Einarr turned on his heel and headed back to the main hall, trying not to smile at Runa’s obvious confusion.
“Einarr, what are you — ?”
“It may be nothing. If my hunch is right, though, our two mysteries may have solved each other.”
She asked no more questions as they walked briskly back to rejoin the others.
The door opened to the warm glow of firelight and the sight of Erik stirring a large iron pot over the fire while Jorir roughly chopped cabbages and turnips. Jorir glanced up from his chopping. “Anything interesting?”
“Maybe.” Einarr answered half-consciously as he continued on toward the blank spot on the wall where the burned portrait had hung.
Erik raised an eyebrow and watched from the corner of his eye, still stirring what would evidently be the evening’s dinner. Einarr paid it no mind, turning his full attention to the bare boards of the wall.
Even on this close examination Einarr could see no seam. Probably he could look for one all night without finding it. Instead, he began knocking on the wood.
Hollow. Just like he’d expected. His mouth curled into a wry smile. “They weren’t trying to hide a painting, Erik. They – those in the know, anyway – were looking for an escape route.”
“But there were all those footprints headed out of the door…” Jorir’s objection was solid, of couse.
“Based on what little we know already, I can think of any number of reasons why some might go through the front door, whether or not they knew about a back way. We just don’t know enough. But now we might have a track to follow.”
All three of his companions just stared at him for a long moment. “I didn’t say I wanted to follow it tonight, did I? We’ve already been going all day. How long until dinner?”
Given that dinner was vegetable soup and stale bread, the four of them still managed to eat their fill. It was tasty enough Einarr almost didn’t miss the meat – almost. As they sat relaxing after their meal, each nursing a tankard of ale, an idea struck Einarr. “Runa,” he ventured. “Might we trouble you for a tale?”
“I suppose you might.” Runa resettled herself on her bench, plucking at the folds of her skirt. “What sort of tale would you have?”
Einarr had just opened his mouth to answer when an eerie wail rose above the crackling of their fire. “What is that?”
“Nothing good.” Runa spoke the words they all thought. Meanwhile, Erik dashed to peek out the door.
The big man shook his head. “Not that I can see. Blacker’n pitch out here, though, and not a breath of wind.”
“Odds that this is whatever chased away the locals?” Einarr knew where he’d put his money.
“High,” Jorir confirmed. Runa and Erik made noises of agreement.
“Yeah, that’s my thought as well.” He also was more interested, for the moment at least, in finding the locals than in facing off against some unknown, half-forgotten beast. “Help me find the catch for the hidden door.”
Erik and Einarr both headed to check behind the bar, on the theory that there the proprietor could best control access, while Runa and Jorir began searching the walls themselves.
The wailing grew louder.
Einarr smacked a palm against the bar. What would the switch even look like? There were no levers back here, not that he could see.
“Calm down,” Runa said, running her hand up the wall behind a bear skin. “We’ll find it.”
He was sure they would. Now if only they found it in time. Einarr was beginning to feel a cold wind on the back of his neck, and it made him more anxious than he cared to admit.
A soft click made itself heard over the wailing and the crackle of fire both. As one, Einarr, Erik, and Runa all turned to look at the dwarf, who grinned broadly. Behind him, a section of wall just barely as broad as a man at the shoulders slid open to reveal the darkness beyond.
“There we have it. Now shall we see if the door leads us away from that accursed racket?”
Not one of them needed more of an invitation. Erik thought to light the end of a long piece of firewood, and then the four of them were through and pulling the door closed behind them.
Inside, the four had to press their backs against the wall and sidle along it to fit for the first several feet until they reached a more open room containing nothing but the mouth of a staircase. How many patrons of the bar had fled this way? Were they even fleeing the same thing that drove Einarr and his friends tonight? He needed information: if they could just catch up with the refugees, he was sure they could get it.
Einarr shook his head. No time for that now. “Down we go.”
The staircase descended steeply for a dozen yards or so before levelling out into a dirt ramp and then, finally, to what might have otherwise been an ordinary basement hallway.
The wailing, thankfully, was no longer audible down here. Einarr began to doubt that, whatever it was, was responsible for the town’s desertion. Faced with such an unearthly cry, Einarr could think of no-one who would willingly venture out towards it.
The floor of the tunnel was packed dirt, but thankfully not so hard-packed as to obscure the footprints of those who had gone before. “I think we’re on the right track.”
The tunnel ahead stretched on, straight and regular, far past the end of the light from Erik’s brand with those footprints the only sign that people had ever before set foot here. Einarr strode off after them, trailed by his friends, in search of a way back home.
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