The tunnel grew brighter, the voices louder, until it dropped out from under their feet. Evie bounced onto her tailbone and winced, then tumbled over Marcus. The pair of them somersaulted like the twins of Gemini into a brightened cavern. When Evie opened her eyes, about two dozen men surrounded them. Some carried torches, some spears.
“Are they alive?”
Evie didn’t budge, but watched through her eyes, open just a crack, just enough to see one of the men jab Marcus with the butt of his weapon. A puff of air escaped Marcus, who was trapped under Evie’s legs.
“He is. Check the girl.”
Evie waited to be jabbed at. The spear never came. Instead, hands wrapped around her upper arms and lifted. She went limp, let her head loll to the side.
“I don’t think she is. Must have snapped her neck.” The man who spoke this time was one of the one’s holding her. She held her breath.
“Search her for money or jewels. Then dump her off the cliff.”
Evie lifted her head then. She wasn’t going to let anyone dump her off a cliff. “I’m alive.”
Spears clattered to point at her and Marcus. She tried to pull her arms free but the meaty hands wouldn’t relent. Evie stood now, supporting her own weight at least. One of the men told two others to get Marcus up, and then he was standing beside her. Marcus refused to look at her and she could tell from the set of his jaw that he was angry. He wanted to sneak up on these men, not roll right into their midst. It wasn’t her fault though—the tunnel had been dark, the rocks slick.
Evie took a quick glance around. Beyond the circle of men there was an opening wide enough for one person to shimmy through. That must be how they got here. She guessed they were on the other side of the mountain, and that the caves connected one valley to another.
“We’re not here to start trouble,” she said. Marcus hissed at her to be quiet. Evie stood straighter. “You don’t have to dump us off any cliffs.”
Now Marcus did look at her, ferocity in his gaze. “Be quiet,” he ordered through clenched teeth.
The apparent leader of this band of bandits walked through the circle, the men parting like the Red Sea for Moses. “If you don’t want any trouble,” he asked, looking Evie up and down, “then why are you here?”
“We were lost,” Marcus said.
At the same time, Evie answered, “We’re looking for a map.”
A ripple of laughter echoed around them, bouncing off the cavern walls. “Maps are useful when you’re lost. Why do you think we’d have a map?”
“I—” Marcus started, but leader held his hand up, palm facing Marcus, as though he could create a wall to hide him from view. He commanded Evie to answer.
“We were told the map would be here.”
“Who told you that?”
Would these men be frightened of the gods? Would they bow before them if they knew they were on a so-called sacred quest to fulfill some ancient prophesy? Or would they kill them? Evie performed a quick catalogue search of what mythology she knew. The gods were famous for getting humans to fight amongst themselves. They were entertained by it. What if these men were sent to work against them? Blabbing about the prophesy could get them killed. Then again, any answer could get them killed. The leader came closer so that he was a breath away from Evie. His buried his fist in her hair and tugged her head back. She whimpered. He repeated his question.
“One of our companions. Gone now.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t really the truth, either.
The man released her head, shoving her backward so the men holding her arms had to shuffle to keep from dropping her or being knocked over. “Tie them up. We’ll see if we can’t get a more…complete answer from one of them in the morning.”
The bandits fetched some rope and tied their wrists and ankles between two stalagmites, so that Marcus and Evie were back to back. Two of them were posted guard at the back of the cave wtih them while the others went back to their celebrations. Eventually, they fell asleep. Evie’s own eyelids were starting to droop when she heard a whisper rasp behind her.
“We’ve got to get out of this before morning,” Marcus warned. “They’ll kill one of us then, maybe torture first.”
Evie felt like she’d swallowed a stone. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Evie nodded and chewed her bottom lip. If she died here, in this cave, would someone thousands of years in the future find her remains and think she was an Ancient Roman? They’d have no reason not to except for one: a filling she got in one of her molars when she jumped backward into a pool and cracked it. She was just old enough to have gotten her adult teeth, and her parents had vascillated between worry and anger that it wasn’t her first set of teeth she damaged. Thankfully, the tooth was able to be filled and she’d forgotten about it until now.
People now could have fake teeth, if they had the wealth for it, but they didn’t have amalgam fillings. Evie ran the tip of her tongue over the tooth. She couldn’t die here. It would spark too many unanswerable questions. Her thoughts shifted next to the bracelet that brought her here. Was Pete searching the museum for it? Did he wonder where she went? Did he think she stole the bracelet? Her purse and coffee were there—would those be evidence enough to clear her name of any theft charges if she returned without the bracelet?
Evie felt heat radiating from her wrist. She looked and saw all the symbols lighting up. The rope tied around her wrist began to smolder. It never erupted in flames but it burned away to nothing, and she had a hand free. Evie eyed the two men guarding them. One of them was seated, his head resting back against the cave wall. Was he asleep? The other man stood looking out, his back to her and Marcus. Evie slowly crossed her free arm over her body and worked the knot on her other wrist loose. Then she untied her ankles. She turned and untied Marcus’s bindings next.
What now? She mouthed the words, afraid even a whisper would catch their guards’ attentions.
Darkness settled in Marcus’s eyes. He didn’t have to say it; Evie knew what was coming. Marcus turned from her, walked over to the standing guard, and snapped his neck. Evie lunged forward and took his spear, holding it while Marcus lowered the man’s body to the ground and dispatched the other guard. He opened his hand for the spear, and she was all too relieved to give it to him.
Marcus motioned for her to follow into the depth of the cave, where the bandits stockpiled their stolen goods. As Evie drew near one of the crates, the symbols on her wrist lit up. She rifled around until she found a wax tablet, a map carved in it. Evie studied the map and then tucked it under her arm.
“How do we get out?” she whispered.
Marcus pointed the sphere toward the opening on the other side of the sleeping bandits. He mimed drinking and gestured to them. Evie hoped he was right, that they’d gotten too drunk to wake easily. They creeped along the wall, toward the opening. When they were almost there, Marcus accidentally knocked over a jug, but Evie managed to catch it before it shattered on the ground. Mead glubbed out of it to run all over the map and toward the sleeping men. Her eyes widened. Marcus grabbed her shoulder and urged her ahead of him.
She reached the exit and slid through. She heard Marcus grunt behind her as he squeezed through the tight space between the rocks. There was a narrow goat path that Evie could just make out, and she followed it. The path zigzagged down the mountain. About halfway down, she heard shouts from the cave. The bandits were awake.
“We need to get down to the valley and hide. Go faster. Run.”
Running on the goat path was impossible. Evie stumbled down it, her feet catching up just fast enough to keep her from faceplanting onto sharp rocks below. She looked over her shoulder. Torchlights bobbed behind and above them. Her heart thudded, heavy in her chest. Marcus prodded her from behind and told her not to stop.
Rock turned into soil and grass. Marcus clasped her hand and broke into a sprint, leading her toward a thicket at the base of the mountain. There was a small farm with a house close by and Evie asked why they didn’t go there instead. Marcus shushed her.
The bandits spilled into the valley and ran straight for the farm house. Marcus took Evie’s hand and led her back the way they came, but not up the mountain. They ran until her legs ached and throbbed, and then ran some more.
“Enough!” she finally said, the word forced from her lungs on a panted breath. She yanked her hand free from his. “That,” she gulped, “has to be enough distance between us and them.”
Marcus studied the landscape past Evie, and harumphed. “I suppose it’s far enough. What does the map say?”
“It’s too dark. I can’t read it.”
“Well, didn’t you look at it before?”
“Yes, but then we had to run for our lives. I’m sorry if I don’t have a photographic memory.”
She waved her hand back and forth. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get somewhere with enough light. A village, maybe? Or we could stop and make a fire.”
“Village is safer. Come on.” Marcus turned and led the way at a brisk pace—but at least they weren’t running anymore.