Sunday, April 8, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: The Corridor of Knowledge, continued

The corridor split again, to the left and right, another speaking carving adorning the wall between the two halls. Justin sighed as the air began to thrum, tapping his foot as the voice spoke, the words a spidery tumble in his head. Silva’s gifts translated the verse:

“King Halav fought against mighty foes
And through his wisdom mankind grows
Before the greatness of this king
Kneel, and to his glory, sing.”
They went to their knees, and Justin followed quickly.
“Which verse?” Katarin asked.
“‘To his glory sing,’” Brynne repeated. “The Verse of Ascension? The Verse of Battle?”
“What could be more glorious than his battle with the Beast Man king?” Justin asked. “Sing that one.”
“The Calling,” Jasna said. “Halav did not have to take up sword and shield. He chose to.”
“That is noble, not glorious,” Justin sniffed. “Death in battle. That is glorious.”
“That is stupid,” Jasna said. “Halav died, and everything he worked for fell apart.”
“Jasna!” Katarin gasped. “You can’t speak of an Immortal like that.”
“I can speak of an Immortal any way I like. It’s not like any of them listen, anyway.”
“Of course they do!” Brynne said. “Why do you think we bother praying?”
“‘Immortals lend no aid to he who will not act,’” Jasna said.
“And nobody likes helping himself more than a disciple of Koritiku,” Justin murmured.
Jasna rose to her feet, settling back into a fighting stance when the wall gave a shudder. There came a light cracking noise, and half a dozen long blades leapt from the gap that opened between a seam between the stones at shoulder-height to a grown man.
Three of the blades swept the space above Justin and the girls, and three more scythed less than a hand’s breadth from the top of Jasna’s head.
“See what happens when you displease Halav?” Brynne asked.
“See what happens when the Immortals don’t grant my wish to be made taller?” Jasna shot back.

At Jasna’s insistence, they again took the righthand corridor, she leading the way as the others huddled beneath the still-scything blades. The corridor turned upon itself after another dozen paces or so. A tapestry hung from the wall past the sweep of the blade trap, depicting a dark haired woman bent over a potter’s wheel, and again at work at a loom. Another carving of Silva adorned the wall facing the group, and the corridor turned back on itself, another tapestry lining that wall, depicting the same dark-haired woman working at a mortar and pestle, as well as drawing a bow.
“This is--” Katarin began, but the corridor’s thrumming stopped her as she listened to the carving speak:
“Mighty she was in her day
Evil foes she held at bay
To pass this way you must be keen
Where was lovely Petra queen?”
“It’s like she’s not even trying any more,” Jasna complained.
“Krakatos,” Brynne said to the carving.
They waited, but there was no crackling from the stone. In fact, as they answered, the grinding of metal on stone of the trap behind them stopped.
“Can we go now?” Justin asked.
“Shh!” Jasna said. “Do you hear that?”
“Is Silva speaking to you again?” Katarin asked.
Jasna gave the taller girl a dark look. “No! Listen! It’s…” She’d thought it merely the ringing of the silence in the wake of the blades’ quieting. But it was the wrong pitch, higher, tinkling, rather than grinding.
“Is that… water?” Brynne frowned, closing her eyes and cupping a hand behind one of her ears, turning this way and that. “It’s coming from behind the tapestry.”
“Be careful, it is very old!” Katarin said, as Justin reached for one edge of the time-faded cloth, revealing a recessed wooden door.
He tried the latch, but like the other doors, it had swollen in its frame, and the young man bounced off the door twice before it finally gave way, sending him tumbling into a short hallway ending in another door.
Jasna had her knife out, Katarin’s fingers spread and ready to weave. At Brynne’s nod, the young man tried the other door. It took both him and Brynne to force it open, the two of them skittering into a long room. Had they been moving any faster, they would have careened into the pool in the middle of the chamber. Righting each other, their shadows shrinking along the wall as Katarin approached with the lantern, Justin drew his sword as the light revealed a shadowed figure huddling in the corner.
At the approach of the light, the figure stirred, and the young lord moved slightly ahead of Brynne, raising his sword.
“Stay back,” he warned. “It could be-- hey!”
There was a flash of gold and pale skin and then everything went dark. The girls screamed.

“I can’t see!” Justin cried. He dared not let go of his sword to clear his vision.
“That’s the idea,” Brynne said, her voice at his shoulder. She tightened her hands over his eyes.
“Just wait.”
He listened. The others were not screaming. Just the steady dripping of water into the long pool and Katarin and Jasna’s voices tumbling one over the other. No sounds of battle. The rustling of cloth could be heard between breaks in the quick, quiet conversation going on in the corner of the room.
“You left my hose.” It was Petra’s voice, at a sulk.
“It was dark,” Katarin said.
“You can go fetch them if you like,” Jasna whispered. That was met with silence, and another rustling of thicker cloth.
“No, the other one.”
“Oh, just hurry and put it on!” Katarin hissed.
“I never put that one on first,” Petra insisted. “It’s bad luck. Give me the other.”
A sigh. More rustling. Finally, Brynne’s hands fell away from the young lord’s eyes.
He blinked, watching Petra come into focus as she worked the clasp of her cloak, pulling her curls from beneath it, tapping the toes of one boot and then the other on the stone floor to settle her feet.
“Hullo, Petra,” Brynne said, from her place behind the young lord. “Feeling all right?”
The younger girl nodded.
“You survived,” Justin said.
Petra nodded again, slowly. She adjusted the satchel slung back across one shoulder. “I suppose you’ll be telling the Baron when we get back,” she said.
“He does not already know?”
“He’s a Thyatian,” Petra said. “Everybody knows how Thyatians feel about us. They’re almost as bad as Alphatians.” She shivered.
“‘Us?’” Justin repeated. He swallowed. “Ratfolk.”
The word hung in the room between them, punctuated by the steady drip of water from the ceiling.
“If you were to go to the Baron,” the young lord said, carefully, “he may be able to cure you.”
Petra stared at her shoes.
Justin glanced around the room at the other girls. His grip tightened on his sword.
“It’s natural,” he said. “You’re not afflicted.”
“I don’t know,” the younger girl murmured. “I don’t remember ever not being like this.”
“But, your parents--”
“Are dead,” Petra finished. “My real parents, that is. Drowned, washed away down the Waterolde. My ma and da found me, after their baby went away to Petra. So they named me after her. ‘Petra’s Gift.’” She hitched a laugh, or maybe it was a sob.
“I’m sorry,” the young lord said.
“No you’re not,” the girl said, her voice tight. “I’m not. I don’t even remember them. I don’t know them, what they were.”
“But… if the Baron knew, he could--”
“He could what?” Petra asked, stamping her foot. “Work his miracle? Cleanse my blood of this curse? 
“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” Katarin asked, softly.
“Then that means she’s a--” The young lord did not voice the end of his thought.
“Harder to think about when she’s standing right in front of you, isn’t it?” Brynne asked.

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