He seemed to have pulled something slung round his neck from under his tunic. Was scraping at the wall, fitting the object to it. A key, an iron key. Shef looked back at Straw and the others an instant before Richier began to turn, waited, looked again. This time he heard the click. Something engaging. Now Richier reached up, seemed to be counting stones. He fixed on one, got fingers over its rough edge, pulled. The stone came out of the wall, projecting a good foot from the surface.
Nothing happened. Interested, Shef padded gently over to within arm’s reach, met Richier’s blazing indignant eyes as he turned round again. Ignored them.
“What now?” he whispered softly.
Richier gulped, then whistled gently. The five youths crept stealthily up out of the gloom of the ravine. Richier looked in all directions, as if expecting sudden discovery, then made his mind up. Bent and pushed at one of the massive unyielding stones of the base of the wall.
With hardly a sound the stone moved outwards. Outwards and inwards at once. On a pivot, Shef realized. Prevented from pivoting by the stone Richier had pulled out of the wall. That stone itself held in place by some contrivance the key had unlocked. And the keyhole? He looked at it more closely. Covered in moss, the moss just this moment scraped aside.
Richier had bent, was crawling through the gap. Shef followed immediately, twisting his broad shoulders to get through what could be only a two-foot gap. Inside, he put a foot down on stone, felt that he was on a narrow ledge. A ledge that narrowed in one direction. He stretched out a hand, felt stone wall ahead of him. He was on a staircase, a spiral staircase twisting down to the left. Carefully he edged past Richier in the dark, went up a step or two, heard the youths come rustling through. A heave, a grunt, and the stone slowly closing, cutting out even the faint glimmer of light from the ravine outside. In the dark, frightened breathing all around him, he could smell the stench of death, coming up from below. Coming up on a faint, barely perceptible current of air.
There were sparks in the blackness as Richier tried to strike a light, Straw holding out a bed of dried tinder for the sparks to fall on, one of the other boys clutching candles. Shef ignored them, began slowly and silently to climb the staircase. A call from below, first in dialect, then in Arabic. “Don’t go up! We must go down.” Shef ignored it.
As he climbed the steps, the draught increased, and so did the other thing his straining senses had noted: noise. Noise coming through the stone. Through the stone?
No. As he gripped the iron handrail Shef realized that he could see a faint something, not light but a paler darkness. And he could hear now, quite clearly. Voices shouting, the whack of a rope or a belt across someone’s back. Order being restored. Yes, and there indeed was the hole in the stone, smaller than a man’s hand, but there just the same. Shef put his eye to it, peered out.
He could see almost nothing, just a red glow in the sky, and in front of him legs scurrying. First bare ones, and then metal greaves over heavy leather boots. And that was German they were shouting, Shef could almost understand it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw and recognized something else. A pickax left lying on the ground. The Emperor’s miners were through to the secret place. Only they had not realized yet, had been distracted just at the vital moment.
There was Richier at his elbow, candle lit. Shef reached out, ground out the flame between finger and smithy-callused thumb. As Richier began to gabble he closed a hand over his mouth, pulled him forward, whispered, “Look. See the hole. See the pickax?”
As he took in the meaning of what he had seen Richier began to shake in Shef’s fist. Shef whispered again, “Go down.”
A few turns of the stair and the boys were there, candles lit but unmoving, waiting for orders.