20-The Cistern

 

It took two tries and a great deal of straining for Jemin to wrench the grate off the wall. He burst back to the surface gasping for breath. I waited to make sure he was alright. He puffed for a minute and then settled into treading water. “Be careful. Don’t be cocky—just see what you can and get out. It does us no good if they catch you, too. I will gather what I can about sentry movements and I will meet you in that alley over there.” He gestured back toward the alley we’d come down to get here.

I nodded. Thrills of excitement and fear coursed through me as I filled my lungs with air and dove down to the ravaged grate.

Jemin hadn’t ripped the grate off entirely so I had to maneuver to slip through the awkward gap. The tunnel was very dark and I swam with one hand outstretched wishing for a glowfish to light the way. Not that there would be anything to see—there was only blackness and the hollow, muted sound of water pushing through the tunnel. I touched the wall once or twice, it was smooth from the constant caress of the Tryber. The tunnel remained lazy and straight for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly I realized I should have started counting the moment I entered the tunnel. I could hold my breath at least an hour after the manner of the nymph kind, but I could also drown if this tunnel were somehow longer than that.  It couldn’t be, though, if it stayed straight and the Tryber had told the truth about the cisterns. I swam forward at an even pace trying not to fret.

There was a soft yellow light ahead and I noticed the water no longer filled the tunnel. Then the water became faster, louder and dirtier. The light grew stronger and more yellow until I came to another grate, more delicately made than the first, and filthy. The river water poured through this grate, and then an even finer grate after that. Beyond that I saw a screen. I had arrived at the garrison cistern. Apparently, they tried to filter the Tryber’s grubbiness away before drinking it. I regarded the grate, wondering how long the tunnel had been and if I could get Jemin down here. If I could, how much noise would we make ripping the grates off the wall?

I was not about to let a few sieves prevent me from rescuing my family. I touched the grate—I couldn’t fit my fingers through the holes on this one but I could sort of get a grip on the slimy metal squares. I rattled it cautiously. To my surprise the grate wobbled freely like it was sitting in a track. I tried pushing up and down, and the grate choked, caught, but then slid up and down. They were probably meant to be cleaned, or changed, to keep the water flowing uninhibited into the cistern.

I pushed the grate up and then slipped through underneath. I closed it behind me and tried the next one. It, too, moved on a track—though clearly not very often. I made it past this one and came to the screen at the end of the tunnel. It was smothered in river silt and the water only covered the bottom half. I surfaced and cautiously wiped some of the silt away so I could see into the cistern. Gillenwater had been a very prosperous city once, and the cistern showed that. It was a large room. The stone walls reached high and pillars stood at intervals down the center holding up the stone ceiling. In smaller holdings, a cistern was often just a giant hole. The soft light I’d seen was from a torch ensconced on a landing above the water line. The landing was lined with clay jars and crowned with stairs leading out of the cistern. Seeing no one, I pushed on the screen. It was by far the easiest to move on its track. Ducking underwater again I closed the screen behind me and swam into the cistern.

I approached the landing watchfully. All was quiet, so I drew myself out of the water. I crouched on the landing for a moment, my heart pounding as I listened for movement above. Hearing nothing, I straightened and moved forward to get a look up the stairs. Above, I could see a hallway and another lit torch. The entrance to the cistern was indoors. This information didn’t seem worth the trouble of swimming in unless I found out exactly where this cistern was in relationship to wherever they were holding my family. Resolve quieted my heart. Jemin probably wouldn’t be pleased, but as long as I didn’t get caught we’d be in a much better position.

Stepping back to the edge I squeezed the river water from my clothes as well as I could. There was a solid chance that the garrison had servant girls—and I was willing to bet the girls didn’t have uniforms. I might blend in with my ragged homespun, wet though it was. As an afterthought I picked up one of the jars and scooped water out of the cistern. I could roam the place with purpose.

Taking a deep breath, I muttered, “‘Never been important or the center of attention, ever,’” and then walked up the stairs.

At the top I followed the hallway to the left. Torches flickered at intervals but otherwise everything was quiet. Given the late hour, I didn’t expect many people to be about. Every time I reached a junction I hesitated and peered down the hallway trying to discern what was down there. Mostly living quarters, as best as I could tell. Hall upon hall of bedrooms for fighting men. Once I saw someone walking down the hall toward me—he was looking at the floor and moved tiredly. He entered one of the rooms without so much as a glance in my direction. Getting off patrol duty?

I kept going, moving as quickly as I could while carrying the jug. At the next hallway I heard men’s voices. I paused before reaching the gap and listened. They were moving away from me. I strained to hear them.

“…new girls…yet…red-headed…”

“…fine creature…”

My heart strangled. Olena…they had to be talking about Olena. How many red-headed girls could there be in this garrison? I slipped around the corner with my jug. There were two men far down the hallway, walking away from me still and nearing the end. I started after them, careful to keep my footfalls silent. They were laughing, and it sounded harsh in the quiet of the night.

At the end of the hall they stopped and one of them started fumbling with a locked door. I slowed, but kept coming, mentally chanting “Never been important or the center of attention, ever,” and willing them not to notice a lowly servant on an errand.

They laughed again at some joke I had drowned with my inner chant. I was quite close now. The door opened and one of the soldiers entered the room, the other leaned on the doorjamb, “Pick one for me, too.”

I heard a woman’s yelp, followed a chorus of wails. I had found the circus women.

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