Rebecca Langham © 2018
All Rights Reserved
I doubt there was even one person in Grimvein who hadn’t heard the story of the sleeping princess. There were those who claimed she’d died a century ago and the curse was merely a story to maintain hope of her well-being. Amir and I knew better. Somewhere beneath the layers of magic and goddess-knew-how-many demonic guardians in Oldpass, Princess Aurora Rose slept. The problem was getting to her.
“Looks like the map was accurate.” Amir tucked the frayed parchment inside his leather vest and then stepped closer to the colossal boulder in front of us. “This entry is well concealed. Most people would walk right by without realising.”
I had to agree. We were deep within the forest to the east of Oldpass. The path we’d been following for over a week had disappeared hours earlier, replaced by mossy undergrowth and grasses. The sweet scent of drenched wisteria had been overpowering, though not as overpowering as the menacing darkness that seemed to swallow natural sounds one would expect to hear in such a place. No birds twittering. No dripping condensation. Not even so much as a rustling branch. If not for Amir’s orienteering skill and the importance of our quest, I’d have turned back.
“Does it open the old-fashioned way, Highness?” I indicated the door with my chin. Embedded in the rock and camouflaged, the ingress was almost unnoticeable, but we could make out the bevelled edges.
I sensed no magic surrounding the rock formation, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any. I might have been one of the strongest casters in the five kingdoms, but I was still mortal. There’s only so much one person confined by flesh can know. Or see. Or do.
Amir ran his hand through his shoulder-length black hair. His rather wonderful, lustrous, shoulder-length black hair.
“Let’s see.” He pressed both his palms against the smooth surface, bracing his feet against the leaf-covered ground. Something whirred deep inside the boulder and clicked as though a latch had been released. He stepped back as the rectangular slab skulked off to the side, like a sword disappearing into its sheath. “It appears the answer would be yes, it does open the old-fashioned way. Sort of.”
“I must admit, I had my doubts.”
“As did I,” he replied, scratching at the stubble on his chin. In all the years I’d been acquainted with the prince, he’d always been clean-shaven, and the rugged growth on his face, as charming as it looked, seemed to irritate him more and more. “It seems too convenient there could be an underground passage that would take us beneath the outer walls.” His hands held on to the rock as he leaned forward, peering inside. His soft leather boots gripped his defined calves as he did. “It’s quite dark in here. Do you have that magnificent bauble of yours?” He withdrew from the opening and turned to face me.
I gaped at him. “Prince Amir, the moonbeam stone is no mere bauble. And yes, of course I do. I’ll let the honour of first entry be yours.”
He bowed slightly, his hand over his heart. “Why, thank you, caster.” He returned his attention to the opening. “In we go.”
I followed him closely as we left the fresh air and crunching leaves of the forest behind. Inside, the darkness was thick and the air acrid. I slipped my moonbeam stone out of a pouch clipped to my belt. With a thought, I willed it to life. A soft yellow light emanated from the stone.
“Oh no,” I said. As though the enclosed room had heard me, the door behind us slid outward from its cavity, closing fast and hard.
“It seems we’re trapped.” Typical Amir. Always so calm. He walked around the room. “But surely there is a way from here into the tunnel. This must be a kind of annex.” I admired the fact that no matter how hopeless or scared Amir might have felt, he was always able to focus on the task at hand, putting his feelings aside until a more appropriate time presented itself.
“Mmmhmm.” I pinched the bridge of my nose, willing away the tension that had taken up residence there. I grabbed the small flask attached to my belt, just above my left hip. The water soothed my throat and afforded a distraction from the momentary sense of panic.
“Talia, I need your help over here,” Amir said. His voice was steady, but the shade of his cheeks betrayed bubbling anxiety.
“Yes, Highness.” I took one more sip of water from my flask, clipped it onto my leather belt, and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. By the goddess, that place was hot. I wondered if we might have found the first level of the underworld rather than the subterranean passageway into Oldpass.
“That’s twice in as many minutes,” Amir said, gently elbowing me as I joined him. “I keep telling you to stop calling me that. We’ve been travelling together for over two weeks. The formalities are unnecessary by now, wouldn’t you agree?” He smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile back. As the Leading Caster of Grimvein, I’d been assigned to help Amir on a journey the public needed to believe he’d taken on his own. So far, my magical services had been of little use, aside from starting a few campfires when we were especially impatient to eat our evening meal.
“Yes, Highness.” I bit my lower lip. “Amir. Sorry, it’s a force of habit.”