The secret of the passage already compromised, Stephenie stopped at the first concealed door and released the catch. Roughly pushing open the door, she barreled across and out of a small store room. She turned a corner and skidded to a stop, sensing a group of people coming up from the lower cellars of the keep. Damn. Quickly, she turned, backtracked to a side hallway and ran up the stairs to the ground level of the keep.
Hearing and sensing people quickly descending from the grand stair case, she charged into a guard standing sleepily next to the outer door. The young man reacted too slowly and Stephenie dropped him with a solid punch to the jaw. Without missing a step, she easily threw aside the locking bar and pushed open the heavy door. Behind her, she could hear guards shouting in Kynton to stop her.
Stephenie ran down the steps of the keep, taking them four at a time. Across the court yard and halfway to the gatehouse, Stephenie caught sight of a dozen guards. Knowing she would not make it past them, she sprinted toward the old great hall, hoping she could make it to the other catacombs. If she could get far enough ahead of the men, she could hide in one of the numerous secret passages and rooms.
Not bothering with the heavy main door, she ran to the far end and down the steps into the old side entrance. The old door stuck for a moment, but a solid kick freed the swelled wood from the jam and she ran down a short passage and then up the steps into the old kitchen.
Panting from the exertion and panic of being chased, she spared a brief curse for the person who had built the castle with so many steps. She rushed from the kitchen and was halfway across the old great hall when Henton and another man appeared out of the doorway that led to her tower and the entrance into the catacombs. The look of surprise in Henton’s eyes was almost enough, but with soldiers only moments behind her, she could not take the time to explain. And he’s stronger than me, echoed in the back of her mind.
Knowing she could not turn back, and praying to Elrin that for once her witchcraft would obey her command, she centered her frustration, pain of betrayal, and fear for what her mother was planning, drew upon those energies and released a primal scream. Not knowing for certain what she was doing, she flung her left hand before her. Feeling a surge of heat and cold flow through her, she watched with surprise as Henton and the other man were flung back through the doorway.
Feeling drained, she nearly sank to her knees, but managed to grab the edge of one of the old tables and steadied herself. After a moment, she forced herself upright. Move. Pushing past the exhaustion, she started to run again, passing Henton, who was laying against the round wall of the tower, moaning softly. The other man she knew to be dead, his head and neck crushed when he was thrown backwards. The realization that she had actually killed a person passed through her with a sense of detachment.
Hearing soldiers in the great hall, she ran to the right and down the wide stairs leading below ground. Stumbling on the uneven steps, she slowed enough to open the shutters on the lamp a little further before continuing at her reckless pace.
After descending two floors, she turned to the right and down a side passage that led to a number of store rooms. The rooms were empty save for the raised cedar flooring.
The sound of booted feet slapping against the stone passage drew Stephenie’s attention behind her. After having expended so much energy against Henton and the other soldier, her senses had dulled and she could barely feel the man who had just entered the passage.
Panic lending her strength, Stephenie sprinted past several side rooms and then turned into the second from the last one. On the far side of the room, behind several pillars that had been erected to support the ceiling, she knew there was an old entrance into hidden passages. She had used it only once, many years ago and she hoped she could pull up enough of the cedar floor to open the door concealed beneath it before the soldier reached her.
Skidding to a stop, she dropped to the floor, tipping the oil lamp on its side. Not bothering to waste time righting the lamp, she searched for a gap between the boards in the flickering light. Finding an opening big enough to force her fingers through, she heaved up a large section of the floor that was not attached to the rest. Straining under the weight, she tossed the section aside to reveal a wooden door in the underlying stone floor. This door had a pull, but the ancient wood had swelled, forcing her to strain even more to pull the door free.
Sensing a soldier closing behind her, Stephenie released the pull, dropped low, and swung her right leg behind her. It collided with the soldier’s leg, sending him tumbling to the floor instead of tackling her as had been his intent.
Cursing her mother for taking her weapons and herself for leaving her supplies in the passages, she noticed a dagger the soldier had dropped. Picking it up, she advanced on the soldier who was rolling over to regain his feet.
Jumping, Stephenie performed a leaping kick into the man’s face. She landed hard, missing the edge of the wooden floor. She stumbled back onto the old door, which cracked under the impact.
Reflexes she knew were born from her witchcraft allowed her to keep her balance. Hearing more men approach, she turned, jumped off the door, reached down, and heaved it up again, this time it pulled free and she swung the door to the side. The soldier she had kicked was getting to his feet on the other side of the open door. She could see in his face he was contemplating slamming the leaning door shut to trap her. Snatching the flickering lamp from the floor, she jumped into the opening as the door was pushed shut.
She landed on the stone steps, but was knocked down by the door hitting her head. Tumbling a few feet, she slowly regained her senses and her feet. Behind her, the door was being pulled open again.
Cursing, Stephenie started down the rough stone passage that sloped deeper into the stone bluffs under the castle. She wanted to run, but exhaustion and injuries had accumulated to a point where she could not push herself beyond a labored jog.
She took several random turns in the hopes of losing the man behind her, but not being familiar with this section of the catacombs, she feared getting lost or worse, running into another group of soldiers pursuing her.
She paused when she reached a section with a wooden floor. “Where am I?” she murmured. There was a railing on the right side that partially blocked a dark opening in the stone. The left side was simply part of the stone passage. She approached carefully and tried to peer into the darkness, but nothing was visible.
She was about to turn up the lamp when she sensed a soldier approaching. She turned and his boots started slapping against the stone as he rushed her. She held out the dagger and tried to center herself. She wanted to draw upon her powers again, as she had done with Henton, but as the man closed the distance, she knew it was not going to happen. Turning, she tried to run as the man leaped at her.
Jumping to the side at the last moment, she avoided most of his force, but he put an arm around her leg and pulled her to the wooden floor with him. The sensation of hitting the floor was interrupted by cracking and tearing and a sudden feeling of weightlessness. Stephenie scratched at the rotting wooden planks as they broke apart beneath the weight of their sudden impact.
The soldier cursed as they tumbled into darkness. Stephenie refused to call out, wondering only if there would be a series of copper ornaments that would rip open her flesh before she crashed into something solid enough to kill her.
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