by Ey Stargazer
A boy finds a tunnel under his bed filled with all sorts of strange creatures
|That night my father and I were finanylly able to meet each others eyes. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have some contact back after it has been strained for so long. We were even able to laugh when we heard about how some of the people on the north side were planning to transplant more wild flowers along the mountain path to discourage the use of the monstrosity we were building. With this also came some whispers that a large number were also trying to negotiate some kind of commission if they could convince traders to take the tunnels. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about this and Gavin’s words before he got wrapped up in it as well still brought pause to me every now and then. I would have to ask him before I took off for the summit with the goats if he still felt that that was the way the others were feeling about us.
Well I didn’t remember after all. Preparations got underway for me to take a team of five boys ranging from two to six years younger than me to head up with the herd. Saddle bag style satchels were repaired or made up to hold supplies for us on some of the larger goat’s backs. Dried meats, preserved cheese, pickles and dry flat breads were all packed up and loaded along with enough warm blankets to supply the entire village for several winters. I suppose that is what happens when mothers send their little boys out for the first time on a trip that will last a month or more. To me it was something of old hat, with the exception of the bandges nad rubs the healer insited I still use for another month or so. We would also have a stole away if I had anything to say about it. And believe me, Kyle made no effort to fight what so ever when I put him into the satchel to go over Lyle’s back.
There was much kissing and questions of ‘are you sure you have everything’, the night before we left. We chose to have everyone say goodbye the night before so we would be sure of a full morning’s worth of travelling.
“I’ll miss you Ed. I’m very proud of you for taking the younger kids up, you’re becoming more and more responsible every day. I hope…I expect the tunnel project should be more or less completed by the time you come back. At the rate we’re working on it…it should move along quite well.”
I nodded, still not sure how I stood with the tunnel going up, finally I asked the question that had been burning in me for some time, “dad, with the trade route not going directly through us now, how is it going to affect our village?”
He sat down on the bed beside me, “well, we’ll have to start carting our goods down the mountain a ways or even set something up in the tunnel itself.”
“But…” I hestitated, “isn’t it going to cut into the villages prosperity?”
At this he smiled, “well it isn’t a bad thing that you hear what some of the other villages think of our situation, but no it won’t. We are a lot more independent of the trade route then they give us credit for. Some of that actually has to do with the fact that we don’t buy as many things from the traders to keep for ourselves as they do further down the mountain. Think of how we pay for most of the stuff around the village that we need. We pay with goat’s meat or cheese, some pay with wood working, masonry, leather services, stuff like that. We all keep some coins for when the traders are coming though but generally we pay for something, sell it to the others and get reimbursed that way.”
“So we’re not in trouble because of the tunnel shortening the trade route?”
He shook his head and smiled, “no we’re not in trouble and the people that know about the more dangerous creatures, including your friend, are coming up with lots of options and things we can try to keep us safe. I love you son. Stay safe out there, Snaps will be waiting to help you take them out.”
I slept better that night than I had in weeks.
I took in a great breath of mountain air, and nearly choked on a seed that I somehow managed to inhale. I laughed which to me surprise didn’t hurt as much as I remember it doing. Snaps was ahead darting back and forth keeping the herd movine, it was a large one consisting of nearly all the village goats. My company of boys required rather frequent encouragement, and seemed to be needing more as time went on. We had been walking up the mountain since daybreak, rubbing our eyes and relying mostly on Snaps to take care of the goats. The only exceptions were the ones that we had carrying stuff, these we kept on tethers in our party, as it would be a vary short trip indeed if we lost too many supplies.
The air was thinner here which made it a bit more difficult to catch our breath but it was so fresh without the smells of the folds and fires from the houses. Comforting smells I suppose since that was what we spent most of our life breathing but it was pleasant to get away from it every now and then as well. The goats kept up a near constant hum of noise and took turned putting their heads down to eat before they slipped too far back from the rest and got Snaps nipping at their heels. This would follow with some indignant sounds from the goats and barking back from the dog. Yup that dog made this whole job a whole lot easier.
“Come on boys, we’re getting close to our first stop for the day, we’ll let the goats eat while we rest and try to go up just a bit further to pitch camp for the night.”
There was a mix of both happy and exhausted moaning in greeting to this but I held firm and pulled our packing goats along to encourage the lads to keep up. I remember doing this with my dad the first three times or so, after that point he decided that I could take them up on my own. I had been terrified but was bolstered by the fact that my dad believed I could do it. It had been hard, and I would try to help the boys as best I could, I remember crying into the coats of more that a few goats, though I would never admit it to anyone. Being away for the first time was hard. But for the first few days I would hopefully be able to keep them busy enough that they wouldn’t get too stuck thinking about it. At what was getting to be a bit long even for me, we finaly found the usual first resting spot. It had been being used for a large number of generation though how many I don’t know as every time I ask my grandpa the number changes, usually going up. It is a space that is surrounded by a large clearing of trees with just some bushes and scrub, with seven large very flat boulders in the middle. No sooner had they sat down when nearly all of them had one or more feet out of their boots and were rubbing them. I smiled and went to the satchel with the first of our lunch in it.
“Remember to ration, we’ll be using the goats milk for most of our meals, so the rest is just for a bolster.”
One of the boys looked up at me, “and you’ve been doing this for years? How do you not starve?”
I put some food in his hands, “I adapt, there are a lot of edible plants up here, I’ll be teaching you how to identifly them, I teach you which mushrooms you can eat, which berries are safe and so forth.”
“What about meat? Is this dry stuff the only we can have?”
“What about water?” another cried, “they sent us up here to die! I knew there was a reason my mom was crying.”
I chose to laugh at this as my only other option would be to cry, this was going to be a long week.
“Ok, do all of you know how to start a fire?”
I got some nods from the older boys but mostly blank stares from the younger ones.
“Well then I guess you’ll learn.”
But first I had to get them to start taking shifts with the goats. They weren’t all that happy about it when they finally figured out that this was a working trip and not a picnic. There was much grumbleing and when I told them to do things there were more than a few angry looks leveled at me. The three oldest were a bit easier to work with and helped with the younger ones, no doubt having a better expectation of what the trip would be from the get go, but also knowing this was something they were likely to do themselves when they got older and were impatient for the opportunity.
I paused in tying a bundle of eadible leaves together for the satchels. “Yes, Jeromy.”
“How do you get them out of trees.” He jerked his thumb over his shouklder to wherer I could just make out over his head a company of some fifteen or so goats that had taken to the trees and were making their noises defiantly at the young boys.
I sighed, “usually with a lot of patience nad frustration but with Snaps being here when we get one down we should be able to have him herd it in with the others.”
The youngest three were not at all pleased with this surprise lesson in futility. Once we got one goat down another from the herd would leap up and bleet it’s success back to the others. Snaps was able to help get the fist goat out of the area but there were always about seven more poised to take its place.
“Any other ideas?”
Jeromy looked at the proceedings, “what if we have Snaps keep the herd away and then we only have to deal with these ones.”
This worked better, we had Jeromy hold the tethers we rigged up to the goats so he could hold most of the ones we brought down.
“I think after this we should head out, we don’t want the goats to be doing this too late at night. They could fall out and get hurt.”
“What? But we just set up.”
“Nothing is set up yet, we’ve eaten a meal and gathered supplies that does nothing for lighting a fire and setting up tents.”
They did as they were told, all be it begrudgenly. Jeromy and Calum, took up the flanks while I statyed in the middle with the younger boys. Kurt, who was the second oldest after me, asked questions that would be of some use in the future which oddly enough didn’t follow a trail of, when will this be over, why can’t we go home, or the ever repeated why do the goats even need to come up here, there is plenty of hay in the village.
“There is plenty of hay because we take the goats out in the summer so it can build up.” Kurt delivered the answer after I had done so about ten times. When we did stop to camp it was a simple thing to let the goats just sstart eating at their leisure, Kurt was in charge of the goats, Jeromy and Calum started setting up the rest of the camp while I took the others to start them on foraging skills. I will say this, foraging to feed just one person takes a lot less time then for seven, it also is a lot easier when you don’t have to be interrupted everyfive second with a question about, can we eat this. Afeter steering the bopys away from some plants that I knew by unfortunate experience to cause rather odd dreams, we finally found some shepherds perse that was in such a quantity to be a useful addition to supper.
“We’ll boil them slightly to make sure they are safe.”
“We didn’t bring all that much water you know.”
“I know, this track runs parallel to one of the mountain streams, we can get fresh water from there anytime. We have a pot, granted it isn’t very big for cooking these vegertables, but we will have to construct our own spit and take it with us for when we get out of the area with trees.”
More groaning. “now then whichever of you doessn’t know how to make a fir set up and learn.”
Day too went a little better though that might have somthign to do with the fact the the younger boys hadn’t slept well and were a but too tired to complain. The three older and I took turns watching the flock which was nice since it meant that when it was time to depart the next morning we didn’t have as many stragalers to round up. Day three got even easier since we were stating to establish a routine for setting up and tearing down the camp, we had managed to find a decent spit stick and were taking it with us. The majority of our time would be spent above the tree line. It was easier to keep an eye on the goats and out for predators up there. And it had a beauty all its own. An uniterupted view of the coming s and gounigs of the sun, the crisp air, small shrubs and abundant flowering mosses. It was lovely. But it brought its own changes to us as well. For one, there were a great deal more craigs to negotiate and hence more for the younger goats to fall into when they were running and playing without paying much attention the other main obstical was that while there was plenty of water, there wasn’t much for kindling. We had brought some coal along for this purpose but it would be used to make meals and promptly put out, least we have a scrub fire and lose half the flock, and that was if we were lucky. That was why we had so many blankets. We were going to need them. The first night spent like this found daylight a grand time to bemouan the lack of wampth from a fire, but we would have to get used to it. After a week or so the cold wouldn’t seem as cold as we got used to it and then we would be perfectly comfortable. The boys did not share my assurance of this and when a mist and rain fell the next day they were even less likely to believe it. Kyle move about in the flock as though he were a herding wyrm, at least this brought a bit of a smile and some lightness ot the faces of my tired companions.
We spent a few weeks like this before they finaly realised that =not of their complaoing was likely to get them home any sooner. Then we started to have more fun, I taught them how to play pan pipes to amuse the goats nad stave off boredom, we reviewed some of the games we had not played in a long time, we had a few splash fights in the near fridged waters of the mountain streams. We raced to see who could get their designated company of goats in line and moving first, Snaps, though not perhaps an official player always won this. I recounted my story of the cave nearly every night at the insitance of my charges until one by one they would drop off, safely nestled in their blanket cocuuns. We were nearing the end of our time out, I could tell by the signs of the season, and the fact that the goats had almost stiripped the mountain bare that we would need to be startoing back soon. There was some wiggle room of course but I was not in good conscious going to run the risk of us being out when the snow started on the mountain.
It was Michael, the youngest. I assumed one ot the larger kids had gotten stuch and he didin’t have the strength to move it. Oh how wrong I was.
I approached a a gently sprint, fully expecting him to be beside a craig, which he was but to my surprise there were no goats in the immediate area. He pointed with wide eyes to the place where we could see that the craig began. “I think I found another tunnel.” I looked where he was pointing, sur enough I could make out what loked to be the start of a tunnel from beneath the moss that was hanging down in an attempt at a curtain over the entrance.
“We should move the goats from here.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Not the tunnel.” I jumped into the crevas, my ribs only giving slight protest, I called for Kyle.
“You’re not going in there are you?”
I now had some five young faces looking at me, eyes as big as saucers and with a note of admiration in their voices.
“I’m just going in a ways to try to get a feel for if it has anything in it that will be a problem.” Kyle appeared over the edge nad I helped him down beside me. Always travel with a wyrm when going down dark scary caves. We approached me mostly watching Kyle for signs of hesitation, he seemed all right to go in as long as I was still beside him. I moved the moss out of the way. There was not flow of air from within the cave, I supposed that was a good thing. Once we were just inside the entrance kyle let up a puff of fire. It was a fairly straight in tunnel with a slightly upward sloping floor. So this one went up the mountain then. I turned slightly to give some more instructions. “I’m going to look into this one a bit further, if I’m not back by tomorrow, start back along the way we came.”
“If you don’t come back does that mean you’re dead?”
Count on Michael to be the voice of encouragement. “More likely it means there was a branch in the tunnel and I am looking into both, there won’t be any light down here so I won’t be able to tell the time. When I do get out, even if you have gone along ahead of me, I can travel faster alone then you can driving the flocks. I’ll be fine boys.” I nodded to kyle and we continued on. I could hear their voices a bit but then they faded, I assumed they had gone back to be more with the flock. Kyle let out some fire every now and then we would walk to about the last place we were able to see clearly and then he would puff again. The sound of his scales on the rough floor was a very comforting contratst to lonely adventure into the tunnels.
“Keep close ok.” This tunnel rapidly increased in size which I did not find particulariy comforting, but I suppose that was how the one I had exited near Gavin’s village had been formed as well. What made these tunnels in the first place. We kept going, the slight ache in my feet let me know that it had been a while, there had been some curves and the occasional downward ramp but for the most part it continued straight and getting consistently bigger. But then the fire stopped ilumingatin the roof. I stopped. So did kyle he looked at me, I was trying to understand what I had last seen or rather what I had not seen with Kyle’s last blast of fire. Knowing what I was attempting to look at and perhaps understanding that I couldn’t see all that well in the dark. Kyle threw back his head and let out a continuous jet of flame straight up. The cavern we had entered very nearly defied Kyle’s best effort to illuminate it. The ceiling was discerable in only a few places nad I could see that the walls curved away from us with some black spaces where I’m assuming other tunnels branched off. “Kyle I think we should go back.”
Then I heard the familier all be it deeper sound of a wyrm. I looked across the cavern in the last of the light from Kyle’s flame, to see a large wyrm, much larger than the one in the lower cavern rushing toward us. Kyle picked that moment to stop blowing fire. I stumbled backwards finding the wall behind me before I got the chance to fall over, but this was a wall and I needed the tunnel to retreat into. Not that it would be that much help. The tunnel was too large to bar the wyrm entrance, I said a quick prayer that Kyle would be able to reason with it. The sound of wyrm language became frenzied, then a gust of wind plasterrd me to the ground. Followed my more in quick succession, multiple flashes of light from fire erupted, a deffening growl , sounds of rock being scrapped and then the most terrible screaming sound I had ever heard in my life. Then I got my break. Light. Kyle was blowing fire at a creature some hundred times his size, it stoop before him not heeding his flame the body of the other wyrm still trying to bit it’s ear in a last attempt at freedom. I froze staring at it. I same cold grey as the walls with brilliant swirls of red and gold that reflected in the fire light. Great wings that were only detectable in some places by the shimmer of the light off the scales, were slightly spread behind it. Its eyes looking with mild censure at my small wyrm, barely the thickness of its finger and only slightly longer then it’s claws. He dropped the other wyrm and opened its mouth at my friend.
In that moment I can not testify what posecessde me into action but I jumped up with my own scream that sounded pitiful in my own ears and ran to interpose myself between the two. The monster roared right into my face, the force of which knocking my already unsteady feet out from under me. I felt Kyle’s weight on top of me in an instant. He uttered his personal battle cry and again blew fire at the dragon. The roar tunred to a throaty sound not unlike Linus’ deep belly laughs. I held tight to Kyle, if we were going to die at least we were together and I had tried to defend him however futile it was.
“what a picture you are, if I had not seen it myself I would never have believed it.”
I stared straight ahead, there was no source of light but I could somehow still see the glint of the monster’s scales. But the voice, the air in my face, made me believe it had come from the monster…but that couldn’t be possible. Could it?
“Speak boy,” it commanded, a deep throaty voice, with almost a metallic tone at the end of the words, “humans are not dumb, or at least not from what we have heard, though perhaps you do not represent.” It laughed, “usually humans know better then to get between a dragon and what he means to flame, though from what I can tell, your species does seem to be adept at becoming less intellegent for using more tools. Strange race.” It or I suppose he, moved his head closer so I could make out some slight reflection of myself in its eyes.
Kyle attempted to flame it again.
Again the dragon laughed. “Little one, while your kind may have the hottest flame, you are in no way old enough to boast of that strength.”
“I beg your pardon.” I finally manged.
The dragon looked at me something about it seemed almost…amused. “Certainly, what may I pardon for you?”
No one I had ever met or said that to had ever given me that return. And whether he was actively waiting for a serious reply or was just toying with us before eating us I couldn’t tell.
“Well speak up boy, I cannot hold court for you forever you know.”
I heard the slight groan from the other wyrm. “His life.”
The dragon tilted its head. “You come down here, where no human belongs. Interupt my hunting, your companion insistently bothers my eyes by blowing fire in them and you want me to pardon the life of my dinner, who is very unlikely to recover at this point?”
“If he hadn’t seen us and came to our defence, you wouldn’t have caught him.”
The dragon snorted, “it isn’t a particularily good idea to insult your host at his table little snack. Or are you offering up a substitute for his freedom. That herd of bleating goats that I hear making its way down the mountain perhaps?”
I blanched but dared not break the coneration now, however odd it was to be talking with a dragon. “Those are not mine to give.”
“So you stole them then? That would make you a thief and I dare say your village would then thank me for dispatching you.” It chuckled again as I squirmed under his gaze, “I know who you are, there can’t possibly be tht many humans fool enough to enter into the great caverns of the mountain. Even if there are some that are trying to make their own use of the wyrm tunnels near the surface.” I must have started since he addressed my movement right away. “Oh yes, little snack, we know about them being in the tunnels, unfortunately human flesh does not taste all that good, though for the young ones that are still small I’m sure they are more then willing to brave the taste for the chance to grow and stake out more territory.” The wyrm made another noise, I reached out my hand in an attempt to calm it much to my horror hearing a dreadful snap. Kyle’s cry let me know for sure what had flighted though my head of what might have happened.
“Calm yourself, you heard his please for release as well as I did.”
“you understand him?” I blurted before I could stop myself.
“Her, but yes, know you nothing of dragons little snack? I must suppose that is so otherwise you wouldn’t have said it. I’ll admire your honesty, maybe now, maybe later after I have eaten you.”
“You just said I wouldn’t taste good.”
“Well maybe you will be the exception to the rule, how can you prove to me that you are not?”
We now stared at each other. Kyle occasionally grunting. I put my hand on his…her head to steady him…her.
“Are you really a girl?”
The dragon laughed again. “Oh this is rich, such a pleasant and entertaining company, and to think I shun it so much, I really must entertain more often.” From the glint of the scales I assumed rthe dragon was now lounging on the floor before us, his one front leg drapped carelessly over the other. “And, you’ve been carrying on like this, for how long? Oh the joys of the entertainment. Neither of you can understand a word the other is saying.”
“So all that chirping and sounds does mean something.”
“Of course it means something, you’re able to understand their intent I dare say even if you cannot understand in explicietly.”
This was true I couldn’t argue with that.
“What of you miss? How have you found the company of a human, and more importantly how do you feel meeting the lord of the mountain, the one that oversees all your growth, the one that is only seen by the likes of you before you are eaten?” I assume he repeated his in growles and rumblings afterwards. When he finished Kyle let loose a tyrade of sounds, the likes of many of them I had not heard before. Every so often the dragon would chuckle, which seemed to me to only serve to make Kyle’s apparent speech more angry in feeling.
“Well it can’t be all that much, you could have grown so much by now it you had taken advantage to what has been placed before you.” He raised his head nad seemed ot say to himself though I would put money on the fact that he intended for me to hear it. “Who would ever think of a wyrm acquiring morals…and from a human no less,” he levelled a stare at me, “isn’t that rather like the blind leading the blind?”
Kyle growled and let another jet of fire loose on his toes. He seemed surprised and even when so far as to move his foot. “Well I never…”
“If you have no further business with us I think we had better leave you to your… meal in peace.”
The force of wind creted by his tail slaming down in front of us both knocked us over and was no doubt helped by the jump the floor made at that same instant. “The lady stays with me.”
My own protestations were drowned by the high pitched squeals that were emanating from Kyle.
The dragon’s voice was firm, “I’m not taking counsel for this. If you want the human to go you must remain.”
“No, I’m not leaving without Kyle.”
“You don’t have an option, human.” Giant claws picked me up nearly recrushing my ribs at the same moment. Kyle’s fire illuminated her struggle in the other hand. I tried to squirm more, but I was already beign rushed down the tunnel as far as the dragon’s arm could reach into it, once it reached the limit of that it tossed me, as easy as Letti playing with a ball. I would have some bruises but my ribs were not reinjured, but that was nothing to the pain I felt. It was like someone was constricting my chest. I got up and ran back only to find a boulder that I knew hadn’t been there a moment ago. I tried to feel my way around it to no avail. The only passing of it was small holes in the bottom corner, holes much to small for someone with my present frame to have nay hope of passing.
“Do not harm her!” I shrieked at the bolder as I pounded on it with my fists, “you hear me dragon? If you harm her at all, I’ll,” I’d what sic the herding dog on him, the last came out as a whisper, “I’ll never forgive you.” I continued to pound the rock with my fists, hot tears burning my face as sobs raked through my body. I kept at it till I had exhausted all the energy I had mustered. Still crying, feeling like a hopeless failure, I sank to my knees. I had lost her, I wouldn’t get her back. I had no way to know her fate and if I could would I truly want to know what I had sentenced her too. If only I had never come into this cursed tunnel. She was gone, I cried till my body could no longer tolerate the strain and I fell into a dreamless sleep, my last thoughts hope that the dragon would reconsider and let her go and take me instead.