A curl of hair was tickling Thais’ nose, pulling her from a happy dream where she rode atop a dragon against hoards of barbarians from the south. In her dream she had become a strong man, king in fact of her armies. She was all powerful and little could stop her, save this irking hair brushing against her face. What hair was this? Her own hair was pulled back in twin braids. Disgruntled at being torn from such a heroic dream Thais opened her eyes.
“Oh,” she stammered and quickly she jumped to her feet, in disbelief that she and Kaio had been wrapped up in a heap upon the ground, their bedrolls tangled together. Evidently a cold night had found them unconsciously seeking out one another’s warmth, but it was a rude awakening to a twelve-year-old girl who was yet to see the worth of a young man beyond that of chum. The girl wiped at her dirty clothes as though to wipe any trace of Kaio from herself while the young man woke with bleary eyes.
“Why are you flapping so?” the boy tried to say, though his complaint came out as a mere croak. Thais ignored him, correctly assuming him to be in one of his usual morning moods and instead the girl paced upstream toward the cave opening. She took a moment to thank Aius and Pollux, God of the Skies, for not depositing fresh snow or rain on the mountains. The stream hadn’t risen in the night; there would be room to breath in the darkness.
By the time Thais returned to the extinguished campfire Kaio had managed to lift himself from his bedroll and was pulling a warm jumper over his head.
“It will be warmer once we get inside,” Thais told the boy.
“Yes, but I am cold now,” Kaio grumbled, his face grimacing at his own temper. He was trying his hardest not to take it out on the princess, but there was only so much he could control.
“Come on,” Thais spoke airily, as though the boy had not grumbled at her. She would try to, for Rachel’s sake. “We can pack away last night’s dinner and eat it once we are inside.”
The children spoke little while they packed away their bedrolls and wrapped what remained from the fish Thais had managed to catch from the stream into their packs. Soon they were ready and standing at the entrance to the caves. The friends exchanged readying encouraging expressions before Thais lowered herself first into the water.
It was as though a thousand little blades had dug into the girl’s legs the moment the water touched them. The cold was so biting that for a moment Thais was paralysed by it.
“’Tis cold,” she uttered through a voice stolen away by the chill. “’Tis very very cold. Brace yourself Kaio.”
The boy, not wanting to seem weak, jumped into the waste-high stream, his teeth gritted together in preparation for the icy cold water. Nothing though, could prepare him for the debilitating numbness the water set in through his lower body.
“Agh,” he cried out despite himself. “Thais this madness,” he added with a shaking jaw. Ahead of him the princess nodded to herself, wrapping her woollen cardigan about her bony shoulders to preserve what heat was left in her body.
“Yes, ‘tis madness,” she agreed through a laugh. “Sheer madness. Now come on, before we both freeze to death.”
“Easy for you to say,” the boy grumbled in the girl’s wake, while she led the way toward the dark rocks. “You are holding the torch. If you freeze you only need to douse yourself in flames and you’ll thaw out.”
“I promise you Kaio,” Thais giggled happily through chattering teeth. “If you freeze I won’t hesitate before setting you on fire.”
Thais led the way into the gloom, carrying the torch close to herself to bask in its overpowering heat. She had but a few dry torches spare in her pack, ones she and Kaio had fashioned out of sticks, rags and animal fat the night before, so she would need to be cautious she didn’t let the flame go out or burn too quickly. If this flame went out, they would have no means of relighting it or the other torches.
“Hopefully,” the girl had told her friend while they sat at the campfire, their playful minds imagining how cold they would be on their journey. “We won’t need to take the river for long. We should find a passageway once we get inside.”
The conversation seemed to have occurred a lifetime ago as Thais pushed her feet steadily ahead in the icy stream. All around her large grey catfish and eels pushed against her legs nearly toppling her into the water. Thais did not like eels and she found it difficult to hold her stomach when she looked down to see them winding through her legs in the dark. Above the rocks of the cave rose and fell in mottled lumps, speckled and rough. At one point Kaio grazed his forehead upon a protruding lump.
“’Tis like coral,” the boy announced in wonder, while he ran his fingers over the bumpy rocks that had wounded him. “Like the stuff that washes up on the beaches in the south.”
Up ahead Thais agreed with him. She had once swum out to the great reefs in the south of Denari and looked down at the live coral, amazed by the delicacy of the structures and the bright colours. She had spoken of her wonder to her father and his friends on the beach around a warming campfire and had been amazed by Selmain telling her that the corals were made of thousands of miniscule organisms. Now she might have doubted him, but she must have been about seven years old and still believed most of what her father and his friends said.
For the briefest of moments Thais found herself wishing to be sat around that fire once more, wrapped in a warm blanket in her father’s lap, listening to the stories of his oldest companions while around them the sun fell leaving a blanket of stars in its wake.
As though her memories had formed around them Thais looked up with glee to see the glow of a thousand or more pinpricks of light. It was as though the stars had descended into the depths of the earth.
“What magic is this?” Kaio gasped coming to stop beside Thais, the water level had now dropped to their knees. Warm blood was returning to their upper legs.
“My nana told me of these caves when I was little,” Thais spoke softly, her gaze captured by the tiny blue dots of magical light adorning the roof of the cave. “They’re not stars Kaio. They’re maggots.”
“Yes, the light lies within their tails. They use it to draw the flies from the stream to their mouths where they suck the innards up and grow big and fat.”
“Lovely.” Somehow Kaio managed to sound both impressed and disgusted at once.
“Nana said they spend most of their lives up there on the cave roof, getting fatter and fatter until one day they wrap themselves up in a cocoon, just like a butterfly.”
“Do they emerge beautiful as well?” the boy asked in the gloom. Thais smiled and shook her head.
“Alas not my fried, they turn into big flies without mouths, whose sole purpose is to lay eggs and then die. So nana says anyway.”
Kaio’s face was arranged in a frown of confusion.
“Why do they only live a few days? What’s the point in that?”
Thais shrugged her shoulders in the dark and nodded upward.
The children walked on in the knee-deep water, their eyes never leaving the beautiful starlight display in the cave roof, which was growing closer and closer to the children. It soon became so close that the children nearly had to duck to avoid bumping their heads, though it soon transpired that this was the least of their concerns.
Quite suddenly Kaio started screaming and pulling at his face. Little blue specs of light flew from his face as he picked silvery strings out of his hair. Thais couldn’t help but laugh at her friend’s maggot ridden appearance.
“Stop laughing Thais!” the boy cried and clicked several maggots from his skin at the girl, who easily avoided calamity. “What are they?”
Ridden of the maggots in his hair Kaio darted backwards to a safe distance at Thais’ side, who was still grinning mischievously at her friend.
“Feeder strands I believe,” the girl giggled. “Nana never told me they hung so low. Each maggot lays ten or so traps to catch their insects. Be more careful next time.”
“How was I to know?” Kaio demanded, shoving Thais’ arm in the gloom.
“Come on, follow me. We can’t play with maggots all day you know, we have to keep moving.”
Ducking very low the children waded on, keeping their eyes on low hanging rocks. Kaio was more cautious than his friend and spent the entire time with his nose inches above the water. The water was growing deeper once more, reaching half way up the children’s chests and with this deeper water the eels returned, snaking around Thais’ waist causing her to retch in disgust.
She couldn’t have been happier when she saw a passageway flicker in the torchlight. She led Kaio toward the ledge and easily climbed from the dark water, leaving the slinky eels to the dark watery cold. Leaving the water behind the children were bemused to find themselves now knee deep in cold sticky smelly mud. Kaio showed Thais a way to use the columns in the walls, where stalactites and stalagmites had joined together, to keep out of the mud and vault along the sharp walls. Several times the children cut themselves upon sharp stalactites that emerged from the gloom too late to avoid. The very nature of the rocks were changing now the entrance had been left far behind.
Structures so beautiful they looked as though they had been crafted by careful skilled hands lined the passageway. Structures such as curtains made from the rock itself. Thais stared in wonder at these, wondering why Aius had created such beauty so far under the ground where few eyes ventured upon it.
After clambering through narrow gaps so tight the children were left scratched and scraped Thais was amazed to stumble across an enormous chamber, surely as large as the palace temple. The mud still littered the chamber floor, but Thais and Kaio cared little as they stumbled through the sludge, for their eyes were distracted by the beautiful carvings hewed into the rocks. The whole chamber had been turned into a shrine by skilled hands millennia ago.
“’Tis beautiful,” Thais whispered, her voice echoing high above. The girl scrambled to light another torch, which she gave to Kaio so that more of the beautiful carvings might come to life. The added light revealed runes etched into the elven figures, beautiful works of art in their own right.
“Thais, what do they say?” Kaio asked softly, but the girl shook her head.
“I have no idea. This is old elven language. Very very old elven language. Kaio, these carvings, they’re thousands of years old.”
“But how have they been protected from the water?” Kaio whispered. “They look like they were carved this morning.”
Thais shook her head, this was a mystery to her as well. Glancing about she could see patches where stalactites and mites had turned the awe-inspiring works into natural beauty, but why had the rest of the carvings been spared this fate. The water dripped from them also. Ignoring the mud Thais waded forward and ran her hand along a rune shaped like a swirling feather.
“Feel them,” she gasped in delight. Quickly Kaio joined her side and ran his own fingers over the smooth carvings.
“Grease?” he asked with a puzzled frown.
“Maybe this is why. Do you think the elves still visit these caves and tend the shrine?” Kaio looked from Thais’ hopeful eyes to the mud thick around his knees.
“Wouldn’t they clear all this mud if they came here often? It seems a shame for this beauty to be surrounded by mud and grime.”
“But this mud might be from the last flood. We’ve had a lot of rainfall this autumn. Maybe they only come here sometimes. I would like to think of them coming here. It makes our journey ahead seem somehow less daunting.”
“But you always said your mother said the journey for the elves was easy. Why is that?”
Thais smiled and shook her head.
“Maybe it’s because they know what they are doing,” she giggled. “Come on, let’s go. I could spend an age looking at these carvings, but I fear the sun will set and we will still be wandering these caves.”
“What does it matter in here? These rocks have never seen the sunlight,” the boy sighed sadly.
“No, but we have and I should like to see it again. Now come on.”
The children left the chamber with heavy hearts. They both wished to stay a while and study the beautiful artwork in the walls, but the sunlight was beckoning them in he distance, both cold feel it. The epic chamber led to a series of smaller tunnels leaving the children tossing coins to see which one they took. The coin decided they take the furthest right tunnel which left the children climbing up a rock fall. The mud may have been gone, but the loose rocks were perilous. Several times Thais sent a series of stray rocks flying straight towards her friend’s head. With luck smiling on them however, none of these managed to strike the young man.
The rock fall led to a ledge high above the stream they had waded through. The children couldn’t see the river at the bottom of the underground canyon, but they could certainly hear it. Kaio walked in Thais’ footprints, keeping one arm stretched out at her side, to stop her tumbling over the edge should she take a bad fall. His chivalry made Thais both roll her eyes and swell with pride at having such a friend.
Their stomachs were rumbling in the echoing chambers, both Thais and Kaio knew they were long overdue for breakfast, but neither felt comfortable sat upon the narrow ledge. They would need to wait for safer surroundings before tucking into their leftover fish. Up ahead the roar of an angry waterfall could be heard.
“I wager it’s a thousand feet high,” Kaio stated confidently. Thais laughed.
“A thousand feet would put it up in the sky Kaio, ‘tis only a small thing. The sounds echo in here that’s all.”
“Truly? Well maybe not a thousand feet, but it’s probably high enough to plunge us to our deaths. Look, we can’t even see the bottom of this canyon.”
Thais held her tongue and nodded in the gloom. Kaio was right. The waterfall may not hold the monstrous proportions the boy had hinted at, but it would be dangerous to traverse. Hoping against hope that they could avoid coming across the waterfall Thais cursed when the ledge they were travelling along came to a prompt halt at the lip of the waterfall they had heard.
It didn’t look as dangerous as the girl had expected. Indeed, the stream spilling over the edge was a shallow little thing, but both children knew there was little hope of survival were they to fall from the top. Kaio and Thais exchanged glances when they reached the fall.
“What now? We can’t go back, we’ll have wasted over an hour of our time,” Thais put forward.
“I agree,” Kaio nodded. “See there, the water is shallow, we could walk across the stream.” Thais gulped and nodded shakily eliciting a small smile from her friend. “Are you scared princess?”
“Oh I do apologise,” Kaio laughed. “I had no idea I was travelling with Thais the Fearless.”
“And I had no idea I was travelling with Kaio the Witless,” the girl countered with a cruel smile. Kaio shrugged.
“I’m not going to be the queen of these lands one day Thais, but a title awaits you my friend and I’m going to make sure I spread several nasty ones before I die that will haunt you for all of history.”
Were they not stood atop a perilous ledge then Thais might have shoved her companion.
“There’s also room in history for you and your big head Kaio, so you you’d better watch your empty threats.”
Laughing Kaio followed Thais to the edge of the stream where suddenly he seemed sobered. He followed the girl into the cold water, barely noticing the icy chill this time when faced with the danger of the waterfall. The rocks gave the children good footing. Thais moved slowly and certainly, but every few steps she would pause and carefully feel where the next sensible place lay to place her foot.
“Shall we sing a song?” the girl called back through her concentration. “You know, to make the journey a little more fun?”
Kaio wanted to roll his eyes, but he didn’t dare tear them off his companion up ahead lest she lose her footing and fall.
“What did you have in mind?”
“Row row row your boat?” Thais suggested merrily before she burst into a load rendition of the nursery rhyme. Kaio half-heartedly joined in while up ahead Thais started moving quicker across the lip of the waterfall. The song seemed to be filling her with confidence.
Careful Thais, the boy thought desperately, but he didn’t want to seem daft and protective. The girl was nearly to the other side and with a triumphant laugh she skipped forward to take her last step.
“Thais!” Kaio roared and he watched while his friend’s feet gave way under her. The current swept her towards the edge of the waterfall with lightning speed and had Kaio not lunged forward to grab her slippery wrists she would have gone over.
“Kaio!” Thais cried out. “I’m slipping!”
Kaio’s lungs burnt while he fought to keep his own footing in the unforgiving stream. His eyes stared ahead coldly at the bank, where he was ever so slowly making his way towards. Down in the stream Thais’ head kept going under while she desperately clawed to hang onto her friend’s hand. Her feet started to edge out into midair above the waterfall.
“Kaio,” she screamed. “We’re going over! Let go of me!”
“Shut up and hold on! We’re nearly there.”
Thais’ head went under once more and one of her hands came loose from Kaio’s grip. The pair floundered, barely a few feet from certain death. The bank was within reach.
Kaio made one last almighty lunge and managed to drag himself onto the safety of the bank. His arms suddenly felt light and with horror he looked down to see the princess was gone.
“Thais!” His bellow reverberated around the cavern, but nothing responded except the roar of the waterfall. Kaio ran to the edge of the path and looked down into the darkness. He still held a torch in one hand, but its light was hopeless in illuminating the river below.
The sound of someone spluttering met Kaio’s ears. With his heart in his mouth he ran towards the source of the sound and saw a pair of hands clutching at a large rock at the very edge of the waterfall.
“Thais,” Kaio cried with joy and he dropped immediately onto his front and grabbed hold of his friend’s wrists once more. As though he’d summoned the strength of the Gods Kaio pulled the girl up and back into the stream. Thais scrambled towards him and the moment she reached the bank both children lay on their backs panting frantically, their hearts racing in their heaving chests.
“I…” Thais whispered, her voice frightened away by the peril she had just faced. Kaio thumped her upper arm firmly.
“Don’t you dare Thais, keep your sentiments your own,” the boy growled. Thais’ face crumpled into a hurt expression while she rubbed her sore arm. Tears were forming in her eyes. “I hope there’s room in history for me, my big head and my heroic acts.”
A smile pulled through Thais’ wounded expression.
“I suppose you can only dream,” she jeered. Kaio laughed aloud and climbed to his feet, lifting Thais to hers from under her arms. The girl stared at her friend for a moment, gratitude turning the air between them warm before she suddenly threw her arms about his shoulders and hugged him for a mere second before pulling away and leading the way again.
No more was said on the matter, though both were sure the story would emerge in jest when it no longer harboured such raw terror for both parties.
The children emerged in a wide low chamber where a slab of rock served as an adequate breakfast table for the young adventurers. It was surprisingly flat and had evidently fallen from the cave roof in a recent groundshake. Thais and Kaio sat upon it, the remains of their breakfast devoured hungrily. Kaio had taken his knife and was scratching into the surface of the rock while Thais lay back to digest her food. She was still shaken by her close encounter with the land of the dead and wanted nothing more than to just sit for a while. The sun could wait, the girl thought to herself grimly.
“Look,” Kaio finally announced proudly. “This is Rachel and I fighting the wolves in the plains.”
Thais sat up and glanced at the stickmen carved roughly into the rock. “What’s this? Is this the cave?” she asked pointing to a round object. Kaio blushed and shook his head.
“’Tis one of the wolves you dolt,” he grumbled. ”I’d like to see you make a better carving.”
Thais smiled and accepted the challenge. She took out her own knife and started her own carving. When she had finished she invited the boy to look.
“What’s that?” he asked, his face contorted in confusion. “Oh wait, I think I know. That’s your arm isn’t it? And those marks are the cuts from the wolf bite.”
Now it was Thais’ turn to blush and she shook her head firmly.
“’Tis not. Can’t you see? It’s my gallant fight against the greymen in the woods. There I am and that’s a greyman about to meet his end on the tip of my blade.”
“Very lifelike,” Kaio mused with a fond smile.
Unstoppable now they had started, Thais and Kaio littered the rock with scratchings documenting their entire journey, dating back to their first encounter with Alucia Dal Am the seer. How long ago that now seemed.
“One day children will find these carvings,” Kaio told his friend happily. “And then they’ll know all about our quest.” Grinning wryly the princess shook her head.
“It’s not a quest Kaio. I’m not searching for anything.” For a moment Kaio seemed bemused and he raised his dark eyebrows.
“Then why are we doing this Thais?”
“It’s him…” Thais drifted off, her eyes falling on the scratching that showed Rachel being carted off by the patrols. Her brow hardened. “My grandfather. Do you know that after he banished my mother and destroyed her soul he refused to believe she had a child? He refuses to believe that I exist. I can’t explain why that makes me feel so angry.”
Kaio smiled, but kept his thoughts to himself. He could understand why that enraged the princess. She was too proud a person to have someone deny her existence.
“He won’t be able to deny my existence if I’m standing right in front of him will he?” Thais continued bitterly.
“You’re doing all this to make him acknowledge you?” Kaio asked with a fond smile. “I mean, it’s a bit much isn’t it?”
“No!” Thais complained passionately. “I won’t be ignored Kaio! Not by anyone. I am his granddaughter and I will make him see. Them in their holy mountain, I’ll make them all see.”
Silence enveloped the pair while they lay back on their rock looking up at the flat ceiling. So far from the river there were only a few maggots dotted around here and there. Eventually, Kaio sat up and clapped his hand down on Thais’ knee, giving it a good shake as he did so.
“Well after all this fuss over one elf, I hope he has something damn good to say at the end of it.”