I just finished 24. So I can post 23 now. =P Hehe. Sorryyyyyyyy…I didn’t write any yesterday. In fact, I didn’t do ANYthing yesterday…yesterday just had issues all around. *nods* =)
~Chapter Twenty Three~
Dark And Secret
I sighed in relief. Netya smiled at me, then turned back to Lastare, who still looked as though she had seen a ghost. She reached out as though to take her hand, but Lastare slapped her wrist away, stepping back quickly. The fire burned in her eyes again. “I said a truce, girl, not friendship. You come here to save the miserable changeling life of Mirriel’s transgression. I give you naught but my deepest hatred. Yet…you say Saewon…my son has sided with you? How can I know you speak the truth?” She looked in suspicion at us, her eyes narrowed to catlike slits.
I spoke up, smiling. “He has a long scar on the right side of his face. He told us he was given it one day when he was just a lad, feeding the great hounds of Pethnor. Ever since he has feared and hated dogs of all sorts.”
Lastare laughed. “The reason I keep a cat instead…I see you speak true. No one save my son could have told you of that happening, as he and I are the only ones who know of it.”
I nodded. “Yes. So…please, Lastare…we beg you. Will you help us?”
“No. I will not,” she replied shortly. As my face fell and my hopes crashed like glass to the stone floor, she laughed softly. “No, I will not help you. But I will turn a blind eye until you are out of my home. Only because you bring me news of my son…only because he brought you here, if indirectly. For love of him…my poor, lost boy…I will turn a blind eye. These keys,” she said, motioning to the thick ring she had brought with her, “are the keys to the dungeons. I brought them because I was going to lead you to the prisons and then leave you there, locked deep within the darkest cell I could find. But now…I will give you the one necessary to unlock the bars that hold the stolen boy captive. But that is all. Expect no further aid of me.
Handing the key to Netya, Lastare added, “I have made sure that no one will ever disturb me when I am in this room, because of Aranel’s visits. There are guards up on the ramparts, of course, and they would come if I shouted. But we have not been speaking loud enough for them to hear. If you remain quiet, you should have no trouble. Go out the door and turn to the right. The second door will lead you to my rooms, and from there, the way to the roof should be obvious.. You will not be seen if you travel that way, except perhaps from the walls. It is nearly dawn, so darkness cannot hide you now. But the guards there should be looking out, not in,” she added, smiling wickedly. The wild gleam returned to her golden eyes, and she turned away, picking up the cat and walking to the covered window. “Now go, get out of my sight,” she spat, voice bitter. “And do not come back. If I see you again, I will call the guards. You must find your own way out of the fortress.”
Lastare dropped Netya’s sword onto the stone, kicking it spinning across the floor. Netya caught and stopped it beneath her foot, taking the hilt and sheathing it. She looked long and hard at Lastare, who stared back. Finally, nodding her head, she turned back to me. “Come on, Alasse,” she said quietly. “Let’s go.” We turned, pulling the great door opened and slipping out without glancing back. Lastare’s cruel laugh was cut off behind us as the door ground shut with a muffled boom.
A long hall stretched out to either side of the door, lit at intervals with sputtering torches until it passed out into darkness or ended at a corner around which we could not see. We turned to the right, and began to creep as quietly as we could down the hallway. The cold dimness was frightening, and we clasped hands, sharing our courage through the bond. We passed a door on our right, shut tightly with a smoking torch guttering beside it. We continued on. Finally, we came in view of a second door, this time on the left. Walking up to it, we halted in silence. I took a deep breath and reached out, shifting the bold as quietly as I could aside, and pushing against the door gently. It swung open silently on oiled hinges, revealing the darkness of an unlighted room beyond. Netya reached out, taking the small torch beside the door from its bracket and stepping before me into the darkened room. I followed, shutting the door carefully behind us and drawing the bold back in place.
When I turned around, I gasped. Everywhere in the dim flicker of the torchlight glints of red gold twinkled, from the oil lamps mounted on the walls, candle holders placed on top of a richly gilt-edged table, and the spines of books shelved neatly on the cases that lined all walls of the room. A cat, silver as the rising moon, sat watching us from the tabletop, and another, mottled grey and black, slept on the lustrous damask of a long, low divan in one corner of the space. The atmosphere of the room pressed upon me with the dry, musty imagination smell of old books and warm ink. I glanced at Netya and walked to the opposite wall, examining the books. Many of the titles were written in a strange language I did not know, and when I pulled one off and opened it carefully, the writing on the page was unintelligible. Placing the book carefully back where it had been, I looked once more around the room.
Netya went to the table, holding out her hand to the cat, which got up and came to her fingers, rubbing its head affectionately against them. “Lastare said the way to the roof would be obvious…” she said, glancing around.
I looked up, examining the ceiling. In a corner above the full-length bookshelves, a thick, red velvet curtain hung, tucking back above the shelves and concealing the shining decorated tile of the ceiling. I pointed to it, and Netya nodded. A tall library ladder on a sliding track stood at the far end of the wall, and she walked to it, pushing it towards me down the length of the shelves. The cats watched us curiously, eyes shining in the flicker of Netya’s torch. As she situated the ladder beneath the curtain, Netya suddenly gasped, almost dropping the torch on the thick, richly woven carpet. “Alasse!” she whispered, turning to me and grabbing my arms, “Are you alright? I’m so sorry, I just…are you alright?” She looked worriedly at the long cut that still bled slightly, trickling down my neck.
I pushed her away, smiling. “No, it’s fine. It’s hardly a scratch. The bleeding has almost stopped. Come on. Let’s go. Thalon…He’s more important right now. Worry about me later.”
She nodded quietly. “Alright. If…if you’re sure you’re alright…”
“I’m fine,” I reassured her, pushing her towards the ladder. “Come on. You go first.”
Netya mounted the ladder, climbing carefully to avoid stepping on the edge of her dress. Reaching the top, she gently pulled the curtain, pushing it aside on the thin golden chain that supported it. Behind it, one tile of the decorated ceiling bore no adornment save a red-golden handle and latch curing across a corner. Netya flipped the latch aside and pulled gently on the handle. The tile slid smoothly back behind the rest of the ceiling, leaving a gaping black hole in its place. She looked down uncertainly at me, handing down the torch. I took it from her, nodding encouragingly. She took a deep breath, then, careful not to knock loose any of the books on the highest shelf, she grasped the edges of the opening, pulling herself up. She disappeared into the blackness.
I climbed onto the first step of the ladder, carefully balancing the torch in my hand. The opening framed Netya’s face, and she reached down, taking the light from me again. I pulled myself up through the hole, reaching down behind me to tuck the curtain carefully back in place. Kneeling beside the opening, I looked uncertainly at Netya. “Maybe we shouldn’t close it,” I said, indicating the sliding trap door. “We might…need to get back this way. And I don’t see a latch on this side.”
Netya shook her head. “No, don’t close it. Lastare said not to come back to her…but…we might have to. Leave it.”
I nodded and stood up, leaving the door opened. A quick glance around in the torchlight confirmed that we stood side by side in an unused attic space above Lastare’s rooms. A small, spiraling stone stair in the corner farthest from us led up into a turret in the flat roof. Cautiously, we walked towards it, treading carefully up the steps and into the confining space. A large window opened from the small, circular room at the top, looking out over the inside of the stronghold. I went to it, looking out in dread.
I was not prepared for what I saw. The rock shelf appeared so much greater from where we now stood than it had out by the fringes of the forest. It stretched up, seeming to end miles above in the sky. At its base, only a few furlongs from Lastare’s roof, a large, dark cavern opened. Its mouth spanned nearly the whole width of the walled city, and I could see in the darkness and rain that the crowding stone buildings ran back inside it, their roofs not quite touching the hovering stone ceiling overhead. I knew we would find the prisons deep within that yawning cavern, as Aranel had said, and yet it seemed impossible that we could ever make our way over the distance between it and where we now stood trembling.
Beside me, Netya sighed. “It looks so hopeless, doesn’t it? But we’ll make it. We have to, now. Let’s go.”
“Alright,” I agreed, squeezing her hand. “Let’s go find Thalon.” Pulling the hood of my cloak back up over my head, I swung my legs over the sill of the window, dropping the few feet between it and the roof below. Netya followed me, dropping the torch in a puddle of rain between the stones and extinguishing it. We were lost in blackness and secrecy.