A figure loomed above me, black against the lamplight. I stiffened, then I recognized Ayglos and bleated in relief. I went limp as he grasped Khattmali’s shoulders with bloodied hands and pulled her off me. He crouched by my side, “Are you alright?”
“I don’t know,” I groaned. Since I wasn’t dead, I decided to try pushing my arms under me and sitting up. My right arm protested, and my chest seized a little…but I sat up.
His hands went to my arm, gleaming with blood, and then he gingerly touched the gash in my breastplate and whistled. “That blow would have felled a boar.”
Craning my head down, I could see the ravaged leather. And beneath…shining silver links caught the lamplight. The links were damaged, but not sundered. I touched the gash. I’d gotten used to the weight of my chain link armor and had forgotten about it. I drew a deep breath. Dear Heaven, breathing hurt. But it wasn’t the same sort of pain as the pain from my broken ribs. It was more radiating than stabbing. I turned to him. “What about you?”
He grimaced. “That fight was a long time coming. I’m fine.”
I looked him over; in the lamplight, I could see the blood slicking his shoulder, and over his armor. It didn’t appear to all be his—couldn’t all be his. “You look terrifying.”
I looked over at Khattmali, tumbled where Ayglos had left her. “Is she dead?”
Ayglos crawled forward and put his fingers to her neck. After a moment he said, “Yes,” and crawled back to me. The Ambassador who’d killed and imprisoned the nymphs of the Bandui was dead. The irrational, slinking, terror that had filled the passages was gone, leaving nothing but quiet in its wake.
We scooted to lean our backs against the wall, the space so narrow Ayglos’s knees bent to fit, and his feet propped against the opposite wall.
“I don’t like Huntsmen,” I said after a moment.
Ayglos coughed a laugh. “I’m sure they don’t like you either.”
In silence we took inventory of our bruises. It was a small victory. But it was a victory. I waited for pain, or joy, or perhaps sorrow…now that the deed was done, and the lightning had ebbed from my body. Instead of emotion, I became acutely aware that we were still in the palace and needed to get out. Now.
I grunted, “We should go,” and shifted to crawl across the passage and pick up Shiharr and Azzad from where they’d fallen. I wiped them clean before sheathing them on my back.
Ayglos was also moving carefully as he gathered his feet under him and walked to retrieve the lamp. When he reached the lamp, he froze, head cocked and one hand raised to signal a halt.
I was on my knees still but obeyed, holding my breath to listen. There were footsteps running toward us…from the direction our friends had gone. Ayglos doused the lamp and I bit back a curse as total darkness enveloped us. The footsteps slowed to a cautious pace and got very, very quiet.
Aching, I got to my feet. There was no light at all in these tunnels. I drew a knife from my thigh and edged along the wall, wincing when I came to the Huntsman’s corpse, his sword still wedged in the wall right at head height. I ducked under the sword, right at the crossroads, with Ayglos only steps away.
“Zare?” The voice was right beside me.
I jumped straight up, and narrowly stopped my hand mid-strike. “Quill!”
“You’re alive!” his voice had the gasp of relief.
“You gave me a heart attack,” I replied, sheathing the knife. “Why are you back here?”
He snorted. “Needful heroism aside, Namal would kill me if I left you two behind. Even if you did try to get left behind.” The last few words had a bite that made me blink.
“Are you…angry with me?” I asked.
“Even if you were obvious about trying to sneak off, you should have said something.”
“Wouldn’t you have just tried to stop us?”
A match fizzed to life as Ayglos re-lit the lamp.
Golden light again illuminated our pale faces, Quill looking straight at me, eyes burning with fury. He’d certainly processed his relief quickly. “Holy heaven, no! I know what needed to be done. But you don’t leave without saying something. Even if–especially if–you think you’ll die.”
“You would have let us go?” I asked again, sharply. “You wouldn’t have argued or tried to go in my place?”
The fire in his eyes flickered, but he growled. “You don’t leave your unit ignorant they’ve lost their rear guard, you don’t leave your friends wondering what happened to you.”
Ayglos broke in, “You’re right, we’re sorry.” He looked between us, his expression firm. “I’m glad you came to get us.”
Then I noticed that Quill’s clothes were spattered with blood, and he was holding a long talon shaped knife that was dripping red. “What happened?” I demanded, cold fear shooting through me.
“Met some soldiers on my way back to get you.”
Ayglos whistled. “That could have been more exciting than I would have liked. Again, thank you.”
Quill had the good grace to tip his head in acknowledgement before looking us over critically. He noted the jagged hole in my breastplate, and then looked at the corpses past us. “Is that…a woman?” he asked.
I glanced back, “Khattmali.”
Quill paused, obviously collecting all the questions he wanted to ask and putting them somewhere safe to bring out later. “We should go.” He turned to leave, offering his free hand to me. “You can douse the lamp again, I know the way and I would rather not broadcast our presence.”
I took Quill’s hand and offered my other to Ayglos. My brother again killed the light, finding my hand in the darkness as we already started to move. I could still feel Quill’s anger simmering off him as we moved through the tunnels. I wanted to talk to him, to explain, to justify, to argue. Then I thought of the blood covering all of us, and instead squeezed his hand in silent apology. His fingers tightened in response.
Quill led us quickly, and silently, stopping only once or twice to listen. The only noise we made was when we tripped over the bodies of the men he’d killed. I had no notion of where we were in the palace, and thought ruefully that Ayglos and I would never have found our way if Quill hadn’t come back for us. Eventually, Quill stopped and let go of my hand. I heard a clank and the sound of a heavy door swinging. Quill’s fingers closed around mine again and we stepped through the door, he turned back to close the door and I heard the grind of a lock. This passage was colder than the other and felt damp. Our breaths bounced off the walls and echoed back at us. Here, everything was stone. The floor dropped in a smooth, steep descent, that had us shuffling our feet for fear of slipping before it leveled off. I heard water dripping somewhere. The sounds bouncing around us changed, and I guessed that the passage had widened into a proper cavern. I couldn’t sense the walls close beside us any longer, and Quill moved more slowly.
Pausing, Quill crouched and tapped his knife on the rocks, the same little knocking pattern that opened the King’s secret door. I fully expected the rumble of moving rock, but instead there was an answering tap from somewhere ahead and to the left. Quill adjusted his course and I stumbled as my foot caught on the uneven floor. The tap sounded again, much closer this time. The walls were getting close, not because the cavern was shrinking but because we were heading into a small corner of it.
“Stop!” a voice hissed from the darkness ahead.
I froze, sensing Ayglos go rigid behind me, and Quill said, “Lord Rakov?”
“Quilleran, you return. Were you successful?”
“I have them.”
“Good, come ahead—careful, it’s narrow.”
Quill led us forward. He grunted in pain, “You aren’t kidding.”
“Sorry,” Rakov’s voice floated ahead of us, “The door is very heavy, we didn’t open it far.”
“Watch your feet,” muttered Quill. I felt him swivel ahead of me and I copied his movement best I could. I sensed stone at my back and leaned into it, shuffling gingerly until my boots bumped the threshold and I could step up and wiggle through the narrow opening. I would have been more graceful if my hands weren’t monopolized holding onto Quill and Ayglos. Once Ayglos cleared the door I heard Rakov say, “Watch yourselves.” Then a slow grind rumbled behind us and the distinct sound of a lock thunking into place. This space was significantly smaller than the cavern on the other side of the door. The air was colder and more fresh.
Rakov moved around us, I felt him brush against my shoulder in the cramped space. “The others are this way, a little closer to the cave mouth.”
Ten more steps, then we stopped again, and I noticed new smells: dirt, straw, and possibly animal scat.
“They’re back,” said Rakov.
Movement, shifting clothes and the faint clink of armor. Trinh’s voice came from the left, and low, “Good. We should get moving. Only a few hours before dawn.”