Melca watched as Allisad led Ryden and Balenor down the passage towards the dungeons. Once they had disappeared from sight, Raglyn left him and Branga and went back outside to reassure Senti that all was going to plan. Melca and Branga stood awkwardly for several minutes then sat down in the guards’ chairs.
A chill went down Melca’s spine and he trembled. It was cold in this part of the building but he was also nervous for his friend. Although he and Ryden had got themselves out of a few scrapes in the past, none of them compared to this. He looked over at Branga who was grinning like an idiot. The lad was far too excited to be nervous.
Still, I’d rather be sat here than going down into the dungeons, he reasoned.
Ryden felt exactly the same. He was terrified at the prospect of going into the depths of an underground dungeon network with no idea who or what they would come up against. He was thankful, however, that they had the old alchemist with them.
Balenor had somehow created a cylindrical torch that produced artificial light when it was wound up, so they didn’t have to rely on a candle that would inevitably be blown out by the draughts down here.
When Balenor pointed the torch in front of them, Ryden could see clearly for about twenty yards but was convinced that the passage was a lot longer than that. The sound of dripping water echoed along the stone walls, causing him to shudder involuntarily.
The path took them steadily downwards, weaving left and right, and after a few minutes Ryden was completely disorientated. Once or twice they saw other corridors branching off but decided to press forward. The deeper they went, the more Ryden began to panic.
What are we doing down here? There could be any number of cells in this prison and we don’t know where Aranin will be. We don’t know for certain that he’s here or even whether he’s still alive. In fact, we don’t know what he looks like if we do find him!
They walked in silence. Allisad pushed on doggedly, acting as though he knew exactly where he was headed. Balenor was more hesitant, testing the floor with each step. More than once his feet slid beneath him, where water had found its way into the underground passage and given life to patches of green lichen.
Ryden followed the older men, continually looking back over his shoulder even though he couldn’t see more than three feet back up the path. He tried to tread lightly but his footsteps sounded like thunder in the narrow space and the men’s clothes rustled and creaked. If anyone is down here, they will hear us coming from a mile off.
After several long minutes, they reached a T-junction. They stopped, not knowing which route to take. As they tried to assess the options, loud voices drifted up to them from the left fork. Balenor gestured to head down the right-hand fork, whereas Ryden was all for turning round and leaving the terrifying dungeon far behind them.
But Allisad began to walk purposefully down the left path towards the voices. Not wanting to split up, Balenor and Ryden followed him warily. They crept as quietly as they could towards the source of the voices until they saw a flickering glow at the end of the passage.
Balenor pressed a button on his torch and suddenly they were plunged into darkness. Ryden marvelled at the advantages of having such a device.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust but the glow from the end of the hall was closer now and they edged steadily towards it. There were two voices talking and Ryden assumed they were the prison guards. He hoped against hope that there were only two of them.
They reached the end of the corridor and could tell that the men were no more than ten feet away now. They stood motionless against the damp rock and Allisad took a deep breath and peered around the corner.
Turning back, he held two fingers up to indicate there were only two men in the room. He flexed his fingers and took a firm grasp of his dagger. Ryden slowly dragged his own knife from its sheath, wincing at the quiet scraping noise it made.
The conversation stopped. Then one of the voices said, ‘did you hear that?’
Ryden’s heart sank.
‘It was nothing,’ the other voice said. ‘Probably just a rat.’
The shadows in front of Allisad moved and he guessed that one of the fire-torches had been removed from its bracket in the wall. They heard footsteps coming closer and pressed themselves against the wall.
A short, ugly man with boils on his face appeared round the corner. His eyes widened in shock when he saw the three intruders but before he could say anything, Balenor had clubbed him round the head with the torch.
As the man fell back and slid down the wall, unconscious, a shout went up from inside the room. Allisad burst around the corner, followed closely by Ryden and Balenor. The remaining guard turned towards the archway behind him as if to run, but Allisad grabbed him fiercely and pushed the dagger against his throat.
‘Do as I say and I’ll let you live,’ he growled. The man’s eyes darted from side to side and he nodded, but Ryden noticed his hand straying towards his belt. Quick as a flash, he grabbed the man’s wrist with one hand and proceeded to disarm him with the other. The man had two daggers and a large bunch of heavy iron keys.
‘How many more guards are down here?’ Allisad demanded.
‘N-none,’ came the prompt reply.
‘If you’re lying, then the moment I see another guard I will slit your throat. Do you want to rethink your answer?’
‘N-no, there’s jus’ me an’ ‘im. The next shift ain’t due for an hour.’
‘Good,’ Allisad replied. ‘Now, we are looking for someone. A man by the name of Aranin. Ring any bells?’
‘Don’t know any names, sir. Don’t know who’s here, sir.’
‘How many cells are there?’
’About an ‘undred, sir.’
‘He will have been here for about three years,’ Ryden said. If he’s still alive, his mind added.
‘He’ll be down that way then,’ the guard said, pointing to the passageway behind where Balenor stood.
‘How many cells are there?’ Allisad asked.
‘The man we want used to be friends with the king,’ Ryden explained. ‘He would have been well-known before he was sent here.’
’You want the guv then. We call ‘im the guv cos he’s always sayin’ “Garro” this and “the king” that. Thinks he’s royalty himself, I reckon.’
‘Take us to him,’ Allisad demanded.
‘I’m not allowed to leave my post...’ the man started, then he saw the look in Allisad’s eyes and conceded.
Balenor flicked on his torch and shone it down the passageway that the guard had indicated.
‘What in the name of the Author is that?’ he screamed.
‘Witchcraft,’ Balenor replied with a smile. ‘Now lead the way.’
In the draughty hall behind the castle kitchens, Melca tapped his fingers on the table.
‘They shouldn’t have been gone this long,’ he said for the umpteenth time.
‘They’ll be fine,’ Branga repeated. ‘Come on, it’s your turn.’
The two of them had grown bored of sitting together in silence and were now playing a game of cards. Melca’s concerns, at least for himself, had been alleviated. It was the middle of the night, no one was likely to be around and anyone that did come by would assume they were the appointed guards. Other than his worry for Ryden he was reasonably at ease.
He’d even started to enjoy the company of the young man who sat opposite him. Branga was talkative and friendly and had helped Melca take his mind off the current situation. He was shocked, therefore, when two men arrived in guard uniforms matching their own and offered to relieve them.
‘Go on,’ the bigger man said to Melca, ‘you’ve done your shift. Go home and get yourself some sleep.’
‘Er... we can’t,’ Melca replied quickly.
‘Course you can,’ the man replied, surprised. ‘We’re here now.’
‘No, he means we don’t want to,’ Branga jumped in. ‘We want to finish our game, you see.’
The big man raised an eyebrow.
‘That’s right,’ Melca said, picking up the story, ‘we’ve got a lot of money riding on this game, so we’re going to be here for another hour at least.’
The guard shrugged. ‘Very well, you can stay here with us for a bit. It’d be good to have the extra company anyway,’ he said, glancing at the man beside him, ‘because he’s as dull as anything.’ His comrade scowled.
‘Um... that’s fine then. I’m afraid I’ve got really bad wind though,’ Melca improvised desperately, ‘so why don’t you just go home and come back in an hour?’
‘I’d love to,’ the big man replied. ‘But what if the boss turns up? No, we’d better stay here, thanks all the same.’
‘Strange,’ the other man said slowly, ‘I haven’t seen you two here before. What’s happened to Burt and Kam? They’re always on before us.’
Melca blinked. Then shrugged. Then without thinking, he stood and launched a right hook into the guard’s jaw. His muscular archer’s arm carried a huge amount of power and the man fell hard, cracking his head on the stone flagstones. Before the other guard could react, he smashed a fist into the man’s stomach then brought his knee up into his face, breaking his nose.
Although not naturally violent, Melca’s veins surged with adrenalin and he smashed the man’s head into the wall, knocking him unconscious. The moment it was done, a wave of nausea swept over him and he flushed bright red.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured to Branga, ‘I’m so sorry.’
Branga was grinning from ear to ear. ‘That was amazing!’ he gushed. ‘I wish I could do that; that was incredible!’
Melca shook his head. ‘Come on; let’s get these two outside with the others.’ He hooked his hands under the first guard’s arms and began to drag him down the corridor to the back door.
The cell door was made of heavy wood, with massive steel hinges spanning its entire width. Ryden thrust the ring of keys into the jailer’s hand and demanded that he open the door.
The lock was stiff but gave way eventually and the door swung open. A repugnant smell issued from the room; a combination of faeces, urine and rotting meat. Ryden retched.
Balenor shone the torch into the room. It was tiny and the floor was about an inch deep in water and excrement. A decaying body lay corner to corner across the room. Shreds of material hung from the emaciated frame and the skin glistened in the pale light.
Ryden’s eyes were drawn to the cadaverous face. He tried to look away but couldn’t; morbid fascination had captured his gaze.
The eyeballs were sunken under closed eyelids and ringed with black, a stark contrast to the pallid skin stretched thinly over the sharp jaw and cheekbones.
He continued staring, transfixed, until he realised with horror that the eyes were opening.
‘Aranin?’ he whispered, his voice hoarse.
The withered man looked into Ryden’s eyes. He had a haunted look that caused the young smith to recoil in terror. And then he spoke words that chilled Ryden to the core.
‘Dario? Is that you?’
Hearing his father’s name, this far from anything safe or familiar, rendered Ryden speechless for a moment.
Balenor was the first to react. He stepped into the tiny room and laid his hands on the man’s forearms, pulling him into a sitting position. Allisad continued to hold the jailer with a knife to his throat.
Ryden snapped out of his reverie and leaned into the cell to help. The putrid stench made him gag again but he fought through it. Taking an arm each, he and Balenor pulled the man out of the room and onto his feet. He fell against the wall, clutching his chest.
Ryden tried to help him but the man pushed him away weakly. ‘I must do this,’ he wheezed. Standing with his hands on the wall, he pushed himself to his full height and then laughed hysterically. ‘Look how tall I am!’ he called.
He twisted his neck and spine so that ripples of cracks sounded and then laughed again. ‘I’m free!’
‘Not yet you’re not, fella,’ Allisad muttered, ‘but you’re freer than him.’ As he spoke he flung the terrified jailer into the cell and slammed the door behind him. He turned the key in the lock and then began to walk back up the corridor towards the ante-chamber where they’d found the guards.
Balenor handed the torch to Allisad and then he and Ryden lifted Aranin’s arms onto their shoulders and helped him stumble through the cold corridor after the Kapp.
They passed through the antechamber and continued up the passageway beyond. Aranin kept trying to support his own weight and failing, so in the end Ryden and Balenor were all but dragging him through the grim tunnels.
Suddenly Ryden heard a faint popping sound and the four men were plunged into darkness. They stopped where they were and Allisad passed the torch to Balenor. The alchemist fumbled with the device in the darkness, cursing to himself as he did so.
‘I think the globe is broken,’ he explained at last. This happened with a larger globe that I used back at the tavern. Unfortunately I cannot fix it; not here at any rate.’
‘Great,’ Allisad responded sarcastically. ‘So we’re stuck down here with no light.’
‘There were torches back in the guard’s chamber,’ Balenor suggested, ‘we could go back for one of those?’
‘I’d rather not backtrack for ten minutes,’ Ryden replied. ‘If we push on then it won’t take much longer for us to get out of this vile dungeon.’
‘Agreed,’ Allisad said. He placed his hand on one wall and began walking forwards again.
Ryden and Balenor followed suit, hauling the skeletal frame of Aranin between them. Ryden tried his best not to press against the man too much as he was still covered from head to toe in his own waste, however in this confined space there was little choice and Ryden made a mental note to jump in the river and scrub himself the moment they got outside.
Aranin began to moan. At first Ryden thought he was in pain, but then he saw the man was crying.
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry Dario. I’m so sorry.’
Ryden interrupted him. ‘Aranin, I’m not Dario. I’m his son, Ryden.’
‘Don’t play the fool, Dario; Ryden is only a boy. Can you forgive me, Dario?’
‘My father’s dead, Aranin. I am Ryden.’
‘Dario can’t be dead. You are Dario. Unless I am finally dead as well and you are leading me to Hades?’
‘You are not dead, Aranin, though you are very unwell.’
‘I’m sorry for everything, old friend. It’s all my fault. The Network...’ he began wailing even louder. ‘They made me talk, Dario. I swore I wouldn’t but they tortured me. They crushed and burned and lashed me. In the end I told them everything; I just couldn’t bear the pain.’
The man’s voice dropped to little more than a whisper. ‘Did they find you, Dario?’
A lump formed in Ryden’s throat and he had to blink away his own tears. ‘They did find Dario, two years ago. And they killed him. Now I am sixteen and I want to know who was responsible for my father’s death.’
‘Ryden?’ Recognition finally dawned on the man, even though his mind teetered on the brink of insanity. ‘It cannot be. Why are you here?’
‘To find the truth. Who killed my father?’
’I cannot say who killed him. But I know who would have sent the killer. The same man that put me through such unbearable agony, day after day, until I gave up the names of my dearest friends. Demus Lazarus.
Ryden swallowed. So it was the general himself who sent the assassins. The information didn’t necessarily help him. There were plenty of other people who wanted General Lazarus dead but had been unable to do anything about it.
The man beside him had betrayed his father but given the circumstances Ryden didn’t bear him any ill will. He could only imagine the suffering that the poor man had been through. He was interrupted from his thoughts by Allisad, who stopped suddenly.
‘Wait. Something’s not right. This passage is leading us downwards; we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.’
‘Should we turn around and go back?’ Balenor asked.
‘Alternatively we could take the next right turn we come across and see if that leads us out,’ Allisad replied.
‘Let’s go back,’ Ryden said. At worst we should end up back at the guard’s chamber.’
Allisad agreed and swept past the other men so he could continue to lead the party. He ran his hand along the left wall until he came across another corridor, then led them up this new path. ‘This must be the turning we missed earlier,’ he assured them.
They were certainly heading uphill again, but after a while they came to a T-junction that they didn’t recognise.
‘We haven’t been here before,’ Allisad stated. ‘My instincts are telling me to turn right.’
‘Your instincts were what got us lost in the first place,’ Balenor snarled, losing his temper.
‘Keep quiet!’ Ryden hissed. ‘There’s no point in getting angry; we all want to get out of here. I too think we should turn right. Balenor, do you disagree?’
‘No,’ the man mumbled. ‘I’m sorry Allisad, I just don’t like enclosed spaces and it feels like we’ve been down here for hours.’
‘How do you think I feel?’ Aranin said, then began laughing manically.
Allisad turned right and headed up the new tunnel, followed by the others. Ryden silently began to pray for guidance.
He wondered whether the sun had started to rise yet. He hoped it hadn’t; otherwise the rest of the escape would become even more difficult. As they tramped onwards, Ryden suddenly became aware of the sound of footsteps other than their own.
He hissed to the others to stop and they all pressed themselves against the wall and waited. After a moment they saw the top of the corridor in front of them begin to glow. Someone was approaching with a fire-brand.
Ryden heard voices talking in guttural Kappish accents. He held his breath and waited for what seemed an eternity. As two immense shadows filled the space at the top of the corridor Ryden’s heart skipped a beat, but no sooner had they appeared than they were continuing on, without so much as a glance down the side-passage where the four men stood rooted to the spot.
They waited until they were sure the danger had passed and then set off again. Ryden guessed that the two guards had just come down from the main keep, so once they reached the top of the corridor they turned left in the hope it would lead them out.
What concerned Ryden was that Melca and Branga were supposed to be guarding the dungeon entrance. If those two guards were able to get through then what had happened to his friend?
When the warm light from the castle came into sight ahead of the four men, relief swept over them. They may not have completed their escape but at least they were out of that chilling underground maze. They approached cautiously however, not knowing exactly what they would find.
Allisad peered round the corner then turned back smiling. He marched confidently into the small hall and when Ryden got around the corner he could see why. Both Branga and Melca were slumped across the table, asleep. Melca was snoring gently.
Ryden chuckled and shook his friend awake whilst Allisad woke Branga. The six of them tiptoed down the last corridor to the door, where Raglyn stood tapping his foot.
‘What took you so long?’ he whispered in a panicked voice. ‘Oh, never mind; let’s just get out of here.’
He hauled the door open, wincing as it creaked loudly, then ushered the group outside. It was still the dead of night but the moon was bright, giving the broad castle gardens an ethereal sheen.
Raglyn led the way along the gravel path and then veered off to a small cluster of trees and bushes. Behind the undergrowth, Gurta and Tanka stood over the prone forms of four guards, two of which were still wearing nothing but their underwear. Senti was nearby, chatting in a low voice to John, who beamed when he saw his grandfather.
Melca and Branga quickly changed back into their own clothes and then Ryden and Raglyn helped Aranin to dress in one of the uniforms.
As soon as the party was ready they crept across the gardens toward the gate where they had entered, Ryden and Branga supporting Aranin as they did so. It wouldn’t be long before the new dungeon guards found their comrades and raised the alarm.
Fortunately the gate was exactly how they’d left it, suggesting that no one had passed this way in the last two hours. Without stopping to lock it, the R.L. disappeared into the woods and within minutes they came into sight of the Lawrum Inn.
By now, Ryden was feeling exhilarated. We’ve done it! We’ve escaped the castle and we’re home and dry!
His joy was short-lived, however. As soon as they reached the tavern he knew something was wrong. The door had been smashed open and hung limply from its hinges, whilst the storeroom inside was in disarray. Before anyone could stop them, Gurta and Tanka ran into the building, shouting.
Raglyn marched in after them whilst the rest of the group stood outside, shivering in the cold moonlight.
He reappeared two minutes later, a stricken look on his face. Senti ran forward to comfort him but he pushed her away. His eyes scanned the faces around him and eventually he spoke.
‘Paldar is gone,’ he said quietly.