Chapter Thirty-Three

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Ygrael stumbled again, this time nearly falling to her knees on the rough stones. She caught herself against the wall with one hand, and kept going.

Up ahead, Varyn held a torch aloft, casting wavering orange light up and own the tunnel's ragged surfaces. Her stride was quick and regular, though it was obvious to Ygrael that she'd slowed her pace to accommodate her.

The passage was long, twisting and roughly hewn from the mountain, and Ygrael was exhausted. Her body had become so weak in these few past days that their flight from the Alavardian soldiers had nearly killed her, and now she could barely manage a staggering sort of trot. Dull, throbbing pain radiated through her chest, hips, and legs, which shook with each step. Her throat burned with the marks of Orven's fingers and the foul reek of the passage.

She'd barely consumed either food or drink for nearly five days, and was now paying the price.

Ygrael grit her teeth and forced herself to move faster. So far, there'd been no signs of pursuit, but it wouldn't be long before their foes worked out where they'd gone.

"How much further?" she asked Varyn, despising the wavering croak that her voice had become.

"Not long now, M'Lady," the captain said over her shoulder.

Ygrael licked her lips. "And when we get there--when we're out of this hole--then what? My city is overrun with Alavardian filth, Varyn. You heard the traitor. They've slaughtered the guard. There is nobody left to protect my people."

"I am aware of all that, M'Lady," Varyn replied coolly. There was a cold edge to her voice, a dangerous glint of anger and grief. "Do not forget that those are my men and women you speak of."

With a pang, Ygrael realized the captain had directed no small amount of that anger at her.

Well, of course, she thought bitterly. How many of Varyn's men and women had she inadvertently caused to perish by dragonfire? Hundreds. Hundreds of lives sacrificed to keep her father safe. Her own conscience cast aside and left to rot like a cancer in the back of her mind. And in the end, all for nothing, because of that--that child.

Her father was gone. Lorn no longer cared for her. She was disgraced in the eyes of her people. And now, her very kingdom had slipped from her fingers. All because of that clumsy, meddling girl. If only they had gone ahead with the plan, driven the dragons back into their hole and ended the war her way, the king would still live. Svard never could have fallen into the hands of their enemies with her father on the throne.

A smothering wave of grief and rage washed over Ygrael, making her body shudder. Sobs threatened to claw their way out of her bruised throat, but she held them back. Varyn despised her, that was obvious, even understandable--but she would not cry before her. So she bit her tongue, and willed the tears to recede.

Up ahead, the tunnel seemed to be widening. Varyn quickened her stride.

A few moments later they stepped out of the tunnel and into a wide, irregularly shaped cavern. Varyn moved quickly across the space and began feeling along the jagged wall, holding her lantern high as she did so.

"What are we looking for?" Ygrael asked.

"A way out," Varyn replied shortly. She continued to probe the wall for some minutes. Ygrael stood back, watching silently. At last, the captain's fingers slid into a crevice between two sharp protrusions of stone. Her arm tensed, and she seemed to be pulling or twisting something. There was a low grinding sound, followed by a heavy click.

Ygrael drew in her breath sharply as a section of the wall began to grind torturously sideways. As it moved, it revealed by slow inches a patch of watery light. It came to a shuddering halt when the gap was nearly a foot wide.

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