Disoriented, Belle sat up in the claustrophobic dark. Her mouth tasted gritty.
She inhaled. The smell of mildew mixed with half-rotten beetroot assailed her. Her nostrils flared. Her stomach revolted and shot a live-fire ball of acid into her throat. She gagged. The top half of her body folded over. She opened her mouth and expelled a dribble of bitter bile.
Belle rocked back on her haunches and wiped her mouth with the back of her left hand. A sledgehammer pummeled her temples. The roots of the hair on her head throbbed. Flashes of the previous day’s events galloped through her mind. A gas bubble rampaged through her stomach, twisted her intestines.
Belle squeezed her eyes shut. Her right hand shook as it closed over the heart-shaped locket around her neck. She knew she had to contain her fear. This was not the right time to give in to an anxiety attack.
She clenched her jaw and pushed herself off the floor. Pain flared in her ankles and her left knee protested with a rifle-shot crack. Her right hand shot out. Her body wobbled. Her shoulder crashed against an unseen wall of stone. Hot tears sneaked out of the corners of her eyes and snaked down her cheeks.
Belle remembered falling down the stairs the night before as she sought refuge in the storage cellar under the kitchen. She bent down and with her hands inspected her legs. Relieved to find only bruises, she waited for her body to steady itself. She pressed her hands against the wall and shuffled along the wall in the direction where she thought the stairs would be, and tripped over a sack of coal. She righted herself, kept her hand on the wall, and shuffled in the opposite direction.
She stubbed her toe on the bottom stair, floundered for the railing, and gripped it. Footsteps thundered above, sand sifted down through the cracks of the wooden ceiling. Belle’s feet cemented itself. A sneeze threatened to explode. She grabbed the bottom of her skirt, swaddled her nose, and breathed through her mouth.
Belle stood mouse still, her ears strained. She listened as footsteps crisscrossed above. She knew she needed to get to the portal stones and insert the locket or the Island of Diyanica and all its inhabitants would be lost forever to the scourge of the Sandrigosht. The thought of bowing down to the evil cloven-hoofed mutants of Sandrigosht lit the fires of fear in the pit of her stomach. She shuddered.
Above, the kitchen door slammed. Belle bit down on her bottom lip and waited another minute. Sure that there was no more movement in the kitchen above she started up the stairs using the railing to guide her. She reached the top and laid her ear against the thick wooden door. Doubt, encouraged by fear, flamed through her body. Belle squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her clammy palms up and down her arms. She inhaled a deep breath, released it slowly, and searched for the door handle.
Both hands on the doorhandle, Belle slowly pushed it down. The door opened a ruler’s length. Belle heaved and pushed, but the door remained stuck. She stood back and stared at the crack of light. She blinked, and her eyes adjusted to the light. Her breath hitched as she caught the pool of blood on the other side of the door. A cold swathed her back. Trepidation piano-fingered up her spine. She had to get to the secret panel in the library.
She wriggled through the gap. Belle looked down at the body slumped against the door. It was one of the castle guards. Stumped she glanced about her. Broken crockery covered the floor. Pots and pans were off their hooks. If only the images in her head were remnants of a nightmare, but they were not.
The backdoor flew open. Belle’s mouth opened in a silent scream. Her feet refused to move. A wild-eyed blood-spattered castle guard stumbled into the kitchen.
‘You have to leave Mistress. The King has fallen to the mutants.’
‘There is no time. Make haste. The King’s last message was for you to immediately go to the stones! He said….’
Before Belle could utter another word, an arrow pierced straight through the guard’s neck. His last words ended up in a bloodied unintelligible gurgle. If she did not act fast, she would fall prey to the Sandrigosht and that would be worse than her fear of travelling through the stones. Belle turned and slipped in a puddle of blood. Raucous shouts sounded in the courtyard outside.
Belle crawled to the passage, pushed herself up against the wall and limped to the library. She shut the library door and dropped a cross bar across it. At least it would keep them busy for a while and hopefully enough time to get into the secret tunnel. She dragged a chair to the bookshelves and climbed on it. She removed a book from the top shelve and pulled the lever hidden behind it. The section of shelves shifted on oiled wheels revealing the opening behind it.
Better put the chair back. She dragged the chair back to the desk. Outside the library door shouting erupted. She needed to get moving. She slipped into the opening and took an oil lamp off a hook and lit it. She pulled the lever. The shelves shut as the library door burst open. Belle held the oil lamp in front of her, gripped the railing and descended with a limp-shuffle. If she was to reach the stones, she would have to contain her grief. There was no time for such a luxury now. She counted the stairs. After one hundred steps she reached the tunnel.
The oil lamp sputtered and flickered. She had to move faster. She gritted her teeth and forced herself into a faster shuffle. The air in the tunnel changed. Belle looked up. Hungry, her eyes fastened onto the disc of light in the distance. She set down the oil lamp and crawled into the light. The stones stood patiently in their age-old circle.
Belle knew she had no choice. She wiped her shaky hands on her skirt, lifted the locket from her bodice and pressed it against the biggest stone.
‘Don’t be frightened child. You will be safe.’
A hush came over her and she entered the open door in the stone.
Belle opened her eyes. She gazed at the lush greenery around her. She stood up, looking for the origin of the strange sound. Mesmerized she stared at the traffic.
‘Those are automobiles Belle. It is the year of 1958.’
Unconscious, Belle’s hand rose to her heart-shaped locket and closed around it.