“Yeah, Jasna can be like that, sometimes,” Petra said, as Justin hefted her from the pit. She patted his hand, then joined the other girl in the corner by the bookshelf, picking through what few papers were left in readable condition.
“You might want to wipe a little more at your cheeks,” Katarin whispered, as he hauled her over the edge. “It won’t do for Jasna to see you crying.”
“I’m not--” the young man said. He sniffed, wiping at his eyes again.
Brynne just clucked her tongue at him, shaking her head. She helped him haul up his armor and pack, which she’d secured to the line before she climbed from the pit.
No sooner had the rope been pulled up over the edge of the pit, than the strange, thrumming hum floated through the air again, and the floor winked back into being outside the small room. Brynne prodded at it with her staff, then slapped it with her hand, finally stepping out into the hallway and jumping up and down.
The thrum began again, and the two carved representations of Silva spoke their command again. Brynne immediately dropped to one knee, and raised her hand, looking rather embarrassed as she closed her fist and rapped at the empty air of the archway.
To everyone’s surprise, three ghostly knocks echoed through the small room.
Yellow-orange light flickered from the corner of the room, and Jasna gave a triumphant cry. The lantern sputtered to light, the glow streaked where the glass had cracked in the fall.
“Ah ha! It wasn’t completely broken,” she said.
Justin and Petra both shied away from the girl, their cloaks and trousers still damp with oil.
One after the other, the girls wiped the drying blood from their pendants, and the stones went dark.
The corridor split just past the office, continuing ahead, or branching off to their left.
“Rustling from both directions,” Petra whispered, with a worried frown. Her hand strayed to her hair.
“We’ll go left,” Jasna said, and started down the side corridor.
“Yeah, she can be like that,” Justin said, as passed Petra to follow the other girl.
Perhaps ten paces down the hallway, they came to another carving. As before, its stone-like eyes opened, and then its mouth began to move. The thrumming hum filled the air, barely heard above the odd, spidery tongue the statue spoke. The girls each heard the meaning, echoing in their minds.
“If it is the knowledge that you yearn
Then enter here to learn.
If you journey here to teach,
Please remember not to preach.”
Justin dropped to one knee, and Petra giggled.
“On your feet,” Brynne said. “I don’t think this one is trapped.”
Jasna gave the door behind them a dark look. “It said something about learning. That’s certainly a trap.”
“Only to those who can’t sit still for a lesson or two,” Katarin said. She lifted the latch on the door, and pushed, bumping into the panels.
“It’s stuck,” she said.
Justin stepped up next to her, giving the door a push of his own.
“Swollen in the frame,” he said. “This happens at the castle all the time in damp weather. This long winter has been terrible on the guards’ shoulder spaulders.” To illustrate his point, he slammed his shoulder into the door, staggering into the room when the door popped free of the frame.
He caught himself against a rickety desk, one of several lining the length of the room.
“See? I told you,” Jasna said. “This is a classroom if I ever saw one.”
“I’m amazed you know what one looks like, as often as you skip your lessons,” Brynne said.
The smaller girl snapped her mouth shut, blushing.
“Some people just aren’t cut out for this kind of learning,” Petra said, poking through the clutter along the floor. She fished out a thin square of slate, blowing it off, and coughing at the dust that billowed into the air. “Druid Misha’s lessons aren’t so… orderly.” She wrinkled her nose, though if it was in disdain for the four rows of desks or the dust in the air was difficult to tell.
Petra set the square of slate down on one of the desks, making her way over to the door on the far wall.
“Do you hear that?” she asked. She leaned against the door, pressing her ear to the wood.
They all head, distantly, a muffled shout, and familiar clattering of metal that could only be armor of some sort. Petra reached for the door’s latch.
“No!” Justin called. “It might not be safe.” He glanced over to Jasna. “Let me go first.”
The girl backed away from the door, two short sticks appearing as if by magic in her hands. Jasna crouched beside the door, opposite the hinges, the gleaming dagger held low against her leg.
Katarin stepped behind the young man, her fingers spread, as if she were going to play a game of ryadkyiv. She drew several deep breaths, her shoulders relaxing, and her blue eyes went distant. She nodded.
Brynne stood beside the weaver, raising her quarterstaff to waist-height, projecting it before the both of them.
“Go!” Jasna hissed, and Justin threw open the door, bringing his sword up in a high guard as he charged into the room beyond.
Jasna and Petra dashed in after the young lord, dagger and batons at the ready. Brynne covered the doorway, staff at the ready.
Justin was halfway across the room before Jasna kicked at a pile of wood that could have once been a chair.
“There’s nobody here!”
Jasna spun in a circle. “Don’t you shush me!”
Justin leapt back. Jasna hadn’t sheathed the dagger. “I didn’t say--”
The voice echoed out of nowhere, and they all glanced over one shoulder, then the other.
“Okay, that is spooky,” Petra whispered.
They tensed, waiting to be rebuked into silence again.
“This must be a library,” Katarin whispered. Her eyes had lost their haziness, and she was looking from shelf to shelf along the bookcases that lined the room’s walls.
“What was your first clue?” Brynne asked. “Maybe all these books?”
“No, don’t touch them!”
Too late, Brynne snatched her hand back from the scroll, as the bottom half of it crumbled away.
“Oh, all right already!” Jasna shouted at the empty air.
This time, the ghostly voice was joined by those of the other Handmaidens.
A loud ‘thud’ and clattering of armor came from beyond the door opposite the one the group charged through.
Justin hefted his sword. “Again?”
Jasna nodded, and they all took positions.
“Everybody ready?” the young man asked. “On three. One, two.. three!”
He leaned against the latch, and promptly ran headlong into the door as it refused to budge.
“Stop squriming!” Katarin hissed.
Shhhhhhhh! came the ghostly admonition.
“I thig it’s brogen!” Justin whimpered.
“If you don’t sit still, I will clonk you one,” Brynne muttered, slapping her staff into the palm of one hand. “Then she’ll have to do even more healing on you.”
The weaver held the young lord’s head tighter between her hands. She pressed her thumbs to either side of his nose, and gave a sharp twitch.
He nearly kicked himself out of the rickety chair. He sucked in a shivering breath, jerking his head from the girl’s grip.
“That--” he started, and felt at his nose. He blinked. “… doesn’t hurt,” he finished. He made to stand up, but Brynne and Katarin both pushed on his shoulders.
“Not so quick,” the taller of the girls cautioned.
“I feel just--” He clutched at the edges of the chair, as if it were about to topple over. Katarin stepped back as he bent over his knees, making sick.
“That’ll be five kopecs,” Petra said.
“He didn’t fall over,” Jasna grumbled.
“But he was sick. Five kopecs.”
“I”ll buy you a meatpie at the next Festival of Lights,” Jasna whispered.
“When have you ever actually bought anything at a festival?” Petra asked, glancing up from where she knelt in front of the library’s far door.
“Any luck with that lock?” Jasna asked, avoiding the question.
The younger girl poked her tongue out as she focused again on the kinked iron rods in the keyhole. She listened as she gave first one, then the other a series of twists and wiggles, and there came a distinct ‘chak’ of the mechanism unlatching.
Jasna flipped the dagger, catching it point-downward. “Ready?” she asked the other girl.
Petra shook her head. “I think we should wait for Lord Justin. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Don’t be such a mouse!” Jasna teased, then swallowed her chuckle. “Um, you know how I meant that…”
Petra waved a hand at her, then frowned. She wafted her hand in front of the lock again, wrinkling her nose.
“You don’t smell that?” she asked.
Jasna bent down, taking in a deep breath through her nose. “All I can smell is lamp oil.”
“Not that,” Petra said. “It’s… bad.”
She swatted Jasna’s hand when the girl reached for the latch. “Next time, I’ll bite you,” she warned.
Jasna sighed, sheathing her dagger and crossing her arms. “Fine. We’ll wait for Lord Stableboy.”
“Try not to run into the door this time,” Jasna whispered.
“Kick rocks,” the young man said, flexing his fingers around the drip on his sword. “Everybody ready?”
“Let’s go already,” Brynne said.
“I really think we should find another way around,” Petra said.”There was that whole other corridor to explore.”
Justin raised the latch, pushed on the door, then threw his weight into it when it stuck in the doorframe.
They rushed into a large bedchamber, and nearly tripped over the bodies laying on the floor. Worse, though, was the eye-watering sickly-sweet smell of death that hung in the air.
Brynne tried to pull Katarin back into the library, but the weaver pushed around the others, kneeling to inspect the two armored men collapsed on the floor. They were dressed in the polished plate and blue-and-white colors of the Knights of the Griffon.
“They’re dead,” she whispered, sliding her fingers away from their necks. “It can’t have happened too long ago, but… they’re cold as ice.”
“Look at their armor,” the young man said, pointing to long, parallel furrows, the metal blackened and tarnished along the rents. “What could do such a thing to hardened steel?”
“Um, I think we’re about to find out,” Petra squeaked.
The curtains surrounding the large four-poster bed in the room’s far corner billowed, and an age-blackened gauntlet thrust from between the drapes.