The rat squealed as he bit into it, squirming wildly in his hands, frantic to escape. The belly was the softest part. He tore at the sweet meat, the warm blood running over his lips. It was so good that it brought tears to his eyes. His belly rumbled and he swallowed. By the third bite the rat had ceased to struggle, and he was feeling almost content.
Then he heard the sounds of voices outside the dungeon door.
At once he stilled, fearing even to chew. His mouth was full of blood and flesh and hair, but he dare not spit or swallow. He listened in terror, stiff as stone, to the scuff of boots and the clanking of iron keys. No, he thought, no, please gods, not now, not now. It had taken him so long to catch the rat. If they catch me with it, they will take it away, and then they’ll tell, and Lord Ramsay will hurt me.
He knew he ought to hide the rat, but he was so hungry. It had been two days since he had eaten, or maybe three. Down here in the dark
it was hard to tell. Though his arms and legs were thin as reeds, his belly was swollen and hollow, and ached so much that he found he could not sleep. Whenever he closed his eyes, he found himself remembering Lady Hornwood. After their wedding, Lord Ramsay had locked her away in a tower and starved her to death. In the end she had eaten her own fingers.
He crouched down in a corner of his cell, clutching his prize under his chin. Blood ran from the corners of his mouth as he nibbled at the rat with what remained of his teeth, trying to bolt down as much of the warm flesh as he could before the cell was opened. The meat was stringy, but so rich he thought he might be sick. He chewed and swallowed, picking small bones from the holes in his gums where teeth had been yanked out. It hurt to chew, but he was so hungry he could not stop.
The sounds were growing louder. Please gods, he isn’t coming for me, he prayed, tearing off one of the rat’s legs. It had been a long time since anyone had come for him. There were other cells, other prisoners. Sometimes he heard them screaming, even through the thick stone walls. The women always scream the loudest. He sucked at the raw meat and tried to spit out the leg bone, but it only dribbled over his lower lip and tangled in his beard. Go away, he prayed, go away, pass me by, please, please.
But the footsteps stopped just when they were loudest, and the keys clattered right outside the door. The rat fell from his fingers. He wiped his bloody fingers on his breeches. “No,” he mumbled, “noooo.” His heels scrabbled at the straw as he tried to push himself into the corner, into the cold damp stone walls.
The sound of the lock turning was the most terrible of all. When the light hit him full in the face, he let out a shriek. He had to cover his eyes with his hands. He would have clawed them out if he’d dared, his head was pounding so. “Take it away, do it in the dark, please, oh please.”
“That’s not him,” said a boy’s voice. “Look at him. We’ve got the wrong cell.”
“Last cell on the left,” another boy replied. “This is the last cell on the left, isn’t it?”
“Aye.” A pause. “What’s he saying?”
“I don’t think he likes the light.”
“Would you, if you looked like that?” The boy hawked and spat. “And the stench of him. I’m like to choke.”
“He’s been eating rats,” said the second boy. “Look.”
The first boy laughed. “He has. That’s funny.”
I had to.