For a moment all was blackness in the stairwell where Einarr and Sivid stood, hearing only the sounds of their breathing to know they still existed. Then their eyes adjusted to the tiny bit of light that snuck past the edges of the door – just enough that Sivid was able to strike a torch with his firestarter. Yellow light flared into life and Einarr blinked against its sudden brilliance.
He raised an eyebrow at his partner, but the smaller man only shook his head. That they carried yellow flame would hardly be the only thing to betray them now that they were inside… and better to be able to see, if their very presence here would mark them as interlopers.
Below them, the staircase spiralled around the edges of the shaft, evidently cut from living rock. The glint of wet stone caught Einarr’s attention from the first bend, although where the water came from he could not be sure. Down they went, step by careful step around the edges of the shaft, until Einarr wondered just how deeply they would be buried if they were caught.
He banished the thought, but nearly missed that Sivid had stopped on the step ahead. “What is it?”
Sivid shook his head and gestured down into the center of the shaft with their torch. Voices wafted up, their taunting tone unmistakable even though their words were nonsense. Then came another voice, one that rang clear as a bell and was both very feminine and achingly familiar.
“Laugh all you want, you pantywaisted scum.”
Einarr strained his ears, listening for her to go on.
“Once Father hears of this, you’ll have not one but two kingdoms after your heads. And that’s if there’s anything left once I’m done with you.”
She didn’t realize. The warmth of knowing his love was alive and in good health chilled: how could she know that she was destined for an altar? That, in all likelihood, if her rescuers had gone for help she would be dead before it arrived? There might still be one or two clans that practiced human sacrifice, somewhere in the archipelagos south of the Empire or locked away on remote islands, but Einarr had never encountered them. Could Runa have, with as little as she had traveled?
Sivid moved to block his path down the stairs, and that was when Einarr realized he was poised to run. He growled softly, deep in his throat, and stepped back up.
Einarr turned on his heel, his shoulders unnaturally straight. “Let’s go.”
When they returned to the top of the stair and the door they had come in by, neither Einarr nor Sivid could find how to open the door again. Wide-eyed, Einarr exchanged looks with his companion even as Sivid cursed under his breath. That would get them nowhere, though. Einarr drew his brow down: he couldn’t even see the crack that indicated where the door was right now.
With a frown, Einarr took off his helmet and gestured for Sivid to hand him the torch.
With a shrug, Sivid thrust the torch into Einarr’s outstretched hand and began to twist back around to examine the door, his hands now free. Before he could complete the movement, though, Einarr had hidden the torch under his doffed helm.
It did not, quite, plunge them back into blackness, but the light dimmed enough that Sivid stopped short, turning his full attention back to his Prince.
“We could see light from around the door before, right?” Einarr spoke quietly, well aware that if the guards’ voices echoed up, theirs would echo down.
Canny Sivid nodded and shrugged out of his cloak. “Set it down,” he whispered. “Too much light for that, yet.”
Einarr grunted and bent to lay the torch and helmet on a corner of the landing near the wall. He could hear those same unintelligible voices again. Sivid would have to hurry: Einarr was certain he could fend off a pair of guards. Maybe more. But a fight in here would echo enough to bring the garrison down on their heads. That, Einarr felt certain, would leave Runa worse off than before.
The flame threatened to gutter, but did not go out as it rested on the stone. Then Sivid carefully lay his cloak over the helmet guarding the flame. The world became black.
From down below, Einarr could hear the sound of footsteps. Please hurry, Sivid. Equally disastrous to a fight with the guards would be if the cloak caught fire despite their precautions.
Einarr could now see the lump of cloak against the less-black stone of the wall, though. His eyes were beginning to adjust, although after those few minutes with regular flame the blue-purple light from outside seemed even more alien.
He definitely heard footsteps now, the sound of boots against the stone steps. Einarr held his breath, but all that did was allow him to hear the scrape of Sivid’s tools against the door and the incomprehensible mutterings of the unlucky fellows coming to investigate.
Gently Einarr released the air again. He closed his eyes and focused on listening to the rhythmic sound of the men coming up – and they were definitely coming up. When he had the rhythm, he moved down one step in the beat where a guard’s foot struck the floor. Einarr opened his eyes and waited there, his hand poised to draw Sinmora if and when the need arose. And when that time came, he would fight his way down and bring Runa out with him. You didn’t always get to choose the field you died on, after all.
“Finally,” Sivid breathed. The cold light was marginally brighter now. The rustle of heavy cloth and the sudden brightening of the chamber told Einarr that his partner had reclaimed his cloak.
Einarr needed no more signal. He did not so much as turn as lunge on his heel, scooping up his rather warm helmet under his arm and tugging his hood forward. Sivid kicked their still-smoldering torch off the edge of the steps.
A noise of confusion sounded from the landing below, but Einarr and Sivid were already through the door, pulling it closed behind them.