Story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann
Yeul woke. The memory of a sudden flash of light was still etched into his vision. Something was wrong.
More than a week had passed since the Matriarch had declined the Empire’s ultimatum. A week of tracking enemy movement and planning their own, of skirmishes on Hayrenik’s walls and secret operations in the night, a week of black armoured guards following him like a shadow. A dire premonition appeared in his mind, but he could not attach a name to it, no matter how hard he tried. The fortress would not fall through cannon fire and siege towers.
He called for Guardswoman Demir, but the dark warrior was already alert, grabbing her Helmet and shield while rushing to the door. The inner castle was in turmoil. Armoured feet rattled through the hallways, artillery fired continuously. The western tower was on fire. The sound of clashing blades rang out from the courtyard. Someone shouted from the battlements. Something exploded inside the walls.
The castle was already in chaos, yet nobody had woken him. There was another explosion. He started to run. He passed the castles greatest trebuchet, which was lying in a heap of splintered wooden beams and burst metal plates.
When he arrived in the courtyard the fighting was over. The matriarch was lying on the ground, breathing heavily, shielded by the Black Kommandān and his Guard. Satu was by her side.
“They are in!” She rasped. Her trembling hand pointed at the man shouting from the battlements. Her other arm was gone, replaced by tight bandages with blood already seeping through. “We have been betrayed! Elçin has sold us to the Empire.” Yeul knelt next to her; rage welling up inside him, anger at himself.
Elçin. Just a boy when he had been taken to the empire as a price for a brittle peace and still young when the Matriarch had ordered her strategist to bring her people’s children back. Elçin had seemed so at home in the ancient halls of Hayrenik. He had followed Yeul everywhere, had all but begged him to be taken as his squire. Had he been a spy even back then, hiding behind a child’s innocence? Or had treason germinated in him like mold in a damp wall as he grew into a man? He swallowed the remorse that clotted his throat. “What do you need me to do?”
She glared at him. “I need you control yourself! You are no use if you act rashly!”
He took a breath, taking in the smell of smoke, blood, and the damp stone beneath his feet. He couldn’t read Satu, who was holding the Matriarchs’s remaining arm, but he noticed the fear in Parvena Demir’s face, something she had never allowed to surface before. There was anger but also dread in the faces around him. He sealed his own fury beneath ice and asked again: “Do you need me to take control of the Situation?”
“I need you” the matriarch hissed: “To vanish! They are murdering my people. I cannot stop them. You cannot stop them.” She took a deep, rattling breath. “I am going to hand them my crown at first light today. They are going to spare most of the Klan. They are not going to spare you.” She let her head fall back, spoke without looking at him: “Leave now! This is all I can do for you.”
He was frozen in place, unable to tear his eyes from the ruined woman even he had believed unbreakable. “Go!” The Matriarch barked at him, but he didn’t hear. Guardswoman Demir next to him shook her head. “We cannot,” She lamented: “Abandon you. We cannot turn our back to our people.”
“I will stay by your side and face the end.” He told her. “If the morning brings my death, so be it. But until then I will make their victory as hard a prize as I am able to.” He rose: “Night Komandān Tural! How is the situation at the Gate? Gather all that is left of the outer defences! Ailar Komandān Günay, you are in charge of putting the fires out. Vērten Komandān Tarana, your people man the remaining trebuchets. Throw them off the outer wall.”
“Elçin has used all his knowledge for them.” Matriarch hissed at him, “He learned well and he learned from the best. I order you to leave.” He ignored her, listened to the Demir Komandān instead.
“Someone” The Matiarch shouted. “Make him leave. I do not wish him to die for my mistake.” I should have seen his heart, his mind raced. He could see the Traitor on the Wall. Someone grabbed his arm. Satu was standing next to him now, his expression blank. “I am sorry” he mouthed as Yeul felt his limbs go numb as if he was being held by spider webs. He had no power left when Satu pulled him away from the matriarch, away from the crowd. Parvena Demir stared at them, baffled, taking a few uncertain steps after them, and then looking back. “Even if we run, we cannot get out,” he mouthed to the healer next to him. “It was Elçin who blocked the northern path. It must have been him from the start.” “We have to try.” Satu refuted. “We are few, so maybe we can slip past them.
“There is a way”, Parvena cried out from behind them, prompting even Satu to turn around in surprise. “The Lady Aglaya told me about it last night. She should be able to guide us”
A young noblewoman kneeling next to the matriarch looked up. He had seen her during the siege, always close to his Guard. She had picked up a crossbow somewhere in the battle; her well-made quilted armour was stained and torn by now. She had lost her helmet.
“Is that true?” The matriarch demanded to know. “I will get them out.” The lady nodded, shaking. “Aglaya,” muttered the ruined ruler, doubt in her eyes. But the girl spoke with certainty: “I know a way. I will lead them out safely, this I swear.”
“Then go with my blessing.” The Matriarch replied, her voice tiring: “I have nothing to give you for your journey save that you already take with you. Yeul’s live is now in your hands.”
The lady bowed in to the matriarch, and then turned towards him. Her face was somewhat wild; with eyes that where almost scary. Eyes that told him “Follow me.” Eyes that did not allow for a debate. Satu was standing close behind her. “Demir.”He uttered: “We retreat.” The Black Guardswoman nodded, and it was a deadly blow, like the final breath. People made way for them, and they exited through their midst like a funeral procession.
“Yeul Sarvirakan died in the collapse of the western tower.” The matriarch announced. “May his soul find peace in the Fyr.” He turned back one more time, unfastening the belt that held the klan blade. “If that happened, this should be found in the tower, blackened and burned.” He handed it to the Night Komandān, then turned away and left without meeting their eyes, not looking back again.
Parvena followed the lady in the colourful quilted armour, barely recognizing Aglaya after only a week of the siege. The strategist was walking next to her. Every solemn step away from the courtyard hammered in her heart with all the finality of an actual death. For a bodyguard whose ward had died there was no place in the world.
The world she had lived in had ended, she pondered grimly as she climbed the stairs toward the cave castle, watching the smoke on the outer battlements. The matriarch had ended it with words.
Aglaya, leading them, was swallowed by the crevice that had been Hayrenik’s gate centuries ago. They passed by the hallway of wind-eroded window-holes, but the kiss between Lady and Guard seemed to belong to a different life now. To another Parvena, who had not known what duty truly meant.
The siege had changed Aglaya, given her new eyes and a stranger’s face, always tired, spurring from sleep from every new explosion, every draft of black powder smoke. After a few days she had picked up a crossbow sometime when Parvena had not been looking. Her aim was as true as despair could make it and half of the bolts in her quiver where the enemy’s, pulled from their own fallen soldiers whenever she found them.
The suave woman who had bent the rules of the court because she could had become a fighter who was more at home among wounded soldiers and simple clansmen than her own kin.
They descended through another ruined arc into the darkness. Parvena had rarely ventured here. It was a place of secret dalliances and drunken dares to her, but Aglaya seemed to have roamed farther than the first few levels of the ancient cave city.
When the sunlight had vanished completely she pulled a torch from her quiver and lit the hallway, counting the door holes they passed, leading them down more stairs, another hallway, yet more stairs. No one spoke, the torchlight painted glistening patterns on Parvena’s armoured gloves. There was no sense of time except for Aglaya’s torch burning down and being replaced. Their steps slowly turned into a trudge. It was like the journey to one’s grave; growing colder the deeper they climbed.
Then the lady stopped, raising her fist in a soldier’s fashion. “We should rest here. Otherwise one of us will fall down the next flight of stairs.”
She had prepared for this possibility after her mistake the night before, Parvena realized. She had brought the torches, and a rope hung from her quiver. She also carried a canteen and a bundle from which she pulled black bread, apples and cheese. Satu found the remains of some ancient furniture in one of the hallway’s alcoves and lit a fire that burned with little smoke and drove the cold from Parvena’s bones.
It was Yeul who broke the silence. “Your name is Aglaya, is it not? How do you know these Tunnels so well? And how comes it you never thought of sharing this information with me?” The lady was staring into the fire, tired eyes filled with guilt; dust in her braided hair and on her shoulders. “I was planning to tell you.” She sighed, her voice higher than normal: “I only remembered last night.”
“I needed to know.” Yeul growled. “If I had known I could have used this path, with the north road cut off.” He trailed off. “It is too late for that now. How can there even be a tunnel that leaves Hayrenik without the Matriarch’s approval?”
Aglaya calmed down, but her eyes were still full of remorse. The firelight made her face soft and warm, more like the woman she had been only weeks ago. “This place is ancient. I came here often, I guess. To be alone. Whenever someone I did not like came to visit my Grandmother, I would vanish, sometimes for days at a time.” A smile crept across her face. “There were a lot of my grandmother’s guests I did not like.”
“If you had known,” Satu reminded him bitterly, “Elçin would have known as well.” His voice had lost its harshness when he addressed Aglaya. “I could not have imagined you might have come this deep. Did you explore the cave city all by yourself?” Aglaya laughed, a quiet, bubbling sound. “There are some all but forgotten books in the library. Nobody was interested in them save for me. My mother would be furious at me, and made me swear never come down here again. And I would disappear again the next day. Then I grew up, and I learned to live through all the feasts in the matriarch’s hall, and my mother was happy.” Her eyes were glistening with sadness. “I guess she is dead now.” She stared into the flames again.
The fire burned down to embers, but none of them rose to find more wood. Parvena could see her own despair, a people’s ruin mirrored in Yeul’s and Aglaya’s faces, and Satu didn’t seem to be with them at all. Had he, she wondered, after years of control over his Tien Mind broken down again, and was now lost somewhere outside reality?
She broke the silence, unwilling so fade just yet: “And these Tunnels go all the way to the roots of the Mountain?” she coaxed the lady. “There was a map sketch in a book.” Aglaya explained, waking from her stupor “Beneath the city there is a lake, an eerie place. I searched it out, years ago. And the water from the lake goes into the river at the foot of the mountain. “The Falls beneath the Castle.” Yeul said, voice trembling as he realized what that meant: “We knew about them, of course.”
“I found the tunnel described in the book.” Aglaya continued, “I still remember it, so I should be able to find it again.” “How far is?” Parvena asked and Alglaya drew a deep breath, considering. “I guess…”
Satu waking from his fire-dream, vaulted to his feet in a frenzy so violent it sprayed dust all over them. “I hear footsteps.” He hissed, his gaze still unfocused, his body tense. Parvena held her breath as listened listened to the echo of armoured boots coming closer. “Extinguish the Fire” She uttered, pulling the remaining logs apart and stepping on the embers while Aglaya gathered her bundle together. The Hallway grew pitch-black when they buried the fire’s remains beneath the dust. But she still could see a fire’s reflection in the Arch on top of the staircase. “Hide in the alcoves.” She breathed, grabbing Yeul and diving into the emptiness where Satu had found the firewood. The footsteps had grown louder now, and they were many. She could hear Aglaya removing the safety of her crossbow. The heaviness of her own sword was in her hand. “Vena” Aglaya muttered, “Your armour makes a noise when you breathe.”
She could hear shouting on top of the stairs and tried to breath more quietly. Elçin, she recognized the voice. The Traitor had followed them. He led his soldiers down the steps, his torch revealing the fire’s remains. “They were here, not long ago.” He announced and his people spread out around him. They blocked both directions of the hallways and edged closer and closer to the alcoves they were hiding in. Then the woman in front of her gasped in pain and collapsed, a bolt sticking out of her throat. Aglaya had jolted out of her Alcove next to them and was diving towards a hole across the hallway, Satu half a step behind her. Parvena grabbed Yeul’s sleeve and dashed towards the man blocking her path, crashing her armoured shoulder into his jaw.
“Stop them!” Elçin shouted, but she was faster. She kicked dust in one soldier’s face when he turned to attack her and slashed another’s neck when he grabbed Yeul’s coat. Still holding onto the Strategist’s arm she ran into the darkness.
Satu ran through the darkness. There was nothing around him and yet there was a mountain around him. He closed his eyes without slowing his speed. The sound in his ears was all footsteps. Aglaya’s light boots in front of him, slowing down and speeding up in a frantic pattern. His own wrapped boots thundering in his ears in accord with his breathing and his heartbeat, threatening to swallow all other noise. Parvena’s armoured boots still too far away from him, followed by Yeul’s. He could hear the traitor shouting orders. The soldier’s footsteps were like a rainstorm echoing in the tunnel. He could smell dust but also water. He could feel the weight of the mountain around him, but he also sensed a faint draft that was not due to him running. The draft which promised underground streams and waterfalls.
Someone shouted and arrows were shot with a jarring sound and hit Parvena’s armour, metal on metal. They hit flesh and he could hear Yeul cry out in Pain. He could smell blood and burning wax. He could sense fire blaze up behind him. He felt a presence in the Fyr awaken, pressed his body flat to one wall of the tunnel and held his breath until Parvena had clattered past him, dragging Yeul along. He pressed his face into the rock, listened to Elçin’s heartbeat through the stone, tasting the water droplets on the rough surface. He drew breath and opened his eyes, shouting down silver paths hidden to most people. The soldiers’ torches blazing through the Tunnel exploded into thunder and steam. The Rock became alive, bursting, crashing down on them.
Aglaya zigzagged through the tunnel, stumbling from wall to wall. It was no longer completely dark, far behind her the soldier’s torches reflected on the damp rock, but her own shadow blocked her view.
Then she heard Yeul’s cry of pain, turned around against better judgement, drew a bolt from her quiver and aimed the way she had come. Parvena’s glistening silhouette appeared, her Hand clamped firmly around Yeul’s arm, pulling him along after her. She waited, for Satu and for the first Soldier to come into her field of view.
Something crept past her, towards the soldiers. Something massive, snakelike, something cold as ice. Something she could not see in the flickering firelight.
“Run!” Parvena shouted, but she waited for Satu to finally appear.
Then the tunnel became dust, and thunder and rubble and darkness. A hand, cold with sweat grabbed her wrist and yanked her into motion, away from dust and collapsing rock. She followed blindly, away from the cave-in and the thing that had caused it.
“Glaya,” Satu panted, stopping their flight. “Do you still have a torch.”
She fumbled in her quiver, found cloth covered in wax. “I do. Should I light it now?”
Satu’ voice was frail. “Please do so, and quickly.” “Are you alright?” She asked him while fumbling with her tinder.
“I do not know.” He murmured: “I just did something I have never done before.”
The fire revealed that the tunnel had led them into a massive cave. She could see water glistening in the light. Parvena knelt on the floor a few steps into the cavern, next to her Yeul, collapsed on the floor. One feathered shaft was sticking out his shoulder and another out his side. “What in the ancestors’ name just happened?” Parvena, in terror, inquired, “And where are Elçin’s men?” Satu ignored the question but instead dropped on his knee next to Yeul and pulled his tools from the satchel he carried. He carefully touched his patient’s shoulder. “I need more light down here. Be careful not to spill burning wax on him.” His brow furrowed as he examined the Damage, but then he relaxed ever so slightly. „You are lucky,“ He told Yeul. The Strategist only groaned in response. Sweat was glistening on his brow. His breathing was ragged, almost erratic. Satu‘s motions where methodical, calm but also weaker than normal and with a strange stiffness to them. He told Parvena to remove her gauntlets and hold his patient still. Aglaya guessed that this was not the first time they had done this together.
Then he finally answered Parvena’s question. “They won’t come. The Tunnel collapsed.”
Yeul was somewhere between the waking world and delirium. His back was bent; his head was resting on Parvena’s shoulder. His breathing was tired now and he barely flinched when Satu cut the first Arrow from his shoulder nor when pushed the second one out through the soft tissue in his side. “What has caused the tunnel to cave in now?” Parvena questioned, “I understand it has existed for centuries.”
“There was once a creature in the lake beneath the cave city. In those days it would eat those of its inhabitants who dared to venture into its realm.” Satu told uttered, as if reciting from memory, voice still as fragile as the pages of an ancient book, “When Elçin entered its domain I woke it. It seems it was not happy with his intrusion, but I guess it does not mind the supply of fresh meat he brought.” He held the Arrowhead against the torch’s light, an ugly iron triangle slick with blood. Aglaya felt a shiver down her spine, remembering the feeling of something creeping past her in the tunnel and thinking of her previous ventures into the caves below the fortress. None of the old books in the library had mentioned monsters in the deep. “We should not linger here.” She proposed, not being able to keep the unease out of her voice. Satu did not answer. He used the torch’s flame and his surgery knife to cauterize the wound and pressed the end of a bandage to it, handing the reel of cloth to Parvena for her to wrap it tightly around Yeul’s shoulder. “He cannot move yet.” He cautioned her, „We will have to hope these Soldiers are enough to still its hunger.”
“I will carry him.” Parvena offered, handing Satu the cauterization knife again, “Maybe it would not bother with four more trespassers in its lair, but I’d rather not find out.” “You won’t have the strength left to carry a man through the mountain.” The healer warned her, handing her the second bandage. “Do not underestimate my strength. I will carry him until we are safe or he can walk on his own legs.” Having fastened the last bandage she rose to her feet. Glaring at Satu she used her sheathed sword to heave Yeul’s limb body onto her back. “Lead the way,“ She told Aglaya, who helped Satu to his feet and offered her arm to support him.
Trying to forget a being she could not even name she recited the page of a book from her childhood like a nursery rhyme in her mind. With the torch in her hand like a shield against the black water she made her way along the shore of the lake, counting her steps. Then she turned to face the darkness, only to find the tunnel described in the book waiting for her. Her mood lightened more than the torch could light the caves.
The Tunnel, carved by a stream maybe, long ago, was not meant to be walked by people. Its floor was uneven and treacherous, sometimes dropping several feet at once all of sudden. They had to make use of her rope several times, heaving Yeul down carefully. Other crevices crossed their path, but none of them were the stream she had read about. By the time the last torch burned down the anxiety in her stomach had become painful, she was certain they would never find the right path. Parvena’s breathing had become heavy by now and her steps had become irregular and unreliable. Aglaya let go of Satu’s arm and searched the darkness with until she found Parvena and feeling for her face with the other hand only to find it covered in sweat. “Let’s stop here for a bit.” She pleaded. “We cannot reach the exit if one of us collapses on the way.”
Parvena made an agreeing noise, setting down her burden while Aglaya steadied his injured limb. She used her satchel to rest the unconscious man’s head before offering her water canteen to Parvena, who all but collaped on the floor next to him..
Satu lit a small candle in his shaky hand. The flame bit in Aglaya’s eye after such a long time in total darkness. He pulled Yeul to lie on the side: “Let me take a look at the wounds.” He insisted, tugged at the bandages and checked his patient’s pulse. Then he looked at worn down Parvena, shaking his head.”I told you, you cannot carry him down the mountain.” Parvena groaned: “There is no time to coddle me. We cannot stay here forever. Look!” She passed him the canteen: “This is all the water we have left.” “We should have refilled the canteen at the lake.” The healer regretted, but Aglaya had not forgotten why she had not done so. “You’re all but spent. Call it coddling, but your strength has its limits.” Satu argued. “I can leave my armour.” She brushed his concern aside. “It should reduce the weight well enough.” She met Satu’s eyes, ready to burn away his doubt with sheer will. He turned towards his patient once more. Without looking at her he handed her his knife and she cut the leather straps holding her burnished steel armour, dented in by arrows, together. One by one the plates came loose, clattering down onto the rock. She only kept her padded shirt and her helmet. Yeul stirred when the Guardswoman heaved him onto her back again.
“Parvena” he uttered. “I can walk on my own now.”
Aglaya was surprised to hear him speak. He struggled to find solid ground beneath his feet until Parvena set him down, but did not walk more than three steps before sinking to the floor. Satu checked his pulse again, traced his spine and used the candle’s light to test his eye reaction. The healer shook his head and Parvena offered to pick him up once more. “I can carry you. You are not that heavy.”
They fed Yeul the last of their water and Satu extinguished the candle in order to have light in case of another emergency. “Glaya,“ he called softly, searching for her hand. Guiding each other in the darkness, her mind in a daze, they continued their way downwards and into the unknown. Aglaya started counting steps again. When she reached six hundred, Satu suddenly stopped, drawing a deep breath. “I can smell pine trees.” He claimed, but Aglaya could only smell dust. She lost trail of the numbers in her head. She lost track of time as well, the only certainty was the warmth of Satu’s hand and Parvena’s heavy steps behind her. She could tell them apart by the sound of their breathing. After what might have been minutes or days the healer announced he could hear water flowing and she listened for it until the sound of her own blood rushing in her ears might as well have been a river. When she could hear the falls at last she was almost certain they were a delusion, her dazed mind desperately holding onto the possibility of hope.
When the heavy pelt of darkness started to lift at last she almost didn’t notice, but the blackness had gained nuances of rock-shapes, or fantasies of rock-shapes. The waters sound was thunder when Satu sprang back without a warning; his hand tore from her grip. She stopped, lost in world of shadow and roaring streams, listening for his breath. Then he cursed and there was a splashing noise. He had found the river with his feet.
She could see the water, moving, glistening when she really focused. Satu took hold of her hand again, his was colder than before. They followed the river, carefully placing each step until they could see the ground beneath their feet.