Chapter 3

 

Rescue from the High Tower

          The night was not cold, but a damp chill stole through Aliviel as she left her father’s house. It was just striking an hour-and-a-half before midnight when she hurried into the darkness, making her way toward the Fourth Gate. She brought with her the good cloak the magician had suggested, as well as a very fine knife that her father often used to carve wood, this she attached to her belt. She brought an apple and a flask of water, thinking such things prudent when setting off on an adventure that involved great peril. Aside from all these she had with her, her greatest treasure, a small piece of gold that she had found one day in the garden of the palace while playing with her cousin Ciardha. She felt sure that this carried a lucky sort of magic, regardless of the tragedies that had befallen her since finding it.

Walking through the city in the sparkling darkness, Aliviel felt an eerie disquiet, as though eyes peered out at her from shuttered windows where voices must murmur at such a small, young girl being out so late. She kept close to the walls and moved from shadow to shadow until she made it at last to the tall Fourth Gate. There amidst the rubble that had accumulated from recent lack of use and care, she found the trail of turquoise that the magician had promised. Hurrying now, she followed the path of the mushroom, making her way back deep into the heart of the city.

Still a long way from the palace that had once been her home, and thinking she had a great deal further to go, Aliviel nearly fell into the laps of the Red King’s goons who loitered wearily at the entrance to the hidden tunnel. Catching herself just in time she hid in a nearby corner, watching the goons who waited for the shift change and the arrival of the next watch. She could see where the bright fungus snaked its way along the street, stopping between the two men at what appeared to be just an ordinary steam hole snuggled amongst cobblestones. Unlike the many other steam holes she had passed in her night journey however, this one did not steam.

Grumbling at each other, the two goons took turns wandering over to stand by a nearby fire to warm their hands. There, hanging above the flame, Aliviel saw the open pitcher that held the Libations of Lustre. Taking out her knife she scraped away some of the turquoise mushroom, it crumbled easily in her hand becoming a soft powder. But the question was, how to get it into the brew, and after that, how to get to the palace?

Aliviel doubted that these two goons would be the only ones to frequent the tunnel at night, and then what of the other side? Who knew what sorts of evils awaited her, set to guard the high tower. Fear descended upon her beating heart, beating ever faster and louder now. She was sure that the two men would hear it, or at least hear her breathing in and out. Perhaps she should just go back home.

The small fire hissed and crackled and the two gruff creatures yawned and looked impatient. One looked at his pocket-watch and complained that their replacements were a half-hour late. Aliviel knew that her time was short. Fear tightened into a cold rock at the center of her chest, and she did the only thing she could think to do. Standing up quite straight, and clearing her hair back from her face, she boldly sauntered into the midst of the two goons and toward the hanging libations.

The goons were dumbstruck and could do nothing but stare at the strange apparition, such a small young girl in the heart of the Red City out so late in the evening. But the thing most startling of all, and most unbelievable, was the large clear grin that she wore on her face. Warming her hands by the fire (just above the hanging libations) with her back to the two brutes, she suddenly turned on her heel to face them and said in a clear strong voice, “My, what a lovely evening it is!” After which, she laughed.

The loud sound of a young girl’s laughter bounced between the walls and houses of the Red City. It sparkled like the stars in the sky, or the streetlights that get captured in wet pavement. It cut into the stunned paralysis of the two goons and woke them to the task at hand. Aliviel knew her job and put up a good fight before allowing the goons to take her, throwing in the adequate amount of struggle with small screams and sharp jabs. But in the end she let herself be bound with very little fuss, hoping that the two tired goons would not think to search her, nor wonder what it was she had been doing by the fire, and would just leave her be as a problem for the oncoming shift, who had already kept them waiting so long.

Nearly three-quarters of an hour late their replacement came trudging up the street, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. One of them, the larger, wore a swatch of muddy yellow fabric as a badge upon his shoulder. He was standing in as a favour for a sick friend and was, evidently, of a higher class of service than the other three. As such, he did not brook any resentment or displeasure coming from the goons who had been waiting, and he halted their complaints mid-snarl. Aliviel did not feel that any of this boded particularly well for her. But she was relieved to see that all four of the men drank the Libations of Lustre, which now contained the poisonous mushroom. She wondered, for her own sake, how long it would take before the men fell asleep, from what she could tell it did not seem to be having any sort of immediate effect.

It was quickly decided, by the senior goon, that the two from the previous shift would take the young girl to the labyrinth that very night before they went home. This did not sit well with the aforementioned goons. But with angry grumbling they lifted the bound child up, and (with much painful bumping I am afraid to say) made their way into the tunnel. Aliviel watched, as the heavy lid was set back in its place behind them, allowing little light or air to come through.

The tunnel, which travelled beneath the city and under the evil wood toward the palace, was dank and dreary and dark. It smelled oddly of fungus and Aliviel thought of the Grand Magician and the Aramanthus living far below. The ceiling of the tunnel dripped in places and the sound seemed to echo in the distance. Small burners were placed every four meters or so, but what little light they cast seemed to be absorbed by the muddy darkness. The boots of the men carrying her hit the ground with dull thuds. Aliviel had been wrong, there were no other goons in the tunnel and she did not blame them. She would not have wanted to spend a minute longer in that dreary place than was necessary, and she figured it was probably the same way with goons, no matter how big and scary they were.

Aliviel could tell as they began to near the palace, for the steps of the men grew slower and heavier. At first she thought it must be the mushrooms finally taking effect, and indeed the two men were beginning to yawn and rub their eyes, but then she saw the roots. It was even darker in this part of the tunnel and more enclosed. Aliviel guessed that they must be right beneath the horrible wood, for the roots of angry trees broke through the muddy floor and walls of the tunnel, looking to trip and strangle passers by. She could see where someone had tried to cut them back, with little success. The air had grown thinner and she could feel the strong arms holding her shiver, even though it was not cold. This was an evil place, and she shuddered to think what the wood above them must be like.

The wood and the tunnel seemed to go on forever. As Aliviel saw the sleep descending on the eyelids of the goon that walked behind her, she suddenly worried that she might find herself alone and bound in this horrible place. Indeed, no sooner did she think it than the large oaf tripped on a wayward tree root, and fell to the ground. Hearing the loud thud, her carrier goon turned back and looked at the still body of his companion who had begun to snore loudly. He nudged him with his boot. The goon put Aliviel down and looked heavily at the prone figure with a confused expression on his face. For almost five minutes there was silence and stillness. Finally Aliviel looked up at the goon who had been carrying her. He too had fallen into a deep slumber, right there where he stood. A cold fear, worse than she had ever known, passed over her like a gust of wind. With arms and legs still bound she watched the gnarled roots with dread. Slowly, imperceptibly, or was it just her imagination? They seemed to be growing, as though they sensed the inert bodies nearby. Aliviel shuddered again.

It took her a good while, and a fair bit of rope-burn on her wrists, but at last she was able to get to her knife and cut the knots that held her. She looked at the goon lying next to her. A dark tendril had already snaked out, beginning to curl around his ankle. She stood up and looked around, hesitating to leave the two men alone and so vulnerable. But she had no choice. She was running out of time and had so much further yet to go. She hoped that they would wake or be found out before the roots could take too strong a hold. Hurrying forward into the tunnel toward the palace, Aliviel held her knife in hand, shaking with fear in the darkness.

***

The tunnel only got gloomier and more oppressive as Aliviel reached its end. She worried there would be another steam hole cover to move and that it might be too heavy for her, but she needn’t have worried. The tunnel ended with a flight of steps carved into the rock face, leading upward, and an ordinary stony opening like the entrance to a cave. Aliviel could feel the darkness of the wood that surrounded it and fled toward the golden palace, though wary of the goons that must surely be guarding the arched doorway that opened onto the inner courtyard.

Sure enough two goons stood there, looking uncomfortable beside the large entrance, bored by the darkness and the late hour. Their attention wandered ever away from the horrible spectre of the forest before them, and they seemed intent upon a conversation they were having about the best way to prepare a rabbit for stew.

Aliviel considered them for a moment and then walked slowly keeping close to the wall of golden brick. The wall was warm and soft and smooth, just as she remembered. It seemed to reach out to her with a gentle hum. She willed it to muffle her footsteps so that she could slip by the guards and in through the doorway unnoticed.

Now, whether or not it was indeed the palace wall that hid her, or whether it was that the guards, (absorbed in their shared recipes and thoughts of food) had little reason to think that there was any real purpose to their standing guard save as a punishment for being tardy two days earlier, it is hard to say. Nevertheless Aliviel was able to slip through the doorway with relative ease and the two hungry goons were none the wiser for it.

The inner courtyard had become a dead place, dusty, grey, and hollow. Aliviel ran quickly through the emptiness toward the palace doors, fighting against the memories that threatened to overwhelm her. The desolate yard seemed to be full of ghosts, and she forced herself not to scream as the wind whipped through the broken windows making eerie sounds of howling. The shadows that moved and danced around her made her skin crawl. They made her wish she was back at home, safe and warm in her nice bed.

Finally she reached the doors of the palace. She wondered that no one was there to guard them and worried that perhaps they would be locked. The main doors were, but as luck would have it the small door to their left, which had been used as a servant’s entrance long ago, had been forgotten for many years. With a little persuasion from her knife, and a large rock found nearby, its rusty bolt gave way. Slowly she crept through the empty kitchen and the silent sleeping palace, narrowly avoiding the goons that walked sentry through the halls.

It was at the foot of the stairs leading up to the high tower that it happened. The sentries had just passed and she felt she had a moment to look around, and there, seeing the golden walls, the tapestries and rugs, breathing in once again the soft warm scent of the gold, almost like cinnamon, Aliviel remembered. She remembered running through the halls and among the rooms as a child, chasing her brothers and cousins, bouncing in and out of rooms and gardens, running into the waiting embrace of happy parents, and a kind aunt and uncle. She clenched her fists at her side, squeezing her eyes shut, forcing away the memories and their unwanted tears.

It was as her eyes opened that she saw it, the small place hidden at the base of the great stair, the small compartment that she had so often hid in with Ciardha many years before. She walked over to it and saw the small chip marking the golden brick where one pressed in, in order to open the wall. She now wondered where it was that the corridor led. She and Ciardha had never followed it, too frightened by the gruesome possibilities that had been posited by brothers and sisters who were older and wiser, who had claimed to know through personal experience. Perhaps they had, perhaps she too would know before the night was through. She shrugged off her remembrances and her curiosity, and darted up the stairs.

The stairway curled around the eastern turret that became the high tower, with numerous landings along the way, Aliviel saw no one as she made her way up them. It seemed as though the palace was deserted, though at one point she heard whispers and a low sad rumbling coming from the darkness. The sound tickled the hair on her neck and forearms, making her shudder. It was too familiar.

At the final set of golden stairs leading up to the locked room, she stopped and listened. There, just a few steps above, was the soft sound of someone snoring? Taking off her boots and in stocking feet she tiptoed up the stairs. Peering around the corner she found the final guarding goon asleep. Beside him, hanging on a hook in the wall, was a single golden key.

Aliviel dreaded disturbing the horrible whisperer she had heard just a few flights down, but then she remembered her own father and how absorbed he had become in his silence and sadness. She wondered if the Red King even remembered his cloistered son. She was sure he did, however, she was also sure that he was lost, as lost as her father was, in a remote place in his mind and soul, where the sounds she was about to make would not reach him. At any rate, she mused, dawn was mere hours away and she had to try something.

Pouring some of the water from her flask onto the topmost golden steps, she tiptoed back down to her boots. Putting them on she pressed herself into a small corner and yelled at the top of her lungs:

“Help! Help! Murder! Help! The King! Murder! HELP!”

There was a grunt at the top of the stairs, a strange noise that sounded like a swish, or maybe an intake of breath, and then the sound of a large body falling painfully down a hard flight of stairs. Aliviel pulled into herself as the goon toppled past her, and she may have (accidentally of course) given him a good kick to help his fall. Then she ran up the steps, being careful not to slip on the wet gold.

The hook that held the key was too high for her to reach and she had to jump repeatedly to get it. She didn’t know what had happened to the fallen goon, and worried that she didn’t have much time. Hurrying, she unlocked the door and pushed it open. There standing in the middle of the room, his eyes bright and shining, his hair ruffled by sleep, stood her cousin. It took only a brief moment for him to recognize her.

“Aliviel?”

“Ciardha!”

The two children hugged each other in the middle of the room at the top of the high tower, surrounded by the golden walls and windows that looked out over the Red City. A small gentle hum came from the palace gold, a slight shudder of inaudible joy, and the walls of the palace trembled deep into the earth, and up into the sky, they sent out a whisper that reached far beyond the Red City. The Bees in the fields returned to their hives. The words that had been forgotten were beginning to stir.

“Ali’ what are you doing here?” Asked the startled boy, who looked at his cousin as though he were still dreaming.

“Hurry Ciardha, we don’t have much time. Do you have a good cloak? The magician said to bring one, and I’m also bringing my knife, and a flask for water. But hurry up we have to go immediately. I don’t know what happened to the guard outside. We must go while we can.”

“But my father, the King, is everything alright?”

“Yes, I only called out so that the guard would be startled and fall. That reminds me, the first two steps are still wet, so be careful. Please hurry! I will explain everything when we are safe.”

Ciardha was a smart boy and did not dawdle. Quickly he changed his clothes and directed Aliviel to grab the old cloak that he had used for make-believe. Stuffing some golden coins and a small telescope into his pocket, he also grabbed a small cedar box that sat on his bedside table. It contained a picture of his mother. With all this in hand he took a last look around at his comfortable prison. Then, careful not to slip on the topmost steps, the two cousins left the high tower, taking the golden key with them, forgotten in Aliviel’s pocket.

Now, the fallen goon, who had been guarding the high tower, bruised and sore, and in one place bleeding, had gotten up almost immediately after his fall and had run to the aide of his threatened king. Aware, however, of the Red King’s foul temper, he had stopped short in the lower corridor when he heard the miserable whispering that continued unabated from the great chamber below. Unnerved by the false alarm and the bodiless screaming of a young girl, (which he felt certain was the work of a ghost) he did not hurry back, as he might have done, to retake and secure his post.

There were rumours about (most notably from the city gossips) that the Baragouin had been mere patsies, blamed for a brutal infanticide by the deranged and evil King. The souls of those poor children, the goon shivered, must surely haunt the halls of the palace where they had met their untimely demise. So, needing a bit of comfort, and some plaster for his injured head, the goon had gone down to the kitchen to get some hot tea. He was making his way back toward the high tower when the two children ran past him.

While spilling hot tea down his front, it dawned on the goon that his prisoner had just run by (this was joined by the realization that this was not going to be a good day to be him, and that he should have listened to his wife and quit this job long ago. As she said, there was plenty of work to be had for a goon who was willing to show a little initiative). The unfortunate beast promptly sounded the alarm, and the sleep-in guards, kept in reserve for just such an occasion, were up and running within minutes. With long swords drawn they searched for the children and rubbed the crusty sleep from their tired eyes.

Aliviel and Ciardha made use of the confusion and chaos to get down the entire flight of stairs, but at the bottom landing they found themselves trapped. With goons before them, and the heavy grunts and footsteps of more behind, there was nowhere for the children to go. Aliviel, her mind full of terrified images of the labyrinth of insanity, and of her uncle’s evil madness, drew out her small knife and wondered how silly she must look to the many goons with their many larger and deadlier weapons. She looked over at her cousin who seemed more depressed than anything else, and then suddenly she remembered the secret corridor.

Grabbing Ciardha by the wrist, Aliviel ran to the base of the stairs and found the chink in the brick where one had to push inward. It took a gut wrenching moment, but, as the goons drew closer, sneering and calling for surrender, the little piece of wall moved backward by about a foot, just enough for the two children to squeeze in tight before pushing it back into place.