Even with Shaton stretched at a full gallop, he couldn’t outrun the burning. His face still pricked from the shame of delivering Kael’s key to his uncle. The man had dismissed him without so much as a glance, leaving him to guess whether or not he would be summoned again. His stomach still clenched from the fear.
Kael could not rule until his father was dead, which could be years, even decades from now. But Tehveor could. No writing indicated Celestion’s exact age. The records had hinted that he was old enough to marry, yet young enough to not have been married long. They also implied that Celestion would be filled with a brazened courage that normally eluded Tehveor. Today he felt it; enough to defy the king’s potential summons, enough to leave the castle while it was light.
Fate would not make him king, until he’d learned what he was supposed to do to gain the title. As he approached, Shaton’s hooves alerted Travat of his coming. The man rushed to the cave mouth with sword drawn and wide eyes that relaxed only after they identified Tehveor.
Travat sheathed his blade, bowing. “Forgive me, My Prince. I wasn’t expecting it to be you.”
Tehveor snagged the bit of humor. “Apparently not. Thank you for looking before you swung.”
The corners of Travat’s mouth pulled as he dared to exchange the smirk.
Tehveor swung from Shaton and handed the reins to the guard. “Will you take him to the other horses?”
“Yes, My Prince.”
“You’re here!” Gregorn called.
Tehveor peered into the darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. “News travels quickly,” he said.
“The lookouts saw you coming.” Gregorn stepped into the sunlight that spilled into the mouth of the cave’s chamber. The corner of his mouth perked beneath his beard. “I nearly forgot what you looked like in sunlight.”
Tehveor nodded, but the greeting was dampened by the returning worry that he would be summoned while he was gone.
“Why did you summon me?” he asked. “Did they find something in the manuscripts?”
Gregorn rubbed his face. “They’re currently arguing about the timeline. One manuscript clearly states that Celestion will marry before he is coroneted but an older version talks of the king’s marriage, not the prince’s.”
Tehveor frowned. “Why are they arguing over that? Fate has not even brought the second princess yet. And isn’t it the third princess I’m to marry?”
“Some say the third, some say second.” Gregorn shook his head. “Your task is to listen to Fate. He will tell you what he has ordained and when it is to happen. We also have not discovered how a sword can flame.”
Tehveor sighed. Nothing was clear, not after hundreds of years of translations, each written in a changing culture, each skewed toward the current understandings of the writer. The only way to know what was truly written would be to figure out how to read the original language. He’d begun to pick out patterns and thought he could learn to read it, but the masters thought it was a waste of time for him to muddle over an alphabet he didn’t understand, when he could compare and contrast existing Sentarrian manuscripts.
As the space darkened around them, Tehveor glanced in the direction of Gregorn’s breathing. “Please try not to let anyone else bother me. I’d like to work on my own for a few hours.”
“Of course,” Gregorn said, before he added, “I’m glad you came, Tehveor. Do you think there will be repercussions?”
Tehveor’s stomach churned. “If there are, don’t speak of them,” he said. Still half blind, he reached to find the wall, then a passageway that broke off of the main chamber. Hundreds of feet had worn the floor smooth enough to find his way without a light. Most Sentarrians flinched at the thought of exposing that path to eyes not meant to see it, as much as they shuddered at the thought of bringing a torch into a room filled with scrolls and books as fragile as dead leaves.
He swept his arm to the side until his fingers brushed a wooden crate. Good enough. There was no way to tell what each paper held until it was unrolled. This would be far more than he could look through before he must return to the castle.
As he neared the heart of the caves, the torches grew closer together, changing from guiding lights showing the next turn, to flames expelling the darkness. He followed the light to the room where whitewashed walls reflected the light, and the ceiling was low enough to capture voices and create a shelter from the chaos of its surroundings.
He shifted the box, reaching for the door that had been hinged into the rock and swung inside.
Tehveor jumped, unused to hearing a girl’s voice in the caves.
Standing near a table scattered with papers, Shannondant winced and smiled guiltily. “You caught me.”
“I won’t tell,” Tehveor said.
Shannondant’s slender fingers brushed the paper she rolled, concealing its tiny words to make room on the table. “I didn’t think you came here in the daytime.”
“I don’t normally,” Tehveor said. “It’s too hard to slip away from the family.”
“No one knows except your mother?” Shannondant asked.
“And Thymon, my servant,” Tehveor said. “Mother appointed him because he is an Erish born Sentarrian.”
“But your father isn’t?” Shannondant asked.
Tehveor flinched. He still owed the man a letter. “No. I’ve never met my father. He’s requested to return home a few times, but the king will not consent. He says he cannot see us until he has an alliance for him to sign.”
“Do you think the Erish would embrace us if they knew?” she asked.
Tehveor pried the top of the crate, flinching at the mold growing on the wood. “Kael might, but I don’t think the king would. Honestly, I’m not sure how safe it is for the Erish to venture into Sentarra. I don’t know what Fate would do to outsiders.”
“Would it harm your own family?” Shannondant asked.
Tehveor flinched. “I don’t know. My mother fears to return, even though the masters have lifted her exile. But my father is a soldier. I think he’d see any rising kingdom on Erish land as a threat. Fate may not give him a chance to understand.”
“But you think Prince Kael would?” Shannondant asked.
Tehveor paused, then looked at her to whisper, “I hope so. Kael isn’t like his father. His entire life revolves around trying to counter the damage the king does to their people. I hope I can do half as well with Sentarra.”
“I’m not sure you are as far from that as you think,” Shannondant said. “The people in these caves are devoted to you. Decharo has told me all about you.”
Tehveor huffed a laugh. “Please don’t form your opinions of me from Decharo’s praise. He’s my closest friend, but he’s prone to exaggeration.”
Shannondant chuckled. “And you’re sure you don’t exaggerate about Prince Kael?”
“No,” Tehveor said.
“Well, then perhaps sometimes people can see your true nature better than you can yourself.”
“Perhaps,” Tehveor said. He retrieved a roll from the crate, then peered at the drawings still sprawled around the table. “What were you doing?”
Shannondant moved a piece of charcoal, then rubbed the black into her hands. “Well, I started out looking for things written about me. But I grew distracted with the maps. They all look different, though I noticed several had the same features. So I started comparing each piece and drawing the portion which the majority agrees on. And the map I came up with looks entirely different than any of them.”
Tehveor joined her, studying the slanted lines that created the boarders of Sentarra. So far, it was little more than a jagged outline that encapsulated the ideas of the other maps, but Shannondant’s ability to reproduce an accurate scale was impressive.
“Does it look like Eirlerre?” she asked.
Tehveor shook his head. “Not the island itself, but it does look a bit like some of the provinces. Like a kingdom within the kingdom.”
“Well, I’ll finish it out anyway,” Shannondant said. “I don’t suppose it’s possible to ever truly know the shape of a country, but at least you’d have all the features of the maps together. Like this circle,” she pointed to a faded drawing, “might be the Circle of Light. And that map there has a forest that isn’t marked in the others.”
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Tehveor said. “Fate didn’t stop you from tampering with the maps?”
“No, why would it?” Shannondant asked.
“The masters say Fate has punished people for creating new material,” Tehveor said.
“But all of this was new at one point,” Shannondant replied, with the ignorance that came from never hearing stories of people disappearing after producing their own theories of the legend.
He bit his tongue. She was safe, even successful. Perhaps Fate had more in mind for her role than simply waiting for a battle to start while she searched for her father.
He eyed the features of each map, adding them together in his head and imagining them within Shannondant’s new layout.
“Ayth!” The Erish exclamation slipped from his mouth, but Shannondant only laughed when he switched back to the Sentarrian language. “Shannondant, this isn’t the whole of Sentarra. This is the caves.”
“What?” Shannondant peered as Tehveor sketched imaginary landmarks with his finger. “You didn’t see it, perhaps, because the maps have the Circle of Light in the wrong place. But this river that branches off is the river that runs through the caves. There’s the mouth, and that back there is where the horses graze. Then more rocks and that forest.”
Shannondant’s eyes widened before she swirled the landmarks, touching her finger onto the map. “Then – we’re here.”
Tehveor nodded. “That’s the passageway to the record room. But I don’t know what this square thing is over here. That must be farther in the caves, beyond the border of the torches.”
Shannondant’s eyes gleamed. “Let’s find it.”
Tehveor glanced toward the door. Even with torches, traveling beyond the light took them from the carved rooms and easy passageways into natural caverns with sudden drops, deadly gasses, and uncharted territory.
“You think you can climb in that dress?” he asked. “It’s not easy to travel beyond the passages.”
“I’ve climbed trees and ridden horses,” Shannondant said. “I can manage.”
Tehveor studied the map again, memorizing the twists and turns. “Let’s ask Decharo to come.”
The fire burned on one side of the pit in a modest flicker, giving Decharo time to scrape the ashes from the pit. It was impossible to tell how many trips he’d made, but he looked to be on his last, scraping the shovel against the floor.
Shannondant spoke before Tehveor had a chance. “We’re exploring the back of the caves, looking for a landmark. Do you want to come?”
Decharo straightened, rubbing the soot into his face, which only further blackened it. “In the back?” he asked. “Where Fate dwells?”
“I don’t think it will mind,” Tehveor said. “Not if we’re working on the legend.”
Fear flashed into Decharo’s eyes, but they snagged on Shannondant. He hesitated, then turned to scoop an armful of logs. “Let me build up the fire, so it will last a few hours.”
They took turns holding the torches, lighting one as they reached the edge of the living quarters. Water dripped from formations that hung like earthen icicles. Shadows played hide and seek, sliding behind structures, dancing on all sides, creating dark places that disoriented Tehveor. He stood still, closing his eyes to recall the map.
“Oww!” Decharo yelped.
Shannondant giggled as the boy with the torch rubbed his head, glaring at the last of the man made passage that he’d had to stoop to step from.
He straightened, lifting his face to a cavern large to enough to swallow all traces of his light before it hit the roof. “Well, if Fate does live here, I don’t think we’ll see it coming,” he said. “Are you sure we can find our way back?”
“Celestion shall lead us back,” Shannondant teased. “Or does your faith falter already?”
Tehveor ran his fingers over a slight indention in the only wall he could see. “It looks as though there was some form of writing here once,” he said.
He didn’t like the dark, but he put his hand out to brush the walls, feeling the grit crumble beneath his fingers. “We’ll follow the wall one way, then back.”
They inched along until the darkness swallowed most of the torchlight. Tehveor forced one step in front of the other, until the rock ended and his fingers pressed into spongy wood. He palmed the boards as Decharo held the torch closer to reveal rusty hinges.
The rusted iron crumbled under the pressure, and the door collapsed, folding into two rotted sections. The top portion slid down a steep slope and disappeared into a wide crack. Three walls ran unevenly to the ceiling and the fourth slanted gently upward, until it met with a steeper wall that connected the roof. A bat screeched from the darkness. On the far side of the room, water dripped into a small pool.
Decharo stumbled backward, taking most of the light with him. “What is that? That could kill someone!”
“There’s nothing in there,” Shannondant said.
Tehveor leaned through the doorway to peer at the room that continued slanting upward. “Why would they bother with a door?”
“I don’t like it,” Decharo said.
“There’s a path on the side,” Tehveor said. He reached back for the light. “Let me have the torch.”
“You’re going to fall, Tehveor,” Shannondant said.
“Not if I stay on the path. And the slant isn’t too steep.”
Despite the reassurance, Decharo hesitated before he released the torch. “I’ll go with you. I’m the eldest, you know.”
“By what? A year?” Tehveor threw back.
“Or five,” Decharo returned.
“You two!” Shannondant scolded. “Really!”
Tehveor stepped onto a level footpath that edged along the wall. If it was on the map and this inconvenient to access, it must be something important. His legs burned as he shuffled until the wall slanted on his left as well as his right. “There.” Tehveor pointed toward the wooden edge of a box peeking between two stalagmites. There’s a trunk in those formations near the ceiling.”
Decharo squinted upward, then winced. “You’re the one with Fate as a guardian. I’ll hold the torch.”
Tehveor laughed, handing it over before he inched up the ledge toward the towering formations, using his hands to grip the rocks. Decharo lifted the torch as high as he could manage, but Tehveor’s surroundings continued to darken as he reached for the box. It shifted beneath his weight, caught behind thick columns.
Tehveor crawled around the stalagmites, searching for another opening. “Whoever put it here did it a long time ago.”
The rock had grown into the petrified wood, capturing the trunk.
“It’s not going to come out,” he said. “I’ll have to pull the things out and leave the chest.”
Working the edge of his dagger into the gap of the lid, Tehveor pried until he’d created a gap.
As he worked his hand inside, Decharo smirked and called, “There’s probably a body in there.”
Tehveor jerked his hand back, then lurched to catch his balance. “Ayth, Decharo! Are you trying to kill me?”
“Yes,” Decharo drawled. “I want your kingdom. I’m letting you do all the work to set it up first. Then I’ll take it.”
“Well, you can’t have it.” Tehveor blew out a breath, inching his hand back inside until his fingers touched thin leather. He pulled out a roll of documents.
“Oh look, Tehveor!” Shannondant teased. “You found more maps.”
“I hope they lead to better places than this,” Tehveor said.
Decharo handed Shannondant the torch, then inched to meet Tehveor halfway, taking the papers.
Dirt crumbled from beneath Tehveor’s boots as he clambered back to the trunk. He freed a clay pot, peeking inside. “It looks like dirt.”
“I wonder what it’s for,” Decharo said.
“I wonder where it’s from,” Tehveor countered.
There was no way to tell, but he handed it down anyway, then shifted until his shoulder was against the lip of the chest. His chest throbbed as his fingers touched steel. “Shannodant, I think you found my sword.”
The pair at the bottom straightened all teasing draining away. “Be careful,” Decharo said. “If it’s yours, you don’t want it to flame in there.”
The handle felt strange, cool like metal, but deformed with something that twisted around the hilt. Tehveor shook his head as the sword caught, refusing to slide through the crack. “It’s catching something,” he said. He pulled out his dagger and dug into the side of the chest, trying to pull away one of the boards. The crust snapped along the joint, and he wedged his danger, wrenching until the side came free.
“Look alert!” he called as the wood slid toward the footpath.
Shannondant danced out of the way, grabbing one arm as the momentum scooted the wood across the path and continued down the slope until it followed the door frame into the crack.
“This was a terrible place to put something important!” she hissed.
“Maybe they didn’t want it to be found,” Tehveor answered. The trunk was nearly empty, holding the sword and a small chest that gleamed in the torchlight.
“Is that gold?” Decharo asked.
“Looks like it,” Tehveor said.
“I’ve never actually seen anything gold,” Decharo said.
“I’ll lower it down,” Tehveor said. “Can you catch it? It doesn’t have a handle, and it’ll be heavy.”
“Yes.” Decharo took five steps up the formation.
Tehveor inched the chest toward him, holding both sides, but the moment it hit the slant, it slid on its own, banging into his knees and stealing his balance. He grabbed the edge of the trunk, feeling the side sag beneath the sudden jerk. The gold chest ripped from his fingers, plunging toward Decharo.
“Move, move, move!” he called.
Decharo glanced up, rolling to the side as the chest grazed him. It hit the path and flipped, flinging its lid open.
An even smaller leather chest rode the slant down, wedging between the opening for just a moment before it continued into the gully. Just behind, another flash of gold rolled toward the opening. Decharo slid after it, stopping himself with his legs before he followed the trunk.
“The seal, Decharo!” Tehveor called as the seal rolled toward his friend.
Decharo spun toward the seal, then jumped away from it. “I can’t touch it!”
Tehveor shoved himself from the chest. “Just grab it!”
“It’s not…” Decharo cut off his own sentence, snatching the seal as it slide past him. He scrambled toward Tehveor, shoving it into his chest, flapping his hands like he’d been burned.
“It’s the sea, Tehveor!” He panted, eying his as though they were melting. “I’m not supposed to touch the seal.”
“You were following orders.” Tehveor clung to the cool handle. “You had permission.”
Decharo pressed the back of his fist against his mouth. “I’m going to be cursed.”
“No, you’re not,” Tehveor said.
“Yes, it is! That’s why it was in the box!” Decharo gripped his hair, pacing away until Shannondant pushed him toward the entrance.
“Go back to the main chambers,” she said. “I’ll help Tehveor. It will be alright. If there is a curse, I’m sure we can reverse it.”
“I told you to, Decharo,” Tehveor called as his friend fled. “If Fate’s angry, he’ll be angry at me.”
His voice echoed as Decharo disappeared through the doorway. Shannondant turned wide eyes that glowed in the torch she held. “Is that really cursed?” she whispered.
Tehveor eyed the straight line diving into a squiggle that formed the sigma. He winced and set it back into its box, shutting the lid so Decharo wouldn’t have to see it again. “I don’t know. Let me retrieve the sword, and we’ll go.”
Shannondant squirmed as Tehveor climbed back up the slope. He peered inside the chest, spying the bronzed body of a snake that guarded the hilt, wrapping a long tail down the top part of the blade and ending in a wicked looking hook that contrasted the rubies set in the creature’s eyes. The carved handle was beautiful, indicating a ceremonial weapon, but its sharpened blade and the serpent gave it a sinister touch. Perhaps the seal was cursed after all.
Tehveor hesitated before he forced his fingers around the blade. The only serpents he’d seen at the castle were worked into the king’s emblem of the sword stabbing a snake – a direct reference to Eirlerre’s enmity with Katal Ieill, who claimed the viper as a symbol of strength.
Clutching the sword, he worked his way back to the path. Shannondant reached for it. “I’ll carry it. You get that box. I’m not touching it.”
Tehveor lifted the box, following her into the open space of the cavern. The air felt less dense, and he breathed in relief.
Shannondant handed Decharo the torch. “We’re going back now.” At Decharo’s agitated nod, she added, “Nothing will happen to you.”
“I’m not one of you,” Decharo retorted. “I’m not a prophesied royalty that can break rules. My role is just a nameless person who will keep Sentarra’s day to day functions running.”
“You keep the Circle burning,” Tehveor said. “I’d hardly say that’s unimportant.”
Decharo’s chin jutted. “It’s nothing that couldn’t easily be replaced either.” He blew out a breath and turned with the light. “Please, let’s just go back somewhere light.”
He walked quickly, too quickly, but they didn’t call him back. Tehveor glanced into the shadows, unnerved by the darkness. His childhood dream had faded into the bits of his life that he couldn’t always process or explain, but one phrase the woman had said returned, and he turned eyes to the ornate blade and wicked handle.
“There is a sword, which you will take up to use either for good or for evil. Remember, you must always search for the truth within the lies.”
“Decharo?” he called. “I think that story of a curse, might be a lie.”