The chilling final chapter of the second book in my epic fantasy trilogy
|The brownies were taken into a cavern system that, from the malicious lights springing here and there to illuminate bands of redcaps, appeared to go on forever. Hobyahs crowed with glee, jeering and jabbing and biting. Fettered like slaves, there was nothing that the brownies could do to prevent themselves being wounded.
Boroden struggled, defiantly at first then with increasing terror. The tight irons lacerated the skin of his neck and wrists.
More redcap guards closed in, stronger and cleverer opponents than the hobyahs and obedient to Krysila’s orders. A militant rabble of hobyahs constantly mobbed the redcaps, trying to seize the prisoners and take justice into their own hands.
Around the walls of the cave was all manner of horrendous torture equipment that made Boroden shudder to look upon. The smell oppressed every breath that Boroden took; a stench of death trapped long and airless in the dank underground caves.
So preoccupied had Boroden been with struggling that it was with a jolt of panic that he realised that many of his companions were missing, torn apart in the skirmish. The redcap guard had strengthened, and the remaining four brownies got hastened along by vicious tugs.
They came to a vast system of fissures scaring the cavern floor. Three redcaps seized Boroden, their grip like iron. Another fastened a rope at his neck and he was dragged to the edge of the nearest pit. Too choked with panic to struggle, Boroden at first thought he was to be hung. Then he recalled that the rope only fastened to the chains about his neck and waist.
With a rough shove he was thrown off, falling far into the void before his feet found a purchase on the slippery rock wall. Harfan was soon beside Boroden offering Hëkitarka instructions for the descent to reassure him, although his heart was pounding so loud that he barely heard them.
By the time they reached the bottom they were bruised and numb and glad to pause, though the bed of icy, oozy gunge covering the floor of their prison dampened their hopes of a rest. A few bold hobyahs rained stones down upon them before being chased off by the redcap guards who stood stationed around the edge of each pit.
Dazed, Boroden took a step forward but his foot hit upon something buried on the cave floor, something hard which moved. He drew his foot out but pulled up the object too. It was a skull. He kicked it away, a vile coldness creeping over him. At the far end of the cave something stirred in the darkness.
‘Carnelian.’ The joy of seeing him again after such horror felt almost surreal. Boroden threw himself down beside his friend and squeezed his hands.
A smile played about the face of the older brownie, which had become almost too tired and drawn to contain it. ‘So, they’ve caught you too? I did pray that you’d never come here.’
‘Well, we have, and we’ll get out again.’ Harfan set his shoulders defiantly.
A hideous scream.
‘Aira!’ Boroden yelped, looking up in the direction from which her cries came as if by some chance he might see her. For a second, he was glad. She was still alive. But for how long?
The sound echoed, mocked eerily by the icy walls of stone. The relentless screams sounded full of terror. They all knew that Aira’s lifeblood was at stake.
‘No! Please, no. What are they doing to her? Make them stop,’ Boroden whimpered distractedly.
Nearly an hour must have passed. Still Aira shrieked. Boroden could sense the agony of her ordeal as if it were his own.
‘We’ve got to do something. There must be a way,’ Harfan declared, leaping at the slippery surface of the rock face. As he did so he dislodged another skeleton.
‘Boroden, what’s that behind you?’ Hëkitarka asked.
So permeated was Boroden’s mind by Aira’s screams that he did not think to look round until Hëkitarka grabbed his arm. Something moved in the mire filling the cave floor. For an instant Boroden caught a glimpse of a long, legless creature, armoured in black. Then it brushed his ankles. There was a movement in the opposite end of the cave. Another creature surfaced. The stinking pool became a writhing mass of worms.
‘Get up on the rock,’ Harfan cried. His climb had been thwarted by a sheer expanse of rock, but he managed to find a dry ledge and tried to pull Hëkitarka up after him. Unfortunately, there was only space for one.
The brownies took it in turns, the worms biting their legs as soon as they came down. Boroden let Carnelian stay there the longest, cut to see his old friend’s grey pallor and sudden weakness as he listened helpless to his foster daughter being tortured.
Boroden cursed not having escaped before to save his loved ones though he knew it was pointless. ‘Krysila!’ he yelled. His cry, deep underground, was drowned by Aira’s piercing screams and died unheard.
Boroden called again and again until his throat was racked and dry, though Harfan tried to persuade him not to. He had almost given up when a dark figure loomed, silhouetted like an empty keyhole against the cavern above.
‘What is it?’ Vortimus shouted down.
‘Fetch the lady Krysila here. Tell her I will come to terms. Make her stop torturing Aira,’ Boroden demanded.
Vortimus turned away without a reply. Some time later Aira’s cries stopped, being replaced by sobbing. Carnelian wept too, relieved that she had some respite.
Krysila appeared at the head of the fissure in the form of Betaine Clarick, the form in which she had tricked Boroden’s father out of his kingdom. She looked down imperiously on her prisoners like some jade and black bird in her winged dress. ‘You called me? Your father is gone, brownie, and you would have best made your pleas to him. It is a little too late now for a change of heart as far as I’m concerned. I’m more interested in finding the sword, not gaining your obedience.’
‘You let Aira be, that is what I ask. Do anything to me that you like, but do not torture her.’
Krysila’s lips curled into a cruel smile, like a cat. ‘You would have me spare her, would you? Yet your words seal her fate. I want to torture you to the limit. Your own death would not be as painful to you as hers, you’ve just revealed that yourself. Therefore, I must go with the most painful option. The girl must die.’
‘That’s my daughter, you monster!’
Their protests echoed pointlessly off the cavern walls. Krysila had already turned away.
‘What are we going to do?’ Boroden asked despairingly.
‘I don’t know,’ Carnelian replied irritably, frustrated by his helplessness and dreading the moments ahead.
Aira began to scream again, prolonged yells this time.
Boroden hunched himself up like a hedgehog, his hands pressed over his ears. This did little to veil the sound. Nor could he keep himself from looking in its direction, up out at the nebulous light of the cave above them. It illuminated the raindrops falling from the roof in silver spines and the quick, inky silhouettes of bats. Bloodsuckers Boroden guessed from the sharp teeth protruding from their swinish faces. Leanan Sídhe evidently had a fondness for hideous, bloodsucking animals, akin to herself, Boroden thought.
Aira’s shrieks became louder, almost too agonised to catch her words. ‘No, no! Please! I can’t. No!’
Then fell a silence so sudden that it had the effect of unexpected thunder.
Boroden gasped as though he had been stabbed in the back, the horror of what had happened overwhelming him. Hëkitarka screamed in rage. Carnelian closed his eyes and prayed, tears streaming down his cheeks.
‘They’ve killed Aira,’ Carnelian said finally.