We set off as the dawn broke over the jagged tree-fringed peaks of the farrow ridges, towards the spot where my friend, Hedgethorn Lammergyre, had rescued Captain Ironshank. My plan was simple.
Hedgethorn and Alcestia were to enter the caverns by the traditional route taken by caverneers – the tunnel from the first of the Five Falls. They were to proceed to the Underlake and create as much noise and spectacle as possible, to draw the white trogs from the stalactite forest.
Meanwhile, Captain Ironshank would manoeuvre his phraxlighter as close as possible to the pot-hole whose shaft, I’d surmised, led directly into the stalactite cluster that dripped from the mighty cavern roof. Here, the strange trog comb was to be found - interconnecting caves within the great stalactites themselves – in which the white trogs lived. If Alcestia was right, and I had no reason to disbelieve her, this is where her father would be held prisoner, tethered in one of the comb caves and left untended while the trogs fished in the lake below. I was to be lowered down the pot-hole and wait for Hedgethorn and Alcestia’s diversion, before making my rescue attempt.
Half an hour later, Captain Ironshank set the phraxlighter to hover, and began to winch me down into the blackness of the pot-hole below. I descended into the gloom, an old phraxpistol and a bayonet from the Hive Militia stuffed into my belt. In the inside pocket of my topcoat, wrapped in flaxbush gauze, was the red jewel Ironshank had stolen from the white trogs.
After what seemed an eternity in the blackness, I emerged into the vast cavern, close by the great cluster of stalactites. Reaching out, I pulled myself across to the nearest stalactite, the size of several ironwoods at its top. Peering down, I could see a maze of cave openings along the stalactite’s length, connected with openings in the other stalactites by walkways of fishgut rope and snailshell treads. Climbing down the great stalctite, I reached just such a walkway and, slipping off my tether rope and taking care to attach it to one of the snailshell treads, I entered the trog comb.
I searched the sparsely-furnished niches and rock alcoves of ten stalactites, expecting at any moment to be discovered by a hulking white trog, but found all to be empty. Just as Alcestia had said, the trogs used the trog comb to sleep in, and little else, spending the rest of their waking lives fishing their beloved Underlake, or sitting in clusters by its shore adorning themselves with fish skeletons and crab claws. Sure enough, glancing down from a walkway leading to the central stalactite of the forest, I saw the whole village on the milk-white waters of the lake in their distinctive long canoes, busy lowering and hauling up nets heavy with outlandish-looking lakefish.
Stepping into the central stalactite, I saw the old caverneer at once, slumped in the corner of the high-ceilinged, circular cave that took up most of the stalactite’s interior. His ankle was held by a bone shackle made from the jaws of a stonepike, a thick length of fishgut rope leading from it to a bone ring embedded in the cave floor.
‘Roost marshal?’ I whispered. ‘Are you all right?’
With a low groan, the caverneer looked up and I could see that he’d been badly beaten.
‘The jewel…’ he wheezed through swollen, bloodied lips. ‘The tip of the great stalactite… They think I stole it, Forden…’
Just then, from outside, coming from the far shore of the Underlake came the sound of whooping shouts and calls.
‘Come, friend,’ I whispered, drawing my bayonet and slicing through the fishgut rope. ‘We haven’t much time…’