Tower of Dawn Page 106

“Two captains, remember?” he said, noting the cringe she failed to hide.

Indeed. Nesryn inclined her head and stepped in front of him—and into the archway of the stairs leading below.

Her arm strained as she pulled the bowstring taut, scanning the darkness immediately beyond the stairwell entrance. When nothing leaped out, she slackened the bow, placed her arrow back in the quiver, and plucked up a handful of rocks from the ground, shards and chips from the felled blocks of stone around them.

A step behind, Sartaq did the same, filling his pockets with them.

Listening carefully, Nesryn rolled one of the rocks down the spiral stairs, letting it bounce and crack and—

A faint click, and Nesryn hurled herself back, slamming into Sartaq and sending them both sprawling to the ground. A thud sounded within the stairwell below, then another.

In the quiet that followed, her heavy breathing the only sound, she listened again. “Hidden bolts,” she observed, wincing as she found Sartaq’s face mere inches away. His eyes were upon the stairwell, even as he kept a hand on her back, the other angling his long knife toward the archway.

“Seems I owe you my life, Captain,” Sartaq said, and Nesryn quickly peeled back, offering a hand to help him rise. He clasped it, his hand warm around hers as she hauled him to his feet.

“Don’t worry,” Nesryn said drily. “I won’t tell Borte.” She plucked up another handful of rocks and sent them rolling and scattering down the gloom of the stairs. A few more clicks and thumps—then silence.

“We go slow,” she said, all amusement fading, and didn’t wait for his nod as she prodded the first step down with the tip of her bow.

She tapped and pushed along the stair, watching the walls, the ceiling. Nothing. She did it to the second, third, and fourth steps—as far as her bow could reach. And only when she was satisfied that no surprises waited did she allow them to step onto the stairs.

Nesryn repeated it with the next four steps, finding nothing. But when they reached the first turn of the spiral stairs …“I really owe you my life,” Sartaq breathed as they beheld what had been fired from a slit in the wall at the ninth step.

Barbed iron spikes. Designed to slam into flesh and stay there—unless the victim wanted to rip out more of their skin or organs on the curved, vicious hooks on the way out.

The spike had been fired so hard that it had sunk deep into the mortar between the stones. “Remember that these traps were not for human assailants,” she breathed.

But for spiders as large as horses. Who could speak, and plan, and remember.

She tapped the steps ahead, the wood of her bow a hollow echo through the dark chamber, prodding the slit where the bolt had been fired. “The Fae must have memorized what stairs to avoid while living here,” she observed as they cleared another few feet. “I don’t think they were stupid enough to do an easy pattern, though.”

Indeed, the next bolt had emerged three steps down. The one after that, five apart. But after that … Sartaq reached into his pocket and pulled out another handful of stones. They both squatted as he rolled a few down the stairs.

Click.

Nesryn was so focused on the wall ahead that she didn’t consider where the click had come from. Not in front, but below.

One heartbeat, she was crouched on a step.

The next, it had slid away beneath her feet, a black pit yawning open beneath—

Strong hands wrapped around her shoulder, her collar, a blade clattering on stone—

Nesryn scrabbled for the lip of the nearest stair as Sartaq held her, grunting at her weight, his long knife tumbling into the blackness beneath.

Metal hit metal. Bounced off it again and again, the clanking filling the stairwell.

Spikes. Likely a field of metal spikes—

Sartaq hauled her up, and her nails cracked on stone as she grappled for purchase on the smooth step. But then she was up, half sprawled on the stairs between Sartaq’s legs, both of them panting as they peered to the gap beyond.

“I think we’re even,” Nesryn said, fighting and failing to master her shaking.

The prince clasped her shoulder, while his other hand brushed down the back of her head. A comforting, casual touch. “Whoever built this place had no mercy for the kharankui.”

It took her another minute to stop trembling. Sartaq patiently waited, stroking her hair, fingers rippling over the ridges of Borte’s braid. She let him, leaned into the touch while she studied the gap they’d now have to jump, the stairs still beyond.

When she could at last stand without her knees clacking together, they carefully jumped the hole—and made it several more steps before another one appeared, this time accompanied by a bolt. But they kept going, the minutes dripping by, until they at last reached the level below.

Shafts of pale light shone from carefully hidden holes in the ground above, or perhaps through some mirror contraption in the passageways high above. She didn’t care, so long as the light was bright enough to see by.

And see they did.

The bottom level was a dungeon.

Five cells lay open, the doors ripped off, prisoners and guards long gone. A rectangular stone table lay in the center.

“Anyone who thinks the Fae are prancing creatures given to poetry and singing needs a history lesson,” Sartaq murmured as they lingered on the bottom step, not daring to touch the floor. “That stone table was not used for writing reports or dining.”

Indeed, dark stains still marred the surface. But a worktable lay against the nearby wall, scattered with an assortment of weapons. Any papers had long ago melted away in the snow and rain, and any leather-bound books … also gone.

“Do we risk it, or leave?” Sartaq mused.

“We’ve come this far,” Nesryn said. She squinted toward the far wall. “There—there is some writing there.” Near the floor, in dark lettering—a tangle of script.

The prince just reached into his pockets, casting more stones throughout the space. No clicks or groans answered. He chucked a few at the ceiling, at the walls. Nothing.

“Good enough for me,” Nesryn said.

Sartaq nodded, though they both tested each block of stone with the tip of the bow or his fine, thin sword. They made it past the stone table, and Nesryn did not bother to examine the various instruments that had been discarded.

She’d seen Chaol’s men hanging from the castle gates. Had seen the marks on their bodies.

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