Chapter 26 – In The Dark

CHapter 26

Systa kept her eyes closed and held Skógi’s hand as tightly as she could. Under the bodies, the pervasive stink of sweat and blood made it almost impossible to breath. The cart they had been piled onto along with the rest of the bodies was so rickety that every cobblestone rattled them down to their bones.

It had been easy to sneak into the camp while the dwarfs attacked. Each side had been too distracted to notice the two riderless bison running away into the distance, or the two extra bodies slumped next to one of the yurts. One body had a tear in the veil wrapped around its stomach, and blood and entrails protruded from it. Systa just prayed none of the dwarfs would notice the entrails were not perfectly fresh. The dead dwarf she had tortured to death had been a little more ripe than she had wanted. None of the dwarfs noticed. They were all far too excited from their hunt to care, as they tossed all the bodies they could find into the cart.

“No live ones this time!” she heard one of the dwarfs shout. “Just the dead ones.”

Systa pressed her other hand over the pouch hidden under her sash and prayed that they would reach the city quickly. She longed not only for the chance to breath, but also for relief from terrible feeling of panic which had built up in her chest at too familiar smell of dwarfs and blood.

At last the sounds around the cart changed from the banter of dwarfs to the shouts and hollers of hundreds of dwarfs. She could hear woman and children among them. The words grœnn naðr were repeated again and again.

“Systa! Systa, breathe!” Skógi whispered, as her nails dug into his hand.

Systa closed her eyes and tried to picture the plains with the clear open air above her, blue sky for miles, and cold wind on her skin, but she could not. She could only imagine the stone roof above her and smell the enclosed air in the city, with no trace of wind or the fragrance of grass. Worse still, dwarfs surrounded them, as they bayed at the bodies, just like they had in the catacombs of Waidu.

The cart jolted to a halt and Systa’s breath caught in her throat. This was it. One by one the bodies above them were dragged away towards an enormous effigy of a wooden goblin and tied onto the lattice frame. Systa stared up at the stone roof far above her. Without realising, she reached for Skógi’s hand and held it as tightly as she could.

I’m going to die in a stone tomb. Dear Un, I’m going to die with dwarfs…

In once quick smooth movement they both slid down from the cart, the blood all over them making it easy, and reached for the pouches in their sashes. The few dwarfs who didn’t have their backs to the cart screamed in terror as two of the ‘dead’ goblins stood up and tossed several handfuls of what looked like white dirt onto the crowd. The speed at which the crowd moved away from them was truly remarkable, the guards crushed together in the crowd like fish trapped in a maelstrom as everyone surged to get away from Systa and Skógi.

As quickly as she could Systa looked around the enormous cavern for anything which resembled some kind of home. Several balconies protruded the cavern walls, but nothing was easily accessible from the ground.

“Skógi, this way!”

They both ran for one of the nearest tunnels as fast as they could and threw the last of the kelic worms into the crowd. Systa looked around desperately. Her knives were ready in her hands. She was sure that at any moment soldiers would descend on them from every corner.

“There! Skógi! There!” Systa pointed a house door not far from them and ran up the steps towards it. When the door did not open instantly, Systa reached for one of the long bone pin knives she kept slotted inside her side braids and slid it inside the lock. Skógi guarded her back as she tried to open the door.

Systa swore with frustration. The lock here was much finer than the lock she had broken in Waidu. “I can’t open it!”

She turned to Skógi, her eyes on his hand.

“Don’t even think about it!” Skógi laughed nervously.

Systa looked up at the balcony above them and then back at him. Without a word between them Skógi bent his knees, knotted his hands together like a stirrup and nodded at her. She leapt up towards the balcony, propelled by the extra force of Skógi, and managed to grab hold of the edge. She pulled herself over, undid her veil from around her waist and neck to toss the end down to him. As soon as his hand gripped the edge of the balcony, Systa pulled him over and re-wrapped the veil.

“Why are we here?” Skógi whispered to her. “Shouldn’t we be heading to the gate?”

“We’ll never make it through the gate, too many dwarfs,” Systa replied. She stood up to open the door to the house. “We found the sewer outlet, but I need to know where it starts.”

“Why? What does it matter where they shit?”

Systa ran through the open doorway into the house. Skógi followed her. They ran through room after room until they reached the top of the stairs, only to bump into a servant. Systa ran her dagger through her throat before she could scream.

“You could have asked for directions.” Skógi laughed.

They dashed down the stairs, then ran past the kitchen, before Systa skidded to a halt. The door near the fireplace looked promising. “There!”

Systa kicked open the door, relieved to see the wooden seat at the end of the narrow room. She ran up to it and began to pull up the wooden boards which made the seat. Skógi pulled a revolted face.

“You’re really going to go down that?”

“If this leads to one of the outlets Ótama found we can escape alive. I don’t know about you but I really want to see my sister again. Even though she’ll probably kill me once I get back.” Systa tore up the last piece of wood and gagged a little as she looked down into the tunnel below.

“Well, you did warn me it would be a shit day.” Skógi smiled as he pulled the veil around his neck over his nose and mouth.

“You’re terrible,” Systa laughed as she did the same and jumped down into the tunnel. She landed at the bottom with a loud squelch. The excrement at the bottom was thick and gloopy, and the stench was enough to make her want to vomit. She retched for a few seconds and stepped aside for Skógi, but instead she heard a sharp gasp above her.

“Skógi?”

With a groan, Skógi toppled down towards her. His hand clutched at a small kitchen knife in his side.

“Skógi!” Systa shrieked. She looked up to see the frightened face of one of the kitchen maids. With a scream she reached for one of the daggers she had tucked in her arm guard and threw it up at the maid. Unable to see down into the dark hole, the maid did not see Systa’s dagger until it was too late. She dropped to the floor. The shocked expression on her face was punctuated by Systa’s dagger through one of her eyes.

“Skógi? Skógi, please stand up!” Systa begged him, as she tried to help him stand. The male goblin was much taller and heavier than she was. Skógi smiled weakly and did his best to stand. He placed one arm around Systa’s shoulder and reached for the knife, ready to pull it out, but Systa stopped him.

“Don’t take it out down here. You need to keep it in.”

“Must you ruin everything?” Skógi tried to laugh, his voice more of a wheeze.

Systa stumbled forward with him and tried to follow the flow of the sewage, but with no light in the tunnel each step was agonisingly slow. Skógi became weaker and heavier by the second. Systa closed her eyes and let her ears guide her further down the tunnels until they were knee deep in the sludge.

“Remind me to wash when we get back.” Systa gagged. The noxious fumes were so strong they burned her lungs.

“You’ll need reminding? You’re disgusting, Systa.”

Behind them they heard a loud curse in Mál echo down the tunnels. Torchlight flickered on the walls. Systa looked around in a panic. Skógi was all but useless and in the dark, she could not see any place to hide.

“Put me down,” Skógi whispered, his skin damp and clammy.

“I’m not leaving you!” Systa snarled at him.

“Systa, put me down and hide.”

Left with no other choice, Systa did as he said, and carefully leaned him against the wall so that his wound would not dip below the sewage line.

Four dwarfs rounded the corner. They groaned in disgust when they saw Skógi’s resigned face look up at them from the bend in the tunnel. His left hand clasped the handle of the knife in his side. With swords drawn, they waded through the sewage towards him.

“Where’s the other one?”

“I’m sure there were two.”

Systa screamed as she emerged from under the sewage behind them and sliced through the muscles at the back of their legs. They crumpled into the sludge, incapacitated enough for her to place two quick fatal stabs through their spines. The last two dwarfs were less easy, but in the cramped tunnel they did not have the space to use their swords as well as they needed, and Systa was smaller and faster than both of them. She caught the torch as it fell from the last dwarf’s hands. All four of their bodies lay face down in the filth around her.

“Come on, stand up Skógi! Please, you know I’m not as strong as you,” Systa begged. Her face scrunched in frustration as she tried desperately to lift him.

“You know, you look like shit,” Skógi grinned.

“Shut up,” Systa laughed. “You look worse.”

They stumbled forward. Systa carried the torch in her left hand and her right held Skógi’s arm across her shoulder. With the light from the torch they were able to walk ahead much faster, further down the tunnels, until finally it began to widen and join with dozens of other tunnels.

“Systa, Systa, I-I-I can’t move!” Skógi whimpered, a small trace of fear in his voice.

“No, no, no! keep going!” Systa insisted, and struggled to walk faster, but with each step Skógi’s weight increased, until finally he hung limply against her.

“Skógi! Skógi, look! The way out,” She whispered. Ahead of them the water roared, where several tunnels converged over a large fall, and washed the sewage out into one enormous chute.

Skógi groaned unintelligibly. Systa could hear the sound of more dwarfs in the tunnels behind them. As carefully as she could, she knelt down in the sewage on the edge of the fall and placed the torch on one of the stone mantels which ran along the tunnel wall. She planted Skógi’s back against her chest, wrapped one arm around him, and laid one hand over the knife.

“Skógi, I’m going to have to pull the knife out, alright?” Systa whispered. “We have to jump in a minute. I can’t leave it in if we jump.”

Skógi didn’t say a word. His head rolled heavily on her shoulder. Systa took several short quick breaths. She kept her eyes on the tunnel behind them as the torchlight came closer and closer and dozens of shadows appeared on the wall. She looked over the edge one more time and tried not to think of their odds. The chute looked deep. Neither of them could swim and she had no way of knowing how far it would be before it carried them out of the city, if it did at all. Would they even have space to breath down in the chute? She doubted it.

I’m going to die in a sewer, dear Nida, please don’t let me die down there in the dark. Not like this.

“There they are!”

Just as Systa pulled the dagger out of Skógi, she felt a strange pressure in her stomach. She gasped, looked down and saw the shaft of an arrow protrude from it. There was no pain, just the quiet realisation than she had been shot. She looked back down the tunnel with a shocked expression on her face at the sour faced dwarf who had shot her. Before the dwarfs could reach them, Skógi and Systa toppled over the edge. Systa wrapped her arms and legs as tightly around him as she could, and pressed both her hands over the exposed wound to act as a bandage.

Please, dear Nida, don’t let us die like this. Not here, alone, in the dark.