The darkness is absolute.
The air is dry and cool, and carries a faint odor that is hard to define—the smell of a place that has been shut off from the world for many years. Now and then, Stellia thinks she feels a draft, though it is probably caused by the movements of Brother Frithil, who walks in front of her. Nevynne has chosen to bring up the rear, for which Stellia is very grateful. There are many sudden turns and corners along the way, and here and there a steep flight of stairs, but at least the passage appears to never branch off, eliminating the possibility of any of them wandering astray.
Unlike the darkness that envelops them, the silence in this forgotten space is not complete. In addition to the sounds made by their own continuously hesitant steps, Stellia hears a faint scurrying and squeaking, and her heart nearly stops.
The thought of rodents should hardly faze her; she has witnessed far worse today. Still, her skin crawls just as it would whenever she heard such noises or spotted the furtive movements of the pests in her parents’ barn at home.
As the three of them inch along through the passage, Stellia hears other sounds, as well. She puts her ear to the cold stones of the wall.
“Is that singing?”
It is a single voice, clear and bright, but so faint and distant that she wonders if she is imagining it.
Frithil stops. “Indeed. As I recall, this passage leads past some of the friars’ chambers.”
“Interesting,” Nevynne says. “Are there hidden peepholes, with which to spy on the Sundrance’s inhabitants? In Baramond, every palace and castle has them.”
“If there are such, I have not come across any,” Frithil says. “Nor could I imagine what these friars would have to hide that anyone should go to such lengths to discover.”
“One has to wonder. Surely this passage was put here for a purpose.”
“More likely that purpose was to provide a secret escape route,” Frithil replies. “There were days long ago when these lands were not as safe as they are now, and attacks on the Sundrance did occur. I read that many centuries ago, not long after it was first founded, the Sundrance of Silence was pillaged by a warlord from Taronnis, and all the friars slain. Perhaps it was after such an attack that the decision was made to build passages like this one.”
“That story must be a legend,” Stellia says. “No warrior from Taronnis would take up weapons against Hestia, much less a place sacred to the Faith.”
“It would seem so to you, after nearly fifteen centuries of peace. But there was a time when Taronnis resisted the Faith and the rule of Hestia.”
Nevynne chuckles. “Shocking, isn’t it? You weren’t always friends.”
“I knew that,” Stellia says. “But to assault a Sundrance, and kill the friars? I am glad such dark days are behind us.”
“Aren’t we all,” Frithil says. “But don’t take this tale to heart, young Stellia. Such dreadful events were rare, and the wars between Hestia and Taronnis brief and few. Mostly, the history of our two homelands is one of trade and marriages between nobles, and long centuries of peace and shared faith.”
“And great hosts of warriors with spears to back it up,” Nevynne murmurs.
They move on, leaving behind the bright voice beyond the wall. Though Stellia continues to listen intently, she does not hear its like again, nor any other sounds aside from those caused by their slow and careful march through the darkness, and the occasional squeaking of rats. It is only by the endless succession of stone after stone slipping past under her fingertips that she can measure the passage of time and distance.
Once, her hand brushes through something soft that detaches itself from the wall and wraps stickily around her fingers. Did something just scurry across the back of her hand? She cannot suppress a cry as she tries to flick the thing away.
Apparently, the same has happened to Nevynne.
“Spiders,” she whimpers, sounding rather meek for once.
“A good sign,” Frithil says. “They would find little food deeper inside this passage. We must be getting close to the door.”
His reasoning neither comforts nor convinces Stellia. Nevertheless, as they move forward—she wishes she could walk without feeling her way along the walls, but that is impossible—she imagines that she can see a faint point of light ahead. At first she pays it little attention; dots of light of all sizes and colors have been dancing in front of her eyes for what seems like hours now. But this one remains in one place, and neither shrinks nor grows. It winks out now and then, no doubt obscured by Frithil’s body as he moves toward it.
“The door,” he sighs, clearly relieved. “There it is.”
The passage widens, and Stellia feels certain that she can see as well as feel this. Her eyes have gotten so used to the darkness that even the tiny amount of light coming through what must be the keyhole in the postern door allows her to perceive the outlines of her surroundings. It is only the faintest impression, half fancy and half vision. At any rate, they can stand two abreast in the space by this door.
Nevynne pushes past them. The tiny oval of light winks out again.
“I think I see the outer wall,” she says. “Covered with ivy. It looks only a few paces away. I can’t see much more, there seems to be a bush growing right outside.”
“The door is largely concealed by a belt of yews that girdles the building,” Frithil says. “It is smaller than a regular door, as well. Anyone not specifically looking for it might never realize it’s there.”
“How much of a chance of anyone passing by here?”
“Barely any, especially after sunset. It is an overgrown corner of the Sundrance grounds, untended in years by the looks of it.”
“Can that wall be scaled?” Nevynne asks.
“There are footholds underneath the ivy,” Frithil says. “They are rather weathered, but I think they will still serve, if we’re careful.”
“And if we can get out,” Stellia says. In response, she hears a rattling noise, and Nevynne grunting. Nothing else happens, however.
“Well, friar,” Nevynne says. “Can you open it?”
There is a long pause. Stellia holds her breath. At last, she hears Frithil exhale.
“The lock is frightfully old, and may be altogether rusted and stuck. And as the Lady Nevynne pointed out, we have nothing in the way of tools.”
“What of her dagger?”
“Too large for the task. And brute force will most certainly avail us nothing. Not to mention that too much noise might attract unwanted attention.”
“Here,” Nevynne says. Stellia hears a rustle of cloth. “Can you make do with this?”
“What is it?” Brother Frithil asks.
“A hairpin,” Nevynne says. “I’ve had no use for it in a long time. I’m not sure if I ever will, again. Still, try not to utterly destroy it. It was my mother’s.”
“It is no picklock,” the friar says. “And rather fragile, I fear. But I will do my best.”
Stellia sinks into a crouch, and listens to the scraping and grating as Frithil begins to poke around in the ancient iron lock.
NEXT: Under Lock and Key