The wet shaft smelled of death. Visible fumes seeped across the floor above a trickle of water and green slime. Turning to his men, the lead operative made a fist and nodded. Each of the fifteen soldiers went from silent mode to deadly silent mode. Hardly a breath was drawn for fear of disturbing the dark tunnel.
Behind the soldiers, a rusted iron grate lay to the side of the tunnel. Outside, a steady sheet of rain fell across the opening. Beyond, a vertical drop of six hundred yards fell to the sea: a deadly climb, made even deadlier by the adverse conditions his men had toiled in. Obviously, cover of night and storm was a must for an operation such as this. It was expected, and welcomed as a challenge. Commander Edward Rowgar lowered his arm and swiftly proceeded up the tunnel. His men followed as a single entity. These were men of shadow, silence, and death.
Reaching the end of the tunnel, Rowgar stopped. A faint light crept through the bars ahead and in the gloom, a skinny man sawed furiously. Exploding forward, Rowgar grabbed the wrist of the inmate who dropped his wooden spoon in surprise. Pulling the man tight to the bars, Rowgar held him in a single handed grip of iron. Pressing his lip to a dirty ear, he whispered. “Cease that activity. Give us two minutes and we’ll be right in.”
The startled man recovered quickly. “You can’t be serious,” he whined through his thick beard, “nobody in their right mind wants in. I’ve spent years trying to dig my way out. Do you think you can just barge in here and steal my glory? I’m going to be the first to make it out alive. They’ll sing songs about me in every tavern.” Rowgar assessed the man. Was it delirium or insanity?
“Jack the convict went down the hole, thrown in prison for the bread he stole. Through a crack, he never looked back; the Poncemen lost crazy old Jack.”
Rowgar tightened his fingers on the man’s throat signaling an end to the man’s song. “You’ll bring the guards down on us,” he growled.
“Don’t mean to be rude, but there is no one down here except me and the rats. The prison is five stories above,” confided Jack.
“So, you’re a bread thief,” whispered Rowgar fumbling at his belt.
“I am… was, a wheat dignitary. I was responsible for Vellian exports.”
Rowgar grunted and released his Svindinbom knife from his belt with his free hand. The tool was ingenious, containing everything from sharpened blades to a small saw. His men crouched at the ready as he released the lockpick tool.
As he worked, Rowgar’s thoughts returned to the men behind him. Already they had made him proud. A three mile trip in rowboats on stormy seas, followed by a two mile hike over rocky shores in full gear had been nothing compared to the climb. Not once had any man faltered or complained. It was an honour to lead such men. It wasn’t his company or their abilities that concerned Rowgar though; it was the mission itself.
For two years now, Rowgar had warned the top Vellian brass about the consequences of an unwarranted strike on any of Ponce’s compounds. It was no secret the treaty between Vellia and Ponce was stretched to its breaking point.
“If the wrong general so much as breaks wind in Ponce’s direction, we’ll be looking at war,” he had cautioned them. Up until last week the Vellian high command had seen fit to listen to the wisdom of their Svindenbom allies. Then without warning, Vellia ordered a pre-emptive strike on the coastal prison compound known as Chateau Gibet. Rowgar had not been informed about the attack prior to the offense, and now he had been sent in with his elite soldiers in a secondary offense on the same compound. It made no sense. The Ponce guard would be on high alert and expecting them, he knew. Exhaling a deep breath, he calmed himself. There was nothing to do now but follow orders. ’This is what we have trained for. I must be strong for the boys.’ Deep down inside he felt empty.
“Ulas,” he hoarsed as the lock gave way under his pick. “You blink that loud again and I’ll have Tyas cut off those lids to shut you up.” Still holding Jack tight to the grill, Rowgar pushed forward into the adjacent square of tunnel.
Behind Rowgar, the men shuffled after him. Ulas mumbled a “Sorry Chief,” under his breath as he passed.
“I know you fellas,” whispered Jack. “You’re from the Hard Hawks and the King’s First Balloon Division. You’re the most famous paratroopers in the Royal Airborne. Dropped in to free the hostages and kill the command of the prison, have we?” Rowgar’s deadly gaze met Jack’s, and though he didn’t speak, his message was clear. Jack swallowed, but continued nonetheless. “I happen to be a distant cousin of the queen’s mother, a man of importance to the Vellian Empire and its grain negotiations, as I mentioned.”
Rowgar’s fingers encircled the prisoner’s throat again and he forcefully pushed Jack to the floor as two of his soldiers took up positions on either side of the inner cell door. Releasing the man, Rowgar stood. His eyes swept the gloom of the cell and the soft light coming from behind the inner door. “Did you hear that cannon fire a week past?” he snarled. “That was the Hard Hawks, or what happened to them anyway. Recon was bad. They said there was light fire to be expected from the upper cliffs, maybe some six pounders. The weather forecast was also botched. Cloud cover was too light. Between the griffin riders and the cannons, the Hard Hawks and their balloons didn’t stand a chance. We’re your last hope now, dignitary, so stay close and stay quiet.”
Rowgar slid a sleek, black, crossbow from his back and slipped a bolt into place. “Ravens, load up.” Fifteen men readied their crossbows and prepared to deal death in a non-negotiable way. Rowgar made a fist and pointed across the cell. The men moved out in pairs.
Making their way into the higher dungeons, crossbows clicked quietly as the compound’s guards were encountered and dispatched. Charges were planted and slow-burn fuses lit. These men worked well under pressure. No one had expected an easy mission, and most had wanted it that way. Thirty minutes was all the time they had to gain access to the upper cells, set their charges, and get out – while meeting the mission directives. The prime directive was to bring down the gates of the compound. The second directive was to destroy the griffin stables and rider quarters. The third directive, and least important, was to get the hostages out.
Rowgar climbed toward the last iron door leading into the upper compound. Dousing the burning lantern beside the arch, the men backed against the tunnel walls and stood waiting in the darkness. From the other side of the door a high pitched voice uttered something indecipherable. The door opened and a thin attendant stepped onto the landing at the top of the stairs. He fell to the stone spilling lantern oil and blood as three crossbow quarrels hit him in the chest. Immediately, six of Rowgar’s Ravens were through the opening, crossbows firing as they cleared the guardroom.
Rowgar raised his hand and all movement ceased. “Ulas, take Vigor, Annette and the twins, and go wake the good warden. Tyas, I know you are itching to avenge your brother. Take Redford, Bellings, Night Soil and Johnny, and level that damn griffin stable. The rest of the men and I will set our charges and hold the passage into the lower levels. Go now.” The men slipped from the room and into the prison without a word of acknowledgment.
From below, a violent explosion rocked the complex, shaking mortar from the ceilings and knocking Rowgar and his men from their feet. A second explosion shuddered throughout the compound, sending a large cloud of dust up through the tunnel behind them.
“What in God’s name?” The charges in the lower mines were going off. The lower tunnels would now be impassable. As he picked himself off the floor, a moment of fear touched Rowgar. “So much for surprise,” he quipped. “Gilk, find Ulas and have his men make for the stables. The rest of you start praying we reach Tyas before he sets his charges. If I have a choice, I’ll ride a griffin before I practice my cliff diving.”
“But Chief,” said one of the men behind him. “You’re the best swimmer in the corps!”
Rowgar’s head bobbed at Jack. “By the smell of him, he’s not as fond of the water as us.” The soldier nodded in agreement and reached for another bolt.