Chapter 2: The Cave
Ava awoke the following morning to the sound of her goose fussing at the goat invading her end of the pen. She heard the ruckus through the small square opening that served as a window in the mud wall. A shutter of twigs sewn together with hemp cord hung at an angle on a leather hinge on the outer wall of mud and straw. As she stretched to relieve her stiffness from the lumpy, straw-filled mattress, she glanced around to confirm that her husband had not returned home during the night. It was as she expected. He frequently stayed gone for weeks at a time, sometimes months, without warning or explanation. Lately, when Les did come home, he typically stayed for only a couple of days before he was gone again. She had long ago grown weary of arguing for the courtesy of advanced notice when he expected to have an extended absence. She finally decided that she preferred the peace that came from withholding her questions, which would remain unanswered either way. She didn’t want to put herself in the position of having to hear another lie. Over time, his absences grew longer and more frequent. It had become a way of life.
Secretly, Ava despised Les. She tried to force those feeling out of her thoughts. She tried to show him the honor and respect that she believed to be his due as her husband. But she could not bring herself to show him affection. In truth, she shuddered at the thought of his touch as if the vileness that she saw in his character was a filth that could permeate her as well. As a mother, she did not want to behave unseemly before her children. But in the quiet darkness of her own bed at night, on the many nights that he was gone, and even on the rare nights when he was home, she treasured the dreams of watching him die a slow, painful death— sometimes at her own hands. In her waking hours, the pleasure of these imaginations burdened her with guilt if she allowed herself to think on them. They drove her to fervently play the part of the faithful, dutiful wife. Before rising from her solitary reverie, she pondered the old saying that a man kills what he loves; but a woman kills what she hates, a thought that brought a brief smile to her lips. But it was time to put away her day dreams.
After replenishing the smoldering embers of the fire pit with fresh wood, she went about her morning duties, preparing a pot of boiling water to steep herbs and roots for tea, and scrounged up a meager breakfast of cheese and bread for herself and the boys. She would eat a much smaller portion before she roused them out of their sleep in the loft, primarily so that they would not see how much less she ate than they did. She ate just enough to maintain her health. Her first priority was to feed the boys enough to reach their full growth potential. She knew they needed more than she could provide, but she gave them as much as she had. As Stranth and Onar slowly made their way to the rough hewn table in the corner to partake of their mother’s paltry provisions, Ava went out into the yard to see if the goat had an offering of milk to supply her still growing boys. Today was a good day. There was milk.
“So what of this cave you told me about yesterday? I must admit I’m eager to see it for myself,” she announced while blowing on her mug of tea, sipping slowly.
The boys gave each other an excited glance and hastily consumed their breakfast. Onar recommended that they bring some grit— a mixture of nuts, seeds, and dried berries— to provide sustenance along the way. Ava gave him the job of bundling up enough for the three of them in a swatch of woolen cloth. She also sent him out to the smoke hut to retrieve a supply of turkey tack to keep their strength up for the day’s journey. Stranth supplied his quiver with arrows and strapped it with his bow behind his back; his dagger he tied to his waist.
“Perhaps we’ll bag us a rabbit or two along the way.”
“We saw two rabbits yesterday!” Onar explained, coming back in to gather up his own bow and sword, “but all we could do was say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” demonstrating a polite wave, “since we didn’t have a bow with us.”
“Not that you didn’t try to catch ’em by hand,” Stranth laughed. “Ya should’ve seen that, Ma! It was quite a show!”
Onar was still strapping on his own quiver and bow as the trio made their way out the door. He dreamed and talked aloud of rabbit stew. He began with the imaginary hunt, describing the terrain, and included sound effects of near misses that led to ultimate triumph, even a demonstration of his lunging and rolling on the ground once they cleared the timber gate to the tiny stonewall courtyard of their humble home.
“I’ve seen that maneuver before, Onar. You demonstrated yesterday how that doesn’t work.”
Undaunted, Onar continued to expound on the proper method of skinning and gutting the imaginary creature, as the trio made their way across dusty fields of weeds and sparse dead grass. Ava and her elder son exchanged glances while Onar continued to ramble on with his dissertation on the best herbs to season the catch, the roots and vegetables that should accompany the rabbit in the pot, even how hot the fire should be, and how long to cook the stew. It all sounded deliciously entertaining.
Ava was greatly amused by her younger son’s endless rambling about an imaginary rabbit. That was his way. Onar could become so thoroughly engrossed by anything that sparked his fancy; he could remain completely absorbed for hours, even days. One who did not know him well might expect that his preoccupation made him oblivious to everything else going on around him, but not so. He was keenly aware of his environment, of sights and sounds he did not appear to acknowledge. His senses seemed to stretch out across his surroundings. He was rarely taken by surprise, and his natural mirth seemed to hold him in perpetual amusement by everything within his milieu.
Stranth was a different story. When he focused on an object, it consumed him. He was deaf and blind to everything else going on around him. Tenacious and erudite! He could not turn loose of a thing until he fully understood its composition. He would remain completely preoccupied by a subject, intent on mapping out the what, how, and why for however long it took to grasp it firmly in his mind. Sometimes, he came across as the brooding sort because of this relentless pursuit of knowledge. But he simply could not rest at ease until he had attained the understanding he sought. When it came to objects and physical feats, this did not typically take very long, for he was extremely astute and dexterous. However, figuring out the philosophies of this age was a bewildering exercise; the senseless cruelty of men baffled him. He had difficulty grappling with the world’s apparent lack of logic and reasoning, its disinterest in forging peace and improvement as well as man’s incessant need to dominate his fellow man. His mother lived for nothing more than to shield him and his brother from the knowledge of its existence. Her abundant vigilance annoyed him to some degree, for he had a great curiosity about the world of men.
How remarkably different the two boys were from one another; yet they shared a resolute and unshakeable loyalty for each other. They reached the edge of a forest that covered a terrain more rough and jagged than that they had just crossed. The trees stood tall and ominous, looking as if they had been burned. They were mostly bare, branchless, and charred. Canopies of thistles and thorns grew in great swatches, creating obstacles here and walled corridors there; in other places, their absence marked out a path. They saw very little green as they cautiously pressed deeper into the maze of wood. The leaves beneath their feet rustled and crunched with every upward step. In some places, the wind had created great banks of dead fallen leaves and brush, leaving a quieter pathway of hardened earth. The smell of decomposing leaves and rotting wood, stale and imposing, hung in the air. An uneasy sense of dread lingered in the gloom of a once lush and vibrant green wood. The memory of its former beauty hung about the trees like a sorrowing spirit. They paused in a small clearing where the ground was momentarily level to sip water from the dried gourds hanging about their waists. A large boulder protruded from a gentle slope. They sat down to have a snack of the grit and tack they had brought along.
“Are we close?” Ava inquired.
“One, maybe two more miles, I’d say,” Stranth replied.
“I haven’t noticed any markings. You did say that you marked your way back, yes?”
“Aye,” Stranth answered in a hushed tone, “we marked the way. See that clump of dirt and rotting leaves in the crook of that tree behind you?”
Turning about, she marveled at the ingenious camouflage of the marker. She also noted the tiny bit of moss wedged in it.
“We didn’t want anything too obvious that someone tracking us would easily notice or be looking for. The mud we used with wet leaves is drying now and looks like a natural part of the tree to anyone who isn’t looking for it or doesn’t know what it is.”
Noting the whisper of his voice and his continuous scanning of the landscape, she wondered if he felt the same uneasiness that she was feeling. A sinister quality drifted in these woods, leaving her feeling unsettled. She began to scan the area as well. There was no sound at all; no sound of birds chattering, no rodents or rabbits scampering about. Even the low whistle of the wind through the trees seemed to cease when they came to a stop. The ominous silence was beginning to unnerve her when she noticed both her boys appeared to be sniffing the air.
Just then, a howling screech split the silence from above their heads. She heard the whiz of a dagger slicing through the air and felt herself being thrown on her back. Looking up, she saw Stranth aiming an arrow at a fowl descending from the tree above them. She realized that Onar had already thrown his dagger into the enormous black beast just before he heaved himself at her, toppling her off the rock to the ground. Its wail intensified at the injury; huge claws released their hold on the treetop. The beast appeared to leap down upon the rock where Ava had sat seconds before, with wings spread, the already mammoth creature appeared more than twice its size. Stranth nailed the neck of the monster to the tree with an arrow that ripped through scales, flesh, and bone. Its great claws and wings were still thrashing, while angry squalls pierced the dim of the mid-day gray. Onar rolled away from his mother with drawn sword and lunged toward the backside of the fowl, cutting off its powerful tail as it whipped around to knock him off his feet. The wounded beast lost all sense of balance and was kept from falling only by the arrow that secured him to the tree. He would have surely broken free before Ava had time to scramble to her feet when Stranth and Onar simultaneously pierced him with their weapons. Stranth must have punctured its heart by penetrating his breast between scales with his dagger, while Onar stabbed his sword under its wing.
The screeching stopped.
For a moment, Ava’s breathing stopped as well. Then a sudden gasp of air cleared the dizziness threatening to overtake her. She scrambled back onto the rock to embrace her oldest son and check him over for injuries. The fowl had only narrowly missed snapping his head off his shoulders. Quickly, she turned to Onar, who was stepping back around from the far side of the tree. After wrapping her arms around him, she inspected him as well to determine if he had been wounded. Satisfied that neither son had sustained more than superficial scratches, she nearly collapsed off the rock and lay upon the ground with her forearm covering her eyes. Kneeling beside her, Stranth began to pick leaves and debris from her long, wavy hair that was now only partially tied by hemp cord.
“Mother, we cannot stay here. We must move away quickly.”
“I know; you’re right. We must get back to the cottage,” she answered, fighting hysteria.
“Mother,” Stranth earnestly pleaded, “the cave is not far beyond that rise. We have a better chance of making it there than getting all the way back to the hut without being seen by another fowl.”
“Aye, where there’s one, there’s more,” Onar reminded, sopping up the oozing sulfur from the dead fowl. He had cut strips from his cloak and wrapped them around one end of a semi-straight limb he had found close by.
Forcing herself to think clearly, Ava determined they were right. She had a gnawing feeling that she needed to see this cave. Getting to her feet, she said, “All right. Let’s hurry.”
They made their way to the top of the long but steady incline, watching, listening, and smelling with great care for more fowls as they went. Fowls are giant bird-shaped creatures covered with tiny scales instead of feathers. The scales covering their breasts are quite large. In fact, the breastplates of these enormous and much hunted creatures were frequently used to make body armor and shields. They were thought to have rather poor eyesight, but have very good hearing and sense of smell. They usually move about only during the day and seldom alone. They live in packs, usually scouting and hunting in pairs, sometimes threes. They stink of sulfur. Indeed, their blood is an excellent source of slow-burning fuel. Hence, Onar took the opportunity to swab up some blood on a rag. He now had a torch for the cave.
Although fowls have large, powerful wings, they cannot fly great distances. They are very territorial and excellent climbers with great talons at the end of their powerful legs. They have a large claw at the tip of their wings for grasping objects, as well as slicing through their prey. Fowls frequently leap from treetop to treetop because the floor of a forest will impede them since they are not very agile on foot. However, they can sprint across open ground at a frightening speed because of their long stride.
Leaving the dead beast, the trio came at last to a place where the ground suddenly dipped sharply down before rising almost as severely up the other side of a narrow ravine. The slender valley between the two hills extended a great distance away at a gentle decline in one direction. In the other direction, where the ground continued to swell higher, a curve in the north slope could be seen some distance away, revealing a wide parting between the two hills and a sudden drop, allowing the view of a triangle-shaped patch of dim, gray sky facing eastward.
“This is it,” announced Stranth, who spied a fowl gliding across that distant patch of triangle sky. He kept that knowledge to himself to spare their alarm. They had good cover in this terrain.
As they began to make their descent into the ravine, however, they heard the not so distant cry of a fowl from the direction of the previously slain beast.
“His scouting partner just discovered our friend,” Stranth speculated.
“Aye, you must be right,” Ava answered. “Quickly!”
They hastened their descent to the bottom of the gully littered with boulders and dead, fallen trees. Onar remained behind, having spied a nice vine. After a good tug to test its strength, he swung down to the bottom and sat upon a fallen tree trunk, looking very pleased with himself. He waited for his mother and brother to catch up. Stranth passed him without a word, just an acknowledging smirk. Onar waited for him to pass before falling in step behind him.
Sporadically looking over her shoulders, Ava followed her sons as they made their way toward a clump of three trees where a large rock was perched in the center. One of the trees seemed to grow up from under the rock at a peculiar angle. A spray of tiny white flowers grew close to the ground at the base of the tree. A cluster of three flowers grew on each delicate stem. The flowers had the most brilliant whiteness about them that Ava had ever seen. Seven little petals grew in a rosette pattern around a tiny, deep purple center. Ava had never before smelled anything so sweet or seen such fragile beauty in all her days. The aroma had an invigorating effect upon her. She could not recall a time when she had felt anything so near delight, which the scent of these elfin flowers fostered.
“Amazing,” she breathed to her sons who were greatly puzzled. “I’m so glad you brought me here!”
“Are you sure this is the spot?” Onar asked his brother.
“Aye. Look here,” Stranth replied, exposing the mouth of the cave by lifting a patch of thistles out of the way. The opening lay beside the base of the tree at the top of the boulder.
“I don’t remember seeing those flowers here yesterday.”
“Nor do I,” Stranth agreed, exceedingly puzzled.
Picking a stem for each and handing one to both sons, Ava stated, “Nevertheless, here they are. Is this not the most divine scent you have ever encountered?”
Indeed, the fragrance was so captivating that they nearly forgot all about the cave and the fowl that was much closer than they apparently recalled.
“I don’t know how we missed these yesterday,” Onar thought aloud, stroking his nose with the whisper soft petals.
“Well, we can sit out here until a friend of our fowl finds us, sniffing flowers; or I can show you what we really came for. How about it?”
“Oh, yes! I’m sorry, Stranth. Truth told, I think I actually did forget about the cave for a minute.” Springing up, she added, “I don’t know when I have felt so refreshed or revived!”
Onar used his flints to ignite his new torch. Handing it to his older brother, he held the thistles back for his mother to follow Stranth into the cave. They had to crouch down, doubled over, and nearly crawl to get in. Once they were a good stone’s toss in, they could stand upright. A few more steps, and the cave widened to an area as large as their cottage. Stranth passed the torch back to Onar, who moved to the far end of the cave.
“There’s a tunnel over here.”
As her younger son moved to the farther end of the cave, Ava realized that the petals of her flower had begun to glow in the darkness that encroached her as his torch went further and further away. Looking up, she could see the flower in Stranth’s hand, as well, though he was evidently several feet away from her.
“Boys,” she called, “can you see my flower from where you’re standing?”
Surprised, Onar asked, “Is it reflecting the light of my torch?”
“I’m not sure,” his mother answered, while turning her back to the light of his torch. “It seems to get brighter the darker it gets. Extend your torch as far down into that tunnel as you can reach.”
“Well, would you look at that?”
“It’s glowing,” Stranth observed, coming up behind her with his flower in his hand. “Fascinating.” The flowers seemed to get even brighter the closer they came in proximity.
They continued to wonder and speculate about the flower until Onar suggested they explore the tunnel.
“No!” said their mother. “We mustn’t. In fact, I’d much rather find some stones to obstruct the opening.”
“We don’t know for certain whether this is the lair of some wild beast. It’s said that the fowls and dragons sprang out of the crevices of the earth when the great quakes split the ground open. What if there are even worse monsters down there?”
“We’re not afraid,” Onar shrugged with a smile.
“Perhaps you’re not; but I am! We’ve stayed long enough, boys. If we leave now, we may have just enough time to get home before it gets too dark.”
“She’s right,” Stranth said to his brother who looked ready to object. “Let’s go and hope we see some rabbits on the way home.” But no more fowls!
Onar exited, followed by his mother. When Ava cleared the mouth of the cave, she stooped to pick several stems of the enchanting little white flowers.
Deeply inhaling their pleasant aroma again, she said, “I think I could just about race you two home!”
Pulling her wrist toward himself, Onar sniffed the bouquet in her hand and answered, “You’re on!”
They playfully raced each other to the crest, leaving Stranth to cover the mouth of the cave with the bundle of thistles. While his mother and brother were making their way out, however, Stranth paused to pull a petal off his flower and dropped it onto the floor of the cave. It continued to glow. He made a trail of petals along the short tunnel to the mouth of the cave. Turning to look back, he could see each one giving off its iridescent light. They were like tiny puddles of light lying on the ground. Interesting.
“Hey, wait up!” he called after looking toward the patch of open sky. He stopped to sniff the air and scan the crests of the surrounding hills. He had not forgotten the fowls and was a little perturbed that his mother and brother were carrying on as if they had.
Panting at the steep climb which she intended to finish before her son, Ava paused at the top, noting that Onar reached the summit just seconds ahead of her. He was quite pleased with himself. Though he hadn’t said a word, Ava looked at him through narrowed eyes.
“Oh, hush. Don’t tempt me to push you back down.”
Onar laughed but moved away from the edge of the drop off. His mother, though always good-natured, truly hated losing, which is why he didn’t charge up the hill at full speed.
“Perhaps another whiff of those flowers will make it up to you,” he teased, gently pushing the blossoms still in her hand toward her nose.
Stranth reached the peak to find his mother staring intently at his brother while keeping her bouquet securely under her nose. Taking one more deep breath, she extended the bundle of posies to her older son, while keeping her eyes fixed on the younger.
“Here,” she offered, stifling a grin, “You could probably use a whiff.”
Stranth breathed in deeply, more to humor his mother than because he felt exerted from the climb. They do have an invigorating effect. He could see the one-sided grin his mother was sporting while gazing at his little brother. There would be pranks along the way; he could see it coming.
They made their way home without particular incident, passing by the fowl that they had slain earlier. The boys were already referring to the spot as “Fowl Rock.” Stranth was silently calculating what he could trade for some of those breastplates and mentally designing a shield pattern. They heard the far-off cry of its companion more than once. Onar wanted to cut its head off for a trophy, but his mother overruled him. Fortunately, the stirring of a nearby rabbit caught his attention, effectively diverting him.
By the time they passed through the gate to their yard, they had bagged three rabbits, one of them especially fat. Laughing in a carefree manner, they entered the house.
All laughing ceased when Les snarled, “And where’ve you three been off to?”
Pausing to absorb the apprehension that suddenly swept over the threesome, Ava answered the obvious: “Hunting.”
“Hunting, eh?” Les snorted. “And whad’ja catch on this hunt?”
Stranth silently held up the rabbits in answer.
“Well, now. Only three, huh? You’d better get ’em outside and skin ’em up for me. I’m powerful hungry!”
Ava quietly nodded to both her sons, no trace of their pleasant afternoon showing in her countenance. Crest-fallen, they both went outside to prepare their catch.
“Fire’s almost out. Get some more wood on the pit,” Les ordered his wife.
“Of course. Let me put these down and set a pot to boil for stew.”
“What’s that in yer hand?”
“Just some flowers I picked along the way,” she said, smelling them once again, desperately hoping for their rejuvenation. She needed to convey a more pleasant air than she was feeling.
Les yanked her hand toward him and smelled the flowers himself. Rather than improve his foul mood, they increased his aggravation.
“Ugh! Get rid of these putrid weeds!” he demanded. Snatching them out of her hand, he threw them onto the smoldering embers of the fire pit. They sizzled and popped and glowed a bright bluish white as they withered and writhed in the flames.
Ava gasped in surprise. “You don’t like them?” she nearly whined.
“Like them?” he repulsed. “Course not! I don’t know when I’ve smelled a fouler stench! Where’d you find those?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” she said, looking away, “just off in the woods somewhere.”
“Don’t let me find those wretched weeds in my house again!” he demanded.
And so the evening went. Nothing the three of them could do would please Les even a little. As they went to bed, Ava and her sons had the same thought— though they would never speak it aloud, even to each other— they couldn’t wait for him to go off again and leave them in peace.
How long ago had that been? Had there been an enjoyable moment at the cottage since that day? That is, excluding the days Les was gone. Did he have the shadow then, and had she simply missed it?
For long years Ava continued to hope against hope that her husband would have a change of heart and desire to dwell with her and the boys, that they would build a life together as a family. She listened to her sons’ inquiries about the reason for their father’s long absences, never able to adequately explain what she did not understand herself. She did not dissuade the boys from imagining that they would soon have an opportunity to show him a new skill they had developed or that he would come home and share in their adventures and play. Onar, in particular, seemed to desperately cling to the illusion that his father’s absences were necessary for the family’s well being, rather than a selfish choice. He imagined that he was on a mission of some importance, to increase their safety and security. He needed his father’s absences justified. Ava knew better, but she kept that knowledge to herself.
Stranth once was the same way. But as he got older, he found it harder to justify in his mind. He could see no benefit in his father perpetually being away. He saw only that his mother was left with the upkeep of a dilapidated hut and the care of his brother and himself. She worked hard in a garden that didn’t yield much. She tended the animals and could hardly keep from treating them more like pets than resources. As he got older, he tried to be a greater and greater help to his mother and encouraged Onar to do the same. But seeing how hard his mother worked and the loving kindness that she treated her sons with only sparked a feeling of resentment toward his father who seemed to come and go on a whim. When he did show up, he was always in an exceedingly disagreeable humor, such that Stranth quickly forgot all about ever missing him or wishing for his return.
It was that same day when Ava had seen the cave for the first time and had known in her heart that she could not tell her husband about it, that she also fully realized how much more alone she felt in his presence than in his absence. The distance had grown over time. It was more than a feeling of isolation, more than a void; it had become an abysmal darkness that had crept in so slowly that her senses apparently adjusted along the way. This was also the day when she realized that somewhere along the way the tie had been completely severed. Watching Les throw the tiny white flowers into the barely burning flame struck a chord deep within her. It may as well been her heart he had cast into the fire. Within the span of a few months, she would find herself running for her life and the safety of her children.