Rannock felt the pull as his friend began to fall back down the tunnel and, before he could stop himself cried, "NO!"
Shye, similarly horrified shouted, "No, Mase!"
Even Semper grunted his horror.
But, to Rannock's amazement, Mase didn't fall. As he peered into the thick, black gloom of the tunnel he saw what had happened. The chout's back was braced against the wall behind him, for the tunnel was narrow. His good foot, which he'd kicked out instinctively, was lodged against the ladder-wall, as were his hands to both sides. Mase's eyes were wide and fearful as her lay belly up, suspended over empty air. He carefully looked around and evaluated his position before looking up at his companions. After a pause that felt like hours he whispered, "Just shut up while I get out of this. Uema said we have to be quiet."
Rannock remembered himself then and offered Uema an apologetic look. She returned his gaze, although it was a fearful look rather than a punitive one. Rannock looked down the tunnel again to watch his friend.
Mase was busy, inching his hands behind his back. Bit by bit, he managed to get them both behind him and planted his palms against the wall. Now he paused, breathing hard, perhaps summoning energy for his next move. Then, in one springing movement and a stifled grunt, he catapulted himself from the back wall so that he hit the ladder-wall again. He flailed; he gripped; he hissed. "Bloody foot!" he growled at one of the rocks.
Then, with deliberate, clipped movements, Mase climbed up the final few steps and emerged at ground level. Semper bent down to pull Mase out of the hole and for once Mase didn't complain at the helping hand. Instead he sat where Semper deposited him and simply breathed, hard. Through his exhausted panting he looked at Rannock and said, "Well, that took some effort."
As Mase regained his breath he thanked his lucky stars that he was descended from a tree-climbing race; that had undoubtedly helped in his fight to get to the top of the ladder. Lucky for all of us it hadn't been Semper who was injured, he mused. The others sat down alongside and waited for him to get his strength back. Uema, however, remained standing and shifted from one foot to the other, clearly keen to be on the move again.
His foot was as bruised as he'd thought it would be and had swollen up; he'd need help to move on with any speed. But that didn't matter too much; the others would be able to assist.
Uema didn't look as pleased with herself as Mase would've guessed she might. She looked around nervously as if expecting danger to come out of the darkening shadows. He decided then that he'd had enough recovery time and levered himself up. "What do we do now, Uema?" he asked, grabbing hold of Semper's shoulder again for support.
"We must go right away," she replied, her voice quiet but urgent. "Come, I will find you the spiders and show you where to escape."
The spider tree was not far away and Uema brought them to it quickly. They paused briefly behind her as it came within sight. She, on the other hand, walked straight up to it.
The branch Ponre had broken was easy to find. Uema knew what to do: she poked at the webbing around the branch's smaller twigs and looked between the silk fibres. There were wrapped-up flies and spiders inside. A few glossy legs waved sleepily in response to her finger; for now, the spiders were dormant. Holding the branch with one hand, she felt for the small hand-axe she kept in her pocket. Gently, she sliced away at the junction between the main web and the budding population on the branch. Then she turned and walked toward the strangers, replacing the axe as she did.
The one with the injured foot took the branch and examined it. "Thank you. Thank you very much, Uema," he said and, despite her fear, she felt proud of what she had done.
But she was still afraid they would be discovered. She pointed toward the west. "Your way out is that way," she said. "Pass the two great stones and walk until you see a tree with many orange fruits. There is a path beneath it, and it will take you to the city."
"Then we have a lot of walking to do," the reptile said. He took the branch from the injured one and walked a little in the direction Uema had pointed, squinting for the rocks she had mentioned. He looked back. "Thank you once aga-" and then paused.
Uema had been keen to get away, lest another Achuti arrive and she be blamed for assisting their escape. So she had decided to hasten their departure by hiding. She watched from the shadows as the strangers looked around in confusion. When she was young she'd played games like this with her brothers, but that had been long ago, and she had begun training with Ponre since then. But in this situation, she had to hold her breath to avoid laughing: the reptile's face was funny as he tried to understand what had happened. Finally he shrugged and spoke to his friends in the strangers' own tongue. They followed him, heading toward the two great rocks.
Uema watched them go. The canid took over supporting the injured one as they went and she took a moment to lean back against the tree trunk behind which she'd hidden. She'd succeeded in the challenge Ponre had set her: to give the spiders to the strangers and set them on their way, in a direction that would not lead them into Ganth's path. It was up to the ex-prisoners now to use their chance of escape.
Now came the final challenge: return to the escape tunnel and repair it before the secret was discovered. With one final look at the retreating strangers, she turned and raced for the spot once more. She had much to do and darkness would fall long before she had finished the task.
Ponre retained her position: legs crossed, back straight, hands on knees, shoulders down, eyes closed. Some people called it meditating - herself included - but there was barely any such thing as far as she was concerned. In a busy village full of people who often fell sick and more often still simply wanted to be waited on, it was a useful way for her to get some solitude. If the villagers wanted to imagine that she was in contact with the spirit world, that suited her perfectly.
She listened to Ganth's footsteps as he passed by. Even he, with his brash ways, dared not interrupt her while meditating. It was communion time in which a shaman spoke to the ancient ones, a time when a loud word might bring down the wrath of the ancestors. No Achuti wanted that.
Hoaxing spiritual connections had so many uses, Ponre thought. She suppressed the urge to smile.
A second set of footsteps approached, rustling the leaves on the forest floor; Ponre recognised the step pattern as Uema's. She looked up as far as she could before opening her eyes - another way of pretending to be in some unimaginable mind state. She trembled - another artificial move, of course - and opened her eyes, knowing they would look entirely white. With a few blinks she lowered her gaze and looked balefully at Ganth. "Begone."
He skulked away and Ponre turned a friendlier face on her young assistant. "Welcome back, Uema. I told you before there would be much for me to tell you. I must reveal all I can to you now. Be seated and be still now, and listen to what I have to say.
"My first secret is this: some of the medicines have no effect at all, including the inkbush tisane," she said simply. Uema's jaw dropped. Ponre continued: "Much of your task as a shaman lies in your ability to pretend. There are many ways to do this, and harmless preparations are simply a tool..."
The night passed quickly enough for the dawn to surprise Ponre. Ganth had only attempted to eavesdrop twice, and both times she had frightened him away again. Now he'd been replaced by another guard, an older one she knew to be more respectful. All around them, insects and primitive birds began to make their morning music. The sky paled and the stars became less bright. Ponre's throat was sore from speaking and her student looked tired; but the girl had been rapt for hours.
It was done. All of the secrets, the lies, the techniques, the knowledge and the use of common ignorance Ponre had hidden behind when she claimed to practice magic, had all been purged. It was not a secret any more.
No, that is not right, she corrected herself. It is all still secret. It has just been passed on to another. Another person whom I must now release. She reached one wing-arm forward and touched Uema's hand. "Go now, young witchdoctor. Your village needs you."
Ponre replaced her hand on her knee, then closed her eyes as she considered everything. The secrets of the healing trade have just been passed on. They were for somebody else to wield now, they were somebody else's burden. Another Achuti would have their fake communion with the dead, call on fungal spirits, frighten the living with austerity. Well, maybe not frighten with austerity yet, she smiled as she watched her glossy-feathered successor walk, stiff-legged, away toward the village. But she will be strong one day. We all find the strength we need in experience. We all do.
Good luck, Uema.
She consulted her feelings and was surprised to discover a sense of lightness, one that troubled her for a moment, so unfamiliar had it become. Then she felt a smile spread once more across her face and laughed, the action another unexpected release of tension. After all the dread, the keeping of secrets, was this what she had been fighting? Had she worked so hard to protect herself from this? This... peace?
That secret was one she hoped Uema would not struggle with as much as she had done.
She turned her gaze toward the warrior standing a tree-length away. She stood, and approached. "My boy," she said, surprised that her voice sounded less stern than it once had. Devoid of power, perhaps. But to her it sounded invested with freedom.
He straightened up and looked at her, his brow furrowed.
"Let us find our neighbours. There is little point in you watching over me until I die. Deliver me to the Cangi."
The exchange turned out to be a simple one: all the Achuti warrior had to do was find a Cangi and pass Ponre into his rival's care. There had been nothing more to the trade than a set of bared teeth, harsh words and a few angry glares. The trade was done.
She was now under the gaze of a pair of Cangi warriors. One of them marched ahead and the other behind; Ponre walked in-between, still fascinated by her new-found sense of freedom. For any other member of the Achuti, this position would mean certain death. However, it seemed that her counterpart had worked his craft well, and shaman were as feared among the mammalian Cangi as they were among the avian Achuti.
She looked forward to meeting him.
Before long the hostage party reached the Cangi village. Without looking around, the lead warrior made a hand sign. The second warrior saw it and obeyed the signal: he stopped. Ponre felt his presence behind her, proud and strong, and she understood he was her sentinel - at least for now. The first warrior walked ahead to the main village and ducked into a hut.
There were voices: a strong, young one - that of the warrior - and a ragged, older one. The older voice she recognised well. Odu.
Odu emerged from his hut. His horns gleamed in the morning light, smooth and healthy, despite his age. Ponre took a moment to admire his trappings: a veritable mass of strung beads painted with ominous motifs decorated his broad, toned shoulders. Ink spots of a colour she'd never seen before patterned his flanks. In places his skin was carved, the patterns showing clearly through his smooth fur. He caught sight of her and his eyes briefly softened. She smiled back and bowed slightly.
Odu's smile faded and he spoke gruffly to the warriors. "Leave the witch with me. I shall neutralise her. Return to your duties."
Ponre watched them go and then looked back to Odu. "Join me," he said softly. She did so, passing through the doorway into his hut. He indicated a pile of rags on which they could sit and, both of them settled, regarded her. "We meet again," he said in a reverent whisper. "What brings you here, my beautiful one?"
"Such a long tale," Ponre replied softly. "But I recommend first that we decide on a course of action. Your leader will ask what is to become of me."
Odu smiled again; a keen, accommodating smile that made him look young again. "We have overcome harder tasks. Allow me to make a suggestion..."
The walk had taken the four friends almost three hours; it'd only not taken longer because of Mase's determination not to hold them up. At times he had weighed heavily on Shye's shoulders, but his speed had barely slowed in all that time. Close to midnight they'd stumbled into the city and returned to the hotel in which they'd booked a couple of rooms, and here, they'd tidied themselves up.
Shye joined Rannock in front of the mirror, still warm and glowing from the shower he'd just taken. The tarm smiled softly at his reflection as he tied up his bow tie. The allis looped the fabric around his neck and began the ritual of tying his own.
Presently, Rannock straightened his and walked away, smiling languidly. Shye listened to the disembodied sounds behind him as the tarm continued to prepare; the muffled squeak of upholstery as he sat down; the gentle scrape of foot against carpet; the soft brush of fabric against fabric.
Eventually the tarm said, "Are you hungry?"
"Yes indeed," Shye replied. "I'm looking forward to a steak, I think. With a good, rich sauce," he added. There'd be a restaurant still open at this time of night to be sure: rainforests and their environs tended to support several nocturnal species, so most services continued after dark. Shye's mouth was watering already; he hoped that Mase and Semper would be ready soon.
Two hours later, the four academics sat back, bellies full and heads giddy with drink.
"Well, I have to say," Rannock said as he folded up his napkin. "That was delicious."
Shye nodded agreement. "I think that we've managed very well indeed with Mase's expedition. I just hope that Ponre was right when she said the spiders would last the distance home."
"Oh, they'll last, mark my words," Mase answered. He winced as he moved his foot to a more comfortable position and picked up his glass. "They've begun to extend their web already; they were waking up and adding to it when we left the room. They'll have that box half-full by the time we get home. I think my bigger problem will be supplying them with enough insects." He took a sip of his drink.
Semper sighed and gazed at the joint between the ceiling and the wall. "What an adventure," he eventually said. "That predicament with the Achuti Pit was unforgettable. Very memorable indeed."
The other three chuckled at this. "Yes, but we made it out alive," Rannock reminded Semper with a grin. "Just about." He glanced at Semper's chewed hand; it didn't look as bad clean as it had freshly-gnawed. Neither had his own, come to that. It would heal.
There was another companionable laugh. Then Shye sucked air through his teeth. "Hmm, yyyes. I'm sorry about that, gents."
Mase eyed him wryly for a moment. "Well, you did insult the entire female contingent of the Achuti by not being attracted to poor Uema!"
"Hmph," Shye laughed. "Those soldiers! And that poor young woman. I suppose it won't be long before she takes over tribal duties... I wonder how she'll cope?"
"Well, I suspect," Rannock said thoughtfully, shifting his glass from one hand to the other so he could flex his injured fingers, "that she will have to learn to be sterner. She'll certainly have her hands full with the village militia. But she will. Shall we raise a glass to the new medicine woman?" he suggested.
His friends looked keen; each took their glass. "To Uema," the reptile began, "who will soon graduate as the new Achuti shaman: may she have the best of fortune as she moves on to her challenge as a practicing rural nurse, and long may she reign - and shine!" The friends laughed and clinked glasses.
Outside, phosphorescent insects chased each other among the leaves and eyed the stars with the wonder of mortals venerating gods.
Uema surveyed the interior of the hut that had so recently been used as a prison. It would be a healing place tonight. Eight piles of tinder marked points around an imaginary circle, ready to be lit. They would yield a sweet-smelling smoke when she set them alight. At the centre she'd prepared a soft pile of rags for seating, at one side of which was a folded rug in which she would enfold the patient-to-be. The scene was almost ready.
She reached into the bag slung from her shoulder and completed the preparation: brightly-coloured flowers which she put down in clumps between and slightly in from the tinder piles. Her own touch: something for the patient to look at while she was pampered. Then she looked outside and into the sky: the light was beginning to fade. Ponre had recommended twilight for spiritual tasks, and the time was right.
Buzzing with nerves, she turned to the warrior who stood guard at the door. She'd asked for him to be placed there so she wouldn't be disturbed during preparation for this healing. Now she gave him further instruction: "Ganth," she said, forcing her tone to be straight and unwavering, "be sure to allow nobody inside while I find Agea." She fought the urge to reassure him she would not be long. That was not the shaman's way.
He leered at her, although it was a grin that lacked its previous edge. "Do not worry. I will not move, Pretty Pretty!"
Uema closed her eyes and thought, How would Ponre react to that? She would spit anger at Ganth, curse him for his disrespect. But Uema would not do that. Instead she opened her eyes and offered Ganth a dream-like smile. "And be of chaste mind, Ganth," she said as if only half-awake. "The spirits are in weak contact tonight. I would not see them discouraged by base Achuti emotions. Guard the hut well."
And she turned away to find her poor, doomed patient. For this was no healing as she'd claimed: it was a gift, a parting kindness to a dying hen who'd raised the village chicks so well during her life, and who deserved to pass away feeling loved and surrounded by sweet smoke and flowers.
The Academy office was quiet, and Mase felt that the thrill of the adventure was truly over. The residual, fading pain in his foot was his only current reminder that they had ever been away; soon that, too, would be gone. Golden light illuminated the shelves and the books stacked on them, cast shadows into the corners and gave the papers he was reading a subtle amber hue. He carefully separated the application form he'd just finished reading - one that profiled a tecton named Shryre Stronguard - and added it to the acceptance pile, before settling once more to read the next. This year's requests were good quality, he thought. There were a few bad berries on the bush, but that didn't matter.
The door opened and he glanced up to see Shye standing there. The allis had a warm smile on his face, the cheery beacon Mase knew and loved so much. Shye approached. "How are they?" he asked, seating himself on the edge of the desk.
"Very good," Mase replied, and indicated the acceptance pile with a subtle flick of his eyes. "We nearly have our full compliment, by my reckoning."
Shye picked up the pile and leafed through the forms, seeming to make a rough mental note of the applicants. "I think you're right," he concluded. They both paused a moment and Mase took a deep breath to refresh himself.
"I'll be a little while longer though, I'm afraid," he said to Shye, and stretched. The allis nodded.
"Would you like a brew?" he asked.
Mase suppressed a yawn. "Yes please, that would be ideal."
Shye smiled again and obligingly went to make the drink, leaving Mase alone with the forms profiling the up-and-coming year's students. Rannock, he thought, would be pleased.
Shamanics and all characters in this story © Palantean Writer.