Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
Anatoly shattered another brick. Then the big man with the hammer struck at the hatch in the floor. Alexander could see a sudden sliver of light through the now cracked floorboard. He knew the trapdoor wouldn’t last long under the punishing force of the blacksmith’s hammer. But that wasn’t what worried him the most. He could hear the fire engulfing the front of the inn above. Once the trapdoor was open, he had no doubt that Wizard Rangle would fill this small cellar with flame. They probably wouldn’t even get a shot at any of the soldiers before Rangle sent a gout of fire down the hole to burn them out.
Another brick shattered and Anatoly followed by smashing into the wall with his shoulder backed up by his considerable weight. A small section of the brick wall fell into the sewer with a muted splash. Fetid air flowed into the cellar. The hole was almost big enough for Abigail but no one else. Anatoly stood back and took another swing, again carefully picking the brick he wanted to attack.
The broken floorboard in the trapdoor shattered into splinters under the weight of a second hammer blow. “Be ready, men,” said the blacksmith. Then an arm snaked into the hole and fished around for the strap that was holding the door closed. The arm found it and unlatched it just as Abigail’s arrow found him. The man shrieked with the sudden pain of having an arrow driven clean through his forearm. He tried to snatch his hand out of the hole but the arrow caught on the boards as he yanked up and he screamed even louder as his flesh tore.
Alexander drew back on his bow and took aim. Anatoly broke through another brick. The trapdoor was thrown open with the man’s arm still through it; the heavy door crashing over on top of him with a thud. He wailed in agony again while he tried to work his arm free.
Anatoly smashed another section of the wall and motioned Lucky to get through into the sewers.
Alexander took careful aim and loosed his arrow. It just slipped through the open trapdoor and drove into the ankle of one of the men standing on the floor above. He would have given Abigail a cocky little grin if the situation wasn’t so desperate and if his heart wasn’t hammering in his chest.
Jack was through the hole in the wall and into the sewers. Alexander had another arrow ready. Abigail sent an arrow at the hole. It made it through but didn’t find a target. Then Alexander heard what he’d been expecting to hear.
“Stand back, let me set them on fire.”
It was Wizard Rangle and he was getting ready to send fire down on them. In the confined space of the cellar it wouldn’t take much to fill the room with flames and kill them all.
Alexander gave Abigail a gentle shove toward Anatoly, shouting, “Go, both of you!”
He didn’t look back as he raced around the crates to the base of the steep stairs with an arrow half drawn. He looked up to the kitchen above and saw Rangle drawing power for his spell. Alexander could see the glittering of magic in the wizard’s eyes as his power coalesced. An almost insubstantial ball of fire began to form between Rangle’s outstretched hands. Alexander snapped his bow up and let the arrow fly. The wizard cried out when the arrow drove right through his left shoulder and stuck out the top of his back. The fire that hadn’t yet formed fizzled out and Rangle threw himself out of harm’s way.
Alexander dashed to the hole in the wall and scrambled halfway through. Anatoly grabbed him and drew him through the rest of the way. The look on the big man-at-arms’ face as he roughly set Alexander on his feet was one of boiling anger.
“We’ll talk of this later,
The passageway was a good eight feet across with an arched ceiling at least that tall. There were two-foot ledges on either side and a fetid, stinking, slow-moving canal of raw sewage four feet across running down the middle of the dark corridor.
Jack was at the end of a corridor, motioning frantically for them to follow, when Alexander heard men starting down the stairs into the cellar. He drew another arrow, but before he could take aim, Anatoly gave him an angry look.
“Not this time. Get moving.”
Lucky was fishing around in his bag. “I believe I have something that will slow them down a bit.” He drew out a glass vile that was stoppered at each end and separated in the middle by a thick glass divider. In each half of the vile was a liquid of a different color, dark red on one side and a milky white on the other. With a mischievous little grin he unceremoniously tossed it through the hole into the cellar. “Come along now,” he said as he shooed the rest of them away from the sound of shattering glass.
Jack led the way with the dim light of his makeshift torch. When they made it to the end of the corridor and rounded the corner, a strange hissing noise rose up from behind them, followed by screaming.
Alexander’s heart raced as they moved away from the horrible screaming. “What was that?” he asked his old tutor.
“Oh, just a set of compounds that are completely harmless by themselves, but when put together release a thick gaseous vapor that burns like acid. It’s especially nasty if you inhale the stuff. I’m afraid those men in the cellar won’t make it.” Lucky gave him a look and a shrug that was at once proud and guilty.
Alexander had known the old alchemist for his entire life. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body but clearly his rotund, jovial tutor did have mettle.
They moved as quickly as they could along the narrow, slippery ledge without risking a fall into the sewage canal. The stench was so overpowering, Alexander almost gagged.
Jack seemed to know where he was leading them. He took each turn or passed it by like he was in familiar territory. Alexander couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly set foot in such a place. It was as filthy and unpleasant a place as he’d ever been … except maybe back in the little cellar where he thought they were going to be roasted alive by Rangle.
The light from Jack’s makeshift torch began to sputter.
Anatoly stopped and asked, “Where are you leading us?” There was a hint of wariness in the question.
“There’s a hidden door just up ahead that leads into the basement of one of the local merchants. He’s a friend and, um, well, business associate. We can go through his shop to get back on the street.” He handed the spoon-made-into-a-torch to Abigail and used his knife to cut a strip of cloth from the bottom hem of his tunic, which he then carefully wrapped around the burning end of the torch to keep it from going out. He took it back and started moving again.
Jack stopped so abruptly that Anatoly bumped into Alexander in the dark as the four of them halted behind the bard. He raised his torch, looking carefully at the wall. After a minute of searching, he found a loose stone and pushed on one side. The brick swiveled, allowing access to a lever. Jack pulled the stiff metal rod and pushed on a two-foot-wide by four-foot-tall section of the wall.
They found themselves inside a cool, dry storage room lined with wooden shelves crammed with boxes, jars, cartons, and other containers. Jack carefully closed the secret door and started for the stairs leading up.
Anatoly caught his arm. “What should we expect at the top of those stairs?” Anatoly was charged with protecting Alexander and Abigail. He took his duties seriously. Jack had been helpful and was probably telling the truth about his motives but that wasn’t good enough. Anatoly needed to be sure.
Jack stopped and nodded. “My associate is usually in the showroom of his shop during the day or in the workroom just off the showroom floor. The room at the top of the stairs is a storeroom in the back of the shop. It will probably be empty and it has a door leading out the back. If we’re quiet, we should be able to slip out into the alley without anyone even noticing.” Jack was clearly offering as much information as he could. He seemed to be going out of his way to earn the trust of the big man-at-arms.
“Does your friend have any employees or others who might be in the storeroom?” Alexander asked. He allowed his vision to go out of focus so he could see Jack’s colors. He wanted to trust the bard, but the events of the past week had reinforced his father’s lessons about trust. Deception was the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of evil. A simple lie was all it took to undo whole nations. Believing a lie could cost you your life.
“His wife works with him. I don’t think he has any other help.” Jack didn’t shy away from the questions and the colors of his aura were clear and honest.
“Okay, once we’re in the alley, what’s our plan? The Reishi Protectorate isn’t going to give up that easily. They probably have spies all around town. We left our horses back at the stables, not to mention Lucky’s wagon. Suggestions?” Alexander had decided that he was going to accept the mantle of leadership. He didn’t like it, but it was the only sensible thing he could do given the circumstances.
Lucky cleared his throat. “I’d like to get the contents of my wagon, if we can do so without notice. Many of the items I brought along are of great value and may prove very useful in the future.”
“We’re going to need horses to get to Glen Morillian,” Anatoly mused. “I suppose we could make our way back to the stables at the inn and take a look. We might get lucky. Then again, they’ll probably have someone watching our horses in case we come back. The alternative is finding horses on our way out of town and leaving ours at the stables. I don’t much like that option but it might be the safest route.”
Alexander turned to Abigail for her input. She looked almost startled to be consulted but recovered quickly and frowned in thought. “Our horses are healthier and better cared for than any we’ll find for sale and Lucky is probably understating the value of his wagon,” she gave him a smile before she went on. “Jack, does the Reishi Protectorate know you? Would they have any reason to suspect you’re with us?”
The bard frowned for a moment. “I can’t see how they could. I’ve only just met you and I’ve been careful to keep my true purpose here a secret.”
“Is there any way you could get our horses for us while we waited nearby?” Abigail asked.
Jack nodded slowly, “I think I could. I have a friend that operates a large stable just outside of town. I could pose as one of his men and tell the fire brigade I’m moving the horses to his stable. I doubt anyone would get in the way; they’ll be too busy with the fire.”
“There’s still a good chance that the Reishi Protectorate will be suspicious of anyone trying to take our horses. They’re likely to follow you.” Alexander frowned as he thought out loud. “Do you have anyone in town that you trust, anyone who would be willing to help us?”
“Of course, my apprentice Owen. In fact, I have him waiting with fresh horses in a little farmhouse just north of town. But that doesn’t help us with Lucky’s wagon. If the tricks I’ve seen him pull out of his bag are any indication, I believe he’s quite right about the contents of his wagon being very useful.”
Anatoly, ever suspicious, asked, “Why is your apprentice waiting with fresh horses?”
Jack smiled and shrugged. “I believe in being prepared. I knew you were going to pass through here and I wanted to be ready to help. I’ve used every resource at my disposal for just that purpose.” He almost looked self-conscious as he went on. “Whether you like it or not, My Lord, your story will be sung for a thousand years. I intend to be the one to write those songs.” Jack smiled briefly at the thought, then looked Alexander straight in the eye. All humor and good cheer left his face. When he was sure he had Alexander’s attention, he continued.
“I also know a little bit about Prince Phane. If he wins, then everyone who loves life and freedom will lose. I’ve read some of the histories of the Reishi War. Phane took delight in torturing his rivals. He sacrificed innocent children to the netherworld in his efforts to master the dark magic of necromancy and brought about the fall of whole countries with simple, yet apparently very convincing, lies. He is powerful, cunning, utterly ruthless, and absolutely driven by a sense of personal entitlement. In his view, the Seven Isles and every last soul alive belong to him by right.”
Silence settled into the dim room as Jack Colton’s pronouncement sank in. “You have been marked. If the Seven Isles have a chance, it rests with you. If you fail, hope will die for a thousand years.”
Some of the color drained from Alexander’s face as the magnitude of his burden settled in on him. He took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well then, we make for the farmhouse and your apprentice. We’ll send him to retrieve our horses and Lucky’s wagon while we head for the forest. I’d rather have our own horses but the risk is too great at the moment. There’s no telling what Phane can conjure so we can’t risk holding still for too long and I’d rather not make it easy for the Reishi Protectorate to pick up our trail.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Jack, you go up the stairs first. Anatoly, bring up the rear,” Alexander commanded.
The narrow alley was empty when they slipped out of the little storeroom. Wagons, carts, and people filed by on the streets to either end of the space between the two buildings. The brick walls were black and wet with the morning dew; some sort of fungus grew in splotches here and there. From the angle of the buildings it looked like very little direct sunlight ever fell on these walls. Jack closed the door gently behind them.