At length they came to a place where the passage divided into three branches.
“Which way now?” said Baxter, tightening his grip on Eny’s wrist.
“Straight ahead—we’ll stick to the middle road,” she answered. John Izaak nodded in confirmation.
“And let go of me, would you?” said Eny, slapping Baxter’s hand. “I never gave you permission to touch me!”
As they followed the climbing middle path, they became aware that narrow side-passages were beginning to enter the main corridor at odd, random angles. Some breathed icy air from their murky depths. Some reeked of smoke and sulfur. Some were black as midnight. Others were faintly illuminated with the warm glow of flickering torches.
In time they came to a wider side-avenue. As they approached, Eny could see its walls pulsing with light. Signaling a halt, she glanced quickly around the corner.
“Fomorians!” she hissed, pulling back sharply. “A guard station or something!” She inched her eye past the edge of the wall a second time.
What she was looking at was not a passage at all but a large arching alcove. In the left wall burned a brilliant fire on a wide stone hearth. Over the flames hung a seething black cauldron. At the further end of the recess stood a rickety wooden table. And around the table, on creaking wooden crates, sat four grizzled, bald-headed giants in shirts of clinking chain-mail and heavy black boots. They were slurping rank-smelling stew from deep wooden bowls, laughing and belching loudly as they ate. Against the nearer wall stood a disarrayed heap of spears, swords, and brass-riveted shields.
Eny looked back at Izaak and Baxter. “We may be able to slip past if we’re quick and quiet,” she whispered. “Can you manage?”
“I’ll try,” Izaak replied.
A peal of loud laughter burst from the feasting Fomorians. Eny seized Baxter’s hand and dashed out into the open. In the same instant a rat darted across her path.
“Aaaack!” screamed Baxter, flinging himself against the wall with a heavy thud.
“Alarum! Alarum!” bellowed one of the guards, jumping to his feet.
He lunged for his spear and shield, but tripped and fell over one of his comrades. A clamor and a ruckus followed as each of the four guards strove to be the first out of the arched recess.
“This way!” shouted Eny, shoving Baxter down the gallery.
Just beyond the guard station they reached a place where three different intersecting tunnels converged upon the main passage. One veered slightly to the right. Another came in from the left. The last seemed to bend back sharply in the direction from which they’d come. Eny took the third path.
“Are you still with me?” she called back over her shoulder.
“Yes!” answered John Izaak. “I think they took a different route!”
“Good! Keep moving!”
The passage grew steeper as they pressed on, becoming at length a narrow winding stairway. There were no torches here, so Eny and her companions had to navigate the twists and turns of the rising shaft by the sense of touch alone.
Reaching the top of the stair, they stepped out into a wide, brightly illuminated stone gallery. It sloped upwards to the left.
“Now what?” gasped Baxter.
“Up!” answered Eny. “Always up!”
They followed the sloping grade until it opened out into a wide circular arcade with a smooth, tiled floor and a high vaulted ceiling. Near the top of the dome six narrow slits shone bright with daylight.
“Ground level at last!” exclaimed Eny.
“Yes!” said Izaak. “And that’s not all. Look there!”
Following his finger, Eny gazed across the beehive-shaped chamber and saw something that caused her heart to jump.
(To be continued …)