I now had a problem on my hands as I looked over Luca’s stiff, heavy form. The lead dwarf clapped a hand on my shoulder. “No need to worry about that, Yer Queenliness. We’ll handle him.” He looked over his shoulder and used a hand to beckon to the others.
They sloshed through the water and hefted Luca onto their shoulders. The crowd marched him to a bunch of the ropes that hung from a large hatch, and together they tied them around his body so he hung in a sling. The leader dwarf put two fingers in his mouth and gave a whistle that echoed all over the cistern. The ropes were hauled up and Luca disappeared through the ceiling.
The dwarf tapped me on the arm and pointed at two ropes slung together to create a swing. “Here’s yer carriage, Yer Queenliness.”
I walked over and eased myself onto the ropes. The dwarf whistled again, and I was pulled up. I had a fine view as the dwarves scrambled to wrap the remaining ropes about their waists. The leader strolled over to his rope, but paused long enough to grab something from the water and tuck it into his belt beneath his vest. Some of the dwarves were shorted, and they glared up at their comrades as they and I disappeared through the ceiling.
The large room above the cistern had columns in the same locations, but was thankfully dry. I had failed to notice how wet I’d become in the shallow water, and a sudden chill made me shiver. Another dozen dwarves stood around the room, and at their backs were backpacks filled with stones and rope.
I blinked at all the heavy gear and tiny men. “Are you guys always up here?”
“Not here exactly,” the lead dwarf admitted as he strode over to where his men were setting Luca into a couple of backpacks turned into an improvised stretcher. “We just got the jingle that somebody was down here and checked it out to find you facing off against those shadows.”
“The jingle?” I repeated as I hurried to join him at Luca’s side. His breathing wasn’t quite as ragged, but his eyes were still closed.
The dwarf fingered some loose rope that hung out of one of the stretcher bags. “Yep. You got caught up in one of these nets on the way down, didn’t ya?” I furrowed my brow before I recalled the spider’s web. The dwarf returned his attention to Luca and nodded. “Now then, let’s get His Highness to bed and get some strong food into him. Take him away, boys!”
The dwarves hefted the stretcher onto their broad shoulders and marched off down the left-hand tunnel. The lead dwarf grinned at me and jerked his head in that direction. “This way, Yer Queenliness.”
I followed behind the strange procession, and was glad that more torches illuminated the area. While the cistern had been devoid of everything but columns and water, evidence of life littered the upper floor. Literally. Bags sat in odd spots and half-eaten meals were scattered about.
“Do you guys live here all the time?” I asked my guides as we passed another bag with provisions.
“Well, it is the Ponds,” the dwarf pointed out as he walked by my side. “And we’ve got to be guarding it on behalf of our king and our promise.”
The tunnel opened into a completely new, green world. Vines grew down through cracks in the ceiling and wrapped themselves around the columns. Carpets of grass covered the floor and flowers dotted the green blades. The soft, large petals reminded me of tulips, though they were all nearly closed at the top.
The walls were decked in early vintage vine, and countless rows of planters stretched from one corner to the other. They were filled with every imaginable vegetable, and some I had never imagined. The dwarves resided in small stone huts with thatched roofs, and each peak of the houses only reached to my height.
I swept my eyes over the wondrous sight and breathed out a single word. “Wow.”
The dwarf puffed out his chest and grinned. “Pretty nice, isn’t it? Took a century, but now we hardly need to tend to it. The water all comes from pulling up the stuff from the cistern beneath us and piping it through the stone ceiling above us. Now let’s get His Highness over here.”
The ‘over here’ was a small hut built with a column sticking out of its center. The dwarves marched inside and I followed. The interior was short, but comfortable, with rooms separated by a single stone slab. I was forced to stoop to clear the front door, and decided crawling on my hands and knees inside the house was the best option.
They carried him into the room to our right, and I found that to be the bedroom. Some clothes were scattered about and there was a dresser on the opposite wall. The bed sat in the middle of the room with a nightstand beside it closer to the door. The dwarves set the stretcher on the floor and tried their best to fit Luca, but he was two feet too long for the bed.
“That’s good enough,” the dwarf leader spoke up as his men tried to bend Luca’s legs into the bed. “Keep trying that and he’s going to be eating his knees.”
The men stopped their efforts and shuffled out of the room, taking their bags with them. The leader marched over to the bed and forced open one of Luca’s eyes.
The dwarf frowned. “A nasty hit with something.”
“Dragon’s Bane,” I told him as I crawled into a corner, though I kept my focus on Luca.
His face looked almost peaceful now, and I no longer felt any pain in my heart. I set my hand over my chest and pursed my lips as I thought back to his struggle to keep us aloft and get me down the pipe. He’d done all that to protect me when it was more than likely my fault those things were chasing us.
The dwarf turned to me and studied me for a moment before his eyes lit up. “What now, where are my manners?” He crossed his arm over his chest and swept into a bow. “Dapper, at your service, Yer Queenliness.”
His introduction made me smile. “And I’m Diana.”
Dapper righted himself and grinned. “A fine name. Quite a fine name, in fact. And what were you two doing down here without the key?” I recounted my tale, and when I had finished some of his humor had faded. “Sounds like a real mess you’ve got up there, and these black folks are in the middle of it.”
“You’ve never seen them down here?”
Dapper cupped his chin in his hand and scrunched up his bearded face. “Well, I won’t say that, but we’ve been getting jingles on the net, and when we’ve got there sometimes they’ve been cut and sometimes not.”
He reached into his belt and drew out what he had removed from the water. It was the dagger from our attacker. Dapper turned it over in his hands and studied the blade which I noticed had a unique jagged edge where there appeared to be waves from the hilt to the sharp tip. He grabbed a rope from near at hand and sliced the strand in two with a simple flick of his wrist.
Half of the rope fell to the floor, and he examined the other half that he held in his hand. “This looks like the same cut in the ropes.”
I returned my attention to Luca and my shoulders drooped. “That doesn’t help us help him.”
Dapper tossed the rope away and looked Luca over before he shrugged. “I think he just needs some of his kingly sleep.” He turned his face toward me and examined me. “You could use some, too.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Neither of us has time for sleep, not until we find that key.”
Dapper tossed the dagger onto the nightstand and stroked his beard with one hand. “There’ll be trouble for sure if it isn’t found, and only two hours of sunlight let, too.”
I swept my eyes over the room. “How can you tell?”
Dapper dropped his hand and turned to me with a grin. “Ya wanna see?”
There was a mix of dread and curiosity as Dapper strode out of the room and I crawled after him. He stopped at the column and turned to me before rapping his knuckles against the stone. “This shows me.”