The term “oubliette” came from the French for “to forget.” It was an apt description. Beneath the sandy soil of Spain, Edward Pembroke rotted away in a tiny dungeon, forgotten by everyone and forgetful of the life he’d known before.
He did not know how long he had been there. There were no tools with which he might mark the passage of days. At first Edward tried to count the sunrises as they filtered through the bars above his head, but he had no hope of keeping track. He could feel from the growth of beard on his chin that many days had passed, but he could not have said how many if his life depended on it.
Not that Edward’s life was particularly worth saving at this point. He was a wreck. His shirt and breeches, purchased while in Italy and of which he had briefly been inordinately proud, hung in tatters around his gaunt body. One stocking was torn and stained a mottled dark brown from dirt and dried blood. The other had disappeared entirely. That leg was bare beneath the knee, marred with fleabites and scratch marks from the claws of the rats that shared his dank home. Edward’s hair hung in lank strands. His face, the pretty face which had once made him the cosseted darling of nannies and aunts and later the desired prize of women and men alike, was hidden behind a matted, filthy beard.
Edward saw no one, not even his captors. He had not spoken in so long he doubted his voice still worked. At irregular intervals, a crust of moldy bread or a piece of maggoty fruit rained down from the barred hole above. In the beginning, when hunger still gnawed at his gut, Edward leaped upon this food as if it were a gift from the heavens. Now, as often as not, he permitted the rats to have it. It kept them away from him, at least for a time, and he had no desire to prolong his miserable existence.
The last time they brought him to the surface, the jailer, Don Fuego, told Edward he had only himself to blame for his suffering. “If you were only a little more, how do you say it, friendly, I would be glad to return you with the other prisoners,” he said. There were others in the don’s custody, a few dozen English soldiers and sailors kept in army barracks behind fortified walls. They were still captives, but they were not forced to endure the lonely darkness of the oubliette. Edward dreamed about joining them. He might as well have dreamed of swimming home to England.
From the moment Edward was brought to the prison, the don had made it eminently clear what he would have to do in order to receive humane treatment. While Edward, fresh from the wreck of His Majesty’s sloop Lady Mary, stood shivering in the jailer’s presence, Don Fuego walked around him until he stood at Edward’s back. Edward was not particularly tall, and the don stooped to place his mouth beside Edward’s ear. “You are, how do you say, a very handsome man.” Bile rose in Edward’s throat. He swallowed hard and hoped the don could not hear it. “And so well dressed.” The don ran a hand along the sleeve of Edward’s wet yet exquisitely tailored jacket. Edward had purchased it during his time in Rome, shortly before embarking on the ill-fated journey home. “Some of my men have a taste for delectable English beef. I am certain you will oblige them, no?”