The news of Erasmus’ death and the capture of his castle hit me hard, like a cannonball to the chest. We would have to take action without delay to avoid the further advance of Koronin’s forces. Luckily, the Fates had granted us a fighting chance: the runner who came to us with news of Erasmus’ demise was a member of his staff: Keeper of the the Cavern Gates. As I have told you before, the castle is built into the mouth of a cave, from which extends an extensive labyrinth of tunnels: some of these lead nowhere, but one leads to the nearby village of Vipava. The cavern entrance behind the castle is guarded by a great iron gate, for which only the Keeper holds the key. He knows the tunnel network well, and managed to escape with other members of the household staff to Vipava, keeping the gate locked behind him. It would not be impossible for Koronin’s troops to force entry to the cavern, but it would be far harder for them to navigate the labyrinth of tunnels without prior knowledge. There are several submerged sections, and it is not a journey for the faint-hearted.
Knowing nevertheless that Koronin’s forces would soon find their way to Vipava, the time to act was now. I decided with the King that he should go with the soldiers on this most perilous of missions, and I should stay behind and lead the vaccine drive. Should anything go wrong, we must ensure that one member of the Royal family would survive to lead the fight against Koronin. I had a great sense of foreboding, but the King insisted he must go (I believe the languorous lifestyle of an enforced quarantine had made him restless and battle-hungry). I waved him off at dawn and busied myself beginning the vaccine drive with Hobbs the apothecary.
We were fortunate to have a day of fine weather for the vaccine drive. As we rode out with our horses along the coast I was enthused by the sunlight and salt tang of the sea air. It drove fears for the King and the Rebel Army from my mind. Fear equals paralysis: a luxury we cannot afford in these troubled times. Save for the journey from Quarantinia, it had been so long since I had ridden out anywhere. It was invigorating.
At every village we arrived, there were citizens waiting to greet us. They were afraid to stand close together due to the pestilence, but they came and stood outside of their houses to welcome us with joy. Most received the vaccines with good grace, though some were more circumspect as to the potion’s efficacy, and whether there might be any unpleasant side effects. I assured them that I had been the first to try it, and that I had had nothing more than a little drowsiness as an after-effect. We advised them to obey the rules of quarantine for a further fortnight, after which time they should be able to come out of their houses and begin to live as normal once again, and enjoy the treasures of the spring’s awakening.
As for the men we needed to join the Rebel Army, there would be no time to wait. We hoped the vaccine would have efficacy even after two days, and if not, we should have to risk it, for Koronin’s forces would not hold off the attack for fear of pestilence. I know not if Koronin has his own vaccine or antidote but, being a wizard of the most powerful magic order, it would not at all surprise me if he did.
Though I would have held them further at bay, my fears returned to torment me at night. The army would have been travelling all day to Vipava where they would have taken rest, intending to enter the labyrinth at nightfall. They would draw near the castle and approach the great gate in the dead of night, when most of Koronin’s troops would be sleeping. They would kill all they could not take prisoner. It was a mission fraught with risk, but one which must be undertaken whatever the cost.
I had much trouble sleeping, and eventually Hobbs gave me a draught of valerian to ease my sleeplessness. As I drifted off into a hypnotic sleep, strange dreams of monsters lurking within labyrinthine caverns haunted me. I awoke at dawn, no easier in myself, and set off on the second leg of the vaccine drive, to the Inner Southlands, rather than wrack my nerves waiting at home for news. I didn’t want to scare the children, who knew their father had gone off on a daring mission, but not the extent of its peril.
To be continued…
Read the story so far in the Chronicles of Lockdownia archives.