fred said nonchalantly. “Jus’ figgured ‘e’d wanna see ‘is son fore-”
“No,” Charles said, shaking his head and waving his arms. “I will not house a fugitive. Not of that caliber. Not when they come looking for him. No.” He grabbed a sack and started shoving salves and potions into it. “You can have medicine and tend to him yourself. Just get him out of here.”
“An’ where d’ya s’pose ah keep ‘im?”
“Don’t care. Just not here.”
Behind Fred, the front door opened and a gasp was heard.
“Jack?” A woman’s voice exclaimed. Fred turned to look behind him at the woman. She was short and petite with fiery red hair pulled into a loose bun and small wings tucked tightly against her back.
“Ev’nin Cathy,” Fred said to her.
Charles leaned around Fred’s large frame to look at the tiny woman. “Catherine, go upstairs and tell no one what you saw.”
The woman walked up to Fred and reached up to touch the face of the limp man draped over his shoulder. Jack squinted his eyes open and looked at her. “Cathy.”
Cathy pulled her hand back and slapped him across the face. Fred quickly turned to face her and simultaneously move Jack’s head away. He braced his free arm against the woman and her flailing, clawing hands.
“How dare you come around here after sleeping with that trollop! If you think I’m going to take pity on you-“
“Ah brought ‘im ‘here, Cathy! Lookit ‘im! ‘e can’ ev’n keep ‘is ‘ed up!” Fred said over Cathy’s protests.
“You should have left him to rot!” Cathy replied, punctuated by spitting onto the floor.
From behind Fred, Jack rasped out, “Cathy. Forgive. Me. I’m an. Idiot.”
Cathy crossed her arms, “Damn right you are.”
Charles patted the sack on the counter. “You’d better go, boys.”
“Aye,” Fred said. He turned, cautiously, just enough to be able to pick up the sack.
Cathy suddenly looked confused. “Wait,” she said, “Where are you going?”
“Dunno,” Fred replied. “Where’er we kin ‘ide out til ‘e ‘eals up.”
Cathy whipped her head to face Charles. “Any why are they not staying here, Charles?”
Charles held his hands up defensively. “Cathy, we can’t have him here when the city guards come looking for him”
Cathy swing back around to Fred. “Fred, did anyone see you go into the dungeon?”
“Did you lock his cell door and replace the keys?”
“Does anyone go down to that cell block?”
“Did anyone hear you down there?”
Fred shrugged and looked away. “Ah might’a ‘ad to pull ‘im off ta ceiling. No-un came runnin, though.”
Cathy looked incredulous, but waved the worry away. “In any case, we’ve got time before anyone comes looking for him. Plenty of time for him to heal. Right Charles?”
Charles looked over his spectacles at her. “The man has a hole through his gut.”
“Plenty of time,” Cathy said nodding. She threaded her arm around Fred’s and started leading him to the back of the shop. “Come, we’ll put him in the basement with the rest of the garbage.”
“It’s not garbage, Cathy!” Charles called after her. “It’s my life’s work! And did you listen to ta word I said? I sear I’m talking to a wall.” His complaining continued while Cathy took a candle and led Fred down into the cellar.
“Thank ye,” Fred said while they descended the narrow staircase. “Ah really dunno where ah woulda kept ‘im.”
“Not a problem,” Cathy said. They reached the bottom of the stairs and Cathy used the candle she was holding to light a few sconces along the walls. The dim light illuminated a desk covered in brass bits and baubles, a Bunsen burner, some books, parchment, and quills. Barrels and crates were tucked into corners, collecting dust. “You can put him down here,” Cathy said. She gestured to a small area under the stairs that was hidden by more crates.
When Fred Peeked into the nook he saw a small hay pile covered in a nest of quilts. “Looks like summ’un’s already been ‘idin’ ‘ere.”
“Charles takes naps in between working on his ‘life’s work.’” Cathy said. “I’m not sure if my brother is a genius or a mad man.”
Fred and Cathy got Jack settled in the quilt and hay nest and Cathy began changing the dressing on Jack’s wound.
“It’s healing nicely,” she said. “I’m always amazed by your field first aid.”
“Thakye,” Fred said quietly while he unpacked the sack and handed supplies to Cathy.
“Interesting,” Cathy muttered. “This hole is as wide as my forearm, and it looks like the organs healed around the thing he was impaled on. Look.” She pointed at the edges of the wound. “They’ve made an empty circle, but all the organs themselves are intact. And this indention across his torso…What did they do to you?”
“They ‘ad ‘im ‘angin from the ceiling from som kina ‘ook thing,” Fred said solemnly.
“How long was he up there?”
“’ow long ‘as ‘e been gone?”
Cathy’s face went pale. She silently returned to tending the wound. Very little blood seeped from the hole while she cleaned it. “Even the skin has almost healed just as it is. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’d better go get Charles.” She got up and ran upstairs.
Fred sat back on the floor and stared down at his friend. “Don’ die on me yet, mate,” he said quietly. “Ye ‘eld on this lon’, don’t le’ ‘er win now.”
Jack groaned and rasped out, “Won’t. Giver her. The satisfaction.”
Fred smiled. A moment later Cathy and Charles came down the stairs. Charles knelt down next to Jack and inspected the wound. He took a couple tools and poked and prodded the organs. Jack grunted in response and Charles looked at his face.
“You’re awake?” He asked.
“Yeah,” Jack grunted.
Charles looked back at the wound. “You won’t want to be,” he said. “Cathy, get the ether, and one of the sterile needles with surgical thread.”
Jack rasped out, “What are you-“
“With the way you healed around the whatever-it-was they used on you, the connective tissue adapted and is holding your organs in a new position around the hole. The options you have are these: I could graft the hole closed, fill it with saline, and hope that it all takes and heals properly, which will involve you being there longer; or I can stitch the skin shut to block the organs from the open air, give you some penicillin, and have you out of my cellar sooner.”
Jack lay silently for a moment, then gave an upset groan.
“Look, Jack,” Charles said. “Your body has already adapted to your current…predicament. The edges of your skin are even starting to heal the way they are. Either way, I’m going to have to cut this edge off for it to fuse with itself at all. Do you want to get on with whatever you plan on doing, or do you want to stay here and look at my pretty face longer?”
“Whatever. Makes you. Stop. Whining.”
While Charles worked, Fred started making his way to the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Cathy asked.
“Ye go’ this taken care of. Ah best be ‘eaded out.” Fred replied.
“I think Jack would want you here when he wakes up,” Cathy said. “You are his best mate.”
“Aye,” Fred admitted.
“Then it’s settled,” Cathy said. “You’ll stay here. I’ll fetch some blankets for you once we’re done with the procedure.”
“This isn’t a bed and breakfast,” Charles muttered.
“Oh hush up.”