A loud commotion in the passageway outside jolted me out of sleep some nights later. I stumbled sleepily to the door and opened it, seeing guards running down the corridor in a disarray of clanking armour and drawn weapons.
One was thumping on doors as he passed and yelling, "The Moritani are come! Arm yourselves! Flee!"
As he passed me, I shouted, "An army of them? Where are they?"
"Entering the caverns at the river. Flee!" he cried again.
Sali emerged at this, having hastily dressed: her hair, flattened for once with water, dripped onto the floor.
"Quick! Help me pack," she said. Her face was grim and she held herself tensely; ready for battle.
I squashed my panic down and followed her fast movements. We soon had crammed all the food there was in the apartment into a pack each, after wrapping it in waterproof waxed cloth; and both had strapped on our armour and carried our swords. I tried not to think of that village hall and the dead child as I buckled my belt, and instead overrode the creeping fears with a short, sharp prayer to Wevc.
"What are we going to do?" I asked, as Sali heaved her pack onto her back.
"First, we will find an escape route- there's one I know of that we should check. Then, you are going to leave the caverns and wait for me, hidden, while I do whatever I can for the people here," she said, grimly. "It will be impossible to fight the Moritani off, because our warriors are so few and our sorcerers unpracticed. So we must recourse to fleeing, and I will help as many flee as I can."
I followed her in silence; the fractious wailing of sleepy children and bustling of terrified people as they threw belongings into bags irritated my terror; but I followed. We soon left the main galleries and the commotion behind, and had passed into quieter tunnels. These were darker, damper, more sinister places with uneven rocky ground and pools of stinking water. The moss-light was pale and patchy. Somehow this flight through the gloomy underground frightened me more than my previous encounters with the Moritani. I kept hearing noises ahead, then decided they were just the sounds created by my imagination.
The passage was so gloomy, and the Moritani soldier so sure-footed and still that it was only when he was almost upon me that I saw him; a dark shape lunging out of the shadows. I screamed, and raised my sword. I parried his blow, but he swung round and caught me on the shoulder with the flat of his blade. I cried out in terror and pain, but the point of his sword was bent back by the narrow walls, so I dragged my own sword downwards. I felt the blade touch flesh and he crumpled, gasping.
"Oh god! He's dead! I killed-"
A crossbow bolt whizzed past my ear.
I ducked, screaming again; but then I heard a yelp and a thud as Sali dispatched the other soldier. Then there was silence. Sali's eyes gleamed dangerously in the moss-light. My own eyes strained to find more enemies, but I could perceive nothing else around me.
"Oh god, Sali!" I gasped. The Moritani was dead; I had killed him. "Am I a murderer?"
She stepped close to me then and gave me a long, stern look. "That's a lesson you needed to learn. An inevitable lesson, for someone in as much trouble as yourself. Sometimes you have to act in your own defense, lass. Now, follow me again; we must move quickly, for I have no idea how many of them there are."
I swallowed a sob and continued on after Sali; the bodies of the men we had killed sprawled motionless and alone on the cold ground. I wondered if anyone would mourn them. I bit my lip hard enough to taste the metallic tang of blood.
"Oh Wevc, forgive me..."
The passage was getting steadily narrower, so that soon we both had to turn sideways and inch carefully between the rocky walls. I felt the weight of rock above me and around me and underneath me and shuddered.
"Not far now," Sali whispered. The tunnel had widened a little into a dead end, I saw, when I Sali had moved further in front. There was water, here, a still, stagnant pool that reflected the eerie glow of the moss.
"Now what?" I asked, dubiously.
Sali sighed. "You won't like this. But it's the only way. Just underneath the surface of that water is a small tunnel- not a long one. You need to enter it and swim for a few feet, then you will find yourself in another pool in another cavern- you should surface there. Follow the current of the stream, and you'll soon be outside."
"What?" I said, not even caring anymore that that my panicked terror was overwhelming me so that I shook with it. "I'll drown!"
A noise echoed from the way we had come; it sounded like a shout and the clatter of footsteps.
"Quickly!" hissed Sali. "You need to go."
"Aren't you coming too?" I said, wading into the pool and taking off my pack. The water was deep and icy.
"No, I have a duty here." Her voice was low and gruff.
"Please, Sali... there's a place I heard about, hidden in the Delian mountains, just west of the Maresvin path—a refuge for sorcerers—flee there-"
"Maybe I'll see you there. Farewell, my friend. You're stronger than you know. Go, with my good will, and I hope that we will meet again. May Wevc bless you."
She turned and began inching back into the passageway. Sobbing, both in terror and at the sadness of the parting, I switched off my thoughts and dove downwards, into the little tunnel Sali had described, the cold hitting me like death. I swam forwards, my pack in front of me, soon finding the rock walls narrowing. There was barely any room for me to move, so close about me were the sides of the passage.
I had my arms out in front of me, pushing my pack, and I was unable to draw them back. The water seemed to press on me as much as the gloom and the nearness of the rock did. For a moment I considered turning back; but I realized there was not enough room to turn round, and the slope of the tunnel would make it very difficult for me to escape that way. Too terrified to worry about lack of oxygen, holding my breath as much through fear as through necessity, I swam forward through the darkening underwater passage. I pushed against the slimy walls to speed myself up.
Soon I could feel my lungs bursting; my heart beat thundered; my mouth burst open; water went in.
I chocked and thrashed as my world darkened, my limbs painfully meeting rock, and for a moment I knew I was going to die, but I thrashed forwards some more and the rock ceiling was gone; I had reached the end of the tunnel, and had pushed my way to the surface, and I floated on a gently flowing stream, my back scraping on rocks, while I choked and coughed and vomited the foul-tasting water.
I scrambled up in a cascade of cold water. Stopping and gasping, I thought I heard the clash of swords. Should I go back for Sali? I halted and considered, my feet getting steadily numb in the icy water. No; there was no way I could brave that water again. Sali had made her decision. And besides, Sali Crannog was a real warrior, and a few Moritani soldiers were no match for her. I waded along, carrying my dripping pack in my arms, and following the current, out of the cold caverns and into a sunlight that was too bright for my eyes.
I scrambled out of the stream bed and onto the grassy banks around it, throwing myself down and caressing the ground with relief. I lay there for a moment, shivering and blinking. I had got used to the gloom of the caverns; the glare of the sun, even though it was wintry and pale, seemed too much. The openness of it was almost frightening.
I looked around me. The stream wound away from me and into the woods. All traces of the summer were gone, and most of the deciduous trees were bare and dark, their clothing turning into mould on the forest floor beneath. The flickering of a fire on the gravel bar of the channel drew my eyes, and the sight of two figures sitting still around it. When I had walked closer, I could hear despairing sobs, and made out the bedraggled shapes of Nad and Niss.
"Hello," I said, uselessly, approaching the fire. They were almost as soaking as I was; they must have taken the same escape route.
"You!" shrieked red-haired Nad, on perceiving me. His younger brother merely seemed to sink lower into himself, sobbing.
"Yes, it's me. I know we don't get on- but will you let me sit by your fire and dry myself?" I asked, quietly. Niss did not answer: Nad laughed, angrily.
"I don't care what you do," he said.
I sighed and began wringing out my coat, then hung it over a branch close to the fire. I began turfing out the contents of my bag. I had a blanket, wrapped in oil cloth; some water had got in, so I hung that out to dry, too. Most of the food was spoiled, but some of it had been wrapped securely in waxed cloth. I broke off some pieces of cheese and offered them to the two survivors.
Nad waved me away, but his freckle-faced brother reached out a skinny arm and grabbed the piece I offered, still sobbing while he chewed it noisily.
"What happened?" I ventured.
"Our father told us the route. On our way there, some of the Moritani caught up with us. They—they killed father... We ran and ran in the dark and they lost us in the passageways. We almost drowned in that tunnel," said Nad, swallowing back tears of his own.
"My story is similar- but I do not know what befell Sali," I said. "I am sorry about your father," I added.
The younger boy tried to wipe his eyes at this; Nad merely grunted and moved closer to the camp-fire.
"We're ruined!" wailed Niss, "Our family is all dead, our home is gone, what will we do?"
Nad pushed dripping red hair out of his eyes and leant over his brother. "I told you, idiot, we need to go north, and head for the Daylin coast and see if we can find a ship to take us to the northern islands. We need to get out of Hetges," he said, finally accepting some cheese.
"The northern islands? Is it safe there?" I asked. I glanced around me then, remembering the proximity of the Moritani, but the only movements were the swaying of the trees in the breeze. I took off my soaking boots and extended numb feet to the crackling fire.
"Father said so," he told me. "Just what did the Moritani want with us? Us? They seemed to be searching for something."
I looked down, awkwardly, and threw a stick into the fire. "Sali said it was only a matter of time before they decided to kick you out. The Moritani have been looking for your ancestors for forty years." But I wondered at the lie in my words. They had been searching for something. Someone. And, from the rumours Sali had gleaned, I had a horrible feeling it was me.
"So we will go," continued Nad, "and what will you do?"
"Me? I must find my friends," I said.
"You're lucky- everyone that we ever knew and loved was in those caves- all perished now, no doubt," he said, bitterly.
Beside him, Niss resumed crying, almost choking now with misery.
Silence fell: Niss wept, and Nad and I gazed into the fire. We spent the rest of the day there, an awkward trio of survivors, drying our few possessions. All night, I heard Niss weeping and sobbing; once or twice I heard Nad mutter in his sleep and cry out. The caverns seemed too close, so I slept badly, and was glad when the cold sun rose. I missed the soft cushions in Sali's warm kitchen that morning, and prayed to Wevc for her safety, but, disturbed and miserable, I rose and packed my bag.
I left some of the food in a neat pile by the sleeping boys and stole away quietly.