Brigitte jumped. The voice had whispered almost directly into her ear, yet there was nobody to be seen. She looked at the ground beneath her feet. Was something moving? She was probably imagining things again.
– Did you hear something? she asked her guide, Skaylee.
– I didn't hear a thing, ma'am. What is it?
– Probably nothing. I'm hearing things, and the light from the torch is playing tricks on my eyes. How do you people live down here without going crazy from claustrophobia?
– I don't know what that means, ma'am. Look, we're approaching the guards' post.
Skaylee had agreed to take her to see the Sneikh, who ruled the kingdom from his underground palace. Very few outsiders had entered the labyrinth-like tunnels leading to the palace, and even fewer had come back alive to tell the tale. Brigitte was glad she had found a guide who knew the way.
– This is the guards' post. Looks like Sir Pent is on duty today.
A hunchbacked man wearing heavy leather armour approached.
– Hello, Skaylee! I heard that you're taking a guest to see the Sneikh. My name is Sir Pent, ma'am.
– Hello, Sir Pent.
– I was just about to eat, would you two like to join me? Sir Pent asked.
The three gathered around the fire to eat. Sir Pent poured everyone some water and raised his cup.
– A toast to your health! Five hundred for first minus fifty.
– Is it a long way to the palace from here? Brigitte asked.
– A couple of hours' walk, ma'am. The Sneikh is expecting you. I assure you that his intentions are benevolent. Six for first five.
– There! Did you hear that?
Brigitte looked around. There was no one in sight except the three of them.
– I didn't hear anything, ma'am, Skaylee said.
– No, nothing, ma'am. Maybe it was the wind?
– Must have been. Sorry about that. I've been a little jumpy ever since we entered these tunnels.
After the three had finished their meals, Sir Pent showed Brigitte and Skaylee the path to the Sneikh's palace.
– Follow this path all the way down to get to the palace. You can't miss it. When you arrive, Skaylee can show you to your room. Five hundred for first.
Sir Pent handed Skaylee a note with some kind of numbers on it. The paper was sealed and looked official. Most likely from the Sneikh himself, Brigitte thought. She managed to catch a glimpse of the contents before Skaylee closed the note and pocketed it.
Brigitte followed Skaylee deeper into the cave.
– Sssslither..., Skaylee whispered.
– Again! Did you hear anything?
– Not a thing, ma'am.
What was Sir Pent really saying? What were Skaylee's instructions?