THE FLIGHT INTO THE CAVERNS
The little voice inside Ktan’s head was telling him they had to get out of there as quickly as possible, that he should run as fast as he could back to the furnace, back to the way out of here, but his legs didn’t seem to want to listen. He was running yes, but it was only a halfhearted sort of run, not nearly as fast as he could go if he wanted to.
The hallway was clear before him, at the moment. The two he had chased off were no where to be seen, nor had reinforcements arrived. He glanced back. Saramis was right behind him. Jenya had stopped at the last intersection. He could see her now, hesitating, looking back the way they had come.
He knew the reason they were moving so slowly. None of them wanted to leave the others behind. Had he miscalculated? Did they still have time? The question gnawed at him. It wasn’t like him to second-guess himself. He knew that part of being a leader was the ability to make difficult decisions like this with little hesitation. He had found from experience that even the wrong decision was often better than making no decision at all.
“They’re coming!” he heard Jenya call. He knew instantly she was talking about Allios and the others and not the enemy. He felt a great sense of relief at that. In spite of his willingness to leave the others behind it wasn’t what he wanted. Now at least some of them would escape. At least the attempt would not be in vain.
The steps they had come up loomed in front of him. He turned the corner, starting down but then stopped as he saw a group of guards appear at the bottom. One of the men in front lifted up a crossbow and leveled it at him.
He sprang back, lunging around the turn as the bolt flew by behind him. He stood there for a moment, his back against the wall. He wasn’t sure how many had been down there but the staircase was long and of course there was no place to hide on it. If the guards held the steps against them it would be nearly impossible to get down there without being impaled by a bolt. What they really needed right now was a shield but the storeroom they had gotten their clothes from had held none.
Perhaps it was too late after all…
Saramis was right beside him. Now Jenya joined them, followed closely by a large group of the former prisoners. He could not see Allios or Arlen among them. The bowmen would certainly come in handy right about now.
However, he wasn’t the only option they had.
He looked at Saramis.
“A bowman holds the stairs against us,” he said.
Saramis nodded. He rooted through his bag for a moment, pulling out a small round object.
“Stand back,” he said.
Ktan took a step to the side to let Saramis pass. As he did so something sparked in the magician’s hand. There was a sputtering fizzing sound and Saramis tossed the black object into the stairwell. They stood there waiting, listening to it bounce down the steps. A moment later there was a loud retort that echoed through the hallway. Instantly Ktan sprang forward, leaping down the steps almost without touching them. Ktan had seen Saramis use his little toys often enough to know what to expect. He had seen people hurt by the blast, but unless it landed right on top of someone it rarely did any real damage except to one’s ears. No, the most useful purpose it served was to stun and surprise those who were not expecting it. Ktan knew, however, that the surprise would only last for a few seconds.
He could see no one now at the bottom of the stairs. The unexpected blast had almost certainly made them retreat, but he could see shadows cast by the flickering torches that lined the hallways.
He reached the bottom, just as the bowman appeared around the corner again. The man raised his crossbow but Ktan was too close. His sword slashed down on the top of the crossbow, and it fell from the man’s hands. A second slash made the man fall as well.
Ktan wasn’t sure how many there were. In fact there were more than a dozen well armed guards gathered here, more than enough to make the fight a difficult one and perhaps fatally delay the escapee’s departure. However, the guards had expected to run into a disorganized group of mostly unarmed rabble that would be easily subdued. And it was true, most of the prisoners did indeed have no weapons, but the ones in front did, and there was no way for the guards to tell that those behind were unarmed. No, what the guards saw before them now was a horde of well armed men fighting with the ferocity of tigers, backed up by someone wielding some kind of dreadful sorcery. It was all too much for them, and most of them broke and fled for their lives. The few that remained were soon cut down. Once again the way was clear.
“Jennya, lead the way,” Ktan said. He had led them this far but Jennya’s path here had been confusing. He didn’t know whether he could follow it back. She knew this place better than any of them. He was certain if there was a way to get back to the caves safely, she would find it.
“This way,” Jenya said, and ran forward.
Ktan looked back as he tailed behind Jennya. The others followed, filling up the hallway behind him. He could not tell how many were there, or if Allios or his brother were among them. Had they stayed behind to try to free the others?
Jenya was racing down the hallway. He couldn’t blame her for that. They had already spent more time here than they should have. By all rights they should have already been trapped, been cornered by the guards, or at least, that’s what Ktan thought. He glanced back again. Saramis was right behind him, and there were others back there. Jenya was leading them at a fast pace. He couldn’t tell if they were all keeping up. The prisoners had all been mistreated; Ktan could tell that just by looking at them. They were probably weak from abuse and hunger. It was quite likely that at least some of them would not be able to keep up. If they fell behind, they were on their own, he thought grimly. Jenya had to lead them; she was only one who knew the way. And both he and Saramis would be needed up front if they ran into any more guards. He couldn’t afford to send anyone to the back to shepard the others along. He could only hope for their sake that Allios was back there somewhere doing just that.
Jenya led them through a series of twists and turns. At one point they went thumping down another stairway. Ktan knew they were now on the same level as the furnace and escape, though he would have had no idea which direction to go in without Jenya. He couldn’t remember the route they had taken to come here, but he was sure they were now following a different way back. This came as no real surprise to him. On the way they had been more concerned with stealth, now speed was of the utmost importance.
Often as they made their way through the corridors Ktan heard shouting or the pounding of feet. Jenya turned a number of times; leading them away from any noises they heard. Soon, however, it seemed as if the shouting was coming from all around them. A number of times they reached intersections only to see guards standing or running toward and sometimes away from them down one hallway or another. Sometimes Jenya just ran on, sometimes she turned away from them, sometimes, if there were few and the need to go in that direction was pressing, she charged right at them. None stood before them for very long, but they could hear shouts and cries of many voices behind them now. It was obvious the enemy was closing in.
They were not far from the furnace room now. Even so it was obvious to Jenya the pursuit was too close, was going to be a problem. Just like Ktan, she had not expected them to have so many prisoners to contend with. Thinking ahead she could see this was almost certainly going to cause trouble once they reached the furnace. They could only crawl up the chimney in single file, and would not be able to do that very quickly. They needed to open up some breathing room between themselves and their pursuers or they would never be able to get everyone out in time.
She lifted her head and looked around; trying to remember exactly what was in this area of the Pit. She had taken them in a round about route. They had not come this way. The cells that held the broken people that they had passed on the way here were far off to the left of them somewhere. If she remembered correctly this area was where some of the guards lived and they were now passing storerooms, dining hall and barracks where the men slept
She ran up to a door on the left and stopped, looking in. It was the sleeping quarters for some of the guards. Six double bunk beds filled most of the room. A chest stood at the foot of each bed holding the men’s personal belongings. The frames of the beds were simply made of unfinished wood. The mattresses were thin but she thought they would do.
She had an idea but they would have to hurry. She didn’t have a lot of time to explain things. They had to delay the enemy, but there was no point in their all waiting here. That, in fact, would be detrimental. The sooner they got these people to the furnace the sooner they could start getting them out. Someone had to lead them the rest of the way but she would need Saramis. And Allios…
She grabbed hold of Ktan’s arm.
“Ktan, I need you to lead them the rest of the way,” she said quickly. “We are almost to the furnace. Make the next right, then the second left. The door to the furnace room will be on the right. The second door I believe. Saramis, stay with me, we will delay them.”
She looked at Ktan, hoping he wouldn’t argue. She didn’t have time to explain and she wasn’t sure how he would feel about leaving his friends in danger while he went ahead. He was the leader; after all, if anyone should stay behind she was certain he would feel it should be him. She had never asked something like this before from him. Would he protest?
Ktan just looked at her for a moment. He frowned but then to her relief nodded. He wasn’t exactly sure what she had in mind but he trusted her enough not to argue even if, as she had suspected, leaving his friends in danger went against his nature.
“This way!” he called, then started down the hall again. Jenya turned to Saramis and pointed into the room whose entrance she stood at.
“Pull some of the mattresses out into the hallway,” she told him.
Saramis scrambled to obey, though he wasn’t quite sure what she had in mind. He doubted her plan was to build a barrier made of mattresses.
Jenya twisted her head from side to side, craning her neck to look down the corridor past the refuges that now ran by her. Finally she saw what she sought. At the very end of the line came Allios and Arlen, holding up a man between them with a black arrow protruding from his thigh.
“Allios, we are trying to delay the enemy,” she called out. “I need you to stand ready with you bow and let no enemies approach until we are done.”
Allios kept coming until he stood right next to Jenya before he stopped. A few of the other men, the last ones in line ahead of him had stopped as well, having heard the conversation. Allios looked at one of them now.
“Tolan, help my brother with Hammel.”
One of the men stepped forward and took hold of the wounded man. He looked at Arlen who was not moving, and instead was looking at his brother, obviously reluctant to leave without him. Allios gave him a glance.
Arlen nodded, then with the assistance of Tolan helped the wounded man as they followed the others.
Jenya did not wait to see this. As soon as she was sure Allios understood what she wanted of him she ran into the other room. Saramis had already managed to pull one mattress out into the hall. Quickly she grabbed another one. It was crudely made and had no real shape. It was not excessively heavy, but bulky and difficult to manage. Still with Saramis’ help there were soon four of the mattresses strewn on the floor in the hallway.
Jenya pulled out her sword, which she had sheathed in order to carry the mattresses, and slashed down at them. The weapon easily cut through the cloth, letting a greenish powderlike substance spill onto the floor beside them. Jenya knew that the powder was the crushed remains of a kind of moss that grew in abundance in all the forests of Mandaria and was used as filler for mattresses in many of the poorer areas where the softer downy duck feathers that were used in more expensive mattresses could not be obtained or afforded.
The softness of the moss, however, was of no interest to Jenya. Rather she was interested in another property it had. The moss was used in the beds of almost all the houses in the poorer districts of the kingdom, yet one had to be careful around them. The dried moss was soft and comfortable but also burned fast and furiously if set aflame. Indeed, many people filled their tinderboxes with it for just such a purpose. More than one house or even village had burned to the ground because a careless candle or lamp had fallen on the bed or somehow come into contact with the mattress.
Jenya pointed at the strewn mattress entrails that now lay on the floor in front of her and looked at Saramis.
“Light it,” she said.
Now, her plan apparent, Saramis bent down to do as she bid.
Allios stood ready just a few paces behind Saramis, looking down the hall for any sign of intruders. From the sounds of shouting that he heard echoing down the hallway he knew the enemy was close. In fact, at that very moment, even as he stood there waiting, three or four guards ran around the corner down at the end of the hall.
Instantly his bow sang, and the man in the front fell to the ground. The others stopped dead in their tracks, then scrambled to run back around the corner while Allios fitted another arrow to his bow. Allios wasn’t sure how many there were but from the sound of the voices he was hearing it sounded like many and he didn’t think his single arrow would slow them down for very long. He glanced back at his quiver to see it held but a single arrow. Two shots left then, before he was out. A fire flared up suddenly in front of him.
At almost the same time another guard appeared around the corner again. Or maybe it was the same one as before. Allios didn’t know nor care. What he cared about was that this man had a crossbow in his hands and was now leveling it at the bowman.
Allios fired. His arrow streaked through the air and the crossbowman gave a yell and fell back, though whether his arrow had hit its target Allios could not tell. At almost the same moment the dart from the crossbow came streaking through the air. Allios felt something strike his arm, but to his surprise he felt no pain.
He looked down and saw that his shirt had been ripped by the bolt, but his skin beneath was untouched.
He didn’t want it to get any closer than that.
“Shall we go now?” he hurriedly questioned.
“Just a moment,” Jenya replied. The fire had started yes but if the enemy was fast they could still jump over it or even stomp it out. They had to hold their pursuers off until that was no longer possible.
Fortunatly that didn’t take long. As Jenya had known, the moss from inside the mattresses took to flame like kindling. In seconds a roaring fire stood between them and the other end of the passage.
And it was a good thing this was so, for at that very moment a dozen men rushed around the corner towards them.
Allios loosed his last arrow, but at least one of the men had found a shield somewhere, and it thudded against that, causing the man to pause for but a moment. Allios did not stand there to see that result however. As soon as the arrow was loosed he turned and ran, following Jenya and Saramis as they fled down the corridor.
It didn’t take them long to reach the furnace room. As Jenya had noted, they had not been far from it. They found the grate to the furnace open. Ktan had not been idle. He was standing just inside, urging the perhaps dozen refugees who were still in the room up into the chimney. He turned to glance at Jenya when she entered, but if there was relief on his face to see her, she couldn’t see it.
“I sent Arlen ahead to lead the others,” Ktan told them. “There is only one way to go. He can hardly get lost.”
Jenya nodded in agreement, knowing that Ktan would have been loath enough to leave them behind to begin with, and that he would stay behind as much as possible to make sure his friends were all right.
She turned and stuck her head out of the room and looked around, but for once, there was no sign of pursuit. She knew that wouldn’t last long. She had no idea how effective her fire would be. There was plenty of water available, though she was certain it would take them some time to gather enough to put out her little conflagration. Even so there were other corridors, ways around her roadblock. She had given them some time yes, but not much.
Quickly she closed the door to the furnace room. No one had seen them come in here. Perhaps if they were lucky the pursuit would just pass this room by.
Still, that was not something they could depend on.
Jenya turned back and watched as the refugees climbed up into the chimney and out of sight. The procedure seemed agonizingly slow to her as she waited anxiously by the door. Once she heard shouts coming from outside. Her hand tightened on her sword but the shouts soon faded without the door in front of her opening. Finally a call from Ktan made her turn her head to see that the last of the ex-prisoners had disappeared into the stone chute and that it was finally time for them to go as well.
She ran over to them and they climbed up, following the others, Ktan last in line. He glanced back one last time just as he started up but all was quiet. For the moment it seemed that their escape had been successful.
Getting back to the cavern where the waterfall used to flow proved difficult. Ktan, Jenya, Saramis and Allios were, of course, the only one’s who had been through here before, and they were all at the back of the line. The tunnel was too narrow for them to pass anyone so Arlen had to lead them, even though he had no idea where he was going and soon found himself in pitch darkness after traveling but a short distance down the passage. With twenty or so people between them, it was difficult for Ktan and the others to communicate with him. Questions had to be passed from person to person up and down the line, for they were still too close to the furnace room to risk shouting. The wounded man proved especially difficult to move through the narrow tunnel, and also down the cliff face beyond. It seemed like it took them hours to finally reach the bottom, far longer than Ktan would have liked.
Finally reach it they did, however, returning once more to the pools and the greenish light that they had become so familiar with in the last few days. There they stopped, and some of the escapees dropped to the floor, already exhausted from the climb, though they had not gone very far. Not that Jenya could blame them. Though for the most part they had escaped before facing the grievous torture that Jenya knew first hand would have been their lot, and though most of them were struggling valiantly, that didn’t mean they hadn’t been mistreated. They had probably gotten almost no food and some of them had obviously already suffered beatings.
Ktan sat down, his back to the stone wall. He looked around at the group slowly while Jenya went to tend the wounded man. He counted quickly. Sixteen men and three women comprised the remaining ex-prisoners. It was more than he had thought. He wasn’t sure if they had lost any in their flight to the caverns. They all looked exhausted. One of the women was weeping. A man stood by her, trying to comfort her.
After a moment the man lifted his head and looked darkly at Ktan.
“How could you leave them behind like that?” he muttered.
Ktan did not reply, but his grey eyes pinned the man with a stony stare. For a moment the man turned away, cowed, but then he lifted his head again.
“It was an act of cowardice to abandon them!” he exclaimed
Still Ktan did not speak. He felt no urge whatsoever to explain himself to this man.
“Marcus,” Allios intervened but before he could say anymore Ktan spoke.
“Cowardice, or perhaps prudence. Who can say? I notice, however, that you are still with us.”
The man glared at Ktan.
“I couldn’t have fought them all by myself,” he shot back.
“Nor could we have stood against them all of us together, once they had gathered their strength,” Ktan responded.
“We still had time! We…”
“Marcus enough!” Allios commanded.
Marcus turned and stared at the bowman. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. With one more glance at Ktan he turned his attention again to the woman. He said nothing more.
Allios looked at Marcus, then at Ktan. It was unfair, of course. Ktan had done the best he could under the circumstances, had done all Allios had asked of him. Even though Ktan seemed unfazed by Marcus’ outburst he thought he should at least offer some words of comfort. But he looked at Ktan and made no move toward him. The woman who was weeping was Marcus’ wife, and one of the men left behind was her brother so he could forgive the man. And in spite of the logic of what Ktan had done Allios could not help but feel a bit sympathetic and perhaps even agreed with Marcus’ point of view to some extent. After all, he had opened one more door and freed some more prisoners after Ktan had left and had still escaped with his skin intact. Who was to say they could not have stayed longer?
Even so, even if deep down inside he felt the urge to blame Ktan he knew that wasn’t right. If it hadn’t been for him, none of them would have escaped.
Allios stayed where he was. It was Jenya who now walked over and sat down beside Ktan.
She remained there for some time before saying anything, just looking at his face while he gazed impassively at the others. Though Ktan seemed remote and almost uncaring at times she more than any of them knew just how far from the truth that really was. She knew how much it must have torn at him to leave those others behind.
“Don’t let it bother you,” she said softly so that only he could hear. “You saved nineteen souls from a horrible fate. You have noting to regret.”
He did not reply, just sat there looking at what seemed nothing in particular for some time.
“I haven’t saved anyone yet,” he finally replied.
This was true, she supposed. They still had to make their way through the caves. Still, they had escaped from the Pit, and though that might not put Ktan at ease, it certainly made her feel better.
“You think they will pursue us even here?’ she questioned.
He gave her a look at that.
“You really think they won’t?”
“They never came after me when I came in here the first time.”
“Ah but then you were but one person, and I take it you did not have half the guards in the Pit pursuing you at the time.”
She nodded for this in fact was true. Variman had given her a limited amount of freedom after a time; after being satisfied that she was sufficiently ‘cowed’. She had slipped away unnoticed. In fact, it had probably been hours before they had even realized she was gone.
“No they will not let us get away so easily,” Ktan continued. “Remember, this place it the apple of Variman’s eye, the prison no one has ever escaped from. You he might have overlooked. No one saw you escape. He could have said you died and who would question it? Nineteen people leading his men on a merry chase, that, I think, would be something he would not be able to cover up so easily. There will be hell to pay if Varimen finds we have escaped. I’m sure the guards back there are well aware of that. No, we will not really be safe until we are far away from here.”
Jenya nodded, seeing the truth in this. She had thought Marcus’ words had been the reason for Ktan’s grim face, or rather, grimmer than usual face, but perhaps that was not so, perhaps he was looking to the future, looking toward their prospects of leading all these people through the caverns to safety. Now that she thought about it, who was to say they would be safe even then, even after the caves were behind them. They had no reason to think Varimen would stop his pursuit just because the reached the surface. The land outside the caves was a desert, inhospitable, with few villages nearby. How difficult would it be for Variman to send men to watch those places? Coming here they had been but four people, leaving they were more than twenty and they needed food and rest. It might be almost a week for them to reach someplace they could consider safe, someplace beyond the reach of Variman’s eyes. They had no food but what the four of them had left in their packs and that would not feed this multitude for even a single day. Water down here in the caves was plentiful but it would be a different story when they reached the surface. She was beginning to realize now that escaping the Pit was just the beginning of their journey and that perhaps Ktan was right in saying he hadn’t saved anyone yet.
Still, she hoped at least that the worst part was behind them and she couldn’t help but feel much more optimistic about their chances. They were out of the Pit and they had the advantage now. Even if they found the way their pursuers had never been in these caves before. They had been through once and it seemed it would not be a difficult matter to hide from pursuit down here in this maze of tunnels. They had been running from Variman and the Queen and all their Imperial Knights for a very long time now and had gotten quite adept at it. She couldn’t help but think Ktan would lead them safely out of this trap as well.
He was right though, it would be a sore blow to Variman for them to escape. Some of the guards had seen them and escaped death she was certain, had seen the silver haired one eyed man and the female warrior. It wouldn’t be difficult for Variman to discern who had been behind this. It paid him back but little for what he had done to her when she had been here and the score was far from settled, but she had to admit to a certain satisfaction knowing what a hit it would be to his pride in his escape proof dungeon when word of this deed got out.
It was funny. All these years they had been hiding, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Yet now they had raided one of the King’s caravans and staged a daring rescue in Variman’s strongest prison. Seemed like a strange way to act for people who were being hunted by all the King’s men.
Thinking that it occurred to her that their deeds, if they ever got out, would draw the attention not only of Variman and the King but any that opposed them as well, and with that thought she remembered something else.
“Ktan,” she said. “I just remembered. When you were away up north searching for Willbrand and Merigan in Winsor Allios and I tried to find news of them ourselves.”
She could hardly believe she had forgotten to tell Ktan about this, but they had been in a hurry when he had returned to Donolan, and the events that had happened afterward with Allios and Norvell wood had driven it from her mind. Now she recounted all she had found out at the ball she and Allios had attended, and about Torrin Bernham, the man they had met there and his proposed alliance against the King.
When she had finished she looked at Ktan for any sign of what he was thinking but as usual his face gave away nothing.
“So, what do you think?” she finally asked.
“Hard to say anything without meeting the man myself,” he replied. “For all we know he could just be some crackpot with visions of grandeur.”
“He didn’t strike me as being that way,” she said slowly.
“Well perhaps, but as he said, it might still come to nothing and even if it does, it may be quite some time before we hear anything again. It’s not something I’m even going to worry about right now.”
Jenya lowered her eyes and looked down at the floor. He was right of course. They had other things to worry about at the moment. She had to admit though, to being just a little bit excited about the thought. Here all this time they had thought they were alone, just the few of them fighting against the King and all his armies. It had always seemed so hopeless. To think there might be others out there, not just simple farmers or peasants but people with real influence and power who might help them, she had to admit the thought of that gave her more hope than she had had in a long time.
Still, Ktan was right, it wasn’t something they needed to be concerned with right now and for all they knew it could very well come to nothing. It would be foolish to get her hopes up.
Ktan’s eyes turned toward the wounded man.
“How is he?” he questioned.
Jenya gave a little sigh of unhappiness.
“His wound is grievous,” she replied. “The arrow drove to the bone and he has lost a lot of blood. If he could rest in bed for a week and I had herbs to treat it with I would say he had a fair chance to survive. Now…”
“I don’t know if he will live through the journey,” she finished. “More than anything he needs the leg to remain immobile.”
She had covered the wound as best she could, trying to staunch the flow of blood. The man could hardly afford to lose any more, yet moving him was sure to keep the wound open.
“Well, immobility is the one thing we cannot afford at the moment,” Ktan said grimly and with that he pulled himself to his feet.
“We must get moving,” he announced. They were not far into the caverns. There were no turn offs between here and the furnace room. Once the enemy found their way of egress they could not help but come to this spot.
“Most are exhausted from the exertion of climbing in here,” Marcus spoke up again. “Can we not rest but a little longer?”
Ktan gave the man a stern glance.
“You can rest all you want,” he said, “once Variman’s men have come in here and recaptured you. I think, however, that the rest will hardly be to your liking.”
Marcus looked at him sourly but made no reply to this. Allios and Arlen looked at one another then stood up as well.
“Ktan is right,” Allios said. “The enemy is bound to come here. We must move on, in spite of our weariness.”
This got the others up and Jenya was soon leading them into the caverns. She, Ktan and Saramis were now once again in the lead. As they walked Jenya heard the magician talking softly as if to himself. She looked at him.
“Has D’annalye come back?” she questioned.
“She is here,” Saramis replied simply.
Jenya nodded and said no more about it. They would need the young girl to guide them back through the caves where Ugluk had made his lair. She didn’t think she could lead them through there herself. They had made turns seemingly at random and she had not thought to even try to keep track, and half the trip had been made in total darkness.
So they began the long march back to the surface. They walked that day for hours and hours, or so it seemed to all involved. Ktan and his companions had long ago lost all track of time. It seemed to them now that they had been down here forever and the tunnels would just go on and on and on. Long after they were all exhausted and could barely remain on their feet Ktan continued to urge them on. Eventually however the pleas from the refugees and in the end from Arlen and Allios finally convinced him they had had enough and he called a halt. He led them into a small side passage that ended in a hollowed out rounded area and bade them rest. A small pool of water stood at the back of the cavern. It gave off little light. The only way in or out of the room was the narrow passage through which they had entered. It was obvious to Jenya that Ktan had chosen this spot because it was out of the way and easily defended. They were far from the Pit now and had traveled a convoluted route that would be difficult to follow. They had so far not seen or heard any sign of pursuit and Jenya for one hoped that they had left the guards behind, that they no longer had to worry about pursuit. Still she understood the necessity for caution and noticed Ktan planted himself on the ground closer to the entrance and any danger that might come to them than anyone else.
The others cast themselves on the ground wherever they might, most of the clearly exhausted. Jenya could sympathize. She was tired herself, more tired than she had felt in a long time. Her bones ached from weariness. They had been on the go since before they entered the Pit and she had no idea how long ago that had been. Seemed like days to her now. She felt like she could sleep standing on her feet at this point.
If she was exhausted she could only imagine how the others felt.
Even so, she had things to do.
She walked over to the wounded man. Allios and Arlen had been carrying him, and now had laid him as gently as they could down on the ground beside the pool at the back of the chamber. They had no litter on which to bear him, and no materials to use to make one. The tunnels seemed to contain only rock and dirt and the omnipresent pools of water. She had not seen even as much as a mushroom or lichen clinging to the rocks. Yet she knew life existed here. There were the watchers and the froglike creature they had seen on their way here. They had to subsist on something.
But that was another problem. Right now she concerned herself with the man in front of her. It seemed plain even before she took a look at his wound that it had worsened. Earlier he had been in pain but alert, now he seemed barely conscious. Sweat beaded on his brow. The dressing she had placed on the wound was soaked in blood. It was obvious their carrying him all this way had not helped at all, of which she had been well aware.
“Saramis, can you start a fire?’ she asked as she rummaged through her pack for a fresh bandage.
They had little wood for such a task. Saramis ended up breaking some of the torches they had brought up into pieces and using them for the fire. Fortunately Jenya only needed it to heat some water so not much wood was needed.
While the water was heating Jenya took stock of what remained in her pack. There wasn’t much. Without horses they had been forced to travel light. She had few herbs with her, and what she did have were mostly used for easing pain.
Allios was standing right beside her, looking down at her as she worked.
“You have no healer among you?” she questioned without looking at him.
Allios shook his head though she could not see.
“No there is none among this group,” he said, realizing that.
She made no reply.
Saramis brought her the heated water and she treated the man’s wounds as best she could and applied a fresh bandage.
“Will he live?” Allios questioned when she was done.
Jenya looked at the man. His eyes were closed, but he was conscious. His reathing was ragged and he muttered something every once in a while. Although he showed no recognition of those around him that didn’t mean he couldn’t hear what they were saying. She was reluctant to speak her mind right there in front of him.
“That’s just what Ktan asked me earlier,” she replied in lue of an answer and at the same time nodded her head for Allios to follow her as she gathered her things and walked away from the man.
She walked over to where Ktan was sitting and plopped herself down on the ground beside him once again. Allios and Saramis followed.
“I will do what I can for him but I am not a healer,” she said when they were all as comfortably seated on the cold stone floor as they could be. “I fear this wound is beyond my skill.”
Allios said nothing to this but bowed his head, his face grim.
“More than anything he needs rest,” Jenya continued, now looking at Ktan.
She was not surprised at all that Ktan did not look all that pleased with that suggestion. But instead of nixing the idea immediately as she though he might he asked something else instead.
“How much rest?”
Jenya thought that over for a moment.
“As much as we can give him,’ she replied, knowing that answer would not be satisfactory. “Though two or three days would probably work wonders for him.”
“We can’t possibly wait here that long,” he replied.
“Why not?” Allios spoke up.
The others looked at him.
“There is no sign of pursuit,” Allios continued after a moment. “We don’t even know for sure if they followed us down here. Even if they did, we have followed a convoluted path. It would be difficult to find us now.”
“Difficult but not impossible,” Ktan replied. “Don’t underestimate our enemy. Variman will be wroth when he finds out how many have escaped from his prison. The guards know that and will do everything in their power to make sure we don’t get away. Variman has trackers just as you must have had in Norvell Wood. It wouldn’t take an expert to follow the trail of a group as large as this.”
“It would take them some time to begin an organized pursuit,” Allios countered. “They may have trackers yes, but would they have trackers here in a dungeon? It seems unlikely to me. Any trackers they have may have to be called in from afar. That could take days.”
“And do you really want to take that chance?” Ktan replied. “Do you really want to risk them catching us now, now that we have a real chance to get out of here?”
“We can’t just let him die!” Allios responded, his voice rising slightly.
“And I won’t risk all of us for one man!” Ktan snapped.
Jenya looked from Ktan to Allios and back. She did not like the way this conversation was going at all. She knew Ktan was not used to people questioning his authority or his decisions. She didn’t want the wounded man to die and she knew Ktan didn’t either, but she knew he considered it his job to look after all of them, not just a single person. He was doing what the thought was best for the group but it was sometimes hard to understand that. Allios was much closer to these people than Ktan was. They might not see it quite the same way as Ktan. They might look at what Ktan was doing and see his decisions not as an attempt to save as many as possible but instead as callous disregard for someone he did not know at all. She had to admit Ktan’s attitude toward anyone questioning his decisions did not help the situation, and the fact that he showed little outward sympathy in his actions or speech. At least making an attempt to be diplomatic about things might go a long way toward defusing the situation but she knew that was one thing Ktan was not very proficient at. He had never been shy of speaking his mind, whether it be good news or bad, and cared little what others thought of it.
These people had left dear friends behind. Fairly or not she knew some of them blamed Ktan for that. She didn’t think it would hurt for Ktan to throw them some kind of bone, come up with some kind of compromise that none might be pleased with but all could live with. But that wasn’t the way Ktan worked. He did what he thought was best and be damned what anyone else thought and she admired that about him but it wasn’t always the best way to work in all situations. They needed these people’s cooperation. She didn’t want to see Ktan and Allios get into an argument over this. She thought she should open her mouth, offer some kind of compromise of her own, but she could think of nothing to suggest.
Instead it was Saramis who spoke.
“If I may interject for a moment,” he said. “The wounded man is not our only problem.”
Ktan and Allios stopped their discussion and looked at the magician.
“We also have the matter of food to be concerned with,” Saramis continued. “We have almost nothing. The little that remains in our packs will be just a few bites of a single meal for a group this large. The ex-prisoners are underfed to begin with and it is about a five day trip back to the village where our horses are housed. I don’t think anyone would starve in five days if we were all in the best of health but that is not the case. It won’t do our wounded friend over there much good if we save him only to have him starve to death. Unless we can find some food somewhere the sooner we get back to civilization the better.”
“All the more reason to hurry on,” Ktan proposed.
Allios looked at them unhappily.
“Is there nothing to eat in all these caverns?”
“We have seen nothing,” Ktan replied.
Saramis thought of something.
“D’annalye, is that true?”
“Can nothing be found to eat down here?”
D’annalye had been so happy to see Saramis return that she had kept up an almost constant chatter for most of the time since. Yet that question seemed to render her silent for some time.
“D’annalye?” Saramis questioned.
“Oh sorry,” she said finally. “Yes, there is a place down here, a place where a lot of mushrooms grow. It’s funny though…” and here her voice trailed off.
“What’s funny?” Saramis asked.
When D’annalye replied it was as if he had interrupted some private thought of her own.
“Oh, nothing really, it’s just that… well, I haven’t been there in a long long time. In fact, I don’t remember being hungry in ages. It seems strange…”
Saramis could think of nothing to say to that.
“Oh well,” D’annlye said abruptly with a tone of dismissal. “It’s not important. There are mushrooms, but they are guarded.”
“Guarded? Guarded by what?”
“Ugly mean things,” she replied. It seemed to be her description for everything she met down here. “They kinda look like frogs.”
“Figures,” he muttered.
“What?” Jenya questioned.
“She says there’s a place where mushrooms grow, but they are guarded by some kind of frog… things.”
“Frog things,” Ktan repeated.
“Like that one we saw on the way here?” Jenya questioned.
“I don’t know,” Saramis replied. “Could very well be.”
“How far away is this place?” Ktan asked.
“A long way,” D’annalye replied.
“A long way,” Saramis repeated.
“How long is a long way?” Ktan pressed. “More than a day’s march?”
D’annalye was silent for a moment.
“How can I tell how long a day’s march is in this cavern?” she finally questioned.
“Can we get there and back without having to sleep?” Saramis rephrased it.
“Yes, but you will be tired when you get back.”
“It’s about a days march there and back,” Saramis said for the benefit of the others.
“That’s a long way to go out of the way,” Ktan mused.
“Perhaps, but it’s a long way back to the horses without any food,” Saramis countered.
“All right, how about this?” Jenya said, a course of action suddenly coming to her. “We send a few people off the collect mushrooms and the rest of us stay here. This way we will have some food for the trip and our wounded friend will get at least one day to keep his leg immobilized.”
No one replied right away, and indeed, neither Ktan nor Allios looked all that thrilled with the idea. Ktan certainly was not. He did not like the idea of splitting up nor the delay yet he had to admit it did have its merits. They certainly needed the food and Allios was right, it would be difficult for the pursuit to find them down here. Even a group as large as this would not leave much track on the cold stone floor they were passing over at the moment. With a little luck the enemy would not be able to find them at all. But that was just it. Ktan was not used to depending on luck. The urge to get out of here as fast as they could had not left him but was he in fact being overly stubborn on the point? In spite of its flaws Jenya’s plan made sense, and no course of action guaranteed success.
“Very well,” he said grudgingly.
“It sounds reasonable enough,” Allios agreed. “But who is to go then and who is to stay?”
“Well, I must go at least,” Saramis said. “That is, unless D’annalye is willing to talk to someone else.”
“No, just you!” D’annalye said immediately.
Ktan looked over at the rest of the group. Only four of the other men, including Arlen, had weapons, and he wasn’t sure how well they could use them, if at all. The others would not be of much use in a battle, with either the guards from the Pit or the frog things or whatever they were. He had no idea what to expect there. No idea what kind of resistance the frog creatures might offer, nor did he wish to leave the main group defenseless. They had few fighters to go around, in any case.
“I will go with Saramis,” he said finally. “We will take one of the other men with us. Jenya, you and Allios stay here. It will be better to have at least one swordsman in both groups.”
“As you wish,” Allios agreed. “Arlen will go with you.”
Ktan nodded, and they all sat there in silence for a moment. Finally Ktan stood up.
“Well, no point in putting it off,” he said. “The sooner we leave the sooner we get back.”
“You want to leave right away?” Saramis said, sounding none too happy. He had thought that they would rest for at least a little bit before starting off. The short rest they had had already was not nearly enough after their arduous journey through the Pit. Or at least that was Saramis’ opinion.
An opinion it seemed, that Ktan did not share.
“Yes,” Ktan replied. “I do not wish the group to split up at all but if it must be then let us get it over with.”
Saramis looked at him sourly but pulled himself to his feet.
Allios called Arlen over and explained the situation. While he was doing that Saramis slipped his pack off his shoulders.
“We should empty our packs and give everything to Jenya and Allios,” he said. “This way we can fill them up with mushrooms. With twenty three people to feed, we are going to need every mushroom we can carry.”
Seeing the sense in this Ktan did the same. Soon all their possessions were stuffed in Jenya and Allios packs.
“All right,” Ktan said, slinging his now empty pack back over his shoulder. “Lets be off then.”
He turned to look at Jenya.
“Be safe. Don’t take any chances.”
He couldn’t be in two places at once, though Jenya was certain that was exactly what he wished at the moment. She knew if the guards found them while Ktan was away he would never forgive himself.
“You too,” she replied.
Ktan looked back and forth between Jenya and Allios. Jenya was right; he was loath to leave them. He knew Jenya could take care of herself. Allios as well had proved to be an apt fighter, though with no more arrows his abilities were certainly diminished. But there was nothing for it. Whether he willed it or no he had to trust to luck.
“Lets go,” he said firmly.