It could very well have been forgotten. There was a door, all rotten timbers, but it was set at a level lower than the current level of the compound, possibly at the foot of stone steps now completely submerged by the dirt of centuries. All they could see was the top two feet of it. Prising away a sliver of wood Angren found compacted earth behind. The way must have been blocked for hundreds of years.
He emerged from behind the screen of nettles as casually as possible, readjusting his clothes as though he had been to relieve himself.
“Doesn’t look too promising.”
Some of the others had been to look at the door already and were despondent to say the least. There had been nothing in the other two corners, or nothing they could find, but everyone was excited when Ruspa gave them the news that he had struck wood after only a little work in clearing away loose rubble. Now the excitement was changing to despair. Angren looked at them with some pity. He had decided there were some good people here and he didn’t want to see them suffer.
“However,” he continued, “we won’t really know until we put in some elbow grease. What we need is to make sure those lads up there don’t suss what we’re up to. We need a diversion.”
So it was that a party was made up to start digging a latrine, some way away from the corner they were interested in, using their boots and a few broken slates they had found. Their captors were concerned at first that the prisoners were trying to dig their way out but when Bibron took down his trousers and mimed having a crap they understood and let the diggers get on with it.
And at the same time, one at a time, several others worked at clearing away the rotten wood and then scraping away at the top part of the compacted soil behind it. After an hour or so, after slow progress and no sign of anything other than clay and more clay, most of them had wanted to give up. The noise generated by digging the latrine had comfortably covered the sound of the other excavation but that job was now done and digging any deeper would seem ridiculous. So what to do? Angren would not let them stop, not while they had daylight. At any time their captors could come for them, at any moment the torturing and killing might begin. As far as he could tell, this doorway was most likely their only possible means of escape and he would not give up on it. He had the majority of his gaol mates organised to chatter, squabble, wander about, piss or whatever they could think of that would make noise without arousing suspicion, while a few of them, prone and much stung among the nettles, continued to scrape at the earth with Angren’s dirk.
He finally gave in when he saw more guards arrive, up above the walls, all carrying lanterns. The light was fading fast. He was suggesting, in a defeated sort of way, that perhaps they should break for the night just as ‘Berta emerged from her most recent stint.
“Good idea,” she said, “It’ll be a lot more comfortable trying to find our way down that tunnel I’ve just found if there’s a bit of light at the end to come back to.
Dawn brought forth a sluggish day. The guards once again mounted their tower and observed dispassionately the feeding, the ablutions and the pacing of the caged men and women. They were not surprised when the prisoners scraped soil into the latrines to cover the smelly faeces, and they were easily distracted by a raucous dice game the captain got started – indeed they seemed quite fascinated by it. Nothing remarkable happened.
Hidden from sight the excavation continued. They had to be careful to disguise the disappearance of whoever was digging and they changed over quite often in case someone was missed. At first the task was a hard one: there was not much room to work in and the soil was full of stone debris, but half way through the morning there was a break through. The tiny gap ‘Berta had made was much wider and deeper and progress became quicker and then without much warning they were through and the mound of soil that had blocked the gap became a gradual slope down into darkness. Ruspa slithered down the slope and within a minute he could whisper back that he had found a bare stone pavement. It was difficult to keep the excitement hidden as they hauled him out of the tunnel. At a signal from Angren, Bibron managed to start an argument over the throw of a die which more or less explained the sudden hubbub.
“So what now,” Garaid asked Angren.
“Well, after we have had a little breather to calm down a bit, we need to talk it through.”
Sigrid exchanged a grin with ‘Berta. “And I thought he’d just charge off down the tunnel and expect us to follow,” she said, “He’s learning.”
Angren was not very keen on tight places. He had no idea why this might be, no memory of a frightening experience in his youth, no real belief in the idea of premonition – he just liked the open air. When it came down to someone having to explore the tunnel he was brave enough to put himself forward but more than happy to let Ruspa and Sigrid take it on instead. Ruspa had already taken the first steps and seemed keen to go further; Sigrid, Angren decided, was simply trying to impress. He had no notion that she might have noticed his hesitancy.
But he would not let them go immediately. Ruspa was not the problem: he was fairly nondescript from a distance but Sigrid was one of only three women and the guards might easily notice her absence if the exploration took too long. This day was even hotter than the first. They would wait until midday in the hope the Halfi would once again retire in the face of the sun.
The hours dragged intolerably. The prisoners frightened themselves with insubstantial rumours of torture and sacrifice, or theories of darker designs. These Halfi were unnatural, and not just in looks. Midmorning brought with it an unwelcome and unsettling development. From a distance, but clear as clear, came the sound of hammering and sawing. The Halfi were preparing something and not one of the prisoners could imagine it had nothing to do with them.
Noon came, the meal was delivered, the guards left the tower and the game was on. Ruspa went first and Sigrid with some difficulty followed. It was a tight squeeze in places and she was amazed Ruspa had managed to get through. He did not look much thinner than she was. If they were all to escape this way then there was a lot more earth to shift first. As she struggled and squirmed her way in, she reasoned it would be easier and less noisy to dig on the tunnel side of the mound and that meant a lot more work for skinnies like her.
The darkness grew the further they went and soon touch was the only sense left to her and that did not help too much when she came to the drop-off. Suddenly she tumbled down a short slope and landed fair and square on Ruspa’s back.
“Thank you indeed,” he gasped as he tried to get his breath back.The sound of his voice seemed sibilant as the echoes slithered away into the unknown.
“Well let’s just be a bit more careful, shall we.”
Sigrid was annoyed. “You should have warned me – I can’t see in the dark even if you can.”
“It is quite dark. I suggest we face away from the mound and reach out for the left hand wall and then move on really very slowly – I wouldn’t want us falling down any more slopes.”
Sigrid took pleasure in making a rude gesture in the direction of Ruspa’s voice but she understood the sense of the plan and did as he suggested. Rubbing away a smear of unseen growths she could feel that the wall beneath was very smooth as though made of tile rather than stone. Or, perhaps, well-finished marble. They hadn’t scrimped, these monks of whatever denomination: either choice would have been an expensive option, whenever it was built.
“Are you ready, Sigrid.”
“Yes. I’m with you. Let’s go.”
For a slow but sure hundred yards everything went well. There were occasional mounds of earth fallen through cracks in the roof but nothing that proved to be any major hindrance. The floor was mostly as smooth as the walls, made up of oblong flags and grooved by the passage of many feet over many years. The incline was slightly downwards. But then Sigrid, close behind her partner, heard him hiss softly in surprise. Then she too touched the void with her left hand. Abruptly, there was no wall to guide them.
Sigrid crouched and ran her hands outwards.
“It’s just another tunnel I think. I can feel the floor of it: the flags are laid at right angles to these in the main corridor. So which way now?”
“Perhaps some light would help us decide.”
Sigrid snorted in disbelief. “You’re not telling me you have matches?”
“Not exactly: it is an oilcan lighter I picked up in Dreffield. Made by a man called Besma, I believe – it’s something to do with the cannons he makes.”
“Not really time for a discussion. Point is, only a small amount of oil left, so I thought I’d save it till needed.”
Sigrid heard a scratching noise and light flared in Ruspa’s hand. In truth the flame was quite small but to their hungry eyes it seemed lantern bright. At last they could view their surroundings. Criss-crossing arcs of stone vaulted the roof of the main tunnel at least five feet above Ruspa’s head, the walls seemed to be made of red or brown ceramic tile, and the flooring was grey marble. It was an impressive structure, and clearly less of a tunnel than a processional corridor.
The other passageway was lower and narrower and fell away steeply into darkness.
“I don’t like the look of that.”
Ruspa nodded. “And I don’t like the smell of it – the air is… well, dead. Also I do not think we should be going downhill if we are trying to get out of here. We started at ground level and I don’t remember climbing a hill to the compound.”
“No, we didn’t, but does that make it the wrong choice? By the angle of it, I think this tunnel would take us in the opposite direction from the main gate. And, I don’t know why exactly, but I feel as though this one is longer – much longer. Shouldn’t we try it?”
“You’re wrong,” said Ruspa.
“Well thanks for considering it…”
Ruspa clicked his tongue in annoyance. “You are wrong Sigrid in that as yet we have no idea of what lies beyond the walls of the compound. We stopped Angren from making the climb if you recall. Any direction may be a disaster for all we know. And besides, even if it did lead us away that would be of little use if we died of poisoned air half way in. Can you not smell it?”
Sigrid, somewhat chastened, took a few hesitant steps down the slope and breathed in deeply. “It smells damp but…” She stopped. The darkness drew her and repelled her at the same time. She was scared. Hardly realising what she was doing Sigrid backed out of the tunnel so heedlessly that she collided with Ruspa and knocked the lighter out of his hand. The flame went out.
“Well done. Again.”
“Sorry,” she yelped. This time she felt like a fool. “It was just so unpleasant in there, something was… I don’t know.”
Together they fumbled around in the dark searching the floor for the lighter. Sigrid’s hand closed upon something.
“Found it,” she said, but almost in the same instant Ruspa said the same.
“No,” she said, “Not your lighter but something. Why don’t you light up, then I can see?”
This time Sigrid heard only a clicking noise and a soft curse.
“Lost the damn flint. I have another but I’ll never get it fitted in the dark. Most unfortunate. A pity you panicked.”
“A pity you didn’t hold on to it a little tighter.”
Sigrid was beginning to dislike this little man. Did he never make a mistake? He was silent for a few seconds but then carried on as if Sigrid had said nothing.
“So our best course is to continue along this main corridor. It looked to me as though it was beginning to incline slightly upwards. An encouraging sign, I think. But we must remember on our return to keep to the left to avoid the other way.”
They moved on. Sigrid was glad to leave the argument behind. He was in the right: she had panicked but what worried her most was that she had no idea why. There were no eyes in the dark, no slithering creatures at her feet, there was no scrape of a drawn sword echoing in the depths. It was just a tunnel. But so cold, and so silent, and the way the light from Ruspa’s oilcan had sunk into the darkness as if good honest light had no power there made her feel that, unheard and unseen, something of truly ill intent lay in wait. Down there, just beyond the reach of common senses, something evil had been willing her to take just one more step. As she moved slowly forward, close in Ruspa’s wake, even though nothing could possibly be seen, she kept looking back over her shoulder. She could discern no movement, the echoes of steps were all their own. Nothing followed. The object she had found at the entrance to that dark way nestled in her pocket, disregarded for now.
Ahead, not only did the corridor begin to incline upwards but after only another twenty yards or so it turned sharply right. Here the blackness that fettered their senses became less complete, a greyness developed with each step and after another turn, this time to the left, they could see soft beams of light filtering into the passage from high up on the right hand wall. They hurried forward.
This time not a tunnel but an opening into free air, clogged by dirt and broken rock as at the other end. Some scrabbling at the detritus of several centuries found them no rotten wooden door this time: instead the daylight crept in between the bars of a rusted iron gate.
Ruspa gave them a tug. There was some movement but not enough for a quick exit.
“Berta could shift them,” Sigrid told him, “Or that Garaid lad.”
Ruspa slid back into the passage. “Or perhaps there is some better opening further on. We may find an escape not so dependent upon muscles.”
But no: further ahead the light waned and they reached an impenetrable wall of fallen stone and mortar. After only a few minutes of exploration they gave up.
“We’d better get back to ‘Berta then,” Sigrid suggested.
“Yes, let’s get back into proper daylight: a half hour of this gloom and darkness is more than enough. And let’s make sure we keep to the left and well away from that hell hole.”
Sigrid was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her that Ruspa felt as bad about this place as she did. He seemed such a cold person that she hadn’t considered he might have feelings of any sort.
Next is Passage c
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
21/02/2012 wkj fantasy