"Where were those crossbows again? In here?" Jay asked as he stopped outside a weapon-laden room.
"I don't think so, love," I said distractedly. "Weren't they further down the corridor?"
Jay just grunted, nodded and walked past the room with his oil lamp held high. We were in one of the corridors that lay beneath Esterloch Keep; we had been tasked to check the weapons stock-piled there to ensure their continued safe usage. It had been a while since the last safety check and more of our fellow Esterloch townsfolk were still searching through weapons on higher levels. Jay and I had been amongst the only ones willing enough, or perhaps foolhardy enough to go below the ground; only the dwarves seemed to be otherwise willing.
Jay and I made our way further down the corridor and the room where I thought the crossbows were kept; I was relieved to find that I had been right. We began to check every weapon carefully; we set aside those that were degraded or spoilt in some way and returned those that we thought were perfectly serviceable back onto their racks.
Jay worked his way to the back of the room, while I remained over to one side. After a few moments had passed, I heard a sudden 'whump' from Jay's part of the room and when I looked up in sudden concern, I saw that Jay seemed to have disappeared from view; his oil lamp thankfully was resting on a shelf and was not likely to fall and potentially set alight to anything. Jay cried out in sudden pain when he moved and I saw the magenta flare of his emotion over our shared soul-bond. I lurched forward and flung the crossbow I'd been checking aside at the same moment, alarmed for the safety of my mate.
"What happened?" I asked when I reached him.
"Drake-blasted trapdoor is what happened," Jay said with a huff.
"What trapdoor?" I asked with a frown. "I didn't know there was a trapdoor in here."
"Well, there is. My foot just found it and the drake-blasted thing just pitched me to the floor," Jay said as he knelt again.
He picked up his lamp and raised it above his head so that we both could see the trapdoor a little better. I huffed in sudden curiosity and knelt beside him; I rested my own lamp to one side of the trapdoor. I ran one hand over the partially raised wooden surface, as Jay rested one hand on my shoulder. I could see his curiosity flowing across our soul-bond in waves of bright green as I began to heft the thick and heavy door to one side.
"Oooh, big strong Alpha dragon. I like this," Jay said as he ran his free hand appreciatively over the muscles that bunched in my biceps.
I laughed and gently nudged him away with my shoulder, just as I hefted the trapdoor to one side. Jay also laughed and looked down into the dark maw of the hole left behind. Even in the dim light of our lamps, we both could see the steps that led down into the darkness.
"Bit spooky, isn't it?" Jay asked as he stared down into the darkness.
"A little," I said with a noncommital shrug. "Wonder what's down there?"
"Perhaps we should have a look," Jay said.
He waggled his eyebrows at me and tried to leer at me in a spooky fashion but it didn't quite work; his face was too kind for that. I laughed anyway even as I got to my feet and dusted myself off; after a brief hesitation, I began to descend into the darkness.
"You're not really going down there, are you, Quinn love?" Jay asked in sudden alarm. "I didn't really mean we should."
"What are you worried about? We're dragon-shifters. There's nothing that can hurt us down here," I pointed out as I stopped and looked back up at him.
Jay's only response was to raise both eyebrows at me; he shrugged and soon clambered down after me. The steps descended only a few feet before they evened out into a rough corridor; wooden pillars and roof trusses appeared every few feet to support the walls and ceiling. Even so, I couldn't help but wonder just how safe the corridor was.
Jay crowded close behind me, his lamp held high as we walked ever downwards. Neither of us spoke for a while and I, for one, was examining the handiwork that surrounded us; I was curious as to just who had built the corridor but I couldn't recognise the handiwork. Dwarves, in particular, had a certain recognisable way of working. I said as much to Jay, just to break the silence that had fallen between us.
"I've been wondering about that and I still have no idea who dug this. I think it must have been built after we repaired the Keep," Jay said. "We would have noticed something like this being excavated as well as known who'd done it."
"Or we would have been involved," I pointed out before I gave a sharp and sudden cry of disgust.
While I had been distracted by Jay, I had walked inadvertently into a huge spiderweb that had stretched its way across the corridor. I swept it away with a loud and disgusted curse before we continued. There were more spiderwebs further down the corridor, thick and clinging and dust-laden. We swept each one aside yet it was sticky, messy work.
"This is really disgusting, you know, Quinn," Jay said and he sounded as though he was going to be sick.
"Well, it wasn't my fault. I didn't put them there," I said with a rough and amused snort.
Jay's laughter came out as a short sharp bark but even that brief noise was better than the eerie silence that had surrounded us previously. After another few minutes had passed in tense silence, we abruptly arrived at the end of the corridor; we were faced with a stone wall inlaid with small indentations which I guessed were meant as hand- and foot-holds. We both looked up and we saw another trapdoor above us.
"Shall we see what's in there?" I asked.
"No, I think we should turn back now," Jay said and moved to turn away.
Only the apricot of his laughter blasting over our soul-bond alerted me to the fact that he wasn't serious. I snorted and stopped him from moving further away by grabbing his arm gently. I gestured upwards to strengthen my intent to explore before we made our way up the wall; I was in the lead so I pushed open the trapdoor and climbed out into a darkened space. I helped Jay out of the hole and we straightened, dusting ourselves down as we took in our new surroundings. To our surprise, we found that we were standing in the cellar of Esterloch's bakery; the trapdoor itself had been cleverly masked to fit in with the wooden flooring and was also hidden behind several large bags of flour. Around us were plenty of shelves stocked with jars and packages of various ingredients. We both could smell the scents of sugar, spices, dried fruits, almonds and custards.
"Is there any food in here?" Jay asked suddenly as he began to scavenge. "I mean proper food, not just ingredients."
"Jay," I said in disgust even as Jay managed to find a few long-forgotten fruit buns on a back shelf.
He began to eat and although he grimaced slightly, he finished the trio off.
"Bit stale but fairly edible," he said with a shrug. "There's some gingerbread here too. Catch, Quinn; they're yours."
He threw the gingerbread at me and I barely had time to catch it before it thunked against my chest. Reluctantly, I took a bite. Like Jay's fruit buns, the gingerbread was slightly stale but edible enough to satisfy my sudden hunger.
"Perhaps we should come back early in the morning and grab some fresh buns and gingerbread," Jay said with a sly grin at me.
"Jay! We're not common thieves. We can't do that," I said in horror.
"Well, we'll leave some money behind," Jay said with a disgusted snort. "I'm no thief. I just thought it'd be nice to cut out the middle man as it were; we could come here directly to save the hustle and bustle of waiting in the morning queues."
"I realise that but we're not doing it, Jay. We'll go the proper route," I said firmly. "We're town Elders. We both have to be a good role model for the normal townsfolk."
Jay rolled his eyes and shook his head at me; he didn't argue with me, however. He did shoot me a cheeky grin which led me to wonder just how serious he'd been with his earlier suggestion. Laughing, I then bade him follow me back to the corridor again as we'd seen all we'd need to and so, we returned to Esterloch Keep using the hidden corridor once more.
Early the following morning, Jay and I were once again at the Keep, checking on some of the other weapons that were stored beneath the ground. I lost track of Jay somewhere along the way and after a few minutes of fruitless searching and worried calling for my mate, I discovered that the secret trapdoor we'd found was open once more. I groaned and made my way down the steps and followed the hidden corridor back to the bakery.
As expected, Jay was in the bakery's storeroom, holding a few strawberry tarts and almond-custard pies beneath one arm. He was in the midst of placing a handful of coins on the table when I entered and he immediately shushed me before I could say anything. Then he threw a few pieces of fresh, soft gingerbread at me before he placed more coins down upon the table.
I was about to protest that he'd left too much money yet voices from above interrupted me; I recognised the voices as belonging to Rixon and Sam, the bakers who often worked in the Bakery and they seemed to be approaching where we stood. I cursed beneath my breath and ushered Jay back down into the hidden corridor once more; I didn't think it a good idea to be discovered. I carefully closed the trapdoor and jostled Jay down the corridor again. We stopped only when we had reached the other end and I deemed that we were finally safe. Jay had already started to eat and he was laughing with almost every bite.
"I can't believe you did that, Jay," I said in disgust. "I thought we agreed not to."
"Well, it's only the once, Quinn. I wanted to see if I could get away with it," Jay said. "And I paid for the cakes, didn't I? I didn't steal anything."
"Yes, but you nearly got us both caught; it might have looked a bit dodgy if they'd found us," I said even as I took a distracted bite of the gingerbread. "You're not doing that again, Jamison."
"Don't worry, Quinn dear; I'm not. It's a one-off thing. As I said, I just wanted to see if I could do it," Jay assured me. "We'll go back to the boring way again. The normal human way, if you must. Even though we're not human."
His grin, when it came, was his usual cheeky dimpled one. As usual, he made me grin in turn.
"Yes. We must do that," I said firmly despite my lingering smile. "But this gingerbread is really nice though, by the way."
I hefted the remainder of my gingerbread into the air. Jay's laughter arched up to the stone ceiling and mine was swift to follow.
Sam and Rixon, by all accounts, were genuinely baffled by the appearance of unexpected money on their tabletop; they only discovered the disappearance of a small sample of their stock sometime later. They didn't report the incident to the Lawkeepers as, in the bakers' own words, it wasn't strictly a theft.
Jay and I decided not to make the discovery of the hidden corridor widely known as I suspected that other people might try to repeat Jay's trick; I doubted they would leave money as my mate had as I knew that not everyone was as honest as Jay. Instead, we presented the issue discreetly to Rowan as we thought the elf Elder might be the best person to help or give advice; unfortunately, he seemed as baffled by the corridor's presence as we were.
"Or a direct route to handily placed freshly baked food," Jay pointed out with an arch lift of one eyebrow.
"And that as well," Rowan said without missing a beat.
A grin worked its way across his face then and even I had to laugh at his response. Jay and I then agreed to leave the corridor as it was, without blocking it up as had been my first inclination. We also continued to remain silent about its presence, preferring to leave its whereabouts between the three of us, until we needed it.