Out of the throne room and into the first corridor they had already lost sight of Kaell, setting a manic pace that they would have to follow, and every now and then they found the corpse of another goblin he had dispatched along the way.
Despite some preposterous turn of fortune Shala was terrified running in the shadow of Bhask, hoping the man beside her would hold to his oath. Reaching the stairs a pocket of goblins met them, Kaell having already past this point, or surely he would have warned them.
Bhask, with a broad sword in each hand, knew no mercy as he cut a path through the invaders. He kept Erenciel covered in cloth, tied and slung across his back. ‘Keep running!’ Came a voice and the Princess found herself following faithfully in Bhask’s footsteps.
Snarling faces and crude weapons came close to Shala, but she needn’t stop as timely arrows struck ghostly into her pursuers. Metrus played the rearguard and from some gallery or other height he was keeping watch, and she trusted him, for she had not yet met a greater archer than the Druid, or one that commanded more power. On the flight of stairs into the main hall they ran down a few steps at a time, crashing through friends and foes alike, as battle seem to rage in every part of the castle.
In the entrance hall the fighting was heaviest; the household guard made a good stand but the goblins came in fiercely, enthralled by some hate that Shala could not fathom, as they flung themselves recklessly at the defenders of the castle.
Her household guard was ranked many lines deep, creating barricades with their locked shields and spears. Behind each line was a pair or more of archers, and a specialist of melee arms that dealt with the goblins that managed to leap over or break through the row of shields. Here she saw Gibbon and Merohan, and also Gremhalden who had small heaps of tangled goblin corpses around him, leaning on a bastard sword dark with goblin blood.
In the heart of the fray, Bhask’s voice rang out, ’Make a path for the Queen, and see her safely through!’ Shala could never forget how loud his voice was; how it blasted through the halls by some kind of magic and rang off the stones of the castle.
The soldiers obeyed, and without compromising their own endeavours to keep the hall they formed a tunnel of men, allowing them to reach a passage that went underground once past its threshold, and up until then the soldiers intercepted any foe trying to follow in their wake.
With that behind them, and the door shut, the fighting seemed distant, Bhask and Shala rendered alone. The narrow passage was already lit, and Shala knew then Kaell was already far into it, having spoken flames to life again like he did in the throne room. She knew this because no one ever bothered visiting this passage, much less spare it enough attention to keep it well lit.
The long way ahead became evermore silent, Bhask and Shala’s footsteps more pronounced. By the end of it Shala was heavily tired, and feeling more helpless realizing her protector was not at all bothered by the distance. Only when the passage led into the round room of the seal did they catch up to Kaell, him waiting there on the stone mural of a great dragon’s face. For Shala it was almost a surprise being led here, even though she knew of the room where many others of the castle did not.
‘I was just about ready to head back and see where you tarried,’ said Kaell, relieved.
‘We were delayed by enemies. But you should not expect others to keep up with you,’ said Bhask, half in amusement and half in advice.
‘Will we hide here until it is over?’ asked Shala.
‘No, we must continue, this place will not keep us safe,’ said Bhask.
Shala was scared again and did not know what the warrior meant. This was a dead end and there was nowhere to go.
‘Where has Metrus gone, will he not come with us?’ she asked.
‘He flies my Lady, and he will meet us in daylight with all the news we can hope for, tidings good or ill.’
This didn’t answer Shala any better and raised more questions. ‘But this is the Dragonwell, and it leads nowhere,’ explained the Princess.
’My Lady, this is not the Dragonwell, the actual well is still below us. Allow me a moment, and I’ll show you the way.’
Bhask stood at the edge of the seal, addressing the engraved markings of the dragon with an incantation. He intoned the words steadily and deliberately, as though keen to remember the words without mistake.
Shala had always wondered about this room, ever since she was little, for the dragon had no heritage within Attoras, or even within some of the previous Houses that ruled here. It was a symbol out of place, so why did it enjoy a mural on the floor almost thirty feet in diameter? Of course in the past Attoras had warred with dragons, but that only made the mural stranger.
Bhask finished the incantation, taking a deep breath.
A rumble came across the room, shaking it and in turn the floor set in motion, dividing itself into blocks that moved of their own accord, breaking the face of the dragon mural.
At first Shala thought the blocks were falling into undetermined depths, but they halted soon, forming an intricate stairwell. The men were ready to go down, but Shala stood in their way.
’Wait now! How is it you know the castle’s secrets even better than me, and command the magicks that still linger in its stone? Who are you, to whom do you belong?’
Calmly Bhask answered. ‘We belong to you, my Lady. I am the last of the Wolves, and I’ve made Kaell’lam here worthy of being one, and he should be one if only the Wolves were still anointed such as I was in my youth. We know the castle because we were taught its secrets, and entrusted with Attoras’ safety. As such we dream also, and hence it allows us to commune with the old stones laid in this castle.’
Shala had no way to answer the man, shocked to silence by his claim. Rather she looked quizzically at Kaell. ‘Your name is Kaell’lam?’ she asked, feeling more and more that he was someone she did not know.
‘The wraith-kind may still follow, we must descend!’ urged Kaell, ignoring the Princess’ questions.
‘Lead the way,’ gestured Bhask to Kaell, and he ushered Shala onto the stairs so that he may take the rearguard. The smooth blocks of stone lasted only a moment underfoot, and then, they breathed into a new place, a cavern in the deep of the mountain.
The scent of moist was heavy in the air and glistening lights lined against the faces of the walls, often changing stance and sometimes casting rainbow colours. The path went ever down, spiralling, but Shala had a question on her mind. ‘Where is the light coming from?’
Bhask took her to the edge of the path, to show her. ‘You can see from here…’
She gasped at the enormity, startled by the secret giant beneath the castle. The cavern indeed looked like a well, and the path ran along the wall of the giant pit, spiralling many times to get to the bottom, where a luminous pool of water was surrounded by four massive braziers, the fires in them burning fiercely as though just lit. From the ledge to the pool below was at least a thousand yard plummet and the diameter across was great as well.
‘Who keeps this place and sets the fires?’ asked Shala. They set off walking as Bhask answered.
’No one, not anymore, and those fires may yet still burn when this world comes to an end. Dragon blood is taken, set aflame and then the flames are gentled by magi. They do not burn and consume things as fire does, but cast a similar quality of light, phantom flames as they are often called.’
‘Dragon blood set aflame?’ asked Shala.
‘Yes, it is the secret of dragon fire. They spray their blood through glands in their mouth just like a serpent does with venom. Only dragon blood is unique in that it combusts when subjected to friction and air,’ said Bhask.
‘Do not tell me a dragon lives here! Right underneath the castle and all!?’ asked Shala.
’One does, but it is of no threat, it’s old, blind and weak - if not dead. The men that fed and sustained it are long gone, and he does not do well without worship, and even less so without food.’
‘Does it live trapped here?’ asked the Princess.
‘Yes, trapped in his own weakness. It cannot escape here, for it will be taken by a world it no longer recognizes and will be hunted down in its confusion. The Knights on their griffins would come, and make short work of it in the open sky. Rather it hides. Dragons are some of the greatest dreamers, a dream of the land is a dream of their own. The madness you saw in goblins tonight? It is nothing compared to what the dragons experience. Fortunately however dragons are intelligent and ageless, they would not come to rampage easily.’
‘Those goblins we saw tonight, they seemed to be well organized if it could be called that. I have never even heard of them participating in a siege before.’
‘It was no accident, Highness. Agents of Swarztial rallied them into battle. I have heard of their kind before; Dreamweavers who can excite lesser creatures, bind them and control them. The goblin’s ingenuity and lust for death was put to good use, given direction if you will. When people started dying bloody deaths, the wraith-kind entered Attoras freely, although other dark magicks must’ve been practised to allow them even into the castle.’
‘But it was not my doing, it was not the act of sealing my father!’
’No Highness, of course not. Within Attoras you were well within your rights to do so. Swarztial however used it effectively to put the blame on you. A madness pervades the land to be sure, I have seen it before I started playing as a sick man in the infirmary. Here and elsewhere men like Swarztial will have their day, evil is not in short supply.’
Shala was quiet for awhile, absorbing all they had discussed. She tried to get past her rattled state and think clearly about all that had happened thus far.
‘If what you say is true, if madness is about the land, and wraiths enter where they please, then...?’ she asked as though coaxing an answer, and answer Bhask did.
‘Yes my Lady, the Dream of Embers is failing, and as a result the Rules of Realm. Should it not be strengthened, I fear it may all come to nothing.’
The news unsettled Shala even in their current predicament.
‘What of the Benevolence? Surely He will intervene if hatred such as tonight’s is widespread?’
‘My Lady,’ said Bhask in a chuckle, bemused, ‘in no way can I answer for His Grace, the agenda of a greater good does not necessarily include our benefit, that’s all I can say on the matter.’
They walked the path winding down, the torches Kaell and Bhask carried revealing much of the cavern’s complexion. The rock here made rippling folds and faces, like whipped cream or puffy clouds, telling Shala that the water level had once been much higher. Along the way they found oval mirrors that stood lined around the edge, adjustable on their stands, and they reflected much of the light from below to better illuminate the place. It was still not a place Shala would call inhabitable.
There was an utter loneliness here, abandoned in such a way that Shala could imagine that even the lesser creatures that preferred the underground did indeed flee from where a dragon would call a lair. She sincerely hoped they would avoid it, aged or not.
‘If there was a seal of the dragon inside the castle, then my father must’ve known its purpose?’ asked Shala intuitively.
‘Your father would have used the same route of escape if need was great enough, in fact he planned on using it for the pilgrimage he was going to embark on. To slip away quietly so as not to announce his intentions to enemies of the Dream, and let them deal with a dragon if they did manage to follow him.’
‘Was he keen on fulfilling the Dream of Embers?’ asked Shala.
‘Yes, all his life. He knew it was his duty, and would rather do it than leave the task to his heirs. But he was for much of his life in the same boat as you Highness, he could not simply leave Attoras to men like Swarztial.’
Up ahead they caught up to Kaell, who always seem to be just out of sight. They then saw what he saw, looking up at an obstruction where the cavern had collapsed on the road. ‘Too high to climb, and rough besides, at least for the Princess. We’ll have to enter the caves to navigate around it.’
Bhask sighed. ‘I had hoped it would not come to this, but this place is old and unattended, so it is to be expected.’
Away from the water that glistened so much the inner caves were complete in darkness, their torches seemingly vain for comfort, but crucial at least in guiding their way. But even then Shala wished the light was dimmer still, because at the fringes it revealed the remains of many old bones and clothing and weapons, dead and fractured faces staring up at her where they laid on the floor or sat against the wall.
‘They are long dead, my Lady, do not bother with them save for pity, for most here were men that dedicated themselves to the dragon, and they knew not sunlight, drink or women in the last of their days.’
‘All I still need is for the dead to rise and chew at me, warrior, strip the flesh from me and make me one of their own, and set me on a throne of bones so that I may rule over them in death, for everything else seems to have happened to me in the last few days.’
Bhask laughed, the first time the Princess had heard him do so, a good rich sound. ‘You already have the grim humour of a hardened warrior, but I guess that is something sad in itself.’
‘Maybe it is the humour of Kings,’ said Shala.
Bhask shook his head. ’It’s not how it should be. Before the Crimson City spoke against the Wolves, forty of us could keep your father’s land safe beyond a doubt, and he could sit in his chambers with a sound mind and consult many people with a smile on his face, and wisdom for that matter. And they loved him for it. No, it is good for the people to see that their King is not touched by the grimness of warriors.’
‘I am honoured to have such warriors at my side, and for all my life I have wished for it, to have the strength of the mountain defending me, though it has come in my darkest hour and I have lost all that is worth defending.’
‘Not all is lost, and all can still be redeemed as long as you live.’
’Where will we go!?’ asked Shala, as though that problem alone doomed her cause.
‘That we must still decide, for you and for the Kingdom we must decide. But that is a matter to discuss in daylight.’
Following the torch that Kaell carried they entered the Well again, the blue sheen brighter than Shala remembered it just minutes before.
‘Had this place any other purpose than housing a dragon?’ asked Shala.
‘Now that you question it, I would say most assuredly so, but I cannot begin to guess at it. Much history has passed here and those who can recount it are not among the living anymore.’
‘My father said dragons once assaulted Attoras, hoping to reclaim this part of the Black Mountains,’ said Shala.
‘Yes, it was one of the rare occasions that the Knights and Wolves banded together. The dragons were slain, although many of our own were lost as well; Gremhalden had his fall during this time. This lone dragon was not enthralled by the animosity, so when it took refuge here your father allowed both him and its worshippers to use the underground. Unfortunately our feats against the dragon alerted the Crimson City of our prowess, and they ordered us disbanded.’
They wound down again only to find another place where the road had fallen away and they entered the tunnels once more. There was a mighty roar, thundering through all the confines of the Dragonwell, waking in Shala the fear that there was no escape and no use in fighting should they be cornered.
‘Still far off, Highness,’ Bhask reassured her, ‘and its size will not allow it where we walk now. Although he does sound angry,’ conceded Bhask.
’It sounds very big,’ added Shala in fright.
‘And it is Highness. Dragons, like all reptiles, never cease growing even up until they die. This one might be blind and cumbersome, but he will be very giant.’
‘I do not wish to see it, not for its terrible size nor for its suffering. How come I never knew about this thing?’
‘Neither your father nor Scholar Naceus would have told you of a hidden Well my Lady, for your own safety as you can imagine. With respect, you are inquisitive, and talk of all things with all people, and the Well must be kept very secret indeed.’
‘O poor Naceus, I hope he and everyone else is alive and well.’
‘They should be. Naceus is always ready for trouble and your handmaiden has lived through many battles, I’m sure that they are fine.’
They came to Kaell and found him on his haunches where he stared at many bones on the floor, tangled and strewn.
‘There was a battle here,’ said Kaell, ‘the dragon-worshippers defended against dragon-slayers and it seems no one gained victory. Now we know why the dragon rages the way it does.’
‘Why would someone come to kill this dragon when it hides and bothers no one?’ asked Shala.
‘For its blood, for the fame of the kill, and certainly for the secret treasure it is said to guard. There are many reasons, none of which are appealing to me,’ said Kaell.
Bhask walked closer to the remains of a warrior, who still in his hands clenched a long spear, its head wide and spiked like a trident.
‘A thing with which to pierce a dragon’s heart,’ said Bhask as he studied it and in the flickering light Shala could see the man appreciated the weapon. ’I’ll take it with us, for its design makes it of a rare kind. It has a name engraved here: Gutherin,’ he read from its shaft. ‘Might be the owner’s name really, but not an unfit name for the weapon itself.’
‘We already carry too heavily, and we’ll not need to kill dragons, only flee from them, which becomes all the more difficult as we collect relics!’ spoke Kaell.
‘I’ll take its weight so that you may stay light and be able to scout, not long after we reach the base of the mountain we’ll have horses for the road.’
‘You planned this escape well didn’t you?’ asked Shala as she heard about the horses.
‘That we did my Lady, but I won’t assume to predict half of what will lay before us. Best expect some difficulties before the end of it.’
’How is it that you predicted this much then?’
‘Your father put us on high alert, he had many suspicions, but even he could not have known that the measures he had taken toward your safety would be tested like this. Kaell’s presence gave us some measure of control, adaptability if you will. With him at your side every day, he watched the tidings with a fine eye. With written messages, he kept us well informed, even long before I entered the castle in the guise of a sick man.’
‘I cannot get to grips with this conspiracy of so many factions around me, and it pains me that I stood in complete ignorance,’ said Shala.
‘For the moment take solace in knowing that at least some conspirators are friendly.’
They lost sight of Kaell, and Bhask chuckled softly. ‘He is impatient with me, so he stomps off ahead.’
‘Kaell has changed so much, he is not at all the boy I knew,’ said Shala.
‘Yes, the Kaell you knew was but fiction. Your father set him at your side for protection, but he could not have him prancing around the castle as a Wolf of old. So with magic Metrus lulled him to a deep sleep for two moons of Mallova. In this sleep his body melted and his disposition was made to be boyish, so as to disguise him from our enemies and hence have them overlook him as an obstacle.’
‘Why not simply arrange me a greater guard, one that my enemies could fear?’ asked Shala.
‘A visible threat is something enemies can prepare for Highness, the way they locked your household guard out in town today you might say. All great rulers keep their chief protection out of notice. Your father was wise to this, and so Kaell took the role that he did.’
‘So Kaell waited at my side all this time?’
‘Yes. But when your crown was in danger, he used the dormant power to blossom and become as himself again, restored to his former strength and maturity of mind. It was a risk he needed to take in revealing himself, for there was no one else in your guard that would have matched Yanci-gan in skill. In the end the ploy worked, they could not have guessed Kaell would save your crown like he did. Although I must admit, Patrick and his champion were an unforeseen danger, and as you can imagine Kaell had to hide himself after that day defending your crown. We were worried that his prolonged absence might raise suspicions, especially with you so accustomed to his presence. I say this with some hesitation, but it was lucky that the assault came as soon as it did.’
’Yes, besides saving my crown he saved me, and yet it is sad then that he changed. I have never thought much of him until now, realizing that innocence of him is lost.’
‘Do not think too much on it. I have known Kaell a long time, and for all the sadness in his life he still has a light side to him, and he would show it if not for this darkness and for the darkness hunting us. It is why he’s so impatient with me. I taught him to be fast, hungry and merciless –not relenting until a task is complete, and he’ll be more sociable once he deems you safe from danger.’
‘Are you not worried then?’
‘I am, but I have learned patience on top of being a Wolf, and I know that we will slip our enemies as long as we stick to this road.’
A blast of wind snuffed out their torches. Shala smelled something strange on the wind, something like sulphur. She realized the gust had been much too warm to be a wind. Bhask’s last words suddenly seemed prophetically wrong. Another presence joined them in the darkness and Shala could have sworn she touched the mind of it before she even heard the rattle in its throat. A warm breath blew over them, and something slithered at their feet.
A snout shoved in among them, scattering Bhask and Kaell with the weight of ten men, and pressed the Princess up against the cavern wall. She was powerless to the gentle strength of the dragon, and it could have crushed her between its head and the wall if it wished to. She held her hands out as if to try and push it away, feeling front teeth cracked and skew outside the scaled mouth, pressed to her breasts and stomach. One bite at me and tonight is finally over.
Bhask and Kaell watched from the sides helplessly, their torches giving faint light to the creature’s outline. The Dragon inhaled deeply, the tug so immense that it felt as though the clothes were going to strip off her body. If my scent could tell a story about me then the dragon knows all there is to know, thought Shala, caught between panic and silliness.
A minute ago Shala had found the Well to be cool and damp, but the breath of the dragon was exceedingly warm, a sudden sweat broken over her brow, her chest heaving. She remained rooted where she stood, ancient blind eyes judging her, long whiskers slithering and patting the floor, as though they would ensnare Shala as a python would if she dared run away.
For a while there was nothing and then suddenly with every passing moment the dragon’s mind opened more and more, an invisible realm of thought shared with Shala. It was intrusive, but still gentle, and Shala could feel strange ideas surfacing within her. There were no words to it, only thoughts and dreams of an ancient life, leaving Shala feeling much older than she really was.
‘You wish to see the light again?’ Shala spoke softly to the dragon.
‘Highness, no!’ urged Kaell from the side.
She reached slowly into the urn, moistening her hand in what now felt like icy water, and held it aloft. As gently as she could, she made light, soothing and radiant, until she could see every withered golden scale on the lizard’s face and its eyes were illuminated as giant pearls. It’s all but blind. For a moment Shala was not sure how the dragon was receiving the gesture.
A deep rumble stirred in the dragon’s throat, satisfied and nostalgic, as though it was looking at the sun. Its red-rimmed eyes began crying, spilling droplets of blood rather than tears. Shala had not known animals could cry. The droplets as they fell became sparks of flame, red thick blood igniting like sulphur and splashing to the ground looking like melted iron ore.Despite her discomfort Shala felt joy for what she gave to the dragon and with the light between them, the bond took on a strange familiarity as though man and dragon had once been much more than just dread foes.
Without warning the dragon retreated, its head and neck slowly disappearing into the cavern, like a snake into a hole. They did not move until all was quiet. Suddenly Bhask and Kaell were at her side, and she breathed deeply into the cool air that normally seeped through these caves.
‘It spoke to me,’ were Shala’s first words to her guardians. ‘Not with words, but it made me see things and experience feelings that were not my own. It only wanted to see the sun...’
‘Understandable, this darkness will rob both man and creature in many ways,’ said Bhask in relief.
‘I saw something else as well, Master Bhask, it made me understand why it is hiding here.’
‘You mean to say it hides here not from men?’ asked Bhask.
Shala shook her head. ’No, it longs to fight with men again and be at contest with Knights and griffins. To fly.A great fear drove the dragon here, a fear of something that holds far more hate for its kind than man ever did. This is what it made me understand... what could it be Bhask? Are dragons not the mightiest of creatures?’
‘I cannot put a name to the Dragon’s fear, but there are many horrors that live out of sight, deep in the ocean or underground, or even in realms where the air is putrid and flames seep from the soil.’
‘Strange that you mention it, Master Bhask. It told me, or rather, made me feel as though this evil is... caught up somewhere, but that it would soon surface, and have us all hopeless against its onslaught.’
’And the dragon thinks it’s safe here?’ asked Bhask.
‘No, you were right the first time, it’s trapped here now, blind and weak- weak as far as dragons are concerned that is.’
‘One day I will return for it, and if my power can account for anything, restore it to its former greatness. There is no reason Dragons and men cannot share the same world, especially when they already hover on extinction.’
‘On a long road the most noble of us will come to make many promises Highness, lets first find ways to satisfy our own safety. Besides, that broken lizard you just saw will still outlive each of us ten times over.’
‘That’s exactly why I want to come back; another thousand years in darkness should be no living thing’s fate.’
‘What do you suppose it eats?’ asked Kaell, turning the conversation to the more pragmatic. ‘It didn’t seem hungry to me, not for royal flesh in any case.’
‘Touching the mind of the Princess like it did, I would think it is more than capable of luring hapless prey into the underground. The old caves come out at many places in the wild and I’m sure it has its select choice of antelope and anteaters, and definitely some giant hogs, rare as they are here in the north.’
‘What could possibly frighten a dragon?’ wondered Kaell aloud.
‘Best not think of it. I hate to say it, but there is a real chance that the isolation has made the dragon fear something from its past which is gone from this world ages by now. The passage of time becomes a lost concept underground.’
‘I do not think so,’ murmured Shala. ‘It knows who I am and so asked me to make the light, and it knows King Anka has passed,’ said Shala so softly the others did not hear. Did this dragon speak to you on your deathbed father, did it speak to your mind and heart as it did to me? she thought in reference to her father’s note. And yet it did not tell me everything, it was holding back, it was leaving its fear nameless. It could not bring itself to tell me - it couldn’t show me what it really wanted to.
Finally they emerged within the Well proper again and Shala saw that they were near the end of it. The path became narrow and disappeared into the bottom rung floor, where the pool sat silently and braziers on their tripod feet burned unceasingly, roaring as if they had been lit just an hour ago. Around the rim they walked a while and came to where a stone double door was set in the mountain wall, big enough that if swung wide open it’d allow a parade of horses to prance through.
‘Here is our way out, and into the lower valleys, west of Attoras,’ said Bhask.
Kaell was already pushing and nudging at the door.
‘It is no use, I have never seen such a complex design, and not as much as a breeze breathes through it!’ said Kaell, pointing to the many discs and diagrams on its surface. ‘It seems to be a puzzle of sorts, and I have no mind right now to attempt it – nor the height! The dragon worshippers must’ve been giants if they didn’t arrange the upper discs with poles or sticks.’
‘Look closer my friend, in the middle rests a cavity, where a key would fit I imagine,’ said Bhask.
’And you’d have us search for this key? Impossible.’ Kaell looked closer, inspecting the prospecting key hole.‘It would be big, giant as far as keys go, but some of the tunnels are for all purposes endless. We could go searching days on end!’
‘Only a certain key held by the dragon worshippers would suffice, but we already hold a master key of some of the old locks of the world,’ said Bhask with self-satisfied confidence, unwrapping Erenciel.
Kaell and Shala watched in wonder as he struck the point deep within the keyhole. It seemed to slide in perfectly. Yet all did not go as planned.
‘That was rather unceremonious,’ said Bhask trying to turn the hilt as one would a key, ‘I had truly thought the sword to be enough. I’m certain it fits.’
‘Must we complete the puzzle also?’ suggested Kaell.
‘Yes, and you must be quick about it! We have company!’ said Shala, pointing upwards.
The wraiths had made it into the Dragonwell, four of them, and they did not need to walk the road. They ambled but to the first ledge and stepped into open air, and in their long flowing robes and cloaks they floated, as if buffeted by a fell wind of some sort.
‘Collect your minds, we must solve this thing fast, we have no chance fighting them here! If we can get by the door the wraiths cannot follow, not even they can pass through solid stone!’
Crows entered the cavern after their masters, and proved to be a profound nuisance as each of them flew to a mirror, tilting them out of position with their claws so that the Dragonwell was horridly robbed of light. Kaell cursed loudly.
‘Princess, the waters in that pool may be still and unmoving, but they are still water of the mountain. If ever a light needed to be struck then it is now and you must provide fine magic to give us time!’ said Bhask, the wraith-kind circling closer.
Shala nodded, turning and leaving the puzzle for the two men. She dipped her hand in the urn, and swayed her hand so that a few enchanted water droplets fell into the pool. She held the urn aloft and made her incantation. ’Seluien Perseies Aveno.’
When the water in the urn came alive with light the clay of the urn became translucent and glasslike. In accordance a spark emanated deep within the pool, setting the water alight. A nimbus formed along the surface, and from it burst a white pillar streaking as high as the roof of the Dragonwell, the beam piercing the darkness of the underground. Shala had never lit as much water as she did that day.
Caught in the pillar of light the wraiths fled and wailed, seeking shelter in those dark tunnels Shala had to walk.
All the while Bhask and Kaell set about to arrange the discs, first working at the lower ones, sliding and arranging them in their grooves so that they may resemble something. The grooves in which the pens rested were of a strange art, for someone had managed to cut curving and looping lines into solid stone. But there was no time for wonderment, and Kaell realized the task was even more difficult seeing that the discs could come in each other’s way, making one have to plan ahead.
Kaell worked on one half of the door even as Bhask worked at the other, and he looked at his Master’s efforts in dismay.
‘Neither of us have anything! We’ll not chance upon the right answer soon enough, we have to coordinate!’
Desperate, Kaell looked at the Princess, whose urn seemed to become a great weight above her and he knew that keeping the light sustained drained much of her strength.
‘If the late King’s sword fits as a key, then for what purpose did His Highness set this door here?’ asked Kaell.
‘If for any, it would be to flee the very disaster we find ourselves in, and he would be on his way to fulfil the Dream of Embers,’ said Bhask, feeling his student might be onto something.
‘Then that must be it, just like the horn presents itself in the stars, we must replicate its image with the discs!’
‘Then at it boy!’ Bhask took the lower discs and Kaell grabbed a pole with a special hook at its end, which he had been eyeing for some time now. With it he arranged the upper discs, until all of them allowed imaginary lines between them, resembling the curling horn of a ram.
‘This must be it,’ said Bhask, and he twisted the sword where it still rested. Somewhere in the mechanisms of the door a deep lock was relieved, sounding loudly. The door turned inwards slowly of its own accord. Kaell ran back to support Shala, being barely conscious still. She released the light, fainting as she did so and Kaell all but carried her, as Bhask met the swooping wraiths with his swords. It took all of Kaell not to hesitate and go help his Master, but the Princess would take priority.
From the darkness ahead came suddenly four emerald streaks of ghostly light. They swerved around Kaell and the Princess, and struck the wraiths, each owning an arrow. They recoiled, not defeated, but the magic of the Druid inducing to them great pain. The source came running right past Kaell, Metrus holding his bow. He joined Bhask’s side, who still stood vigilant. The gem in his hand glowed again and pulling on the string he fired another barrage of arrows. Further away the wraiths were driven, wailing harder than ever before. Bhask and Metrus fled then also into the dark, and in the passing Bhask muttered an incantation, the doors closing and locking behind them again.
Shala was slowly finding her feet as Kaell supported her in the darkness, and her mind awoke again, though feeling deathly tired. After having stared so blindly into the light she herself created her eyes were having a hard time giving shape to the new dark tunnel.
‘We are safe, at last, I had begun to doubt we’d make it this far,’ said Bhask.
‘But now the wraiths still know and they will tell our enemies of our whereabouts!’ said Shala, as she indicated to Kaell she was alright to stand on her own.
Metrus answered her, though she could not see him.
‘Not likely, Your Highness. When you fled into the Dragonwell and I realized the wraiths were on your trail, I tasked some of the guard to close the seal, thereafter I set off as the eagle and came flying over the mountains to meet you at this side. They are deservedly trapped in the Dragonwell my Lady, and for all their pride in death and decay they will roam the place and find the dragon, and the dragon will not tolerate them any better than we do.’
‘The dragon will make short work of them, their petty magicks will not take him like they took me,’ commented Kaell and he walked ahead again. Shala stared after him, knowing he felt shame for failing against the Wraith in the throne room. In all the time Shala had known him she had never seen a warrior’s pride within him. Not until today. He has changed much.
Shala had questions for Metrus, but the dark tunnel prevailed and it put a hush over them as they walked in a line. At the very least they were out of harm’s way. For the moment, thought Shala.
Finally the path became rocky, jutting surfaces making Shala have to carefully place her feet as they marched forward. First Bhask, and then Metrus started walking hunched as the ceiling became lower and the path sloped ever upwards. Near the end of it Shala felt vine plants brushing her face and rotting vegetation touched her nose. They came out in open air, through the undergrowth that hid the exit of the mountain from the eye so that only the knowing traveller could possibly find it. Metrus had obviously come upon it, but he knew the land well, and his eyesight as the eagle was faultless. They heard birdsong in the trees and then Shala was sure they were truly rid of the underground.
‘There then, we have left the dark behind, and now if only morning could approach,’ said Kaell.
‘We have marched into the night? Where are we?’ asked Shala.
‘We are on the shadow side of the mountain my Lady, west of Attoras, the sun will catch up as it passes over the peaks of the Black mountains. Here it can become very cold and we must be thankful that winter is slow in coming,’ said Bhask. ‘This very exit we left by could have been packed away by snow if our timing was wrong,’ he added.
Feeling that the greatest danger was finally behind them many matters caught up to Shala.
‘I can’t believe all of this could have happened so close after my father’s passing,’ said Shala, ‘this plan of the goblins should’ve taken months, how did they pounce so quickly?’
‘Highness, your father’s sickness was not a chance of fate. They got to him in a way he could not defend against,’ said Bhask.
’The wraith-kind, mongering death, often carry diseases with them. In the past they strolled into vulnerable villages not protected by the Rules of Realm and unleashed dark mists that claimed many lives. I would guess that they picked a man and imparted on him this terrible disease, Pilgrim’s as you call it, black death others have called it.
Shala shook her head, showing she was still not following and wondering if her mind was too tired to comprehend the meaning of Bhask’s explanation.
‘In his younger years King Anka returned from his campaign from Cerron with a chest infection. Not long afterwards the Dragons came to reclaim the mountain that was once theirs. Having had no time to recover your father the King healed himself to be able to lead us against the dragons.’
‘But that would’ve created a corruption in his own body!’ protested Shala. ‘Sure enough you can sustain yourself, strengthen yourself even as I often do myself, but mending yourself is not how the light of Seluin functions! It is as fruitless as mending a torn dress with linen of its own fabric!’
‘The act was done in bravery Highness, and necessity, and yes it created a corruption within him, but he lived as a strong healthy man for all these years.’
‘Yet the unseen corruption left him vulnerable,’ supplied Metrus.
Bhask nodded. ‘Knowing that your father might succumb to the disease and knowing he would be active in the infirmary, Swarztial’s conspirators sent in their sick-man, and Pilgrim’s as you know took its toll on Attoras’ people,’ said Bhask, ‘and finally its king,’ he added solemnly.
‘With so much exposure, your Father-King was bound to get sick, and if you were by any chance susceptible, it would have made their task of unseating Evrelyn so much easier,’ said Metrus.
‘Murderers!’ Shala said in realization and she cried in anger. ‘I will have some kind of vengeance; I have half a mind to turn around and enter the Dragonwell and torment the wraiths before the dragon can have its way with them!’
‘Let’s have our vengeance in surviving my Lady. The enemy will be most satisfied if we play right into their hands on the account of anger,’ said Bhask.
To this she said nothing, clearly upset.
‘You’ve kept up well Highness, I’m glad we haven’t lost time,’ said Bhask.
‘I feel it now though and I have resolved not to complain, but I must rest.’
’An hour’s walk lies before us Lady, I apologize but we must press on. A warm bed and meal awaits us at our destination. Is that all right?’ he asked as though there was any other choice to it.
‘Yes, for a warm bed and meal I can press on,’ said Shala.
‘Can we risk lighting a torch?’ asked Kaell.
‘No, I think not, we are far from where our enemies expect us to be, but I’ll only be at ease once this night is over. I’m familiar with the road, we should be fine.’
Bhask let his assurances hang in the air for a long time, the walk taking an increasing toll on Shala.
‘Ah! I hear the stream, we’ll get to our destination if we just follow it.’ The rest of the way they kept quiet and contained, lending the opportunity for the brook of water to have its say. Where the valley evened up they came to a watermill, the force of the stream setting its wheel to a gentle pace.
Shala was vividly reminded of the siege machines the goblins had brought to Attoras. She pushed the image away, as well as any other fears she had for her home. There was a feeling in her that she needed to turn around and run back the miles to Attoras right this instant, in order to be at the heart of the Kingdom, to tell the people it was all going to be alright.
It can survive without me, she thought, I don’t know if I can say the same about myself.
A yokel of a man stood ready at the mill to greet them. He had evidently been waiting, tensely so it seemed. When Shala got a good look at the building on which the wheel was mounted she concluded it was indeed big enough to be a house, or for now, a hideaway.
‘Master Bhask!’ the man said with a torch in his hand, showing a missing tooth and straw hat on his head. ‘M’self has been wondering what might’ve kept you, but I reckon it’s not worth fearing the road, if the road is trodden by a Wolf.’
‘Ghosts be lost my friend,’ said Bhask, his gaze focussed somewhere over the man’s shoulder, as though looking at something beyond him. ‘I thank you for waiting up for us.’
The man introduced himself as Edran.
‘Never been a problem blademaster, I sleep through the days just as well as through the nights. And I reckon you’ll do the same, soothing the water is, if you just listen to it.’
Edran’s eyes came to Shala, and he swept his hat from his head holding it over his chest, looking contrite, ‘Pleasure to meet you Highness, heard about your father the King, truly sorry o’ course.’
Shala mouthed, ‘thank you,’ her words softer than she intended.
They entered the stead with Edran coming in last, closing the door behind them.
’Got yer beds prepared, straw beds, the best I could manage I’m afraid,’ he said, bowing apologetically to the Princess.
‘It’s all right,’ said Shala quickly, ‘I’ve slept in lesser comfort many times before.’ In Norwain the best found comfort was where hammocks were strung between trees, and although the Druids had a liking for it Shala had never acclimatized to it. She wholeheartedly preferred sleeping on something solid.
‘Food should be ready as well, don’t often prepare meals for anyone but m’self, but it’s nice to have an excuse to make a proper stew.’
They ate their dinner out of clay bowls and with wooden spoons, the design of the spoon so clumsy one had to sip the content forcefully from it. And though it was probably one of the poorest stews Shala had ever eaten she had never been as thankful for a simple meal as she was tonight. It seemed that a night of terror did nothing if not make one weak and hungry.
Afterwards Edran showed them each to their beds, Shala’s secluded from the rest. When she was left alone she fell tired on the bed, curling herself in the blankets Edran provided. She hoped she could lay there for many moons and the world would just leave her alone. She wished for the Druids’ ability to sleep through seasons. And yet sleep did not come, there were horrors on her mind, and she could not escape them, they would not let her rest. Metrus entered her tiny room, as though he knew the Princess was wide-awake.
‘Are you alright Highness?’ he asked.
’I’m as tired as I’ve ever been Metrus, and the water plays gently on the rocks, but I cannot get to sleep. I am used to listening to my music box, but since I found it in that horrid room in the castle I will never be able to listen to it again.’
The Druid came to her side, and sat on a small three-legged table, the sturdy wood more than enough to keep his weight.
’I have not told you, Druid, but before the chaos broke out in town, I was lured to a storeroom where some agents of Swarztial hid murdered citizens. Using the bodies, they practiced foul magic to summon the wraith-kind. They lured me to that room with my own music box.’
Metrus nodded. ‘I would have assumed as much, and Kaell has already let us know of it... He knew about it for some time.’
‘And we did nothing to prevent it?’ asked Shala in a weak voice.
‘If it were but right and we could do so without alerting Swarztial to our contingencies we would have done so. This you know Princess.’
She nodded, too tired to think too hard on anything. ‘You make things sleep and awaken, isn’t that right Metrus?’ she asked, looking up at him.
‘I have never ceased to be amazed by your powers, Druid, you still have all the tricks I could hope to have.’
Metrus chuckled. ’They are a gift of the Grove to me. They are entrusted to me. To make you appreciate it, you must know that it comes with... a price we shall say.’
‘Yes, in order for me to be powerful, my fellow Druids have gone into a deep slumber, not waking for years on end. In their dreams they are one with the power of the Grove and their joint efforts come to me through the Alder stone,’ said Metrus tapping the jewel in his right hand glove. ‘If they stop dreaming, my magic will wane.’
‘Such a deep slumber? I wish I could have it, and not wake until everything is as it should be... Could you make me sleep Metrus?’
‘Yes Highness, at least until tomorrow. Close your eyes, and listen, try not to think about tonight.’
Shala closed her eyes, thinking on how impossible disregarding tonight’s events might be.
And Metrus sang the strange words of his incantation, until Shala passed into a deep dreamless sleep, undisturbed, so that grim realities and a troubled mind could be set aside for dawn.