Chapter Thirty One
WAITING FOR KTAN
Jenya leaned back until her head rested upon the not particularly comfortable stone of the cavern wall. In spite of the fact that it had been her idea that they separate she had to admit she wasn’t all that happy with it. Ktan and the others had only been gone minutes now yet already she wished they were back. She did not relish the idea of sitting here all day long just waiting for something to happen and at the same time hoping nothing would.
Allios was sitting nearby, away from the wall. Saramis had been sitting between them. Now he scooted over until he was right next to her. She turned toward him and saw him looking at her thoughtfully. It seemed like he had something to say.
“Hmm?” she questioned.
He continued to look at her for just a moment more before speaking.
“Why don’t you get some rest?” he suggested. For some reason Jenya got the impression that wasn’t really what he had wanted to ask.
She did not reply. She was exhausted. There was no denying that. She felt completely drained. And if she felt that way she couldn’t help but wonder how everyone else felt. She looked at the others scattered around the room. Already some of them were asleep. She couldn’t believe Ktan had left on his trek without even resting first. She could hardly believe they would make it the whole way without sleep, but knowing Ktan, he would make it happen.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep watch,” Allios went on.
Still Jenya did not reply. Ktan, Saramis, Allios, they must all be as tired as she was yet they were willing to soldier on. With Ktan gone she felt all the people here were now her responsibility. In spite of how she felt she was tempted to say she would take the first watch.
She looked at Allios and said nothing however. He probably felt much the same way she did, and he was much closer to these people than she was. They would naturally look to him as their leader. Besides, did it really matter who took the first watch? She would get her chance soon enough and if she couldn’t trust Allios to keep watch well, who could she?
So she just nodded. She looked around at the others. None of them were still on their feet. Most had sprawled on the floor where they had stopped in exhaustion. She laid her bedroll on the ground beside Allios. She glanced at the others again as she lay down, vague feelings of guilt gnawing at her. The others had nothing but the cold stone floor to lie on. She was hungry too but felt no desire to eat. How could she eat when there were all these other people here with nothing, and she didn’t have enough to share with them?
They hadn’t expected this, hadn’t expected to rescue so many people. It was obvious even Ktan had not anticipated this event. Which was surprising really, since he was usually prepared for any eventuality. That ability, of course, was one of the reasons he made such a good leader. Yet the ability to adapt to the unexpected or unanticipated was yet another quality of a good leader. Jenya was sure Ktan would get them out of this somehow.
Telling herself that, however, could not quell the unrest she felt in her heart. She tossed and turned for quite some time but sleep would not come to her. There was just too much to think about, too much to worry about. Ktan had been gone only a short time, less than an hour, surely, but already it seemed like ages.
Finally she lifted her head and rested it on her chin.
Allios had been watching her for quite some time.
“Can’t sleep?” he questioned.
She shook her head.
“Too much to think about,” she said wearily.
They were silent for some time and Jenya was conscious of Allios looking at her with that expression she had seen on his face often as he observed her of late, an expression as if he had something to say. She cocked her own head to one side, looking at him with an expression of her own, an expression meant to convey that he should speak his mind.
She wasn’t sure if he read that expression on her face or not but after a moment he did speak.
“I’m curious about something.”
She didn’t reply, but again the expression on her face told him to continue.
“I am curious about you and Ktan,” he said slowly.
She looked at him sharply, not sure exactly what he was asking. Did he mean…
“You were both knights, and you had something to do with the Witches of Donolen, or so I gather,” Allios continued. “I was young when the war took place. I lived on a farm. We didn’t get much news. I knew there was a battle, and the witches were defeated. That was all I knew about it though now it appears there was quite a bit more to it than that. “
Jenya felt suddenly relieved. Apparently it was only their history as knights Allios wanted to know about. When he had first posed the question she had thought he might be talking about Jenya and Ktan’s relationship to one another and she had felt immediately embarrassed though she wasn’t sure why. She didn’t want to talk about her relationship to Ktan, mainly because she wasn’t sure herself exactly what it was. She wasn’t sure she could explain. It was… complicated.
“There was more to it indeed,” she replied. “The maidens were not witches, that was just a rumor spread by Gultane to discredit them with the people. I’m not sure why. I think it was because they had influence in the kingdom. He might have considered them a threat. For whatever reason he wanted to get rid of them. He branded them as witches, charged them with heresy and demanded they submit to an inquisition. When they refused he sent his knights to bring them in by force and that’s how the war started.”
“And you and Ktan were with the knights that defended the witches, or rather maidens, is that correct?”
“Yes, the Sacred Knights were the maidens protectors, had been since early in the kingdoms history. It was considered a great honor but it was more a matter of tradition than necessity since there really were no threats to the maidens, at least, not until the time of Gultane.”
“You must have been very young yourself when this happened,” Allios observed.
“I was only seventeen at the time,” she replied.
Allios eyes widened slightly at this. He couldn’t remember exactly how long ago the Witch War had taken place. His parents hadn’t had much interest in world events, being more concerned with what was happening on their farm, on how well the crops were growing, on whether they would get the harvesting done in time for the winter. Only vague rumors had come to him about the war itself. The only time it had had any real effect, and he remembered this quite vividly, was when soldiers had come to their village looking for young men to recruit into their service. The recruitment process had consisted of the commander of the soldiers pointing at any young man he might see and having his soldiers take the lad away. Or so he had been told. He had spent the entire time the soldiers were there hiding in the cornfield with two other village boys.
Still, he knew he must have been only a few years younger than Jenya at the time, yet while he was working on the farm, in his own little world, she had been in the middle of a war. He had to admit that was a little bit intimidating.
“You were a knight at seventeen,” he said slowly.
She nodded, and looking in his eyes she could see no sign of disbelief and she was grateful for that. Of all the events of this story that was probably the most difficult for others to believe. She had seen the doubt in the eyes of everyone she had ever told this to and she could hardly blame them. A man becoming a knight at seventeen would have been hard to believe. A woman, well, a woman becoming a knight at all seemed to be stretching the limits of belief. That she would accomplish this by the age of seventeen seemed inconceivable. For a long time she had barely been able to believe it herself.
“My father was Morgan DuLance,” she said by way of explanation.
The blank look on his face surprised her a little bit. She thought that everyone in the kingdom had heard of her father. Somewhat of an arrogant assumption she supposed, thinking about it, but she had certainly never met anyone before who had not heard of him. Still, a moment later a smile formed on her lips.
“You don’t get out much do you?’ she asked.
Allios seemed a bit flustered by this comment.
“Well…I…” he began.
Jenya couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s all right. I guess it’s a bit much to expect everyone I run into to know about my father. He was a Knight for King Ferderic, Gultane’s father, and fought in the 50 years war. He obtained… a certain amount of fame.”
Allios suspected Jenya was being modest on this point.
“I was his only child,” Jenya went on. “He taught me everything he knew. While other girls were playing with dolls I grew up with a sword in my hand. Guess you could say it’s in the blood.”
“The maidens fought the King’s men to a standstill for three years,” Jenya said, jumping back to the previous topic. “But they were finally betrayed by Irissa, who at that time was the head of their order, and they were all killed, except for Irissa herself and Merigan, who was just a baby at the time.”
“Irissa was the head of the Maidens?” Allios said. This was something he had not known.
“Yes,” Jenya replied.
“So why did she betray them then?”
Jenya shrugged. That was something she had wondered about a long time herself. As head of the Maidens Irissa had a great deal of power and influence. Jenya thought that most people would be satisfied with that. Of course there was no accounting for such things, and obviously as Queen Irissa had more power even than she had as the head the Maidens. Was that what Gultane had promised her, to make her Queen? She could not be certain of course, she did not even know that Gultane had planned on making Irissa his Queen when this happened. The inner workings of the King’s court were obviously beyond her ken. Money, power, or something more exotic, what had lured Irisssa into betraying the Maidens, betraying every oath she had ever taken to them? There was no way for her to know.
Perhaps, one day, she would get to ask.
“That’s something you would have to ask the Queen herself,” was all she said.
They fell silent for a moment until Allios glanced at her again.
“So all the Knights who fought for the Maidens were declared heretics after the war?” he questioned.
“No, not exactly,” Jenya replied. “We were actually offered clemency.”
“Huh?” Allios said in surprise.
“All the Knights who fought for the Maidens were offered clemency,” she repeated. “They were told they could rejoin the King’s forces. Not as Knights, but as ordinary soldiers if they so chose. It was Gultane’s way of being magnanimous in victory I suppose.”
“But you didn’t take it,” Allios said slowly.
“No,” she agreed. “Some of us were suspicious of the offer. There were those who did, of course, and I never heard of any misfortune befalling them. They were mostly the lesser knights though. The leaders of the group I think it might have been a different story with however. Certainly I, being a woman, would never have been accepted as any kind of soldier by the King’s men.”
“Besides, I had other reasons for declining,” she continued. “Ktan and I were separated after the battle.” She didn’t say why. She didn’t feel the need to mention the details, about how Ktan had saved them by abandoning his post and how Talomar had blamed him for the death of the Maidens and cast him out of the Order. Though these facts were common knowledge to a lot of people and it wouldn’t have been difficult for Allios to discover them if he so chose she just didn’t feel like rehashing all that with him. It was irrelevant. “Later on, when we met again he wasn’t alone. He had found Merigan alive in the rubble of the Maiden’s castle. In spite of Irissa and the King’s efforts, one Maiden still remained alive. I don’t think Irissa would have been too keen on the idea of clemency for us once that fact came to light.”
“No I suppose not,” Allios said. “So you’ve been running and hiding ever since?”
“Yes, hard as it might be to believe,” Jenya replied.
“How long has it been now?”
“Fifteen years,” she said. So long. It seemed like a lifetime. The time before this, the time when she hadn’t been running in fear of her life, the time when she didn’t have to constantly look over her shoulder, it seemed like another lifetime ago to her now, seemed as if it had never been any other way. “As long as Merigan has been alive.” And even as she said that she realized how terribly sad that sounded. She at least had some memory of the time before, a time when she was free from fear. Merigan had known nothing else her entire life.
“And you’ve been together the whole time?”
“Me and Ktan and Merigan?”
Allios hesitated for just a moment before replying.
“Pretty much,” Jenya answered. “We have been separated a few times, but usually not for very long, no more than a month or two. Except for once…”
She looked down at the ground. Except for once, when she had been a prisoner in the Pit, Allios finished the rest of the sentence.
Allios thought it best to move on from this subject as quickly as possible.
“So you’ve been with Ktan all this time and he’s…” he began.
He didn’t finish, just sat there looking at her.
Her head came up again immediately at that. Was he implying what she thought he was implying?
“He’s what?” she questioned.
Now it was Allios’ turn to lower his gaze. Jenya’s first thought when he had started this conversation had been correct. In truth he was interested in Ktan and Jenya’s relationship and if they had one at all. Jenya had intrigued him from the very beginning. He had never met anyone like her. The fact was he had loved his wife dearly, and hadn’t thought much about any woman since she died. At least, not until now. He had found himself thinking about Jenya quite a bit of late, and he couldn’t seem to get the image of her in the dress out of his mind. He knew he was new to this group and he didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, especially not Ktan’s. He didn’t want to get in the middle if there was anything between them, if they were more than friends but he didn’t feel comfortable just coming out and asking Jenya that directly. He really hadn’t known her for very long and he wasn’t quite sure how to broach this subject without sounding forward. The last thing he wanted to do was cause any sort of trouble between himself and his new found friends.
Still he just couldn’t help saying something that would give her some hint of how he was beginning to feel.
“I don’t know,” he said, glancing at her then turning away again immediately. “I just thought that, well… you’ve been together so long, I thought he would have swept a woman as beautiful as you off her feet by now.”
Jenya felt her cheeks flush, and if Allios hadn’t already turned away she would have. This was just the conversation she hadn’t wanted to have. She didn’t want to discuss her relationship with Ktan but she supposed it was only natural for Allios to be curious, to want to know more about them. That was part of the process of becoming friends now wasn’t it? On the other hand she couldn’t help but wonder if general curiosity was all that had sparked the question or whether there was more to it than that. She hadn’t failed to notice that he had called her beautiful, or the strange feeling that had run through her when he had done so. She couldn’t remember anyone ever calling her that before. Ktan certainly hadn’t and she was actually grateful for that, or thought she was. It seemed that all of her life she had struggled, sometimes against what seemed like almost overwhelming resistance, to be accepted as an equal to the men, as just one of the guys. Ktan was one of the few men, maybe the only one that had actually done exactly this. She could not recall one instance where he had not treated her as an equal. Right from the very beginning he hadn’t seemed interested in all what her gender was, only in how well she could wield a sword. That was what she was grateful about, that was what she wanted and yet…
She had to admit there was a small part of her, no, a tiny part of her, that had wanted to play with dolls when she was a child, that wanted to put on a dress, that made her catch her breath when Allios called her beautiful. It wasn’t a part of her, however, that she ever let anyone else see. She didn’t want Ktan to treat her like a woman most of the time. She didn’t want him to hold doors open for her, or try to protect her in battle, or worse yet, try to keep her out of battles. He watched her back when they fought but that wasn’t the same thing. She did the same for him. It was what they would do for any comrade in arms.
No, Ktan had never called her beautiful but she could hardly hold that against him. She had made it clear from the start she wanted to be treated as an equal and that was exactly what he had done. It was totally unfair of her to expect him to treat her as one of the guys the ninety percent of the time she wanted that and like a woman the ten percent she wanted that.
Even so, she couldn’t help but wish that things were just a little bit different. She couldn’t help but wish that, just every once in a great while, Ktan would treat her more like a woman than as one of the guys.
She had learned long ago, however, that you don’t always get what you wish for in life, and anyway, if she was wishing for things, there were other things she would rather have a lot more. The small ways Ktan might treat her differently was way down on the priority list.
Besides, more important right now was why Allios had made this statement in the first place. It wasn’t the first compliment he had given her, and she had seen the way he looked at her sometimes, the way he seemed protective of her. She wasn’t oblivious to the fact that these were the actions of a man who might be vying for her attention. On the other hand, she didn’t know Allios very well. Perhaps this was just the way he treated all women. If she assumed there was something more to this and there wasn’t, she would feel a fool
And if there were something more to this, how would she feel then; she couldn’t help but wonder.
“No, it’s not like that,” she said finally, realizing that she had been silent for much longer than she had intended. In spite of that she still wasn’t sure exactly what to tell him. What could she say? That they were just friends? Wasn’t that the traditional response? And yet that seemed so inadequate. Ktan was more than just a friend, but so were Saramis and Merigan. They were all like family and in family there was no feetsweeping. Hell, even if they wanted to they had never had time for feetsweeping. As she had told herself many times before, they were on a mission, they didn’t have time for personal relationships.
She couldn’t help but wonder, however, if that was just her excuse.
At any rate, that musing brought her no closer to answering Allios’ inquiry. They were more than friends yet far from lovers. What does one call that nebulous area in between?
“I’m not sure how to explain it,” she said finally and quite honestly. “I want to say we are friends but that falls far short of what we mean to each other, not only Ktan but Saramis and Merigan as well. There is a special bond between us but I don’t think I can explain it. But no, he has never tried to sweep me off my feet.”
That seemed to satisfy Allios, at least for the moment, and Jenya suddenly found herself groping for a way to quickly change the subject. How’s the weather wasn’t very appropriate in a cavern. Going to check on Hammel, the wounded man, would be a quick way of getting out of the conversation but she had already looked at him not long ago and his condition couldn’t possibly have changed in so short a time. Neither did she want to talk about their chances of getting out of here, or being found by the guards from the Pit, or whether Ktan and the others would get back safely or where their next meal was coming from. She already knew their chances of getting through this weren’t all that great. She was tired of gloom and doom. Maybe something about him…
“Have you lived in Norvell Wood all your life?” she asked.
Allios seemed to take the change of subject in stride.
“No. I used to have a farm and a family on the outskirts of Pentha, a small town southeast of Norvell Wood. My wife and children died in a plague.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” Jenya said quickly. She resisted the urge to shake her head. Here she was trying to get away from a gloom and doom conversation and instead she had walked right into one.
“It’s all right,” Allios replied. “It happened a long time ago, but I wanted nothing to do with the farm afterwards. It reminded me too much of them.”
“I see,” Jenya said softly, not really sure what else to say. Again she groped for a less depressing topic of conversation, but before she could think of anything Allios provided it himself.
“And Saramis, how did you meet him?”
This was a subject Jenya was more than happy to discuss.
“Well it was kind of funny actually,” she replied. “Which comes as no surprise I suppose. Ktan and I were in Saskwoon about eight years ago. It was our first visit to that town and we really didn’t know our way around very well. We must have done something to get the attention of the city guards, though to this day I have no idea what it might have been. Anyway we ran into a run down barn on the outskirts of town while trying to elude them and there was Saramis and some girl in a pile of hay in the middle of the barn in a very compromising position.”
“Oh my,” Allios declared.
“Oh my indeed,” Jenya said with a smile. “I’ll never forget the look on Saramis’ face the moment we barged in. You see, it seems the girl had told Saramis that her boyfriend was one of the city guards and was big and mean and very very jealous, so when Saramis saw Ktan come rushing in with sword drawn…”
“Saramis assumed this was the jealous boyfriend,” Allios finished for her.
“Yes,” Jenya concurred. “And for a few moments things got pretty wild with Saramis running around trying to pull his cloths on while at the same time warning Ktan that he was a powerful magician and that if Ktan came a step closer he would turn him into a toad or something worse. As you might guess, Ktan does not take well to threats and things might have gone badly if the city guards, who we must not have eluded as well as we thought, hadn’t come rushing in soon after.”
“At that point chaos turned to pandemonium. It seemed to Ktan and I that the guards were more of a threat than a half naked unarmed man so we turned our attention to them. The guards assumed that anyone in the barn with Ktan was an enemy so they went after all of us and Saramis, not sure who was on who’s side, or if anyone at all was on his side, just ran around trying to keep from losing his head to a sword at first, but when he realized we were fighting the guards it must have occurred to him that this was something the girl’s boyfriend, being a guard himself, would not be doing so we soon found him fighting beside us, and I have to admit that once he got his act together he fought quite well.”
“After it was over and the guards dispatched introductions were made. Saramis decided that perhaps it would be best if he left the town and since we were of the same mind we decided to travel together for a while. Well, a while turned into a lot more than that. We’ve been traveling together, off and on, ever since.”
Allios nodded. A very interesting story.
“And where did Saramis learn all his magic?” he then asked.
Jenya did not answer that one right away. It was another question she didn’t quite know how to reply to. She could tell that Allios had been impressed by Saramis’ magical abilities, as well as his seemingly vast store of knowledge. It was exactly the kind of impression that Saramis intended to portray. And at first glance those impressions might seem well founded. But Jenya knew Saramis a lot better than most. She was a lot more skeptical of both Saramis’ so called magic and his apparent expertise on just about every subject under the sun than she let on. She had her own opinions about Saramis, but it wasn’t something she was willing to express. No matter what she might think Saramis was still her friend. They had been through a lot together and there was no denying how helpful he had been at times. If this was the impression Saramis wanted to give to people she was willing to go along.
“It’s just things he sort of picked up,” she replied vaguely. “He’s always been clever, always inquisitive about new things and new places.” That at least was true. “Even before we met him he had done a great deal of traveling. Apparently his parents had been in some kind of circus troupe and had traveled all around Mandaria and the neighboring kingdoms. He’s seen a lot in his life, probably more than me.”
Allios shifted his position a bit. It was difficult to find a comfortable place to sit when the only choices they had were rocks and the hard ground. Compared to himself, he considered Jenya well traveled.
They ended up talking for a long time. Hours it seemed, later on when Jenya thought back to it. Afterwards also, she couldn’t really even remember much what they talked about. Just silly little things really. Nothing important, nothing controversial. Even so, Jenya enjoyed the talk better than she had enjoyed a conversation in a long time.
Eventually, however, her lids became heavy and she lay her head down again and somewhere along the line fell asleep. She hadn’t been sleepy at first, and indeed, had thought herself too restless and worried to sleep at all, but somehow her talk with Allios put her at ease.
She wasn’t sure how long she slept, but she came to instant wakefulness when she felt Allios’ hand shaking her shoulder.
She opened her mouth, but he put a finger to his lips to silence her, then pointed in the direction of the entrance to their cavern.
“Is someone out there?” she whispered.
A nod of his head confirmed her fear.
“Listen,” he replied.
She didn’t have to wait long. Just a few seconds later she heard voices echoing through the cave. They sounded far off yet, but of course, the fact that she could hear them at all meant they were too close.
Picking up her sword, which she had laid beside her and not in its sheath, she stood up. She glanced over at the rest of their little group. Just about all of them were asleep.
“Rouse the others,” she said. “Those with weapons anyway. If it comes to a fight, we better be ready. I’m going to take a look.”
She made her way toward the entrance to the cul de sac they had sequestered themselves in. The entrance to their refuge was difficult to spot from the outside. One had to climb part way up the wall to get into it. Nor was it very close to any of the pools of water that dotted the caverns. It was quite likely that someone might walk very close by it without seeing it at all, which, of course, was exactly why Ktan had chosen it. Staying as close to the wall as she could, she peered into the cavern beyond.
She could hear the voices quite clearly now and had expected whoever it was to be right outside but now as she looked she realized that was not the case. She could see no one at all. Apparently the sound carried much better down here than she had thought. The cavern in front of her was long and quite wide, with an entrance at either end and another across the wall from where she now stood and a little to her left. Though she could not see anyone yet she could see flickering light coming from that tunnel.
The sound of the voices came nearer, and she could see moving shadows cast on the wall of the tunnel. She crouched down, using the rock that jutted out from the wall as cover. A moment later a group of men filed out of the tunnel and into the cavern in front of her. They wore the same outfits as the guards from the Pit and it was obvious this was their pursuers, though she could hardly believe they were so undisciplined as to be making so much noise, or that they were using torches in this area where they were hardly needed, or that they appeared to be walking with no particular order. They were just begging to be ambushed and if she had more people she would have taught them a painful lesson in the value of stealth.
But of course she didn’t have more people, nor weapons for that matter. Their enemy was well armed and outnumbered them. Their only chance was to maintain their own efforts at concealment. The tunnel they were in was difficult to spot but not impossible and it wasn’t lost on her that there was no other way out of it.
The men entered the cavern in front of her and stopped, looking around as if deciding which way to go next. In fact, she could hear the men in the front discussing that very idea. As they talked their eyes scanned the chamber and she ducked back when they turned in her direction. She waited there, sword poised, afraid she would be spotted if she tried to look again, waiting to hear the sound of their feet trudging off, or trudging toward her.
Eventually she did hear them moving again, and when she lifted her head and looked she was greatly relieved to see them marching off to the left. She waited until they had disappeared once more then turned to head back to the others but nearly jumped in surprise to find Allios right behind her. She had not heard him at all!
Allios couldn’t help but grin when he saw her reaction.
“Thought you might need some help,” he said with a shrug.
After a moment she nodded. It had been a long time since anyone had come up on her like that unawares. She hadn’t expected him to be able to do that. Silly really, she supposed. He might not have had as much experience running and hiding from the King’s men as she and her other companions but he was a hunter after all. Sneaking up on game to get in a shot was what he did.
At any rate, that wasn’t important right now.
“A group of guards from the Pit passed,” she related. “They didn’t see the entrance, which I guess is obvious by now. They headed off to the left but that doesn’t mean they won’t be back. Let’s get back to the others.”
Allios nodded in assent and they made there way back to their refuge. Most of the others were awake now, those with weapons clutching the tightly, but a word from Allios that the danger had passed made them relax once again.
Jenya sat back down again on her bedroll, but she did not lie down. She was refreshed and sleep was far from her mind now. No, what she wanted most now was to get out of here. She wished Ktan would come back and wondered how long he had been gone.
“How long was I asleep?” she asked.
Allios shrugged and she realized it was kind of a stupid question considering there was no way to really tell how much time had passed down here.
“Quite a while,” was the best answer he could give her.
“Well I’m wide awake now,” she told him. “You might as well get some sleep.”
Allios gave her no argument but laid out his own bedroll beside hers. Seeing the guards nearby had got Jenya’s adrenaline flowing and it must have for Allios as well. She thought he might have trouble getting to sleep after that but that was not the case. Almost as soon as he lay down he was breathing softly and obviously asleep. He must have been exhausted.
Most of the others were awake now, moving about or talking quietly amongst themselves, but none came near her. Now that she was awake the time passed agonizingly slowly and the worst part of it was there was no way to tell exactly how much time had passed. She sat on her bedroll for what seemed like hours to her but could very well have been a lot less time or a lot more time. She kept alert for any sound of the guards returning or, more hopefully, Ktan and the others coming back but she heard nothing and the frustrating thing was she had no idea how long they had been gone, whether they were on schedule or something dire had happened. What would she do if something did happen to them? How would she even know? D’annalye was the only one who knew where they had gone. There was no one she could mount a rescue effort if they got into trouble.
But thinking about it more she thought that perhaps there was. After all, nothing could happen to D’annalye. At least, that was what she assumed. If they got in trouble, the young ghost girl could always come back and take her to the others. That was, if she was willing to talk to someone other than Saramis…
Jenya shook her head. It was all just too much to worry about, and sitting here having nothing else to think about was not helping the situation. She needed to do something to take her mind off all this, needed something to keep her occupied or she would go crazy.
She felt her stomach rumbling and realized she was very hungry and that she hadn’t eaten since… well she wasn’t sure how long actually but it had been before they had entered the Pit. That had to be at least more than a day ago and yet she could not bring herself to eat. She glanced around at the others, most of whom had been locked up with little food for much longer than she had been down here. She knew from personal experience just how little the prisoners in the Pit were fed and they must surely all be starving by now. The meager rations she had in her pack wouldn’t be even a mouthful for everyone here and she just couldn’t bring herself to eat in front of them. No, she would suffer with them until Ktan got back. Hopefully then that problem at least would be alleviated.
She walked over to Hammel. He was conscious now and looked at her as she knelt down beside him.
“Water,” he said softly.
She lifted her waterskin and gave him a few sips, lifting his head with her hand so he could drink for he was too weak to do so himself.
“Thank you,” he said as his head sank back and he closed his eyes, as if even this small effort had exhausted him. He said nothing more as she inspected his wound. Nothing had really changed, nor had she expected it to. It hadn’t been that long ago that she had looked at it, and she had really come over just to give herself something to do.
She got up once more and as he started away Hammel opened his eyes again.
“Am I going to live?” he asked, and even with his obvious effort she could barely hear him.
She stopped and turned to look back at him once more. The wound had closed, he was no longer bleeding, but he had lost a lot of blood and the area around the wound was warm to the touch, which she knew might not be a good sign. There was no way for her to really tell, of course. She had seen men with much worse wounds survive, yet she had also seen men with what had been just a scratch slowly whither and die. The vagaries of such things were beyond her ability to predict.
“You’ll be fine,” she said after a moment, and who knows, maybe it wasn’t a lie. At a time like this she thought it would do less harm to tell him what he wanted to hear.
He looked at her for a moment more, and she wondered if he was guessing correctly that she was just saying that to reassure him, but then he closed his eyes again.
She returned slowly to her position by the entrance. Allios was still sleeping soundly and though she would have preferred someone to talk to, as that would have made the time go by more swiftly, she did not wake him. He needed the rest more than she needed a partner in conversation.
It seemed like Ktan had been gone for ages now. She kept telling herself that it hadn’t been that long but her mind didn’t want to listen to her and instead seemed to insist that the others must have been gone by now much longer than was necessary, that they should have been back long ago and something terrible must have happened to them.
The hours dragged slowly by, with no way to even mark them. Jenya sat there and tried not to fret and found it impossible. Still, there was nothing she could do but endure.
Eventually Allios woke up and it was better after that. At least she had someone to talk to, though they did not talk all that much this time, having exhausted most topics of conversation earlier. Even so he managed to take her mind off her troubles for at least a little while.
The others were all up and getting restless. Some of them paced around the room but most had gathered together near the center of the cavern. They were talking quietly, for they knew the enemy was still out there. She couldn’t really hear more than a few words of what they were saying. From what she did hear, she could tell the most common topic of conversation was food, which just so happened to be a topic becoming uppermost in her mind as well. Her stomach’s call to be filled seemed to be coming more urgent by the moment. It didn’t help either that she knew she had food close at hand in her pack, all she had to do was take it out. Yet still she resisted this urge. Ktan would be back soon, she was sure of it.
Even so, even though she was expecting Ktan to come back any moment, the first thing she thought of when she heard a footfall outside, a footfall much closer than she was expecting, was that the enemy was at hand.
She swept up her sword. Allios stiffened as well, and she could tell he had heard it also. A moment later, however, relief rushed through her as she heard the unmistakable voice of Ktan softly calling her name.
“We are here,” she replied.
Ktan strode into view, followed closely by Saramis and Arlen. The packs they had brought along were on their backs, and seemed to be bulging.
“You’re back. You did it,” Allios exclaimed.
“Did you have any trouble?” Jenya questioned.
Saramis slipped his pack off his back and dropped it to the ground with a thud.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” he replied cockily.
The return of the three mushroom gatherers had gotten the attention of the others and soon everyone had gathered round as the packs were opened and some mushrooms removed. Saramis started a fire at the far end of the room with the wood from most of the remaining torches and a couple of women began the preparation of the mushrooms for consumption.
Ktan and Arlen had sat down on the floor near where Jenya and Allios had laid their bedrolls. Jenya and Allios joined them, and Jenya could not help but notice how plainly exhausted Ktan and Arlen were. After starting the fire Saramis joined them as well, and he looked almost to be asleep on his feet.
“You should get some rest,” Jenya said to them.
“That sounds wonderful my dear,” Saramis stated. “However my stomach seems to have other plans. I am exhausted but starving as well and I can’t seem to decide which need is more pressing. If I was only able to eat while I slept, I should be in heaven.”
Jenya had no reply to this, being under the impression if he could eat while he slept he would have no wish to wake up at all. Instead she turned to Ktan.
“Did you see any sign of the enemy?”
Ktan shook his head.
“No, all was quiet.”
Jenya related the close approach of the Pit guards to their own position. Ktan frowned at this.
“Hmm, perhaps we should leave here as soon as possible,” he muttered.
Saramis, who had closed his eyes and seemed more than willing to sleep right there while sitting up, in spite of the aroma of cooking mushrooms that now wafted through the air, opened an eye at this.
“Surely you don’t expect us to go on until we’ve eaten and rested.”
The tone of his voice made it clear that if this was indeed what Ktan had in mind he would have a mutiny of at least one on his hands.
“You have to get some rest,” Jenya spoke up, for once agreeing with Saramis. “They walked right past the place and didn’t see it. They are probably long gone by now.”
“That doesn’t mean they won’t come back,” Ktan retorted, but then he relented. “But I suppose you are right. We do need some rest and who’s to say anyplace else is any safer than here? We will eat and then get some rest, but we must leave as soon as we are able.”
Jenya nodded and Saramis grunted something that sounded close enough to agreement to appease Ktan.
Fortunately it didn’t take long for the mushrooms to cook, and in fact, Jenya would bet that more than a few of them disappeared before they ever got into the pot. They all ate ravenously and the food was gone long before their bellies were full. Ktan would not allow them to eat any more, however. They still had a long way to go, at least one more day in the caverns and then several until they reached a town once outside. Even with the three packs full they did not have an unlimited supply and Ktan suspected they would be hungry but alive by the time they reached civilization, though he also suspected by that time they would also be quite sick of mushrooms.
After that Ktan, Saramis and Arlen got some sleep, and they did not need any convincing to do so, dropping off almost as soon as they had finished eating. This time their wait did not seem nearly as stressful to Jenya. Ktan and the others were back, they had food. They were not out of the woods yet of course but things seemed to be looking much brighter.
Ktan was the first to awaken. Jenya, of course, wasn’t sure how long he had slept but it didn’t seem like that long to her. Even so he was insistent that he needed no more rest and that they move on as quickly as possible. Sometimes Jenya just didn’t know where Ktan got his drive from, but after all these years it seemed undiminished. Nevertheless, for Saramis’ sake and also the sake of the wounded man, she held him off as long as she could, arguing that they needed all the rest they could get. Eventually, however, he would not be put off any longer and they roused Saramis and Arlen, much to the magician’s displeasure, and continued on their way.
To Jenya’s great surprise, the trip back to the surface didn’t seem to take as long as she had expected. As soon as she got back to the area that she knew their progress seemed to go quite swiftly. She wasn’t sure why but for once it didn’t seem like they went on and on for hours without getting anywhere at all, and instead she could mark their progress by landmarks she had seen on the way down. It still took hours, and they did have to stop once more to sleep, but not far into their second march the tunnel narrowed until they had to proceed in single file and they knew they were near the entrance at long last.
Anxious to be out of the caves Jenya, in the lead, quickened her pace, even as the walls closed in about them. Soon a bright light appeared in front of her, or at least, it seemed bright after all those days in the caverns, though in fact, though they did not know it, it was overcast outside and the light was far from its brightest.
“There’s the entrance,” Jenya announced for the benefit of those they had rescued.
Immediately the others pressed forward, for they were as anxious as Jenya to be out of the caves, anxious as Jenya to see sunlight on their faces once again. All of them would have run if they could, but of course that was impossible in the narrow confines of the tunnel they were passing through. All of them pressed forward, all of them that is, except one.
Saramis found himself going slower and slower as the entrance to the caves approached. Soon he was at the rear of the group. D’annalye had been talking to him occasionally but had been silent for quite some time. Now Saramis stopped altogether.
“D’annalye are you all right?” he asked.
There was some hesitation before she responded.
“It’s happening again,” she said slowly.
Saramis hesitated himself now. They were here. This was the entrance, the place he had been dreading since he had first realized her situation.
“We are almost at the exit,” he told her.
“I know and I want to go but…”
He stopped, not sure how to continue, what to say. The whole trip here he had been wracking his brain, trying to think how he could handle this, yet now that the moment was upon them his mind had gone blank. He didn’t know what to tell her, he didn’t know what was the right thing to do.
“D’annalye,” he said again. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“You don’t want me to come with you?” she questioned.
“No, its not that,” he replied. “I want you to come.” But did he really? Did he really want her to face this when he had no idea what would happen to her? But what else could he say? “If you are scared though you can stay here in the caves. I just want you to know that you can still do that if… if you want.”
“Will you stay with me?” she asked.
Saramis swallowed hard.
“No,” he said after a moment. “I can’t stay here D’annalye, much as I might wish to.”
Again there was a long pause.
“Then I’ll come too,” she said finally. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
“I… I don’t know what will happen if you go,” Saramis found himself saying. He had to tell her at least that.
“I know,” she said, and though it sounded as if she were trying very hard to be brave he couldn’t help but notice how forlorn her voice sounded. “Its all right though. I’ll go.”
Saramis suddenly found himself so choked up he could hardly speak at all. For a moment he wanted nothing more than for her to turn around, to run back the way she had come, to turn away, to hide from this. It was too dangerous. Too risky. Wasn’t any existence better than none?
But he didn’t tell her that, he wasn’t even sure if he really believed it himself. He looked ahead and saw that the others had already passed out of sight.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
He had to believe there was something beyond this for her. There just had to be.
He heard her take a deep breath.
“Yes,” she said after a moment.
He took a few steps forward. Only a few steps but even so the light grew much brighter. He could see the entrance plainly now in front of him, the golden sands of the dried riverbed right there, right outside, even a bit of blue sky. Just a couple more steps and they would pass out into it.
The magician stopped.
“Yes?” he asked.
For quite some time she said nothing at all.
“D’annalye?” he gently prodded.
“Saramis, will you… will you hold my hand?”
He hesitated, not sure how to answer, not sure if it was possible. What would she do if he reached out his hand and there was nothing there? How would she react to that? Or would she even know?
Nevertheless, there was only one response he could give.
He reached out his hand, slowly and with some reluctance, not sure what was going to happen, or if anything at all would happen. He fully expected to feel nothing but after a moment he did feel something, or thought he did. A light touch, as if a cool breeze had passed over his hand, so faint that he hardly felt it. So light, in fact, that he wasn’t really sure if he actually felt it or if it was just his imagination. Not really sure what to do he closed his hand.
“All right, I’m ready,” D’annalye said with great determination.
Saramis nodded and took a step forward. They were almost there now.
“It seems to be getting brighter.”
Another step. Now they stood on the very threshold.
“I’m glad you’re here with me Saramis.”
Did he feel her hand grip his own more tightly? A moments hesitation, and then the final step and the cave was behind them.
“I’ve been in the caves so long I…”
Saramis stood there, waiting for her to continue, but she did not.
“D’annalye?” he said, a little louder.
It was midafternoon. The sun was hidden behind low rolling cirrus clouds that covered half the sky. They were not rain clouds, but thin and streaky, trailing in long braided wisps across the sky from east to west. Even with the cloud cover it was hot, hotter than it had been in the caves. The land here looked just as it had when they had entered the cave, broken and barren, the dry cracked bed of the river below him, the dark reddish and orange hills surrounding him. The others had gathered down below at the bottom of the riverbed. He saw some of them looking up at him curiously but he didn’t care. He didn’t care who was looking at him, or what the landscape looked like, or that they were finally, mercifully, out of the caves.
“D’annalye!” he shouted.
There was no response, and he knew with sudden finality, and though with all his heart he wanted to deny it, that there would never be one again.
He turned slowly, staring back at the dark entrance of the cave. He kept telling himself that the knew this would happen, that there really had been no other outcome possible but he couldn’t get himself to believe it. He wanted to shout her name again but he knew it was useless and suddenly he found his voice choked off anyway and his eyes filled with tears. He wasn’t sure if he could speak at all.
He was a fool. He had hoped somehow she could remain here. That somehow she could break the bonds of the cavern and stay with him. Deep in his heart he had known better. She was gone now forever, and it was his fault.
It was Jenya’s voice. He did not turn to look at her. He didn’t want her to be here, not now, didn’t want her to see him like this. He gave no indication that he had heard her.
“Is she… gone?”
Why couldn’t everyone just leave him alone?
“I… I killed her,” he finally managed to say.
“No, no, you didn’t,” Jenya replied immediately, her voice filled with sympathy. Suddenly he felt her hand grip his arm above the wrist. She stepped in front of him. He lowered his gaze to try to hide the tears welling in his eyes.
“She died a long time ago Saramis,” Jenya told him. “You didn’t kill her. You saved her.”
Saramis shook his head fiercely.
“I knew this would happen,” he said. “I knew if I brought her out here she would… be gone. I should have left her in the caves.”
“She’s in a better place now,” Jenya said.
“You don’t know that!”
Jenya’s grip on his arm tightened. She stepped closer to him, so that she was right in front of him now, so that he could see her face. She looked straight into his eyes.
“Yes I do,” she said.
Saramis wanted to argue but he did not. He knew it was impossible for her to know such a thing, yet he could not deny the sincerity in her voice, nor the look of conviction in her eyes.
“I wish I could believe that,” he said softly.
Saramis brought his hand up and wiped his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He took a deep breath. “I just…”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Jenya said. “There’s nothing wrong with grieving for someone you lost, especially a child, but there was nothing you could have done to save her. Her fate was decided long before you met her.”
For a long time they were silent. Saramis had not wanted any comfort, yet still he found some in Jenya’s words. He still felt a tightening in his throat and an ache in his heart, and he knew it would be a long time before that went away. It was funny how someone he had known for such a short time could rouse such strong feelings in him, but D’annalye had managed it somehow. He could only hope that there was truth in what Jenya had told him.
“Go on back to the others,” he said eventually. “I’ll join you in a minute.”
Jenya looked at him closely.
“Are you sure?”
“Its all right. I’m all right,” he reassured her.
She looked at him for a moment more, then nodded. She let go of his arm, took a step back, then turned and walked back down the hill to the others.
Saramis stood by the cave entrance for a long time after that. The others respected his wishes and left him alone, and even Ktan, whom Saramis was certain would be chafing to be off, seemed determined to give him as much time as he needed. Eventually, however, he bade goodbye to D’annalye and went down the hill himself to join them. And though there were many people gathered there, including Ktan and Jenya whom he considered his closest and lifelong friends, he still felt more alone than he ever had in his entire life.