****chapter four: sharp Curses and Sharper Spears
The lion charged and Carson hurled his knife, not at the running beast, but at the guard above. The blade struck the manís arm and he staggered back clutching the injured limb, his spear falling from nerveless fingers and into the Americanís outstretched hands.
Carson turned, the savage lion almost upon him. Quickly crouching, he braced the weaponís butt against the wall as the beast, with a mighty roar, sprang upon him with wicked claws extended.
A dying howl erupted from the lionís gaping maw as its talons grazed Carsonís shoulder. Blood gushed from the beast; the spear bent dangerously, almost snapping under the weight of the massive creature impaled upon its point.
The Sorceress shrieked with rage, the unexpected turn of events and their swiftness catching her by surprise. She screamed commands. Carson leapt the writhing form, sprinted in zigzag fashion for the low portal at the pitís far end, sharp curses and sharper spears raining down upon him from above.
The portcullis rattled down as one javelin grazed Carsonís ribs and, with only seconds to spare, he hurled himself in a low dive beneath its falling points. The gate crashed down upon the stone in a cry of echoes as Carson rolled to his feet, and ran to the grillwork door set in the bars before him.
Reaching through them he pulled back the barrel bolt, thrust the door wide, and stepped upon the torch-lit corridor. Up the passage he madly dashed, only to hear the tramp of many feet approaching from around a bend Ė the Sorceressís minions were already hunting him.
Carson knew he was trapped - the only way back led to the arena where death would come in the form of flying spears.
I might as well die fighting here as there, he thought with stoic resignation. But what for a weapon?
His darting eyes spied a sconce upon the wall that, if torn free, would make a heavy mace. Setting his muscles to the task, he strained mightily against the bracket, the ever-nearing footfalls spurring him to greater effort.
Suddenly, the sconce moved beneath his rippling thews and, to his amazement, a section of the wall swung silently inward, disclosing a secret way. Thanking providence for this unexpected gift, Carson quickly stepped within and closed the door behind him.
Breathing heavily from his exertions and weak with relief, he leaned against the cool stone and sank heavily to the dusty floor, listening to the sound of running feet pass by where only seconds ago he had stood.
For many minutes there was a confusion of voices, and much movement in the outer passage as the search party looked in vain for their hidden quarry. Baffled by the foreignerís mysterious disappearance and also somewhat afraid, they eventually departed to reluctantly inform the Sorceress of his escape.
Carson breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief at their leaving. He was safe, at least for now. Fearful of discovery, he had been listening so intently to sounds in the outer passage that little thought had been given as to his surroundings. Now, he looked curiously about.
Light filtered in from an indeterminate source, reflected by cunningly placed mirrors of burnished gold so the wan radiance was cast along the narrow corridor. It was obvious to Carson that the way was long unused, for there were no marks of recent passage upon the dusty floor. Indeed, its very existence might remain unknown to the current inhabitants of this place, for the rough stone seemed to radiate a hoary sense of age suggestive of great antiquity.
Rising slowly to his feet, Carson considered his situation. All he knew was that he had been thrust into circumstances so outside the normal scope of existence that he was sure to go mad contemplating the how and why of things.
Best I stick to practical matters for now, he thought. I canít stay here and, as one direction seems as good as any other, Iíll set my feet upon the way ahead.
The passing of perhaps five minutes brought him to an upward leading flight of steps. Mounting their treads, Carson ascended to the upper level, and had just stepped upon it when, without warning, a trapdoor gave way beneath him.
Hands and legs flung out, a startled cry upon his lips, Carsonís palms and feet struck the walls where they narrowed, barely arresting his downward plunge. Beneath him in the deadfall, he could see sharp spikes, their points glinting in the dim light.
He slipped lower, fear twisting in his bowels like a knife as his sweating palms lost their grip, and it was only by straining with all his might that he saved himself from being impaled upon the deadly rods below him.
With gasping breath and by slow painful degrees, he carefully slid palms and feet across the stone, inching closer to the deadfallís lip. The edge was perhaps three yards away, but to Carson it seemed a thousand miles as he struggled towards its mocking rim.
Strength nearly spent, muscles trembling with fatigue, he made a desperate lunge, grasped the edge and hauled himself to safety. There he lay, trembling from his exertions, weak as a babe, and like a child he wept. The weirdness of Carsonís situation, the terrible ordeals he had been through in so short a space of time all conspired to come crashing down upon him in a torrent of emotions that overwhelmed him for a moment.
Perhaps another man would have given way to self pity or lost the will to live, but Carson was made of stronger stuff than that. He knew his tears were a catharsis of the soul, and felt the better for having shed them. Soon, strength of mind and body returned, and he was on his feet once more.
He continued along the passage, which followed the course of the buildingís walls, this time with greater caution for it was clear to Carson that danger was ever present in this strange and mysterious place. After an indeterminate period of wandering in semidarkness, a sound came to his ears Ė faint at first, then louder as he drew near its source.
Close by stood another secret door, clearly visible from within the hidden way, and from behind this portal came the anguished cry. Wondering what poor soul could be suffering so, he pressed his eye to the spy hole and beheld a terrible sight.
This story is copyright by Kirk Straughen. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)