In a flash of panic and instinct, Breanna smashed the hard oak staff against the guard’s helmet. He tumbled to the ground in a clanging of metal against rock.
Her whole body was shaking as she stared down at the little creature. Motionless, his bronze helmet, a bright version of Breanna’s own, lay askew.
Breathing hard, she nudged him with the end of the staff. He was out cold and she was filled with a mixture of relief and dread; she hadn’t killed him, but he could wake any moment.
Glancing carefully around to ensure she was now alone, she grabbed the little guard’s shoulders and dragged him into an alcove. Relieved that it had been so easy for her to deal with the creature. Perhaps hunting through these tunnels wouldn’t be so difficult after all.
But she knew she had to move on quickly. Even if the guard didn’t wake, there could be a dozen or more who had heard the clamour and would wander over to investigate.
The staff thrummed reassuringly in her hand, and the trail of gold thread led her on down the corridor and then… into a dead-end.
A moment of panic gripped her, wondering if she had been mistaken. She had felt sure the thread had been leading her somewhere but had she been a fool? Had she been doing nothing but chasing a shadow?
The wall was much like the others she had passed. Rough-hewn rock, with marks that appeared as though claws had scraped at the wall although she realised, it was more likely caused by the beaks of the little Iskia forced to dig these tunnels by their captors. A small guttering rushlight that hung in an alcove was all she had to see by, it cast flickering shadows against the rock and she noticed a small hole in the wall up ahead.
Not large enough to crawl through by any means, barely enough to get a hand through. But that was where the golden thread from the staff was leading her.
It had brought her so far, what was a few more feet?
She crept along the passage, feeling as though beyond that wall could be something that was kept at bay for a reason. Perhaps there were tiny crawling creatures within that only needed her presence to be disturbed and come swarming at her, or perhaps she had missed an important turn somewhere and she would find herself just inches from an underground ruler who would demand her head the moment he smelled an intruder.
Barely able to breathe in her fear, Breanna edged up to the wall. The thread of gold passed straight through the tiny window and into the blackness beyond. Desperately trying to peer into the dark, Breanna gasped.
The thread wound its way through the air, glimmering with its tiny light, and came to rest in the centre of the back of a figure. A figure in a green tunic with dark bronze hair-
Leasha spun around at her name, the thread didn’t light up her face instead piercing her chest between the ribs but it gave enough light for Breanna to see her movement, see her clamber from the floor and rush to the wall.
“Bree?” Leasha’s green eyes appeared at the small stone window and stared out confused.
Hurriedly, Breanna remembered herself and removed the helmet. “It’s me,” she said peering through the window.
“By Dragon’s Breath,” Leasha panted, her eyes glistening, “I thought I’d never see you again!” She squeezed her hand through the window, narrower than Breanna’s but still too large to fit all the way, and Breanna imitated her and they were just able to touch the very tips of their fingers together.
“Where is the door?” Breanna said breathlessly, the all too brief touch only made her more desperate for Leasha.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “As far as I can tell, this is the only way in or out.”
“This?” Breanna asked, looking at the tiny window, “But how on earth did you get in?”
“We woke up in here.”
“We? Is Mim with you?”
“She is, but… she doesn’t have her staff.”
“It’s all right, I have it.”
“You do?” Through the gap Breanna could see Leasha’s eyes widen in wonder, “but how? And how did you find us?”
“I…” Breanna started, “I’m not sure, but all that matters now is getting you out.”
“Lemme talk to ‘er.” It was Mim’s muffled voice just beyond the wall, she sounded tired and hungry. In a moment, Leahsa’s bright green eyes were gone and replaced with Mim’s piercing black gaze. “Breanna?” She hissed urgently.
“Good, now, there’s not a flicker of light to see your own backside by, but this thing looks like the door-“
“Dwarves have something similar, now, move your hands along, feel for the edges.”
Breanna did as she was asked, the dim flicker of the rushlight was barely enough to illuminate this dark corner and she was just about to go to fetch it from its alcove when her hand reached the edge. She let out a sharp breath, it was a door. “Yes!” she cried, “I’ve found it.” The corner was rounded and her hand moved all around the edge. It was a huge circular seal, and to her left was the deep recess into which it could be rolled.
“Good, girl. Now, all yous have to do is roll it open.”
But it was a giant stone, her outstretched hand could barely reach the top and it was a full arm span across. Even if it could be rolled open as Mim asked, she wasn’t sure she had the strength to do it on her own.
But she wasn’t on her own.
“If I push the staff through, can you help push from the other side?”
There was a long moment of silence.
“Do it.” Was Mim’s reply.
Breanna took the tapered end of the magic staff, it was strong but she had no idea if it would be strong enough. She felt Mim take the other end, the thrumming of the magic grew more intense with another wizard’s hand placed upon it.
“On the count of three,” Mim said. “One… Two… Three.” With a great heave, the stone growled and began to turn. As it reached the halfway point she felt the weight grow suddenly lighter and turned back to see a hand around the far edge where Leasha had emerged.
“Hold it steady!” Mim shouted, then she let go and almost the full weight of the stone fell back onto Breanna’s arms. She braced herself and Leasha held the stone from the back as Mim somehow slid through and appeared at Breanna’s side.
Together they held the staff and Leasha squeezed out the rest of the way before they finally let the stone fall back into place. And Breanna smiled at the thought that the next time the guards came to check on their prisoners, the cell would be inexplicably empty.
“By the fire of the mountain,” Mim whispered exhausted as she took the staff from the stone window.
But Breanna was paying the old wizard no heed. It was the Princess who took her attention.
Breanna’s breath had stilled within her chest as the elf maiden stood before her. The woman she had thought she would never see again and the woman she was determined to never, ever, be parted from. She couldn’t hold herself back. In a rush of joy, she surged forward pulling Leasha in to embrace and once their lips touched, she sank into her, pulling her ever closer as if by the strength of their embrace they could stay together forever.
“How the blazes did you find us?” Mim demanded.
Reluctantly, they broke apart, and Breanna, still grinning, turned to Mim. “Your staff showed me the way.”
Mim took stared at it with something close to wonder, almost embracing it. “Right,” she said with a nod. “Now, where is that brother of yours?”
It was as if she had been stabbed through the stomach. She opened her mouth but the words wouldn’t form on her dry tongue. “Gone.” was all she could whisper.
She felt Leasha squeeze her hand. But she couldn’t look at either of them.
She was relieved when Mim coughed and moved onto their most immediate problem. “Right, let’s find a way out of ‘ere.”
“No,” Breanna said suddenly desperate, ” we have to rescue the others!” When Mim and Leasha stared at her blankly she added, “the Iskia.”
“Iskia?” Mim spluttered. “You think we ought to risk our lives for some ruddy birds?” she asked incredulously.
A ball of rage, unfamiliar to her, swelled within her gut. “Yes,” she replied flatly, “But, will you risk your lives for me?”
“Of course,” Leasha said a warm hand upon her arm.
To Breanna’s surprise, Mim smiled and nodded. “So be it.”