“They took the work because they had to. They questioned neither the hardship nor the spoils until they had endured the former and discovered the extent of the latter.”
–Shulithis, 10th Chronicler of the Knights of the Moon.
Landon slashed the twine and pulled it away. He and Hladir lifted the heavy plank.
The door swung slightly inward, free of its bindings.
Hladir went in first, holding a torch in one hand and his longsword in the other. The chieftain and his chosen tribesmen hung back, Landon noticed. They’d pledged their aid, even though they were the ones who had blocked the door in the first place.
Landon stepped through and descended the stairs behind Hladir. The steps and the walls were cobblestone, the same as the floor. Everything was made of hues of black and blue. It all glowed faintly orange in the torchlight.
Every man held a torch. Every man was given several spares.
The stairs went forward and down and down, about eight yards deeper than the floor of the top level. When he stepped into a wide room, Landon saw three doors: one to the right, one to the left, and one straight ahead. This surprised him. The layout indicated that the structure of this level was not directly beneath the other, which he had expected. Underground and unusual. He shrugged it off. Tunnelers had room for creativity in the depths. Above ground, builders had gravity to contend with.
“This should be interesting,” Landon mumbled.
The doors to the left and right were open. The left-hand one turned out to be the next flight of stairs. Landon noticed that the lock and hinges bore marks made by tools. A slightly blunted pickaxe lay on the ground nearby.
If the tribesmen came down here, why didn’t they break the lock? The pick should have been sufficient, or they could have at least broken it trying. Suddenly, Landon remembered the noise he’d heard when he arrived. Maybe they heard it. He listened hard to the silence. The back of his neck prickled. A lump formed in his stomach. He almost thought he saw the darkness through the bars on the door move and advance. He swallowed and turned and hurried back to Hladir and the others.
The tribesmen had stopped and gathered about the foot of the stairs. They didn’t look keen to continue.
Hladir beckoned to Landon to follow him, and walked through the right-hand door.
The room was small: as deep as two beds and slightly less wide. A wooden shelf indented the far wall at about waist height, and a window-height barred opening was set in the wall to its left. A little array of iron hooks was to the left of the doorway. The room was empty.
Hladir ran his hand along the wall at knee height.
“What are you doing?” Landon asked.
“Shulithis was looking through our scrolls about this place and read that some of these guard rooms have hidden lockers.” He finished his loop. “Apparently not this one.”
Landon moved to the barred opening. It appeared to look past the middle door in the previous room, because he couldn’t see the tribesmen or their torchlight. He held his own torch closer to the gap and peered around. The light illuminated another cobblestone passageway. The rafters were of wood, the doors were cells.
Something caught his cloak as he touched the bars. He looked down. A milk-white hand was wrapped around the bottom of a bar.
Landon stumbled backwards and nearly fell over. He kept hold of his torch, but half-doused it against the floor.
Hladir reached out, took him by an arm, steadied him. “Lad?”
“I thought you said there weren’t any prisoners.”
Hladir strode to the bars and examined the bones. “Gods, there weren’t supposed to be. These corpses must be more than thirty years old.”
Hladir and Landon went back through the door to where the tribesmen stood waiting. Landon shot a glance at the middle door in the room. It was shut.
“Come on,” said Hladir, “there’s plenty to be done. The room through there needs clearing.”
Hladir whirled on the chieftain. “No? You agreed to-”
“We agreed to help you with your supply duties. We’ve been down here, we saw the bones. We’re not disturbing their peace. You move them if you like, or we can go down to the next level. But don’t make us disturb the work of the gods.”
Hladir narrowed his eyes, then turned and walked to the door. He pushed at it. It wouldn’t move. There was no keyhole, and Landon joined him, and together they heaved at the door. The door budged slightly, groaned, thudded into something on the other side.
Landon went around to the side room and peered through the bars. He could just make out a large shadowy pile in front of the door. “Get me a stick or a spear or something,” he said.
One of the tribesmen came in and offered him a tall, heavy spear.
Landon reached through the bars and pushed the speartip along the ground until it reached the door. He had to stretch his arm through the bars to move the obstruction. He shoved, and the spear went through the pile.
“Damn.” He pulled back and shoved again. The spear caught something hard this time, and Landon strained to push it out of the way. He heard the door shudder. It opened slightly, and light from Hladir’s torch spilled through the crack. Landon thrust again.
The obstruction, apparently dislodged, collapsed and scattered. The door flew open.
Landon screamed. His last thrust had flung him against the bars, and the spear had fallen into the room. The reason he screamed, though, was because something had latched onto his right arm. Sharp teeth snapped at his hand and arm through his sleeve.
He jerked back and pulled himself away as best he could, but his right arm wouldn’t come through the bars. The creature was latched onto it. Teeth like daggers ripped at his skin. Light from Landon’s torch revealed scales and little wings. A dragon! Then, suddenly, it slipped away. Landon collapsed backward.
Hladir ran up to the bars on the opposite side. “Landon? Landon, are you okay?”
Landon examined his right arm. His hand was torn and bleeding. His arm had mostly escaped harm; his brigandine patches had protected the top from injury, but the underside was gashed from the creature’s rear claws. He looked up at Hladir. His vision wavered momentarily. “Cloth, pass me some cloth. A rag… something.”
Hladir left the window and appeared at his side a moment later. “Give me your hand,” he said. The old knight bound Landon’s hand firmly in an old shirt. “What was it, lad?”
“A little dragon. I’d swear on it, sir!”
Hladir shook his head. “No dragon would attack like that. If a dragon attacked you, one of you would be dead.”
“But it was just tiny. A baby, perhaps?”
“Have you ever seen a baby dragon before?”
“And you won’t. Dragons lay very few eggs, and those that hatch, well… they’re kept very, very safe from the likes of us. Not under our noses, certainly.”
“How would you know all that?”
“Certain knowledge passes down many generations.” Hladir offered his hand to Landon’s left.
Landon took it and pulled himself up. His head whirled and throbbed for a few seconds. His right arm felt raw and sticky and sore. Cloth tugged at his bloody flesh when he tried to flex his hand. He winced.
“You can go back up, if you like.”
Landon shook his head.
“Very well,” said Hladir. “Let’s go move those corpses out of the way of our fussy friends.”
Landon followed Hladir into the other room. With only one hand, he felt vulnerable. All he had was a torch. In such darkness, perhaps the flames would frighten whatever lurked beyond the bars, but if not…
Landon examined the pile that had been jammed against the door. It was a jumble of bones from at least three corpses. One of them had a sword clutched in its skeletal grip. The tip was bent badly, and part had snapped off. The hilt was scuffed and battered. It must have gotten jammed between the door and a cobblestone. Landon examined further, but there was little to see. No flesh remained on the bones, and most of their clothes had rotted away.
Landon flexed his sword hand again and was punished with a sharp, burning sensation. He winced.
Hladir beckoned to him. “Here, put your torch in this sconce and help me.”
Landon was hesitant to part with the flames, but the two tribesmen who had edged their ways into the room were keeping well away from the skeletons. He surrendered his torch to the wall mount and helped Hladir drag a pair of intertwined skeletons into the corner.
The room was only sparsely ornamented with such grisly decor; apart from the doorway trio and the fellow at the window, Hladir’s two were the only other skeletal occupants. The rest of the room was empty.
Three doors were set into the side wall. They were all open, and led to small, empty cells.
There was one other doorway at the end of the room. Its door was jammed open by a skeleton. The darkness beyond turned out to be a long hallway with cells dotting either side.
Hladir dragged the corpse back into the previous room and propped the door open with the old, broken blade. Then he went back to the first room, and Landon followed close behind. “All right, you lot,” Hladir said to the tribesmen, “the peace has been disturbed. Get in here with us. Something’s down here, and I need real men with me. No sniveling children. So either snivel your ways back to the surface or pull yourselves together.”
The tribesmen banged their torches on their spear-hafts and sword-blades. Then they stalked past Hladir and Landon into the hallway.
They were halfway along the passage when a man at the front shouted, “Dhraliin! Dhraliin!” The tribesmen huddled together and pulled back. All of them were big, muscular men. Landon turned a chuckle into a cough.
“Bloody curses of Skelath,” muttered Hladir. He shouldered his way to the front of the little column and peered ahead. “There’s nothing here.”
The front man pointed wildly at a door to the right. “Dhraliin, in there!”
Hladir strode to the doorway and held his torch inside. Then he sprang back.
“Dragons?” Landon asked.
“No, not dragons,” Hladir said. He glared at the tribesmen. “How many of you are going to tell me you are afraid of dogs? Rats? Foxes?”
The men muttered among themselves. The chieftain made his way to the front and faced Hladir. “The man said he saw dhraliin. They are neither dogs nor foxes.”
“Your man’s a fool. Those aren’t dragons in there. Take a look at their forelegs if you don’t believe me. These are slizzards. Pests. Last man in there is on late watch tonight.”
The men bustled into the room and threw themselves at the creatures.
Landon held woefully onto his torch and sighed. “I guess I’m on watch.”
Hladir clapped him on the back. “And a fine job you’ll make of it, too. If you don’t want it, I’ll do it for you. You’ve already shown your colors down here.”
The tribesmen returned after a moment with haughty chuckles and grins.
“Good job,” said Hladir. “What terrifying rats they must have been.”
They continued along the hallway, with the tribesmen now eagerly in the lead.
“So they weren’t dragons?” Landon asked.
“No, just pests. Slizzards aren’t much concern, but don’t let your guard down. They’re kind of like little wolves with wings. But turn your back on one and it’s likely to utterly vanish – they move in utter silence. Makes them fine chicken-coop raiders.”
“And yet, they hurt.” Landon nursed his hand.
“They frighten dangerously, yes.” Hladir chuckled. “They must have nested here for the winter, and they couldn’t resist a tasty arm poking through into their larder.”
They continued through the hallway. Occasionally, the tribesmen hefted spears and swords and charged into a side-room, but apart from slizzards and bones, the side rooms were empty.
They found the slizzards’ entrance in the fifth cell to the left. A hole had been scratched and scraped in the roof. The skeleton of the expired prisoner had both hands tightly curled around the bars.
The door at the end of the passage was locked. Hladir and the chieftain rammed into it twice, and the rotting wood crumpled.
“Our prize,” Hladir said, walking up to an open crate. He looked inside, reached in, pulled out an unlit torch. “Torches, blankets. I wonder what the legate will say.”
Landon looked around the room. The tribesmen lingered at the door for the most part, and he realized that it was because of the corpses. Skeletons ringed the room. None had armor, but some had weapons. They must have holed themselves in here. Was it because of the slizzards? Had there been more? Or was this a remnant of the dungeon guards?
“They consumed anything worth the taking before they died,” Hladir said. “Oil jars are dry. Hard to believe they ate dry grain, but maybe that brought them quicker deaths than starvation.”
Other than torches, blankets, and a few old weapons – the tribesmen adopted these after Landon had liberated them from the corpses – the room was empty. The first level was useless.
Landon looked wistfully at the second locked door as they filed back to the stairs. All he’d gotten here was a wounded hand. What if there was little to be gained from the next level as well? Could something have taken up residence down there?
He remembered the noise he’d heard upon arrival. He shivered. Something was down there, but there could be any number of doors between them and whatever it was.
Back at the top, Hladir took Landon aside. “As much as late watch might be good for you, I’ve got something else for you to do. Go to town, get Kithili and Kera. With all the courage these tribesmen have displayed, it’d be best to have more of us about the place until the patrol returns.”
“Landon!” Shulithis hurried over to them. His right hand still dripped fresh ink. “Landon, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Landon said. He flexed his hand again and winced.
“Let me bind that for you. There’s still some clean bandages in our supplies.”
Hladir nodded. “Get yourself cleaned up and then leave before dark.”
He turned and strode to where the chieftain was clapping his men on their backs. The knight’s voice growled across the room.
“Didn’t go so well?” Shulithis asked.
Landon rolled his eyes. “At least they aren’t afraid of the dark.”
With his hand wrapped in a fresh bandage, Landon wrapped his cloak tightly about himself and went out.