There was a narrow tunnel behind the mouth of the cave. Jane reached out and touched the sides. She had seen the inside of enough caves and caverns to tell a natural fissure from a mine shaft. This one had been shaped by hand. It might have started life as a watercourse, the channel of an ancient mountain spring, but in recent years it had been tunneled out by miners, robbed of any thread of silver or tin.
‘Robert?’ Jane called out into the darkness ahead. There was no reply. She was holding her burning torch in front of her body. It was guttering and sparking, stoked by a draft of air flowing towards and around her. She could feel it on her face, a current of cold air venting out into the ravine behind her, as if the tunnel was a chimney.
‘At least you’re not dead,’ she carried on down the mineshaft, its floor tilting gently, the curved walls growing a little wider. ‘Not burnt dead, anyway; I would smell it.’
‘Not dead, Jane,’ Robert stepped out from a fissure in the wall, his smile bright in the light of her flickering torch. ‘We can count us both lucky on that score.’ He glanced at the dagger Jane was holding in her free hand. ‘I see you opened the sword.’
‘And, in spite of your tactical training, here you are.’
‘Here I am.’
‘Which means you trust me.’ Robert’s smile flashed again.
‘Which means curiosity wins over caution, for the moment.’
‘Curiosity, yes. The weakness of cats which requires them to have nine lives. How many will you need by today’s end?’ Robert reached down and hoisted a bag from the ground. He swung it over his shoulder, turned and started off down the tunnel. ‘But if you are to be a cat, then let curiosity be your guide. I have much to show you.’
‘One moment,’ Jane stood her ground. ‘How long will this take?’
‘Much of the day. I have food, are you hungry?’
‘Always. Wait here, I must send Dragon back to the castle. Sir Theodore will be getting furious with me.’
‘I doubt that.’
‘You don’t know him. Furious, and worried, too. The fury I can bare, but I must spare him what anxiety I can.’ Jane turned and retraced her steps. Stepping out into the full glare of the day.
‘Dragon?’ Jane had to cover her eyes. It was a moment before she could make him out. He was sitting on the lip of the ravine, legs dangling over the side, heels drumming the walls like a bored child.
‘Is he charcoal?’
‘No, Dragon, he seems well enough.’
‘Then why are you out here? Runes and secrets Jane! Make him show you everything, and copy them down. Do you have parchment?’
‘I have this,’ Jane tapped the side of her head. ‘I will commit everything to memory. We can return later to make a full record of every rune I find. Right now, I need you to fly back to the castle and report all this to Sir Theodore. Oh, and go up to your cave and ask Squeaky about housing those other bats. If he agrees we can gather them up on our return journey.’
‘Two things, Jane. Firstly, and of no importance, Squeaky is a ‘she’, not a ‘he’, alright?’
‘How would you know that?’
‘She told me. And secondly, a small reminder, Jane. I am not your servant. I am a friend.
‘Friends help each other.’
‘Friends do not give orders, Jane. True friends ask nicely and promise all kinds of friendly things in return.’
‘I’ll scratch behind your ears for an entire day.’
‘Done!’ Dragon scrambled to his feet and launched into the air.
The steps down to the cellars were smooth as glass, each flagstone polished through time by countless passing feet. Since the construction of the castle, many thousands of guards and unwilling guests had made this journey down into the twilight world beneath the main keep. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’ had been the brief to the master mason and his team of builders.
The design of the dungeons had accounted for the need to divert any disquieting noise. Fresh air, ducted from gratings in the yard above, passed through the cellar chambers to a vent into the rock of the mountain itself. From there it wafted up through caves and caverns, carrying the sounds and odors of interrogation away from sensitive ears.
‘What have you told them?’ Haroldus tried looking over his shoulder as he spoke. He stumbled, his foot loosing purchase on the polished steps. Sir Theodore was following close behind and grabbed the man’s tunic to steady him.
‘Watch your step, I will need to account for every bruise and blemish when this is over. Why start my ledger now?’
‘Stop your fussing, I came freely did I not?’ Haroldus carried on down the stairwell. ‘I stood my men down. They let you march me away without a scuffle.’
‘Ha! Indeed they did. You paid them to be mock sailors, not warriors. And paid them poorly too no doubt. Why, in the name of sanity, would they fight for you?’
‘Fair point, but you have evaded my question, so I ask it again. What have you told your king and comrades about all this? Nothing, I’ll warrant. Which is why you sent young Gunther away just now. You, old friend, are buying time to think this through.’
‘It is not time I need. It is answers. How I get these answers is up to you - Old Friend.’ The steps descended to a short corridor at the end of which stood a single oak door. It had a narrow window grill from which a muted a red light spilled out.
Haroldus stretched his neck to peer through the grill, but it was too high. Sir Theodore reached passed him, rapped on the door, and called out.
‘We have a guest, Master Gorga. He wishes to see something of your craft.’
‘Oh, dark humor now?’ Haroldus shook his head. ‘That lifts my spirits no end.’ He heard footsteps approaching. They sounded odd. Not the stepping of boots on stone, more the clatter a horse might make as it walked across a cobbled yard.
The door opened, its weight causing the iron hinges to groan. A stout man appeared. He wore simple robes, nothing to distinguish him from any village trader - except for his footwear. Short planks of wood were strapped to his bare feet like primitive sandals. The planks, and the man’s feet, were dripping wet with a dark red liquid that left a trail of puddles in his wake.
‘Is that blood?’ Haroldus stared at wet ground.
‘Been doing some crushing,’ said the man. ‘Come in with you.’ He turned and led the way across a wide dungeon lit only by candles, his wooden footwear clattering on the flagstones. ‘Mind your step, a little wet in places. Can’t be helped, my line of work.’
‘Give our guest a tour, Master Gorga. Show him your product, even a small taste if you will. Not too much, I want him lucid when I return,’ Sir Theodore remained by the door. ‘I will inform the king and join you both in conversation.’ The old knight dipped his head and made his way back to the steps.
He cursed quietly to himself as he made the climb. Every step caused his joints cry out. He could have taken Haroldus to the knight’s quarters. But there would be too many eyes, and too many questions. Master Gorda could be relied upon for his discretion, and not even Princess Lavinia ventured down this stairwell.
Haroldus was right. He needed time to think. This day had been a long time coming. He had prepared as best he could, but there were many threads in this complex tapestry, and still many holes.
Stay alert, Jane,’ he whispered to himself. He had lived too long to deceive himself with wishful thinking, the day was fast becoming a mess of the first order. Where did his duty lie? Since his arrival at the castle all those years ago, he had managed to reconcile the solemn promise he and Haroldus had made, with the oath of service he had given to his new king.
Then Jane had dropped into his life, a wild eagle crash landing into a coup of domestic chickens. Every pledge and heartfelt promise had been sidelined, overshadowed by a greater duty. Or perhaps not, for with each passing year he had felt more at peace, as if Jane’s role might be the thread that could stitch his world back together.
Yet no one understood the true nature of that role, least of all Jane. Is that why Haroldus had returned? Had he uncovered some new piece of the complex puzzle, a piece so compelling that he had risked his life to come here under a false flag of friendship?
Had Haroldus strayed from the commitment they had made all those years ago? Or did the fault lie on his own shoulders? Had he misjudged Jane’s role in this drama? What, in the name of pain and pestilence, was to be done?
‘Where is she?’ the Princess appeared at the top of the steps, a dark silhouette against the bright daylight behind her. ‘Have you locked her up down there, and Jester too?’
‘You are speaking of Jane, perhaps?’ Sir Theodore eased passed Lavinia and emerged into the sunlight. The Princess fell in beside him, skipping twice to his every stride.
‘Of course I’m speaking of Jane. She is nowhere to be found. Nowhere! Jester is missing too, so I have nobody in the entire world to play with or to teach me. Only you, the terrible Black Knight. You must spend the day teaching me how to suppress my enemies.’
‘Is that so?’
‘It is! Unless Jane and Jester can be found. Rake was fun for a short while, but he is intent on hatching a pig’s egg, and has become distracted.’
‘A pig’s egg?’
‘Yes, the details are too boring to share. So I am bereft of playmates, and you will have to do, Sir Theodore.’
‘I am flattered, your majesty, however I have a pressing matter to discuss with your father, and..
‘OH! Look,’ Lavinia grabbed Sir Theodore’s sleeve, pulling him to a stop. ‘Here she comes!’ The princess pointed to the sky and began skipping in circles as Dragon’s shadow grew across the training yard.
‘Ah,’ said Sir Theodore. He wanted to punch the air to express his relief, but years of disciplined composure wouldn’t allow for it. He merely nodded and said: ‘Your playmate has returned, alas, I am redundant.’
They watched as Dragon came to rest beside them. Only then, when the sun was no longer in their eyes, did they see he was alone. Lavinia put her hands on her hips and scowled up at him.
‘Dragon? If you’ve dropped her, I will be VERY cross!’
Robert was still sitting where Jane had left him. She held the torch out, it’s flame dancing across the rock.
‘Lead on,’ she said. Robert smiled and got to his feet.
‘Command comes easily to you, Jane.’
‘Is that a question or a statement?’
‘I watched you in the tavern last night. If you had told the customers to stand on their heads, many would have complied. So it is a statement - command comes easily to you.’
‘I suppose it does. Is that a strength or a weakness?’
‘Both, perhaps. Depending on the nature of the command. Shall we go?’ Robert set off without waiting for a reply.
‘Ha!’ Jane almost laughed as she fell in behind him. ‘A command phrased as a question. I must learn how to do that.’
‘It might not suite you.’
‘Diplomacy is a valuable tool in some hands. In others it is seen as a weakness. Most of the woman I’ve known are natural diplomats. Men rather less so, they often talk with their fists. You have chosen to live as a warrior Jane. Fists and brain combined.’
They walked in silence for a while. The tunnel curved to the left, then opened out into a cavern the size of a small barn. Jane held up her torch. There were no runes or paintings on the walls.
‘There is light enough from this point on,’ said Robert. ‘You must kill your torch flame if our eyes are to adjust.’ Jane hesitated. Behind her lay the path they had come down, a single tunnel leading back to the ravine. Easy to find, even in the dark. She made a decision and lowered her torch, pressing the flame into the ground until it flickered and went out. Then she closed her eyes and listened.
Jane had spent hours training to fight in complete darkness. Sir Theodore had insisted on it. She had spent many moonless nights sparring with Gunther in the training yard, sometimes in blindfolds.
‘Listen with your full attention,’ Sir Theodore had urged them. ‘One day, in the midst of battle, the sun will be in your eyes, or the sweat of your brow will run like salt water and render you as good as blind. Listen to the air a staff makes as it sweeps an arc towards you. Listen to the footfalls of your enemy as he positions his body for the strike. One day your ears will save you. Respect what they can do!’
Jane kept her eyes closed and listened now. Robert was a yard from her, his breathing steady. He wasn’t moving. She waited a little longer, then opened her eyes.
‘Ah! Wormlight!’ Jane had seen the light of glowworms and fireflies before, but never in such quantity. A delicate green glow surrounded them on all sides.
‘The glow becomes brighter the further down we climb,’ said Robert. ‘The floor drops away over here, it leads to a natural corridor and a much larger cave. Follow me and watch your head, there are spikes of rock that protrude down like spears.’ He pointed ahead to a cluster of stalactites
‘They hang in caves above the castle too,’ Jane reached out and touched the tip of one as they walked past it. ‘Other’s push up from the cave floor. Dragon calls them dragon’s teeth. He believes they were carved by an ancient people who worshipped dragons.’
‘Welcome to my challenge, Robert. I have befriended a giant green dragon who has a giant green opinion of himself.’ Jane followed Robert down the steep passageway. In places, the stalactites were so long, they had met their upward pointing counterparts, fusing with the stalagmites into rock pillars. Everywhere Jane looked, the tunnel walls sparkled with the same green worm light.
‘Beautiful, don’t you think?’ said Robert, as if he was reading her thoughts. Jane admitted that it was.
‘Dragon would think so too, given the colour, though he could never squeeze his way into these chambers to see it. I might bring Princess Lavinia here one day, should the queen permit her to venture from the castle grounds.’
The tunnel dipped, narrowed, and then opened up into a much larger cave. The green glow from the walls became a far-off haze, too distant to throw their soft light onto Robert’s back.
‘Stay as you are for a moment,’ said Robert, his voice sounded three paces ahead of her. ‘I have a firestone ready.’
‘Has this been your camp site?’
‘Yes. For some weeks. I have a hearth ready with dry wood and tinder fungus.’ A spark lit the darkness, a brief streak of white, then another, as Robert struck a flint with his ironstone. Moments later the tinder caught alight. Jane could see Robert’s face again. He was on his knees, blowing the soft red flame into life. Smoke curled from the dry sticks and soon a small fire was crackling within a hearth of stones.
The light flickered, setting shadows to dance across the walls. Jane looked about. The space was more like a jagged cut than a cave, as if a giant axe had cleaved its way down through the rock. A few stalagmites poked up from the floor, but they were broken off like the stumps of giant teeth. Jane used one as a backrest as she sat on the ground close to the fire. Despite the heat of the day outside, the air in the cave was cold.
‘This would make a fine storeroom for cheese,’ she laughed.
‘Cheese?’ Robert raised an eyebrow. Jane told him of her stop at Three Sister’s Farm and the problem she needed to resolve.
‘Quite a performance, Jane.’
‘Moving the bats?’
‘No,’ Robert raised his arms and spread them wide to indicate the cave. ‘Your inspection of this cave. Your mouth is blurting out a diverting enough story, but all the while your eyes are taking stock of every square inch of this space. Did Sir Theodore teach you this?’
‘He taught me a great many thing.’
‘Has he taught you all he knows about dragons?’
‘I believe so.’
‘I doubt that.’ Robert turned and studied Jane’s face. She sighed and made no reply. Nothing provoked her more than this manner of bating. Gunther did it all the time, dropping cryptic little comments designed to provoke her into an argument. Perhaps she should thank him when she returned to the castle, he’d done it so often that Jane was a master the best response. Silence.
‘My apologies, Jane. It’s not my intent to irritate you.’
‘Then speak plainly, Robert?’
‘Very well. Has Sir Theodore told you of the blood pledge he made to an old colleague many years ago? A pledge concerning a dragon? Has he told you the real reason he came to work for the King’s father all those years ago? Has he told you the reason for the long siege the royal family endured? Has he told you it was all for a book, a book the invaders were seeking? Has he told you this book is the life’s work of King Bartok, your famous scholar King, a book that is believed to be the most complete discussion on the truth about dragons, a book so valuable that King Bartok hid it deep in the catacombs during those wilderness years? Has Sir Theodore told you all this, and why he wants that book for himself?’
Jane forced herself to turn away and stare at the fire. Robert’s eyes had been locked on her face as he’d thrown each question at her like a rain of barbed spears. She’d held his gaze as he spoke, trying as best she could to mask her shock and confusion, only turning to look at the flames when he’d fallen silent.
She took a deep, slow breath to calm herself. Pestilence! This man, this complete stranger, had played her quite brilliantly! Without drawing a blade, he had punctured her composure with a flurry of tiny jabs, each one striking home and forcing the wind out of her.
Idiot! She knew, beyond doubt, that if Robert attacked now, he would have the upper hand. Idiot, idiot! She sat as still as a rock, watching him from the corner of her eyes as she pressed her hands to the ground, pressing to build the leverage she needed to push herself up and launch into combat.