As her hands sweep over the stones of the walls and floor in the dark, Stellia swears she’ll never again fail to give generous alms to the blind.
In a corner near the ceiling, her fingers again get caught in a spider web, a big one from the feel of it, with some of its architect’s hapless victims still clinging to the sticky strands. She cries out in disgust and jumps back, and bumps into Frithil, who is on his knees feeling around near the door. Stellia nearly tumbles backwards over him. She regains her balance, and some of her courage, and continues to feel her way along the walls. From the opposite side of the chamber, she hears scraping and tapping: Nevynne is using her dagger to probe the stones and crevices of the walls.
The light from the keyhole is fading, and still they’ve found nothing. Stellia begins to wonder if her reasoning was wrong, and if the friars of old were less ingenious than she gave them credit for, and made the mistake—for surely it would have been one—to hide the key elsewhere in the Sundrance, after all. Perhaps it is even rusting amidst the bones of its long-dead keeper in the Sundrance’s cemetery, forever lost to the living.
Then again it seems conceivable to her, as well as depressingly plausible, that the door never was locked during the times when the hidden passage was used as an escape route, in order to facilitate the fugitives’ swift egress, and that the lock was put into place much later, when peace had been established between Hestia and Taronnis. In that case, the key could be pretty much anywhere.
“It might not be in this chamber,” Frithil says, echoing her dismal thought. “It could be hidden anywhere along the passage we came through.”
“That would be a disaster,” Nevynne groans. For a moment, she ceases her scraping and tapping. “It would take us days to feel our way through the length of that.”
“Do not despair just yet,” Frithil says. “It might also be near the entrance, at the other end of the passage.”
“Then I’ll go there, and look for it,” Stellia blurts out, surprising herself with the swiftness of her resolution. But anything seems preferable to the futility of their current search. “We don’t need three pairs of hands here, and it would save us time.”
“You’re right,” Frithil says. “Go, then. But do not to let yourself be heard as you search for the key.”
“I’ll be careful.” Stellia shudders at the thought of making her way back to the passage’s entrance, all by herself, in utter darkness. The hope of finding the key there bolsters her resolve; still, she waits another moment to hear if Nevynne might offer to go in her stead. When she does not, Stellia takes a deep breath and begins to feel her way towards the long passage back.
“Wait!” Nevynne cries out. Once more, Stellia hears the tapping of steel on rough stone. Only it sounds different than before.
“I think this one’s hollow,” Nevynne says. More scraping, and faster. Nevynne grunts with the exertion. Then, a grinding sound. “It’s turning! The stone is turning!”
“That must be it,” Frithil says. “Is there an opening?
“I think so.”
“Reach in, then. The key must be there!”
“I’m not sticking my hand in there,” Nevynne says. “What if it’s just a hole, and the mother of all these spiders has made her home in it?”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Rather unceremoniously, Stellia pushes Nevynne of the way and feels around for the loose stone. She finds it jutting out of the wall about half a foot above the ground. Trying to cast the image of the mother-of-all-spiders out of her thoughts, she thrusts her hand into the opening.
Her fingers touch dust, and some small bits of debris, and then, in a corner of the secret compartment, a metal object, cool against her fevered skin. She grasps it as firmly as she ever grasped anything in her life.
“I’ve got it.” Stellia turns around and looks for the keyhole. The speck of light is barely visible now, so dim has the light grown. But it is not dark outside yet.
Nevertheless, she has to try it.
“Do not open it,” Frithil warns. “Not until night has fallen.”
“We must know if it will indeed open the door, or if we have to consider another way.”
With trembling hands, Stellia maneuvers the key into the hole. At first, it does not want to move at all. She swallows. Her throat is dry as dust; suddenly she is aware of being dreadfully thirsty. Suppose the lock is so rusty that it will no longer turn? Or perhaps Frithil’s attempts to pick it with Nevynne’s hairpin have caused something to lodge inside, forever ruining their chance of escape, even with the key! What bitter irony that would be!
She bites her lip as she slowly, carefully applies more force to the key. It is old, so very old. What if it snaps in two rather than move the lock?
At last she hears a grating noise, and the key moves. As Stellia completes the turn, several gritty clicks announce that the lock is opening. She is so relieved, so delighted, that she nearly weeps for joy.
She presses down on the handle and pushes against the ancient wood with her shoulder. She cannot resist! Even the faintest beam of dusky light, the slightest whiff of evening air, would be the most blessed sight, the sweetest fragrance she can imagine.
“Don’t,” Frithil whispers.
Stellia ignores him.
The door creaks like the water wheel of the mill in Phoros, but it moves. Dust trickles onto Stellia’s head from somewhere above as it groans in its warped frame.
“Enough,” Nevynne hisses. “Enough!”
Before them, a strip of dim light the width of a finger cleaves the darkness, and a draft of cool air moves through the chamber. From somewhere very far away, Stellia hears the mournful song of a blackbird.
The three of them kneel before the sliver of light, and neither move nor speak again until it has altogether faded.