Cullen felt a chill down his spine, knowing that these words are connected to the presence of this charnel house. His fellow searchers were overtaken by a near manic state of relief at the seeming lack of danger. The presence of the pits of bones obviously unnerved them, but they took refuge in pompous arrogance and disrespect at the discovery.
While laughing their way through the horror around them, Osa was watching Cullen as he explored the room, carefully panning his lantern light over every inch of the chamber. He inspected the hooks and manacles, often returning to the oubliettes before stopping before one. He crouched at the edge spending time studying the contents. She had not forgotten how insulting he was toward Madallon. Looking at the mercenaries, who followed her nod and they walked over to Cullen. The mercenaries rushed forward and knocked the young man into the pile of bones. They laughed as he struggled to get his footing. Osa looked satisfied at his discomfort.
The amusement of the watchers drained away as Cullen grunted in pain and jerked a leg out of the bones. A skull was latched to his leg. The rest of the pile began to shift, skulls began to turn his direction with some of the fuller skeletons rising up and shambling towards the page. Cullen was swift with his mace, the weapon singing through the air as he began to crush bones with surprising speed and accuracy as the skulls continued to assault him.
Osa and the mercenaries stood trembling, their throats dry and unable to speak. Cullen fought through tears and the agony of tearing teeth, his stoicism unbroken until an armless skeleton lunged forward. The creature bit through his right arm, severing the limb. Howling in pain, Cullen caught the falling weapon in his other hand, swinging hard on the skull that just struck him. His mangled legs gave way and, still fighting, the youth fell back into the pile, his screams trailing off into a wet gurgling.
Moments later, the waiting group was rushing into the chamber, Selig charging forth to find his servant. He approached the trembling observers as the sounds of crunching bones became louder. Looking into the pit, he saw the mangled remains of his faithful retainer. Osa caught his eye and backpedaled.
“He fell, milord! He leaned forward too far and lost his footing!”
The sounds from the oubliette subsided while Selig stared at her and the mercenaries.
Without further words, Selig led his people out of the chamber, returning to their camp. They remained silent, going through the motions of chores. The youngest pages were filled with horror at the loss of their elder and Nima gave up on preparing dinner to administer to their grief. Selig and Constance took over from her, working in silence.
Elijah was the only one not being busy. Repeatedly members of their opposite number would attempt to approach, but would turn back from the youth stoically holding his sword. His eyes were a smoldering rage. When the mercenaries began their nightly carousing, Elijah’s approach caused their merriment to come to an end. Ulrich pulled him back to their camp.
The evening passed slowly and Selig began to stare at Nima. Eventually the entire camp began to do the same. A ceramic jug was produced and was passed around. The spirits burned their throats, a welcome sensation as the fluid heated them.
“Nima,” Selig said, “would you share some good words for us?”
Nima’s face blanched, and she began to stutter.
“My lord, I don’t think I am suitable for the task.”
Constance smiled wanly, taking hand before speaking.
“Dear sister, who else here is better able to speak for the lost?”
Nima sat in terror, unable to speak. She looked around at the faces focused on her. They were a mixture of need and solemnity, a desire for closure. Thinking for some time, Nima began to speak, hesitating at first before gaining strength.
“Mother Edana, our family is lessened by the loss of a child.” Nima’s voice faltered at the last and tears streamed down her face, but she quickly resumed. “Cullen was a brave youth, and his loyalty unwavering, and the shame is in his inglorious death. Search out his soul, Mother, and guide him to rest.”
The older members of the company nodded in approval, while the younger pages and Nima wept unabashed. Constance tightened her grip around Nima, while Elijah and Ulrich, both at a loss as to how to comfort the pages, settled with patting their shoulders.
Eventually, Selig rose and built up the fire.
“Ulrich, you and Anse have the first watch.”
Constance began to fill her pipe, offering it to Ulrich who lit it with coal from the fire. While waiting for the pipe to return, she took a deep draught from the jug.