A couple of the kids turned out to be teenagers, so I had them walk in back of the sixteen of us. I figured their nerves would be steady enough to not be on the edge of panic, therefore able to listen for anything behind us as Shan’tar led us out what he claimed to be the back side of the dungeon. I didn’t trust the credaril, nor did I want to be using the torch, but every time I turned to look at the young faces following me, I knew darkness would scare them even worse than they clearly were.
We came to another intersection, our third in the seemingly unbroken maze of gray stone tunnels. In a few places beams held up dirt with long planks of wood or steel between them, but for most of it we only saw gray. I made sure to nick the wall at a height and spot I knew without the jet-black skinned soldier noticing, in case he merely led us in circles to keep us trapped. “How much further?” I asked quietly.
“This is as far as I can go,” he replied. “Walk down that way,” he pointed right, “for one thousand paces and you’ll be in neftir territory.”
“Unless you encroach more than ever before, that doesn’t seem possible that they should be there after such a relatively short walk,” I said.
“It is the neftir that have grown toward us. That is a debate that would rage for days between our races if negotiation was even possible. It’s not under Queen Lotha, may she live forever. I am ready,” he finished.
I looked at the credaril for a minute trying to figure out what he meant. Then it dawned on me. “Josha, take the others down the tunnel until you run out of light.” The oldest girl began quietly herding the children around the corner. I held the torch to light both their tunnel and the one Shan’tar and I remained in. “I will remember what you did if we make it to safety. If we land in a trap, I will personally peel the skin from your body.”
“I would expect no less,” he said, barely flinching as my right, leather gloved hand struck him across the head, while wrapped around my sword hilt. The credaril slumped to the floor.
For the first time in a while the children had stopped moving, and I heard it. Faint shuffling reached me from far down behind us. No, I corrected myself, running, but still far off. I sprinted to the kids. “Follow me at a run, try to run quietly, make no other noises. We must reach neftir soldiers or a good place to make a stand.” They all nodded.
I jogged at a pace that would be running for the younger ones, I knew they couldn’t take much distance at their speed, but if the credaril told the truth we didn’t have far to go. We ran past a tunnel to the left and I stopped, kids crashing into me and each other. I waved Josha over.
“Yes, Ofeldar, what is happening?” she asked.
“I need you to take this torch down that tunnel. Count your steps. When you reach a turn, go down it fifty steps, prop the torch against a wall and come back. It will be dark, so remember how many steps back. Can you do that?” I asked.
“I’m scared. What if credarils are down there? Why don’t you do it?” she asked, her voice trembling. I could see her brown eyes wide in the dark.
“If you see credarils, don’t scream whatever you do, but do turn and run back here as fast as you can. I’ll know that means I need to help you, but I need to stay here with the younger kids in case what I know is coming reaches us. I need you to be brave,” I said.
She slowly took the torch. I’m not sure a man could have convinced her, but seeing a woman like me taking charge and being brave inspired her. With one eye I watched the black haired girl walk down the tunnel, while using the rest of my senses to monitor the tunnel behind us. The children shuffled, but made me proud how otherwise silent they stayed, even the ones crying into their sleeves in fear.
Long moments passed and I feared I’d lose sight of that small light before she reached a turn, but suddenly it went left and vanished. I counted it out in my head and listened. I prayed to the One God that Josha’s footsteps would be the next ones I heard.
Want more Ofeldar? She’s in Available at my author page at my author page on Amazon.