Jerica flopped the rest of the way to the ground, shaking her head. The cool stone felt nice against her weary legs. Her calves burned with the exertion of the past several days of battle, and her shoulders were rubbed raw from the edges of her breastplate. “We have to wait for the Rangers.”
“What Rangers?” Rekard questioned.
“I asked Derik to send two with us.”
“Why? I thought you didn’t need help.”
“I don’t,” Jerica said defensively. “I just am not going to hold your hand when you get scared in the tunnel, thought you could use a friend.”
Rekard shook his head with a sigh. “You’re too much sometimes, Jer.”
She laughed; a short, sudden burst of noise that seemed out of place in the solemn, barren monastery. She pushed his shoulder playfully. “Lighten up. You’re such a grandfather sometimes, Rek, I swear.”
“I just don’t see anything about this situation that’s funny.”
“What? You mean you didn’t just murder dozens of men in the span of half an hour?” she asked, forcing a laugh. “And that we’re not on our way to murder a sorcerer, in a way that might or might not work, and who will likely kill us if we fail?”
She smiled ferally, showing just a bit too much of her teeth, eyes just a bit too dilated in the dim light. She pushed her mop of short black hair back, looking at her hand dumbly for a long moment afterwards as she realized her hand was now slick with damp blood. A wave of nausea hit her out of nowhere.
“Are you okay?” Rek asked gently.
She looked up and met his gaze, snapping herself out of her hazy state. He was eerily similar to Uncle Derik, with the same green eyes, and shoulders that were muscular and currently glistening in the dim torch light; eyebrows thick and pulled down into a concerned frown.
“Is this mine?” she asked, holding her bloodied hand out for him to see.
Rek leaned forward to inspect her head more closely, then shook his head. “No.”
“Then I’m fine!” she popped up to her feet, wandering away from him and stretching her back. Her head was getting muddled. She couldn’t allow that. She had to stay alert, or she would die, and many others would follow, if she wasn’t there to protect them. It was better for everyone to force herself to stay nonchalant.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it…” Rek said, standing as well. “It sounds like—”
“There you are!” Jerica interrupted as the Rangers appeared in the doorway.
Aside from Uncle Derik and Rek, the Rangers were the people she would trust the most to stand at her side in a battle. They were all in their thirties to forties and had been training for their positions ever since they were younger than Jerica was herself. Zaire was in the lead – he had a short gray beard and was graying at the temples, streaking his jet-black hair.
He had been a Ranger for Atraya since her grandfather was still the king, nearly seventeen years ago; and remained just as faithful as ever, even with Uncle Levin’s radical shift in leadership when he took the throne suddenly in her infancy. She’d always felt a certain measure of respect for Zaire for standing by her family when they’d needed him most, rather than selling himself to another king’s treasury like others had done.
“Generals,” Zaire said respectfully. He gestured at the man standing behind him. He was much younger – probably somewhere in his early twenties. He had brown skin, black eyes, and even blacker hair. “Is Teryn alright for the second Ranger? The other senior Rangers were occupied when Lord Ainsley sent word for us to join you.”
“That’s fine,” Jerica answered, waving her hand dismissively. She’d seen Teryn around enough times to know he was well along in his training regime. She didn’t trust solely him to watch her back, but if Zaire trusted him enough to bring him along, that was enough for her. “With any luck, we will have wasted your time bringing you along anyway. I don’t expect you’ll need to assist.”
“Of course,” Zaire answered.
“Were you briefed why you’re here?”
“No, ma’am,” Zaire said.
“I wasn’t, either,” Rek muttered, walking closer to them.
“Rekard and I will use the tunnels to see if we can get a clear shot at Valeren from there,” Jerica explained, gesturing at the entrance. “You’ll stand guard to ensure our path stays clear when we retreat back to behind our line.”
“Understood,” Zaire answered. “So, one of us will stay here and one of us will stay at the other end?”
Zaire turned towards the young man at his side. “You’ll stay here. Listen for anyone in the tunnel. If it is not us, re-seal the entrance and call for help.”
“Sir,” Teryn answered.
Jerica nodded, looking between Rekard and Zaire. “Ready?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Zaire answered.
“Good.” Jerica grabbed one of the other torches on the wall of the monastery and then sat at the edge of the small hole. She lowered herself into the tunnel and stepped forward, shivering in the damp, musty corridor. She held the torch in front of herself and saw the stone walls coated with black slime.
She wrinkled her nose and turned sideways, carefully walking so that her arms wouldn’t brush against the walls. The tunnels were just wide enough that she probably could have managed walking normally, but it wasn’t worth it to risk the bare flesh of her arm coming in contact with the mold on the wall.
Rekard followed behind her, also turning sideways to avoid touching the walls. He bent slightly as he walked. The ceiling was just tall enough for him to walk standing upright, but too low for comfort.
Zaire came last, grunting as he struggled to get sideways in the narrow space. He was shorter than Rekard, but had broad, muscular shoulders from his years of training in hand to hand combat. A step or two forward and he’d found the right angle to follow behind.
The silence was deafening as they walked down the tunnel. The only sounds were the faint crackling of the torches, and Rekard’s quiet breaths just behind her. That, and the pounding of her heart in her own ears. When was she going to be smart enough to stop volunteering for these stupid plans?
Sure, let’s just sneak up on a sorcerer, that’s a great plan, genius, Jerica thought. Good gods I’m an idiot.
They came to the first closed gate. At certain points throughout the tunnel it suddenly opened up to a ‘T’ where they could stand three-wide, with one on either side of the main tunnel. Jerica held her torch forward and quickly undid the series of cross-bars securing the door, cringing at the clanging of metal against stone as she did so, then stepped backwards and pulled the heavy steel gate open. She gestured for Rekard to walk ahead of her, and followed close behind, making him unlatch and open the second gate, then took the lead again.
A few hundred meters past the second gate was the end of the tunnel, which opened in another T. There were some metal spikes driven in between the stones on the end – and a metal hatch overhead, just out of her reach.
“Allow me,” Zaire offered, stepping forward.
Jerica hesitated a moment, then stepped to the left, out of the way. She reached for his sword. “I can hold it while you open the hatch.”
“Very well.” He handed her the sword then climbed on the spikes until he could reach the hatch. There were several latches worked into this one as well that he had to unfasten, then he pushed the heavy metal hatch open, and climbed out of the tunnel. He reached his hand down to take his sword.
Jerica handed him her bow, quiver, and torch, then followed him up to the next level. She took her things back from him and started down the tunnel to their left as he helped Rekard get through the hatch with his sword and torch. They were inside the city wall. The inside of this wall was the back of a cell in the dungeons of the palace – one that they were careful to keep unoccupied by prisoners, but always locked, just in case anyone ever breached the wall.
Her ancestors had been certain to construct a nearly impenetrable fortress. The entire city wall was made by two layers of rocks, most of which were wide enough that she could lay her entire torso across them and still not reach the other side, and long enough that she could lay on them like a mattress and not come close to either end. In this one narrow section of wall, the inner layer of stones had been replaced with smaller stones, to allow space for an even narrower tunnel than they’d just come from.
Just a few meters ahead was another hatch that went back to the ground. This one was sealed from the top rather than the bottom, and had a massive rock sitting on top. She sighed and pressed her hip against the rock, pushing against it with all her weight until it tumbled over. She knelt and un-did the various latches on the top of the hatch and threw open the door, then carefully let herself through the small opening.
This tunnel was broader than the others, but rather than being straight, it curved and sharply led upward. At the very end, just before the next hatch, it suddenly narrowed and was barely wide enough for her larger companions to fit through at all, much less comfortably.
“Please,” Zaire said, gesturing at the hatch. “I’m here to take the risks that aren’t necessary for you.”
He was right.
Jerica nodded, and allowed him to brush past her to get to the hatch. It was unlikely that the Nykerians had found the entrance of this tunnel, and even less likely that they had anyone watching it, but it wasn’t worth the risk for her to take an arrow before she even got to Valeren. Zaire undid the latches and climbed out, then a moment later leaned down to the entrance. “All clear.”
Jerica handed her weapons up once more then scrambled out of the tunnel and took them back. This tunnel opened in the middle of a thicket of briars that were in the woods, off to the left of the city wall. The battle was several kilometers straight in front of them.
“Shall I stay here?” Zaire asked.
“Yes,” Jerica said. “We hopefully won’t be long.”
Jerica looked around and met Rek’s gaze. “Ready?”
“Great. Let’s go, then.” She bit back a sigh as she turned towards the thinnest region of the briars and began picking her way through the thorns.
She was so weary from the battle. It’d been three full days of dawn to dusk fighting, and her body and her spirit were drained. Her feet ached from the many hours she spent on them without even a moment’s rest, and her throat was raw from barking commands at her men. A twinge of pain shot through her back as she bent to avoid a thorn.
The next tunnel was a hundred meters further left from the castle wall, next to a large mound of boulders that had been naturally deposited in the rocky landscape. She tightened her grasp on her bow, desperately trying to muster up the energy for this next attack. She had to be at her best, for there to be any chance of killing Valeren. And she had to succeed; she just had to.
In the evenings, when her men and her squire would retreat to the barracks for a hot meal, bath, and sleep – she’d take roll and count up the number of men she’d lost in the day. And then came the nightly briefing, where she had to report her numbers to the War Council, and then take the berating that always came, whether the losses were her fault or not. She’d rather report tonight that she’d eliminated Valeren.
She knelt next to the narrow opening at the base of the mound of boulders, pushing aside one of the smaller rocks, and then unfastening the latches on the small metal door that covered the entrance to the opening. She looked up at Rek, standing nearby on her right. “You ready to go murder a sorcerer?”