Silverlance Chapter 8: A Fork in the Road

Byron shook the rusty bars. “The lousy thing is locked!”

A hollow was clawed away beneath the gate. Bloodied fur stuck to the rusted bottom rail. Shilo crouched and peered into the darkness.

“So, the wolves have gone through,” she said.

“What’ll we do?” Raefer said.

Dindra shrugged. “The rest of you can fit under the gate.”

“But you can’t,” Byron said.

Rufus nodded. “We have to get it open.”

Shilo frowned. “Wait a minute…” She started snooping around the cave.

“What are you looking for?” Dindra said.

“The treasure trove.”

“The what?” Rufus said.

“This thing is an ettin. My dadda told me about them. Ettins hide treasure.”

Rufus and Raefer glanced at each other with their eyebrows up. “We’ll help you look!”

At the end of a dead end passage was an old, rusted cauldron covered with a rotted animal skin. It was filled with all sorts of things: a broken, rusted hunting knife, a bent, twisted cartwheel, a tangle of barbed wire. There were bottles and broken pots, several horseshoes and a lot of stuff no one could recognize.

“What kind of treasure trove is this?” Byron said.

Shilo shook her head. “I guess ettins aren’t very bright.”

“There’s a box over here,” Rufus said from the shadows. “Bring a torch.”

A small iron chest was hidden in the darkness near the wall. It was attached to a heavy chain, which was bound to a ring set in the stone floor. In the lock of the chest there was a rusted key with a ring full of other keys hanging from it. Rufus tried to turn it, but the key was stuck fast.

“I’ll bet that old ettin doesn’t even know it’s here,” Dindra said.

“He’d get it open,” Raefer said. “Key or no key.”

Byron nodded. “We could use him right now, to pull that gate off.”

“Wait a second!” Rufus said. He lifted the keys dangling from the ring and looked around at the others. One by one their faces lit up.

“Get it out!” Dindra said.

Rufus wiggled the key side to side, up and down. He nodded to Raefer who crouched and pressed his shoulder against the front of the box. Rufus set the bottoms of his feet just below the latch and gripped the key with both hands.

Raefer pushed and Rufus pulled. They both grit their teeth, grunting and groaning. The key came loose with a loud snap. Rufus hit himself in the face with both fists and rolled over backwards. Raefer flew over the lid of the chest, toppling it as he went. It burst open and lay on its side. The brothers rolled around on the ground moaning and clutching their injured parts. Dindra, Shilo and Byron looked inside the chest.

“A map!” Shilo said, unfolding a large parchment.

Dindra lowered her torch and read. ” ‘The Raven’s Gate Passage.’ ”

Rufus stood and looked over Shilo’s shoulder, still rubbing his nose. Raefer appeared out of the shadows behind the box. “A map of the tunnels?” he said.

“Looks like it,” Dindra said. “All sorts of passages.” She peered closer and read: ” ‘To Durfellen’s Web,’ ‘To the Pargan Circuit.’ ”

“Some go off the edge,” Rufus said. “They must go to other phases of the mine.”

Dindra nodded. “This map is part of a series.”

“Does it go all the way through?” Rufus said.

Dindra squinted. “Seems to. It looks like we’re standing in the main shaft. All these others are offshoots heading deeper down.”

Shilo pointed to one of the offshoots. “I don’t like the sound of this one.”

” ‘The Fire Warrens,’ ” Dindra read. “Wonder where it goes…”

“Let’s not find out,” Byron said.

Raefer stooped to look at the key ring in Rufus’s hand. “It broke off in the lock.”

“The key!” Shilo said, folding up the map.

Rufus jangled the ring at his friends and headed for the gate. “Come on!” he said and everyone followed.

Shilo tucked the map in her pouch. They waited at the gate while Rufus tried the first of a half dozen keys. It fit, but not quite and he spent a moment trying to make it work.

“Try another,” Dindra said.

Rufus let the key fall to one side.

“Keep track,” Shilo said. “They all look alike.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Rufus said.

Byron turned and frowned in the direction of the cave mouth.

“What’s wrong?” Reafer said.

“Thought I heard something,” Byron said. “I’ll be right back.”

He headed for the tunnel entrance.

“Be careful,” Shilo said to Rufus.

“Don’t break it off in the lock!” Raefer said.

“I know what I’m doing,” Rufus said. “Dang! Which one was next?”

Byron headed up the tunnel. When he came in view of the cave mouth, he peered out into the late afternoon daylight from the concealment of the shadows. Nine centaurs were lurking by the mouth of the cave, listening and peering in. Byron turned and bolted into the chamber.

“Centaurs!” he hissed. “In the clearing!”

“No!” Shilo said.

“Keep going, Rufus!” Dindra said.

Rufus fumbled with the keys. “Help me keep track or we’re done for!”

Byron ran back and forth checking on the progress. Three of the centaurs trotted into the darkness of the tunnel. Byron crept back in, quiet as he could. He waved his arms, jumping up and down. “They’re coming!” he said as loud as he dared.

“Three more . . .” Rufus said in a trembling voice.

“Steady,” Dindra said. “Keep working to the left . . .”

“They’re coming!” Byron hissed.

“We know!” the others said together.

Rufus tried another key. It fit but didn’t turn. He wiggled it and tried to get it to go.

“Move on!” Shilo said.

“I know what I’m doing!” Rufus said.

“Last one . . .” Dindra said.

Byron turned and hollered as loud as he could with a kind of growling howl into the tunnel. He looked back to see Rufus jump and hit his head on the bars. The cave entrance echoed with the sounds of centaurs retreating back out the passageway. “Hurry up!” Byron said. “That won’t work twice.”

“Get back in there!” shouted an angry voice from outside the tunnel.

“There’s something down there!” came another voice.

“Never mind,” the first voice growled. “I’ll go myself.” The sound of charging hooves filled the chamber.

“Give me the keys!” Dindra said, snatching the ring from Rufus’s hand. “There!”

Byron heard the lock come free with a dull clack. There was a loud creak as the gate swung open.

“Byron, come on!” Dindra said as Rufus and Shilo went through the gate.

“Come on, Byron!” Raefer said, close on their heels.

Dindra held the gate for Raefer and stepped in after him, waving at Byron to hurry. Byron ran across the cave and followed them in, pulling the gate shut behind him.

“Byron!” Dindra whispered from the darkness ahead.

“I’m right behind you!” he said. The sound of her hooves rang in the passage as she and Raefer pressed on. Byron ran after them as fast as he dared, groping ahead with his hands, blind in the darkness before him. Then he stopped.

“The keys!” he said. He called to the others with a loud whisper. “The keys are still in the gate!”

Dindra and Raefer didn’t stop. Byron looked back and forth in the darkness, then ran back to the entrance.

Centaurs prowled the cave. Byron paused. Then he took up a handful of loose, sandy dirt from the floor. Keeping to the shadows, he reached the other hand through the bars. The keys were hanging in the lock and he took hold of them, gritting his teeth in his efforts at silence.

A huge hand seized him by the arm.

The keys fell to the ground outside the gate.

From the side of the entrance stepped a tall centaur with terrible markings on his face and chest. He wore a heavy net slung over his huge shoulder and grinned down at Byron with wild eyes.

“Baruwan,” Byron said, wincing from the pain of the centaur’s grip. “Dindra! Raefer! Help!”

And someone answered.

“Raefer!” shouted a voice.

Byron looked into the dark of the tunnel where Raefer had gone. Baruwan turned toward the entrance of the cave.

“Raefer Nimbletwig!” shouted the voice again.

“Rifkin?” Byron said. “Rifkin!”

Baruwan turned to face Byron again. Byron took the fistful of sandy dirt and flung it into the centaur’s face. Baruwan hollered and snapped his head back, covering his eyes. He let go of Byron’s arm and Byron collapsed to the ground. A group of dryads came running into the cave through the entrance. The centaurs turned at once and engaged them. Rifkin dashed in with a bent bow, fired an arrow into the centaur charge and drew his sword. Then Byron’s gaze fell to the ground outside the gate.

“The keys!” he said and he jumped to his hooves to reach through the rusty bars.

Baruwan stretched out his hand. Byron lunged forward and took hold of the key ring just as Baruwan reached it. They plucked it from each other’s grasp and the keys fell to the ground again.

Baruwan cut his free hand on the bars as he forced it through to grab Byron. Byron dropped low for the keys. Baruwan caught hold of the monocle strap and gave a tug. Byron winced and choked as his head hit the gate. He clutched the keys and tried twice to pull them in but the ring was too big to fit through the bars. With his free hand he unsheathed Gradda’s knife and cut through the leather strap that held the monocle.

Baruwan pulled the monocle through the bars and looked at it. He threw it to the ground and nearly stepped on it as he came up and put his face to the gate to stare at Byron. “Unlock this door, little one,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Yaaaah!” Byron cried and threw the knife at Baruwan. It struck the bars with clang, just as Baruwan pulled his face away. The huge centaur staggered back with a growl. Byron turned and ran into the darkness, not caring to fend with his hands. Twenty paces in he dropped the keys. He came to a turn and then another, not pausing to note how he’d gone. Soon he was lost. Byron stopped and listened. All was quiet. Even the sounds of fighting died away. Byron slid himself down the tunnel wall to the cold stone of the floor. He hugged his arms around himself and sat there staring into the darkness.

* * *

“Is it too low for you, Dindra?” Raefer said. “I heard you hit your head back there.”

“I’ll manage. Where are Rufus and Shilo?”

Raefer shook his head. “Did we pass any turns, so far?”

“I can’t tell in this dark,” Dindra said. “I didn’t feel any.”

“We never should’ve run off like this,” Raefer said, crouching to spark his tinder.

“What choice did we have?” Dindra said.

Raefer lit the torch from his smoldering tinder and held it up. “Where’s Byron?”

Dindra looked back up the tunnel. “I thought he was behind us.”

“He was,” Raefer said. “He called out to us, remember?”

“Byron!” Dindra called. Her voice echoed and died away. She called again. There was no reply. “How long will it take Baruwan to force that gate open?”

“Not very, I’d say,” Raefer said. “Should we go back?”

Dindra sighed and shook her head. “Could we even find our way?”

“Maybe, as long as we don’t turn anywhere.”

“How do we know we didn’t already?”

“Well, do we just keep going?” Raefer said.

“No, we have to go back,” Dindra said. “But we have to be quiet.”

Reafer held up the torch. “All right, then,” he said with a nod.

They crept along quick and quiet. Raefer whispered his amazement at how silent Dindra kept her hooves on the stone of the tunnel floor. “I’m not a horse, you know,” she said, shaking her head. After what seemed a very long march, they heard a rattling sound from the darkness ahead.

“That’s the gate!” Raefer whispered.

“Snuff the torch!” Dindra said.

There was a loud clang and then voices. A moment later there were hooves clopping in the tunnel. Dim torchlight appeared in the distance.

“Centaurs . . .” Dindra whispered in Raefer’s ear. They clasped hands, held their breath and listened.

* * *

Shilo turned. “Did you hear something, Dindra? Din—? Raefer? Byron? Rufus stop!”

“What? Why?”

“They’re not back there. None of them.”

Rufus turned. “Were they with us at the turn?”

“I don’t remember a turn. I’ve just been following the sound of your feet. I heard them, then you started getting ahead and . . .”

“But Raefer was right there when we left the gate.”

“We have to go back.”

“We sure do.”

“Do you remember the way?”

“I think so,” Rufus said as he knelt to spark a torch. “A little light won’t hurt.” He waved the torch into the tunnel where he had been headed. Then he waved it behind and sighed. “All right, then,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Jogging along on tiptoe they made their way back up the tunnel as they had come. Shilo clutched Rufus by the arm.

“Listen!” she said.

From the darkness ahead came a faint rattling sound.

“The gate,” Rufus said.

“Snuff the torch!” Shilo said.

There was a loud clang and then voices. A moment later there were hooves clopping in the tunnel. Dim torchlight appeared in the distance.

“Centaurs,” Shilo whispered in Rufus’s ear. They clasped hands, held their breath and listened.

“Which way now?” said a voice.

“Who knows?” another voice replied.

“We’ll never track them in here. These tunnels could go on for miles.”

“The little snakes have a hole to hide in,” said a single, cold voice.

“We could split up.”

“No. I don’t like the air in here,” said the cold voice. “And there is said to be a shadow under the Old Mountain. I won’t go staggering about blind in this maze.”

“We could go to the dwarves. They’re a lean-witted brood, but they made these tunnels long ago.”

“Curse the griffins. We could be waiting on the other side right now if not for their arrogant laws.”

“Never mind,” said the cold voice. “We’ll find some other way.”

Clopping hooves receded up the tunnel and the torchlight faded.

Shilo started to move but Rufus restrained her and covered her mouth. From the place where the centaurs had been came the sound of a single hoof falling to the stone. Shilo froze and took a stifled gasp.

“Go then, little snakes,” said the cold voice. “I’ll wait for you beyond the mountains where nothing can save you. I’ll catch you in my net and drag you screaming before Ravinath. Then you’ll learn what it is to scream.”

For a moment there was silence. Then the centaur turned and clopped away toward the gate.

Rufus and Shilo held still. The faint sound of voices calling out echoed down to them from the ettin’s chamber. Then it was quiet again. They crept on tiptoe back down the way they had come and kept on for a long time before they dared to light a torch, or speak, or even stop moving.

Rufus dug out his tinderbox. His hands appeared in small flashes as he began to spark his torch.

“Well, we know they got away,” Shilo said.

“We’ll just have to hope they make it,” Rufus said. He lit the torch and held it up. “And that we do.”

Shilo opened the map. “Let’s see . . . that was a three-way fork back there, where the centaurs were.”

“Well, we took the way to the right,” Rufus said.

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. I had my hand to the wall the whole time.”

“All right, then,” Shilo said. “We’re in the main shaft. The middle one goes . . . ‘To Mushroom Forest . . .’ ”

Rufus shifted the torch. “What about the left one?”

“The left one . . . Oh! The Fire Warrens, I hope nobody went down there.”

Rufus pursed his lips and shook his head. “Well, let’s get moving. I don’t like the air in here any more than that centaur did.”

* * *

Raefer started to move but Dindra grabbed him. She covered his mouth with her hand and he fought her. From the place where the centaurs had been came the sound of a single hoof falling to the stone. Raefer froze in Dindra’s grip and they both held very still.

“Go then, little snakes,” said the cold voice. “I’ll wait for you beyond the mountains where nothing can save you. I’ll catch you in my net and drag you screaming before Ravinath. Then you’ll learn what it is to scream.”

For a moment there was silence. Then the centaur turned and clopped away toward the gate. Dindra did not release her hold on Raefer. The faint sound of voices calling out echoed down to them from the ettin’s chamber. Then it was quiet again. At last Dindra relaxed and let Raefer go, but even then they stood for a long time in utter silence.

“So, they got away,” Raefer said at last.

Dindra shook her head. “But what about Byron?”

Raefer said nothing.

“Come on,” Dindra said and she set off toward the gate.

“Where are you going?” Raefer said. “Are you out of your mind?”

Dindra kept walking. “If I was do you think I’d know it?”

Raefer let his shoulders sag. He stood in the darkness, fidgeting. “Well, let me light a torch at least!” He spent a moment with his tinderbox, lit the torch and set off to follow.

“What’s this?” Dindra said as they came in sight of the gate.

“The keys,” Raefer said, stooping to pick up the ring.

“Come on,” Dindra said and she continued up the passage.

The gate was shut and locked. The ettin lay still by the dying fire inside the cave. Dindra and Raefer peered through the bars.

“Byron’s knife,” Raefer said, stooping to the ground. “And there’s his monocle. D’you think they caught him?”

“Byron doesn’t get caught,” Dindra said. “But I’d say he had a close call. I’ll bet you anything he came back to take the keys from the lock, to keep the centaurs from following. It had to be him who dropped them back there.”

Raefer gripped his chin. “So he got away, but left his things.”

“He was running for it. And now he’s alone, down those tunnels somewhere.”

Raefer shrugged. “Maybe he found Rufus and Shilo.”

“Maybe,” Dindra said. She put Byron’s knife and monocle into her sidebag. “We’ll keep these until . . . well, we’ll just keep them.”

In the firelight they saw the three-way fork in the tunnel. Raefer thrust the torch into each of the openings.

“Which one?” he said.

“The middle one,” Dindra said.

Raefer stepped forward and raised the torch. The shadows fled before them and the two companions set off into the mountain.

 

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