“More wine!” the man in the pit called. “Bring me more wine!”
The servants clustered about the edge of the pit scurried around the room, looking for more wine. One, a thin, mustachioed man in a waistcoat, attempted to take charge of the chaos.
“Bring him more wine! Bring the prisoner more wine!” he hissed at his underlings.
They scampered off through the passageways of the castle, scouring the store rooms. When a bottle of red was found, it was placed into the wicker basket that hung on the rope and tackle pulley. The basket was lowered down, down into the pit.
This pit was around ten meters deep, and had a diameter of no more than four. It was lined with smooth, cold stone. The man in the pit took the wine from the basket and popped the cork with his teeth. He poured the wine into a gilded goblet and drank deeply. He scowled up at the men who crowded the edge of the pit, peering down at him.
“What’s wine without some cheese and bread, you fools! Get me some damned food!”
“Get him some food! Get the prisoner food!” the man in the waistcoat snarled, pulling vigorously at his mustaches.
Breads, cheeses, and a hunk of roast ham were quickly lowered in the wicker basket. The man in the pit ate voraciously. He had been fed a similar portion three times already this day, yet his hunger never seemed to be sated. The man in the waistcoat was sighed with relief when his team was taken off shift at sundown, replaced with the evening team.
“Clock in at dawn tomorrow,” he said in the passageway outside, as the evening team took up positions around the pit.
His men nodded and bowed. Once they had left, he sagged against the storage shelves, his head in his hands. He was not sure how much longer he could hold this position. Of course, he was paid well for his services. They all were. None of his staff was ever short of food or drink for their families. The castle was large, with plenty of living space for the staff, and the warring tribes that clashed on the hinterlands outside knew never to trespass on the castle grounds. His family was safe and happy. Things were good.
And yet, he was beginning to feel it. The urge. He was on top now. It was his turn. He wanted it more than anything else, the closer he came to it, the more he watched the man in the pit. He’d seen the same fervor start to come over his former master too, right before the end. He knew what it meant. The man in the waistcoat went through this cycle of thought often, almost twice a week now, and kept coming up at the same conclusion. There simply wasn’t another alternative.
He trudged home to his quarters, kissed his wife and hugged his children, and sat before the fire, sipping a cold bowl of soup. He pressed his face as close to the hearth as he could, until the flames licked at him like a dog’s rough tongue. His wife came and sat down beside him on the cushions. She clutched his hand, and ran her hands through his hair. She knew what he was going to do, he could feel it. This was her way of saying goodbye.
“More blankets! I’ve caught a chill down here, you barbarians! What the hell am I imprisoned for if you can’t even keep me warm?” The prisoner’s shrill squeal wafted up from the pit.
The man in the waistcoat snapped at his team. They stuffed the wicker basket full of blankets and hauled on the block and tackle. To someone not familiar with how things worked around the pit, it might have seemed like the prisoner was upset. He was, but this was his permanent disposition, at least as far as his staff was concerned, and the man in the waistcoat was accustomed to it. This one had been prisoner for a long time. His moods were predictable.
The man in the waistcoat turned to his assistant, drew him away from the edge of the pit.
“Is everything prepared?” he whispered.
The rest of his team was peering over the edge, waiting for the prisoner’s next command.
“Yes sir, we’re ready. I’ve told the evening team leader we’ll be picking up extra hours. He’s happy for the time off, he won’t trouble us.”
“Sir?” his assistant paused, wringing his small hands. “Are you sure about this? I understand why, but…”
The man in the waistcoat put his hands on his assistant’s shoulders. “It’s the only way out, my friend. You’ll understand, once you step into my shoes. Relish it.”
His assistant nodded furtively. He held out his palm, slipped something into his supervisor’s hand. No one was watching, all the other men were still crowded around the pit. The man in the waistcoat glanced at the glass vial in his palm, the murky green liquid inside.
“How many are with us?”
“Five. The others I gave the night off.”
The man in the waistcoat nodded. “Five will be fine.”
“Laundry change!” the prisoner called. The assistant ran to the edge of the pit, helped the men haul up the dirty laundry in the wicker basket and haul it off to the wash. Two men standing by placed clean, fresh-pressed linens and clothes in the basket and lowered it again. The man in the waistcoat tugged at his mustaches, stuck the vial in his pocket. Only a few more hours until the prisoner would call for dinner. He leaned against the wall.
As evening drew to a close, the dozen or so men who’d been given the night off filed out into the passageway. The man in the waistcoat, his assistant at his side, looked at those who remained.
“All of you understand the consequences of what we are about to do?” he said, softly enough that the man in the pit could not hear.
The men all nodded.
“I am honored by your assistance,” he said. “I trust you will serve me well.”
They nodded again.
“Bring my dinner!” the prisoner squealed from the pit.
The man in the waistcoat checked his pocket watch. Right on time. The men grabbed the cheeses and breads, and the assistant brought the wine bottle. He popped the cork, and the man in the waistcoat poured the liquid from the green vial into the bottle. He shook the red wine around until the colors had dissolved, then put the cork back in. He prayed that the prisoner wouldn’t notice.
“Lower the damned food, my stomach is killing me!”
The man in the waistcoat put the wine in the basket with the cheeses and breads, and his men lowered it into the pit. They all waited, peering down into the gloom at their employer. The prisoner took the wine and drank deeply, stuffing his face with the cheeses and breads. Not a minute had passed before he stood up, made a hacking, gagging noise, and clutched wildly at his throat. The man in the waistcoat looked around at the others. Their faces were cold, impassive. The prisoner keeled over dead, falling into his pile of blankets and knocking over the bottle of wine. The men scurried over to the pulley, untying the wicker basket. Three men came from the corridor with a larger platform, which they fastened to the pulley. The man in the waistcoat’s assistant came to him. His face was hard.
“Are you ready, prisoner?”
The man in the waistcoat walked to the platform and lay back on it. It was swung out over the edge of the pit.
He looked to his captor and smiled. He was so happy. So unbelievably, indescribably happy. “Imprison me.”