Chapter 4: Secret Passage
How does one reconcile betrayal? How does one move forward? The endless, bitter question, why? — goes unanswered. The temptation to wait for the deadened trees and silent rocks to cry out words of comfort, to counter the effects of disloyalty, is futile. Nature itself offers no help to heal a wounded heart. The weak will stew in a frozen fixation with a past that cannot be changed, replaying it over and over in their minds. Ava would not wallow in weakness. Since nothing was left to cling to at her little hut, no more illusions of hope, she determined the time had come to see if any part of this world would redeem her good opinion.
When Les brought his two friends home, Ava overheard one of them mention Dem. Her suspicions were confirmed. Apparently, Les had been spending most of his time away from his family there. Following that memorable visit, Les had stayed away longer than usual. This absence felt especially long to his family. Although they were eager to spend their time at the cave, they were too afraid to return to it once the fourteenth day arrived.
After the encounter with Les’s friends, Ava finally agreed to let her boys explore the tunnel at the far end of the cave. At last, the curiosity became irresistible for her, too. The cave was starting to feel more like home than their little hut. A sense of freedom and relaxation permeated the cave that her family had never known at the cottage. It was almost a feeling of safety.
With Stranth leading the way, followed by his mother, and Onar bringing up the rear, they had not gone too far into the tunnel, when they heard a dripping sound. Coming to a fork in the tunnel at some length, they determined that the dripping sound echoed from the tunnel to the right. They followed it a bit further and came upon an underground spring.
“I wonder if this is the same water source as the fountain on the northeast ridge?” Stranth posed.
Ava marked the direction the stream flowed as she cupped some of the cold water in her hand and tasted it. “I think it must be.”
The stream followed along the tunnel path for quite a distance, but ultimately the path diverged to the right and seemed to cut sharply downward after the stream disappeared into a cleft on the left side of the cave tunnel wall. The decline became too steep to safely negotiate without a rope while holding a torch in one hand. They turned back to plan the installation of torches and survey a good spot to anchor a rope so that they could explore further another day.
The tunnel to the left ended somewhere along the northeast ridge of the hillside. A very small opening at the extremity allowed natural light to be filtered through rocks, roots, and dirt. Onar suggested that they wedge a piece of bright material through the little opening so that they could hunt for it on the outside and perhaps excavate a larger opening.
“That task will require more tools than we have with us,” Stranth concluded.
“Let’s head back, then,” Onar suggested, eager to get started.
The family made their way to the cottage and back, but the waste of the day retrieving tools for their projects limited the time they would have to complete the work. The fourteenth day came all too soon, but not before they had mounted torches on the tunnel walls and anchored a rope for the drop in the eastward tunnel. Stranth extended a long tree limb with a strip of cloth tied to the tip through the gap at the end of the left tunnel. Onar found the flag with ease but only half finished the excavation when the fortnight came to an end. The thought of going back to the hut to wait for their father was disheartening. Would he bring more “friends” with him? They all had a sinking feeling as they considered the prospect.
Les was gone for well over a month before he returned with his news. He appeared to be alone, for which they breathed a sigh of relief and hoped rather than believed that it was an indication of his concern for their safety and well being. Those hopes were dashed as soon as he opened his mouth to speak.
“I’ve taken a look at it and determined that we’re too far from civilization. We’ll have an easier time of it in Dem.”
Whenever Les began an announcement with, “I’ve taken a look at it,” Ava knew that whatever followed wasn’t going to be in her family’s best interest. That was his favorite euphemism for your opinion is irrelevant. Ava’s worst fears were realized. It was evident that he truly did love the pursuit of darkness more than his own flesh and blood. The walls of Dem were not built for protection, but confinement. Did he really think her ignorant of that fact?
Civilization? Numans and their euphemisms! The only way anyone ever earned the privilege to come and go from Dem, or any other walled city, was to swear an allegiance to Cam, the Warlord of Terra Dombren. This allegiance was signified by the scorpion tattoo on the left side of the neck and sealed by a sacrifice. Few who entered Dem without making this pact ever left again. Those who entered Dem willingly aspired to be a part of the numan class.
The day had come. Les had made his pronouncement. Ava had seen his tattoo and his shadow. Asking herself how he could betray his family, and why, was an exercise in futility. Truth be told, the occasion provided her with the necessary courage to seek what was already in her own heart.
Yet, she had to be absolutely certain. Her own sense of loyalty demanded that she see it with her own eyes. As she abruptly packed up provisions for their final departure, she recalled that she knew someone who could help her.
Ava visited Swapport, a trading post two days south of the cottage by horseback, once or twice every few months. Furtov, a merchant there, was a good source for news and encouragement. He had come to the outskirts of Dem in search of his brother Bolshe, who had gotten caught up in the fervor of Dem, nearly another day’s hard ride southwest of Swapport. Bolshe’s curiosity ended up costing him his life. Before he was killed, however, he showed Furtov a secret entrance that would enable him to come and go from Dem, if necessary, without the scorpion seal. A drainage tunnel, located on the southeast corner of the city wall, led to a well-secluded grate in a dark passageway near a sensitive area of the city, the Counsel Chamber. Bolshe believed this to be a service passage, not one that Cam or his lieutenants would normally use.
Furtov sneaked in with Bolshe on one occasion. He had hoped Furtov would share his fascination with the wanton wickedness that occurred within the Counsel Chamber walls. What depth of depravity had Furtov’s brother sunk to that he could find entertainment in the torture of innocent people, even children and the aged?
The festivals of carnage were called initiations. Once inside the Chamber, being discovered as a trespasser would mean certain immediate death. Fortunately, hooded cloaks were worn in the spectator gallery at the beginning of the ceremony. The cloak was all that saved Furtov that night, for his expression of horror would have surely betrayed him as an innocent. A panicking urge to run nearly drove him mad with anxiety. It was the longest night of his life, as he witnessed the slow and bloody torture of an old couple deemed to have out lived their usefulness in a neighboring village just southeast of Swapport. Then to see the numans, who are past all feeling, dancing and cavorting about in their blood was beyond his capacity to comprehend. With a heavy heart, he spied a look of strange ecstasy on his brother’s face while he witnessed these same events. What hope is there when life itself holds no value, evokes no pity, even in the companion of my childhood?
Cam himself leapt down from the platform with the branding iron for the old couple’s son who had brought his parents. Their blood mixed with an ink potion was smeared on the scorpion-shaped brand that seared the left side of his neck. When healed, he would have his seal. The scorpion on the neck was always the first tattoo. But greater status was achieved through presenting more sacrifices and earning more tattoos. Bare bodies began to emerge in the revelry. Furtov witnessed multiple tattoos on scores of bodies with contorted faces and sunken black orbs as they swayed and gyrated to a deafening beat of drums. When hoods were pulled back, Furtov was amazed at how very young most of the revelers appeared to be. Yet on further reflection, he believed that most revolutions were probably initiated by the very young who had not the wisdom that usually comes with age. Instead, they only had impatience for ever greater excitement and experience for experience’s sake. The older participants who had managed to stay alive in this culture enjoyed the iconic status of self-perpetuation.
After Bolshe was killed within the walls of Dem, Furtov chose to stay at his post in Swapport. His testimony of the activities he witnessed within those walls turned many an ignorant traveler away. Some whose appetite was whetted by such reports would press on to the walled city, for it mirrored the darkness that was already in their hearts. These were the most wretched, deadened souls, desperately seeking some confirmation that they were still alive, who could only escape the numbing effect of emptiness through pain and debauchery. On the outskirts of Swapport, the nearly continuous drums of Dem could be heard in the distance. To some, it served as a siren’s song— to others, an ominous warning.
Following the sighting of the shadow, Ava decided to follow Les to Dem at a distance. She would pay a visit to Furtov on the way. She paused to collect herself and form a plan of action. Dressed as a man with her hair knotted up under a hat and a mustache she had fashioned from hair clippings, she went out to hitch Roxie, their Jutland pony, to the cart.
“Going to the trade post?” Onar inquired. His mother always disguised herself as a man when she went to town.
“Yes,” his mother answered, avoiding eye contact with her son. “We’re running low on a few supplies, and I think we’re going to stay at the cave for an extended visit next time.”
Onar was visibly excited to hear this.
“Run and fetch your brother for me. I have a job for the two of you while I’m gone.”
Ava did not like the idea of leaving the boys alone. However, she didn’t dare risk bringing them anywhere near Dem. Angry as she was at Les, she still did not want her children to know just how wicked a turn he had taken.
“I’m going to the trade post for provisions.” Indicating the parcels she had put together, she said, “I want the two of you to take these things to the cave and stay there until I arrive. Make sure a path is marked out for me beyond Fowl Rock by petals in case darkness falls before my arrival.”
“You’re going to let us go by ourselves?” Stranth asked, not knowing what to make of this bold move on his mother’s part. Normally, she carried them over to Farmer and Mrs. Harris for the time she was gone to town.
“Yes,” she said, standing close in front of him and looking very seriously into his eyes. “Stranth, you’re even taller than I am now. You’re nearly a grown man. I’m entrusting you to look after your brother, to keep him safe and out of trouble. I know I can count on you to do this for me. I’m depending on you.”
“Has something happened, Ma?”
“We’ll talk about it when I get to the cave. It’s possible that it’ll be so late when I return that I may turn aside to sleep at the cottage for a night before I press on to the cave. But I should be there by week’s end without question.”
She placed her hands on her son’s face. “If I am not there by nightfall of the seventh day, you may have to consider that some evil has fallen upon me. If that is the case—”
“Ma, let us go with you for protection!” Stranth interrupted. “We’re old enough to help you.”
“Stranth, listen to me,” she said with determination, “if that is the case, on the morning of the eighth day, I want you to take Onar to my brother Madsen of Middletown. That is where I will go to look for you if anything should detain me.” She knelt down and drew a map in the sandy clay with her dagger. “Travel due east until you come to a river. Follow that river north until you come to a bridge crossing where the river begins to fork.”
“Mother, please let us go with you,” Onar pleaded.
“It will be all right boys,” she said as she pulled them to her and embraced them both. All three were fighting back tears. “I’m not expecting trouble; I just want us to have a plan in case there is, or in case—” she could not finish her sentence. She did not want to plant fearful thoughts into their heads.
“You’re both so brave. You must be very courageous now,” she said hugging them both again. “I need to get on my way if I’m to make it there by nightfall tomorrow. You two stick together and watch out for each other.”
“If you’re only going to the trade post, why don’t we just wait for you here or go stay with Farmer Harris?” Stranth inquired.
“Your father’s habits have been so erratic lately; I don’t think I want him to find you here alone,” she answered, mounting the cart, trying to adopt an air of normalcy. “And given the strangers he brought with him a few months ago, perhaps it’s best the Harrises not learn about the cave. They can’t let anything slip about things they don’t know about, and we don’t want them to feel like they have to lie to protect us. Get those things I packed up to the cave. I’ll see you in a few days. I love you both,” she said with a forced smile.
The boys stood silently watching her pull away. Tears welled up in Ava’s eyes as she prodded Roxie out the gate and down the dusty lane. Please let them be safe.