Flint slid at breakneck speed down a narrow shaft of stone. Desperately he pawed at the rock with his hands and dug in with the heels of his boots, searching for some knob or crevice he could get a grip on, to stop—or at least to slow—his descent. But the cold stone of the chute was like glass, polished smooth by centuries of rainwater. Flint plunged down into the darkness. The chute bent to his right.
He was beginning to wonder when this dark ride would end— abruptly and messily, no doubt, when the chute stopped suddenly in a wall of solid stone—when he began to notice a lessening in the steepness of his descent. The shaft was leveling out.
By the time the end of the chute finally came, it had become nearly level, and Flint’s momentum had slowed nearly to a creep. One moment, the stone of the chute was all around him, and the next, Flint was surrounded by nothing more than dark, musty air.
“Reorx!” Flint swore as he flailed in space, then he fell with a splash into frigid water. The rope ladder, which he had continued to clutch uselessly during the fall, landed next to him.
The dwarf thrashed and sputtered, choking on the metallic-tasting water—until he realized that, somehow, he wasn’t sinking any farther into the bone-chilling wetness. It was then that Flint noticed he was on his hands and knees and that the water came halfway up his forearms. In fact, if he hadn’t thrashed around so much, he would hardly have gotten wet at all.
All this—plus the fact that the fall had reopened his shoulder wound—did nothing to sweeten his temper.
“Reorx’s forge!” he muttered, dragging himself out of the shallow pool. Instantly, however, he regretted the words. They echoed hollowly around him in the darkness, as if he were in a vast cavern. Flint had the disconcerting impression that the blackness swirled angrily, as if it resented having its stillness disturbed by his words. The dwarf felt a shiver dance across his skin—from the chilling water, no doubt, he assured himself, though for the time being he kept the rest of his grumbles to himself.
Flint sat on the cold ground for a moment, shivering in the darkness, trying to catch his breath. He looked about, but he couldn’t see a trace of light from anywhere—not surprising in the dead of night and inside a cliff, he supposed. He might have fallen a short distance or halfway down to the ravine; he couldn’t tell. His heart gave a lurch as he thought of Tanis up above. Flint shook his head. All he could do to help Tanis now was whisper a gruff prayer to Reorx and try to find his way out of wherever it was he’d landed.
Flint peered into the darkness around him. Dwarves possessed a curious sense of vision enabling them to see the heat that radiated from an object—which helped Flint not one iota in the cold blackness down here.
But suddenly he did see something—something that looked like two pale circles floating side by side where he knew the pool of water was. The circles were so faint he could hardly see them, their luminescence sickly green. Then he noticed another pair of the small circles, and another, drifting slowly before him.
Flint slapped at the pockets of his leather vest and breeches until he found what he was searching for—flint and steel, tinder, and a stump of a candle. Fortunately, the items had been wrapped in a piece of oiled leather and were still dry. In moments, Flint had struck a spark and a tiny flame flared.
In the flickering light, Flint saw the darkened pool of water stretching like polished onyx before him. The dwarf shuddered when he saw the source of the strange, pale lights: fish, swimming in the ice-cold pool of water. The fish were pale, flabby-looking things, about as long as his forearm, with bulbous eyes as big as saucers. It was their eyes that had radiated the sickly light. The glow of his candle seemed to disturb them, for they silently slipped away through the water, seeking the darkness they had dwelt in, undisturbed, for eons.
“Gods above, what is this place?” Flint mumbled under his breath. He lifted his candle and looked about. The floor was of gray stone—limestone, probably, he surmised, underlying the granite above—and the walls were the same. But the stone seemed too smooth, too even to be natural. Tall spires like stalagmites rose from the floor, but as Flint stepped near them, he saw that they were columns, fluted and intricately carved. These were not formed by the action of water, Flint knew, but by the hands of living beings. He walked slowly about the vast space he had landed in, wincing at the echo of his footfalls but continuing on just the same.
He saw that this was not a cavern at all, but a great hall of some sort. Columns lined the towering walls that rose into the shadows above, beyond the reach of Flint’s faint candlelight. Rows of benches faced some sort of raised dais, and beyond that was a wide staircase, its steps leading up into shadow and places unknown.
The stonework was immensely skilled; Flint ran a hand over the carefully polished edges and convoluted designs of the pillars. Such craftsmanship as this the world no longer knew, but Flint was certain it was dwarven. It could be nothing else, not here, so far beneath the ground. But it was ancient as well. The ages rested as heavily here as the ponderous weight of the stone that stood between Flint and the outside world. But what place could this be, so close to the elven kingdom? It had to be very old, perhaps even older than Qualinesti itself.
A sudden realization struck Flint, and the candle’s small flame quavered as his hand began to tremble. The words of an old poem he had learned as a child came unbidden to him. He remembered sitting in his father’s lap when he was very small. It was one of the few memories of his father, who had died when Flint had been little more than a child. Flint had listened, spellbound, as his father chanted the words softly in the firelight, of a kingdom of long ago:
By the thane’s dark word, the gates were shut
With the toll of a cold death knell.
Closed to the folk of the sunlit realms,
In shadow the ancient kingdom fell.
Flint shuddered at the thought of his grandfather dying in the Dwarfgate Wars, then he turned to considered where he might be.
“Thorbardin? Pax Tharkas?” Flint whispered to the shadows.
It was entirely possible, he told himself, that he’d fallen through another of the elves’ infernal sla-mori—one that led to the ancient mountain dwarf capital or the elven-dwarven fortress. If that were so, he’d be wise to escape from the hated cousins of the hill dwarves as quickly as he could.
Tentatively, reluctant to discover the truth of where he was, Flint continued on.
As he landed, the stone slab shuddered, shifting beneath his weight. A handful of limestone pebbles skittered away from the slab to fall, spinning and silent, into space. The stone tipped slightly, toward the river far below. Tanis scrabbled for a handhold as a shower of dirt and pebbles cascaded over him, filling his eyes and mouth. His left hand caught a piece of solid rock, and he stopped sliding.
He blinked the dirt away, then shouted, “Gilthanas!”
His cousin was sliding down the stone, about to plummet into the canyon. Desperately, Tanis snaked out a hand and caught Gilthanas’s wrist. At first, the half-elf feared the added weight would make him lose his own grip, sending them both into the void, but Tanis managed to dig the toes of his boots into a fissure in the cliff face. He lay with his stomach against the smooth stone, straining to keep his grip on Gilthanas. Tanis couldn’t tell if the young guard was alive or dead.
The midnight blackness that pressed around them made it all the more terrifying.
Already Tanis could feel his palm growing slick with sweat. The stone slab shifted another inch. How long could he maintain his grip? Not that it might matter. The slab could go at any moment.
With a monumental effort, Tanis tightened his hold on Gilthanas’s robe. The stone lurched again, and another spray of pebbles went tumbling into the blackness. Tanis squeezed his eyes shut, breathed a silent prayer that Gilthanas’s tailor had used strong materials, and heaved on the ceremonial robe.
His cousin groaned, and Tanis’s heart leaped. Gilthanas was alive! That gave him renewed strength and, for once blessing the human blood that gave him his strong build, the half-elf hauled Gilthanas away from the edge and back up to him. Clutching his cousin, he sat huddled on a narrow ledge of limestone and granite, three feet wide and twice as long.
Tanis shifted a bit, trying to find a position that felt less precarious, but it was no use. Moving cautiously, he nudged his cousin until he was propped against the cliff wall, a position that—Tanis hoped—would keep the youth from rolling off the ledge if Tanis fell asleep and lost his grip. Who would hold the half-elf himself back from certain death, he did not know.
Tanis looked back up the cliff; he could see nothing but the constellations. Moonlight might have showed toeholds and handholds that the two could use to climb back up, but the night was as black as the inside of a tomb. Far off to the east, Tanis could see torchlights ablaze in the Tower of the Sun; palace servants were still at work, he was sure, readying the Tower for tomorrow’s Kentommen climax.
He looked over at Gilthanas. The youth was unconscious, but at least he breathed. But even if the morning showed that the cliff could be climbed, Tanis wondered how he would get Gilthanas up the sheer face.
At any rate, they weren’t going anywhere until dawn. He settled back against the cliff wall, sending another wave of pebbles and dust skittering over the edge, and tried to divert his thoughts.
He wondered where Flint was—and who would mourn the dwarf’s death if Tanis were gone as well.
Far more mourning could be in store before the robed figure was through, Tanis thought. He no longer had any doubt that the murderer also planned to kill Laurana and Porthios, and probably the Speaker as well. He looked again at the Tower, a finger of light in the darkness, where the Speaker was holding his own vigil for Porthios’s Kentommen, then gazed at the palace, off to one side. He hoped Laurana was safe; at least the guard, who no doubt was still at Tanis’s door, was not far from Laurana’s quarters, though not in direct sight. And he knew Flint had told her to lock herself into the room until the morning.
Tanis looked off to the right of the Tower, at the darker patch he knew was the Grove, and he hoped the murderer was not, even now, moving toward the trees of that sacred place, seeking the defenseless heir.
Sure at last that the murderer’s next victim would be Porthios, Tanis wondered how he could warn the heir, assuming that the half-elf would be able to escape from his current predicament. There would be no way to interrupt the Melethka-nara; the three questioners would prevent that, even if he made it past the guards outside the chamber, deep under the palace.
Perhaps there would be a way to intercept Porthios as he made the walk from the chambers to the Tower; under tradition, the youth was alone during the walk, the third portion of the Kentommen, called the Kentommen-tala. There were two key problems: All the palace guards knew Tanis was under a confinement order, and it would not be easy to persuade Porthios that the Speaker’s elder son was in danger. Maybe …
Suddenly, out of the darkness above him, a mule brayed.
Tanis nearly lost his grip on Gilthanas; as it was, the sound sent his pulse leaping. “Fleetfoot!” he called, and the stone slab moved slightly. The mule brayed again, closer.
Tanis’s thoughts raced. What use could he make of the mule? Flint had tied her with the long length of rope from the ladder. Perhaps if she stood at the very edge, with the rope hanging down …
He called again, and Fleetfoot answered. A hoof clunked against a stone up above, sending the rock bouncing past Tanis. At Tanis’s side, Gilthanas stirred, murmuring against the racket. For a moment, hope surged through the half-elf.
Then the mule stepped away from the cliff. “Fleetfoot!” he cried. Gilthanas groaned and tried to sit up, then slumped back. But the sound of Fleetfoot’s hooves receded.
Of course, Tanis thought; she was looking for Flint. He slumped back against the cliff himself.