Chapter 44: Path
Gilmir came into the sewer canal under the dungeons the same way he had exited. Before he left, he bade Chris tell Tracks to be at the stadium and look for Hobble. The wheels were turning, now he just had to hang on. Saendar had provided him with instructions and a crude map. Gilmir was impressed with how much and how detailed information the old crippling had been able to gather. That worried him as he approached the place where he had fallen down from the trapdoor in the dungeon proper.
The smell was worse than he remembered, but this time he did not need to bathe in the sludge. He hoped. Glancing up to the trapdoor, he considered his options. Saendar had provided him with another way in. However, he wanted to go through the dungeons. For several reasons, one being the fact that he did not want to rely on the old man’s information more than needed.
The curved tunnel walls were made of coarse bricks. He would have to climb to reach the hatch. Such a climb he had not done in years. Studying the domed tunnel ceiling, he took off his shoes. He located the roughest stones and the largest crease and planned the challenging climb. Delving into the magic of his shard, he made his body lighter, transmitting his mass to stones on the floor. With his shoes between his teeth, he began the climb. Soon he was upside down and closing on the hatch.
He resisted the temptation to let go with his feet and hang from his fingers while he took hold of the hatch. Instead, he pressed into the wall, suspending between his hand- and footholds. His muscles ached while he scaled the last inches. At last, he reached the hatch. With his left hand, he pulled on the latch. His feet started shaking with the strain and his arms burned. Pushing forward, he reached up under the opened hatch door. Somehow, he found handholds and could pull himself up into the dungeon proper.
He rested with his back against the wall for a hundred beats. Slipping on his soft leather shoes, he moved down the hall until he came to the intersection. Through the doorway to his right, he would find his old prison wing. The familiar sounds reached him. Men moaning and whimpering. Sobbing and crying. The guards laughing in the guardroom. The smell was different from the sewer below, but no less foul. It reeked of death and decay. One hundred and twenty-four steps would take him back to his old cell. But that was not the chamber he was looking for. Ada was trapped and dying, in a cell in this very dungeon.
Footsteps sounded from the hallway to the right. Gilmir melted into the shadows by the doorway. The precise but heavy steps came closer before they stopped and started receding. Glancing around the corner, Gilmir could confirm what he already knew. Magnus, the tall Northman guard, was making his round. Gilmir recognised the sounds of every guard who had made rounds in this hellhole for the two and a half years he was locked up. All thirty-seven of them. Looking at the back of this man, Gilmir found his knife in his hand. Of all the thirty-seven guards, this man in front of him was the worst. By a bowshot. The elf stalked out into the corridor.
Silently, he closed in on the broad-shouldered man. For a moment, Gilmir considered not killing the brute. The thought caught him off guard. A few years ago, or a few months ago, no, even a week before, he would not have contemplated the option. Times had changed. He had changed. However, that would not help Magnus. The world would be a better place without him. He would not do this for himself. He did this for every other person who had, and who would have, crossed path with the Northman.
At least, that was what he told himself.
To the guard’s credit, he realised something was wrong before Gilmir’s dagger found his kidney. However, all he managed to do was to stop walking. Gilmir drove the blade in low, but at an upward angle, finishing with a twist, before he yanked it out. His left hand over Magnus’s mouth, muffling the cry, he guided the limp body to the floor. Dragging the Northman by his blond hair, Gilmir went back towards his old cell. Some prisoners called out to him, but he ignored them. Thankfully, they had the wits to keep their voices low. Finding his old cell empty, Gilmir smiled and hauled the heavy body inside.
He was reckless, but he did not care. Something had to be done. Some people had to die.
Realising the prisoners would raise their voices if they saw him going by again, Gilmir reached out with his magic and snuffed out a torch, and then another. He waited while the prisoners reacted to the alteration. Standing there by his old cell door, memories came flowing back. Memories of endless hours lying on the floor, of starving and thirsting. Of pain and suffering. Of his mind wandering and getting lost. A shudder went through him. Last time he was here he was dying. That was no exaggeration. Still, you are coming back. Like a beaten dog creeping back to its cruel master. That old voice again. The one that always seemed to find him in his darkest hours. Now it came creeping back. Now that he was back in the place where he thought he would draw his last breath.
He shook his head. And moved into the shadows.
He stalked towards the guardroom. A few moments later, he was closing in on Ada’s cell. He could not say precisely how he knew. It was something with the sensations and feelings he had felt in the dream. The sense of death and despair, the sound of water dripping from somewhere, the smell of rodents and their droppings.
The cell was silent. Too silent. He was too late.
Coming to the cell door, he saw the cell was empty. That could only mean one thing. Useless. That is what you are. You can tell yourself you have changed. But you cannot save anyone. The only skill you have is killing. Stop fooling yourself. Once a killer, always a killer. Gilmir growled. He had to agree. However, if he was to change, if he was to lead another life, he had to learn. He had to adapt.
Nevertheless, in that instance, he had no idea where Ada was or how he could help her. There was just one path ahead of him.
Pushing Ada to the back of his mind, he went on.
At the door to the guardroom, he crept up to the wall. Once again, he snuffed out two torches in the corridor. It was one of the first magic tricks he had learned in his training. The hallway went almost entirely dark. As expected, the prisoners called out. One torch went out often enough. Two torches at the same time was not that strange. But four? From inside the door, Gilmir heard grumbling and the shuffling of a chair. The next moment the door went up.
‘What the …’ the voice said. It was Owen, the chubby guard. ‘Magnus? What’s going on down there?’
No response. Owen grumbled, and feet shuffled. Soon Owen came back and out in the corridor with a torch. ‘Magnus? What shit are you up to?’
As soon as Owen moved a few feet down the corridor, Gilmir slipped in the door. It was stadium day, and if things had not changed a lot, there would not be more guards nearby. Gilmir crossed the empty room. Hopefully, the sleeping quarters would also be empty, or close to. Hearing nothing at the door, he opened it and peered inside. All was still, all was quiet. He crossed the room and found the stairs. Coming up on the next floor, he should be close to the entrance to the servant’s corridor. He found the secret door behind the curtain where Saendar had told him it was. It was supposed to be a short walk to the stairwell. The stairs would take him to the top of the castle. From there, it should be straightforward to find the servants entrance to the throne room.
The information proved true. Down to the smallest detail. Gilmir did not even see a servant while he made his way from the dungeons to the throne room floor at the top of the castle. This was not right. His instincts screamed at him from the back of his mind. Like a crazy little monkey. There should have been someone in his way.
He ignored his instincts. Disregarded the screaming ape.
Gilmir opened the door to the throne room.