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The three of them came at the hour agreed, grey robed for anonymity, though Marius had already taken a shrewd guess at some of their identities. Still he played along with the charade. His own part in the night’s criminal adventure left him little with which to reproach the high born and the privileged in their skulking around his deep dungeon domain. He bowed low, avoiding looking at their hooded faces.
“Is all made ready?” the short fat one demanded.
“Yes, my Lord,” Marius responded. “Do you have the sum we agreed upon?”
With a clink of metal the tall one drew a purse from beneath his cloak and handed it to the watchful dungeon warder. There was an incredulous impatience from the cloaked trio as Marius tipped the contents into his hand and counted out ten gold crowns by the flickering light of the guardroom torches. “Such insolence,” the tall one growled in a voice and tone Marius knew too well. “Do you not know who we are?”
Marius looked up from the pile of coins, two year’s salary in one palm. “I had understood, my Lord Prince, that it was thought better I should not know who you were, or at least your colleague assured me so.”
The short one waved podgy fingers in an agitation for peace. “All of us have much to hide, tonight,” he wailed. “I don’t think we need fear for each other’s discretion.”
“Indeed not,” Marius agreed grimly. “Though it seems our arithmetic may yet be called into question. The payment was to be twenty crowns.”
There was a flurry of movement as the Prince raised his arm to strike, but Marius did not flinch even before the third member of the group’s intervention, pulling his angry companion back.
“Balance on completion of the night’s work,” the short one muttered. “Perhaps my good fellow, you could lead the way. I am sure we all want our business done as soon as possible.”
Marius bowed low again and turned to the heavy reinforced door to the dungeon complex. The key turned easily in the lock and hefting a torch from its brazier he led the unlikely party past rows of barred containment cells.
“You are sure there is no-one to see us?” the Prince demanded.
Marius did not deign to reply, but the short one supplied the obvious answer. “Fear not my Prince, the monthly assizes are just done and the prisoners are all either acquitted or in the wagons on their way to Sturmcairn.”
“Goddess rest their souls,” Marius intoned automatically.
“Indeed,” the fat one concurred as they filed along the winding corridor, heading deeper and deeper into the citadel’s undercroft.
Marius took them down two spiral staircases to the lowest level and then along a dusty corridor to cell thirty-one. The key, as all keys, was polished, but this lock was very stiff and for a moment it seemed that it would not answer. Marius heard a slight whimper of panic from the group’s spokesman by his side, but then the lock turned and the door creaked open to reveal a plain dark stone cell some ten foot square.
After a moment’s hesitation, Marius led the way inside and the trio trod after him in the dust and stared around at the bare walls.
“How can you know this is the one?” the Prince demanded.
“Castle records,” his short companion assured him, running his fingers along the wall, like a blind man trying to read the very stones. “This cell hasn’t been used in nearly four hundred years; It must be this one.”
Marius felt the Prince’s gaze on him. He shuffled his feet and felt obliged to respond. “It’s true, stories are that anyone was put in here went mad or died overnight.”
“And that was so inconvenient for a nation that doesn’t have the death penalty, well not officially,” the spokesman said as he stepped back at last somehow satisfied with one particular section of the wall.
“Exile is not the same as death.” Marius automatically recited the mantra of the justice system he had served all his working life
The third conspirator gave a snort of derision, but it was the Prince who voiced their collective scepticism. “Exile not the same as death? I’d like to see you survive more than a day in the lands beyond the barrier with little more than a corkscrew to defend yourself.”
“It is a choice all must make. Choose to live within the law and within the barrier or face exile,” Marius persisted.
“Fine words for a lawbreaker.” At last the third one spoke. The lilting voice gripped at Marius’s heart more grievously than that of the volatile Prince. Suddenly, the dungeon warder began to fear what depth of treachery he was committing for a score of gold crowns.
“My daughters’ are ill,” Marius stammered back. “Priests’ cures cost money.”
“I would say tell it to the judge,” the short one chided. “But it is in no-one’s interests for it to come to that. Soon our task will be accomplished and you can return to your children, fully recompensed for your efforts and able to buy their good health. But first our friend here has a particular talent to use. There should be the spot.” He tapped his preferred section of the wall and took a couple of steps back towards the increasingly nervous dungeon warder.
Marius’s eyes widened as the third member of the party began a complex sequence of gestures and light streamed towards the dungeon wall. ‘A mage, a bloody mage!’ with that realisation fear deepened on two counts. Never mind the fact that any association with the forbidden practice of magic was punishable by exile, there was the corollary that all practitioners of magic were inherently evil enemies of the Goddess. What company had he fallen into?
The light crackled noiselessly around the wall until it glowed and a shape became discernible, a darker hued rectangle, an opening, a doorway. While he did not dare look, Marius sensed that the mage was struggling, as the task drained evil power at a rapid rate. But then, with a gasp it was done. Panting the sorcerer dropped to the floor and as the prismatic light of magecraft faded, the flickering light of the torches revealed a solid opening, a passageway out of the cell looking as though it had always existed.
“That was harder than I expected,” the mage gasped.
The short one grimaced. “Five hundred year old magic and of a lesser origin than the one we seek; I hope you are up to the trials ahead?”
The mage nodded while sucking in hasty breaths. “You go on, give me a moment.”
Already the Prince was ahead of them. Peering into the opening. “Here, bring that torch and lead the way,” he commanded.
Marius hesitated, “our agreement said nothing of leaving the citadel.”
“We’re not leaving the citadel, just going deeper into its past foundations,” the short one cajoled him. “Besides, did you really think that letting us into one unused cell was fair exchange for twenty crowns.”
“I like this not,” Marius shook his head but advanced nonetheless on the doorway. Balance on completion, he told himself. Two sick daughters, could he back out now with money to cure just one of them, which would it be? Stung by his own contemplations of cowardice, he thrust the torch ahead of him to illuminate a rough hewn passage that curved down and to the right.
“Lead the way, good torch bearer,” the Prince commanded.
It twisted left then right again, but always heading down. Some sections were so perilously steep that Marius had to sidestep down them, one hand on the craggy wall for safety. “Who carved this tunnel?” he forced himself to ask.
“Not the castle stonemasons, that’s for sure,” the Prince laughed behind him.
“Certainly our tunneller while expert in many things was an amateur in this field,” the fat one agreed. “Though if you look carefully you can see the scorch marks of the tools of his trade.”
As Marius raised the torch he could see blackened rock and the glint of vitrified stone. By the Goddess, this had been excavated with magic not with pick and axe. He shivered at the thought and realised the short one had been right. No matter Marius knew that he was accompanied by Prince Xander second in line to the Salved throne, no matter he had guessed that the fat fellow puffing behind him was Haselrig the court antiquary. They were assured of his absolute discretion for there was nothing but instant exile awaiting Marius of Nanor should he ever speak of the night’s events. Where would his daughters be then?
The cramped tunnel abruptly opened into a space so wide the light of the torch could reach no walls or ceiling.
They stood for a moment, Marius waving the torch to left and right as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. But then, as his eyes sensed colour and saw shadows, Marius realised that other sources of illumination were at work. It was a great hall, bigger than the throne room some hundreds of feet above them, bigger than the cathedral which he visited with his family every Goddess day. All along the sides and half way up the carved curving walls there were torch sconces from which a glow of light grew steadily brighter. Light without fire or smoke. Marius spat, a soldier’s prayer, at more evidence of magic at work.
The fat antiquary, Haselrig, whistled softly behind him. “Which of them cast that spell, to light up his hall to new guests?”
Marius looked around as the hall grew bright as daylight. It was a vaulted chamber. Ornamental pillars hewn into the rock curved upwards to meet at sculpted keystones two hundred foot or more above their heads. The floor was square perhaps a hundred and fifty foot on a side but this was clearly what was left of a once larger rectangular room. To left and right the ceiling had collapsed in two huge rockfalls sealing off whatever exits had once existed from this place. The tunnel they had emerged from was the only route in and out. Marius’ gaze was drawn to the remnants of a raised dais poking out from beneath the boulders and rubble to the left.
As he drew near he discerned the shape of a sweeping circular step and, amidst the scatter of rocks on the platform rose the broken back of a great stone chair. There was carving of some description ancient unweathered lettering in a language he could not read. “What is this place?”
There was no answer for the Prince and the antiquary seemed as stunned by the spectacle as he. As he turned Marius saw their eyes flickering back and forth like children at the Goddess festival, surprise, wonder and excitement. What had they expected? They who knew this place was here, knew how to find it, what were they looking for?
“Over there,” Xander exclaimed, pointing towards the far corner of the hall, by the other rock fall.
He scurried forward, Haselrig lumbering after him and Marius, deep with foreboding bringing up the rear.
There were seven of them, seven white skeletons lying haphazardly across the decorative stone floor. Marius glimpsed ivory bone through the rotten seams of the rags they wore. Even to the dungeon warder’s untrained eye, the cut of garments was odd, knee length breeches, puffed shoulders to the shirts. It was like pictures of long ago heroes in old paintings. These poor devils had died centuries ago and of what? Black stains spread from beneath each corpse obscuring the mosaic pattern to the floor, a mosaic of pictograms. Images of fantastic creatures in battle with each other or with tiny figures of men all smeared over with dried blood.
“Seven,” Haselrig murmured to himself. “Seven times he tried.”
Xander looked up sharply as Marius demanded, “Who tried? Who did this and where is this place?”
“The place is unimportant,” the Prince sneered. “But the ’who’ was an ancestor of mine, a genius that some called mad. Your history lessons should have told you of him.”
“I am not well learned, my Prince. The ways of long dead kings are as nothing to me,” Marius snapped back, fear making him bold. He turned from Xander’s grimace of furious disgust to question Haselrig. “What do we seek here and when can we leave?”
The Prince grabbed Marius’s arm and berated him with spit flecked fury. “His name was Chirard, the kinslayer, the sorcerer, the last king of the Petred Isle to practice wizardry. He was a great King.”
“And now he is a dead king,” Marius shuffled off the royal hand with a glare.
“We are looking for a jewel,” Haselrig told him quickly. “A large stone, pure shining crystal the size of a man’s fist. Chirard must have left it here, it is the only place he could be sure he would not be spied upon.”
“Aye a secret place where he could conduct some evil magic experiments, defiling the Goddess’s blessing.” Even for twenty gold Crowns and his daughters’ health, Marius was sickened by the venture he had become engulfed in.
“The gem was his greatest treasure and it will provide for all of us.”
“Indeed, will it buy yon Prince an army to overthrow his father and brother?”
“You forget yourself, warder.” Xander’s voice dripped with venom.
“Just find it,” Haselrig told them testily. “I am not sure how long the doorway in the cell remains open. Nor am I sure our friend would have the strength to reopen it should it close again, so a little haste and less argument would be most welcome.”
By unspoken agreement, Xander and Marius stalked to opposite sides of the hall. The dungeon warder scanned the floor mechanically. As he passed over another tableau picked out in tiny pieces of stone, his eyes registered the strange winged creatures. In a sequence these birds with women’s bodies and faces lifted supine men into a mosaic sky and then dropped them. He looked up quickly, away from the unsettling scene and noticed a mark in the wall ahead of him, a dent as though a mailed fist had punched a hole in the stone. As he drew near there was a glint of crystal on the floor a great gem reflecting and refracting the light of his torch and of the magic lanterns upon the wall. “Hey,” he called out. “I found….”
He didn’t complete the sentence as the jewel somehow drew him towards it, muting his interest in anything else and yet filling his soul with dread. He bent down to look at the gem, saw in its heart a flickering shadow that twisted back and forth in defiance of the natural order of a crystal lit by a deluge of light. The shadow shimmered and then was still, focussed, focussed on him. He reached out towards the crystal, thinking of nothing other than hammering its sharp edges against his skull.
Then suddenly the spell was broken, the gem covered by a cloth that Haselrig had cast over it. “Fascinating,” the antiquary was saying. “Such power leaking across the dimensions. See Xander.” He pointed at the dent in the wall as the Prince caught up with them. “Your ancestor must have thrown it there when his last attempt failed. Picture his rage, see the impact on the stone wall, and yet the gem is unscathed.”
“Let me see it,” Xander commanded.
Haselrig shook his head. “It is not yet time. Chirard tried seven times and failed, we have but one attempt to get it right.”
Marius shook his head, the fog that had engulfed his thinking was clearing, and now Haselrig’s words threw a pebble at his thoughts which quickly triggered an avalanche of realisation.
Seven attempts by the long dead mage-king, seven corpses. Whatever was attempted required somebody to die and if this was to be the eighth attempt where was the eighth corpse going to come from. He straightened up and began to back away from the Prince and the excited antiquary.
The movement caught their eye and both turned to look at him, Haselrig head cocked to one side, a little curious. Xander grinning almost.
Marius pulled his dirk out of his belt. Dungeon warders were not supposed to be routinely armed, lest a prisoner should take their weapon, but he was grateful of his breach of the rules as he waved the blade first at one then the other. “I’m leaving now,” he told them. “And neither of you is going to stop me.”
“As the good father wishes,” Xander smiled winningly. “Run along then.”
“Still, ten gold crowns will that be enough to cure little Elsa and Roncine,” Haselrig interjected. “It is a quite serious sickness that ails them.”
“Their names are Elise and Rancine,” Marius replied through gritted teeth, taking three more careful steps back towards the exit.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Haselrig said with a sincerity so genuine that Marius felt almost moved to reassure the little man that no harm had yet been done.
A lilting voice behind him called out, “vos sile Marius!” ‘The bloody mage’ he’d forgotten about the mage. He tried to spin round but couldn’t, his legs wouldn’t move, nor his arms. Panic seized him as the mage enquired at his ear, “going somewhere Master dungeon warder?”