‘Just a bit higher,’ Aefion told Malgareus. Perched atop the wyrm’s head, standing between the magnificent, golden horns, he felt the lurch as he rose higher above the cavern floor. The hissing statue glared defiantly as he drew level with it, as if challenging him. He stared back, intrigued by the incredible workmanship. ‘Stop,’ he commanded, looking down. He was a fair way up, high enough to cause some serious damage if he fell.
‘Are you ready to get off now?’ Malgareus was getting impatient.
‘No I think I’ll stay here and take a nap,’ Aefion said sarcastically before he stepped gingerly onto the narrow ledge, examining the statue. ’It’s very lifelike.’
‘Well, considering the fact that it was once a real serpent, yes it does look somewhat lifelike.’ The wyrm angled his head to eye the elf.
‘Real? How did it happen?’
‘Believe me; you don’t want to know what that human has in his store rooms.’
Aefion paused in his examination. If Tenegrin had hunted down ten serpents especially for this subterranean complex, he must have been working on his dire schemes for quite a while, far longer than the short time Malgareus had been imprisoned. What had he been plotting over the course of several cycles? Before he could give words to thoughts, the wyrm quickly changed the topic.
‘Do you know what you’re looking for?’
‘A hidden switch or lever.’ Aefion’s fingers ran lightly across the marble, probing.
There was a hiss and a churning of wheels and cogs as the elf’s hand pressed the serpent’s left eye. It was followed by the grinding of stone and a faint light shone from a gap behind the statue. Rubble and dust was pushed over the edge as the statue slid forwards, propelled by an unseen mechanism.
‘Fascinating,’ Aefion breathed. He turned to look down at Malgareus. ‘Well, thank your for your aid. I will be back.’
‘I hope so,’ Malgareus grumbled as the elf vanished. ‘And don’t take your time!’ He was just settling down, shutting his eyes and preparing for another period of lonely silence in the dark, when Aefion reappeared.
‘How long can you last without food?’
‘Longer than your entire life so far,’ Malgareus snorted. ‘Now just go!’
A short tunnel hacked out of the rock led upwards into a dirty, earth-floored corridor. Five arched doors lined the left-hand wall, heavily banded with brass strips. Each door had a small, barred window through which shone a beam of greyish light.
Aefion gazed through the first opening. Inside there was nothing remarkable: just a pair of rusting, iron manacles attached to the grimy wall. The next cell was the same, dismally small and smelling of rotting hay.
As he looked into the third cell he saw her.
Her wrists were raised above her head, encased in heavy manacles suspended on chains bolted to the wall. She was wearing a dress that was torn in places, revealing her skin beneath. Her brown hair hung limply around her slender shoulders, and her eyes were closed. She was beautiful, for a human, but tearful.
‘Princess Cassandra,’ Aefion called. ’I’ve come…’
‘To rescue me, yes I’ve heard it before,’ the girl sneered, not opening her eyes. Her voice sounded creaky, as if she was forcing herself to speak. ‘You men are all so dull, making up excuses before taking advantage of a girl. Why don’t you just get lost?’
Aefion paused, stunned. He had not expected this. Frowning, he tried again.
‘I think you mistake me for someone else, a human perhaps. I…’
‘Heard that one too,’ she replied despairingly. ‘Go away and leave me alone.’
‘But I’m not a human,’ he snarled the last word viciously.
‘I tell you what – go tell Jasper I’d rather see him than one of his loathsome thugs.’ Now her voice was tinged with venom. ‘At lease he’s honest with his intentions.’
Suddenly the tears in her dress made sense. She thought he was a human: a man who had come to use her. He stared at her through the door’s barred window, willing her to open her eyes and see for herself. Her eyes stayed closed. Although he couldn’t possibly understand what she’d been through, he knew that being raped was a terrible thing to happen to anyone, unthinkable amongst the Elde. After Cassandra escaped, she was most certainly going to be withdrawn and possibly very spiteful. As for vengeful, he was certain she’d be holding a grudge a thousand pages long.
’Don’t worry,’ Aefion kept his voice calm. ‘I am an Elde; my name is Aefion. Those humans had no right to do what they did. I’m going to find a way to open this door, and then I’m going to get you out. Just hang in there.’ That was a bad choice of words, he thought, cursing mentally, but luckily there was no rebuke forthcoming. He cast about for something to pick the lock. ‘And I am not a filthy human,’ he added hotly, regretting his tone seconds after it left his mouth.
There was silence from the other side of the door.
The floor was well used and he could detect traces of footprints. They belonged to boots, the like of which Jasper’s men would probably wear. But there were no bones, or wires, or anything that would help him open the door. Trying to jam the point of his sword into the lock would be pointless, in more ways than one.
He was stuck. He was going to have to leave her alone. Hopefully Tenegrin’s thugs wouldn’t come for a bit of pleasure while he was gone, but it was a risk he had to take. Cursing, he slammed his shoulder up against the door. It didn’t budge.
He hated this feeling of helplessness. The princess was mere metres away and he couldn’t do anything about it. Examining the walls he wasn’t surprised to find they were solid rock. He’d have more chance chewing through a brick wall with his teeth than digging a hole into the cell. Smashing his fist against the wall in frustration, he moved back to the small window in the door.
‘Cassandra,’ he shouted. ‘I have to leave you for a while. The door won’t open. But I’ll be back. I am not giving up, you understand? I am not giving up. There just isn’t a way to open the door. If the humans come, you must fight them. Do you hear me, Cassandra? You have to fight them, do not give in to them, and do not let them break your spirit.’ He paused, but no other words came. Turning, he trudged down the corridor.
The fourth door was unlocked and slightly ajar so he put his shoulder against it and heaved it open. Inside he found the grisly remains of a long-dead prisoner. The bones were still chained to the wall, collapsed into a miserable heap in one corner. To his eyes they looked too old and frail to use as lock-picks. Instead, he carefully pushed the skeleton aside with his boot. Crouching down and using his hands, he brushed clear the layers of dirt and wasted strands of hay to reveal a section of wooden planks.
It was another trap door.