Rune didn’t taste the evening meal. He ate while he unpacked and sorted things as they emerged from his bag, the objects finding their way into one of two piles.
Most of his clothes landed in the first pile, along with the robes he’d worn for travel. He changed into a pair of close-fitting pants and a loose, long-sleeved tunic; fashions from his homeland that offered familiar comfort. He’d need to be unencumbered in case the well’s blockage was a who, rather than a what.
Sera’s eyes weighed on him as he dressed and he tried to ignore it. He’d not stripped to the point of indecency, but she was fascinated by his scars. The attention she gave them made him uncomfortable.
The sheaths for his daggers strapped to his thighs—two blades on either leg—and he hesitated before belting his sword at his hip. The blade was precious and having it anywhere visible was risky, but it was safer on him than left in a building full of strangers.
As an afterthought, he put the gloves and wrappings back on his hands and feet.
“You act like you’re preparing for battle,” Sera said.
“I may be. Neither one of us knows what’s waiting at the wells.” Rune turned to face her, motioning toward her large satchel at the foot of her bed. The only bed in the room, that was. “Are you going to get ready?”
She made a soft, thoughtful sound in her throat, scooping up her bag and flipping it open. Though they had packed light, they were still traveling a considerable distance, and both of them were fighters. Traveling light still meant a good deal of equipment. “Turn around.”
“You watched me.”
“I said turn around,” she growled.
Rune twisted away, staring at the door. The hurried rustle of fabric indicated he wouldn’t have to wait long. “When we’re done with this, you’re sleeping on the floor.”
The door was rough wood, something like the ladders to the arches over the city. He studied the uneven cuts that left gaps between the boards, each filled with what looked to be plaster. “You insist on having one room. I always sleep on the floor. You want to meddle with the well, you want to have one room… Tonight, when we’re finished, I get the bed.”
“And if we don’t find the answer tonight?” she asked. “What if we’re out until morning?”
“Don’t try to get out of it. I’m not traveling the width of a continent without ever sleeping in a proper bed.”
“Your bedroll seems fine whenever we make camp.”
He rolled his eyes. “Because that’s fair. We can afford a second room, why is it always one?”
The silence that followed was uncharacteristic of Sera and after a moment, he regretted asking.
Before he could take it back, he heard the soft snick of her daggers slipping into their sheaths.
“I’m finished. Do you have everything you need?”
He pointed at the bed. “The water skins. Should we refill them now?”
Sera eyed the empty skins on the bed, then picked one up. “Outside. The air is cooling off. It will be easier to catch the dew now.”
“Both?” He motioned toward the other water skin. She nodded, and he fastened it to his belt.
“Ready? She was halfway to the door before she asked.
As ready as he could be, not knowing what they prepared for. Shrugging, he followed her to the door. “Let’s get it over with.”
“Excuse me, you were the one who wanted to go do it tonight!” Sera swept the door open, gesturing for him to exit first. So long as they traveled together, he was expected to play his part.
Resting one hand on his sword’s twisted black hilt, Rune slid into the hallway.
The rest of the inn was still lively, but the streets had emptied after nightfall. Though the forested regions to the east were warmer, the blasted desert lands in the west—where the drought still reigned—grew cold at night, buffeted by howling winds.
Sera took the lead after they stepped into the streets and Rune assumed his position behind her once more. She pointed down a wide, meandering roadway that branched toward the north, not far from the inn. “The biggest well is this way.”
Rune looked upward, noting their location as they walked on.
She followed his glance. “Think you’ll remember which arch it is?”
“No, but every arch in sight has different banners. The number and colors are distinct enough to let me find my way.” He trailed her toward the northern road, past tents and buildings of mud and stone too numerous to count.
She chuckled. “Clever. But there are signposts too, you know.”
“In a language I can’t read,” Rune replied dryly.
Spreading her arms, she spun to grin at him. “Well, fortunately for you, you have a translator right here.”
He raised a brow. “How many languages do you speak, anyway?” They conversed in the trade tongue. Most people spoke it—or at least those who did business could—but she’d seemed to adapt to every dialect they encountered in their travels. All but his native tongue, at least.
“Enough,” Sera said. “And more than you, it seems. Come, the well is just ahead. I can see it now.”
A low stone wall waited ahead, different from the wells Rune had seen before. It was made with two walls, he saw as they moved closer; a tall ring around the well itself and a larger, lower ring around a tile-bottomed reservoir. Broken wooden posts still stood to either side; once meant to hold a pulley, he suspected.
“The basin is for animals.” Sera stepped over the lower wall, which was no more than knee height. “When the wells are full, the city pays an attendant to fill the basins. Horses need drink, too. And many shepherds appreciate having the still basins to water their flocks.”
“Makes sense.” He joined her in the reservoir, leaning over to peer down the circular well. Blackness stretched on, farther than he could see.
Scrounging a pebble from the ground, Sera tossed it against the well’s inner wall and listened as it clicked and ricocheted until they heard no more.
Rune shook his head. “Do you feel anything down there?”
“No more than you do, I’d wager.” Life force would have stood out to their senses, but Sera’s affinity to water meant it would have called to her, too. She pursed her lips. “We should go down. I’ll get a rope.”
“Wait.” He turned his head, scanning the ground. Seeing nothing but pebbles and dust, he slid to one of the broken posts and peeled off a fat sliver of wood.
Sera’s brow furrowed. “What’s that for?”
“Need a bucket.”
Shrugging, she stepped out of the basin and scouted around the buildings nearby. She returned after a moment with a bucket and length of rope.
Rune took them both, tying the rope to the bucket and the filling the bottom with an inch of dust he scraped from the dry road around them. He packed it firm with a fist, then put the sliver of wood in the bucket, too. Easing the bucket over the well so as not to disturb the dust, he lowered it a foot or two into the dark before a flick of his fingers made a small flame spark to life, cautiously burning at one end of the sliver.
Sera leaned over the wall, watching it descend as he fed it a little rope at a time. “Why not use a mage-light?”
“It’s not for light. It’s for safety. When I was young, any time the miners opened a new shaft, they sent down a flame to be sure there was no foul air. Where a flame can’t live, neither can you.”
She blinked. “Miners?”
He shook his head. “Never mind.”
Eventually, the bucket reached the bottom, some fifty feet down.
“Deeper than I expected,” Sera muttered.
“And here you wanted to jump right in.” He tied the rope to the taller of the posts, testing it with his full weight. It held fast, the post unmoving. Then he offered her the rope. “After you.”
She crossed her arms. “Shouldn’t you go first? You’re supposed to be my guard, after all.”
“You’re the one who wants to go down a well. If you don’t want to go first, maybe you shouldn’t want to go at all.” Rune extended his hand farther, the rope hanging from his leather-clad fingers.
With a sniff, Sera plucked another pebble from the ground. It glittered, glowing bright between her fingers. Her magic tingled at the edge of his senses. She dropped the light down the well and took the rope, swinging a leg over the stone wall. “Glad I changed out of that dress.”
“We both are.” He leaned against the side of the well, watching her work her way down. “When we climb back up, I’d rather not be under your skirt.”
She stopped ten feet into the darkness. “Are you coming?”
He nodded, flexing his fingers. “Once you’re all the way down. With these on, I don’t know how good my grip will be. I’d prefer you not be what breaks my fall.”
“Then take them off,” she said. “A fall like that could kill you.”
“You’d be surprised how hard I am to kill.”
Her face tilted upward, catching just enough moonlight to let him see the broad roll of her eyes. Then she shimmied downward, silhouetted against the mage-light at the bottom of the well.
Long moments dragged by before her voice echoed up to him. “Okay! Come down.”
Rune took the rope in both hands, testing its hold one more time before he slid over the wall. He inched downward, mindful of the way his side rubbed the wall.
“If you move any slower, it’ll be morning before you get down here!” Sera called.
The idea of reflecting daylight down into the well didn’t sound half bad. Rune brushed his hands against his thighs when his feet reached the bottom and looked over his shoulder.
Instead of being a muddy pit at the bottom, the well connected to a natural tunnel that ran underneath the city. The floor was sandy and not quite dry, taking crisp imprints of their feet.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Rune muttered, glancing the other direction. “It’s not an underground river and not a pressurized aquifer. What is this?”
Sera picked up her mage-light, brushing sand off its surface. It was too blindingly bright to look at directly, but the grains of sand clinging to it cast odd shadows on the damp walls. “I don’t know, but my guess is it has something to do with the disappearing water.”
She paced a few feet in one direction before turning abruptly and heading the other way.
Puzzled, Rune peered back the way she’d almost gone. The walls were drab sandstone, dark with moisture, just like the other direction. “Why’d you turn around?”
“Because that direction runs uphill. The water should flow upward if this is an artesian well, which means the blockage would be down here. And if it’s not, whatever has drained the water will be this way, too.”
He stopped, shifting his feet in the sand. He hadn’t noticed the slight grade in the floor, or the direction it slanted. Choosing not to admit it, he changed the subject. “So you know we’ll die if this passage fills with water while we’re down here, right?”
“We won’t die. I’m best with water, remember?” She rolled the mage-light between her fingers. “With luck, this will just be a matter of finding where the water has drained and plugging it up. But it looks like sabotage to me.”
Rune had to agree. There were regular marks in the sandstone, both walls and ceilings, striations that looked suspiciously similar to marks left by sophisticated tools. He didn’t know if the oxen-powered drills he’d seen used in the Triad were common in the south, but he remembered what they looked like, and that memory was consistent with the tunnel they walked.
But why rob the city of its water? Water vendors were aggressively taxed, but the extra income for the city’s coffers wasn’t worth the suffering. Even nobles struggled to keep their families hydrated.
Then there was the question of how a drill would have reached the well to begin with. Though he did notice the slight slope underfoot now, it would have taken miles to reach the surface at that grade. The drills could go sideways; he’d seen them burrow into cliff faces. But once operation began, they were too large and cumbersome to move or change direction.
The farther they went from the well, the more damp the ground underfoot became. Sand squished between the leather strips binding Rune’s feet. He ignored it, even when it put grit between his toes and made him stumble, the ground shifting beneath his feet.
Sera stopped, putting a hand against the wall. “What was that?”
So it hadn’t been the sand.
“Not big enough to be a tremor,” Rune said.
“But too big to be my imagination,” Sera replied. She lingered with her hand against the wall, tensing when the earth shifted beneath their feet again.
He lowered his voice. “Vibrations from the digging, maybe?” If someone was still digging, he didn’t want to be heard. The tunnel was large enough that he did not have to crouch, but it was too close of quarters for a comfortable fight.
“I think you’re right,” she whispered, evidently sharing his concern. “But if they’re still down here, it might be good. If we can catch them, they’ll have to answer to the city elders.”
Rune nodded, reaching for one of his daggers. “Let’s keep going.”
“But quietly,” Sera said.
“Please.” He touched a hand to his chest as if her words wounded. “Have you ever known me to draw unwanted attention?”
Ever so softly, she laughed.
Chapter 3 will be available on April 10th.