Within the tunnels
Wenja and Prina had to suffer through yet some lessons in the common tongue as Nefhriel and the others decided that the stretch of road which lead down towards the next valley was boring and that the girls ought to study instead of admiring the scenery. Prina was already rather fluent in the common tongue, she had a bit of an accent but her vocabulary was growing with every day and she would bother the drivers and guards with questions whenever they stopped. She was like a sponge, sucking up new knowledge every day. Wenja on the other hand did struggle and it seemed to be harder and harder for her to concentrate. There was simply too much going on and she was having a hard time overcoming her feeling of being homesick. The chance of her ever returning to her place of birth was slim, and she had no idea of whether or not she ever would see her family again. That made her depressed.
Nefhriel and Theka did wash their hair each day and put oils and stuff in it which made it shiny and soft and the food had a very visible effect on them both. Prina did look healthy for the first time since she was a mere babe and Wenja was stunned to see that Prina in fact was very pretty. But she was starting to show, just a wee bit but it was enough to give her secret away if anyone saw her and she often refused to leave the wagon if there were strangers nearby.
Wenja too had put on weight and she felt good physically, but her mind was having problems. She was lagging behind when it came to the languages and Nefhriel did try to teach her other things, like the most common customs of the twelve clans but it seemed as if she didn’t want to listen. She was missing her family way too much and even though the women assigned to her were becoming her best friends ever they didn’t fill the gap left by her parents and siblings. These valleys were far more fertile than the one she came from, the forests were dense and vigorous and she had never seen trees that large. The farms were rich too, with large buildings and she was stunned by the sight of sheep and cows way larger than the ones her father kept. Writing was very hard, she would sit in the wagon staring at the many wonders outside and she forgot what she was supposed to do and her thoughts just drifted away.
The thing she thought of the most was the fact that she was to get married, she couldn’t escape it. She knew that many of the girls in her village would get married off to someone they didn’t know beforehand but they wouldn’t leave the valley. And they would have their families close by, even after they were wed. Wenja felt as if she was about to leave the world and enter a new and alien one and she kept praying that she would be strong enough to cope with it. She remembered the many times Sina had been pregnant, and the births too. She and the other kids were always shooed away but they didn’t go far and even from the barn they had heard how Sina was screaming. Ulfar had always sacrificed a lamb, praying the Gods to spare his wife and Wenja knew of many who had died in childbed. The very idea of such an end scared her to the bone and she felt that the fears grew with each passing day.
Prina didn’t seem to be scared though, she acted a bit oddly at times, as if she tried to forget about the whole thing and denied that she was with child. Nefhriel tried to talk to her several times but it didn’t help and Prina seemed to ignore every piece of advice she was given. Sefa thought it was because of the way the baby had been made, Prina didn’t want to be reminded off it, at all. The road they now followed was not used that much and they had to travel at a slower pace, Wenja had often left the wagon and gone to look at the zahar and the animal seemed to accept her, which was odd for it didn’t normally like humans near by. It would growl at Prina and Thokan couldn’t even go near the wagon it was inn. Now they saw what Rhawan had meant when he said that the mountains of this region did resemble vertical walls. Wenja felt dizzy for they were so tall they disappeared into the skies and smooth like a dance floor which had been flipped into a vertical position. The valleys had flat bottoms but gentle slopes too towards where the mountains met the ground and she saw screes and huge boulders which had come lose and fallen down. She often felt as if the huge wall of rock would crumble and crush them and she refused to look in that direction. The mere idea of them going through all that rock was insane.
Rhawan did explain that they would have to cross through five of those long narrow mountains, and it would save them much time but it would be tough. Imh had been thrilled when she was told of this new route and she was riding in the front wagon, giving the driver some advice Wenja suspected that he’d rather be without. But after a week of driving they reached the first tunnel and Wenja had to gape when she saw it. The road turned towards the mountain side and disappeared into it underneath the spread legs of a giant statue. It did look a bit like Imh and the dwarrowdam did explain that all the tunnels had a female statue guarding the entrance. The dwarves were very peculiar when it came to gender roles, a woman’s place was in the home but that gave her immense power for everything indoors were her domain then. She could decide whether or not her husband should be allowed to leave the house and if he could bring his weapons or not. The female dwarves were in charge of the society and held in extremely high regard so by placing a female statue there the dwarves did signal that this was safe and something useful and reliable.
An old man lived right by the entrance in a sort of hut, he was bent and worn and he appeared to be rather poor too. He approached them and seemed to be a bit shocked by the sight of the caravan. “My lords, ladies, none have used this road for at least twenty summers”
Rhawan did dismount and he looked at the entrance, the tunnel looked as if it had been hewed the day before. “I guessed that, but it is safe still?”
The old man nodded. “Yes, worry not, it will last until the mountains themselves do crumble and fall. There is just one thing…”
Rhawan tilted his head. “Yes?”
The old man sort of grimaced and scratched his head. “I am no longer young, but I did pass through, some fifteen years ago. I could still walk well back then, I used to guide people through you see”
Rhawan was just waiting and the man sighed and lowered his gaze. “I saw something odd in one of the side tunnels, a crack of some kind. But it didn’t look natural, more as if the rock had been split apart on purpose. And I felt a strange smell too”
Rhawan did frown. “Do explain?”
The man made a gesture. “It did smell as if a billy goat had been living in an outhouse, for a long time”
Rhawan waved his hand at Ehbrial. “Trolls, what do you think?”
Ehbrial nodded sternly. “Yes, most certainly. Has the road been used since then?”
The old man shook his head. “No, nobody has been through since, I was the last one. The roads to the east are more popular these days, the trade has changed and this tunnel is no longer needed”
Rhawan stared at the old man and his eyes were calm. “Well, we do need it now. We are many and we are armed so it shouldn’t be a problem, not really”
The old man winced. “But if there are trolls?”
Rhawan smiled at him. “Trolls are not that dangerous, not if you know how to deal with them and we do.”
The man tilted his head and he stared at the long row of wagons and riders with curiosity. “Well, may the gods protect you then, but why are you here? So many, and of the eternal?”
Rhawan did flip a coin over at the old man who took it with obvious reverence. “Oh. Thank you my lord”
“We are on our way back to the plains, transporting the new Eth’ir”
The man bowed his head and placed his hands on his chest in a gesture of blessing. “Then may her days be many and filled with joy and her nights be peaceful and fertile”
Rhawan just grinned and gave the man yet another coin, he did look as if he needed it. Rhawan did shout to the drivers. “You will need to check the brakes before we enter, the tunnels aren’t completely flat and there can be parts which are rather steep.”
Everybody did go over the wagons carefully and Wenja did stare out of the window, the tunnel did look like a gate in a wall and that made her feel a bit better but not all that much. After a short while they were ready and the first wagons started entering the tunnel, they attached torches to the wagons and Rhawan made them aware of a very special feature built into the tunnel. Along the side there was a narrow groove and it was filled with some sort of liquid. He touched it with the torch and the liquid caught fire and suddenly they had a glowing line following the wall of the tunnel.
It didn’t give much light but enough for them to see and the floor was rather rough and made it easy for the horses to get a good footing. Wenja did not look out of the wagon as they entered the tunnel, she tried to keep herself occupied with some embroidery and Imh had come to join her. The female dwarf was very cheerful and Theka did ask her if she ever had used these roads through the mountains. Imh did confirm that she had, but not this particular one, and it was many decades ago but most of these tunnels were made to be very similar to each other and she was sure that it would be easy to reach the other side of the mountain now. She did explain the workings of the huge lifts to them too, the dwarves had built lifts where they couldn’t build tunnels and they had been a feat of great ingenuity and skills. The lifts were not in use these days for the dwarves didn’t live in these parts of the realm anymore, they had moved to the south east and had huge cities in the mighty mountain ranges there.
Wenja did find the things Imh told her fascinating, Imh was a widow and that meant that she was very free and that was the reason why she was living with the twelve clans. A dwarf woman was not allowed to travel when she was in her fertile years, the ability to breed was crucial to a race where the number of females was so low and the birth rate very slow. To have many children was to be of high status and Imh could declare with pride that she had four, and several grandchildren too.
She had been wife to a very powerful leader and now she was free to explore and enjoy her golden years. A dwarf could live for as much as four hundred years and the females often got even older than that so she would have at least a century where she could gather wisdom she then would transfer to her offspring.
The tunnel was very flat and so wide the wagons could have been driven three abreast without problems but Rhawan did order them into a row and placed riders ahead and behind and also at the sides. It would take them two days to get through and Wenja felt sick when she heard that. Two days in there? Without any sunlight? The Zahar had recovered now and it wasn’t resting in the wagon anymore, it was running along with the horses and didn’t look as if would leave them just yet. Rhawan was a bit curious as to why but the animal appeared to like them and it was still a bit on the skinny side so perhaps it saw an opportunity to get fed instead of hunting for itself.
The rumble of the wagon wheels got terribly loud in the tunnel and Wenja was rather sure that she would have a headache before long but after a while she sort of got used to the whole situation and she forgot to listen. Nefhriel was drawing some sketches of the dresses the women of the twelve clans used and Wenja was shocked for this sort of clothing was new to her. The women would wear pants under the dress and it would only reach her knees and have a split in front and in the back which enabled her to ride. Wenja was gradually realizing that she had to learn how to ride and the idea made her cringe. The horses were so huge and she had grown up being taught that women never should ride astride for it was indecent.
Rhawan did sometimes rest in their wagon, he was constantly riding along the caravan, keeping an eye on everything and Sefa was obviously flirting with him every time and he replied in the same manner. Wenja was blushing each time she caught them playing this little game of theirs and Sefa seemed to enjoy teasing her thus.
They had travelled for most of the day when Rhawan ordered a stop, the horses needed a break for the rock was hard on their legs and they needed drink and food. There were watering troughs placed with even intervals along the tunnel and the water was fresh and cold and came from subterranean rivers but they had to bring feed themselves and luckily they had hay enough for all the animals. They would rest there for the night and Rhawan did come to the wagon, he had brought a flagon of wine and Sefa found some cups and she did also find a small crate which contained something which looked a bit like pieces of coloured glass. She handed one over to Wenja. “Taste this, it is very good”
Wenja did hesitate, it didn’t look like food at all but Sefa did put one in her mouth and appeared to be sucking it and Wenja took a green one and put it in her mouth. It was very sweet and the taste just wonderful, like something clean and fresh and yet powerful and Sefa giggled. “It is very expensive so just one, suck it slowly so it lasts”
Rhawan too did take one and Sefa did pour some wine. Wenja felt that the strange candy left a sort of tingling feeling in her mouth and it was very pleasant. “What is it?” ¨
Rhawan sat down on the bed and poured himself some wine. “It is a substance which comes from the far south. One of the clans do go there in the summers and they bring some back each year when the clans meet for the winter camp.”
He grinned. “They call it Stardrops but it doesn’t have anything to do with the stars. It comes from some insects”
Wenja swallowed hard. “Insects?!”
She suddenly wondered if it was such a good idea to eat this after all but the taste was just so wonderful and it got better all the time. Rhawan nodded and sipped at his wine. “Yes, a sort of aphids, they are huge, like the palm of my hand and they suck the juices out of a particular plant. It grows only in a very secluded valley and it is quite toxic but the aphids do tolerate the poison and they excrete the sugary parts of the juice at night. In the morning the drops have hardened and the locals gather them underneath the plants.”
Wenja bit her lower lip not to gag. “Oh Gods, it is…dung?”
Rhawan nodded. “You could of course call it that, but we chose to see it otherwise. If you put it in wine it will sweeten it a lot and on its own it tastes good and it also has some effects left from the poison”
Wenja felt a bit sick. “It does?”
Rhawan nodded. “Yes, it removes inhibitions, takes away fear. It is very useful at times, the warriors often have some before they ride into battle”
Wenja had to swallow some wine. “You have…odd customs!”
Rhawan grinned widely and his eyes were shining. “Oh, but that is nothing, wait until you get familiarized with the cuisine of the River clan, it made me back off when I first encountered it but now I have no problems with it at all”
Sefa scoffed. “Oh gods, you are so brave Rhawan, I have never managed to eat their traditional dishes at all. It makes my stomach crawl”
Wenja felt a bit dizzy and she realized that the candy indeed had some rather strange properties. “So what sort of food are we talking about?”
Sefa let out a snort. “Food? We are talking about a test of courage here, I wouldn’t call it food at all. I would rather starve to death and that is the goddamn truth!”
Rhawan laughed, a soft and somewhat lazy sound. “Oh but they eat it almost every day dear, of course it is food.”
Wenja was getting curious and she leaned forth. “So what is it then? Fish?”
Rhawan nodded. “Among other things, the river is sacred to them and they eat everything in it, and by that I mean everything. Even the grass growing on the rocks is edible, I once tasted wine made from it and that tasted like a mixture of turpentine and old horse sweat but they love it”
Sefa cringed and Wenja sort of giggled, he did have a way with words. “The main course is of course fish, served in every conceivable manner. Then we have oysters and other shellfish, roe and fish sperm and…”
Sefa interrupted him. “If someone of that tribe does invite you for a drink and serve something which looks like milk, don’t drink it!”
Wenja gasped for air. “Ah eeewwww!”
Rhawan did continue. “The shellfish are often boiled or salted and it isn’t too bad really. The same can be said about the oysters and the shells, most of that is served raw. But the fish, oh by every deity, they have some very interesting methods of preserving it!”
Wenja found a more comfortable position. “Do tell me, please”
Rhawan nodded and drank more wine. He appeared to be very relaxed and Wenja did understand that Sefa found him charming, for he was. “Well, the most common dish they serve is the one I have gotten used to, believe it or not. The river has a sort of eel living in it and they can be as long as thirty feet but they are very slim and look nasty too”
Sefa was rolling her eyes. “That is just the first name, I saw one once and I almost pissed myself, it was ghastly, like some goddamn…monster”
Rhawan giggled. “Oh yes, the teeth are impressive, they use them for sewing needles and stuff. Anyhow, they skin the eels, the hide is very thick and makes excellent leather and then they take this huge jar and fill it with a sort of wine, some grass from the river, some gallons of broth made from boiling the bone marrow of a cow or an ox and then they add a lot of spices, the gods alone knows which ones by the way. The skinned eel is laid into the jar minus its head and tail and they put the lid on the jar and leave it in there for a few months.”
Wenja just gaped. “A few months?! Are you kidding me? That sounds like…”
Sefa did nod. “The recipe for food poisoning, but believe me, nobody has died from it, yet”
Rhawan did grin again. “The eel is ready when it falls apart, and the taste is in fact not bad, sweet and a bit tangy but good. You have to get used to it but whence you have it is no big deal”
Sefa grinned. “Yes, I saw you eat some once, you were wolfing it down!”
Wenja frowned. “So that is how they prepare fish?”
Rhawan did nod. “That is one method yes, but they do salt and dry them also, or bake them into wads of clay and bury them in the ground for a year. That dish is one I do not recommend at all for it smells like piss and looks like…I don’t know.”
Sefa bit her lower lip. “It looks like mucus, you can always tell when they have opened a clay packet of such fish for the entire camp stinks of it for days.”
Rhawan nodded vigorously and filled his cup again. “Ahravan wanted that dish banned from the main camp but they didn’t obey, it is too precious to them. I think I rather kiss an orc than eat that filth”
Sefa did giggle. “And I bet that you are too proud to be able to eat such fish”
Rhawan tilted his head, there was a devil dancing in his eyes. “Oh, that bet is on dear, just you wait and see when we get back”
Sefa made a swift gesture. “Then it is a deal, if I win, what do I get?”
Rhawan raised an eyebrow. “Whatever you wish for, you know I deliver, always”
Wenja realized that this was more than just flirting and she felt herself blush yet again. Sefa did crawl closer to him and she was licking her lips. “And what if I lose?”
Rhawan did stare at her and Wenja saw that his eyes were rather dark. “How about as many kisses as I wish for? But I want to check the goods before I agree on the bet”
Sefa did giggle and she crawled even closer to Rhawan and before Wenja had time to ask what they were doing Sefa was sitting across Rhawan’s lap facing him and she did kiss him, with obvious hunger.Wenja had to gasp, the two of them seemed to have forgotten all about her and she wondered what she was to do now? She felt odd still and some part of her felt curious. She had never seen anyone kiss like that before, her parents did kiss every now and then but with their mouths closed and very fast. This was so different and Rhawan looked as if he had his tongue in Sefa’s mouth? Wenja did blush and turned around, staring at the wall instead. Sefa did giggle. “Oh Wenja, don’t be so prudish, watch and learn”