For those of you who might be wondering, a whipping boy is a child who is raised with a young prince and who receives any punishments due to the prince, usually whipping, obviously. The tutor is of a lower status than the prince and thus couldn’t administer the punishment directly. The whipping would be carried out in front of the prince to show him the consequences of his misbehaviour.
There is little historical evidence for the existence of such children and it looks like they might be an invention of later scholars. There is some evidence that princes would not be whipped when everyone else in the class was, but there are also accounts of princes being punished. Either way, the phrase gave me the idea for this story, I hope you like it.
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A fist smacked into Willan’s face and smacked his head into the seat’s backrest. Before he could refocus another came in from the other side. His face was a mass of bruises from the continued beating, although he understood this was just the beginning, they’d yet to ask him any questions. With his swelled eyes he could no longer see his surroundings other than as a vague blur. They’d dragged him in semi-conscious; he was only able to work out he was tied to a wooden chair in a room at the top of a tower which was part of the High Bishop’s residence. This latter he knew only because he was in the capital city when he was captured.
The beating stopped and a bucket of foul water was thrown over him. It was cold and tasted of urine, stinging his face and bringing him round a little. There were two of them in the room, the brain and the brawn, as he liked to think of them. The brawn was constantly on his feet, walking around with manic energy and a grin on his face. Willan wouldn’t have been surprised to see the man was aroused.
The second man was sitting on a similar chair to his own, several pieces of paper, some quills and a pot of ink on the small table before him. Everyone talked. No one came up here and didn’t talk, it was inevitable. Also on the table was a loaf of bread, some cheese, a flagon of water and a flask of wine. Everyone talked, sometimes it just took a little longer.
The brain spoke, his voice soft and calm, reasonable, Willan thought. “Now you’re certain of our intentions to beat you to death, I’m sure you’re keen to discover a way to stop this happening, yes?”
Willan didn’t reply and another punch came thundering in. His sight faded and his hearing was reduced to a constant whistle. After what felt like several minutes, his hearing returned.
“Are you back with us? Good. I’m going to ask you a series of questions, you will answer those questions to my satisfaction and then we can all go home. Understood?”
“Ask away,” Willan answered. Brawn was skilled at his job and hadn’t damaged his mouth, not even loosened a tooth.
“Excellent. Now, what is your name?”
“Your full name.”
“And what is your codename?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh dear, and we were going so well. You are a spy, Mr Krain-Hoxley. I know this, you know this. Stop playing games and get on with it. It’s already been a long day.”
“I’m not a spy.”
There was a pause, and then a fist smashed into Willan’s ribs on the right side, breaking at least one of them. “Nimbus, it’s Nimbus.” he gasped.
“Very good. I knew that already, we’ve already neutralised your whole network, Nimbus, you’re just here to clear up a few loose ends.”
“Now, how did you get your messages back to the kingdom?”
“We smuggled them in your sister’s arse.”
There was no punch this time, Brawn leaned in and drove his fingers between the broken ribs. He gritted his teeth against the pain.
“Willan, now that wasn’t nice. I don’t even have a sister. Try again. How did you get your messages back to your kingdom?”
“Pigeons, carrier pigeons.”
“Excellent. You see, there was no need for any unpleasantness. Now, we know your king is running low on troops and is massing his forces for one last desperate and futile push into the High Bishop’s lands. We need to know where.”
“He’s planning a frontal assault on your mother’s fanny.”
Instead of the fist, what felt like an iron bar impacted against his right knee, shattering the knee cap. He fainted, coming around sometime later. He was dripping wet and he’d been given some water to drink.
“Ahh, there you are. I must commend you on your fortitude Willan. Many a man has been broken here, few have lasted as long as you. But you must understand you only have so many bones, and if we break too many, you will die. Now, again, where is the king planning to attack from.”
“Don’t take me for a fool Willan. Greenvale Heights are to the south and would mean a march of several days. No army would be able to fight after such a trek. Try again, or shall we go for the second knee?”
“Do you want me to smash in your teeth or are you referring to the strange rocks found in Wolfpelt Vale?”
“Very good. We got there in the end. Throw him in a cell, we might need to speak to him again, if he lives.”
Brawn untied Willan and slung him over his shoulder, then marched down several flights of stairs, deliberately knocking his head and body against every wall and door jamb. Finally he was dropped onto the floor of a dark, empty cell and Brawn left.
Willan smiled as the man walked away. The pain faded and broken bones knitted themselves back together. In minutes he was able to stand and await his rescue.
The plan was risky but the kingdom was desperate. Willan had allowed himself to be caught and tortured, knowing he could be killed. Meanwhile, in the kingdom, one of the High-Bishop’s generals had been captured, and his body bound by magic to Willan’s. Everything that had happened to Willan had actually been felt by the general. This had allowed Willan to keep his senses and give the Brain the wrong information. When the High-Bishop’s men entered Wolfpelt Vale, they would find only a small force waiting, and a larger army at their backs, trapping them in. The king had been sending his forces into Greenvale Heights for months, where they’d been hiding supplies ready for the battle.
Willan heard the sound of a body hitting the floor and the jangle of keys; his rescue party was here. Willan turned to the cell wall and kicked it with all his might. There was a little pain and he felt the toe break. There you are, general, he thought, have that one on me.