Diana watched as Vincent reached up to touch a place high on the wall. With a low, grating rumble, a rough slab of concrete rolled across the opening that connected her world to this one, closing it off as though it had never existed.
"That's incredible," she said.
Vincent turned to her, his hand falling away from the hidden pressure point. "Merely an illusion." He glanced down the corridor behind him. "Come. We must hurry. The ceremony will begin soon."
She wanted to ask him how they could possibly start without him, but he was already moving, and she hurried to catch up, gazing around in fascination as they strode through the twisting corridors.
Diana didn't know much about cave systems, but she'd always thought they were damp and chilly. This place was neither of those things. It was cool, certainly, and she was glad she'd worn a jacket, but the air felt clean and dry against her skin. And though the ground beneath her feet sloped gradually downward, it was smooth and dirt-packed, not the rough, uneven surface she would've expected.
The tunnels were like underground arteries set among an intricate tangle of smaller veins and tiny capillaries that made Diana hope Vincent planned on leading her back out after the celebration. She'd never find her way on her own. And running through it all were the pipes, some shiny and new, others grayed or dull green with age, and still others that looked as if they might collapse in a pile of blood-red dust at the slightest touch; all of them echoing with an oddly musical cadence that reminded her of her mother's beloved wind chimes.
The paths they traveled were lit by torches set into iron brackets high on the granite walls. The absence of electrical lighting made Diana feel as if they were walking backward in time. Surely they must soon approach some grand, medieval castle, its entrance guarded by moat and drawbridge and fierce stone lions.
A fresh burst of metallic sound brought Vincent to an abrupt stop, his cloak swirling around his legs. He tilted his head, listening. Then he nodded and turned to her. "We're almost there now. The others are waiting."
"Others?" She remembered the odd group she'd met when she'd run from Gabriel's men. There'd been fewer than a dozen people that day, though it had seemed like more at first.
He nodded. "My family."
His family? Were there others like him after all? The thought made her stomach do an odd little flip-flop, her thoughts faltering for an instant while she considered the implications. But without further explanation, Vincent started walking again, and Diana set the question aside. She'd learn the answer soon enough.
A few seconds later they rounded another bend in the corridor, and Vincent ducked his head as he turned into a short passageway that opened up into a large, brightly-lit cavern. Diana came to an abrupt stop, startled to find herself the focus of dozens of curious stares.
She stood on a wide stone ledge. In front of her, a short flight of steps led down to a level floor, in the center of which a narrow, wrought-iron staircase wound a tight spiral up to a second level. The room was furnished with heavy, mismatched furniture that wore the patina of age with dignified grace. Books of all shapes and sizes covered every available surface, stacked so high in some cases that Diana thought they might crash to the floor at any moment. And everywhere she looked there were people looking back at her—from the children clustered in groups on the floor and dangling their legs through the staircase railings, to adults with keen-eyed suspicion in their eyes, to the elderly, gray-haired and faded, who watched her with the accumulated wisdom of decades. So many people. Did all of them live down here? Diana struggled to make sense of what her eyes were telling her. How was it possible?
"It's a bit much to take in all at once, isn't it." The cheerful voice brought Diana out of her speechless reverie, and she blinked, her gaze settling on a petite, bright-eyed woman with a riotous mass of red hair.
"I had no idea . . ."
The other woman stuck out a hand. "Aye, and you'll have a million questions, I'm sure. I'm Julia."
"Julia . . ." At the sound of Vincent's voice, both women turned. "This is Diana Bennett."
"I thought as much. She has my red hair, you know." The way she said it, as though hair color alone was enough to make them kin, brought a smile to Diana's lips, but Vincent only nodded.
"At the risk of seeming an inattentive host, may I ask you to introduce Diana to the others? I'm afraid we've arrived a little late, and I fear Father may start the ceremony without me."
Julia laughed. "He wouldn't dare."
Vincent's eyes sparkled with gentle humor. "Nevertheless, it is not a risk I wish to take lest he name my son Snarveling."
Julia shuddered in mock horror as Diana grinned.
"Go," Julia said "Catherine is tapping her foot. I shouldn't like to keep you from her any longer."
Vincent's expression softened, and he glanced toward the center of the room. Diana followed his gaze and saw Catherine watching them, the baby in her arms. Something about the way Vincent and Catherine looked at each other made Diana feel as though she'd interrupted an intensely private moment, and she dropped her eyes, her gaze skidding away as she searched for something else to focus on.
"It's lovely to see them so happy," Julia said after Vincent excused himself.
Diana watched him touch the baby's cheek, a look of deep tenderness on his face. A small hand freed itself from the blanket to wrap around his, and Diana felt a sudden ache in her chest. She pushed the feeling aside and turned her attention back to Julia.
"I'm just glad everyone's home safe," she said.
"Aye. Me, too." Julia was silent for a long, pensive moment. Then she shook her head, as though setting aside some painful memory of her own. "Come. I'll introduce you to the others."
In short order, Diana met a shy, awkward boy with the unlikely name of Mouse, a gnome-like bald man with intelligent eyes and a restless manner named Pascal, and a golden-haired beauty whose name was Lena. Lena held a baby of her own in her arms, a bright-eyed, outgoing cherub who reached out chubby arms to Diana.
"Her name's Catherine," Lena said proudly. Evidently, she saw the question in Diana's eyes, because she nodded. "She saved my life. Naming my daughter after her was my way of saying thanks."
Before Diana could question Lena further, a stir of excitement drew her attention back to the center of the chamber. Jacob Wells—Father, she corrected herself, though the name felt a little awkward—moved to stand beside a large table laden with gifts. As Diana watched, a dark-haired sprite of a girl added another package to the top of the pile, causing several packages to teeter dangerously as she danced away. Vincent stopped her with a gentle touch on the shoulder. He bent and spoke softly to her, and Diana saw the girl cast a guilty glance back toward the table. Then, with a quick, bright, smile, she skipped back to right the stack, waiting for Vincent's nod of approval before settling herself on the floor in the midst of a chattering group of children.
Vincent rested his hand against the small of Catherine's back as the two of them stepped forward to stand in front of Father. And as Diana watched, she understood for the first time why people used the word radiant to describe new mothers.
Beside Diana, an older woman sighed. "They've been through so much," she said in a low voice, echoing Diana's thoughts. "I hope they'll finally find peace, now."
Father began the ceremony then, the natural authority in his voice silencing the few remaining conversations.
"Together," he said, "we have weathered a storm. A great storm, which at times I feared might never pass. Finally, it did pass. After much sorrow and loss, the time of darkness has ended, bringing us to this day. Allowing us to find peace, and rejoice in it."
Catherine kissed the baby's forehead and handed him to Vincent, then turned to address the gathered community. She was dressed in the same type of clothing the others wore, with a long skirt that brushed against her ankles, and a cream colored sweater against which her hair fell in a soft, natural wave. She wore no makeup, but the candles gave her skin a delicate golden glow, and Diana had a fleeting wish that everyone lived their lives by candlelight.
"I can't thank you enough." Catherine's voice seemed almost to float through the chamber. "You've given me a home, and a family." Her gaze touched on Vincent and the baby, and then rose to take in the assembled group. Diana saw her swallow hard. "A new life is opening up before me, and it's full of promise, and hope. I owe that to you—to your faith in me, and in Vincent and me, together. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to continue to deserve your trust."
Catherine looked at Vincent, and something passed between them, some fragment of silent communication. Then Vincent lifted his head.
"Holding my son in my arms," he said, "and with Catherine, safe and well beside me ... I feel as though two miracles have been given to me. There are no words to express the depths of my gratitude to each of you. To all of you. My family."
Then it was Father's turn again, his voice thick with tightly-reined emotion as he continued the ritual. "It has been said that the child is the meaning of life. The truth of that has never been more apparent to me than it is on this day, when we celebrate this new life that has come into our world."
Diana looked at the tiny bundle nestled in Vincent's arms and remembered the first time she'd seen him—in a large and airy nursery where she'd shivered from a coldness that'd had nothing to do with temperature. How different it was in this candlelit chamber far beneath the city—a place where she should've been cold, and where, instead, she felt only a deep, abiding warmth.
"We welcome a child," Father was saying, "with love, that he may be able to love."
There was no shortage of that here. The chamber fairly glowed with it, and Diana wondered what it would be like to live in a world where such love was as commonplace as the air.
"We welcome a child with gifts, that he may learn generosity."
At this, the group of children on the floor whispered excitedly among themselves, several of them pointing at the loaded table, but a stern glance from Father silenced them instantly.
"And finally," he said, peace restored, "we welcome a child with a name."
Vincent and Catherine exchanged a glance. His raised eyebrows asked a silent question, her nod answered it, and Vincent lifted his head to meet Father's gaze.
"We've named our son Jacob."
Diana understood little of the relationships and politics of the unusual community, but she shared the ripple of approval that ran through the group. The old man, patriarch of this astonishing society, seemed eminently worthy of the honor Vincent and Catherine had just bestowed.
There was a bright sheen in Father's eyes as he addressed the gathering once more, and a smile lurked at the corners of his mouth. "In honor of young Jacob, William has prepared a king's feast in the Great Hall."
The dark-haired girl Diana had noticed earlier was on her feet in an instant. "But what about the presents?"
Jacob smiled. "Ah, yes, Samantha. We mustn't forget the presents."
Diana felt a light touch at her elbow and turned to meet Julia's cheerful grin. "They'll be forever opening that lot," she said with a tilt of her head toward the overloaded table. "Wouldn't you rather come and see the Great Hall? It's truly a marvel."
Diana glanced around, uncertain of the etiquette of the situation. "What's everybody else doing?"
"The little ones will stay, of course. They'll want to help open the gifts. But most of the adults will go on ahead."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
A passing teenager gave a very unladylike snort. "There's always work to do around here."
"Jamie," Julia said, a faint note of reproof in her voice. "Is that any way to speak to our new friend?"
Jamie shrugged unrepentantly. "It's true."
"Then," Diana interrupted, unwilling to be the center of an argument, "I'd like to help."
Julia nodded, approval in her warm gaze. "This way, then. I'm sure the others will join us shortly."
The last thing Diana saw as Julia led her from the chamber was Vincent. He was showing Samantha how to hold the baby.
Diana stayed close to the rough stone wall. She'd never been afraid of heights, but there was no railing, and beyond the edges of the rough-hewn steps, the ground fell away into what looked like a bottomless chasm. The stairs seemed to go on forever, dropping deeper and deeper into a blackness only dimly relieved by the half-dozen torches that flickered wildly in the howling wind.
The adults hurried down the stairs, apparently oblivious to the danger, while the few children who'd accompanied them capered about like so many mountain goats. Occasionally, one of the adults admonished a youngster who ventured too close to the edge, but Diana saw that the warnings were unnecessary. The children were at home here, as comfortable and easy as she was in her own living room.
She'd long since given up counting the stairs—a habit she'd acquired during a childhood spent in four-story walk-ups—when they finally came to a stop before a pair of massive doors. It took two men to lift aside the wooden beam that barred the doors, and when they pushed them open, the darkness inside seemed to absorb all light, swallowing it deep within its monstrous maw. Even the flames of the torches strained toward the emptiness, and Diana stayed close to one of the torch-bearers, unnerved by the gaping darkness. She knew her fears were unfounded, that these people wouldn't be so cheerful and unconcerned if there was any danger, and yet she couldn't deny her racing heart and clammy palms.
When everybody was inside, the men closed and barred the doors, cutting off the roar of the wind. Then there was a brief flurry of activity as those with torches hurried around the room lighting candles and lifting huge chandeliers into place against the high ceiling. In moments, golden light pushed the shadows back, and though it was still chilly, braziers were already starting to warm the air. Diana's uneasiness disappeared, swept aside with the darkness, and she looked around, her eyes skimming across heavy wooden tables, high-backed chairs, and a series of intricate, woven tapestries that adorned the walls.
She finally spotted Julia on the other side of the room. She was talking to a big man who wore a white apron and brandished a wooden spoon at a youngster whose fingers had ventured too close to a chocolate cake. Diana headed in their direction, determined not to stand around like an awkward rookie fresh from the academy.
The next half hour passed in a blur of activity. Diana helped set out food, arrange the tables, and clear a space for dancing. She was folding napkins when a sudden hush fell over the room, and she looked up to see Vincent and Catherine standing at the top of the steps. For an instant, she forgot to breathe. Vincent looked almost regal. He held his head high, his hair falling in a great golden mass across the shoulders of his cloak. And at his side, Catherine held Jacob once again. She was smiling up at him, her eyes sparkling with laughter.
It took a moment for them to realize they'd become the center of attention, and then Catherine blushed and Vincent bent to whisper something in her ear that only served to darken the pink tinge on her cheeks. Vincent touched his forehead to the top of Catherine's head for the briefest of moments, and then turned to address the gathered crowd.
"Thank you for joining us in this very special celebration. Please, help yourselves to the food. And I believe—" he nodded toward the far corner of the chamber where a string quartet was poised and ready to play, "we will soon be treated to some wonderful music."
There was a scattering of applause and a general move in the direction of the food-laden tables, but Diana stayed where she was, watching Vincent and Catherine come down the steps. How had they entered the chamber without anybody noticing? If the main doors had been opened, surely the wind would've blown out all the candles. It was almost as if they'd appeared there by magic, transported through space and time to grace the gathering with their presence. Diana almost laughed aloud at the absurdity of that thought. Where had her pragmatism gone? Where was the fatalistic cynicism with which she usually viewed the world?
"I'm sorry I wasn't able to greet you when you first arrived," Father said, his unexpected appearance at her side distracting her from the mystery. "I want to thank you for what you did for Vincent and Catherine. What you did for all of us."
"I was just doing my job." It was her standard response to such comments, and yet it seemed out of place and insubstantial in this fairy-tale world.
"No." His vehemence took her by surprise. "Without you, we would have lost them both. And they are everything to us."
They watched together as Vincent and Catherine made their way through the crowd of well-wishers to join them.
"Father," Vincent said, amused, "are you monopolizing our guest?"
"Not at all, I was just thanking her for her help."
"And embarrassing her." Catherine smiled warmly. "But he's right, Diana. We owe you everything."
Diana changed the subject, desperate to steer the conversation away from herself. "I never would have guessed so many people could live down here. How do you all manage?"
"We help each other," Father said, "and we have friends in the world Above who do what they can."
"Yes, but where do you get food? Clothes? Medical care?"
Vincent tilted his head, humor lurking in his eyes. "So many questions."
Diana let her eyes skip away to the loaded tables. "Occupational hazard, I guess."
"Are you hungry?" Catherine asked. "There's plenty of food."
"Good food!" piped up a new voice, startling Diana. Did everybody move so stealthily down here? "Brought cake!"
Mouse, she remembered. Some day she'd love to learn his story. He seemed such an unusual boy. Diana accepted the cake even though she wasn't really hungry. He was so friendly and eager to please. She didn't have the heart to disappoint him.
Mouse's answer was a wide grin and a quick, shy nod before he turned to Vincent and Catherine. "Naming today," he said brightly, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. "Wedding tomorrow?"
Diana blinked, stunned by the bluntness of the question. And yet, she couldn't deny a keen interest in the response. Luckily, Vincent and Catherine seemed amused rather than annoyed. Vincent put his arm around Catherine's waist before answering.
"We thought," he said, with a quick glance at Father, "perhaps next week?"
Mouse stared, wide-eyed, and Diana was certain he hadn't expected Vincent to take him seriously. Then he broke into a brilliant smile.
"Okay good! Okay fine!" An instant later he'd scurried away from them to climb up on one of the heavy chairs. "Everybody! Look!"
Silence fell and the clatter of forks and knives stuttered to a stop as heads turned in Mouse's direction. Catherine leaned against Vincent, a soft smile lighting her eyes when Vincent brushed a kiss against the top of her head.
"Vincent and Catherine are getting married!"
There was an instant of stunned surprise, and then everybody started talking at once. In moments, Vincent and Catherine were surrounded by well-wishers, and Diana allowed herself to be pushed back, separate from these people whose lives were so intricately intertwined.
She wandered over to one of the long wooden tables and sat down to eat her cake, but before she could put the first bite in her mouth, somebody sat down beside her.
"Hi, I'm Pascal. We met a little while ago. At the naming ceremony?"
"I remember. Hi." She put down her fork and smiled at him.
He shifted restlessly and shot a glance toward the doors. "I, um, can't stay for long, but I wanted to thank you."
More gratitude. She might drown in it before the day was over. Still, it was nice to be appreciated. "It was nothing. Really."
"I've embarrassed you." Pascal dropped his eyes and fiddled with an abandoned napkin. "I'm sorry. I just . . . I wanted you to know how much Vincent means to us. How much they both mean to us."
Diana looked toward Vincent and Catherine. She could just make out the top of Vincent's head as he bent to speak with somebody. "I can see that."
Pascal followed the direction of her gaze. "He's an amazing man."
"Yes. He is."
"If there's ever anything you need, anything we can do to help . . . just ask."
"Thank you. I appreciate that." She hardly expected to take advantage of the offer. She was moving to Portland, for God's sake. Still, it was a generous offer.
"Look." Pascal gestured with his chin, and Diana looked up to see Catherine and Vincent moving across the room. Catherine handed baby Jacob to one of the women, and then Vincent took her hand in his as he led her onto the makeshift dance floor. An instant later, the sweet, high tones of a lone violin filled the air.
Vincent stopped and turned, and Diana experienced an instant of breathless anticipation before he took Catherine in his arms and eased her into a slow waltz. The sight of the two of them, their bodies moving across the dance floor in perfect synchrony, was breathtaking, and Diana swallowed past a sudden lump in her throat. Whatever else Vincent may have been or done in his life, his presence here was right and true, and she didn't believe him capable of cold-blooded murder any more than she believed that frogs could fly.
She'd done the right thing here, and her spirits soared with the knowledge that for once, one of her cases had come with a happy ending.
Vincent and Catherine guided her back to the tunnel entrance sometime after midnight. At the stone portal, Diana stopped and turned to face them.
"I want to thank you," she said, "for making me feel welcome."
"You felt welcome because you are welcome," Vincent said. "If ever you need a home, or a place to rest, these tunnels and chambers will be kept warm for you by friends."
They were so generous, these people who lived, mole-like, far beneath the hustle and bustle of city life. But it was a tenuous existence at best. How long could they survive here, undiscovered? How long before the cruelties of her world invaded the peaceful tranquility of this one? She didn't know the answer, but she would do everything in her power to protect their secret.
"I have a confession to make," she said, turning to Catherine. "I took your rose bush."
"The little one on my balcony?"
Diana nodded. "I was afraid it would die if I left it there."
"I'm surprised it's still alive."
"I wasn't sure it was when I took it home. But I pruned it back and watered it, and a few days ago it bloomed."
"Both colors?" Pleased surprise brightened Catherine's eyes and brought a smile to her lips.
"Yes. It's gorgeous. You should see it."
"I have seen it," Catherine said, with a quick glance up at Vincent, "and it is beautiful." She stepped close and touched Diana's arm. "I'm glad you took it. It's right that it should find a new life with you."
Vincent pressed the hidden lever, and with a low rumble, the stone panel rolled aside, revealing the shadowed entrance to the world Above.
Diana smiled a little sadly. She hadn't known them for long, and yet they seemed like very dear friends. She would miss them. "Goodbye, Vincent. Goodbye, Catherine."
Their voices mingled and danced in the shadows, the words, "Be well," echoing in Diana's ears long after the portal closed behind her. She stood still while the magic drifted away like wisps of candle-smoke on the gentle spring breeze.
Then she tugged at her jacket, lifted her shoulders, and with her back straight and her head held high, returned to her own world.
Vincent stood quietly, his heartbeat slow and heavy in his chest, his eyes fixed on the stone steps. Each one bore a pair of tall candleholders, and each candleholder held a single white candle, the effect that of a golden pathway of dancing light. Behind him, dozens of well-wishers waited in expectant silence beyond the double row of candelabras that continued the pathway from where he stood to the makeshift altar at the other end of the Great Hall. The community's anticipation was almost palpable—a breathless suspense that filled the chamber with excitement—so that the air itself seemed almost to shimmer with it.
But Vincent might as well have been alone, so intent was he on Catherine and on the joy that flowed to him through their bond. She hadn't yet arrived, though he knew she was close. The wind howled outside the heavy double doors, but it could not enter here, and Vincent knew that Catherine, too, walked in peace, descending to him by candlelight through a narrow, little used passage-way that bypassed the Chamber of the Winds. In a moment, she would step through the hidden entrance at the top of the steps, delivered safely into his keeping by the same tunnels that had been his refuge all his life.
Somewhere behind him, a pair of violins eased into the first sweet notes of Vivaldi's "Spring"—one of his favorite pieces, and one that seemed eminently appropriate. For the tunnel community, a long hard winter had come to an end, a winter of the soul—brutal with pain and loss. Spring had finally arrived, bringing with it a sense of hope and of new beginnings, and Vincent felt as if he and Catherine stood together on a precipice. A new life was opening up before them, a life filled with priceless gifts.
A sound, the faintest brush of silken slipper against cold stone, drew his attention upward, and suddenly she was there. His breath caught in his throat as he recognized her dress. It was the same one she'd worn on their first anniversary; the night he'd given her the crystal that glowed with rainbow fire against her breast; the night she'd given him the ivory rose that rested against his own heart. He remembered how amazed he'd been that she'd chosen to honor the occasion of their first meeting, a time of pain and fear, with dancing light. And he remembered how she'd looked at him, her gaze filled with love and trust. That night, for the first time, he'd allowed himself to dream.
A sensation of having come full-circle washed over him as she started down the steps. That night seemed so long ago, its tender promise little more than a distant memory. They were different people now, each altered by all that had happened since and by the mysterious bond that joined them together. How strange, that one person could affect another so deeply—and how wondrous.
Her eyes found his, held, and she glided toward him as though drawn forward by the air itself. She was his everything—his past, his present, his future—his world. She was stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful, and the idea that he, of all people, should be blessed with her love was a source of unending amazement. He wanted to sprint up the steps, swing her into his arms, and carry her off someplace where he could have that beauty all to himself—his own private treasure.
He shook off the selfish thought, but it was only with the greatest effort of will that he kept his place, holding her gaze, his hand outstretched toward hers. And when, a moment later, she slipped her fingers into his, it was as though heaven itself had taken up residence against his palm. For an instant, all breath, all thought . . . left him, and he floundered, uncertain. Then she smiled, her eyes catching the flickering candlelight, and he knew that his entire life had been but a prelude to this moment.
She stepped close, the heat of her body radiating gentle warmth. The bond glowed with her happiness, and Vincent could almost imagine it lighting the air around her, enveloping them both in its brilliant, golden aura.
"Ready?" Her voice seemed to shimmer and dance, as delicate as butterfly wings.
"Yes." The single syllable couldn't possibly convey the wealth of emotion that swelled in his chest, and yet it was all he could manage. In a matter of minutes, Father would perform the simple ceremony that would bind them forever as husband and wife. It was a prospect both daunting and miraculous.
With tender care, he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, folding his fingers over hers.
Then, together, they turned to face their destiny.
A final note from the author: I'd like to thank you for reading this story and for taking the time to let me know your thoughts along the way. It's been a long road to get here, and frankly, reaching the end is a little bittersweet. If you would like a personal copy of this work for your files, please visit my website at wordslesstraveled dot com (a direct link is available through my profile) where you will find the story available for download in a variety of formats. And again, thank you for joining me on this rather epic journey. Be well. Ayiana