Through the Strands
short two days’ food ‘n water.” Jardin’s frown was barely visible beneath the
fiery bush of a beard clinging to his face and neck. He tied shut the canvas
rucksack in front of him, grunting as he struggled to push his bulky form back
to its feet from a deep squat.
“It can’t be helped, I suppose.” Delion glanced back at the dozen or so refugees clustering and murmuring a few yards away. “If we try pushing any faster through these tunnels, we risk missing a turn or walking into an ambush.” He shrugged, pulling the straps of the long, narrow rucksack strapped to his own back tighter against his sagging shoulders.
Jardin beard shifted, suggesting the frown was replaced with a different expression, though the rest of his square, besmudged face betrayed no emotion. He hefted his rucksack with the group’s food and water onto his back once more. Delion just watched, still amazed by the man’s strength. While the other refugees were encumbered with sacks filled with trivial belongings and clothing hastily thrown together as they fleed their homes, Jardin had forsaken the smithy tools he had brought from his shop in order to carry sufficient supplies to sustain the group on their journey through these inhospitable tunnels.
And now they were short two days’ worth.
Delion ran a hand through the damp, tangled curls of crimson clinging to his head. He turned to the cluster of refugees and cleared his throat, to signal for them to listen. With all eyes turned to him, he addressed the group.
“We need to pick up our pace, from now on. Our food and water are limited, and at this rate we may run out before we reach an exit from these tunnels.”
Murmurs rose from the gathering, worry lines etching their faces in the pale greenish-blue light emanating from luminescent strata of rock embedded in the tunnel walls. One of the women in the group, who intoduced herself as Lysara when she joined their wandering band, stepped forward with arms folded across her chest as she stared Delion down with eyes like twin lamps of flickering blue flame.
“Then what are we doing standing around here?” She pushed her way past Delion and Jardin, marching firmly onward along the tunnel.
The rest of the refugee band was quick to follow suit, some struggling to wrap their pack straps around their shoulders, others stumbling over their own feet in their hurry to keep up. Jardin allowed a single bushy eyebrow to raise as he looked to Delion, before taking up the rear of the group. Delion gave the path behind them one last lingering glance before turning around and trotting up to Jardin’s side.
We just have to make it to the exit, and then I’m done with them, Delion thought. He pulled tighter on his pack straps, until he could feel the hilt of the sword hidden within pressing against his shoulder blades. He glanced over at Jardin, who plodded solemnly forward, step by thumping step. I only said I would get them through the Strands. They are on their own after that. Besides, if any of them knew…
Delion fought the chill threatening to shudder up his spine. He looked too young, too slender for a soldier. Surely none of them could suspect what he was. If any of them knew they were traveling with a deserter…after everything that happened…They cannot know the truth.
His thoughts were interrupted by a fleshy thump on the ground ahead, followed closely by a child’s soft weeping. A small boy, perhaps three or four, was sitting against the tunnel wall ahead, rubbing his ankles hard. Glistening rivulets slid down his cheeks to the corners of his trembling lips as he watched the adults tramping past without a glance.
Delion walked up to the boy and crouched beside him, forearms resting on his bent knees.
“Where are your parents?”
The boy stared up at Delion, wide eyes brimming with a fresh round of tears. The weeping stopped, and he reach up with a dirt-covered fist to rub under his nose. He said nothing, though his lips moved as if trying to speak.
“My name is Delion. What is your name?” Delion reached out a hand to the boy.
The child shrank back from the hand, shaking his head. He wrapped his arms tight around himself, wincing as he pushed himself backwards with his feet.
Delion shuffled closer and pushed up the boy’s pants legs. He frowned thoughtfully. Both ankles were badly swollen and red, though there was no bruising.
Must be from all the walking…
“If you tell me your name, I’ll carry you for awhile.” Delion offered his hand once more to the boy.
The boy just stared blankly back at Delion, though he no longer tried squirming away.
Delion sighed. “Well then, for now I suppose I will have to give you a name. How about…Marick?”
The boy nodded slowly, wiping the wet streaks from his face and leaving dirt smudges behind. Delion shifted his ruck sack to one side before lifting Marick up onto his shoulders. He winced as the boy, unsteady on his new perch, anchored himself by grabbing two tight fistfuls of Delion’s red curls.
The pair of them continued that way through the rest of the day…or what they might call day, without the light of day Delion could only guess whether it was daylight or not beyond the confines of these grim rock walls.
As the group started settling in to rest for the evening, Lysara’s voice came echoing forth from further down the tunnel.
“There’s a fork in the path ahead here, which direction will we take?”
Delion pulled the small leatherbound book of charts from his belt and flipped it open. He scanned over a few pages with his index finger, pulling the pages close to his face as he squinted at the print in the dim light.
“It will be the left fork!”
“Are you sure?” Lysara shouted back, fainter than before but with a distinct echo. “The left fork looks like it’s winding back the way we’ve come!”
Delion tucked the book back into his belt. “The Wanderer’s Guild is renowned for their charts, and the chart says left. Yes, I am sure.”
The only response was the resumed echoing of footsteps. Giving a shrug, Delion leaned back against the tunnel wall and pulled a blanket over himself. As he drifed off to sleep, he ignored the pinching sensation in his waist as he heard Marick smacking his lips while gobbling down the bit of dried fruit, bread, and water rationed out by Jardin for supper.
When Delion awoke, his arms were pinned and his legs had gone numb. He shook his head to shake the sleep from his eyes, and as his vision came into focus he saw little Marik, curled up on his lap and laying on his arms. Gently, he pulled his arms out from under the deep-sleeping boy, wrapping his blanket around Marik as he shifted the boy from his lap onto the ground. Marik stirred only a little, his nose scrunching up as he murmured too softly for Delion to make out the words.
After a quick stretch to work out the stiffness in his arms and legs, Delion picked his way through the maze of sleeping figures strewn across the narrow width of the tunnel, pressing forward to survey the fork in the path. He stopped short as he saw a pale figure in a black cloak come strolling out of the right fork, heading directly towards the group. The muscles in his arms and legs tensed as he watched the approaching figure closely, jaw tightening as his hands slowly curled and tightened into fists.
The cloaked figure, either oblivious to Delion’s hostile stance, or otherwise uncaring, continued forward, hands outstretched in front of him. It was a him, as Delion could see as the figure drew nearer. His pale head was entirely bare, clean shaven and almost glowing in the pale light of the tunnel. His eyes were dark, almost like coal, and his face was dominated by a broad nose pinched into a short, sharp point. Whatever this person was, Delion had never met his like before.
Stopping just a couple yards short of Delion, the stranger dipped his head in a sort of bow. His hands, already stretched outward, spread wide and came full circle together in front of him as he raised his head again.
“Greetings, traveler. I am the one called Varego. Are you perhaps seeking safe passage out of these tunnels?” As he spoke, a flicker of blackish tongue broke out between his teeth, extending his “s” like a hissing serpent.
Delion unclenched his fists and loosened his jaw, though his arms and legs remained tensed at the ready. “Perhaps I am…but we already know our way to safe passage, stranger.”
“Please, call me Varego.” The pale one glanced back over his shoulder at the fork. “I suppose you mean to go left, then?” He shook his head. “They all go left. No one every takes the shortcut to the right…” Without another word, he stepped quickly past Delion, walking swiftly towards the rest of the group.
Some of the others were waking up now, as evidenced by a growing murmur in the tunnel and two or three gasps echoing towards Delion. As he turned, he saw Varego take a seat near the edge of the makeshift encampment, leaning forward and watching keenly. A ripple of awareness passed through the group of refugees, as nudges and whispers and gasps broke out from Varego to the far side of the group, and all eyes began to stare back at the pale stranger.
Varego raised his hands and called out, “Welcome, strangers! Good news, weary travelers! I have come to guide you the rest of the way to safe haven!”
A murmur broke out among the group, though the quieted back down as the pale man motioned for quiet.
“As I am sure some of you have noticed, there is a fork in the tunnel ahead. For many years, the left fork was the only path that would lead out of these tunnels back into the light of day. But behold! The right fork has been opened up as well now, it’s a faster path to fresh air…it will shorten your journey by at least three days’ time, with me guiding you!”
His words were met by stunned silence at first, then more murmuring, then an excited babble as the refugees slowly realized what this news meant for their rationing worries.
Delion marched to Varego’s side, book of charts open in hand. Raising his voice above the growing chatter of his group, he held the book up in Varego’s face.
“Then why is there no mention of your little shortcut in here? This very clearly says the left fork is the only route out from this point. There’s no other way but left.”
Varego shrugged. “I suppose your book is…misinformed.” He gestured back down the tunnel towards the forks. “Truly, there are many ways out from here, some may take longer and others may be harder. But there is never just one way forward.”
Delion gritted his teeth. “Misinformed? This book has proven time and again its authority as a guide to those looking for a path!”
The pale stranger studied Delion a moment, then sneered. “And where did one such as you come across such a priceless, infallible book? You must truly be someone of great influence, to have a book with such power.”
Delion froze. I set myself up for that one, he thought. How do I explain…what do I tell them? If they know the truth…Glancing around, he noticed the others had quieted down, staring at him expecting an answer. Swallowing hard, Delion removed the ruck sack from his back, its weight threatening to pull him to his knees. From the core of the gear stuffed carefully into the sack, he carefully removed the scabbarded sword stashed away. The moment its hilt came in sight, angry whispers broke out among the other refugees.
Delion lifted the sword for all to see. “It’s true. I was a soldier in the army. When the capitol fell…when my battalion broke ranks from their charge…” His hand holding the sword trembled violently, causing him to nearly drop the sword. Instead, he planted the scabbard’s end firmly on the ground. “Say what you will about me, but we must trust the book if we want to find safe haven.” He glared over at Varego.
Varego grinned wide, looking down his nose at Delion. “There, now are you willing to entrust your lives to this…deserter? This traitor? Can you truly trust him to lead you aright?”
“No!” A voice called out from the midst of the refugees. The angry whispers turned to angry murmurs of assent, mixed with choice names hurled at Delion.
One voice remained silent. Delion shoulder his ruck sack once more and turned to Jardin.
“Will you come with me, then?” Delion’s shoulder sunk as the giant man shook his head.
“I’m sorry, lad. I just—I can’t. And ‘sides, the folks here, they need someone to haul these supplies the rest of the way.” He gave the heavy sack beside him a heft, as if to remind Delion of the weight of his reponsibility to the group.
A scuffling sound broke out in the rear of the refugees, and a woman cried out, holding her hand and wincing with pain. Marik broke free from her other hand, scrambling over to hug Delion’s leg.
With a little further rustling, another figure broke through the ranks of the refugees. Delions eyebrow arched in surprise. Shoving her way past the others, amidst a shower of bass epithets and shrill warnings, Lysara made her way to Delion’s side, already packed and ready to leave. She turned to the others, chin raised high.
“You pack of fools! You would follow this complete stranger,” she gestured to Varego, “who just wandered up in the dark? So Delion deserted, what of it? You all saw what was happening, can you blame him? Besides, his book has steered us well so far.”
Delion took Marik’s hand and turned his back on the others. “You’re wasting your breath. They’ve already made up their minds, they’re not interested in following a coward.” He spat out the last word with an echo of bitterness.
As he walked away, Varego shouted after him. “There, you see my good people? Your traitor abandons his people once more in the face of adversity. Truly, not a trustworthy fellow at all. Farewell, Delion Shadaban. May your journey bring you sorrow befitting your cowardice.”
Delion ignored the taunt as he slowly walked away towards the left fork of the tunnel, Marik following closely by his heel like a pup chasing its master. Lysara followed close behind, glancing back over her shoulder at the group left behind with Varego.
As she caught up with Delion, she craned her neck around, trying to catch his eyes.
“Is what he said true? Are you really a Shadaban, from the House of Shadow Bane?”
Delion kept walking, the scabbarded sword now clutched against his chest. He glanced over at Lysara with blank eyes, then cast his gaze downwards again.
“Yes, it’s true. He must have recognized the crest on my sword when I held it up.”
Lysara blinked, took a breath, and ran a hand through her hair. She turned back to Delion, walking backwards in front of him now, leaning forward to try to look him in the eyes once more.
“Then how can you turn your back on those people? You know that book has the right path, but you’re just going to give up on your people? Your soldier’s duty, your family’s duty, is to protect the people.”
Delion finally looked up at her, eyes aflame, his upper lip curling in an ugly snarl.
“I’m aware of all that, thank you. But you heard them, they don’t want me anyways. And how could I blame them? I’m a deserter, remember?”
Delion stopped in his tracks, his face stinging with the unexpected pain of Lysara’s palm connecting solidly in an echoing slap across his cheek.
“You can’t excuse yourself that easily. If you won’t take responsibility for them, at least take responsibility for yourself. How can you live with yourself, knowing you’ve abandoned them to some stranger? You can’t run from responsibility forever.”
“You abandoned them, too.”
Lysara blushed, biting her tongue from a response.
Delion lifted the sword in his hands, studying the family crest on its hilt. Three phoenix heads rose from a single flame, all embellished in rose gold. A proud symbol, one of hope. Hope?We’ve not had that since…Delion looked up at Lysara, gripping the sword tightly.
“Fine.” Setting his sack on the ground, he retrieved the sword belt buried inside. Fastening the scabbard to it, he cinched the belt around his waist, grimacing at its restrictiveness.
Marik scampered over to Lysara, taking her hand as he stared wide-eyed at Delion. Lysara stared him straight in the eye, nodding towards the direction they’d come from. Delion nodded, took a deep breath, then turned himself around. With a shaking step at first, then a steadier one, Delion started the march back to where they had left the other refugees with Varego.
It can’t be helped, I suppose…she’s right. Sooner or later, I have to stop running and stand.