Home > Valor (The Faithful and the Fallen #2)(9)

Valor (The Faithful and the Fallen #2)(9)
John Gwynne

‘You thinking to chop your way out of here?’ Maquin asked.

‘If I have to. It’s still sharp enough.’ Orgull smiled humourlessly. ‘I’m not taken with the idea of using their front door, though. Can’t see that Calidus leaving it open, or unguarded. And if I start chopping at it I’ll wake all between here and the forest.’

‘Agreed,’ Maquin said.

‘See those flames?’

Maquin looked up at the blue flames. Some flickered and crackled, touched by a breeze.

‘Let’s find where that air is coming from and hope it’s more than a crack in the ground.’

There was a sudden muffled groan from amongst the bodies around them. Maquin pulled at the corpse of a Jehar warrior, revealing twitching fingers, a moving arm.

It was Tahir, one of their Gadrai sword-brothers. He was a young man, not much older than Kastell. They had been friends.

They uncovered him and checked him for wounds but could only find a large, egg-shaped lump on his temple. The stocky, long-armed warrior touched it and winced.

‘What happened?’ he muttered, his eyes unfocused.

Orgull recounted Jael’s treachery.

‘Vandil?’ Tahir asked, rising unsteadily to his feet, gazing at the dead strewn about him.

‘Dead. Slain by Calidus’ pet giant,’ Orgull said.

Tahir whistled, shook his head and instantly looked as if he regretted doing it. ‘What now, then?’

‘Find a way out of this hole. One thing at a time.’

Maquin fashioned torches out of axe and spear shafts, wrapping them in strips of cloth torn from tattered cloaks, and dipped them in the oil-filled bowls that lined the walkway. They flickered with the same blue light.

Together they marched to the edge of the chamber and began tracing its edge, searching for a doorway. It was not long before they found an archway draped with thick cobwebs, a slight breeze stirring it. Maquin touched his torch to the web and blue sparks crackled out in a widening circle, consuming the web right back to the stone. Orgull looked at them both, then strode into the darkness. Tahir followed.

Maquin paused, looking back into the chamber. ‘Farewell, Kastell,’ he said, and after a few long moments he gritted his teeth and stepped into the tunnel.

The three of them trudged in silence, blue-tinged torchlight flickering on the tunnel’s high roof and walls. Other corridors branched off, Maquin eyeing the dense shadows suspiciously. This place was in Forn Forest, after all, or beneath it, and Forn was the dark savage heart of the Banished Lands. Its inhabitants were by and large unpleasant. And predatory.

His thoughts drifted back to those left behind, to Vandil, to his Gadrai sword-brothers, to Romar and most of all to Kastell. Yet again he saw Jael stepping in front of Kastell, stabbing him. He should have stayed closer. His vision blurred with tears and he swiped at his eyes, fist clenching.

A sound drew his attention: a scraping, submerged in the deep shadows of a side tunnel. He stared into the darkness, thought he saw the hint of movement just beyond the torchlight’s reach. Something big. There was a faint reflection. He hissed a warning and drew his sword.

‘What’s wrong?’ Tahir said, as Orgull joined them.

‘Something’s down there,’ Maquin muttered.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know. Something.’

Maquin walked into the side tunnel, his torch held high. Darkness retreated before the light, revealing nothing but empty space.

‘Nothing there now,’ Tahir pointed out.

‘Come on,’ Orgull said. ‘Tahir, guard our backs.’

‘Aye, chief.’

They walked on, their pace quicker, now, the tunnel rising steeply. A good sign, thought Maquin, sweat trickling down his back. Up is far better than down. The tunnel was also getting narrower, the roof lower. Not such a good sign. Will it just end? What then? Soon after, Orgull called a halt. He raised a hand to the tunnel’s roof, fingers tracing a tree root poking through the stone, twisted and knotted.

‘Must be near the surface,’ Maquin said.

‘We must have walked more than a league by now,’ Tahir commented.

‘Aye. We’re out past Haldis, I’d guess, but not much further,’ Maquin said.

‘Is all well back there, Tahir?’ asked Orgull.

‘Nothing to see,’ the warrior replied.

‘Good. Onwards,’ their leader said and set off.

It was not long before Orgull stopped again. The tunnel came to an abrupt end, a dozen wide steps leading sharply up to the roof, where it met a round, flat-bottomed stone. Orgull climbed the steps and tapped the stone with his axe. He climbed higher, braced his shoulder against the stone and heaved. With a grating sound the stone shifted, minutely, earth falling from about its rim.

‘Help,’ grunted Orgull.

The steps were wide enough for two abreast so Maquin climbed up beside Orgull, adding his weight and strength. Together they strained and Maquin felt the stone shift, dirt falling into his face, then there was a wash of fresh air, a glimpse of moonlight.

‘Keep pushing,’ Orgull muttered. ‘Nearly there.’

Then Tahir screamed. Maquin and Orgull dropped the stone back in place and turned.

Something had hold of Tahir: a many-legged, chitinous creature, all bristle, eyes and fangs, as wide as an adult boar, but far longer, its segmented body swallowed by shadow. Tahir was screaming as he hammered futilely at the creature with his spear.

Maquin darted forwards, jabbing his own weapon. It slid off a hard, shiny carapace. He thrust his torch at the beast, but a sharp-spined leg smashed it out of his hand, the blue light sputtering out. He launched forwards with his spear again; the blade scraped along the creature’s hard shell, then sank into a gap between segments. It let out a high-pitched squeal, dropped Tahir and reared up, fangs and forelegs waving, almost filling the tunnel. Maquin grabbed Tahir’s wrist and dragged him back. The creature scuttled after them, a green, jelly-like substance oozing from the wound in its side. It sank a fang into Tahir’s leg, just below the knee. Tahir screamed and thrashed.

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