Chapter 14: Pressing Forward
Stranth and Onar leaned against each other as they sat in a cleft of the cave wall. They decided to take turns sleeping for a couple of hours each. Stranth took the first watch. During the second hour of Onar’s watch, he began to hear a scratching sound, a panting and huffing, as if some creature were trying to make its way up the steep slope they had climbed some distance back. He could hear bits of rock and pebbles rolling back away from the narrow breach that opened into this channel. He sensed the creature was too large to fit through the narrow passage they had to wiggle through, but it was making progress enlarging the gap. It was sniffing as it worked; apparently it had caught their scent and was quite determined to investigate.
Onar shook Stranth’s shoulders, motioning him to be quiet. In his sleepy state, it took him a minute or two to hear the creature trying to claw its way closer to them.
“Dragon?” Onar quietly posed.
Stranth nodded his consent. “Let’s not wait to be certain.”
Quietly, the boys moved through the narrowing tunnel. They were comforted by the close quarters they were traveling through, confident they would be less likely to encounter any predators. Stranth began to question their course, however, and where it might lead.
“It widens up ahead in the distance,” Onar assured him.
“How do you know?”
“The same way you were able to shoot that giant lizard with the flame of your torch.”
“I don’t know how I did that.”
“Archereus,” Onar suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“I felt his presence, almost like he was standing there with us, just before you killed it,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure what I felt. It all happened too fast to think about. I just took aim, and the flames seemed to surge out of me.”
“Right. The same way I suddenly knew what direction to go. It came to me in a flash; but I felt Archer’s presence at that moment.”
“Hmm,” was all Stranth wanted to reply.
They pressed forward until there was only room enough for them to crawl on their bellies in single file.
“Onar, you’re certain this is the way to go? What if this is a dead end?”
“It’s not,” he replied, a little annoyed. He knew where they were and where they needed to go; he had a map drawn in his head. After a moment, he recalled the ill humor Stranth can get in when he’s tired. “Why don’t we just rest here for a little while before we go any further?”
“I’m all for that.”
“You go to sleep first.”
Stranth did not answer. He had already drifted off to sleep. Onar did not mind. He was not comfortable enough to fall asleep. He was anxious to get to the larger clearing that he was certain lay less than a hundred yards up ahead, though he knew this was probably the safest place for them to rest undisturbed. The dark confinement was wearing on his emotions, however. His imagination was conjuring up all manner of beasts hiding in various burrows; he wanted to breathe the outdoor air again. The fluid gray murk would be a welcome change from the stifling darkness that closed upon him. Even with his brother there beside him, he felt alone. He wondered about his mother and the misery she must be feeling in their absence. He agreed with Stranth that she was too protective of them at times; but he also knew that he and his brother were the great treasures of her heart; their well being was her first and only concern. Something about her love gave him courage. However, as he lay there in the dark, alone in his thoughts, he began to ponder why his father apparently had never felt that way about them. Is it unmanly to have emotional attachments, he wondered?
He didn’t know much about the people in the world around him, just what he had learned from his mother, the Harrises, and now Archer. He could not recall meeting too many more people in his life. Everything his mother had taught him about the wretchedness of most humans seemed to be confirmed by the men his father brought home with him a few weeks ago. It seemed so long ago now. His world seemed to have been turned upside down since that day. Onar could not escape the image of his father’s expression looking back at him in surprise after he shot the arrow past his head. His countenance wore a look of betrayal. Although he knew his father had taken a bad turn and lived under the influence of a violent world steeped in scorn and suspicion, he could feel only love and compassion for the man. That emotion puzzled him, too. Memories of his father showing him much affection were few and faded. It had been quite a long time since his father had paid him any attention. Most of his interactions with him were disappointing at best. His father never played with him and rarely sat and just listened to him talk the way his mother did. He was always impatient to get away from his family it seemed. They had all been rejected by Father. Onar could not understand why; at that moment, the unanswerable gnawed at him.
Onar was not traumatized by news of his father’s death. He was not sure what he was supposed to feel; so as far as he could tell, he had felt nothing at all, until now, that is. Mulling it over in his head, he thought he should feel sorrow. Yet, he could not bring himself to feel sorrow. That his mother would not be further disturbed by him was a relief, however, he could not own that he felt relieved. Disappointment was a familiar feeling anytime he thought of his father, but an even hollower feeling was circling inside his mind and around his heart. Perhaps it was a mixture of all of these feelings. He wanted to wrap them up and push them to the back of his mind like a forgotten book that no one ever read. Nevertheless, he had the most peculiar feeling that somehow, there was still more to come. If they could just get moving again, he knew the preoccupation would erase these thoughts from his mind. Restlessness consumed him.
Onar strained to see through the narrow darkness to the end of the tunnel. He was overcome with the urge to advance farther along. Having nothing else to do while he waited for his brother to rest, he dragged himself up the corridor. After crawling along a hundred or more yards, he felt a sudden widening. He had room enough to reach into his pocket and pull out an elpece stem. The blossom appeared to give off great light in the abject darkness. He was in a pocket that would easily accommodate his brother and him to nearly stand. The only way out was straight up. He could hear a current of air passing over the pipe above him and knew with his brother’s help that they could hoist and lift each other to the next level.
He had all but exhausted what energy he had left just getting this far. It was certainly a more comfortable place to rest than the narrow channel where Stranth still lay. The floor felt rather sandy. The temptation to rest there was great; yet concern for the fear his brother might feel if he woke up alone and disoriented was greater. Perhaps he could call to Stranth and convince him to crawl up to him rather than going all the way back just to retrace the same trek a third time. That was a disheartening idea. Fatigue was catching up to him. He crouched low and called down the tunnel twice before he stopped to consider Stranth might not be the only one to hear his voice. Not wanting to draw any attention to their presence, he began to crawl back toward his brother. He stopped every few feet to rest and listen. Once or twice he whispered Stranth’s name. At last, overcome with exhaustion, he laid his head down to rest for a moment. It was hours later when he heard Stranth’s voice calling his name in a hoarse whisper stretching up through the chamber until it reached him.
“Here,” he whispered back. “Can you hear me?”
“Where are you?”
“Just ahead. Keep coming. You’re not far.”
Stranth slowly made his way to Onar’s position. Meanwhile, Onar worked to turn himself around to crawl back to the pocket. He hadn’t stopped to consider how difficult that might be in this narrow passage until he tried.
“What’re you doing way up here?” Stranth asked when he finally caught up.
“I was restless, so I went for a crawl.”
“You scared me by disappearing like that. I was afraid something dragged you off.”
“I’m sorry. I found a pocket up ahead with an upward shaft, but I just couldn’t make it all the way back.”
“Don’t leave me like that again. What will I tell mother when I try to explain why we got separated and that I don’t know what happened to you?” Onar could hear both concern and frustration in his raspy voice. “She expects me to look after you when she’s not around.”
“Maybe I don’t need you to look after me.”
“I’m not trying to stir up an argument, Onar. I’m just saying that Ma wants to find us together when she catches up to us. We don’t need to get separated. I’m sure you’d do fine on your own.”
“I’m sorry. I’m getting frustrated with these close walls, and the darkness. I can’t even see my hand in front of me,” he grumbled. “I just want out of here!”
“I know. I feel the same. But let’s try to keep our heads until we reach the surface. All we can do right now is press forward.”
When they finally reached the pocket, the boys tumbled out of the slender channel and lay motionless on the broad sandy floor. It was much softer by comparison. The air in the pocket didn’t reek as bad as the tunnel did, either.
“You crawled all that way and most of the way back while I was asleep?” Stranth asked.
“I guess another hour or so of rest will do you some good.”
“Me, too,” he admitted.
It was perhaps an hour or more later when Stranth felt something wiggling around underneath his back. In his sleepy stupor, he tried at first to roll away from the sensation. But it continued. He tried pushing it away, but that seemed to get whatever it was stirring faster. He pulled the elpece out of his pocket to have a look. The ground beneath and all around seemed to be moving, creating rippling waves in the sandy floor. He nudged Onar, who had not been the least disturbed by this movement.
“One more hour,” he pleaded.
“Onar, wake up!” Stranth urged. “Look at the ground. It’s moving.”
Slowly Onar sat up and tried to focus.
“The ground is moving,” he announced.
“Is it?” Stranth asked sarcastically.
“Aye, it is,” Onar rose to his feet and immediately sunk to his ankles in the sand. “Uh oh, Stranth,” he said, pointing to his feet, “I think we better get out of here.”
Stranth’s hand sank down into the sand almost to his elbow when he tried to hoist himself up. “Give me your hand but don’t move.”
Carefully, Onar reached down and steadied Stranth as he slowly raised himself to his feet. The maneuver caused them to sink a few inches more.
“You’re going to have to try to climb onto my shoulders to get up into that shaft. It’s narrow enough that you should be able to support your weight by pressing against the walls,” Stranth suggested.
“And how will you get up?”
“Once you’ve anchored yourself well, reach the light stick back to me, and I’ll pull myself up.”
Onar did not see how this was going to work without their first sinking into this miry sand. Even if he could get on top of Stranth’s shoulders without causing him to sink down to his waist, even if he was able to hoist himself up into the shaft, how would he be able to pull Stranth up into the pipe without tumbling back on top of him? They would need something more secure to support all their weight.
Stranth did not argue with Onar’s assessment. He recognized all those points as he was giving Onar instruction. However, they had no other alternative and no other tools at their disposal. There wasn’t time to think about other options; they had to act, and fast.
“You’re stronger than I am. You get on my shoulders and pull me up.”
“I’m also taller than you which means I’ll be able to reach better than you will. If we keep sinking at this rate, you won’t be able to reach the light stick even if I do get myself up there.”
Stranth pulled Onar toward him. “There’s no time to argue. Whatever is moving around in the sand is starting to wrap itself around my leg, and I feel something nipping at my feet. Climb!”
Onar managed to get on top of Stranth’s shoulders fairly quickly, but Stranth was already up to his knees in the shifting sand. Once he was able to climb into the shaft, he extended the light stick back to Stranth with greater ease than he had imagined when Stranth first suggested their course of action. He was even able to anchor himself well. But he wasn’t sure if he would be able to pull all of Stranth’s weight up into the shaft. Stranth recognized the improbability of his success and began to give Onar instructions in the event he couldn’t make it.
“If you let go, I’m jumping back down on top of you! It’s both of us getting out or neither of us, Stranth!”
Stranth could see that his brother meant to jump back if he let go. He was afraid of pulling Onar back on top of him if he pulled at the stick with all his strength. But it would take that and more, for whatever it was that had wrapped around his leg was beginning a downward pull also.
“Hold! Hold!” Stranth encouraged Onar, as he pulled himself up.
“I’m holding! I’m holding!” Onar replied.
Stranth hoisted himself up high enough to have his feet about a foot above the surface of the sand. He could see what looked like a hairy snake wrapped around the lower part of his leg that was tugging harder now to pull him back. Holding onto the stick with one hand, he pulled his sword out of its sheath and cut the hairy beast in two. The sand began to bubble up, and a loud grumble came up muffled through the sand.
“Hurry!” Onar cried out as he worked his way up through the shaft, pulling Stranth on the stick along with him.
“Keep going! I’m coming!”
Once Onar could see that Stranth was securely inside the shaft he fled to the top and rolled out onto the floor of the next level. Stranth threw the light stick up to the top of the shaft where it fell to the side of the gaping hole. Quickly, Stranth shimmied his way to the top, but not before another furry tendril of the sand creature reached up to try to pull him back down.
“Find a big rock!” Stranth called out, as he fought his way out of the shaft. He attacked the second hairy snake with his sword again. A louder cry came from below. Stranth saw a huge boulder behind Onar, who had come up with a big rock and had thrown it down the shaft.
“Help me roll this rock over the opening,” Stranth called out, already pushing it from behind.
The two boys pushed and heaved the enormous stone to the orifice, slamming the boulder down into the hole. It wedged itself about halfway down. A new furry tendril was penned against the tunnel wall. It tried to violently shake itself loose. Ava’s sons did not wait around to see if it succeeded. Grabbing up the light stick, they ran full speed to the east.
Having put a good distance between themselves and the shaft, Onar slowed to a walk and blurted out, “What in the world was that?”
“I don’t know, and I hope I never find out,” Stranth panted. “Let’s keep moving!”
By the light of their elpece blooms, the boys groped their way to a safe distance from the shaft, where they stopped to search for flints to reignite their torch. They pressed on as fast as they could go on the now upward slope. They scaled jagged walls, hiking and climbing with a sense of urgency to be free from the prison of darkness; the higher they climbed, the higher their spirits were lifted. The upward movement alone filled them with hope.
“Do you hear that?” Onar paused to ask his brother.
They had come to an open cavern with several tunnels branching off. One branch opened twenty feet above their heads. Onar ran to the wall and stood under it looking around for a means to climb up to it.
“Water,” he said to Stranth, “can’t you hear it?”
“I do!” he finally joined.
“That tunnel looks a little lighter than the others. We’ve made it, Stranth!”
They worked to bring the biggest rocks and boulders they could move to the cave wall under the mouth of the tunnel. Finally, they had a pile high enough that they could manage the climb. Not far in the distance, a waterfall tumbled down into a stream that split off in two directions.
The boys were parched, and the water that spilled over the ridge was sweet. The eastward stream ran parallel to their path and brought them at length to another waterfall covering the mouth of a cave. On the other side of the waterfall was the gray light of day. Never had the dreary murk of Terra Dombren seemed so far from gloom as it did in that moment when they were released from the custody of the deep, dark caves. They were exceedingly glad.
“What now?” Onar asked after they settled down long enough to survey the mountains and valleys before them.
“Well,” Stranth mused, suddenly resuming the role as guide, “it looks like the river forks down yonder,” he said, pointing east. “Ma said we should look for a bridge before the fork. I don’t see a bridge from here, but it could be hidden by some of the bends. We’ll have to go in for a closer look.”
“That looks like a long way off from here. I’m pretty hungry, and we’ve got nothing to eat.”
“Why don’t we get cleaned up in these falls and etch a big M on the face of the mountain here,” he pointed. “Then we can hunt for rabbit or quail as we make our way to the river.”
“I like it.”
Off they went, Ava’s sons. Never having been more than a few miles from home and hardly ever out of their mother’s sight, they would pick their way along on foot with no plain path to follow. They were good hunters, good companions, and good boys with no idea how wicked and wretched the world was that lay before them. Nevertheless, they carried with them the excitement of adventure, the wonder of innocence, and hope against hope that a bright and beautiful future lay somewhere on the other side of these dark lands steeped in shadow.