Yes. I’s back. =D I have not been able to get much writing in over the past few days *saddd* -_- I’m hoping to finish this over Christmas Break, though, so…posts can come more frequently then =P Hehe =)
~Chapter Twenty Four~
Descent Through Darkness
We started off across the flat stone roof of Lastare’s dwelling. In the darkness, I could see that the houses and barracks about us were built the same way as Lastare’s, tall and square, each level roof containing a single turret as a window to the sky. The rain beat down from above, soaking through my already saturated cloak and rendering it useless. Behind me, I heard Netya mutter a soft exclamation of disgust. Turning around, I saw her throwing back her hood and unfastening the cloak. Letting the heavy wet fabric fall, she turned back to the turret, leaving it inside, out of the sight of prying eyes.
Shifting off my own cloak, I passed it to her and she left it beside hers. Then, unencumbered by their sodden weight, we walked to the edge of Lastare’s roof. The gap between her house and the next was narrow, but still I hesitated to leap across. In the rain, the stone roofs were slick as ice, and I knew that a single misstep could be disastrous. I looked back over my shoulder, scanning the ramparts of the wall, where it rose so close behind us. Lastare’s house was built into it, and from the angle at which we stood we could not see who walked above, patrolling in the night.
“Go. If we are seen, so be it. All that matters now is speed, Alasse. Lastare may change her mind at any moment. Just go,” Netya whispered in my ear. She smiled at me, adding, “We will make it.”
I nodded, and backing up to get a running start, jumped the gap between the buildings. My feet slipped in the rain, and I fell flat on the stone, catching myself with my hands. Pushing myself back up, I turned, waiting for Netya. She pushed her wet hair away from her face and jumped after me, catching my arm for support. Steadying ourselves, we ran to the opposite edge of the roof. The next building rose higher than did the one on which we stood, and there was no way we could reach the edge from where we stood.
I growled in dismay, but Netya pointed away to the right. “That one’s lower. Come on. We’ll have to go a round-about way.”
I followed her lead. In this way we traveled, aiming ever for the dark opening beneath the cliff but having often to turn aside due to an unconquerable obstacle. As we passed further from the walls, I looked back more and more often. I could now see the pacing figures of the guards, silhouetted as a deeper shadow against the gloom of the rain-filled sky. We progressed in a slow, painful progress over the roofs of our enemies as they brooded unknowing, beneath us, above us, and behind us.
The blackness of night faded had faded to the cold grey of a stormy dawn by the time we stood before the opening of the cavern. Below us, I could hear dimly muffled movement from the houses. The streets would be aswarm with clack-cloaked soldiers soon, I knew. Yet I was too exhausted to care. The rain still fell, churning from the thick clouds overhead. My dress was soaked and my hair hung in drenched and sodden masses, sending rivulets of water trickling down the back of my neck. Netya stood shivering beside me. The cold air washing out of the cavern to meet us chilled my skin. The houses still stood, passing deep within the dark cave like an underground city. I could not see the end.
Netya fingered the heavy key Lastare had given her. I glanced from her exhausted face to the darkness before us. Speaking softly, I said, “Come on. We’re almost there.”
“Wherever ‘there’ is,” she answered, smiling palely at me.
“We’ll make it. Just one step at a time,” I said, avoiding her questioning statement.
She smiled, knowing twinkling behind the tiredness in her eyes. “I suppose.”
We walked to the edge of the last roof before the cavern. I wrinkled my nose in the stale coldness that met us face-on. Netya glanced at me, and jumped across the gap to the next roof, into the darkness. Taking a breath to calm the apprehension and fear that suddenly rose up within my heart, I shook the rain out of my eyes and followed.
Netya pulled me down to my stomach on the roof as soon as I landed beside her. She whispered, her voice barely a breath in my ear, “Alasse, there are many more men here. Down below. We’ll have to be more careful. It looks like a company of guards. They are making for that building,” she pointed, indicating a long, low roof a few houses back from where we lay.
I nodded, pulling myself to the edge of the roof and peering down. I pushed back quickly, Netya’s words confirmed. “If they are a company of guards…maybe that is the prison?” I said in a whisper.
Netya shook her head. “I don’t think so. It’s probably just a barracks. Remember what Aranel said? He will probably be at the very farthest side. It can’t be far; the rock shelf is not that thick.”
I nodded, peering into the gloom before me. “I can’t see the end…but I suppose that is not saying much, is it?”
She shook her head. “I wonder what Thalon shall think…” she whispered, trailing off.
I smiled at her. “A cord of three strands is not easily broken. Come on.”
Taking her hand, I pulled her to her feet. We set out again, walking carefully and keeping as far from the edges of the roof as possible. The top of the cavern grew ever closer to our heads, slanting down steeply the further we progressed.
The cavern proved to be much shallower than I had imagined. After progressing at a painstakingly slow pace across the roofs of four more buildings, the rock overhead had sunk so low I could touch it if I stretched up on my toes. The buildings ended, and creeping cautiously to the far edge of the roof on which we were, we lay flat on our stomachs peering down. The back of the cavern had been hewn and molded into the face of an ugly, cruel building, frowning up at us. A gate, metal bars as thick as my wrists and placed barely inches apart, was set into the living rock of the wall. Above it, two windows glowered like eyes. I shrank back.
Netya spoke softly beside me. “The prisons. But…how do we get down there?”
I looked around, but could see no stair on the outside of the building on which we stood. The only way down was through the turret that stood at the opposite end. Through the building itself. I pointed quietly, saying, “We’ll have to go that way.”
Netya gasped, grabbing my shoulder and spinning my face towards hers. “Are you crazy?” she whispered, forcing as much I incredulity into her hushed voice as possible. “Just…just go down the stairs like we live here? We can’t do that! What if there’s someone inside? What if we’re seen? There has to be another way!”
I shook my head. “I don’t think there is. Come on. We’ll have to try. If we go carefully enough…there might not be anyone inside.”
Netya looked back over the edge of our perch. “There is no one around down below back here. At least, not that I can see. But there must be a guard…at the gate. How will we get through that?”
I shook my head. “Taking it one step at a time. Come on. I’ll go first. We’ll make it.”
Netya nodded, and followed me back across the roof to the turret. Stepping in over the low sill of the wide windows, I began the descent down the spiraling stairs. The darkness was complete around us in a few moments, hidden as we were from any natural light by first the cavern itself and now the narrow confines of the stone staircase.
The darkness inside the stairwell was so deep that I could see nothing before me, and had to follow the walls with my hands. The curving stair led downward eleven steps. I counted them all unconsciously in my mind. At the twelfth step, the wall to my right ended. I halted as the rough stone beneath my hand disappeared and my fingers closed on air. In the darkness, Netya walked into me from behind as she followed blindly. She choked back a gasp of apology as I placed a hand warningly on her arm.
Reaching out, I explored the darkness with my hands. A wooden door stood set back into the opening in the wall. I felt for a handle, searching with blind, groping fingers. At last I discovered the latch, twisting cold steel beneath my fingers. Kneeling down beside the door, I searched for a keyhole beneath the sliding latch through which I could look. As I found it, I bent closer, trying to look through the small space. At first I could see nothing, but as I shifted my head, changing the angle from which I looked, I caught a glimmer of light. It seemed barely a pinprick in the darkness, yet as I stared through the keyhole into the room beyond, I saw it came floating dimly through a window on the opposite side of the room I looked into. It flickered orange and dusky, cast by a torch or lantern that must be fastened to the wall of the building opposite, lighting the streets between the rows of houses.
In the dim, uncertain light, I could see nothing save the outline of the window opposite. Behind me, Netya touched my shoulder questioningly. I stood slowly, turning back to her. I whispered softly, my voice sounding loud in the perfect stillness. “I can’t see much, but I think there is no one there. I’m going to try the door.”
I felt her nodding in the dark, daring not to speak a word. Taking the door’s latch in my fingers I pushed against it, attempting to slide it back. At first it would not move, but after a moment I felt it slipping, and soon I had worked it all the way back. Not daring to breathe, I let the door swing slowly opened before me. The window I had seen through the keyhole was now clearly visible. I stepped into the enemy room, Netya following in apprehension behind me.
The light from the window played more fully over the contents of the room, now that my vision was not confined and hampered. Beneath the window, a wide table sat covered with thick wooden plates and bowls. Pewter mugs and forks sat aligned perfectly beside them. They were empty and clean, unused at least as yet. Other shadowy forms about the room belied the presence of more furniture, and a rack beside the door held what seemed like five large black cloaks. Going to the window, I looked out cautiously, but we were still too high to escape that way. We would have to leave by the front door, and hope that no one would be near to see. I sighed in disappointment, turning back to the open doorway and the stairs that still descended. As I passed through to the stairs, Netya grabbed my wrist, pulling me back. Taking one of the cloaks, she held it mutely out to me. I shook my head violently, hissing under my breath, “No! If they notice…”
“We may need a disguise,” she answered, taking a second cloak down and throwing it over her own shoulders. She pulled the cowl low over her face and fastened the clasps that ran down from the neck, drawing herself up to her full height. She stood a few inches taller than I although she was younger, and the dark cloak swathed her thin form, creating an illusion of even greater height and strength of presence that could pass under little scrutiny as a man of Pethnor. Seeing that the wisdom in her disguise outweighed the potential dangers of taking the cloaks from the empty room, I took the mantle she held out to me, wrapping it around myself as she had done. Then, nodding to her and smiling to myself at our new makeshift disguise, I led the way back out of the room, shutting and latching the door behind us. We continued on down the steps.
As we descended further, the light began to grow once more. Finally, as I slipped quietly down the last curving steps, the source of the new light appeared. Before me, a bright glow streamed from underneath a closed door.