1 - WARDWICK OF HUROG
Hurog means dragon.
Breathing heavily from the climb, I sat upon the ancient bronze doors some long-distant ancestor had placed flat into the highest face of the mountain. The doors were huge, each as wide as I was tall and twice that in length. Because the ground was angled, the tops of the doors were higher by several feet than the bottoms. On each door, worn by years of harsh northern weather, a bas-relief bronze dragon kept watch over the valley below.
Below me, Hurog Keep perched on its man-made eyrie. The ancient fortress's dark stone walls rose protectively around the keep, formidable still, though there was little chance of enemy attack now. By the standards of the Five Kingdoms, Hurog was only a small keep, barely able to support itself from the meager harvest the north climate and rocky soils allowed. But from the sea harbor visible in the east to the bald-topped mountain in the west, the land belonged to Hurog. Like most keeps in Shavig, northernmost of the Five Kingdoms of the Tallvenish High King, Hurog was greater in land than wealth.
It was my legacy, passed father to son, like my blond hair and large size.
In the old tongue, Hurog meant dragon.
Impulsively, I rose to my feet and opened my crippled mind so I could feel Hurog's magic gathered around me, pulsing through my veins as I roared out the Hurog battle cry.
Mine, if my father didn't kill me first.
"He'll kill us." My cousin Erdrick's voice, though hushed, came from the river side of the trail.
The willows were so thick between the trail I followed and the river, he couldn't see me any more than I could see him. I was tempted to walk on. My cousin and I were not friendly, but the nagging certainty that I was the "he" to whom my cousin referred gave me pause.
"It's not my fault, Erdrick." Beckram, Erdrick's twin, spoke soothingly. "You saw her. She took off like a startled rabbit."
They'd been teasing my sister again. Erdrick might be right; I might just kill them this time.
"Next time, don't tease a girl whose brother's the size of an ox."
"Good thing he's got the brains to match," Beckram said serenely. "Come on, let's get out of here. She'll show up safe and sound."
"He'll know it was us," predicted Erdrick with his customary gloom.
"How? She can't tell him."
My sister was mute from birth.
"She can point, can't she? I tell you, he'll kill us!"
Time to catch them and find out what they'd done. I took a deep breath and concentrated on looking like a stupid ox instead of a vengeful brother before I crashed through the brush to the riverbank where the keep sewer emptied into the river. With my size and features, no one expected me to be intelligent. I'd taken that and played on it. Stupid Wardwick was no threat to his father's position.
They might be twenty to my nineteen, but I was a head taller than either and three stone heavier. I'd been out hunting, so my crossbow hung over my shoulder, and my hunting knife was in my belt. They were unarmed. Not that I intended to use a weapon on them. Really.
My hands worked just fine.
"Who will kill you?" I asked, untangling myself from a branch that had caught my shirt as I'd plowed through the bushes.
Struck dumb, Erdrick just stared at me in mute horror. Beckram was made of sterner stuff. His mobile face curved in a charming smile as if he were glad to see me there.
"Ward. Good morning, cousin. You've been out hunting? Any luck?"
"No," I replied.
From their light-chestnut hair, handsome features, and dark complexions to their peculiar purple blue (Hurog blue) eyes, they were virtually identical in appearance, though not in spirit. Beckram was bold and charismatic, leaving Erdrick forever Beckram's hand-wringing shadow.
I looked at the river, the trees, the keep's sewer outlet. When my eyes crossed the last, Erdrick drew in a loud breath, so I looked closer. The grate, which kept out wandering wildlife, was loose, leaving a narrow gap. A small foot had sunk ankle deep in the mud by the tunnel entrance.
I walked over to the grate and stared at it awhile. Erdrick quivered with tension. I reached up and wiggled the grate, and it slipped back easily. The gap widened into a passageway large enough for my small sister to sneak into.
After a long pause, I turned to Beckram. "Did Ciarra go in here? That was her footprint."
He turned over several answers in his head before he said, "We think so. We were just going to look for her."
"Ciarra!" I yelled down the tunnel. "Brat, come out!"
I used my pet name for her, in case the tunnel's acoustics distorted my voice. I was the only one who called her Brat. My bellow echoed in the tunnel's depths like a dragon's roar. There was no reply, but, of course, Ciarra couldn't make one.
I didn't need the muddy tracks inside to tell me that she was in there somewhere. The only thing left of my childhood gift of magic - other than a few minor tricks - was a talent for finding things. Ciarra was in there somewhere; I could feel her. I looked up at the sun. If she was late to dinner, the Hurogmeten, our father, would beat her. I took off the pack that carried my bolts and a bit of lunch.
"What'd you do to her?" I asked.
"I tried to stop her. I told her it was dangerous in there," pleaded Erdrick before Beckram could stop him.
"Ah?" I straightened and took a step nearer to Beckram.
"She's a silly chicken," sputtered Beckram, finally losing his nerve and backing away. "I wasn't going to hurt her. Just a little harmless flirting."
I hit him. If I'd wanted to, I could have killed him or broken his jaw. Instead, I pulled my punch and gave him the start of a beautiful black eye. It dazed him long enough for me to turn my attention to Erdrick.
"Really, Ward, all he did was tell her he liked her hair," he said.
I continued to stare at him.
Finally, Erdrick squirmed and muttered, "But you know how he is; it's not what he says, it's how. She took off like a startled doe and charged out the gates. We followed because it isn't safe out here for a girl alone."
Erdrick might be an irritating weakling, but he was usually truthful. There weren't any rats or insects in the sewer - some magic of the dwarves who built it, though my brother Tosten had populated it with all kinds of monsters in his stories.
The opening the Brat had slipped through was nowhere near large enough for me. I pulled hard, but the grate only creaked.
"You won't fit," predicted Beckram, sitting up and touching his eye delicately. He must be feeling guilty, or he'd have tried to hit me back. A bully he might be, but Beckram was no coward. "Neither Erdrick nor I could. She'll come out when she's ready."
It was almost time for dinner now. I couldn't bear it when Father hit her. Wouldn't bear it again, and it was too soon for that. I wasn't good enough to defeat him yet. I stripped out of my thick leather tunic and set it down with my hunting gear.
"Take my things to the keep," I said and took a good grip on the grate and pulled. There was an easier way, of course, but an idiot wouldn't think of it. I had to continue struggling until my cousins were gone or Beckram lost patience...
"Take out the linchpin, then we can pull the damn thing off," muttered Beckram. I was right; he was really feeling guilty.
"Linchpin?" I asked. I stepped back to look at the grate better, carefully not looking at the single heavy hinge.
"The bolt holding the hinge together," sighed Erdrick.
"Ah." I stared at the hinge for a good long time before Erdrick took his knife out and worked the thick old pin out of the hinges. He ruined his knife doing it.
With the linchpin gone, the iron grate popped out of the hinge, and I lifted it away from the opening.
"Damn," swore Beckram softly as I moved the grate and propped it up near the opening.
The grate was heavy. If I hadn't been trying to impress my cousins, I'd have asked for help. As it was, Beckram might remember this when he thought about scaring the Brat again.
This near the river, the tunnel was mushroom shaped, with walks on either side of a deep, narrow ditch that ran sluggishly with sewer water. The walkways were meant for dwarves, not hulking brutes who towered over most grown men. With a sigh, I dropped to my hands and knees and began crawling through the foul-smelling muck.
"Brat!" I shouted, but the sound just dampened in the mossy growth that covered the walls.
The tunnel took a bend that obscured the last of the daylight. In front of me, on both sides of the wall, dwarvenstones lit themselves as I approached, illuminating the tunnel with pale blue light. Most keeps didn't have sewers anymore, not even the high king's new palace at Estian. Stonework on that scale had been the dwarves' domain, and they were gone now, taking their secrets with them.
The sewer tunnel narrowed to a large tube, and I knew the outer walls of the keep were above and just in front of me. Not that I'd explored the sewers much, but there were copies of the ancient plans in the library, buried where few bothered to look. At any rate, the sewer tunnel narrowed by two-thirds so an invading army would not be able to use the sewer to undermine the walls. Not even a child could swing a pick or shovel in the narrow stone confines.
Sweat gathered on my forehead from the effort of keeping track of Ciarra through magic. I seldom used magic because it made me remember how it was to do more, but for Ciarra, alone and maybe frightened, I was grateful for what little I had left.
I crawled forward into the narrow section, trying not to think about what was in the muck I'd just set my hand in. On the bright side, my nose was showing signs of self-defense because the odors were less overwhelming.
There were dwarvenstones in the smaller tunnel, too.
They weren't bright enough to allow me to see what I was crawling through, but that was just as well. Ciarra was getting farther away from me now, but she was a lot smaller and wouldn't be as hampered by the size of the tunnel.
As the eldest, I'd always looked after my brother and sister. Tosten was two years safely gone from Hurog. But since Ciarra was both adventurous and mute, her safety was a constant undertaking. Ciarra was supposed to be helping Mother today. But I knew Mother. And I knew Ciarra, too. With my uncle and cousins here, I should have stayed home, but the mountains had called to me.
We were bound to be late for dinner now, unless Father's hunting party took longer than usual. But at least with both of us equal miscreants, my father would concentrate on me instead of Ciarra. The tunnel narrowed and branched, making me rue the three fingers' height I'd gained already this summer as I scrunched into the cleaner and smaller of the two tunnels. I could see dwarvenstones shining down it where someone had activated them, while the other one, the bigger one, was dark ahead. Trust the Brat to choose the smallest way.
I scuttled ahead, fighting the feeling that the walls were collapsing. After I was well in, the tunnel tilted dramatically upward for a few body lengths before starting downward nearly as steeply. I hit my head on a low spot and stopped to think a minute. I might not be a dwarf, but I knew the sewers worked because water flowed downhill.
This tunnel had been designed to keep water out of it rather than let the water flow to the river. I closed my eyes and tried to envision what the map had indicated, but I'd found it months ago. And beyond noting a few interesting features, I hadn't given it much attention. How was I supposed to guess my sister would choose to run around the sewer tunnels?
I rubbed my head and decided that this must be an escape tunnel. All the old castles had them, a legacy from a day when Hurog, rich with dwarven trade, had been worth besieging. I was still considering it when Ciarra went from being not too distant from me to being somewhere far below. I stopped breathing.
She must have fallen, I thought as I frantically scrambled forward, perhaps through a trapdoor intended to keep besiegers from following some long-ago ancestor as he fled his attackers through this tunnel. Gods, oh gods, my little sister.
I scrambled forward like a frog, pushing with my legs and reaching out with my hands in the awkward fashion I'd had to adopt in the small tunnel, all the while thinking, It's too far down. She's fallen too far.
One moment I was scuttling along, and the next I couldn't so much as blink my eyes. My face went numb, and magic flooded around me. Underneath my hand, the smooth stone of the tunnel began to glow red and green, brighter by far than the faint light of dwarvenstone. It was so bright that after a moment I had to close my watering eyes against the intensity. That's why I had no warning when the floor of the tunnel disappeared out from under me and I fell.
The magic left me lying flat on my stomach in utter blackness. I pushed up, but the ceiling had closed above me, leaving me barely enough room to lift my head off the ground. My hands were trapped underneath me and, though I pulled and wiggled, I couldn't get them out. I panicked and fought ferociously against the stone walls cocooning me. I cried out like one of the silly maids, but there was no one to hear.
The thought stopped my useless struggling. If anyone had heard me, my father would have seen to it that I spent a lot more time trapped in darkness. Men don't panic, don't cry, don't grieve.
But I did. I blinked back my tears, but my nose dripped. I'd lost contact with Ciarra when the spell hit me. I looked for her again, hoping she'd been caught in the same spell that had held me, but she was still deeper. She wasn't moving. I had to get to her.
The tunnel was far smaller than the one I'd been crawling through. In my thrashing (well, I'd tried to thrash, anyway) panic, I'd established that the ceiling was as solid as it felt, no matter that I had just fallen through it. There was something blocking the way behind me, but cool, fresh air blew by my flushed face, so I could probably go forward if I could get my hands out from under my body where they were trapped.