As promised: first peek at first chapter

Chapter 1: Castellina

No chance!

Absolutely no chance.

Alicia did the maths – the unknown darkness ahead, plus a scrawny physique that was more computer games than Olympic Games, equalled no way she could move fast enough. Absolutely no way.

After all, out-running a galloping horse is generally considered to be impossible. Unless the distance is short and you are a world-class athlete. Or you are astride a faster horse. Or you are a liar, happily embellishing the tale after the event. Alicia Bertoli was none of these things.

She peered into the blackness of the tunnel and listened. The noise was wild and unmistakeable: hooves ripping through the air and hitting stone with a rhythmic rapid repeat of four hammer strikes – four following four, following four, again and again and again. Coming closer. Growling louder.

A wave of hot wind, rushing ahead of the noise, crashed over her and smacked dust into her face.  Behind it, a swirling black cloud had started to fill the tunnel, gushing like oil flooding a pipe. If it reached her, she would drown. She flinched. She could feel the noise in her chest now. The dust in her mouth was bitter. It stung her eyes.

She had to escape. Panic tightened the muscles in her throat. Where was her Dad? Where was her brother? Why was she suddenly alone? “Dad!” she screamed. She span round. Should she run or seek shelter? Dad would know what to do. But she couldn’t see him.

Maybe she should run. Or hide. But she knew she couldn’t run fast enough. And there was nowhere to hide. Feeling trapped, she stepped backwards and pressed her shoulders into the cold stone wall of the tunnel. Her hand groped behind her and fell into the shallow recess of a door. She pushed. It didn’t move. She turned and grasped the door’s handle.

Screaming, she rattled it, “Please! Please open!” But the door didn’t budge. Its handle crumbled; splinters pricking her fingers. The door’s hinges were rusted and near its top left corner there was a jagged, broken gap in the grey decaying wood, just big enough for a hand. Fleetingly, Alicia felt the spirit of someone else trapped here, long ago: she shuddered as a ghostly vision, clawing desperately at the door, flashed into her head.

She slipped her hand into the rough hole, ignoring the tangling mesh of cobwebs at her finger tips and pulled herself in close, moulding her body to the wood. She held her breath and froze, barely moving even when a cockroach plunged into a crack above her left eye.

She waited.

“Please pass. Please pass. Please pass!”

Hooves pounded – metal-on-stone, metal-on-stone, metal-on-stone – the noise billowing in her ears and exploding against the tunnel’s unyielding walls. Her heart, leaping in her chest, banged on the old wooden door. But she could hear nothing other than the galloping horse. The black oily cloud engulfed her, wrapping choking fingers round her neck. She couldn’t breathe. This was impossible. It couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t!

Alicia was tired. It had been a long, languid and stiflingly hot summer day, followed by an excruciatingly slow evening. Her stomach was full of good Italian food. And she had always suffered from an overly vivid imagination.

“Look out for the ghost,” her uncle had joked. Was this vision a ghost? It seemed too real for that. She started to shiver uncontrollably, as every nerve in her body screamed that, ghost or not, she was trapped in a tunnel, with a knight on horseback charging straight at her. Only an hour ago, she had been at the restaurant. Her mind clutched at the reassuring memory of something normal. How had an ordinary evening led to this?

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