IN THESE DUNGEONS the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Olls maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went. Turning when it was time to turn; stopping finally before an opening that should contain a stairway leading down. She crouched and felt forward with her hands. There was a stone step, damp and slippery with moss, and another one below it. This was Olls staircase, then. She only hoped that when he and Giddon followed her with their torches, they would see the moss slime, tread carefully, and not waken the dead by clattering headlong down the steps.
Katsa slunk down the stairway. One left turn and two right turns. She began to hear voices as she entered a corridor where the darkness flickered orange with the light of a torch set in the wall. Across from the torch was another corridor where, according to Oll, anywhere from two to ten guards should be standing watch before a certain cell at the passageways end.
These guards were Katsas mission. It was for them that she had been sent first.
Katsa crept toward the light and the sound of laughter. She could stop and listen, to get a better sense of how many she would face, but there was no time. She pulled her hood down low and swung around the corner.
She almost tripped over her first four victims, who were sitting on the floor across from each other, their backs against the wall, legs splayed, the air stinking with whatever strong drink theyd brought down here to pass the time of their watch. Katsa kicked and struck at temples andnecks, and the four men lay slumped together on the floor before amazement had even registered in their eyes.
There was only one more guard, sitting before the cell bars at the end of the corridor. He scrambled to his feet and slid his sword from its sheath. Katsa walked toward him, certain that the torch at her back hid her face, and particularly her eyes, from his sight. She measured his size, the way he moved, the steadiness of the arm that held the sword toward her.
"Stop there. Its clear enough what you are." His voice was even. He was brave, this one. He cut the air with his sword, in warning. "You dont frighten me."
He lunged toward her. She ducked under his blade and whirled her foot out, clipping his temple. He dropped to the ground.
She stepped over him and ran to the bars, squinting into the darkness of the cell. A shape huddled against the back wall, a person too tired or too cold to care about the fighting going on. Arms wrapped around legs, and head tucked between knees. He was shivering - she could hear his breath. She shifted, and the light glanced over his crouched form. His hair was white and cut close to his head. She saw the glimmer of gold in his ear. Olls maps had served them well, for this man was a Lienid. He was the one they were looking for.
She pulled on the door latch. Locked. Well, that was no surprise, and it wasnt her problem. She whistled once, low, like an owl. She stretched the brave guard flat on his back and dropped one of her pills into his mouth. She ran up the corridor, turned the four unfortunates on their backs beside each other, and dropped a pill into each mouth. Just as she was beginning to wonder if Oll and Giddon had lost themselves in the dungeons, they appeared around the corner and slipped past her.
"A quarter hour, no more," she said.
"A quarter hour, My Lady." Olls voice was a rumble. "Go safely."
Their torchlight splashed the walls as they approached the cell. The Lienid man moaned and drew his arms in closer. Katsa caught a glimpse of his torn, stained clothing. She heard Giddons ring of lock picks clink against itself. She would have liked to have waited to see that they opened the door, but she was needed elsewhere. She tucked her packet of pills into her sleeve and ran.
Excerpt from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Copyright © 2008 by Kristin Cashore. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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