A quick look around confirmed no one saw. The Captain of the Guards argued with a dozen councilors. To no point. The King's decision would stand. He wasn't here to change his mind. Zey's fellow guards watched the argument. Brioc stared at the councilors defiantly, while Kimden worried his bottom lip between his teeth.
Zey stole another peek at the statues. Cowls hid their faces. Even so, he felt their nonexistent eyes on him. Assessing. Judging. Ready to condemn. Zey looked away, touched the amulets sewn onto the hem of his sleeve, and silently began the Prayer to the Aegials, guardians of all who earned their living by the sword and shield.
"Ready?" Lord Mundy stormed past, sweeping up the guards in his wake. Zey brought up the rear, but hesitated at the entrance. This was desecration. He wanted no part of it.
He looked over his shoulder. The Captain met his gaze for a second before he looked away. The councilors hadn't stayed to watch the trespass. Bracing himself for a bolt of lightning, Zey stepped into the tunnel.
Of course, nothing happened. The others walked several feet ahead of him. If the Garden protected itself from those who entered with intention to violate the sanctuary, an attack would have already occurred.
Tendrils of vine crept overhead. Zey stooped to avoid them, though the ceiling rose a good foot taller than he stood. He trailed his hand along stone walls worn smooth by the hands of generations of pilgrims.
The tunnel curved ever so slightly to the left. The bend was almost unperceivable until Kimden, who'd taken the lead, disappeared around a corner. In the heartbeat before Brioc turned after him, Kimden screamed. Brioc and Zey dashed forward, Zey jumping around Mundy to reach his comrade.
They found Kimden mere inches past the bend. Standing in a dimmer passage, he stared straight ahead at nothing. Mundy huffed around the corner.
"What is it?" he demanded.
Kimden's hand trembled in the shadowy corridor. He pointed to the wall ahead. "I saw someone. There."
Brioc strode forward. He ran his hand along the wall and peered into the darkness ahead. "There's no one here. Just some indentions in the stone. Maybe they looked like a face in the dark?"
Mundy shot Kimden a nasty look. "Stop spooking at shadows. You're supposed to be a member of the King's Phoenix Guard."
Muttering an apology, Kimden fell back and allowed Brioc to take the lead. They moved in silence down long, low stairs that barely seemed to descend. Another long slow curve plunged them into darkness.
"Do none of you have a torch?" Mundy snapped.
Zey heard fabric rustling, but neither Brioc or Kimden spoke. Zey dared not let the silence linger any longer. As Guards they served the Kingdom; they weren't supposed to antagonize its councilmen. "To bring fire into the Garden is strictly forbidden."
"Whose laws are you sworn to uphold?" Mundy snapped.
Zey flinched. Yes, he was sworn to the Kingdom, but the rules of the Garden had always been followed and respected--until today. Aegials, he should have sent a message claiming illness this morning.
"--light," Kimden mumbled.
"What?" Mundy spat as he pivoted around. Glad to no longer be under the angry lord's gaze, Zey allowed himself a silent sigh.
"There's light ahead," Kimden said.
"Lead the way," Mundy ordered.
Zey squinted. Kimden was right. Soft green light emanated from the flecks in the stone overhead, the walls and the steps themselves. The light wasn't bright, but Zey could see well enough to not worry about where he put his feet.
A chill ran down his spine, a feeling that someone watched them. He glanced back, but could see nothing but stone in the shadows. The sense persisted over the hours the path took to walk. No one spoke. The thud of their boots on the steps echoed in the silent, empty corridor.
"Whoa," Brioc breathed. He stopped so suddenly, Mundy slammed into him and cursed. Zey paid no attention. They'd reached the Garden of Dreamers.
A low mist swirled over the Garden. Overhead, despite being far underground, stars filled the...ceiling? The sky? Zey was tired enough to believe that they'd walked all the way to a city on the other side of the world. He blinked and rubbed his arms against another chill. The lights looked impossibly high up to be something on the ceiling of a cave.
Not that this vast expanse looked much like a cave.
A tree grew immediately to the right of the entrance. A tree. And it wasn't the only one. He might not be able to see much from this spot but he could see outlines of other trees. And he could see the Dreamers' "beds."
Circled by greenery, the waist-high slabs of stone resembled tombs. No Dreamer slept on the nearest. Kimden flicked the vines that crept across that platform's top with his finger and grimaced when he noticed the Zey watching at him.
No one and nothing moved in the Garden.
"Should we split up to find him?" Brioc asked.
"No," Mundy said a little too sharply. "I thought the Gardeners would guide us."
He turned and scanned the Garden. Kimden and Zey exchanged looks of utter disbelief.
The Garden of Dreamers belonged to the Visag, guardians of sleep and dreams. Anyone who sought an answer to any question might wind their way down the long spiraling stairs to the Garden, claim a resting place, and sleep until their Dreams revealed what they needed to know. The supplicants who came here might sleep for weeks, months, or years. And no one disturbed their Dreams. No one, not ever.
Until Lord Dregan hired assassins to kill the Queen and fled to the Garden rather than face the consequences.
"Hello?" Lord Mundy called, walking forward. "Hello? Gardeners?"
The others followed. To their left, a young woman slept on a marble bed. Her mouth hung open and a golden curl fluttered with each breath. They passed two empty slabs on the right and another on the left. An elderly man lay like a corpse on the next bed on the right, flat on his back, hands folded across his chest.
Brioc stopped and gaped down at him. "Is he--?"
"So many," a whispery voice said. Zey about jumped out of skin. "Need you assistance in finding the right places to Dream?"
The man wore long misty blue robes over his rail thin frame. Impossible to tell his age. The sleepy, dreaminess that emanated from him seemed powerful enough to stop time. He might have been a hundred and two.
Mundy puffed up and strode forward. "We aren't here for Dreams. Where is Lord Dregan? We know he's in hiding here."
"The Garden is a place of sanctuary--"
"Did I ask for an explanation? The council has voted, the King signed the warrant, and we are here to bring him forth to justice."
The Gardener looked confused.
"Where is he?"
The Gardener took a step back at Mundy's yell.
"You cannot remove a person from their Dreams. The Dreamers are outside the laws of man."
Mundy's face turned red. "The Garden is part of the Kingdom of Gehlen. It falls under King Drikson's domain and he ordered--"
The Gardener backed away.
"Seize him!" Mundy stamped his foot. Brioc and Zey exchanged a glance. Brioc stepped forward, hand on the hilt of his sword. Mist swirled and engulfed the Gardener. The mist dissipated and the man was gone. Out of the corner of his eye, Zey saw a swirl of mist skitter away to their left.
Mundy growled and spun on them. "Find him! Find Lord Dregan now! You three--" He blinked. "Where's the third one of you?"
Zey pivoted. Hadn't Kimden been standing right behind him? Now nothing stood there, but trees and plants and the Dreamers' platforms.
"Kimden!" Brioc exclaimed. Zey turned. Chills trickled down his spine.
Kimden lay on what had been the empty bed on the left. His jacket hung on a hook beside his sword at the head of the platform. His boots rested beneath. Zey shook his head. How had Kimden removed all that and climbed onto a bed without their notice? They'd been focused on the Gardener for all of two minutes.
Brioc leaned over and shook Kimden. "Kimden! Wake up!"
"Never mind him!" Mundy waved his hand. "He's not important. Find Dregan quickly!"
Zey heard the words left unsaid: before the magic of this place snared the rest of them. That was motivation enough for Zey. He couldn't get trapped down here, not even for a few days, and the Dreams usually took longer than that. His baby girl wouldn't know him by the time he got out. Zey gritted his teeth and followed Mundy's command.
The search took forever, but they found Dregan sleeping on slab encircled by hellebore. At first glance he seemed perfectly at peace, but his clenched fist belied that image.
"Lord Dregan, you are ordered by His Majesty, King Drikson, the Fifth of that Name, to return at once to Gehlen Hold and be tried for the death of her Majesty, the Queen."
Frowning that his words produced no acknowledgement, Mundy bent over and yelled, "Wake up! You've been commanded to appear before your King. Lord Dregan!"
Dregan slept on, oblivious.
Mundy grabbed his shoulder and shook him. "Dregan!"
When that garnered no response, Mundy slapped him. Dregan dreamt on. Mundy turned on Zey. "Wake him up!"
Zey shot a panicked look Brioc's direction. What was he supposed to do? Neither shaking the man nor yelling had disturbed his Dreams.
Zey prodded Dregan's chest. "Lord Dregan?"
"That isn't going to work!" Mundy elbowed Zey out of the way and shook Dregan again.
"It is blasphemy to disturb a Dreamer."
Zey turned his head the direction of the words and jumped. A solid wall of Gardeners surrounded them.
Eyes narrowed, Mundy slowly turned and sneered at the circling men and women. "This man is a traitor. He came to the Garden to hide from the consequences of his crimes and that cannot be allowed. The King demands his presence. You have no right to countermand an order of your King!"
"He will not wake until his Dreams are finished," a female Gardener said.
"He will wake if the King demands it! Dregan!" Mundy shook Dregan again.
"Your efforts are futile. He is in the Dreams. He cannot be summoned back. The Dream will release him when it finishes with him."
The deadpan voices of the Gardeners sent shivers down Zey's spine. They had tried to follow the King's command. It didn't work. So...back home now?
"The orders said nothing about waking him." Mundy sneered. He snapped his fingers at Brioc and Zey. "You two, carry him."
Zey hesitated, but Brioc strode forward and grabbed Dregan by an arm. Zey stepped towards him, but Brioc waved him away.
"He's puny. I got him." Brioc swung Dregan over his shoulder.
Mundy turned with a triumphant "Hah!" but faced only swirling mist. He staggered off-balance for only a second before his usual arrogance puffed out his chest, put his nose in the air, and sent him swaggering across the Garden.
"Bring him. Let's get out of here."
Zey fell in behind Mundy, leaving Brioc to bring up the rear. Mist swirled around them. It brushed against his bare flesh like the soft touch of insect wings, except there was nothing to smack away before it bit. Zey shivered.
"Zey!" Brioc hissed under his breath.
Zey stepped aside, falling back to walk with Brioc. "What's wrong?"
"Where's the staircase?"
Zey looked up ahead of Mundy and came to a stop. They weren't walking towards a staircase. The swirling mist remained low, waist high at most. Ahead he could see trees and plenty of beds, a mix of occupied and empty ones. But the dreaming platforms in their garden beds stretched forward as far as he could see. How far had they walked?
Brioc had stopped beside him. He turned to the right, while Zey scanned the Garden to the left. They both ended up facing behind them.
"I don't see the exit at all," Zey said.
"Yeah, me either. Oh shit."
Zey glanced over and saw that Brioc had spun back around to face the direction they'd been moving. He turned quickly. Oh, no.
"Mundy!" Brioc hollered.
No one responded.
"Maybe we should run to catch up with him?" Zey cocked his head to the side.
Brioc nodded and they both jogged forward occasionally calling out the lord's name. Brioc huffed along beside him for a several minutes, but slowly fell back. Zey staggered to a halt and turned around.
"We've run further this way than we walked in the first place," Brioc puffed.
Ignoring the way the hair on his neck and arms stood up, Zey looked around. That bed with the climbing roses almost touching the face of the elderly woman curled on her side wasn't familiar. Nor was the child sprawled out on a clover-covered bed.
Don't panic, he ordered himself. They'd moved around a bit. So this wasn't the exact row of beds they'd walked between in the first place.
"Are you sure?" Zey wasn't. He couldn't find a reference point. Couldn't see the walls of the cave. Definitely didn't see the damned stairs.
"MUNDY!" Brioc shouted again.
"Shh. Do not disturb those who Dream."
Zey and Brioc pivoted, but no one stood behind them. They turned full circle without finding the voice. Zey shivered.
Brioc breathed out slowly. "I hate this place."
"Let's just find our way out."
"Well I was trying!" Brioc snapped.
Zey kept his sigh silent. Brioc had always been one of his least favorite people. Why couldn't he have felt the need for a snooze and left Kimden to finish this mission?
"Maybe we should move up that way?" Zey pointed to his right.
"Why?" Brioc sneered.
"Because I think we were further that way when we came in. Maybe something is obscuring the stairs cause we're too far up this way."
Brioc snorted. "Yeah, like the stairs could be obscured. That makes so much sense."
"What here makes sense? We're several miles underground in a garden with trees and stars and people who can sleep for years without aging and others who evaporate in the mist."
Brioc readjusted Dregan on his shoulder. "Fine. Lead on."
Zey turned right and skirted between two empty beds. One was practically obscured under an arch of wisteria. The other almost barren with a handful of pink snapdragons sparsely growing along the base. Two beds peeked out of a weeping willow's branches up ahead. The feet of a Dreamer lay poked through the foliage on one.
On the right, Zey passed what looked like holly bushes circled around nothing. He slowed and looked around carefully.
Brioc screamed. Zey pivoted. Brioc stood with his back to Zey and was in the process of dumping Dregan on a bed.
"What are you doing?" Zey rushed over.
"Look at him!"
Brioc staggered back. Zey could now see...Lord Dregan? Ivy dangled from the man's arms and legs. Zey inched closer. The vines wrapped all around the lord. Leaves sprouted from the Dregan's wrist and spiraled up his arm as Zey watched. Zey took a step back.
The leaves continued to sprout and circle Dregan's limbs and torso. In minutes, Dregan looked like a mound of greenery, a small hill rising up from the bed. Was he dead under all that?
"What the fuck!" Brioc's voice was pitched far too high.
Zey turned. His jaw dropped.
A vine sprouted from Brioc's right wrist. Brioc yanked the sprout out, letting it fall to the floor. Blood welled, dripped, and another tendril of vine sprouted through the open flesh. Brioc screamed and ripped the new growth out.
Zey dropped his hands over his own wrists. He felt nothing but flesh with bone underneath.
Another shoot poked out of Brioc's wrist. The noise that slipped through his gritted teeth was a cross between a sob and a scream. His left hand darted for the right wrist, but another hand got there first.
The bony hand clamped down, covering the vine. Brioc jerked away, but didn't free himself. He looked up and whimpered.
Zey would have too if he dared make a sound. The Gardener's eyes flickered with fire. His robed billowed like smoke, and mist seemed to be emanating from it.
"Blasphemy!" the Gardener bellowed. The word echoed throughout the Garden. Zey ducked as if the very word could hurt him.
"No. Please. No. Let me go. Make it stop. I didn't mean to do anything. I was just following orders. Let me leave. Make it stop!" Brioc's voice rose in pitch until it was unrecognizable. He continued to babble and struggle. Even pulling with what looked like his full weight, he moved the Gardener not at an inch.
"The Garden claimed you. Dream, and the Garden will let you go." The Gardener's voice lowered in volume, but still seemed to echo.
Zey backed away as Brioc protested incoherently. The Garden hadn't claimed him. He wanted out of here before it did. He scratched at his unblemished wrists.
The Gardener steered Brioc towards an empty bed. Zey pivoted.
"ZEY!" Brioc screamed, but Zey fled and did not look back.
He'd find the stairs. They had to be around here somewhere. The Gardens were only so large--okay, they might stretch on forever. So what if they did? He and the others had not walked for forever. So the stairs must be nearby. They must be.
Oh, shit! He'd been running blindly, not even keeping an eye out for the damned stairs. He looked around wildly, tripped, and sprawled face-first in the dirt.
Unleashing a stream of curses, he rolled over and rubbed his shins. They felt like they'd been smacked with a sword, but there was nothing on the ground to account for his tumble.
Shaking slightly, he scooted towards the nearest bed and used it to pull himself up. He cursed again. Which way had he been running? He couldn't see Brioc or any Gardeners anywhere. Presumably, the Gardener had convinced Brioc to Dream, and he now lay on one of these slabs. Zey shivered.
He drew his hand from the bed and wet his lips. The Garden appeared deceptively empty, but dozens of Gardeners lurked just out of sight. All of them watching him. They wouldn't get him. He would escape.
Zey stepped away from the bed, prepared to sneak away, but something caught his attention in the corner of his eye. He turned his head. His jaw fell open.
"Oh Aegials, no."
Lord Mundy lay flopped over on his side as if he'd been tossed on the bed. His mouth twisted in a frown, deep furrows ran across his forehead. Even in sleep, his hands were clenched. Either his dreams were not easy or he'd been forced into this and was furious. Probably both. The force part was definite. None of them had wanted to stay here.
On the verge of hysterics now, Zey backed away. His breath escaped from his throat in sobs, but he couldn't worry about that right now. They were doomed. He was doomed. Everyone else had already fallen.
"Help me," he whispered on a sob. "Help me, help me, help me, help me!" His cry ended in a keen.
A Gardener appeared beside him. Warmth and comfort emanated from her. She touched his arm and the world grew fuzzy. She murmured soothing sounds that meant nothing and led him to a bed a few feet away.
He violently shook his head--in his mind. In reality he couldn't summon the energy to protest. And why bother? He just wanted to stay with the Gardner. She'd make everything okay.
"Hang your sword here."
Her right hand caressed a hook at the head of the bed.
Zey stared at the sword hanging on the hook. When had he taken off his belt? He looked down at his hands. How had he...? When had he...?
His feet were bare. His boots rested below the sword, socks flopped out of the boot's tops. When? Who? Him?
"Come now. Lay down." The Gardener touched the bed.
Zey shivered. He ran his hands over his arms. Shirt sleeves. Where had--? He looked next to his sword and saw his jacket hanging there. But when had--? Who removed--?
He sat on the slab. It was surprisingly soft and comfortable. He touched the surface. It gave a little under pressure from his hand. He looked from his hand to the ground. Had he climbed onto this bed? When? How?
"Time to Dream." The Gardener touched his forehead.
"I don't want...I want...My wife. Daughter."
"Shh." She caressed his head.
Zey blinked. When had he laid down? How had his head gotten pillowed on his right arm?
"Shh." The Gardener trailed her fingers gently down his face. Zey shuddered. His eyes fell closed.
©February, 2016 Lynn Rushlau
Lynn Rushlaus's work has appeared in Reflection's Edge, The Colored Lens, and Sorcerous Signals This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.