“Gone are their days of pride, their days of wealth, their days of glory. The Knights of the Moon may actually be forgotten in days to come. Their ambition has been replaced with compassion and honor, and that leaves them as the dregs of Vieran society. But I believe they are the better for it.”
-Shulithis, 10th Chronicler of the Knights of the Moon.
Landon blanched. “Five silvers? That’s it?”
“Not even a quarter of what the imperial smiths would get if they made a piece like this,” said Sir Wallace.
Landon turned the sword over in his hands. Balance, heft, style, all perfect. Wallace was more a craftsman than a smith.
“Cursed politics,” said Landon. “We still want you. We always will.”
Wallace slipped half a grin out from behind his gray whiskers. “Then you’d better start puttin’ food on the table yourself, heh.”
Landon chuckled. “I do my best.”
The door flew open. A crisp gust of icy air curled around the room and teased the fire. A figure stumbled inside and tried to close the door, but it closed rather less quickly than it had opened; Landon sprang to his feet to help secure the latch.
The bundled figure leaned against the door and panted and coughed.
Landon patted him on the shoulder. “Haven’t frozen to death, then, Shul? Here, come to the fire; let’s see if you haven’t put it out.”
Shulithis shuffled to the fireplace, rubbed his hands together, held them as near the flames as safely possible. The fire was still crackling merrily, as though the wind’s interruption was now completely forgotten.
After a moment, Shulithis shook free of a burlap cloak and unshouldered a bag. It was mostly patches and scratches on the outside, but the contents were protected by a wicker frame. Shulithis offered it to Landon. “Nearly everything you wanted is in there. I couldn’t afford pork, though.”
Landon shrugged. “I’ll make do. The markets aren’t particularly favorable right now; just ask Wallace.”
“Ah, I nearly forgot,” said Shulithis. He reached into the bag and pulled out a pouch. It clinked lightly. “Is Master Hladir here?”
“Depends who’s asking,” The master’s husky voice came from the doorway to an adjoining room. His broad silhouette was framed by the glow of a candle. “Is that you under those furs, Shulithis? Could be a wolf, you’ve got so many of their skins on.”
“Ah, Master Hladir. Yes. Yes! It’s awful cold out there, you see, and-”
“You wanted me?”
“Yes, sir, it’s about the patrol report. I took it in, like normal, and…” Shulithis shot a sidelong glance at Landon. “Well, they only gave me thirty silvers for it.”
Hladir stepped closer. “What do you mean? Thirty, for a month of patrol work – that’s it? Maker take them; that’s outright robbery.”
Landon considered this. He could cook for the month on twenty-five silvers if he pushed it. “Master Hladir,” he said, “we have to ask for more. We might be able to survive with less food, but the knights on patrol needs more food, not tighter belts.”
Shulithis pulled a slip of parchment from the purse and handed it to Hladir. “They wouldn’t give me more for the report, but they did give me this.”
Hladir examined the parchment. “Work? Hmm. And the legate’s seal, too. Worth investigation.” He smiled thinly and motioned to Landon. “Get dressed. Bring your grocery list. We’ll see what we can do with this.”
Landon took his thick leather coat and woolen overcloak from their hook on the wall. His were very nearly the newest, and had only needed a couple of repairs. The patrol’s cloaks were in much more impressive condition. He slipped on his boots and waited for Hladir.
The air outside could freeze a man if he stood still too long. At least the wall keeps out the wind. Landon looked up and located walltop; the glow of firelight flickered through the inward-facing window of a guard tower. Clad in his crisp black cloak, Hladir stooped to pass through the door. He cut a hard, imposing figure in the frozen street.
“Master Hladir, do you think the imperials have started sending their own patrols out?”
“Not unless the mines have run dry, no.”
They walked on in silence. In truth, the cold was so bitter that excessive talking could injure your throat or turn your lips blue. Landon kept a corner of his cloak wrapped about his neck and mouth and nose.
The streets were almost completely empty; Landon counted a total of three people they passed on the way. Nearer to the legate’s palace, there was no-one outside. The nature of the stronghold led to the construction of a network of underground tunnels, and during winter people tended to trade and move about there. The tunnel network stretched just far enough that it carefully avoided the stronghold’s western slums.
The legate’s palace was carved into a huge stone plateau at the center of the stronghold. The outer courtyard was a wide marble forum, with steps at the palace front for the legate to address the people. Four massive marble columns lined the stairs and supported the rocky overhang. Each one boasted carvings of the Vieran stronghold’s history. Only half of the fourth column remained undecorated.
Landon and Hladir proceeded through the wooden outer doors – each was twice a man’s height and thrice in width – without encountering guards.
The entrance hall was warmed by a fire and boasted red rug carpeting. Ten guards sat and stood about the room; the former, Landon noticed, were seated on wooden benches.
“Ah, it’s the bloody mooners again. Scraping for more coins, most like.”
The other guards chuckled.
“We’re here at the behest of Legate Pontilus,” Hladir said, and took the legate’s message from his belt-pouch to show them. He also unbuckled his longsword scabbard and surrendered the sheathed blade. Landon followed suit with his shortsword.
“Right, right, go ahead then.” The guard walked to the tall, thin inner doors that looked hard and dull enough to be a bronze-gold alloy. He knocked twice, hard, and then heaved the left door inward.
The legate’s hall was shaped like a gauntlet. Parallel council benches flanked the carpet all the way to the legate’s podium; behind them, long tapestries adorned the walls. The base and back of the throne was made of stone and wood. Its single peak was embellished with a golden ornament; the two wooden arms rested atop two crouching golden wyverns. Crimson cushions padded the seat. The room was empty.
Landon spied a door behind and to the right of the throne. After a few moments, an imperial guard stepped into view and motioned for Hladir and Landon to approach.
The door framed a short passage that led to a small chamber.
“Ah, Master Hladir. What a pleasure! Do sit down.” Legate Pontilus waved them over to his table as he swirled and gulped a mouthful of dark red wine.
The chamber had a wide, rectangular table against the far wall. The legate lounged on the opposite side on an ornate dining couch. Two guards stood as straight as their spears, one at each end of the table. The gentle hum of brushed harp-strings lended a calm air to the room; a young girl in maroon silks was playing from her stool in the corner.
“Come, come; you must be famished.”
Landon waited until Hladir sat down, then took a stool beside him.
Hladir eyed the legate. “You shortchanged us. And then you sent for us.”
“Shortchanged!” The legate coughed once, twice, thrice. He mopped at both his chins with a towel. “Gracious, no, ’twas nothing like that! Patrol reports aren’t of particular use right now. It’s winter. We stay here. We don’t go out.”
“Things change, even during winter. My men go out to watch out for such changes. They need to eat.”
“Ah, yes; they do, don’t they. Well, tell them to stop their patrols. We don’t need them right now. I’ve got something else for you.”
Landon looked up at Hladir, and was mildly surprised to see the knight glance at him.
“Aren’t you going to ask what it is?” asked the legate. His shaved chins wobbled as he spoke.
“Legate Pontilus,” Hladir remarked, “we are practically dying of curiosity. Please do fill us in.”
“Ah, you’re no fun at all.” The legate pouted, and Landon was struck by how much he resembled a spoiled child. The man clapped once. One of his guards gave a curt nod and left the room. “You shall see presently. In the meantime, please feel at liberty to guess.” He eyed Hladir.
Landon matched Hladir’s stony gaze as much as he dared; for the master of the Moon-knights to glare was one thing, but for a squire to eye down the legate would be impudence. Still, he couldn’t be seen as Hladir’s weakness.
Legate Pontilus huffed and resumed eating. “Go on, then,” he said through a mouthful of spitted chicken, “at leasht eat something.”
Landon relented and took a piece of chicken from a platter; the legate beamed at him. The chicken was a gentle, crisp brown. But the meat was cold and partially raw within. Only a splash of savor in the whole thing. Landon finished the chicken and kept the bone.
The guard returned with a roll of parchment and a leather pouch.
Landon and Hladir waited silently.
The harpist plucked the strings more gently.
The legate took the parchment from the guard. He cleared a space on the table and spread out the rolled paper.
Landon leaned closer to see that it bore a map flanked by diagrams.
“Where?” asked Hladir.
“You may be aware of this place,” said the legate, “and you may not. It was abandoned thirty-seven years ago.”
“That darkness,” said Hladir, “was abandoned for good reason. The wilds were reclaimed.”
“Indeed! And yet the place has not outlived its usefulness.”
Hladir coughed. “You left prisoners in there?”
Pontilus, who had just popped a scone into his mouth, spluttered. “No, no, my good man! Nothing of the sort. Gracious, what do you think we are? Monsters? Hah! Your order is the rag-tag bunch, if anyone’s supposed to be monsters, well…” The legate wrung his hands. “Ah, forgive my jest. No, not prisoners.”
“Then what could possibly be in there that is of value to you?”
“Ah, so you never heard the whole story. But perhaps that will have to wait for some other time. Suffice it to say that those who built the dungeon had more than incarceration in mind – they wanted security. They wanted to ensure the survival of the army, of the colony, of their families.”
The legate raised his left eyebrow. “Provisions! I swear, sometimes you knights are so slow. No matter. Anything that could be kept long-term was stashed down there. All the surplus. Grains, oils, weapons… even firewood! I imagine that there’s more down there than even I can dream of. We have lost the records of exactly what was stored down there.”
Hladir drummed his fingers on the table. “And you want us to fetch these supplies.”
The legate grinned. “Exactly!”
Landon watched Hladir carefully. The knight’s coarse features rarely betrayed any kind of feelings, but now something flickered in his eyes. Confusion? Hate? Fear?
“Landon, give him your list. Legate Pontilus, I trust you will supply us with these as a down payment for investigating the place.”
“You’ll take the task? Delightful!” The legate rubbed his hands together gleefully.
“I didn’t say that. We’ll let you know by sunset tomorrow.”
Landon handed the legate his list, which was little more than a crude scratching of the various foodstuffs he anticipated the Knights of the Moon would need over the next month.
Pontilus glanced at the scrap of paper briefly and chuckled. “Oh, you’ll take the job. Go on, then, investigate all you like. But do be here before sunset; opening the doors at such an hour lets in such a terrible gust of winter.”
“And the list?” Hladir asked.
Legate Pontilus clapped, and one of the guards turned to face him. “Fetch a serving-boy and give him this.” He slid Landon’s list along the table. “Tell him he’s to raid the larder; the Moon-knights have run out of broth.”
Landon and Hladir returned with a sack each. Landon paused at the door. A forceful moan sounded from the stronghold wall – a pained breath with an icy tongue.
“Perfect. Now the wind picks up. Hurry inside, boy,” Hladir said, “you’d best warm up before we go.”
Landon was only mildly surprised that Hladir was taking him; with the patrol absent, there were only a few knights at the stronghold. And they all had their own duties to attend to.
The legate’s gifts were sufficient. The bread was somewhat dry, the vegetables were partially firm. The five dead chickens, at least, were fresh. Landon stocked the storeroom.
Hladir’s voice projected clearly from his study. “Landon, Shulithis, come here please.”
Landon walked through and found Shulithis waiting with Hladir. Hladir was bent over two maps and an old book. His study was a little wooden room with a thin bench that stretched along the wall. A shelf, cluttered with books and various personal objects, stood behind Hladir’s seat. The most impressive piece he kept on the shelf was an ornate steel half-helm; it bore ancient engravings in intricate patterns. Swirls and runes. Hladir said it was a family heirloom.
“Come closer.” Hladir shifted his chair slightly to the side to give them room.
The map was made of old, weathered parchment. The penmanship was art. A calligrapher had sketched it out; it was no regular scout’s handiwork. The Vieran stronghold was marked on the middle-right as a tall, stone fortress, surrounded by woods and hills. North of it were sketches of mountains and dragons. To the east, thick forests finally stopped at the sea. To the west and south lay villages and images of the tribespeople.
“This is where we’re going.” Hladir pointed at a spot close to the stronghold, about half a finger’s width to the west. A tiny name was written above the simple drawing of an archway with a wooden door: “Vholis na Viera”.
“What is it, Master Hladir?” asked Shulithis. “A town? Is this a diplomatic task?”
Hladir snorted. “The legate wouldn’t hand us his diplomacy. No, this isn’t a town. It’s a dungeon.”
Landon frowned. “Sir, the legate said there were no prisoners there. Why is that?”
Hladir sat back, rolled up the parchment, and turned to face them both. “The dungeon is old. Years ago, it was abandoned. Care to explain why, Shulithis?”
Shulithis flushed. “I don’t remember reading about it, master.”
“It happened about twenty years ago.”
Shulithis’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then went wide. “That was when creatures arrived in our lands.”
“Indeed. But more specifically-”
“The dragon expansion.” Sir Wallace limped in through the door, holding the wall rather than his normal wooden crutch.
“Close enough. Minions of the dragons poured into our lands from the north, and the strip of land between here and the dungeon became somewhat too risky to traverse regularly.”
“Damn,” said Landon. “And the legate wants us to go there. He wants us dead.”
“Dragons and their ilk are unlikely to haunt these parts during winter. Wolves, perhaps, but not dragons. It’s dirty work, but it’s not suicide.”
“When do we leave?” Landon asked. “How long will we be gone?”
“In an hour. Get yourselves ready to stay out for the night; we ought to be back by noon tomorrow.”
Landon put on a high-collared brigandine coat, a chainmail mantle, thick socks, and his roughspun woolen overcloak. He strapped his shortsword at his left. The handle and scabbard were bound with leather. Landon’s sword was two and a half feet long, slim, and lacked a guard. The blade was a gift from his father, and bore engravings similar to those on Hladir’s old helm. Seafarer runes, Shulithis said.
Hladir and Shulithis met him at the door. Hladir had a satchel strapped at his side. Shulithis had a whole pack with him, and was bundled so thickly that he looked like an oversized owl chick.
The air had warmed ever so slightly outside. The wind had increased to a howl.
“Curses. It’ll storm before nightfall.” Hladir led the way to the western gate. The wind was howling along the ramparts so loudly that Landon could barely hear his own footsteps. Hladir spoke briefly with the guards, and one of them opened a small door in the gate.
“Hurry, lads. I don’t want us getting caught in snow. The way’s hard enough to find as it is.”
Landon soon realized why; instead of following the paved road south, Hladir took them along a path heading directly west. It bore signs of having once been used: parts of the trail were scuffed bare, and bald patches littered the grass beside the trail as well. These signs were slightly disguised by shrubs that had sprouted over the years, but winter had robbed them of their leaves months ago.
The wind was biting outside the wall. Landon kept his hood pulled generously over his head, but this sacrifice of visibility yielded him little warmth. He soon became resigned to the fact that his face would go numb, and held the hood tightly around his head. Shulithis appeared to be better off; he was rugged so thickly that every time he looked around his whole body turned with him, and his face was wrapped in a scarf.
The path was mostly level, but also led slightly downhill. Every few hundred yards, they passed a small stack of rocks. Each had a numeral stone at the top, and each was a lower number than the last. 1700, 1500, 1200, 900, 600. After they passed the 600 stone, Landon heard the howl of a wolf on the wind.
“Six hundred – is it the remaining distance?” asked Shulithis. He looked right and left in quick succession.
“Don’t worry, boy; the wolves aren’t likely to bother us with a storm on the wind.”
A bit further, the 300 marker met them. Directly behind it, the path dropped away. Landon stepped up to the edge to see a wide, round hollow in the slope. Wide stairs led from the path to a thick, wooden door. The stairway was the only way in or out of the pit.
Patches of ice pockmarked the yard. Apart from a few stone benches and broken torch brackets, the pit was empty. The doorway was constructed of thick slabs of stone, and was flanked by walls of the same. These ringed the pit. The roof over the doorway looked like dirt and frozen grass. Landon wondered if he would feel or suspect the hollow beneath his feet if he was walking on top.
Hladir walked to the door and tried the first key, a large brass one with the silhouette of a door fashioned into the handle. This was the first Landon had seen of the keys. He was astonished at how large they were; the handle alone was nearly as wide as his fist.
Hladir grunted. The key wouldn’t turn. He pushed at the door. It groaned inward.
Landon caught a brief whiff of something charred, something warm. Darkness loomed ahead of them like a yawning pit. “Hladir-”
Hladir pulled back, took a torch from his satchel, struck flint against his sword until the pitch caught fire, and with the blade resheathed slipped quickly inside.
Landon fumbled for his own torch and hurried after the knight. He kept his right hand at the hilt of his shortsword.
Five men formed a ragged semi-circle in front of Hladir. Each held a sharpened wooden spear. One of them wore imperial steel at his side. None of them bore the livery. Their faces were rougher than Vieran faces.
Shulithis, who had come up behind Landon, nudged his arm and pointed. “Over there. Look.”
In the flicker of the torchlight, Landon saw what he meant. There were several more people at the back of the room. More men. And women. All had some kind of makeshift weapon at hand.
“They’re tribespeople,” said Shulithis.
“What are they doing here?” whispered Landon.
Hladir raised his torch high and stretched his other hand out toward the spearmen. “You’ve nothing to fear from us. Light your fires again.”
“Who’re you?” said the steel-wielder. He tugged at his long, thick beard.
“Knights of the Moon.” Hladir pulled his overcloak aside to reveal his white-on-black tabard. “Friends.”
The men and women lowered their guard slowly. Not all tribespeople knew the knights by name, Landon knew, but most had seen their colors. The roving patrol visited any village the knights hadn’t garrisoned. They offered supplies and protection.
“Light those fires! Fools, why did you douse them?”
The leader, who Landon now took to be a tribal chieftain, drew himself up and faced Hladir. “We’re natural hunters. Tis a good way to ambush. Was more likely to be beast than man at the door.”
“You hunt outside. Never douse the lights in an abandoned place. There could be lurkers anywhere.”
“Dragon-spawn? We’ve already been through all the rooms we can. Place’s empty. Leave it to us hunters.”
Hladir frowned. “You’ve searched everywhere?”
“Well, all of-”
“How long have you been here?”
“What’d it be… near on thirteen day-”
“What are you doing here! This is no child’s dig, nor a playhouse! Your people, too – why have you brought them?”
The chieftain stiffened. “Cold. Hunger. Heard stories of this place from a Dhuliin while I was meeting another chieftain. Said there were caverns of food here.”
The tribespeople had lit their fires again, and the rooms were now visible. Landon moved away from Hladir and the chieftain and explored the rooms. The floor was cobblestone and tar, and felt solid as any floor he had walked. The rooms were wide and bare, save for the tribespeople and their personal belongings.
“If what Hladir said is true,” said Shulithis, who had followed him, “this place was probably locked up and abandoned years ago. With the front door open, anybody or anything could have been here to greet us. Guess that’s why it’s empty here, though.”
Landon came across something else in a little room facing the entrance. Another huge, solid wooden door faced him. It was barred with a thick wooden plank. The plank was lashed in place with thick loops of crude twine. “Look at this, Shul,” Landon said. “The tribespeople must’ve been down there.”
“But now they’ve sealed it…”
“Landon, Shulithis.” Hladir approached. “These tribespeople are going to help us. They’ve nowhere else to go for the winter, and if there is food down there, well, the legate isn’t going to miss a portion or two.”
Landon considered this. Tribespeople made good comrades, or so the patrolling knights said. “Not bad, actually. More hands, more people on watch.”
“Watch or no, I’m going to see to it that the door gets locked. I’ll get Wallace to smelt a few copies of the key. We won’t be leaving the door open at night.”
“So we’re going to do this? Without even checking the other levels?”
“I’m not even going to let the legate sleep on it. I’m going back now.”
“Can I stay, Master Hladir?” Shulithis asked. “I’ve got parchment and ink with me. I want to-”
“Good,” said Hladir. “That makes it easier. I want you both to stay here. Shulithis, you do whatever it is you wanted to do, and Landon, you sort the people out. Give them responsibilities, roles, chores. Whatever needs to be done around here. We’re setting up here.” Hladir handed the bundle of huge keys – without the entrance key – and their leather pouch to Landon.
Landon gaped. “What of Sir Wallace and the others?”
“I’ll get them out of that slum someday to come help us. They have duties in the city for now.”
With that, Hladir turned on his heel and left.
Shulithis had already walked away by the time Landon thought to turn to him. He was tenderly removing the contents of his pack and setting them up in an empty corner of a room to the right of the entrance.
Landon looked down at the keys. Huge, heavy, and so many of them. Twelve keys in total. Were they all keys to new levels? Could the structure really run so deep?
At least the work would keep food on the Moon-knights’ table. So long as the legate kept his word.
Landon went back to the plank-blocked door and peered through a little barred window. Black emptiness met his gaze and seemed to chuckle at him.
Then he heard it. Something beyond the door, far below, whined. It was a high-pitched yawn of a sound, followed by a rasping snarl.
Landon backed away, turned, snatched glances at the tribespeople. None of them seemed to have heard anything. Shulithis was still preoccupied with his pack.
Landon eyed the door. Great.