Chapter Six

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Orven moved carefully along the long, dark passage on silent feet, a torch aglow in his hand.

Outside the castle walls, crowds were gathering in the early morning chill to watch Karth's funeral procession. Orven had to get this business over with quickly, while everyone's attention was on the front gate, and be back in time to oversee the ceremony. He'd calculated the whole affair down to the second. Unless something unforeseen transpired in the next ten minutes, he had nothing to worry about.

Not for the first time, Orven felt a surge of gratitude toward his ancestors for having the foresight to build secret passages into the keep to begin with. Though they were now all but forgotten, fallen into disuse and neglect, they were more than adequate for Orven's purposes. Without them, he doubted any of his plans could have succeeded.

He well remembered Karth telling him about the tunnels over lunch—it must have been, what, nearly four years ago now? His uncle had chuckled, made a joke about some youthful exploit or other, then dropped the subject entirely.

Old fool, Orven thought disdainfully, shaking his head.

He'd searched the library for days afterward, collecting every schematic and floor plan of the castle he could find. There had followed two weeks of calculation and careful planning, piecing together fragments of information until he possessed a full map of the tunnels.

The next step had been to explore them in person. Within a month he'd mastered the complicated network of passages and was able to go wherever he pleased without detection. Navigating their serpentine darkness was now nearly second nature.

The torch flickered as he turned a final corner. The best thing about these hidden corridors was that they didn't simply allow easy passage between rooms within the castle itself—they also accessed a web of moist, cavernous tunnels through which one could gain entry the northern end of Svard mountain.

Thesul had been delighted when Orven passed this bit of information on to Alavard.

Orven slotted the torch into an iron band in the wall, then stepped up to the large metal door and took hold of the rusty wheel in its center. Grunting with the effort, he began to turn the wheel, resulting in and a torturous grinding of ancient gearwork. Flakes of corroded metal and dirt drifted to the ground as he worked the wheel-lock, until at last, with a shuddering clunk, the door swung inward.

Orven stepped back and wiped his brow with his sleeve. He took the torch down from the wall and held it aloft, watching the flame dance as a rush of stale air flooded out of the darkness beyond the open door. Peering into the shadows, he grimaced at the mouldering stench of the mountain tunnels.

After a moment, he called, "General? Are you there?"

The darkness remained silent for a few seconds longer. Then, seeping out of the shadows like a stain across satin, a voice replied, "Thesul's favor be upon you, O Mountain King."

Orven's lip curled into a smile despite himself. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, friend. I haven't even been crowned yet."

A pale face emerged from the tunnel and pulled back its hood, letting loose a rich cascade of dark curls. General Istenra smiled like a dagger and shrugged. "The old man will be cast to the wind today. You're as good as crowned, boy."

"Patience, General. All in good time," Orven replied, looking past her into the tunnel. "Are your men...?"

His query was answered by the appearance of more faces in the dark. One by one, the soldiers filed out of the mountain and into the castle. Sable-cloaked and armored in silver, they each bore the crest of Alavard emblazoned on their chest.

"We're two-hundred in all," Istenra informed Orven, then added with a sneer, "I do hope you've got somewhere decent to put us—preferably a place that doesn't smell like a moldy cadaver?"

"This way," Orven said, gesturing with his torch and moving to the head of the line. He glanced back at Istenra and flashed a crooked smile, "And mind your step. These tunnels can be rather treacherous."

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