Chattergoon paused and held up his hand. Behind, his companions stopped and fell silent. He lifted his lantern and held it in front of him, lighting the pitch black of the tunnel a few paces ahead. But there was nothing there.
He cocked his ear to listen. After a few heartbeats, the trivial quarrelling between two of his men, that had been incessant for the past week, started up again.
“Hadley Oak is by far the superior Batten player. That sublime pass he made to Daniel Fearn last summer…” Lord Borringer said.
Lord Gordon tutted. “I beg to differ, Oak is slow on his left turns. Now, Alain Jenkins, he’s the better forward…”
Chattergoon shushed them severely. It came out almost as a hiss. The grousing quietened, but one of the men huffed loudly. Chattergoon suspected it was Borringer. He’d been irritated from the start that Chattergoon, ‘still a boy no less’, had been put in charge of this mission. Chattergoon, for his own part, had wanted more fighting men with him but both Lords had insisted they were still skilled swordsmen despite their advancing years.
Chattergoon held his breath, as the noise came again.
A faint clacking and dragging sound travelled out of the gloom, growing louder. Many feet on the sandy rock of the tunnel floor. One of the two donkeys at the rear of their party brayed and Chattergoon heard its handler soothing it.
He put the lantern down and placed both hands on the rocky wall of the tunnel, concentrating. He could feel vibrations.
The tunnels were empty of runners. They had been closed since the false King Benjamin Thorne had wrenched control of the country from King Edward Cleland fourteen years previously. What remained of the Cleland royal family had escaped through the tunnels to Lian, where Chattergoon and his men were now headed.
The clack, clack, drag came again, in a whisper.
“What is that?” Lord Gordon said, the older man’s voice betraying a sharp fear. Until that point, their journey had been trouble free. Chattergoon was surprised that the tunnels had held up for more than a decade without any maintenance.
“Animal,” he said.
“How can you be so sure?” Lord Borringer replied, stepping beside Chattergoon. “Could it be the Dromedars?”
Chattergoon didn’t reply as the clacking intensified. His father had painstakingly taught him the various noises in the tunnels and what they meant. Also, the vibrations of the walls that denoted a roof cave in or another event. Lord Horace Chattergoon had also required his son to commit to memory the maze of tunnels, dead ends, airholes and suitable rest places. Chattergoon was certain it was animal, but he could not tell if it was one large animal, or many.
“Draw your weapons, men.” Chattergoon pulled his sword from it’s sheath. He could hear Ittson, the sole trained fighting man in the group, unsheathe his. The two blustering Lords hesitated. “Sam, Thom, back up the donkeys, and then arm yourselves.”
“Aye, sir,” came the joint reply from the handlers.
Lord Borringer put his hands on his ample hips. “This is preposterous, there’s nothing…”
Out of the pitch black came a monster, straight at them. Seeing the light, it skidded to a halt and scuttled backwards into the gloom.
“Scorpion,” Ittson growled and slunk forward to stand next to Chattergoon, as Borringer darted back.
The scorpion was huge, bigger than anything Chattergoon had heard tell of. Sand scorpions were said to grow as large as a goat. But this one’s abdomen was the size of a bull, it’s eight legs taking up the width of the tunnel. Its two front legs were raised, the sharp pincers primed. And at the end of its curved tail, a hooked, venomous stinger quivered threateningly.
Chattergoon crouched, blood pumping in his ears, as the scorpion hesitated. It had been running towards them at full speed. Away from something? But what? Chattergoon noticed one of its legs was hanging limp and had time to think, it’s been attacked, it’s injured and is retreating before the thing lunged at them.
Ittson slashed at the scorpion’s left pincer as Chattergoon took on the right. But the scorpion’s eight eyes tracked them and effortlessly parried their blows.
Lord Gordon came charging through the middle, yelling, sword extended above his head as if running into battle with a thousand men on either side, only to receive the barb of the scorpion’s tail slam into his chest. The yell curdled in the Lord’s chest as the poison was delivered. His entire body froze, and a white froth bubbled out of his mouth.
The tail flicked Gordon off. He landed with a thud at Lord Borringer’s feet.
Ittson swooped and ducked past the left pincer and swung his sword. He was a hair’s breadth away from landing the blow when the stinger hooked in his ear and wrenched him off his feet. His head swelled with poison and then burst. Blood, brain matter, flesh splattered up the walls and all over Chattergoon, who gagged.
Momentarily, Chattergoon lost concentration and looked up to see the stinger swinging for him.
But it didn’t connect as Lord Borringer leapt forward, stabbing at it with his sword. He landed a slice and the scorpion shot back into the shadows.
Panting, Borringer shook his sword at the gloom and muttered, “That was for your father, a fine man.”
Before Chattergoon could thank him, the scorpion dashed from the shadows, piercing Borringer’s torso with its pincers. Both were closed and the skewered man was lifted towards the roof. The pincers opened within Borringer’s body, tearing great holes in the Lord’s chest.
“Run,” Borringer gurgled with his dying breath as blood poured from his wounds.
Chattergoon backed carefully away, sword up, as the scorpion dropped Borringer and stalked after him.
“Sir?” one of the handlers said as Chattergoon rounded a corner and into the donkeys.
“I thought I told you to back up?” Chattergoon glanced at the two handlers. Both had their short swords drawn. Thom also had a dagger in his other hand.
Sam said, “We can’t turn the donkeys with the sand sleds tied to ‘em, not enough room in this section of the tunnel, and they can only manage a few steps backwards at a time. We’re ready to fight, sir.”
Chattergoon nodded. The three men huddled together in the tunnel, waiting for the scorpion. Chattergoon cursed that they had met the scorpion here and not fifty paces behind where there was a junction with two other tunnels, leading to a myriad of other tunnels. All dead ends, but at least they could have hidden from the monster, or let it pass them unhindered.
“Never seen one so big,” Sam babbled, the rush of imminent violence taking control of his mouth. “I used to be a runner twenty odd years ago when I was a boy, saw plenty of trapped scorpions. But they were tiddlers compared to this...”
A patter echoed up the tunnel, it sounded like feet, human feet. Chattergoon had no time to ponder this as the scorpion charged forward from the shadows.
Chattergoon slashed with his sword, alongside Sam and Thom. All three landed hits but could not fracture the solid casing of the scorpion’s hard exterior. Still it came forward, and as the footsteps from deeper in the tunnel increased, it became frenzied. It struck Thom with its stinger, and the brave donkey handler collapsed, foaming at the mouth. It swiped a pincer in a backhand swing that slammed Chattergoon into the tunnel wall.
Dazed and slumped on the ground, he saw one of the pincers chop off Sam’s hand at the wrist. Sam screamed and brought his sword up, thrusting it into the join where the front leg met the abdomen. The scorpion jolted back as the leg hung limply, the pincer on the end out of action. It brought the stinger down and jabbed frantically at Sam. The handler’s body convulsed, as if stabbed by hundreds of daggers, before it dropped in a heap.
The scorpion came at Chattergoon, raising its tail, ready to hook him with the barb.
I can’t fail this mission, this cannot be the end...
Is it the end for Chattergoon? And just what is this mission that has led him into the dangerous tunnels in the first place? The Tunnel Runner is exclusively available in short story anthology Beyond the Deepwoods - grab your copy to keep reading and find out!
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