I kept my eyes lowered like a servant’s as I passed between the guards at the entrance of the dungeon. I was relieved that they hardly looked at me. I was scared they would realize that I was a new face and question me, but I guess servants weren’t worth remembering.
I pictured the map Tallis had shown me of the dungeon’s layout so I would know how to get to the right cell. It wasn’t too difficult. I would go straight, take the third left, then go all the way back where Radon was, in the deepest part of the dungeon.
Some of the prisoners called out as I passed their cells, sticking their hands through the bars and calling for food or pleading for release. Most remained silent, watching me pass with hard eyes.
The farther I went, the fewer prisoners there were, until eventually I was passing empty cells and the only sounds were my feet shuffling across the stone floor. There were fewer torches lit too and shadows danced across the walls like many grimulin flying through the air.
The dungeon was bigger than I thought and it felt like I would be walking through the gloomy halls for hours before reaching the king’s cell. With every step, my apprehension grew. I kept expecting a grimulin to materialize from the shadows or a guard to leap from around the corner and wished that I had my sword with me. Tallis got all of our weapons back to us, but it would be ridiculous for a servant to carry a sword, so I left it in the rooms.
I finally reached the dead end where I was supposed to turn left, but instead of doing that, I stopped. There were scratching, growling sounds coming from the other direction.
Did someone lock a bunch of animals in the dungeon?
There weren’t any torches lit down that hall, so I laid the food on the floor and took a torch from the wall. I turned right and made my way toward the sounds. The snarling became more intense the closer I got. There was something familiar about the sound.
At the end of the hall was a wooden door with a tiny square window with bars. The door rattled and thumped with the force of something banging against it. I couldn’t see through the window, so I raised my torch higher and stepped closer.
A black face filled the square window. It appeared so suddenly that I stumbled backward.
I knew those eerie yellow eyes well. Grimulin.
It bared its teeth, then let out a shriek somewhere between a dog’s howl and a hawk’s call. It whipped around and flew deeper into the room.
There was a swarm of them in the little cell. They all were pacing or flying. Moving around the room as if something had agitated them.
The stone. They sensed it was here and were trying to get out of their confinement to get it.
I shuttered and backed away. There were more of them than I expected. I wondered why they were here and not out looking for the stone.
I made my way back to where I’d left the food and, after putting the torch back, picked it up and continued to the king’s cell.
Like the cell with the grimulin, the one that held the king had a small square-shaped, barred window at the top of the door.
Suddenly feeling awkward that I was about to meet a king in such diminished circumstances, I paused and cleared my throat. No one came to the window. There weren’t even noises from inside.
It seemed inconsiderate to simply peak into the barred window like I might with any other prisoner. I felt I needed permission to approach, just as I would a throne.
I cleared my throat again and took a step closer. “Highness? I need to…I would like to speak to you.”
Was that how you address a king in a prison cell?
A face appeared in the window. I recognized the broad forehead and brown eyes from the painting I’d seen of the king once when I’d visited the castle with my father. His hair was the same blondish-reddish color, but it was much longer and unkempt. His beard wasn’t neatly trimmed short, but fell to his chest in a thick, bushy mass. His hair wasn’t shiny and slicked back, but was a snarled gathering that hung down to his shoulders.
The guards may not have noticed that I was a new face, but King Radon did.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Dalan, Highness.”
His eyebrows lowered and I imagined his mouth was frowning under the hair on his lip. “Don’t call me that. It wouldn’t be good if anyone heard.”
There was no one this deep in the dungeon to hear, but I thought it was best to do what he said. I didn’t want to risk being marked as a Radon sympathizer and executed.
“The food goes down here,” he said. A small sliding door at the bottom of the door shuttered as he kicked it once to bring my attention to it.
I bent down and slid the panel up. An empty bowl sat there from his midday meal that I was supposed to take back with me.
“What happened to the other boy?” he asked.
“What? Oh, nothing. I’m just replacing him for today.”
He looked relieved. Probably glad that the boy wasn’t caught bringing food to Radon and executed. I swallowed and slid the food into the hole beside the empty bowl.
He took it, and by the time I stood up, the window was empty. He was somewhere off the side where I couldn’t see him.
“There’s something else,” I said. “Something else I have to give you.”
His pale face appeared in the window. “Well?” he asked.
I didn’t know where to start or how much to explain, so I simply pulled the stone from under my shirt.
The king stared for a moment as if seeing a mirage.
“They found it.” He said the words lowly, as if any loud noise may make it disappear. “How?” he asked, his eyes leaving the stone to meet mine.
Before I could answer, he said, “Put it back under your shirt.”
“But Tallis said to give it to you.”
“Put it back,” he said firmly. His face was pained, like a man in the desert shown water, but not being able to drink any. “I can’t take it.”
I blinked. The stone was his. And without it, his life could be over at any moment. We’d gone through so much to get it to him. He couldn’t just refuse to take it.
“But it’s yours.”
“You think I wouldn’t like to have it back?” His tone was harsh. “That I wouldn’t like to stop living every moment waiting for my brother to find out that my protection is gone so he can finally end my life?” He looked away and took a breath to compose himself. When he looked back at me, there was pain in his eyes.
“The moment I take that stone, Bayvlad will be down here with his grimulin to claim it.”
I was about to say that Bayvlad’s grimulin were out looking for the stone, but as I’d just discovered, he had more of them than we thought.
“But what if Ryker finds out that you don’t have the stone?”
He gave a forced laugh. “As long as Bayvlad is void of his prize, he won’t let my brother know that the stone is missing. That would mean that my brother would send out search parties to find the stone, and Bayvlad doesn’t want to risk him finding it first.”
“You could still take it. Bayvlad wouldn’t know.”
He shook his head. “Bayvlad is down here all the time with one of those fiendish creatures. Making sure the stone hasn’t reappeared somehow. He would find out, have his ugly creatures take the stone, then either leave me here to rot or let his pets devour me. You have to keep it.”
“I can’t keep it.” Here I was again, thinking I’d finally get rid of this thing only to be told I needed to keep it. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Don’t let Bayvlad get it,” he growled. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Just take it back to Tallis and tell him what I said. I’m sure he can come up with something.”
“Tallis is out of ideas,” I said. “And keeping it away from Bayvlad isn’t that simple. I’ve been attacked by grimulin several times trying to get here, and it’s only a matter of time before they find me again.”
I wondered if I’d spoken too boldly, but he didn’t seem to notice if I were out of line.
“You brought it here?” he asked, surprised.
I nodded and told him a quick version of how I found the stone and ended up here.
There was a moment of silence, then I said, “He’ll find out I have it just as fast.”
Radon shook his head. “He won’t. He can’t send his grimulin to look for you in the castle without drawing suspicion to himself.”
I guessed he was right. It was easy for Bayvlad to take it from Radon, down here where no one would see. But I didn’t see how keeping the stone would help anything. Radon would still be here. Ryker would still be on the throne.
I stayed silent for a moment, a plan forming in my mind.
“We need Ryker to see the grimulin,” I said.
“What?” The king looked at me with tired eyes.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said shoving the stone into my shirt again. Then I raced off, forgetting that I was supposed to collect the dirty bowl used for the midday meal.
This chapter doesn’t end with any choices and usually when that happens I’ll post the next chapter the day after. I decided not to do that this time because chapter 24 is a little over 2,000 words (which is double the words in most of the chapters) and I didn’t want to overwhelm you.
I also didn’t want to overwhelm my proofreader, Nandini. 🙂
But the poll will be back next week, so be ready to vote! As The Hashna Stone comes to an end, there will be fewer scenes that end with decisions to be made. So enjoy the voting while you can!