They passed under the portcullis into the high, arched tunnel beneath the double walls. In the event of an incursion a second iron gate could be dropped on the interior wall, either creating a second layer or defense or trapping a portion of the invading force inside the tunnel between the two gates. The tunnel curved so the second gate was not visible from the first, so as Eldan and Cale ran toward the center to get past the reach of the rain sheeting sideways into the mouth of the tunnel they found themselves in almost complete darkness. They felt their way forward along the wall until they could make out the grim light of the second gate. Eldan had never seen darkness fall so suddenly with the arrival of a storm, it seemed that in the time it took them to traverse halfway beneath the walls the sun fell from mid-afternoon to deep dusk.
They were alone in their bend of the tunnel, the people ahead of them having apparently dashed on to shelter while those behind them crowded around the mouth rather than push into darkness. The rain was falling so hard that the dry soil couldn’t absorb the onslaught of water, and Eldan could see a pool of water rapidly approaching them from the inner gate. Water sluiced down from the parapet in huge spouts, shooting nearly horizontally from the pressure of the torrent.
A groaning, cracking sound emanated from the very body of the tunnel, the walls shaking and small pieces of mortar showering down from the ceiling. Cale pressed against Eldan’s back, whimpering softly with surprise, and he could hear cries of alarm from the crowd behind them in the tunnel.
“Could the tunnel fail?” Eldan asked, his voice echoing strangely.
“It’s stood for over a thousand years and abyss knows how many storms. It makes no sense it would fail in a heavy rain.” Cale’s reassuringly practical words were belied by her tentative delivery, sounding almost as if she were asking a question.
The groans and cracks came again, much louder this time, and accompanied by an ear-splitting screech of metal on metal. Cale and Eldan stepped back from the wall as it began shivering in with rhythmic thumps.
“River’s depth, they’re dropping the gates!” Someone shouted from the outer half of the tunnel, setting off an explosion of screams and cries as the crowd began pressing to get out before the gates fell. A mass of bodies stampeded forward blindly, crushing Eldan and Cale back against the wall as they pushed and shoved down the tunnel toward the city opening into the city. The cacophony of noise from the ancient gates dropping was deafening now, and Eldan pressed desperately against the much larger figures around them to create an opening to see how far down the gate was falling. Between the already crepuscular, murky shadows of the tunnel and the snarl of people blocking the gray light at the mouth, he was plunged into complete darkness, unable to make any sense of the pandemonium.
Water had by this time flooded the tunnel to the point that he could feel it creeping over the tops of his boots, and he and Cale were being splashed to their waists by the people elbowing past them. Eldan heard the sound of a panicked horse rearing, throwing more people against the walls, and he was flattened by someone’s back crushing him into the stone. Cale’s fingers slipped from his as they were forced away from each other, the horse’s hooves slamming back down with a wet, sickening crack. The air was forced from Eldan’s lungs and his cheek scraped painfully along the tunnel wall.
Eldan clenched his teeth, willing the crowd to move back, and suddenly the pressure on his back released. He dropped to his knees in the water, gasping for air as the heavy splashes moved past him and the center of the tunnel opened up again.
“Eldan!” Relief swelled in his chest at the sound of Cale’s voice rising over the clamor.
“I’m here! Can you follow my voice?” Eldan sounded strangled to his own ears, his throat raw. He heard splashes to his left and turned his head to squint through the gloom, just able to make out Cale stumbling toward him, feeling her way along the stone. He stood up and reached out his hand, clutching at her fingers. Tenebrous light began to filter from the mouth of the tunnel in the distance as the last of the crowd ducked under the gate and rushed into the violence of the storm, seeking shelter deeper in the city.
Eldan sucked in a breath. “Can we make it?”
Cale squeezed his hand and nodded, and they began a splashing dash toward the opening, only for Eldan to stumble headlong over an obstruction on the tunnel floor after a few steps, landing painfully on his already scraped hands and knees. He hauled himself up and looked back to see what had tripped him up, freezing as he saw it was a person lying face-down in the shallow water, hair fanning around their head, and neck bent at an unnatural angle. Their arms were spread as though they had been flung to the ground while trying to catch themselves, and their back was muddy, obviously having been trampled by the mass of people desperate to get past.
“Eldan, come on! The gate is almost down, we have to keep going!” Cale was standing a short ways ahead, nearly frantic, looking between Eldan standing motionless and the gate grinding ever lower in the distance.
Eldan stepped back from the figure, his legs shaking, and moaned with nausea and shock. “The horse. I heard it when the horse dropped.”
“What are you talking about? We have to go now!” Cale took a last glance at the gate and ran back to grab Eldan’s arm and drag him forward, jumping to the side and clapping a hand over her mouth in horror when she finally saw the body. “Oh, abyss, no..”
As Cale and Eldan stared, aghast, at the broken, savaged corpse, two successive, shuddering booms rent the air when the two gates finally completed their descent and crashed into the ground. The tumult of pounding rain, howling wind and crashes of thunder continued unabated, but the tunnel itself finally stilled.
“What do we do?” Eldan whispered, imagining this person’s husband or wife, or maybe children or parents, waiting anxiously for them to arrive home. In the dim light, with the body positioned as it was, he couldn’t make out anything beyond the horrifying fact that it had been a living, breathing person. The wet crack he had heard after the horse whinnied wildly in fear, sending the crowd surging back as it reared, played over and over in his mind. He thought perhaps he should turn the body over to look for something that might allow him to find this person’s family, but he was terrified by both the idea of having to look upon the person’s face with its unseeing eyes and having to deliver this terrible news to whomever held them in their hearts.
“I don’t think we are supposed to do anything. They were trampled, people stepped on their back and walked on like nothing happened. That must be a crime the city guard would need to investigate.” Cale’s voice was shaky with emotion, arms wrapped tightly around herself and fists clenched.
Eldan was ashamed to feel relief as he was tacitly released of any responsibility toward the body. He tasted bitter bile rising in his throat, thoughts of the trampling and his own cowardice whirling to become a tempest in his head.
“Maybe we should wait closer to the gate? We can get through as soon as it opens and tell a guard what happened.” Cale looked pleadingly at Eldan, who nodded numbly and tore his eyes away from the wretched figure at his feet to look at her pale face. He felt Cale’s cold fingers on his arm and they began to walk toward the closed gate.