“There’s nothing here. It’s just a slimy old hole in the rock.”
“I told you this is a waste of time. We could have been eating sweetmeat pies. But nooo, you had to--”
The girls crashed to a halt against Justin’s backpack.
“Why did you stop?” Jasna wheezed. She peeked around the young man’s cloak.
“Is it a dead end?” Brynne asked.
“No,” Justin breathed, raising his lantern higher. “Far, far from it.”
The rough walls, streaked with moisture, abruptly gave way to block-and-mortar stonework. A half-step down the worked-stone corridor was an archway, flanked by two bas-relief carvings of a young woman’s face, framed by flowing hair held back by a thin circlet.
All four girls gasped.
“It can’t be,” Brynne murmured.
“Who else could it be?” Katarin asked her.
“It’s true,” Jasna said. “She was there. She was a Handmaiden. And if there were Handmaidens...”
“There was a Queen and King,” Petra smiled. “The legends, the Song. It’s true.”
The girls crowded around Justin.
“Hold that light higher,” Brynne told him.
“My arm is only so long,” he said. “If you’d get your head out of the way, you could see--”
The corridor was suddenly filled with an odd, thrumming hum.
The carvings to either side of the archway blinked, and then began to speak with Silva's voice. Slightly out of phase with each other, the words partially echoed in the girls' minds, the meanings in Traladaran overlaying the actual alien, spoken words. Just as they had whenever Silva spoke with them.
“Seek ye learning in our hall
First avoid a harmful fall.
To enter here and learn our lore
Kneel and knock upon the door.”
The girls went to one knee.
“You see, there, now you can all see just -- what in Ixion’s name are you doing?”
“Kneel and knock,” Petra said. “Didn’t you hear the instructions?”
Justin crossed his arms, the lantern’s light bobbing madly as he did so. “I am a court lord. Court Lords do not bend knee on the order of some... commoner. And what instructions? Those faces spoke… gibberish. Not a proper language at all.”
The floor vanished beneath them before the argument could even start.
“Is everybody all right? Is anyone hurt?” Katarin asked.
“Okay here,” Brynne said, using her staff to get to her feet.
“”I’m fine,” Jasna said.
“Me too,” Petra said. “I landed on something sort of soft.”
“You landed on me,” Justin groaned.
Brynne and Jasna untangled the two, Justin jangling and clattering to his feet.
“It’s dark as Alphaks’ pit in here. Can’t you get your lantern lit again?”
“Don’t you smell that?” Petra asked. “We’ve got lamp oil all over us. I think he landed on it when we fell. I don't’ think open flames would be a very good idea right now.”
“Katarin?” Brynne reached out, towards where she thought the other girl stood. “Can you make that light again?”
The weaver shook her head. “No,” she said, when she realized that nobody would see the movement. “It took nearly everything I had to create it the first time ‘round.”
“What sort of magia are you, if you can’t even make a little bit of light?” Justin asked.
Brynne whirled, but Katarin squeezed the girl’s hand before she could lash out at the young man.
They grew silent at Jasna’s short gasp. A moment later, a muted red glow flickered to light against one wall of the pit. It was barely enough to illuminate the girl’s features as she held her dragonstone pendant before her.
“Of course,” Petra whispered. “They glow when we use them.” She rummaged in a pouch at her belt, sucked in a sharp breath herself, and then her pendant took light. She held out a long, thin needle towards Brynne.
The other girl took it, wiping it on her cloak before pricking one of her fingers, touching the bead of blood to the gold-clasped stone dangling from her necklace. There was nearly enough light for them to see each other clearly.
It was light enough for them to see the three piles of bones moldering along the far wall of the pit.
“Don’t touch them!” Justin said.
Too late. Jasna was already squatting over the bones, picking through them. Remains of leathers and scraps of cloth crumbled away under her fingertips.
“We might find something useful on them,” she said.
“Useful?” the young lord asked. He prodded another of the skeletons with the toe of his boot. “There is nothing there but bones and rust and--”
Something gleamed reddish in the light of the dragonstones, and Jasna reached through the crumbling hole the boy’s boot had opened in the remains of the chainmail.
“Ah ha!” she said, a gleaming dagger in her hand. “You see? Something useful.”
“It’s just a knife,” Justin grumbled.
“No, if it was just a knife, it would have been rusted like all the rest of this,” Jasna said, prodding the chainmail. The metal crumbled further, revealing more of the skeleton’s ribs.
“Do you think it’s magical?” Brynne asked.
Jasna ran her thumb along the blade. “It’s still sharp, like it was honed yesterday.”
“Careful you don’t cut yourself,” Katarin said.
“Yes,” Justin said, “best give that to me, so you don’t hurt someone.”
Jasna fished the scabbard from beneath the pile of bones, slipping the knife home. She clipped it onto her belt. “I found it, I keep it. That’s the rule.” She adjusted the blade on her hip, resting her palm on the hilt. “If you want it so badly, you can try to take it.”
The young lord licked his lips, then gave a sniff. “Fine. Keep it. I’ve got a perfectly good sword, anyway.”
“Not that he knows how to use it,” Brynne muttered to Katarin.
“Do you think maybe we could try to get out of this pit, now?” Petra asked.
Brynne hefted her staff, holding it up above her head. The tip barely poked over the rim of the pit.
“Maybe… three and a half strides,” she said.
“And about five from one end to the other,” Jasna murmured. She glanced up at the top of the pit, then behind her. “Step to one side,” she said. “I’ll need room to run.”
“Run?” Justin asked. “Where do you think you’re going to--”
Brynne yanked on his backpack, pulling him against the lefthand wall of the pit as Jasna dashed towards him.
She leapt, springing off the walls, zigzagging her way up with the momentum of her short run. She caught herself on the rim, scrabbling for purchase with her feet, and hauling herself up just as it seemed her fingers were about to give way. She sprawled on her back, panting, her hair hanging over the edge.
“Okay, throw me some rope,” she called down.
All eyes turned to Justin, who shuffled his feet.
“You didn’t pack any,” Petra said.
“Who packs rope to explore a dungeon?” the young man asked. “Honestly, it’s about as useful as… spikes. Or a ten foot pole!”
“Both of which would be very helpful in getting us out of this pit!” Brynne snapped.
“Never mind,” Jasna called. “I can fetch the rope from that campsite. Don’t go anywhere while I’m gone!”
The others watched her leap from the far edge of the pit, to the open archway, and from within the archway to the other edge.
“‘Don’t go anywhere,’” the young man mimicked, scowling and crossing his arms. “Just where does she expect us to go?”
“Up,” Petra said, pointing. “Give me a boost.”
“Now, see here, you can’t just order me around like that,” he said.
Petra sighed. “Fine. Brynne?”
The other girl grinned, and interlaced her fingers into a stirrup.
As had Jasna, Petra backed up to the far side of the pit to give herself a running start. As her boot settled into Brynne’s hands, the other girl gave a heave. Petra gave a sharp gasp as she caught the edge of the pit with her gut, the short slide a sickening jolt as she caught herself with her arms.
She sucked in a few short breaths, and made to wriggle her way out when something with sharp, bristly hairs brushed against her face, mussing through her hair.
The girl gave a shriek, and lost her purchase against the side of the pit. She scrabbled against the wall enough that she didn’t crash to the floor, but still hit hard, rolling as best she could.
Katarin caught the girl, holding her down. “Stay still. You might have broken something.”
“Something-- up-- there,” Petra wheezed. “Think it-- was-- an ant.”
“For the love of Valerias,” Justin scoffed. “An ant? And you call me a flighty-mouse!”
“I would never-- be so insulting--” Petra started, then broke into a cough.
The young man nodded. “That’s a much more civil attitude to have towards your betters,” he said.
“I was talking--” Petra gasped, “about-- the mouse.”
“Oh, good, you’re all still here.”
“It wasn’t any funnier the first time,” Justin called up to the girl.
Jasna frowned down at the young man. “Maybe you’ll all be in brighter spirits once I get you out of that hole.”
She disappeared from the edge of the pit, and then made the leap to the archway halfway along the pit’s wider edge.
“Careful of the ants,” Justin cautioned, with a smirk.
Jasna’s head appeared at the edge of the pit. The reddish light from her pendant bobbed as the stone swung on its golden chain. “Ants?”
“I almost got out,” Petra explained. “But then an ant made me fall.”
Jasna glanced to her left, briefly, then gave a snort of amusement. She vanished, to reappear a few moments later, wedging something against the corner of the floor and the archway. She dropped the length of rope, which dangled a foot or so above the bottom of the pit.
“Stableboy first,” the girl said.
“Oh no,” he said. “I must insist that the others go ahead of me. A court lord must--”
“Must do as he is told,” Jasna finished.
“This wood is very old. It might hold long enough for one of you to get out, but not all of you.”
“She just called us fat!” Brynne muttered.
“Why does he get to go first?” Petra asked. “I’m lightest. I should go!”
“And do you think the two of us could hoist Lord Rustypants out of there?” Jasna asked her. “This is a case of brawn versus brains.”
Justin pulled at the rope, and the table leg it was tied to creaked.
“Just climb!” she called. “Quickly!”
The young man shrugged off his pack, and then began to gather the bottom of his chainmail jack. Brynne and Katarin helped him out of the bulky armor.
“How can you move in this?” the taller of the girls asked.
“Walking isn’t much of a problem. But climbing would be,” he said. He looked up. “See? I can use my brains as well as my brawn.” He frowned, when the girl above didn’t answer. “Jasna?”
They all shared a brief, panicked glance, and then he struggled up the rope as fast as his arms would carry him.
Jasna looked up from the ruined shelving in the far corner of the room.
“You--” the young man panted. “I thought-- something--”
“Something what? Ate me?” She gestured around the small room, which appeared to be some sort of office. “Maybe some ants?” She wiggled her fingers, casting long, fluttering shadows across the walls. The gesture turned into a shoo-ing motion. “Now help the rest of them out of that hole in the floor.”
“I am a--”
Jasna stalked up to the boy, staring up at his chin. “Let’s set some things straight right now,” she said. She poked him in the chest. “You are no more a court lord right now than I am. You’ve been Sheared, so you are like me. You have no family. Father will not come riding along to pull your bacon from the cook fire. You want to be a gentleman? Then you will own up to your mistake. You will get my friends out of that pit that you dropped them into. And you will jump like a frog on a hot paving stone if any of us should say ‘hop.’ Do I make myself clear?”
She’d prodded him in the chest with each point she made,, backing him up a half step at a time, and by the time Jasna finished, one of the young lord’s heels hung over the three-span drop back to the bone-filled pit.
“You can’t speak to me like that!” he finally managed to sputter.
“I just did,” Jasna said. “And if you don’t like it, then you can just jump right back down into that hole.”