The children stared out from the opening of the tunnel in trepidation. “This … this weren’t like this last time.”
“When was last time?” I asked.
“Been a full turn and a piece since we comed this way because of the collapse.”
Assuming by a full turn and a piece he meant it had been a little more than a year I made sure to clarify, “The collapse that isn’t there any longer.”
Ropsy nodded. “Yes Lady, the one that fell into the abyss. This … this weren’t like this last time. It … it be like the tunnel now opens up on a new place. Perhaps the Light moved it like It moved the collapse.” There was a collective shudder amongst the children and I knew I needed to put a stop to the ridiculous superstitious reaction immediately.
I shook my head feeling much more confident than I had since I’d first been kidnapped. “Nonsense. Tunnel openings do not simply move of their own accord. And while I agree that the Light could do such a thing I’m sure that a better reason than scaring us would need to be apparently. Are you able to tell me where we should be by your reckoning?”
Ropsy continued to stare out on the landscape in stupefaction. “Huh? Oh … oh wellll …”
It was Hela that recovered first and told me, “I tried to tell him that the signs and markers had all changed between the river and the Borderlands. He didn’t believe me. The river man that had me said it was because the river had split in two during the drought and when the rains came back the river didn’t heal but split into two separate rivers that travelled on either side of a long island that raised up between them. It now looks like a snake that has split in half. It still runs out into the big water in the Southerlands but it comes out in two different places from where it used to.”
“Yes, so I had heard as well,” I told her. “It was a drought and a minor earthquake combined. And honestly Rulie uncross your eyes before they get stuck like that. You act like you’ve never seen trees before. I admit it is likely a startling event but there is no need to come all undone over it. These trees are called willows and since they are a type of tree that enjoys what my father called wet feet – meaning their roots are drawn to the dampest of soils – I would say we must be very near to a source of water. Whether it is something that can be made potable is another matter. I’ve heard that some of the river is now brackish from running through the heavily mineralized soil in its new pathway.”
The children looked at me and I sighed. “Am I talking too much again?”
Ropsy shook his head. “No Lady, just nothing you’re saying makes much sense.”
“Oh. Well, the land that the river now runs across had salts in it. When the water ran across the soil, it became mud and released the salts it held. The water now contains the salts and because it is both salty and fresh it is called brackish. As for this forest of trees that seemed to appear from nowhere, I would say it is that the river water has saturated the ground for a long ways and brought willow seeds with it. Willows grow quite quickly, sometimes more than ten measures in a year. Is that explanation better?”
Ropsy shrugged and said, “Some.”
But rather than completely reassure them the children continued to hover inside the tunnel entrance. I squared my shoulders and said, “Well now it is my turn. You took care of me and now I’m going to help take care of you.”
“We are in need of sustenance. I know forests as well as you know the Borderlands … even if this is just a willow forest. You wait here and I’ll see what I can do about bagging some local game. It might just be squirrels or a few crows but we should be able to piece it out and make it something acceptable. I see both lamb’s quarter and some edible mushrooms just beyond that bolder over there. You gather those and I’ll bring us back some meat and we’ll string some kabobs and have a salad to go with it.”
They didn’t want to let me go and I made them promise not to leave unless great danger presented itself, but finally we agreed to a compromise; I was to take Rulie with me. Damsie was not pleased but I told her that it would likely be her turn next time since apparently I needed a watcher to be allowed out of sight since I was too big for a harness.
Ropsy said, “Aw Lady, it is just we promised your old watcher we’d keep you safe and get you back where you belonged.”
Sighing I responded, “A good trick that when not even I know where I belong these days. Be that as it may I thank you for your concern. I will return as soon as possible.” Turning to Rulie I said, “You prank me and I’ll pinch you such that you will build a story about it to keep your children and children’s children in line. We need food and I’ve no desire to go hunting you up if you should wish to hide.”
His eyes got real wide, “No Lady. Never. ‘Sides Hela would have my skin for new boots should I do such a thing. And by the look on Damsie’s face she’d likely fight Hela to see who got to wear ‘em first.”
I looked and sure enough they were staring daggers at the young boy which gave me to understand that if the situation had been a different one he could be quite … er … lively.
“Good. Now come along and stay quiet.”
It was an hour later and I’d almost given up on meat when suddenly we were be pelted with things from the trees. Ooooo, how I hate monkeys. I did manage to spear three young males of their species before having to retreat. Rulie seemed quite shaken by the encounter at first but by the time we neared the tunnel entrance his bravado had returned and he was prepared to tell a colorful tale.
We were about to step onto the rocky path when I wrenched Rulie back. There near the entrance Ropsy wrestled upon the ground with a young man. There was no time to waste. I dumped the game and my pack, pulled my fang and rushed forward. I was about to plunge the fang into the back of the attacker when Hela and a young woman grabbed me.
“Stop! What are you doing?! I must …”
Hela cried, “It be Torm Lady … it be Torm!”