“This is the back entrance,” explained Quilll, sounding apologetic as we filed in. “This passage leads to the main hall, and this to the left to the kitchens and larders. We can block the door behind us and turn the horses loose in the main hall—it’s grassy now and there is an old fountain we can fill for them from the well in the courtyard behind you.” He gestured broadly and led the way left toward the kitchen.
There was plenty of rubble around, and not much roof to cast shade even with the sun going down. But the hallway was passable and the six Galhari followed Quill while Jemin took the reins of the horses and headed for the main hall.
The house had been splendid once. Little bits of the carved trim remained on the walls, hinting at the taste and wealth of the former owners. The kitchen Quill led us to was huge and still had most of its ceiling. He kept going into what was clearly a sizeable pantry–sunken a few steps into the ground and lined with shelves that still held dusty jugs and jars. At first I thought he was looking for food, but he went straight to the back and pushed on a stone in the wall. With a soft clunk the wall swung open like a door on hinges, revealing another passageway leading down.
“Follow me, we can rest in here,” Quill trotted down the steps familiarly and we followed.
“What better place for a secret room than with easy access to the pantry,” commented Ayglos when we’d reached the bottom.
“I believe the first lord intended it for a wine cellar,” Quill replied. “Then a later lord decided this one was far too small.”
“Too small?” I marveled. The room was plenty long, most of it was dark but there were slits in the walls near the ceiling that allowed daylight and fresh air inside. It appeared that the cellar had been used to store excess furniture, but only half-heartedly as the room was by no means full. There were chairs in stacks against one walls, a thin table, a bookshelf and a pair of wardrobes. Quill was rummaging in a corner and produced some candles and a lamp. Ayglos helped him light them while we looked for places to spread our beds.
“No one comes close to this villa, by order of the Nether Queen.” Quill hung the lamp from a hook on the inside wall. “But it is still safer down here than in the main house—warmer, also, and drier.”
“Why this villa?” I asked.
“The owner was one of her staunchest opponents during the war with Dalyn. They say that he killed one of her favorite commanders and nearly reached her in one of the last battles of the war. She didn’t forget. This place is an example of what happens to her enemies.” Quill’s voice sounded husky, but he turned back toward the stairs before I could ask more questions, “There are one or two others she destroyed to make a point, but this is the only one that she forbade to be rebuilt.” Pausing at the foot of the stairs, he turned back and bowed, not meeting my eyes, “If you excuse me, I will see what I can do about water.”
I thought about following him to find out more; why did he know his place, to whom did it belong, had he truly been overcome with emotion just then? I decided that following would be too forward. I might ask Jemin, though.
Quill wasn’t gone long, but when he returned with Jemin we had quite a bit done. Ayglos and Namal had found eight serviceable chairs and set them around the thin little table. Nadine and I had spread the bedrolls deeper in the room, then with help dragged the wardrobes out a little to block view of the bedrolls from the stair—just a little more protection.
“You’ve been busy,” said Quill with a smile. He lofted a large, chipped, pitcher with one hand and pushed the hidden door closed with the other. Jemin was already lumbering down the stairs carrying a full bucket in one hand an empty basin in the other.
Ayglos and I met Jemin at the bottom of the stairs, Ayglos insisted on taking the bucket of water and I snatched the basin out of his other hand before he could protest.
“Thank you,” said Jemin, obviously feeling awkward.
I smiled at him, “You’ve done quite a lot for us, we’re grateful too.”
Quill reached the bottom of the stairs and Jemin reached out a hand for Quill’s pitcher, as if he wasn’t sure how to walk into the room without carrying something. Quill handed the pitcher over, and then I noticed that he had a sowers bag slung over his shoulder, and it was bulging and heavy.
“What do you have?” I asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
Quill grinned. “Come see.”
He led the way to the table, where Ayglos had already set down the bucket, and hoisted his bag onto the table. It thunked heavily. He reached in and fished out a glass jar full of something dark.
“Preserves!” exclaimed Nadine.
“Are they still good?” asked Namal.
“We’ll find out,” replied Quill, unloading the rest of the jars onto the table.
Everyone took turns cleaning up with the pitcher and basin while Quill and Jemin gathered our food supplies and set about opening the jars. Jemin announced his success cheerfully, “Raspberry preserves!” He sniffed the contents and grinned. “Still as wonderful as the day they were jarred.”
Raspberry preserves improve almost everything they touch—even waybread. We crunched on our sweetened fare while the sun set and darkness enfolded the ruin and our hiding place. We swapped stories about the past two weeks and I lent Nadine and Mother Boitumelo’s satchel to treat Father’s injuries. Or try to. Then, finally, we slept. For the first time in two long, harrowing weeks, we were together and safe.