Damsie was quite happy for me to carry her again once our rest period was at an end. My eyes never adjusted to the lack of light and while I was led forward by my guide I thought about some of the things that Rulie had told me the night … day? … before.
My fear that we were being followed wasn’t necessarily unfounded but whoever was following us, even if they knew we took the tunnels would have a near impossible task of catching up. First was the issue of the tunnel itself. The ceilings were low and lighting was nonexistent. There were also lots of stories about the tunnels in the area … and they never seemed to end well for the adults involved. Even had I believed that the tunnel itself was an insurmountable obstacle for the “olders” I would have thought that it would have been easy to follow above ground and wait at the opening for us to come out.
Rulie snickered, “No Lady. The land above us isn’t something you can travel on.”
“So it IS a hot zone.”
“No Lady. Was once but not the kind you be thinking.”
“But Hela said …”
“Hela hasn’t decided she trusts you so she let you be afeared.”
There was a snort from the far side of the cave and I knew it to be true. Rather than be irritated by it I wondered if our stations in life had not been so different if she and I would have been friends. I could have used a friend like her that kept my ego in check and I was now mature enough to admit it.
“Very well … so status or no status I’ve been pranked. So be it. A lesson well learned not to let my imagination run away with me. I do it so rarely that it crept up on me this time. I’ll be more wary in the furture. So, if it is not a Hot Zone as I thought what is it?”
“The same kind that made this tunnel.”
“The same kind … you mean volcanoes?” I asked with scientific curiosity.
In a sing song voice that should have warned me Rulie began his explanation. “More like a sea of ‘em so the stories say. Back during the days of the ancients there were a city above that stretched further than the eye could see. Not even the flying bone pickers could see from one end to the other in a glance and they sees most everything. During the Destruction little fires fell from the sky. But what started as little fires didn’t stay that way. They met up and bred just like the deatheaters do and soon had eaten the whole city and everyone in it; but, even with all the things above consumed the firestorm continued for earthshakers that fell in another part of the land had started the Chaos. The tortured land squeezed lava so that it flowed below the burning land. Himself down below was pleased with the Chaos and added his own fire to the mix. The land that was caught betwixt and between the three great heats stood no chance and it melted and a great molten sea was birthed for the Light to see and be shamed by. Some say – though they be careful who should hear it – that the Light was not shamed but had compassion for the land and took pity on it. The Light then moved the Great River for a time to put out the fire that stretched even further than the city had once stretched. But, if you listen to the Priests they say that though the Light sent the river it could not completely take the land away from Himself and that it has forever remained twisted and tortured with Blessings and will forever more remain that way as it is so broken there is no healing it. And any who walk it become likewise tortured and blessed and a part of Himself’s army of the dead.”
Having been tormented upon many occasions by my brothers with campfire tales I clapped and told Rulie, “Very good. I’m sure that is one of the tales that have lead many to have the … er … trotting ‘mares that Hela warned you off giving to Damsie. You are a very good story teller. I must say it compares quite favorably with my brothers’ tales of rabid forest cats and noisome ghouls that tend to crop up in places that someone was warned off trodding.”
“Aw Lady … weren’t you scared even a bit?”
I heard a couple of quickly covered up snickers from the general vicinity of Ropsy and Hela. “Actually it does give one a delicious shiver but the reality is that even if such things happened, they happened well in the past. My concern is for today and why would such a tortured land suddenly be a boon to us.”
“Wellll … if you want to be true-ful about it and take all the fun out …”
Hela appeared out of the dark and gave Rulie a good sized start which caused me to have to bite the inside of my check to keep from laughing. Hela, for all her heartache and seriousness, still had room for a little fun of her own. She gave Rulie a smirk and took over the narrative. “It’s the land. The bit of badland we crossed earlier be like the Land of the Light compared to what’s above us. It ain’t but black glass that with every step becomes shards so sharp that it cuts through even the best leather and wood. Used to be traders would go through with metal or wooden shoes to get shards to bring back for the nappers but no more as everyone has forgotten how to make sech protective things. Easier now to trade for blades and bits from the river men who get it from other people. Before he became a Chosen my da had a knife that belonged to some great da or other made from that black glass. Wasn’t much that knife couldn’t cut but it was especially good at cutting flesh. They used it on him when it was time and one of the priests liked it so well he took it with him rather than turn it over to the Mayor as such things were done before.”
Trying to be understanding without sticking my foot in an uncomfortable orifice once again I told her, “I have a fang my father made my mother when they were first married. I still carry it. As much for its sharpness as for its memories.”
Hela nodded. “You have it close?”
Hela nodded again, this time with approval. “Then keep it close Lady. We may have need of it before this journey is over. I went a ways ahead and I can hear wind where there has been none in all the times before. Could mean a collapse of one of the minor tunnels that branch off.”
“Is the land above us truly so … so …”
“It be a dead land Lady. There’s no animal that can trod it without bleeding out. Because of this not even the carrion eaters bother flying over it. Not a plant can take root because no sooner does a root grow than it is cut from the seed. The worst though is there is no water. However the melted land was cooled, it used up every drop around and is so dry that it even sucks the water away from the lesser lands around it. So, it isn’t beasties we need to worry for but the ever-loving, water-sucking wind. If it weren’t so late and the need for sure feet so great for the rest of the path I’d say we keep on right now rather than risk losing any more moisture.”
Rulie asked worriedly, “Are the water skins empty?”
“No, but it may be we thirst badly before we come to the other end. So do the best you can and make sure the Lady does as well.”
Worries behind us, before us, and walking with us. I’ve tripped so many times that Ropsy had to take Damsie and carry her while Hela took point. And yes, the water skins are now well passed empty.
From parched lips I said, “My apologies. I’m not normally so clumsy. If I could just see where to put my blasted feet.”
“No apologies Lady. You are who you are and we are who we are. You’ve done way better than we thought you would. We considered whether we’d need to put you on a litter and carry you through like we sometimes had to do when we had more youngers with us.”
Lovely I thought to myself. At least I didn’t have to get carried like Damsie. But I will be pleased to leave this trail of pitch blackness. And … by all the Saints and Martyrs … is that a light ahead?