Sir Garath placed a firm hand on Father Beren's arm as the stout priest made to enter the Labyrinth. His eyes blazed, and his mouth was set in a thin line. Jonn stood just beside Garath. His hand trembled, aching to draw steel.
"Peace, good knight," said Beren. As he said this his eyes flicked across to Jonn. "You would never have opened the way without me." Jonn took a step back, but his trembling did not ease. He was there. He was there! I should kill him.
Garath tightened his grip on the priest’s arm, and gritted his teeth. The thief walked right past them, seemingly heedless of the tension, and peered inside.
"It's going to be dark in there," he said. "Should we light torches?"
"No need to waste them," said Beren cheerfully, never taking his eyes from Garath. "I may provide us light for a time."
Garath held his gaze for a moment longer, then slowly nodded and relaxed his grip. "Aye. Gather the others, Jonn. I would speak to them before we venture into that pit."
"But what about—"
"Just go, boy! We’ll talk of this later."
Jonn scrambled back up the path toward the camp. His shaking eased as he moved further away from the Labyrinth's entrance, and warmth of the rising sun settled into his bones. His anger was still there, still nestling like a viper in his belly, but for reasons he could not understand he was unable to unleash it. Perhaps it was because the priest was too useful. He had opened the door, after all. Or perhaps, Jonn thought to his own disgust, it was because he liked the man. No, it couldn't be that. He had a job to do, that was all, and the priest was there to help him do it.
The sun was well over the horizon now, and the camp was showing greater signs of life. Jonn passed by the swordswoman, who was perched one-legged on a boulder, holding her sword motionless over her head. The archer was sat next to a guttering fire close by, inspecting his arrows. Everywhere the peasants trudged to and fro, gathering equipment and checking the horses. Even the mercenaries were awake, singing rowdily. All except the three women, wrapped head-to-foot, crouching silently as they sharpened their spears. Sir Garath’s squire was the only one asleep, still wrapped up in his bedroll.
Jonn told the swordswoman that Sir Garath wanted everyone at the Labyrinth's entrance as soon as possible. A smile touched her lips and then, without the slightest loss of balance, she threw her sword into the air and vaulted from the boulder. She landed on her hands, rolled forward, and came up on her feet in time to catch it and bow to Jonn with a flourish.
"You don't have to show off for me," said Jonn, barely able to get the words out. He felt nervous around her, and not a little bit awestruck. It was difficult not to be.
"Not just for you," she said. "I show off whenever there is an audience."
She sheathed her sword and sauntered back into the camp, graceful with every step. Jonn turned to the archer, who was staring at the swordswoman with an odd gleam in his eye.
"I heard thee," said the archer coldly, and returned to his arrows. Jonn was not at all reluctant to continue on his way toward the camp. There was something about the archer that made his muscles freeze, and his breath catch in his throat.
The mercenary camp was ahead of him, and Jonn grew nervous as he approached it. He couldn't see the one-eyed giant. The only member of their band that he could see was a dark-haired warrior in a battered breastplate, pissing openly and drinking from a flask with his free hand.
A stooped old peasant walked by him carrying a pair of saddlebags, and Jonn stopped him with a hand on the shoulder.
"Would you mind fetching the mercenaries?" he said.
The old man looked at him sideways with a sly grin. "I might, if’n I might lighten me load a bit. A copper or two ain’t so heavy as these saddlebags, ya know."
Jonn frowned and turned to leave, but then the one-eyed man emerged from a tent, clad in burnished mail with a greatsword strapped to his back. Jonn stopped, and reached into his pouch. He had but two coins, a silver noble and a copper common.
He held the copper coin in his hand. It was tarnished and battered, with clipped edges, but even so it was more than the old man’s services were worth. He placed it back in his pouch, deliberately tied up the strings, and gave the silver coin to the old man.
The old peasant took the coin with a shaking hand, his face scrunched up quizzically, but soon the puzzled look disappeared, and the coin vanished into his pouch. He dropped the saddlebags into the road and ambled towards the mercenary camp. Jonn breathed a sigh of relief, and started gathering the others, and soon they were filing along the trail towards the Labyrinth.
As Jonn finished telling the last of the peasants to gather, he noticed that Garath’s squire still lay wrapped in his bedroll. Scowling, he walked over to the boy.
"Up you get," he said. "Sir Garath has asked us to gather. The Labyrinth is open, and I think we will enter today."
The squire did not answer, so Jonn knelt down and shook him gently. He shot up from his bedroll, a wild look in his red-rimmed eyes.
"I know," the squire said with tight lips. "I know what’s going to happen. I know what’s going to happen to us all."
"You don’t know," said Jonn. "Now get up, before I fetch Sir Garath to drag you out. You’re the last one."
"Oh no, don’t fetch Sir Garath," the squire said with a sneer. "Don’t fetch the Coward Knight." He motioned with a laugh to the knight’s arms and armour, which were piled nearby. His shield was in plain view, a round iron disc emblazoned with the sigil of a rampant mouse.
Jonn ripped the blanket from the squire and backed away a few paces. "Stay here and freeze to death then," he said. "Or come with us into the depths. It matters not to me."
The squire’s turned an angry shade of red. He said nothing, but instead grabbed his cloak and started gathering his gear. Jonn dropped his head, and handed back the blanket.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just trying to gather everyone, and... I understand your fear. It must be difficult, coming to this place against your will."
"I do my duty," the squire sneered, and said no more. Jonn did not bother to press him. With a shake of the head, he turned and walked back up the trail. When he reached the entrance to the Labyrinth he saw everyone milling around on the trail. Sir Garath stood on a stone outcropping and addressed them.
"Listen," said the knight. "Where we go is no place for dissent. There must be no strife amongst our ranks. Our survival depends on our staying together."
"Even when we take a piss?" said the thief with a laugh.
"Especially then," said Garath. "No one relieves themselves without a partner. I'm sure your northern friend will be happy to oblige. When we camp, we camp with a watch. When we move, we move in formation. Warriors at the front and rear, the rest of you between. Like so."
Sir Garath directed the others back and forth, until they formed a line two abreast. The knight and the barbarian took the point. Behind them were the priest and the swordswoman. Jonn was placed in line behind Father Beren, with the archer beside him. Sir Garath's squire rounded the corner, weighted down with the knight's arms; he shot Jonn a sour look as he was directed to his place in the line behind him. Behind them were the sorceress and the thief, who eyed his companion with open appreciation. The mercenaries brought up the rear, the scarred captain and his motley band of seven warriors. The one-eyed giant towered over everyone, and leered with broken teeth when he saw Jonn watching him.
"When we move from the passages into more open areas, some of you mercenaries move to the flanks. We keep two light sources at all times, at the front and rear. We move quietly, and speak only when we must. And when I give orders, you obey."
"You ask much," said the sorceress.
"And demand more," Garath replied. "Who objects?"
"I just wonder why you'd put us in the rear," rumbled the one-eyed giant. "A band of cutthroats like us? We'd turn on you for a fatter purse in an instant." His fellows snickered and guffawed loudly, all except for the captain, and the ever-silent women.
"You're not likely to be bribed by the denizens of the underworld," said Sir Garath. "And even if you are, I am much less likely to betray you than they would be."
"Art thou done?" said the archer. He shifted from foot to foot, his eyes flicking toward the open maw of the Labyrinth with thinly disguised eagerness.
"Aye. Get your equipment in order. We enter within the hour."
The carefully formed line dispersed, and Jonn walked over to Garath. The knight had climbed down from the rocks and was talking to the old peasant that Jonn had met earlier.
"Take good care of the horses," said Garath. "Wait for a month. If we have not returned to your village by then, you may do with them as they will. Except for my charger; him you must treat with utmost caution, and return to my estate. I have arranged for a handsome reward to the man that brings him back. Do you understand?"
The old man’s eyes gleamed as he rubbed his hands together and bowed his head.
"Good," said the knight. "Take your fellows and go. This is no place for them now that the doors are open. You’ve served well."
Again the old man bowed, and shuffled over to the other peasants. Jonn saw him issue some commands, and the group started moving back towards the camp, where the horses were still tethered. They patted each other on the back and exchanged cheerful banter, no doubt happy for the coins they had been paid for only two days of work, but Jonn noticed more than a few of them glancing nervously at the Labyrinth’s entrance.
Gam, the boy that Jonn had shared breakfast with, was with them, his head downcast. He looked tentatively back over his shoulder towards Sir Garath as he was leaving, then turned back and started walking towards the knight. Sir Garath was busy donning his armour with the help of his squire, and had not noticed.
Jonn greeted the boy with a hand on the arm. "What’s wrong, Gam? Did Sir Garath forget your pay?"
"Nah, it ain’t that," said Gam, his eyes flicking nervously toward the gaping mouth of the Labyrinth. "I just... I need to talk to him, that’s all."
Jonn stepped aside with a smile, and guided him forward. "Speak up, then. He’s far from the most dangerous man here."
Gam ran his hands through his hair. "Excuse me, milord, but may I talk to you?"
Garath turned his head towards the boy. His squire was kneeling on the ground, strapping his greaves to his shin. "Speak up," he said. "What is your name?"
"Gam," he said. "It’s just that, well... It’s like this. I got to go in there. I got to."
Jonn gave a start. Gam was barely more than a boy, a scrawny youth who could barely put one foot in front of the other without tripping. What use could he be in such a dangerous place?
"Into the Lightless Labyrinth, you mean," said the knight.
Gam nodded with a solemn expression.
The squire looked up, his face pale. "Mad," he whispered. "You’re even madder than the rest of them."
"Be silent," said the knight, cuffing his squire lightly on the back of the head. He turned his attention back to Gam. "Why do you want to go in?"
"Well milord, it sounds a bit silly, but... Me dad died a few moons ago, an’ our pigs got stole, an’ I got an awful lot o’ brothers an’ sisters. Me mam can’t feed ‘em all, though she tries. I’m the oldest, an’ I thought... Maybe I could go down there with you, into that place. There’s an awful lot o’ gold down there, the stories say."
Sir Garath looked grave. "They may just be stories. We don’t know if there is any gold, or anything at all. Knowing this, are you still certain you wish to accompany us?"
Gam spoke without hesitation. "I am milord."
"I admire your bravery, young Gam. You will be our porter, and carry as much of our supplies as you are able. You will be armed, though I will not ask you to fight unless necessary. I will leave you in the care of my squire, Harin. He will equip you for your duties."
Gam gave a beaming smile as he thanked the knight. The squire only scowled though sullen eyes as he rubbed his head where the knight had struck him.
"Go back to your fellows and let them know that you are leaving," said the knight. "But be quick about it. We enter soon."
Jonn shivered. He looked across at the gaping maw of the Labyrinth. Thin grey vapours issued forth from the blackness, and he could not see more than a foot inside, despite the bright daylight. Everything he had sought for the last three years lay within those tunnels, as well as everything he feared. Not for the first time, he prayed that it would all be over soon.