Through the mountain
Splitting the party when there are only two players– ouch. But it did work.
The king didn’t wake up the next day either, at least we didn’t see him. (I slept a lot myself too!) We were preparing to go back with the delegation and collecting everybody, when Fikmet and Sepideh beckoned me from the side of the camp and Fikmet said “I’m not coming and Sepideh isn’t either! We have to take the armour back.” “To where you got it from? Is it a holy place?” I asked, and yes, it was. “Can I come?” I said, because I suddenly felt that it was important to thank the warrior woman’s spirit, and all the gods as well. “I don’t see why not,” they said, “we’ll go on, not back, and catch up with the rest at the tower.” So I went to ask Ferin if he needed me. The only thing he could possibly need me for was the direction sticks, and several of the other people could do that and the head of the Spear tribe was going along, surely he could do it too! Well, perhaps he needed me for bitching at him, but he said it was all right with him so I got some journey stuff and food, and as an afterthought the grease lamp, and went with the other two.
We had to walk around the mountain at first, Sepideh carrying the heavy armour, me carrying all our provisions, so Fikmet only had to carry her small pack and her knife. There was a passage into the mountain on the other side: it went down a bit, and around a bit, and it became darker and darker. Also narrower and narrower. It was easy for Fikmet, but Sepideh and I were of course a lot bigger, both of us about the same size, she a bit broader and I a bit taller, We did get through, but we had a couple of awkward squeezes.
Sepideh had an oil lamp and I had the grease lamp, but we only lit them when we were confused about where we were going. When we got tired we rested, keeping watch, though nothing had happened when they were going the other way either, but Sepideh and I both had the habit so we took alternate watches and let Fikmet sleep. It was dark and lonely and silent; only very rarely I heard a drop of water fall.
Another stretch, and then the passage became wider and the floor damper and more drops fell. Another stretch, and then Sepideh lit the oil lamp and we could see that we were in an immense cave, with pillars of stone rising from the ground and hanging from the ceiling. I could feel the presence of gods here, and also another presence. “Is that the warrior?” I whispered to Fikmet. “Yes, I think so,” she said.
There was a basin hollowed out near one of the walls of the cave. That was the warrior’s grave: her bones were in it. Sepideh started to put the pieces of the armour back on the bones, praying, while I sang invocations –a strange sound in that hollow mountain, and probably the first time that this mountain heard prayers in Ilaini!– and talked to the gods a bit more. Achok was very insistent, and I said to him “yes! I am taking care of myself!” and wondered whether I used semsin to pray, but I couldn’t tell on my own and didn’t want to ask Fikmet because she was obviously praying too. Then I said “thank you!” to the spirit of the warrior, and Fikmet and Sepideh finished their prayers too, and we went on to the other side of the cave.
After a while we heard the sound of water, and a bit further on there was a little stream in the middle of the passage. At first it was a trickle, then it got our feet wet, and then it was a proper stream, and when we turned a bend it widened out and there was a sort of ledge with the boat! It was indeed the boat that we’d first seen at the entrance on the other side. We all squeezed in –if it could carry six children, it could carry two adults and one child. The water was going our way, too! “That’s a lot quicker than on the way here,” Fikmet said. Most of the time we only had to make sure that the boat didn’t smash to pieces on the walls of the passage, and Sepideh and I took turns with the paddle for that. At one point there was a bend that the boat could lie still in, and we slept a bit, not that it was easy sitting up, but we could at least rest our arms and not have to pay attention all the time.
I don’t know how long we were underground, a couple of days, I think. We were hungry but not thirsty, the water was perfectly good to drink, only very cold. Then we saw light overhead! After a while we were at the bottom of a deep narrow cleft in the mountain. “This is where I fell down,” Fikmet said. There were plants growing on the sides, and birds, and lots of little fishes, but we were going so fast that it was no use trying to pick or catch something. There was no bit of shore to pull the boat on to, either, though we passed some caves that people had obviously lived in by the pottery shards on the floor. That would be a good place to live if you wanted to be out of sight! But there was nothing that looked like stairs or anything else made by people, it would be very hard to get to the top to hunt or to go anywhere.
Then the river went underground again. There was still some weak light from somewhere, or our eyes had got used to the darkness, because we could actually see where we were going. Then suddenly there was a ‘plop!’ next to the boat, and we saw a curved pale thing under water! I took out my cutting knife, just in time, because a white head on a long neck came up and sank a row of little sharp teeth in the side of the boat. I hacked at the neck and it let go and went under, but we were all shaken. This looked a lot like the monster we’d seen at the stair-tower! A bit like a snake, but more like an eel, a giant one, that neck was as thick as my leg and the head the size of Ferin’s two fists. It looked hungry. Well, it wasn’t having us for its supper!
Then, when we were going very fast, there was a fork in the passage. I was steering, and I chose the wider way just in time. We hadn’t gone far before Fikmet said “I think it was the other way, really!” and indeed it looked as if we couldn’t really go any further. So I climbed out of the boat and tried to push it back against the current, while Sepideh did the same with the paddle and Fikmet looked out for sharp edges, and we got it round the bend in one piece and Sepideh and Fikmet pulled me in again. My legs and feet were completely numb from the cold water, and I didn’t have room to wriggle them or anything to keep them warm with, so I’d just have to wait until it got better.
Some way beyond the fork the river widened out and became so slow that we had to paddle. The rock above us was very high now, too, we were in a cavern. And there was a shaft of light ahead, the stairway on the island! “Oh, I want to be on the surface, out of this hole!” I said, and the other two were the same, so we got the boat on the little bit of strand and started to climb the slippery stairs. Fikmet first, as quick as a squirrel, and then Sepideh and I, but my feet still didn’t feel anything so I missed my footing halfway and crashed on a lower step. Something cracked in my left knee, I could hear it before I felt it, and I couldn’t move my leg at all any more. Then I fell down more steps, right to the island, and I thank all the gods that I didn’t hit my head, only just about everything else.
Sepideh and Fikmet were down almost at once, but they couldn’t get me up the stairs between them, so they made a cot for me of the boat lined with Sepideh’s coat, one of the very few things we had that were still dry enough to give some warmth. When they lifted me in it did hurt, so much that I could have bitten my tongue if Sepideh hadn’t given me a knife to bite on the handle.
“The others will be along soon,” Fikmet said, “we’ll watch out for them.” And they did, one on the surface and one staying with me most of the time. They couldn’t go hunting alone, of course, and I said I didn’t mind if both of them went together but they wouldn’t leave me, suppose something happened and I was stuck here? That was a good point, except that the food would run out. Had run out, in fact, but before we got more than annoyingly hungry the tribe was there, carrying meat and lots of other things.
Ferin squeezed through the stairwell to embrace me, but he couldn’t get me up through the narrow passage. Then they tied me up in the boat so I couldn’t fall out whatever happened, and hauled me up like that! I think a camel did the pulling. It was so good to be out of that cold damp hole, even though being hauled up hurt like anything.
The whole rest of the tribe was there, Ferin and the boys and the other women, and the king’s son and his sweetheart the mage’s daughter, and also the mage Naran himself, and the chief of the Spear tribe who was going to Valdyas to hunt with King Athal. Naran and Ferin set my knee, I don’t remember much because I passed out while they were doing it, but it seems that Naran found out how to look inside someone’s body to see how the bones should go, like Doctor Dushtan in the palace, and he’s decided he wants to learn to be a doctor because he likes that kind of work. There was no wood except the slats of the boat, so that’s what they splinted it with. I hope nobody else needs to take the underground way then, or they’ll be eaten by the eel-things!
So I went the rest of the way on the camel, at least until the leg was whole enough to walk a short way with crutches, and that was after we’d passed some watering-places where there were real trees to cut crutches from. I’ll probably walk with a limp for the rest of my life, though.
It turned out that the king had left the camp about the same time we had, and we could still see him! It looked as if he was going to the city too. We debated going to catch him, but we really didn’t want to fight (and I couldn’t fight, not even with my mind yet! Gods, pain makes it so hard to think, and it feels like the knee takes all the semsin I’ve got to heal itself with!) so we just kept watching him, and he was past the fort before we got to it. Well, if he was between the fort and the city he could really only to go the city and we’d find him there.
We went to the village instead to tell them everything that had happened. They didn’t know we were the tribe of the Dawn yet! Ferin had made Sepideh chief before we got there, but it was hard to get people to accept it. Not everybody was going to the city, some stayed in the village, and I left the snake with them because I could hardly take a snake to the fort! (Enough rats there, surely, but it was a tent-snake, not a fort-snake.) So we arrived at the fort with a lot less than the whole tribe: Ferin and Tamsin and I, and Naran and the young couple, and the Spear chief, and Fikmet and Tasgal and all the women because they wanted to go to the city and talk to the princess but some would probably want to go back.
Of course Ferin and I had to tell everything that had happened, I think we spent half the night talking! There was a doctor of the Order who looked at all of us to see if we’d picked up anything on our journey, but I wouldn’t let him look at my knee, I’d rather take that to doctor Dushtan at the palace. When I get back to the fort –I thought Faran wouldn’t want me in the Order any more because of my limp but he does want me!– the doctor can look at my knee all he wants.
I’ll really miss Ferin when he’s off to his mother’s house with Tamsin! And I don’t think I’ll be able to go to Valdyas myself any time soon, I’m sort of the only person who knows anything at all about the Khas once Ferin is gone so they really need me.