Chapter 11: The Belly of the Mountain
When Archer left the cave to look for Ava, Stranth began his search for her in the east tunnel. At that very moment, a mischievous glint sparkled in Onar’s eyes.
Collecting a small handful of pebbles from the cave floor, Onar silently followed his brother into the tunnel at a distance. He crept along, hoping Stranth would not turn around and notice him and thereby rob him of this sporting chance. When his brother came to the pool beside the drop off, Onar seized the opportunity to toss a couple of stones down the shaft while his brother was bent down scooping up a handful of spring water. Stranth’s attention immediately turned in the down-shaft’s direction.
Lunging toward the drop off, he called out, “Ma, are you down there?”
He received no reply, but he was certain the sound came from down below. When they first started visiting the cave, they mounted a series of torches along this steep drop off so that they could use two hands on the rope as they lowered themselves down. He reached down to light the first one, then anchored his light stick in the grip they had fixed above the down-shaft’s opening. Taking hold of the rope, he began to lower himself, using the first torch to light the second and so on, as he descended.
Onar quickly crouched to the ground to escape his view. He then moved toward the opening of the drop off, waiting to look down until he was sure his brother had had enough time to complete his descent. At the bottom of the down shaft some thirty feet below, a narrow corridor led to a more cavernous space that rolled downward as well. Numerous stalagmites rose from the cave floor to its ceiling, creating rows of corridors, all leading to the same open area. There the floor continued its downward slope, giving the enormous space the look and feel of an amphitheater.
When they first discovered this space, Onar had dubbed it the “belly of the mountain.” They had not explored it enough to feel well acquainted with its maze of corridors. The endless rows of steeple-shaped spires were at once awe-inspiring and unsettling. Mother did not want them to play down here because she feared they would get lost too easily. As Stranth scanned the various dark passage openings, he had to agree with her, though at the time of her pronouncement, he was disappointed enough.
“Mother, are you down here?” he asked again. The only answer he received was the echo of his own voice.
Suddenly, something hard hit him from behind. He heard a series of pebbles falling to the ground all around him and knew someone had tossed a handful at him. He turned around, fully expecting to see his mother standing nearby and breaking out into laughter; but he saw nothing. Seeing no one there, his suspicions immediately turned toward his sibling whose sacred duty was the frequent initiation of cat and mouse horseplay.
A dim light flickered through the gaps of the spiky columns. He peered in all directions; and though he neither saw nor heard anyone, he sensed someone’s eyes upon him. He moved close to a nearby spire and leaned his torch against it. Then he wove in and out around other stalagmite trunks, making his way toward the other light. He turned just in time to see Onar leaping off a narrow spire he had climbed and felt himself being pummeled to the cave floor. Onar almost caught him off guard. The sudden quaking of the ground beneath their feet did catch him and Onar both off guard, however, and they found themselves latching onto each other for stability rather than engaging in a wrestling match.
The shaking continued for several moments, and the crash of nearby rocks falling echoed through the cavern like the roll of thunder. The second the quake stopped, they both raced to retrieve the torches they had laid aside and met back up in a small clearing. Another quake began before they had time to speak. Instinctively, Stranth took hold of Onar’s arm and pulled him to the broader opening with the downward slope. They stood in the belly of the mountain in awed silence for some minutes after the second quake ceased. Finally, Onar broke the silence with a whisper.
“Which passage takes us back to our tunnel?”
Stranth looked at the tumbled spires and the columns of pathways, confused. “I think we came from that one,” he said, pointing.
The cave-in had changed the cavern’s appearance significantly. They had not spent enough time down here to mark all the columns. Their only guidepost would be the light from the torches mounted on the tunnel walls from where they had descended, but the fallen rock may well have dislodged them or blocked them from view.
Fortunately, the spires were easy enough to mark by scraping them with a rock. They began marking from their starting point, searching the gnarled passages that sloped upward for a glimmer of light. They encountered scores of blocked passages and were close to despairing of finding any opening at all when Onar was drawn to the sound of trickling water in one narrow gap. He peered through an opening and perceived the light of a distant torch shining from a higher elevation.
“Stranth, over here!”
Together they worked to dislodge some of the boulders and debris of the collapse to widen the gap and squeeze further into the narrow corridor that was now nearly full of rock. Slowly, they crawled on top of the rocky rubble toward the torch still hanging in the down shaft. However, a huge boulder blocked the opening of the connector. They could barely fit an arm through the hole that allowed the torch light to seep deeper into the mangled tunnel.
At last Stranth reasoned, “This boulder isn’t moving. Even if Archer and Mother find us here, there’s only one direction we can go— back the way we just came.”
“What should we do?”
Stranth sighed, thinking a little further before he spoke. “Stick to the plan if we’re separated. Middletown. There’s got to be another opening to the surface somewhere; we’ll just have to find it.”
After a long thoughtful pause in return, Onar asked, “Is there any way we can leave a mark to tell mother where we’ve gone? We need to let her know we’re all right.”
Stranth scraped the letter M onto a flat piece of rock with his dagger. He tore a swatch of cloth from his tunic to tie around the rock. He showed his work to his younger brother who took the rock from his hand to carve a message of his own on the other side. Stranth smirked at the message as he tied the cloth around the stone. Then he tossed it through the narrow opening of the down-shaft.
“Let’s hope they find it,” Onar murmured.
“Archer’ll see it. He has that ability.” Then he added, “Like you, only more.”
Onar smiled at the comparison.
They inched their way cautiously back to the place where they could stand, then carefully climbed over fallen chunks of rubble and entered again the belly of the mountain. Stranth had not noticed before just how cold and vast the belly was. He was glad for the torches. He hoped they would continue to give their light until they found an outlet. It was quite a distance to the far side of the belly. Stranth and Onar both had a creepy, exposed sort of feeling as they crossed the immeasurable space. It seemed to stretch further and further the deeper they went. The further they went, the colder they felt. Before long the fire of their torches was hardly adequate to keep them from shivering. Although the descent was mild, it stretched across several miles; there was no telling how far below the earth’s surface they had ventured. Onar could not bear silence for too long; inevitably he began to probe his brother’s thoughts.
“You haven’t said much about Father’s death. Why?”
“What’s there to say?”
“How do you feel about it?”
A long pause was followed by, “Disappointed, I suppose; but— not surprised. What did he think hanging out at Dem would get him?”
“You sound angry.”
“No. It makes me sad— his death— but I can’t say that I’m angry.”
“He died the way he lived, Onar, in the pursuit of darkness.”
“You say that while we’re groping through darkness as well. What’s going to happen to us?”
“The difference, however, is this: we did not pursue this present darkness. It prevailed upon us. Ultimately, we will attain the light we seek.”
“You seem pretty confident about that.”
“It’s called walking by faith.”
“Now you sound like Archer.”
Stranth answered with a slight smile. Now, there was a man he wanted to be like— strong, brave, and wise. He seems genuinely interested in our family’s well being.
In short, Archereus was everything his own father was not, but everything Stranth wished he had been. These thoughts turned his emotions toward anger again, for he could not escape the belief that his father had chosen to be the opposite of all things worthy of admiration. How can a man call himself a man who leaves his family to fend for themselves among fowls and fiends? How can a man call himself a man who craves bloodshed and debauchery? He could not think of a single redeeming attribute his father possessed, and he was disgusted by all his recollections of him. He would rather die an early death than end up like him.
Some day, when I’m a father, I’ll be the one to teach my sons to hunt and skin their prey. I’ll be the one to teach them how to till the ground and grow a crop. I’ll teach them to tend the animals, and I’ll be at home to love and protect my family. I won’t leave all that to my wife to do alone while she fends off savages. Like my father, I’ll marry the most beautiful woman in the village; but unlike him, I will love her every day she draws breath. I sure hope Archer can convince Mom that we’re all right.
While Stranth pondered these contrasts between his father and all that he wanted to be, Onar began to feel ill at ease. He stopped to listen. Silence. Then the silence was broken by the smallest murmuring hiss. Stranth continued for several paces beyond him before he noticed that Onar had stopped.
“What is it?” he turned back to ask.
“I’m not sure. I hear something.”
Stranth listened. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Wait,” Onar whispered back.
The sound came again. With the rolling echo, it was impossible to discern the direction from whence it came.