Visions of flame and blood passed away. Screams of the dying dissolved into long mournful wails. Evening rays faded into the bleak shadowy ceiling of the caverns of Rondinburg. Destin groaned, rising from his stone bed.
“How long have I slept?,” he whispered. The cavern echoed his voice with dull murmurs that seemed to mock him. Above him, icicles of stone hung in ancient solemnity like teeth in a yawning mouth that would never close. All was deathly silence save for a dripping sound from somewhere far away. It lasted only a moment. A muffled wailing pierced the damp air with an eerie ring like the wretched howls of lost spirits, wandering, wandering, never finding. A heavy feeling settled in Destin’s chest as he stumbled past bodies of prostrate figures, sleeping or wishing they could. In the next room, he could hear the soft wailing very near, coming from many voices whose bodies he could not see. Walking was difficult. The only lights were a few candles struggling against the dampness.
Destin spotted Lady Fairwin. She stood beside one of the candles. She was near the light when most slept in darkness. She was standing while most slumped in despair. Even she did not speak though. Around her in the darkness, a few nondescript figures huddled in wait while she dished something from a barrel into their cupped hands.
Destin came up beside her. She faced him. “You have slept long.”
He rubbed his eyes. “How long?”
“A day maybe. It is impossible to tell. There is no sun.” Destin stared about him as if noticing for the first time that that orb of light and life was absent from their subterranean prison.
A noise like a distant thunder caught him off guard. “What was that?”
“They have been doing it for hours.” Lady Fairwin replied, dishing a small girl what Destin now saw was unground wheat.
“Wrecking the palace.” There was a long pause. “Trying to find us.”
The remark gave Destin an uncomfortable feeling. He changed the subject. “How are we for water.”
“We have plenty.”
Lady Fairwin sighed, “Our supply will last no more than four days.”
“What about after that?”
Lady Fairwin looked at him as if surprised he had asked. Instantly he regretted his question. Lady Fairwin dished an old man a handful of grain. “Then we will have nothing to eat.”
* * *
Some said it was six days since they had entered the caverns; some said it was seven. Either way, they had been over a day without food. Destin paced uneasily in a secluded chamber of the underground labyrinth. He could not bear the looks of the little ones whose eyes asked him why they were suffering and what he was going to do about it.
Lady Fairwin made a suprise entrance at the doorway of the chamber. Destin wheeled about, straightened himself, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Lady Fairwin hung at the door with an air of hesitation, leaning limply against the cavern wall. It was an emotion he did not often see in her. At last she managed to ask him the question. “Destin, have you heard the noises?”
Destin nodded. He could hear them now. They were like faint roars – a muffled clatter and din that was far far away.
“What does it sound like?” Lady Fairwin asked.
The foggy realizations that he had sensed since the noises began hours ago came together into a suddenly clear form. “It sounds like a battle.” His own words surprised him as if he had not expected to say that.
Lady Fairwin nodded then bowed her head. She remained at the doorway as if waiting – waiting for herself. “We thought he might return now.”
Destin’s face lit with inteligence. It was a light not hidden, but accentuated by the dim gleam of the room’s single candle. He did not need to be told who “he” was. Destin took a step towards Lady Fairwin but saw that her head was still bent. He stopped, his face clouding. She sighed. “Destin, be truthful with me. What are his chances of victory?”
There was a long pause. Destin thought he could hear the noise of battle rising to a peak in the far off land above. He took a sharp inhale. “Perhaps one in fifteen with heavy losses. Maybe one in ten.”
Lady fairwin nodded again with her eyes averted, detached herself painfully from the room’s entrance, and walked away. There was a heaviness in her walk which Destin had never seen before. The emptiness in the room took on a new feel to him. It was dark, treacherous. He longed to see faces, even if they broke his heart.
He exited the room and entered another where there were many faces, but few that looked at him. The wailings were infrequent now. They had been replaced with whispered listless conversations which lent an eeriness to the caverns and made them feel more than ever like the underworld land of Hades.
The moans, the whispers, and the faraway din of battle mixed together like a chant of dull heartless tune which was somehow lulling. Destin collapsed beside an old grey-haired man seated against the cavern wall. The pain and exhaustion seemed to drain from his body. He nodded. There were whispers, whimpers, the sound of dripping, and a distant roar. He drifted into a fitful sleep.
* * *
Destin felt a soft hand on his shoulder. He awoke and saw Lady Fairwin standing above him. He rose. The whispers continued and the dripping, but something was missing. Lady Fairwin whispered in his ear, “The battle has ceased.” Yes, that was it.
“It will likely begin tomorrow.” He sleepily kicked a stone.
Lady Fairwin’s face was anxious. “How much was my husband outnumbered by?”
Destin scratched his aching head. “With any luck, perhaps … four to one, and the Earl’s forces fresher and having the defensive position.”
Lady Fairwin was looking straight into his eyes. “And with those odds, might the Earl have taken the offensive against our men?” Destin did not reply. She looked at him more intensely. “Destin, I want to see above.”
He half jumped, startled. “But you can’t!” The whispering stopped. A few hollow faces turned to look at them. Destin turned first to them, then Lady Fairwin. Her eyes had not changed. He exhaled defeatedly. “Then I will go with you.”
She smiled, but sorrowfully, and immediately turned and walked away. Springing away from the wall, Destin followed nimbly after her. The people before them parted with an instinctive understanding that Lady Fairwin was not simply walking aimlessly like they had for days, but walking somewhere, possessing purpose and resolution.
She and Destin passed through them and beyond them, to the room where the staircase was. No one ever came to that room. Perhaps it was because the staircase connected them to a world of memories still too fresh. They climbed the staircase. Destin could feel his heart race when Lady Fairwin opened the trap door and they entered the palace.
The hall was desolate. No one was in sight, but men had been there. Walls were broken down, rugs scattered about and torn, furniture smashed and out of place. There was only one sign of life, and it was near. Voices came from close at hand. Destin hurried to hide behind something. A vague realization hit him that Lady Fairwin was running, not beside him, but the other way, straight towards the voices. A thousand horrid scenes filled his brain and he whirled around in a panic.
Lady Fairwin was running. She was running straight towards a grim, blood-stained warrior, and she was unarmed. Behind the kingly-faced warrior, another knight just rounded the corner. He was conversing on some matter with the first man. “My Lord Fairwin, don’t you think -” but then he stopped. Lord and Lady Fairwin met. “Oh oh,” the second knight stammered. Destin caught up to them in a moment. “Edward – why, the Thane of Dorth? What’s happened?”
The Thane of Dorth was as lost as he was. “Why I-I,” He looked at the Fairways then at Destin, then the Fairwins, then Destin. “well – we – who is left? Are you well?” His face was a battle of incredulity and hope.
“Alive – very few of us. But, the Earl?”
The Thane choked between a laugh and a cry. “We’ve won lad, won! Not just Rondinburg, but the whole war. The entire alliance joined us against the Earl. We-” The Thane stopped. Lady Fairwin was coming toward him. He took her hand in his and pressed it tightly. The Thane spoke tremulously, his voice soft but animate. “You have suffered much.”
There were tears in Lady Fairwin’s eyes and sorrow, the released feelings of a month of senseless suffering and death, but her eyes glistered through the sorrow and she pressed the Thane’s hand in return. With a choke, she repeated the words of the Thane’s letter. “I trust and know that Right will not utterly perish from the earth.”