Lightning blinked. It filled the small arched window at the top of the wall. The straw on the stone floor and the chains on the walls flashed into sight and were gone again. Byron looked up at the black bars covering the window and waited. Five … six … seven, and the thunder came. Rain danced on the deep sill outside the window and glistened with the lightning strokes. Byron caught sight of the lines scratched in the wall by some forgotten prisoner.
“Where can Thúmose be?”
Thunder rolled. Byron wiped his tear-swollen eyes on the sleeve of his specially designed coat and sighed again. He sat on a small pile of straw, shivering with cold. The little flap opened at the bottom of the door and his food was taken out. A moment later a fresh tray slid through and the welcome smell of stew filled the cell. Byron gobbled down his meal. It was hot and warmed him inside.
I bet it’s not really delicious. I’m just too hungry not to like it. Just wish I could see what it was. They would have to take the monocle away from me.
He chewed for a while, and sighed, tearing off a hunk of bread. “Maybe it’s better,” he said aloud. “I’d probably lose an eye with all this lightning.”
When he’d finished, Byron set the bowl aside, stood, and crossed his little cell to lean against the wall beneath the window. The small barred portal high on the door glowed orange with torch-fire from the hallway. Byron could hear movements and grunts from prisoners in the other cells. Down the hall, a guard shouted at someone to move away from the door. Byron listened. Footsteps approached.
“Step back in there,” the guard said. “I’ll take your tray and leave you some water for the night.”
Torchlight crept in through the little door, casting the plate, cup, and bowl into dim silhouette. Lightning flashed and Byron saw that there was a small drawstring pouch on the food tray. He gasped. A stout hand reached to slide the tray out through the opening. Byron dove the full length of the cell and crashed into the flap door before hastily rolling to the side. He had managed to snatch the pouch clean but knocked the cup into the bowl.
“Say, there!” the guard barked. “Just what the ruin?”
“Sorry!” Byron called back, wincing at the angry voice. “I tripped! It’s dark in here!”
“Oh it is, is it?” the guard shouted. “Well, it’d be a step darker with your eyes closed, if you take my meaning!”
“Sorry, he says. While I go get a broom to sweep his mess. Sorry doesn’t pick the lock!” His footsteps faded off down the passage. “If you take my meaning!”
The shadows on the floor were thick. Byron pushed the flap door open and it gave a loud creak. He froze a moment but nothing came of the noise, so he held the pouch out to the torchlight and emptied it into his hand.
“The monocle!” he whispered. “And what’s this?”
Byron put the monocle in with a cautious glance at the storm outside the window. Inside the pouch was a small piece of paper, rolled tight.
“Careful, Thorn,” he said, glancing at the window again.
Byron unrolled the paper and peered at it through the monocle. A single word was written upon the scroll in bold, bleeding letters. Byron read it aloud:
He let the monocle drop into his hand. The sound of the guard’s heavy step filled the passage. Byron scurried to the back of the cell, tucked the monocle and note into the pouch, and lay very still in the dark, listening.
“Everándon,” he whispered. “Thúmose.”
“That’ll be the last time, see?” the guard said as he swept up the mess outside the door.
Byron blinked. “What?”
“That’ll be the last time, I said! Right?”
“The last time?” Byron muttered. “Oh! Right, yes. I really am sorry!”
“Well, all right then,” said the guard and he turned and went away.
Byron held still. The storm was overhead. Thunder broke and as it faded there came a heavy jingling of keys, the well-oiled slide of locks, and the groaning creak of a thick door swinging open. Byron shielded his eyes from the torchlight as a dark shape stepped in and stood in the doorway to his cell. A long cape spread across its back and the dark hilt of a sword stuck out the side of the silhouette. The figure did not move. Another flash and thunder filled the silence. In the moment of light Byron saw Prince Dornthelf glowering down at him.
“Let’s have that light,” Dornthelf said.
“At once, my prince!” said the jailer.
The doorway glowed with orange light and great shadows fled about the cell. Byron squinted and shielded his eyes at the new brightness. The jailer withdrew and pulled the door shut behind him with a heavy clack and thud.
Dornthelf held up the light to Byron and looked him over. Then he waved the lamp around the cell slowly, checking the corners and ceiling. Byron slid the pouch with the note and the monocle under the straw just as the light returned.
“Not quite the guest chambers of the upper hall, Mr. Ambassador,” the dwarf said. “And not altogether unpleasant at that. You have eaten well, I expect?”
“Yes, sir,” Byron answered. “The guard’s been very nice.”
Byron struggled to swallow the lump in this throat. A great crash of white-lit thunder struck down upon the world. Byron’s small body leapt up and fell back into place. Dornthelf simply turned his head and looked at the window.
“There was a rumor,” Dornthelf said, “a bit of news from my spies, that said the crown prince had crossed over to the west side of the mountains.”
“Your spies?” Byron said.
Dornthelf smiled. “I find it hard to believe. And the source of the information is not altogether trustworthy.” Byron kept still. He looked everywhere but into Dornthelf’s face. The dwarf prince raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you know something about it?”
Byron didn’t answer.
“Maybe you know a few other things.”
Byron’s mouth went dry.
“Maybe you know a great deal that would be useful. Maybe you’ll make things easy and talk it all over with me.” Byron clutched the rolled paper underneath the straw. Dornthelf scrutinized him.
“Nosh is your friend, isn’t he?” Dornthelf said.
“You don’t want to see him come to any harm?”
“No,” Byron said. “Of course not.”
“Of course not,” Dornthelf said. “Well, if his father gets a hold of him, he will come to harm, believe me. You saw the king’s temper. He thinks Nosh is a traitor.”
“Nosh is no traitor,” Byron said.
“Maybe not, maybe not,” Dornthelf said with a nod. “But I think it would be better for Nosh if I found him before his father did. That way I could act as a sort of go-between, until my brother can get hold of his temper. Understand?”
“Good. So why not tell me where Nosh is, so I can go and get him?”
Byron only stared at Prince Dornthelf.
“There is a place I know about,” Dornthelf said. “A few days away, through the tunnels. You wouldn’t like it there; they’d only ask you questions. All kinds of questions. Of course, it isn’t the questions they ask that you’d find displeasing, but the way they ask them. You see, these people, they have methods—techniques if you will, for learning what they want to know. I’ve seen them work. It’s impressive. They’re hard to satisfy, though. Sometimes even the truth isn’t enough for them.”
Lightning blinked. Thunder rumbled. Byron’s heart pounded in his ears.
“I’ve made the arrangements,” Dornthelf said. “They have a space for you there. I’m hoping it won’t be necessary to send you. It’s rather expensive, you see, but if you won’t tell me what I want to know, I’m going to. It seems a clear enough choice; it shouldn’t take you long to decide. But I’ll give you four hours. At midnight, I’ll come for you. We’ll want to leave in secret, if we have to make the journey.”
Dornthelf stepped up and beat the door one time with his fist. Byron jumped.
“Open!” Dornthelf shouted.
A wedge of torchlight appeared as the door opened. Dornthelf stepped out past the jailer without looking back. Byron stared into the darkness as the hinges creaked and the door slammed shut. The echo lasted long in the hall outside and, as it died, Byron could hear the voice and footfalls of Prince Dornthelf disappearing into the dark length of the passage.
“Don’t let ‘im sleep,” Dornthelf said. “Kick the door from time to time.”
“Yes, your highness,” the jailer said.
“Nothing more to eat and take his water away.”
“At once, your highness.”
Thunder broke again, loud and crackling. When the sky calmed there was silence. Byron sat, trembling. He clutched the pouch in his fist and gaped into the darkness. A warped smile of disbelief and terror crept across his face and his eyes overflowed with tears. His body began to shake and soon he was gulping for air. Byron struggled to keep silent but a single word escaped his lips.
“Gradda,” he said in a hoarse, quaking whisper.
Keys jingled in the passageway and the lock tumbled open. The guard leaned his head into the cell. With his back to the wall, Byron looked up, wiping his eyes, pushing in vain with his legs to get further away.
“Thanks for putting in the word for me,” the dwarf said with a smile.
Byron blinked. “Huh?”
“Not that it did any good with the prince,” the guard continued. “But it was a fine gesture. Would you like a bit more to eat?”
“But the prince—” Byron began.
“He’ll never know. Maybe a hot cider?”
“Yes, please,” Byron said.
“How about a bit of light?”
“Hmm? Oh, no thank you.”
Byron sat with the hot cup between his hands. The cider was delicious. He sat for a long, silent while, looking out at the storm and darkness beyond the bars of his window. The sounds of the deepening night came—the muffled rustlings of the other prisoners, the wind through the window, the guard snoring. Byron put the monocle in and looked at the walls of his cell.
A flash of lightning ripped the dark and smote Byron’s eye.
“Aaahhh!” he cried, falling to the floor. He buried his face in the crook of his arm. A great commotion erupted in the passage. Voices called out. Byron bit his lip and rolled about the floor of the cell, pressing his palm into his eye. Horrible, sharp pain welled up in his head. He dragged himself to a seat against the door of the cell.
“You keep quiet!” the guard shouted.
“It weren’t me,” came an answer. “It’er that goat thing you got down at the end!”
“Just you keep that behind your teeth, see?” said the guard, his voice approaching. “Byron,” he said softly outside the door. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Byron said, still pressing his eye and rocking back and forth. “I had a nightmare.”
“Poor little fella,” said the jailer. “How’s about a nice big slab o’ cherry pie. I’m on my way to the kitchens.”
“Yes, thank you, sir,” Byron said.
“Heh, heh,” the guard said to himself as he went down the passage. ” ‘Sir’ he calls me. Poor little fella. Shut up in there!” he shouted at another prisoner and Byron heard his heavy boot against a door.
Byron’s breath came hard and he was sweating. He took his hand away slowly and found he could only see with his right eye. The left was filled with pale light. He shook his head and struggled to his hooves. Then there was a voice whispering outside the door.
“Byron! Are you all right?”
“What happened? Are you hurt?”
“Raefer! No, I’m fine!”
“I was just about to call you when you screamed! That guard nearly tripped over me.”
“I got your note!” Byron said.
“Everándon, way to go. How’d you get the monocle back?”
“Huh? Byron, what’re you talking about?”
“Look, never mind that now,” Raefer said. “Nosh’ll be here in a second.”
“Nosh is here?” Byron said. “What if he gets caught?”
“What if any of us do? This is a jailbreak, remember? He’s getting the keys now. Lucky you woke the guard, I guess. Nosh says the kitchens are a fair walk from here. He’ll be a while.”
“How did you get in?”
“An old escape tunnel, in the cell across from yours. Here’s Nosh!”
“Hello in there!” Nosh said.
“Nosh!” Byron said. “Your uncle would pop an eyeball if he knew you were here!”
“He’s never gonna know,” Nosh said. “This is the one, wait— no—hold on.”
Nosh fumbled with the keys. Byron listened through the door as the dwarf prince tried one key after another.
“Not so loud, Nosh,” Raefer said.
“Nope,” Nosh muttered, poking another key against the lock. “Nope.”
“Hurry up, Nosh!” Byron whispered.
“They all look the same. Dang!” Nosh said as he dropped the ring to the floor.
“This is just like the ettin’s cave!” Raefer said.
“Quit bringin’ up stuff I wasn’t there for,” Nosh said.
Byron slapped the door. “Nosh, just hurry!”
A door creaked open in the distant hallway and they heard the sounds of boot-shod feet.
“Quick!” Raefer hissed.
Byron heard the keys drag on the stone floor and then only silence outside the door. A long, terrible moment passed. The distant footsteps drew closer and stopped. A latch rattled and the voice of the guard rasped harshly. “Blast! Not again!” Then Raefer and Nosh were back at the door to Byron’s cell.
“What happened?” Byron asked.
“I locked the outer door,” Nosh laughed. “He’s always doing it to himself anyway!”
“Good,” Raefer answered, “Now would you hurry?”
“I’m doing the best I can!” Nosh said. He tried still another key that didn’t fit. “Drat!” he hissed.
“Is it the right ring?” Byron asked.
“Of course it is!” Nosh snapped. “There’s only just the one!” Then, from beyond the outer door, came the sound of whistling.
“He’s back!” Raefer hissed. The lock on Byron’s door rolled and sprang open with a clack. The outer door opened and the whistling came louder.
“Come on!” Raefer said.
All three dashed into the empty cell across the hall. As he reached the open door, Byron stopped. “Byron!” Raefer hissed. “What’re you doing?”
Byron turned and ran back across the hall. Inside the cell he dropped to the floor and felt around in the straw. A moment later he was running again with the drawstring pouch tight in his fist. Halfway across the hall Byron stopped once more, poised and tense on his hooves. The sounds of whistling and footsteps filled the place and Raefer slapped his own forehead as he watched. Byron sprang back to the door of his cell and pushed it closed. The lock dropped shut with a loud clack and he winced at the sound of it as he darted across to his friends. In the opposite cell Raefer closed the door to a crack and they both watched the guard stop at Byron’s cell to slide a plate through the hatchway at the bottom.
“There y’are, Byron,” the dwarf said. “Nice and sweet. I tried a bit of it myself while I was down there. See yer in the morning, poor little fella.”
The guard passed on and they heard his chair creak as he sat down. They waited without moving until at last the jailer began to snore. The sound grew loud and steady as he fell safely to sleep. Then a dim light filled the cell. Byron and Raefer turned to see Nosh standing waist deep in a hole in the floor.
A great stone was shifted aside. He smiled and gave them a wink as he adjusted the candle in the holder on the front of his leather cap. Then he disappeared into the hole.
“You next!” Raefer whispered.
Byron jumped in and found Nosh crouching down. Byron kept out of the way as his friends slid the stone back into place. Then Nosh crawled forward and led the way.
“Only one prisoner ever escaped from the dungeon,” he said. “This was how he did it. The cell has never been used since.”
They crawled along for a time until finally the black silhouette of a heavy grate appeared against a dim light above their heads.
“How’d you know where I was?” Byron asked.
“We got word from Cryolar,” Raefer said. “But he won’t say how he found out. And when Nosh heard where they were holding you, he remembered this tunnel.”
Nosh snuffed his candle and listened. “Quiet, now.”
He pressed the grate upward, looked out for a moment, and then stood. Setting the grate aside, Nosh scrambled from the hole to clear the way. Raefer and Byron followed. The three stood in an open yard surrounded by walls. Heavy clouds dimmed the moonlight. In the dark of the tunnel Byron’s eye cleared and he could see again. He looked up and took a long, deep breath.
“This is Oldgate,” Nosh said, “the first hall of my ancestors. We’re on the north side of the mountain. No one ever comes here anymore.”
“Do you know where you’re going?” Raefer asked.
“Sure,” Nosh said. “I used to come here all the time when I was a kid. We’re going to the Hall of Sovereigns. That’s where the entrance to the top tower is. That’s where we meet Cryolar.”
“Let’s keep moving,” Raefer said. “This place is spooky.”
At the far end of the yard they ducked inside again, through a pointed arch at the foot of a stone stair. They hurried on in a tight band passing through one empty hall after another as their way unwound in the dim light of Nosh’s cap. Nothing stirred. Dark passages and stairs appeared and vanished in the gloom. Nosh did not pause even once, taking this turn or that, never breaking his steady pace. Soon they came to a long corridor that led through a tall arch into an enormous, wood-panelled room.
“There they are,” Nosh said, looking up at the wall. “My ancestors. This is the gallery of my family line, all the kings and queens of Valleygate.”
A series of huge paintings lined the wall. Each was covered with heavy velvet curtains that separated at the pull of a golden rope.
“Why are they covered?” Raefer asked.
Nosh shrugged as he led his friends past the mysterious portraits. “Beats me.”
He stopped and drew back a set of curtains, revealing the portrait of a dark-haired dwarf with a stern face and clenched jaw. He wore a crown on his head and held a book in his hand. “Balafend,” Nosh said. “My great, great, great, great grandfather. Supposed to have been a scholar.” Nosh let the curtains fall and moved on. “Here’s his great, great grandmother, Agrathelf. She was just plain crazy, too much lead in her diet. But here’s my favorite.”
Nosh stopped four paintings down and pulled the golden rope. A stalwart-looking dwarf with a long flowing beard stared out at them. He had broad shoulders and leaned on a magnificent sword. He wore a cap with a tall feather, a long vest, and a pair of gauntlets on his hands. He looked impatient, distracted, eager to be about some other business than that of posing for his portrait.
“Tharrowfend,” Nosh said. “The Firehound. The last and greatest of the tunnellers. He was lost while searching for the Balefire, which used to burn on the top of Rathrâgodrak for all Everándon to see. He dug the tunnel where you and I met, Raefer.”
“Quit talking about stuff I wasn’t there for,” Byron said.
Nosh smiled. He let the curtain drop. “Down here,” he said, “on the end. This is the one I told you about, Byron.” Nosh stopped before the last painting on the wall. He pulled the rope and the curtains opened on a shadowy dwarf, brooding beneath a heavy crown that rested low on his glowering brow and set his eyes in shadow. He wore a war-shirt of heavy rings and sat on a gilded throne. The friends stared up with their mouths hanging open at the old king.
“Garrowthelf,” Nosh said. “The last of my house to rule from Showd Mazark. Or so legend goes.”
“The Suicide King,” said a voice from the shadows. Nosh, Raefer, and Byron all jumped and turned, pressing their backs to the wall beneath the portrait. A dark shape moved toward them, flanked by two others. “He cut off his own head. Or so the legend goes, eh, Nosh?”
“Uncle Dornthelf,” Nosh said.
“Hello, nephew,” Dornthelf said. He looked up at the portrait of Garrowthelf. “Still an hour to midnight, satyr. I take it you’ve made your choice?”
Orange light filled the place, and sent huge shadows leaping in the great room, as one of Dornthelf’s henchmen touched an unlit torch to a small brazier of coals nearby. He handed the torch to Prince Dornthelf, who lifted it, and the weird, dancing light fell upon his angry face.
“I knew you’d come for your friend,” Dornthelf said to Nosh. “That’s why I put him in the cell across from the tunnel. And this being a time of spies and secrets, I figured you’d hear of it somehow. You’re all still rather new to the game, so I don’t expect you to understand. You’re too much like your father, Nosh. You’ve just got too much backbone for your own good.”
Two heavy-shouldered dwarves stepped up beside Dornthelf. The hoods of their capes were cast over visored helmets. They had broad swords on their belts and crossbows on their backs, and each had a length of heavy rope in his hand.
“I’m tempted to kill you right now,” Dornthelf said. “No questions asked. But my friends are expecting you—all of you. And I can’t let them down, you know, or it’ll make things difficult the next time I need their services. I’m sure there’s plenty you can tell them—things you don’t even know you know.”
Lightning blinked through a row of grand arched windows on the back walls. Each was a stained glass rendition of the kings and queens portrayed in the paintings. For a moment, the entire line of Nosh’s house blinked into view and was gone again. Thunder followed. The wind came up and howled at the windows. Another storm had risen. Dornthelf drew his sword and started toward them.
“Uncle Dornthelf, please,” Nosh said, stepping forward.
“Be quiet,” Dornthelf growled and struck Nosh with the back of his hand. Nosh was knocked off his feet and sent sprawling.
“You can’t!” Raefer shouted.
“You have nothing to say, tree-boy,” Dornthelf answered, pointing at Raefer with his sword. Then he turned to Nosh. “We’ve got something special planned for you, my prince. We won’t wait for midnight. We’re leaving now.”
“Where are we going?” Raefer asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Byron replied.
“But you’re going to,” Dornthelf said. “Bind them.”
The two dwarves started forward, uncoiling their ropes. Dornthelf stepped aside and leaned on his sword.
“Run!” Nosh shouted and set off as fast as he could into the shadows beyond Dornthelf’s torch.
“Run!” Nosh cried. “Follow me!”
Raefer and Byron chased the faint light cast by Nosh’s cap through an arched passage onto a narrow spiral stair. Nosh leaped up the first of the steps, taking them three at a time. Raefer tailed him and Byron held his pace, not wanting to outstrip the other two. He stayed close on Raefer’s heels but slowed momentarily to look back.
“They’re not following!” he said above the echoing foot- and hoof-falls.
“Yes, they are!” Nosh shouted, “just come on!”
No they’re not, Byron said to himself, glancing over his shoulder.
There was no sound of pursuit or torchlight in the stairwell behind. Wind howled and rain pelted ahead of them. Lightning broke the darkness and he saw Nosh and Raefer against the open door at the top of the stair. They’d climbed the top tower of Oldgate.
Lightning fell in stroke after stroke all over the mountains, with cracks of thunder sounding one atop the other. As Byron hit the doorway, three great dark shapes alighted on the tower wall. Byron, Raefer, and Nosh were drenched almost as soon as they stepped into the open.
“Cryolar!” Byron cried, but even as he did, the griffins pulled back from the stone turret. A crossbow bolt struck the parapet and another furrowed without harm into Cryolar’s great feathers. The griffin gave a cry and withdrew from the wall, a great winged shadow against the lightning.
Byron spotted the source of the arrows: a group of dwarves lying in wait behind a pile of stones. Three of them were aiming their crossbows at the griffins. Two more were reloading after firing at Cryolar, while three others worked an enormous crossbow with a single huge bolt loaded into it.
Ballista, Byron thought, remembering Cryolar’s dive to the Winding Way. He looked from the dwarves to the griffins and back again.
Raefer reached the low wall of the tower as the griffins swooped in, huge wings spread wide. Byron saw Raefer turn and point, shouting to Cryolar in warning, but the griffin plucked him up in one taloned claw and dragged him dangling and screaming from the tower.
“Raefer!” Byron cried in horror, for as Cryolar wheeled away from the dwarven archers he reached down to get a better grip on Raefer, actually letting go of the flailing dryad for a terrible moment above the void, then snatching him back, tight and safe in his talons.
Lightning smote the nearest peaks. An arrow sang past Byron’s ear and he ducked, clutching Nosh’s arm. There was a heavy volley of crossbow fire at the two remaining griffins. One pulled away with a shriek and a pained tug of its enormous wings—pierced in the neck and shoulder.
There was a sound like a tree branch snapping. The dwarves had fired the ballista. Byron stared slackjawed at the sight of the great plumed shaft as it struck the other griffin. The poor beast gave a yowling roar that rose above the thunder. Byron struggled atop the low wall. Even in its agony, the griffin reached for him, but did not close its grip, knowing the fall that waited.
“No! ” Byron screamed. He reached out too far, extending a hand toward the griffin, and would himself have fallen, had Nosh not been there to grab him. The griffin leaned away from them, flapping its wings in a last effort to control its fall. Byron and Nosh watched the dying beast disappear, plunging into unseen depths of darkness and rain below the tower. Strong hands seized Byron and dragged him from the tower wall. The great shape of the other griffin appeared from the darkness and she approached the wall again, pierced and bleeding, with many dwarven bolts.
It only took one guard to restrain Byron and drag him back to the door. It took four to manage Nosh, flailing and enraged. The others charged the wall with their crossbows and began unlocking their bolts at the griffin. The wounded beast shrieked and roared in anger, wheeling to pull back into the murky distance.
Oh, please get Raefer away! That poor griffin! They were trying to save me! Oh, please get Raefer away!
Byron did not struggle as the dwarf carried him down the stairs. Sobs began to mount and heave in his chest. He was shaking and weeping openly, his tears mingling with the rainfall that dripped from his soaked hair. The dwarf threw him to the floor beside Nosh in the Hall of Sovereigns. Byron looked at his friend, who was staring up at his uncle with a stricken look on his red, rain-soaked face.
“Welcome home, your highness,” Dornthelf said.
Lightning flashed again, and in that moment Byron saw the terrible face of the Suicide King, glaring down from the glass of his glowing window.