Chapter 4

The Secret Corridor

            With a booming thud the wall snapped shut and the two children found themselves in darkness, blacker than any they had ever known. While they could just hear the muffled noise of angry men on the other side of the thick gold bricks, they were struck by the silence and the stillness that was found within, between the walls of the palace. Holding tightly to each other’s hands, the total darkness made them wonder for a moment whether taking the secret corridor had really been such a great idea. But then Ciardha whispered, and the sound made them both feel warmer.

“Ali’, we should keep moving.”

“Yes,” was her soft reply.

She did not know where the blackness would lead them, however, and was suddenly unsure whether she wanted to find out. But they had no choice, they had to go forward. They reached out with their hands, finding the wall to guide them in their blindness. Aliviel put her knife away, fearing that she might stumble where the ground was uneven.

The walls of the passageway were rough and jagged, not smooth like all the other surfaces of the palace. As they walked through the darkness the corridor became increasingly narrow so that they eventually had to go one by one, slowly moving downward. The walls became clammy and moist, and the air grew cold and close, as though they were going deep underground.

At first the cousins chatted, trying to find some comfort in breaking the cold, bleak silence. Aliviel told Ciardha of the Aramanthus, of the Bee Prophecy and the Grand Magician. She told him of her adventures in the tunnel with the goons and about the turquoise fungus. Finally she told him of her loneliness and of her silent father. Ciardha shared with her the story of his own abandonment and fears, of his longing and doubt, and of the strange whispers that haunted the palace. But as the corridor continued with its darkness unabated the children at last grew silent, unable to ignore the fear they felt at being so deep underground in the enclosed space.

It seemed they went on this way for an eternity, until they finally came to a crossroads. Feeling around them they found that the corridor split into three separate pathways, one going upward, one going forward, and one continuing to go down.

“Which should we take?” Asked Ciardha.

“I don’t know . . . maybe not the one on the right,” suggested Aliviel, for this was the path that led downward.

“Yes, let’s take the left. It may lead us out into the open.” The idea of going up was appealing to Ciardha who was becoming claustrophobic in the narrowing darkness. “Besides, there is a damp breeze coming from up ahead and it smells strange.”

Aliviel wrinkled her nose in agreement and the two took to the left and began to climb back into the world, they hoped.

As they began their slow ascent the air grew sweeter and less dense, less damp and dreary and cold. Although, it grew no less dark, the passage widened and it seemed a little warmer and friendlier. There was a sense of rising back toward the living, and, as the corridor levelled, the children could hear the small squeaks and scurry of creatures living nearby. Aliviel secretly hoped that they would not also feel them around their ankles. She was not overly fond of rodents.

The corridor finally widened so that the two could walk side by side again, and as they did so, they began to hear the heavy tread of footsteps overhead.

“We must be underneath a floor of the palace,” said Ciardha in a low voice, “but it can’t be. I’m sure we’ve travelled much too far to still be within the palace walls, I’ve been worried that we would end up in the dark wood.”

“I know, I’ve been thinking that myself, said Aliviel. “But maybe we’ve only gotten to the inner courtyard. Then we could take the tunnel under the forest, maybe the goons at the other end are still sleeping, and we could avoid the wood altogether.” She shuddered remembering the evil roots, and wondered again what would happen to the two men she’d left there.

The corridor went on for another two or three yards and then ended abruptly. There didn’t seem to be a door, and the two felt around in the darkness searching for the tell-tale nooks and crannies that usually marked secret openings. Finding nothing but a dead end, both children felt their panic mounting. At last they decided that Aliviel should get on Ciardha’s shoulders so that she could check the ceiling, and there they found a large handle above them. It took some doing, but finally they managed to turn the handle and it dropped downward to reveal a trap door. Sudden light poured into the corridor from above, temporarily blinding the cousins who had fallen backward when the trap door fell open. Aliviel struggled to get out her knife, thinking of the footsteps they had recently heard. But as her eyes adjusted to the light, she was relieved to see that they were still alone.

With the dim illumination, the corridor was transformed. Nestled into a corner they found a small step stool, ideal for a very short person needing to climb out through the door above. There was also a small dusty lamp lying broken on the ground, and a pile of odd and mismatched debris. Ciardha climbed up first and then helped Aliviel who was almost too short to get out, even with the help of the stool.

They found themselves in the back room of what looked to be a dusty old cottage. A high window showed them a sky that was not far from dawn, and Aliviel worried aloud that they had been in the corridor much longer than she had thought, but that maybe they had also travelled further than it had seemed. Maybe they had travelled well past the evil wood and were now somewhere in the city. Ciardha shared the hope, though he did not worry so much about the approaching dawn. From what he had heard in the corridor, he did not trust the strange magicians, and he questioned any reckless haste on their account.

The room appeared to be an infrequently used storage closet. A thick layer of dust covered the boxes and strange mounds that sat leaning against the walls. Under dirty sheets unidentifiable objects were stacked one on top of another in corners. Dust and dirt kicked up, choking them as the children kneeled, trying to re-close the trap door. The task seemed impossible, and Ciardha was about to suggest they give it up when there was a loud creak and the door of the small room opened.

Aliviel jumped and stifled a small scream, as the two turned to find a tiny old woman standing in the doorway. She was not much taller than Aliviel and her wrinkled weathered skin was dusty and grey. She looked nearly indistinguishable from the boxes and piles that littered the room they were in. Her hands were gnarled and her eyes looked myopic and pained, yet she walked confidently past them to a hidden lever that pulled the trap door back into place. Aliviel thought she looked like a ghost as she moved about without making a sound, and looking over at her cousin she was glad that he had a good four inches or more in height over the crippled old woman. The trap door securely fastened, the hag made her way back through the door, and with arthritic movements she gestured for the children to follow her.

The rest of the cottage was not much cheerier than the small room, but it was cosier than the past few hours had been, spent in the dank corridor, so the children did not mind its bits of gloom. There was a fire in the corner and the old woman offered them some tea and biscuits. The two cousins silently agreed that poison seemed unlikely, and, as their recent adventures had left them ravenous, they polished off the small meal laid before them. More or less revived they began to look around. It seemed as though the old woman had fallen asleep in her little chair beside the fire.

Beside her sat a fuzzy fat cat with a crooked tail, very much awake. Its green eyes watched them intently, only once or twice taking a break to blink lazily into the warm glow of the fire. Aliviel looked at Ciardha and mouthed a silent “lets go” nodding toward the door, at which point the small cloudy eyes snapped open and the old woman started to bounce a little, letting out a rough gravely chortle.

“Bit of an hurry aren’t we moy little lass, for such a fine an’ early hour? The sun’s not up, but yer racin’ to be gone. Makes us wonder.” The old woman sucked her teeth at them as she sat stroking the fuzzy fat cat, who had jumped up into her lap and was beginning to purr quite loudly. “Den worry though. We suspects as we know, den we? An’ perhaps a bit more than all’at too, if we were to remember. But then again, why den you tell us then? ’Tis nothin’ like a good yarn an a wee nip, though there’s not many as ye could be, comin’ from the palace as you done. The wee Prince and Princess! Aye, they as was left behind an’ forgotten. Th’Baragouin missed you, din’they now?

“Ah well, th’ city’s already a rumpus with yer escape, goons trouncin’bout. Though I reckon He den yet know. Nye these red walls would surely ken if he did, the ground would wrench and whisper, an shake!” She cackled some more. The cat had curled up and begun to sleep, and drool a little, and the children were transfixed by the old woman’s uncanny tirade.

Aliviel whispered, awkwardly, wary of the strange cat. “Thank you for your hospitality ma’am, but we must get to the fields outside the city by dawn, a-a magician waits for us there.”

The old woman suddenly shouted, making the children jump, “Fah! They’s always meddlin!” Then continuing more calmly, she said, “I’ll get yous out of the city, but the magician’ll have t’ wait! Th’ stinkin cowards!” At which point the old woman pounded on the floor with her heel and shouted. “Do you hear me ye blackards?” The sleeping cat looked up and yawned, fixing the two children with its piercing green eyes.

Ciardha, unnerved by the old woman, and increasingly anxious to get going, stood up and went to look out the nearest window. Lifting the dark curtain and peering out he exclaimed “But we are still within the evil wood!” He turned upon the witch with sudden fear and anger.

“Ah moy welmish thing, ye’are at that, but I’d nah worry ’bout it. I know the ways what goes through it, at least as we are, just upon its edge. What you need fear is the twisted soul o’ that labyrinth, for that’s as where ye’ll end up if the goons what search the city finds ye, Red King’s son or no. Aye, th’ city’s angry. Yeh can feel it in th’ air. They’ll throw you in, just as payment for their troubles, their torments and sorrows, their many lost children. Aye. The Red King may ne’er even know that you were gone. Just an empty room there’ll be, in the high tower that once held somethin precious to him.” Ciardha shuddered at the truth of this and felt depressed. He stood staring out into the dark wood feeling responsible for the suffering that he could almost hear sending its murmur through the air.

Aliviel sat looking at the old woman and at the sleeping cat. There was something about the cat, as though it were something more than it appeared. It would be fairly imposing she thought, if it weren’t quite so fat and maybe not quite so fuzzy.

“What is your cat’s name ma’am?” She asked quietly.

“Gimrell.” The name sounded like two rocks rubbing against each other. The cat looked up at the old woman and with a tender nuzzling rubbed its wet pink nose against her gnarled grey hand. The old lady smiled fondly down at it and said more gently, “Gimrell-Nim, and he’s my favourite one”.

The young girl stammered uncertainly, “a-and your name?”

The old woman sat hunched and looking at her for a while before she answered. Her voice was suddenly clear and strong, the voice of a vital woman with great youth yet in her. “Aye there’s many a power in a name. In a word even. More than you know . . . ’Tis right to ask. ’Tis right to wonder about such things . . . My name is Voluspa. That is, I once was she, and here now, I am likely to be again. T’is there, inside, somewhere, isn’t it? Ach, the vitalities been lost a bit, in recent years, it’s hard to remember sometimes. But I’ve been here, a part o’ the palace for many lifetimes, since before you both were born. Even since before the golden stones were carried on th’ backs of unfortunate slaves, and built by the hands of old magic. I can get ye out of the city. But if ye falls into that labyrinth, there’s naught I can do, ye’ll both go mad and be transformed by its evil and confusion.”

Ciardha looked at the woman with renewed awe. “What has happened to the children who’ve been put there? Are they still alive, can we save them?” He remembered in the evenings, in the high tower, when the air would shift and he could hear the twisted sound of demented laughter coming from the place that had once been so loved.

“Nah! They’ve all been locked away into something that is unchanging. They’ve become a part of somethin’ as is wrong in nature. Ye’ll have heard the laughter in the evenings I expect, trapped an’ twisten ‘til it becomes somethin’ else entirely. I feel it myself, as it run like currents through the ground. They’ve become a new sort of creature now, lost in that madness. Those as haven’t fallen to the oubliette at th’ labyrinth’ center. ’Tis the only way out, an’ leads deep underground, far beneath the palace where a dark thing lives. I go down at times to clear up th’ bones and try n’ save what poor things as I might. But there’s no rescue for them what’s been lost in such a way.” She shook her head sadly, sucking at her teeth.

Horror filled the two children as they remembered the two paths in the darkness that they had not taken, and imagined the terrifying things in the blackness that they had so narrowly escaped. Aliviel saw a sliver of sky, through the curtains that hid the shadows of the dark wood. Pink fingers of dawn were slowly creeping across it.

“We must go. Vo-Voluspa, you will help us to get out of the wood, a-and the city as well?” She asked doubtfully.

“Aye, I may as well, seein’ as how yer practically kin. But I’ll warn ye now we shan’t yet be partin’ for the last time. I can feel it!” she cackled. “Just seeing you two has made me feel years younger already.” Her laughter made Aliviel uncomfortable, and when it turned into a hacking cough she feared for the old woman’s life.

Suddenly, the cloudy eyes cleared and there was a flash of green as the witch looked up and stared at Ciardha. “Ah! Me welmish lad. I’m not a murklins of what you’ve done here just now. You’ve made a vow, ye ’ave, to end the horrors an’ torments of that labyrinth. ’Tis too late I fear, for yer heart’s made the vow already, and such a vow as that, made in this dark wood, it must be honoured. ’Tis a serious thing what you’ve just done.”

Aliviel looked confused, but Ciardha returned the witch’s gaze and replied steadily, “Yes. My heart has made that vow, perhaps it made it long ago in the high tower, I do not know, but I will keep it . . . save, I suppose, should I die first.”

At this the old woman began coughing again, a hacking cough that arose from her gravelly laughter. “Ach! I reckon you’d not get off so easily. The magic of such a vow hardly cares ‘bout yer dyin! But you’ll see well enough, or perhaps you’ll be lucky enough an’ live to keep yer word. ’Tis all the same in the end. Here come with me.” As the old woman got up the cat rubbed against her leg, walking before her into the kitchen.

The children followed these two strange creatures into the small back room and watched as Voluspa poured a golden liquid into two small leather pouches, taken from a pot that bubbled on her stove. She winked at the children mischievously and whispered to them, “You see. I knew as you were comin’

Giving a pouch of the potion to each of them she ushered them back through to the living room and over to the cottage door. The pouches were heavy and gave off a strange scent of flowers and smelted metal. Tied with leather, the children were able to carry the strange gifts around their necks. Aliviel held the bundle up, sniffing it, as she looked curiously at the old witch, before slipping it down hidden away beneath her cloak and clothing.

“’Tis shatzen that. It is one of the most powerful potions in all the world. It will be what’er ye need it to be, and do whatever it is you need it to do. Use it well moy little precious ones. An’ den trust all that th’ rotten magician tells ye. He’s meddlesome an’ heartless cold. The lot o’ them are. The sun den git beneath the earth.”

The cottage door opened onto a small trail that led into the menacing wood, trees so thick and angry that the sky could barely be seen above them.

“But how shall we get through the forest, through the city?” Aliviel asked frantically, feeling as though she were being pushed over the edge of a steep ravine.

“Den ye worry. Gimrell’ll take you through and safely. Just stay by him, an’ den let yourselves be taken, no matter what! Good luck moy darlin lass and welmish laddy, the heart o’ the city goes with ye. Oy’ll be watchin’ o’er ye when I can.” The old woman reached out her rough and gnarled hands to squeeze the shoulders of the two children. Her touch was surprisingly warm and comforting and her eyes looked suddenly moist. “Ah moy wee things you’ll do jist fine I reckon. Have confidence an’ that ’tis the greatest thing. Good luck!” With this she pushed them out onto the trail and turning without a sound she shut the door of the cottage behind them.