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Mark of the Thief, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  My mouth dropped open in surprise. I didn't like Radulf, but I'd rather not like him in Rome than stay here in the mines for another minute. That made it harder to ask the question still hanging in the air. "What if I don't find the bulla?"

  "Then Sal won't bring you back up."

  My hands began shaking, and I pressed them against my leg to calm the nerves. "I might not come back anyway. Others have tried."

  Radulf looked me over again, and the barest hint of a smile escaped his stern expression. I wasn't sure if that was a sign of hope, or one of cruelty.

  With that, Radulf called Sal back in to join us. Then he hoisted me up to the cavity in the rock, handed me a torch, and ordered Sal to lower me inside.

  The darkness was blacker than anything I'd ever seen. Blacker than night, or even the deepest mine tunnels. Light was an enemy to this place. The torch I carried helped a little, but it was so bright, I could see nothing else. An icy breeze assaulted me next. As miners, we had all become used to cold, but this air seemed to flow right through me, and I half expected the torch to freeze in place.

  I held my breath at first. Mostly from fear, but also because of the possibility that the air was poisonous. We'd seen it before in the mines. Air that is trapped underground for centuries sometimes kills the first few miners to breathe it in. It had never been a question in my mind that I would die young. Killed during an escape attempt or during an uprising, maybe -- those were honorable deaths, at least. But I refused to have stories told about me dying from bad air.

  As Sal lowered me down, I tried to think of what I knew about Julius Caesar. My mother had once told me a story about when Caesar was kidnapped by pirates on the Aegean Sea. Offended that they asked only twenty talents of silver for his ransom, Caesar demanded they increase it to fifty. Once it was paid and he went free, he returned to the island where he'd been held and executed the pirates himself. Then he recovered his fifty talents, and all their possessions too. It was no surprise that he went on to become a military general who won every war he ever fought.

  If Caesar was that powerful, then who was I to dare enter his sealed cave?

  The rope above me was sliding against a very sharp rock. Using the torch to look up, I saw strands of it beginning to fray. And when I swung the torch down, I was still too high to see the cave floor. I wondered if I had any chance of landing before Sal ran out of rope. If he did, would he pull me back up, or cut it? Without Radulf standing right beside him up there, he probably would've cut it already.

  Finally, I had no choice but to take a breath, and was relieved to discover that the air was stale, but not poisonous. My relief was short-lived, however. The same breeze I drew into my body also snuffed out my torch, leaving me in complete darkness.

  I called up to Sal that the light was gone, but he either didn't hear me or didn't care. Since he was using this cave to get rid of me, it was safe to assume the latter. And I continued to drop lower and lower. Into nothingness. Into the underworld.

  After several long minutes, my feet collided with something hard. The ground, I hoped, but I didn't trust it yet. So with my hands, I groped around blindly. I found rock beneath me, but different from the type of rock we mined higher up. It was less porous, and sharper. It also seemed fairly flat, but before I had the chance to test a step, Sal lowered me down onto it. Whatever this was, I was committed now.

  I was on my knees, and put my hands down again to determine how much room I had, but I touched upon something different than before. It wasn't dirt, but it wasn't as hard as rock either. It felt more like wood, a rounded, carved piece as smooth as -- my breath caught in my throat. It was as smooth as bone. And round ... like a skull. I ran my hands along the ground and felt more skulls and other bones.

  I choked on my own breath, suddenly ill. Who were these people? Were they sacrifices made at Diana's temple? Or invaders whose discovery had become their tomb? A worse thought still: Was I meant to join them?

  Horrified, I leapt to my feet and ran. I didn't know exactly what I was running on, but my feet rolled more than once, so I had a pretty good idea of what lay below. I would've apologized to the dead as I ran, but I didn't like the idea that someone here might answer back, so I kept my mouth closed and continued running.

  After some distance, I came to solid ground and began to breathe easier. I'd hoped that my eyes would gradually adjust, as they always did when I was mining. But not down here. There simply wasn't any light for my eyes to adjust to.

  So I took careful, halting steps, always keeping one hand on the rope as my last connection to the surface high above me. But that was little comfort. I had never been so alone in my life.

  Except, I was beginning to think I wasn't actually alone. Somewhere in the blackness, something was awake. Its breath came in even and deliberate strokes. Whatever it was, it knew that I was here too.

  The bones I had stumbled over weren't from people who had died in here. They had all been killed.

  I felt my way through the cave like a blind man. And like most blind beggars, I knew my fate if I didn't find some sort of mercy. Darkness was part of any life in the mines. But I'd never been so deep on my own, and rarely without the hope for a lit torch somewhere shortly ahead.

  The breathing continued, so quietly that I might not have heard it if everything else wasn't so still. And though I tried to move away from it, the echoes in this cave made it sound as if the creature was always ahead of me, just out of my reach. Or if there were no echoes, then the creature was moving, like a cat waiting to pounce.

  I wanted to call to Radulf to pull me up, but I didn't. Not only was I certain he would ignore my request, but I also doubted the wisdom of giving away my exact location to the thing inside this cave. That was ridiculous, of course. No matter how blind I was, it clearly knew exactly where to find me.

  Somewhere ahead there appeared to be some sort of light. It cast a faint gleam toward me, enough to see the fallen body of the first miner who had entered. He was on his back with his hands like claws frozen in place. His skin was white like the moon, as if all blood had drained from him, but I couldn't see any sign of injury. It was the look of a man who had died of fear.

  I stepped carefully around him, then continued moving. It wasn't much, and I ignored the bigger question of how there could possibly be any light at all this far below ground. But I felt the pull of the light, calling me toward it. I was a moth to the flame.

  When I had first started working in the mines, the dark had frightened me. But my mother had shown me how there was nothing in the darkness that didn't also exist in the light. Since then, I had never been afraid of moving in the deepest shadows ... until now. Because this time, I was certain that she was wrong. Not only was some mysterious creature down here with me, but the closer I came to the light, the more I believed it was coming from Caesar's spirit. I felt him, still here, drawing me forward.

  As real as that seemed, when I got closer, I saw the true source of the light. I was standing in the doorway of an enormous cavern, more vast than any place I'd ever seen underground. The room was filled with piles of gold. There were toppled stacks of coins, thousands of them, and heavy gold bars, each one larger than all the gold we might carve out of the mine in a year. Tossed carelessly amidst the rest were goblets, rings, and trays, all made of gold. But they weren't the source of the light. The glow came from something on the very top of the highest pile, something I only saw when I stood on the tips of my toes and arched my neck. It was a golden bulla, the size and shape of my fist, with a brown leather strap to hang from the neck. It seemed no different from any other, except for the glow. Admittedly, that was odd. I'd mined gold before, and it never, never glowed. Without a doubt in my mind, I knew this was the object Radulf wanted. It was Caesar's bulla.

  I tried to step into the vast chamber, but by then I had reached the limits of the rope. If I was going to retrieve the bulla, there was no choice but to untie it. My plan was simple and undoubtedly stupid: move fast, gr
ab the bulla, then race back to the cave's entrance. With any luck, the creature down here wouldn't fit through that doorway, and if it did, then I hoped Sal was faster with the rope than the creature was on his feet. I hoped for that. But I didn't truly believe it.

  The instant I was untied, I set off on a full run toward the gold. My mind couldn't even begin to process the value of everything down here. One handful of gold could buy freedom for my sister and me. With another handful, we'd have a life of luxury. The sweetest foods, the softest fabrics. Even sandals for our feet. Radulf had told me to ignore everything but the bulla. But ... what if I didn't?

  The bulla was square in my vision as I continued running. If it had jewels inside, as most bullas did, then they could be as valuable as two handfuls of gold. Maybe more.

  But the moment my foot touched the first gold piece, I was attacked from the side by something that knocked me to the cave floor. My head banged the ground hard enough that my vision blurred while the creature flew away. I tried to focus my eyes. Whatever the thing was, it had powerful wings, and a long, muscular tail.

  I rolled to my stomach, then pushed myself up onto all fours while I got a breath. When I did, the creature swooped down from above, flapping its great wings hard enough to create a wind that rattled the gold pieces. It snatched me up with a giant talon that squeezed my lungs. I didn't care what this thing was -- I'd have it for dinner before I gave up fighting. So I kicked back, landing a foot into its soft underbelly.

  The animal dropped me almost on top of the pile of gold and screeched in anger. Only then did I turn to my back where I could see it better. It swept upward and fixed a furious eye on me. The animal had the head of an eagle, only it was as large as a horse's. When outstretched, its eagle wings commanded the cave, and the creature circled around, always with an eye on me. Once it crossed behind me, I saw the rest of its body, that of a lion.

  I knew what this was. The king of all birds and the king of all beasts, joined in one animal.

  It was a griffin.

  My mother had told me about them, but had insisted they belonged only to the gods. If that was true, then this must be a very special griffin, for she guarded Caesar's treasure.

  That was fine by me. For all I cared, she could guard the entire pile of gold, minus just one thing. That bulla was my only chance of getting back to the surface. Without it, I might as well give up now. My bones would join the rest down here.

  The griffin flew to a ledge high above the cave floor and stared down at me. Then she squawked and the rear claws pawed the rock beneath it, ready to attack. I didn't have much time.

  I eyed the bulla, almost within reach. The initials were clearly visible from here. G.J.C. Gaius Julius Caesar. This was the one Radulf wanted. I made another run up the stack of gold, placing my feet on the gold bars, which would hold my weight better than the coins. Once I was high enough, I dove for the bulla while straightening my body. With the bulla's strap clutched in my hands, I rolled down the pile.

  Shrieking louder than before, the griffin shot off the ledge and aimed herself directly at me. No arrow could've been faster, or more direct in its target. A talon swiped for me, but I tossed up a golden pitcher, blocking the attack. The heavy pitcher fell, landing on my chest hard enough that I nearly blacked out for want of air.

  Now at the bottom of the pile, I only had a short run to get out of this room. Then I'd find the rope and make my escape.

  So I got to my feet and ran again, but the griffin found me with her tail, and swiped it so powerfully that it threw me against the cave wall. Never in my life had I taken a hit that hard. With many more hits like that, I might not have much life left. I had to escape this room, get away from that beast. The rope was out there in the darkness. I could still find it, and have Sal pull me up.

  The griffin made several circles in the air before landing, then faced me with a low growl that could have come only from something born of the gods. I was trapped.

  If I was going to fight this beast -- regardless of how poor my chances were -- I needed the use of both hands, so I put the bulla around my neck.

  A wind swirled up around me when I did. "It isn't yours," the wind seemed to say. "It will curse you."

  The threat didn't bother me -- my present situation was worse than any curse from a dusty amulet. My bigger concern was that the wind spoke to me at all.

  The wind came again, and bored through me. I felt it inside my bones, and it chilled my very heart. This was what had killed the other miner, what had driven Fidelius mad, I knew it. And though I felt it start to take me too, I clutched the bulla with both hands, instinctively using it to hold on to my life, until suddenly, the wind stopped, almost as if someone had closed a door to lock it out.

  Which would have been a fine end to my worries, except for the griffin directly ahead, watching me. That wasn't natural. At least when she was attacking, I knew what to do, but what was the proper response to a dangerous animal that only stared? I tried speaking to her, hoping to fake enough calmness in my voice to make her relax.

  "They call me Nic. It's only a hiccup of a name, I know, but it means 'victory of the people.' One day, all people will be free, and then they'll call me by my full name, Nicolas Calva."

  The griffin didn't look all that impressed. Or at least, she took several steps toward me until I could almost reach out and touch her if I wanted to. Which I didn't, by the way.

  I kept talking. "You need a name too." It wouldn't matter to the griffin, but it did to me. No matter what she might do next, I couldn't deny she was the most beautiful creature I'd ever seen. She deserved a name, and nothing ordinary. "I'll call you Caela, because you are from the heavens. You have flown with the gods."

  Maybe it wasn't smart to remind her where she had come from. She might not like the idea of living amongst humans now.

  The griffin screeched again, revealing the sharpness of her beak. Sure enough, I had reminded her.

  "I won't take any more of your gold," I said. So much for my plans for a life of luxury. All I wanted now was any life at all. "But you must let me have this one piece. Please!"

  Caela flapped her wings angrily, then quickly drew them in again when another wind swirled through the cave. It distracted her, and I took my chance. I darted beneath one wing on a full sprint for the exit. I might've had a small hope of escaping, except now that it was around my neck, the gold bulla seemed heavier than before and the weight of it pulled me to the ground. It shouldn't have. More than once, I had carried heavy sacks of raw metal to the surface on the strength of my back. One bulla shouldn't be this hard.

  Seeing me start to fall, Caela swiped a claw at me, which cut across my shoulder like a knife. I heard the rip of my tunic and immediately felt as if my shoulder had exploded. With a cry of pain, I fell to my hands and knees while black splotches marked my vision. I raised my arm and was half surprised it didn't fall off. How could it hurt so much and still be attached?

  With my other hand, I fumbled about for the bulla to be sure it was still there, but this time, it had become warm. The heat from it poured into my hand and traveled up my arm, straight to my injured shoulder, still throbbing with pain. What I felt there was so fierce that I would've sworn fire had licked it. I tried to grab my shoulder and massage the pain away, but I couldn't reach it, so I had to content myself with letting it burn. The only good news was that I didn't feel any blood, which seemed impossible considering that it felt like the griffin's talon had touched bone.

  I rolled to my back and saw Caela staring down at me. Why didn't she take one final swipe? I knew now how deep those claws could go. It wouldn't take much.

  Caela screeched again, but this time her tone had changed. This wasn't anger. It was a warning. The ground beneath us shook, some sort of earthquake. I scrambled to my feet and stumbled toward the opening from where I'd entered. With the bulla's glow on my chest, it was easier now to see. I found the rope, but a rock instantly dislodged from above and landed directly on it, no
t far from my feet.

  I needed that rope. It was my only chance to escape this cursed place. So while trying to dodge other falling rocks, I clutched at the rope and pulled with all my strength.

  It was a mistake. I didn't see the rock coming straight for me until it was too late. Even as it crashed onto my head, I thought about how meaningless my life had been, and how quickly I would be forgotten. This was never the way I had wanted to die.

  There was no possible way to explain my waking up.

  I lifted my aching head long enough to guess at which of the nearby rocks had struck me, but it didn't much matter. Any of them were large enough to have finished me off.

  The scratch on my shoulder still burned, but less than before. Maybe in the chaos of fighting a griffin, it had seemed worse than it really was.

  And I felt for the bulla around my neck, breathing easier once it was in my hand again. It was already hard to imagine myself without the bulla, which was absurd, of course. But it should be mine. I had claimed it from the bitter wind. From Caesar's ghost.

  I wished I knew how much time had passed since the earthquake. Was it minutes, or hours ... or days? Was it worse on the surface, or had they even noticed it?

  I heard breathing again and realized the griffin's warm body was right behind me. She must've dragged me away from the entrance after I fell, or else I'd have been buried there. Either she had nestled into me now, or somehow in this cold cave I had moved closer to her. She seemed to be asleep.

  Being so close to a griffin should've horrified me, and my instincts should've begged for me to run. But they didn't. In fact, all I felt was the desire to stay close, as if this creature who had so recently threatened my life was now the only one who could save it.

  Or more likely, thoughts like these had been the beginnings of Fidelius's madness. If I moved carefully, maybe I could find a way out of here without disturbing her. But then what? Another cautious peek made it clear that the opening from where I'd come had collapsed. This room was sealed. And somewhere above us, more cracking sounds could be heard. I knew those creaks from other mine shafts that had failed and taken many good men with them. Whatever held the rest of this cave together was slowly crumbling to dust.