All through the night the furtive digging down in the tunnel continued. Blind the prisoners had to rely on touch alone but eventually their labour gave reward. The gap into the tunnel had been widened and was now sufficient for the mightiest of girths; at the other end the bars that yet denied them freedom had been loosened to ‘Berta’s satisfaction, ready for one final effort. They waited only for the heat of noon once more. It was an uncomfortable wait.
General disappointment greeted the unmistakable sound of more Halfi arriving and the continuance of construction work. There was renewed hope when in the late morning they heard many of the Halfi joking and laughing as they left their work and by the sound of it left the village too. Things seemed to be moving in their favour. Angren spread the word that they all should be ready to go at his signal. Not one prisoner dissented; not one thought the chances any better to wait and see.
They welcomed a gusty wind that blew up shortly before noon. It took away some of the heat and encouraged the guards to leave their buffeted tower sooner than normal. They were startled by sudden, sporadic explosions and by a frightening roaring noise in the distance. A glance up at the sky revealed the source: a great pall of smoke billowed above the trees. Thankfully downwind of their camp, the forest was burning.
It was time. There were no guards to watch as one by one the prisoners crawled into the tunnel. Ruspa went first with ‘Berta and Angren just behind, and the rest following in no particular order. Bibron Farber saw the last of them through. As Garaid disappeared into the darkness the Captain stepped back into the compound to take a last look at their prison. The walls seemed higher than before, the earth more bare and the eerie silence uncomfortable. He snorted and spat his good riddance into the dust and then, very carefully, and with grim satisfaction, made a rude gesture with his right arm in the direction of the main gate.
“Up yours, you bastards!”
He would have liked to yell it out but common sense prevailed and the curse came out as little more than a whisper. As he plunged through the hole that would take him to freedom the thought occurred to him that the silence they left behind might just well be a problem.
A few moments later two of the Halfi climbed back up to their viewing point.
They had all been warned about that other passageway. Most of the prisoners clung to the right hand wall of the passage unwilling to learn any more about it. Angren, on the other hand, despite his discomfort at being underground, decided he had a duty to perform. Walking just behind Ruspa and his lighter, the weapon-master peered ahead. After only a few minutes in he thought he could dimly make out a dark patch on the left hand wall. Bizarrely, in the uncertain light it seemed as though the darkness of the tunnel was seeping into the passageway before them. This was probably an illusion but it added to his sense of unease. But Angren had a solution for nervousness: his method was to ignore the feeling and carry on anyway. This attitude generally made others think him brave.
At the opening Angren asked to borrow Ruspa’s lighter and holding it high above his head he stepped boldly over the threshold. Nothing much happened. He took twenty paces down the slope, his foot slipping only once on the slimy floor. Surprised to be out of breath he stopped to take a rest. All he could see was the worn smooth grey stone flags at his feet and the muddy brown walls. Both the way ahead and the way back to his friends were equally shrouded from his sight. He took another five or ten steps without bettering the situation, and then without any warning the lighter went out. The suddenness made him yelp.
Back in the passageway Sigrid who had been the foremost of those tracking his progress shouted out “Angren! Angren!” but by the time the noise of her cry had diminished they all could hear his steps toiling back up the slope. They couldn’t see him but recognised his chuckle as he came close.
“Something up, Sig? I thought I heard you shouting.”
“Well I thought I heard you screaming.”
“Just a little surprised when the lighter thingy went out. Couldn’t see any reason for it, though I did think the air was a little tight.”
“Tight?” said Ruspa.
“You know, hard to breath. To be honest I was just thinking of turning round when the light went. Here, can you get it lit again?”
They fumbled around in the dark trying to locate each other’s hand.
“As I said to Sigrid,” Ruspa reminded them as he flicked the lever causing green sparks that caught the oily wick and gave them sight once more, “It is very likely the air down there is poisoned.”
Angren frowned. That didn’t quite explain it. “Actually, it was more as if the air was getting less, thinner, as though the goodness was being sucked out of it. ”
“Amounts to the same thing.”
“Does it? Well anyway, I think that’s why the tunnel seems so unpleasant. I don’t think there’s anything down there that’ll give us any trouble.”
“No demons or monsters waiting to attack then?”
“I shouldn’t think so ‘Berta,” said Angren, but then added with a laugh, “Mind you, I don’t always get it right. So, just in case, let’s get out of here; and find some better air.”
No one objected to that and Ruspa set off again at an increased pace, seemingly keen to put some distance between himself and the mysterious tunnel.
They all crowded round when they reached the bars, so much so that Angren had to urge them back to give ‘Berta and Garaid the room to work. There was a little grumbling about this, and the echoes of so many people together bounced off the walls like the growling of some angry old dragon. More than one of them looked back into the gloom towards that other tunnel wondering whether the echoes might have a different source.
“Shush, you lot,” ‘Berta whispered so loudly that everyone heard. “I want to listen.”
The light of honest day illuminated her face. As the noise in the tunnel subsided those nearest the opening strained to listen with ‘Berta’s ears to discover some clue as to what lay beyond the long grass and weeds screening the world beyond from view. The wind was still blustering and the roaring sound of the fire in the distance continued. Birds in a panic flew high in the sky calling in many voices. But there was no sound of human activity. They all listened for a good five minutes but there was nothing to be heard and they began to breathe a little more easily.
“Right ‘Berta, Garaid, lets have those bars down,” said the Captain. “I’ve had enough of being a captive.”
There was a general “aye” to that and so the two of them put their backs into it. It didn’t take long. Angren, not a weakling himself, couldn’t help admiring the pair of them. Garaid grunted a bit with the effort of pushing and then pulling as they struggled to loosen the bars from the earth that had encased this gate for so many years but ‘Berta took it all in her stride and gave the impression she was not much challenged. The joints where the three cross bars met the five verticals, well enough rusted to be brittle, soon gave way to their combined strength, and, with something of a clang and clatter, the uprights were free.
Angren stepped up. “Good work men.”
‘Berta gave him a black look.
Angren shrugged and then grinned.“Never get the right words, do I. Not to worry, it was well done. Right: now for a little less power and a bit more stealth. Get everyone through; Ruspa and me’ll take a good look around. C’mon, while it’s still quiet.”
And without waiting for assent or dissent, Angren and Ruspa scrambled through the open gateway and disappeared into the scenery.
“Well,” said the Captain, “You heard the man. Let’s get out of here.”
And so they did.
Next Demonography (a)
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
21/02/2012 wkj fantasy