Chapter 2 - The Beginning
They had walked silently, side by side, through the darkening night toward the mountain pass that would lead them north. From what Tira knew, the Marked were taken north toward the city. Whether that was where they ended up, she had never heard, but it was the closest thing she had to information to go on. They had stayed off to the side of the roads, not wanting to be caught in the open by anyone passing. No one was passing at this time of the year, the summer was fading and the cold setting in, before long the mountain passes all through the region would be snowed under and the villages in the south isolated through the icy winter months. Weather aside, few people dared to venture out when the King’s Men were coming through. Even the smallest transgression could result a severe punishment. Their first reminder of this came at the crossroads of the roads to Holdone and the main Southern highway.
Tira couldn’t help her strangled gasp as she stumbled to keep from standing on the man that lay in long grass by her feet. Dom grasped her upper arm, helping to right her. He stood looking down at the corpse, his lips pursed angrily.
“No respect,” he muttered, disgustedly, “Keep moving.”
“We’re just going to leave him here to rot?” Tira cried, indignantly. Turning back to her, Dom held a finger to his lips to hush her. Grabbing her arm again, he tugged her away from the man’s body. The ground around him was muddy, soaked with blood, from the many long slices made by a soldier’s sword.
“Tiramina, we don’t have the time or the means to bury him properly, nor do we want to get caught here by your King’s Men. Besides which, we should not be touching him or his blood, it’s not clean,” he kept his voice low and he lead her on down the road, continuing to keep to the shadows.
“Not clean?” she asked, somewhat curious, rather than continue her process. He would take the question gladly rather than an argument. He wondered briefly if she would really be able to stomach all they were likely to encounter on this particular trip.
“He is covered in blood and bodily fluids, all of which contain any diseases he may have carried.”
“How do you know that?” her curiosity continued.
“That disease is carried in fluids? I spent some time living with a physician in Fey Pur, he taught me a great deal about anatomy, healing and health.”
“Fey Pur?” she asked, awed, the body forgotten, “You’ve come all the way from Fey Pur?”
“Not most recently, but yes I have been there,” he smiled at her amazement. It became more obvious that her world had revolved around little more than the village she had grown up in. He imagined much she was about to discover about her own country and people would surprise her, to say nothing of the wonderous things he could tell her about the many lands he had travelled.
“I don’t even know how far across the sea that is,” she whispered, wistfully, “I just know it’s far. Where are you from? I mean, where were you born?”
“Urwendern,” he responded, “but I left there when I was younger than you and I’ve not returned.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“There was nothing there for me,” he said, with as much finality as he could manage. She let the line of questioning go. If he did not wish to talk about his home she wouldn’t upset it by pressing the topic. She was simply curious to know him better.
The silence resumed as they tread carefully along the side of the wide, well packed road. The dirt had clearly been churned up by dozens of horses recently and made the soldiers and their captives easy to follow. The moon rose, pale and thin, offering them little light and they walked well into the night.
Soon after midnight, by Dom’s estimation, they reached the foothills at the beginning of the mountain range. He stopped beneath a huge oak tree that sat back from the road, far enough to keep them from the attention of anyone that might pass, and dropped his pack to the ground. Tira followed, dropping her own pack and collapsing beside it.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Tiramina,” Dom told her, opening his pack and pulling out a small leather sack. He pulled the drawstrings, opening it and offered it to her. Leaning toward it, she sniffed, before reaching her hand in and pulling out a piece of wrinkled piece of something slightly sticky that smelled of fruit.
“What is this?” she asked him, squinting at it in the low moonlight.
“Dried mango,” he answered, “There is dried apple in there also and I have nuts and cheese.” She took a tentative bite, she hadn’t heard of mango and while apples were common enough around these areas she wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘dried’.
“Oh,” she said, surprised, “It’s delicious. Where is this from?”
“I brought it over from Matzi,” he told her, “Their weather is much warmer, more humid, you could scarce imagine all the fruit they grow. When they dry it keeps well, good for travelling.”
She marveled again at his travels. She had truly never expected to leave Holdone and now that she had it was on a journey she was not all that likely to survive. Tira’s formal education had been very limited, consisting of a few years spent learning to read and do basic arithmetic in the village school. She stopped going by the time she was twelve so she could help her father with the horses. With her father gone, it seemed her only option was to resort to working in her aunt’s shop. She had hoped to take over the farrier trade in town but respect for her family had diminished in the wake of the outcome of her father’s failed rebellion. She’d never seriously considered seeking her fortune elsewhere because the truth was that she didn’t really know where ‘elsewhere’ could be. The snippets she heard about the great outside world came from occasional travelers passing through their village to restock for trips through the northern passes and from the few geographical books she had read. Literature wasn’t exactly a roaring trade in villages like Holdone.
“What’s wrong?” Dom asked her softly. She shook herself out of her train of thought to look up at him.
“Wrong with what?”
“You’re frowning, you look worried. We’re on the right trail, so far anyway. If you’re tired we can rest here a few hours but it’s probably better if we can push on while it’s dark and we are less conspicuous. With any luck we’ll come across them camped somewhere.”
She thought for a moment, “I’m tired but I think I would rather continue. It feels too open to sleep at all here. I just want to catch up, once we see them I won’t think this whole effort is in vain.” He nodded, re-stashing the food in his pack.
“What made you leave?” she asked him, staring up at the expanse of glittering stars stretching out above them. there was a beautiful peace she found in gazing at the stars, as though she could drift away from the world and everyone in it, just a little. It made her feel small and insignificant and she liked that, it was somehow liberating.
“Leave where? Matzi?”
“No, your home, Urwendern.” He didn’t answer for long minutes and she thought that he was going to ignore the question. Then he sighed, heavily.
“I had wanted to escape my life for a long time. I grew up an orphan and the women who raised me where harsh and cold, it wasn’t a happy childhood. My future was to be much of the same, hard work and little joy. I heard about all these interesting and exciting places where people lived different kinds of lives and I had to see them.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, softly.
She shrugged, “For anyone’s lack of joy, really.”
He smiled. If they found what they were looking for on this journey they had undertaken he was afraid that the likely brutal truth would shatter this girl, she clearly had a caring heart as much as she might try to put forward a tough exterior.
“We all suffer such at some point or another, my dear, it’s part of being human I think. I, personally, have found much joy since taking my life into my own hands and living it as I please. Not everyone has that luxury, I know, but sometimes we just need to make our own choices and we will be surprised by what befalls us.”
“Like setting off across the countryside with a stranger from another land in chase of an army of vicious soldiers and the children they’ve kidnapped? I bet I’m going to be cursed surprised by a lot of what comes my way now.”
He could not help but laugh, “You never know, you might just come across some good things in life too. I always recommend travel.” He winked at her and she grinned.
“You must live an interesting life,” she said on a light laugh.
“As it should be,” he declared, but as she gazed at the stars she did not see brief pursing of his lips. While he relished the adventure that was his nomadic life and he had no desire to settle himself anywhere that he had yet come across, there were certainly dark moments that had occurred in his wanderings. She seemed clever enough but she was still young and naïve. Despite the danger she had walked into in coming on the trip with him, he would rather leave her her innocence for as long as possible.
“Are you ready to carry on?” he asked her, gazing at the slim moon where it hung in the inky dark sky. She pushed herself up from the ground with a groan.
“Yes, let’s get on,” she muttered, “It would be nice to find somewhere a bit safer to rest.” They shouldered their packs and began trudging toward the foothills of the Periera Mountain range. Neither spoke as several hours and several miles passed. Tira was struggling to put one foot in front of the other, her feet and legs aching. Her eyes burned with tiredness but she dared not complain and let Dom think he had brought along a child who could not cope with the rigors of the journey. The Marked they sought to follow were her people, her friends and childhood playmates. She ought to be the one who was buoyed by the desire to succeed and so be able to push on no matter how weary. She stumbled on a rock and tipped forward, losing her footing completely. Dom’s arm shot out to capture hers in an attempt to prevent her landing in a heap in the dust. She landed heavily on her knees with her companion holding her upright by her arm. For a long moment, she remained there, her knees throbbing terribly from the impact and every muscle resisting her instruction to stand up again.
“Are you alright?” Dom asked, still holding her arm. She nodded, not wanting her voice to betray her struggle. With difficulty, she pushed to her feet and stood unsteadily. Dom did not release her arm.
“It’s alright to say so,” he said softly, “If you’re not.” She forced a smile onto her face as she turned to him.
“I’m fine,” she told him, trying to sound bright but she didn’t manage it, “Really, we should keep going.” He frowned, but nodded and they continued walking. The road grew more narrow as it began to weave through the rocky hills. The trees became gnarled and twisted, growing from crevices in the stone walls of their passage. Their footfall began to echo the mountains rose around them. Tira could see a pale orange glow creeping across the sky as she yawned, her steps faltering as she swayed her way along the road. Suddenly, Dom stopped, frowning as he looked around them.
“What’s –“ she began to ask before she realized what he was looking for. She stared at the ground before her. The hoof and footprints they had been following seemed to mill around in one spot before ending abruptly. She turned in a small circle. They had come from the same direction but upon reaching this spot, seemed to have vanished. She walked forward, the road was clear where it continued to weave between the tall stones. Dom was carefully circling the tracks, staring intently. He glanced at her, she shrugged in response, puzzled by the signs. He turned and began inspecting the mountainside as it rose on either side of the road. Tira’s heart seemed to slowly sink. As with the last time she had attempted to follow, the tracks had vanished. They had followed much further this time and she had begun to believe the outcome would be different but here they were once again at a dead end. She felt like crying but she wouldn’t dare to let Dom see such weakness from her. Suddenly he gave a triumphant cry and they both froze as it echoed through the mountains above them. as the sound faded away Tira rushed over to where he stood, running his fingers along a deep crack in the rockface. He grinned at her and pointed the dirt beneath. She looked and noticed nothing significant.
“I don’t understand,” she said flatly, raising her eyebrows at him.
“It’s been swept,” he told her, happily. She glanced down again but still saw nothing noteworthy.
“Nope, still don’t understand.”
Kneeling and motioning her to join in, he pointed at streaking marks within the dirt. In the dim dawn light they were scarcely perceptible as anything unnatural but on closer inspection Tira realized that the markings were too regular in their pattern.
“Oh,” she whispered, smiling up at him, “Tracks have been swept away here?”
“Yes,” he nodded, enthusiastically, “And I think I know what that means.”
“Well, good, because I haven’t a clue,” she told him, “It still doesn’t tell us where they went because I can’t see how they took the horses up a cliff face like that.” She pointed at the near vertical slope above them.
“Oh no, they didn’t. They took them through it.”
“Through it?” she asked, deadpan. He seemed to make less sense the more he spoke.
“Yes,” he said again, “If I’m right.” She stood back and watched as he continued to run his hands over the rock, his eyes darting about. Finding a foothold, he climbed up the rockface a few feet until he stood above their head height.
“Ah ha!” he grinned again, “You’d best step back. Well back.” She followed his instruction and watched as he crouched down and pushed against the top of the cracked rock. With a groan and a loud scrape, the rock fell landing heavily in the dirt. As the dust cleared, Tira stared in shock into a dark hole in the rock. Two thick ropes were fastened to the top corners of the rock as it lay like a drawbridge.
“Are you telling me that all the soldiers, horses and the people they’d captured went in there?!” she cried. He leapt down the rock, landing lightly on the ground by the fallen rock.
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. It’s brilliant, don’t you see?” he sounded excited, “Hidden tunnels through the mountains means they can transport the people they kidnap without being followed by anyone who might think to try to ambush and take their people back.” Tira stared, her mouth hanging open.
“How in the cursed underworld did you know that?”
“Well, I didn’t. But the sweep marks right up to the rock seemed odd and on Fey Pur the medicine men hide their sacred sites in caves deep under the volcanic mountains, the entrances are incredibly hard to find.”
She shook in her head in disbelief, “I’m not even going to ask what a vol-volcanic mountain is, but I will say that I am definitely not going in there.” She pointed toward the gaping entrance into the mountain.
“That’s the only way we will catch up and find your people,” he told her.
“No, no way. We will just have to find the place where the tunnel comes out and follow them from there,” she was shaking her head adamantly.
“Tiramina!” he cried, appalled, “There are hundreds of miles of mountain range and neither of us know the region at all. Do you have any idea how unlikely it would be for us to find the exit of this tunnel system somewhere on the other side? Not to mention how much longer it would take us to travel the distance. We would never catch them again. This is only way we have any hope of following the King’s Men, we have to use their tunnels.” He was right, she knew he was right. But she was a girl of open fields and visible skies, how could she go deep into the earth like this? She was terrified. She swallowed hard and tried to nod, to show him she understood, but the movement was jerky and awkward.
“There’s no light,” she whispered, “And what if we become trapped in there?” his expression softened as he recognized her fear.
“They would not have gone in this way if there was no way out. as for light, I can take care of that.”
He removed his pack, leaving it on the ground by her and walked away, toward a few trees struggling to survive the rough terrain. He picked up two small branches from among the bases and came back to her. Kneeling by his pack he removed a large square of cloth and ripped into several strips, wrapping the pieces around one end of the sticks. Reaching deeper into the pack he pulled out a bottle made of what looked to be steel and removed the stopper. The smell that wafted into the air was awful and made Tira blanch.
“What is that? It smells foul.”
“It’s maracas oil,” he told her, as he drizzled the substance onto the cloth wrappings, “A little something I brought along from Ulikesh. It burns for hours and not too hot, perfect for light.” Replacing the oil he pulled a flint and steel from the pack. Handing the torches to Tira, he struck the flint against the steel until a small spark burst forth and the maracas oil ignited rapidly. Shouldering his pack, Dom took a torch from her and moved toward the opening to the mountain tunnel. Tira knew she needed to follow him but her legs seemed reluctant to move and she knew it wasn’t weariness. He stepped up onto the fallen stone and paused, turning to her.
“You can do this, Tiramina,” he told her, his voice stern. She took a deep breath and walked forward before she could talk herself out of this whole idea. She stepped up beside him and he smiled at her, then she walked on into the tunnel.
Dom followed her in. once in the dark he held his torch up to inspect a pulley system attached to the far wall.
“To close the door,” he said sounding impressed, “Here, hold this.” He handed her his torch and took hold of the mechanism, beginning to wind. The system creaked and groaned as the large stone eased back into place with a loud scrape. The brightening dawn light shrunk into a sliver before being shut out entirely and Tira felt her pounding harder in her chest. Dom took a torch from her and moved off down the tunnel. Tira followed, her mouth dry. The air smelled musty, stale and the cold seemed to increase with each step. The floor felt like sand, slipping beneath her feet. She tried to focus on breathing and they walked deeper and deeper into the mountain. She did not want to think about how much mountain was on top of the them as it soared into the sky, and what would happen if even a small amount came down on top of them. Dom marched on confidently and she focused on the flickering light of her torch on his broad back as she followed him.
She felt as though they had been walking for hours when he stopped. She almost ran into him and whisked her torch to the side just in time to keep from burning him with it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice husky from exhaustion and so long without speaking.
“We should rest a little, eat something.”
“Is it really safe to stop here in the tunnel?”
“I don’t think we have much choice for the moment and if there happens to be anyone come along I believe we’ll hear them with time to move.” She wanted to disagree but she was too worn out. she sat down heavily on the sandy floor, pack and all. She wanted to reach for her canteen of water but every muscle felt like lead and she thought if it wasn’t so dark she would probably noticed her vision blurring.
“Why don’t you close your eyes for a moment?” he suggested softly, “I can keep watch for a little while.” Again, she wanted to argue but she was drifting off before she had the chance.
When she awoke her head was throbbing and pain shot through her neck at the first movement. She was draped awkwardly backwards over her pack, still slung on her shoulders. She pulled her arms from the straps, feeling clumsy, and tried to stretch.
“Feel any better?” Dom asked.
“No,” she muttered, rummaging in the bag for water. She gulped heavily and then realized her thoughtlessness. She had no notion how long it might be before she was able to refill the canteen, she shouldn’t drink it all at once. “How long was I asleep?”
“Hard to say down here,” he answered, he was stretched out beside her, reclining against his own pack, “Without being able to see the sun or the moon, time seems to get lost. Perhaps an hour or two.”
“Then you should rest as well,” she told him, “Before we try to move on.” She thought longingly of her wool filled mattress at home and a long night’s sleep. She wondered when the next time she felt rested might be, she didn’t anticipate soon.
“Are you sure?” he asked, knowing she would not want to be awake here alone in the tunnel while he slept. He was quite used to going long periods without sleep but he had been on the move since early yesterday morning and he didn’t want to push himself too far. He wanted to be alert on this journey, especially when he felt as though he was responsible for Tiramina’s safety as well as his own.
“Yes, sleep a bit.” He closed his eyes and she listened as his breathing slowed and steadied. There was a definite eeriness to the scene, sitting in the dark tunnel, their dim torches flickering orange light across the stone. No sound but for Dom’s breathing and faint drip echoing from somewhere. She occupied herself by pulling a oiled cloth from her pack, wrapped in which was some rye bread and cheese. She ate slowly, feeling panic ebb in her stomach each time she swallowed a mouthful. She wanted to be out of this place. After a few mouthfuls she gave up and returned the food to her pack. She sat quietly in dark, gripping the torch in her hand, staring at the flame dancing on the top of Dom’s torch, stuck upright in the sand of the cave floor. She didn’t know how much time passed but it seemed like hours that wouldn’t end. When Dom spoke, she jerked, startled.
“Not a bad place for a nap, actually,” he said, stretching slightly as he sat up, “Dark and quiet, a little on the chilly side but I imagine it’s much colder outside right now.”
“Winter is coming,” Tira told him softly, “The mountain passes will be snowed in soon enough and surviving the mountains would be incredibly difficult.”
“Another reason I imagine they use these tunnels, travelling with so many at this time of year.”
“They do it because of the harvest,” she told him, bitterness in her tone, “The wait until the crops have been harvested before they take all the strong, young people from the farms and villages. That way people still have enough for the Queen to claim her taxes.”
“How thoughtful,” Dom muttered, getting to his feet. He stretched again and she noticed that his hands touched the ceiling of the cave. Her hands trembled slightly as she gathered her pack.
“Let’s keep going,” she said, “I want to find our way out of here.” Dom lifted his pack and his torch with a nod and turned to continue down the tunnel.
“On a positive note, I can’t imagine anything large and dangerous lives down here so we shouldn’t need to worry about anything that might want to eat us,” he told her, cheerily.
She laughed, “I’ll take that because the mountain cats are vicious and I would hate to encounter one of those trying to get itself more meat before winter.” He paused and frowned back at her.
“You never mentioned vicious mountain cats when we headed off into the hills,” he accused.
“I didn’t want to scare you,” she told him with a grin. He scoffed as shook his head, smiling, and carried on down the tunnel. The silence seemed to bounce off the stone around them until the drip Tira had heard in the distance grew louder and louder. Dom paused, moving to the wall and pressing an ear against the stone.
“I think there are more caves on the other side,” he said, seeming to think aloud, “I wonder if there’s a way through….” Tira frowned, shivering.
“The cave we’re in is enough for me,” she muttered, “Let’s just find our way out of it, huh?” Her heart raced at the thought of staying in these caves, she tried to keep her breathing even. Sensing her discomfit and growing panic, Dom moved off down the tunnel and Tira followed, keeping her eyes focused on his form once more.
Tira thought her exhaustion and fear of the confined space was beginning to take it’s toll. Her steps felt unsteady and the light of the torches seemed to wobble before her eyes. Dom froze ahead of her and she realized it was not her own senses that were the problem. He turned toward her, mouth tight and eyes wide. The stone tunnel was trembling, dust falling from the ceiling. There was a slow rumble sounding in the distance behind them. Tira didn’t understand what was happening, was it some kind of earthquake? Would the tunnel cave in?
“Someone’s coming,” Dom whispered and Tira gasped. Eyes darting quickly over the walls around them, Dom reached for Tira, pushing her into a small crevice in the rock. Standing tight against the smooth, cold stone she would be impossible to spot to anyone approaching from the direction they had come. To anyone who looked behind as they passed, she would be clearly visible. it was the closest they could come to hiding though.
“Do not move or make a sound, no matter who comes or what may happen to me,” he told her sternly, before taking her torch and smothering both lights in the sand. They were plunged into complete blackness. Tira’s chest squeezed as she tried to draw in air as quietly as she could manage. She reached her hand forward to place where Dom had been but there was nothing but dark air. She had never felt so alone, trapped in this cold, dark cave. The rumble grew louder and faint light approached around the bend in the tunnel. She pressed herself back against the wall, turning her face away from the brightening light. She prayed to every God she could think of that Dom had found somewhere to hide. What would she do if he were caught?
The rumble became distinct hoofbeats and the timbre of several human voices. It had to be another troop of soldiers with Marked captives. She wanted to count how many there were as they passed but she dared not open her eyes of move a muscles. Long minutes ticked by as the group passed. Red and yellow danced on the back of her eyelids as she squeezed them closed. She realized she was holding her breath but scarcely dared to let it out lest the slightest sound or movement get her noticed. Dom pressed himself tight behind a small vertical ledge on the rock wall where the tunnel split into a fork. He watched carefully as the soldiers passed, leading their horses with a string of young men and women following stumbling behind. Their wrists were tied together in two rows of rope and they all looked terrified. Dom wanted to lunge forward and free them right now but his good sense prevailed. It was unlikely he could fight all of the soldiers and these people would then become trapped in the tunnels with him and Tiramina while the soldiers hunted all of them. Any chance of finding out what the fate of the Marked was and changing that for others would be lost. He needed to wait until circumstances were better for everyone. He hoped that Tiramina was safe where he had left her, knowing she was feeling claustrophobic and her fear increased with each hour that passed in the deep dark under the mountains. As the last of the captives passed by his hiding place and the light of the soldiers torches began to fade Dom breathed a quiet sigh of relief. A boy, no more than fifteen Dom thought, the last in the chain, turned as he passed and met Dom’s eyes, his own widening in his pale face. Dom laid a finger against his lips, silently pleading with the boy. Turning away, the boy followed along in the chain without a word. As the darkness enveloped him again, Dom waited. He wanted to be sure they were well enough ahead not to see the light when he relit their torches. He felt his way through his pack for the maracas oil, fumbling with the lid and the torches in the darkness. Hoping he had one soaked enough, he found the flint and steel. It took several attempts to make a spark catch on the oiled clothed. When he had both torches ignited, he shouldered his pack and moved back down the tunnel to find Tiramina.
She was where he had left her, pressed back against the rock, her hands trembling and her chest heaving as she hyperventilated. Her eyes were closed as he approached.
“Tiramina,” he said softly, her eyes flew open and her head darted around to face him, “It’s alright, it’s only me. The soldiers are gone.”
Her breathing did not ease and her eyes were large, he could see the panic in them. he stepped closer, reaching one hand out and resting it on her shoulder.
“It’s alright,” he told her again, “Look at me.” Her eyes met his and held them, the blue seeming to deepen as she stared at him. “Take a slow breath.” She obeyed, released it and took another. After a moment she nodded and pushed herself carefully away from the wall, limbs still trembling.
“I’m fine,” she told him, her voice shaking despite her attempt at confidence, “Let’s go.”
He smiled and they continued down the tunnel.
“You’re a determined one, Tiramina.”
“My friends call me Tira,” she told him, softly. He smiled again. The silence was tense as the walked now, both listening intently for the approach of any more soldiers. It stood to reason that all troops of the King’s Men who were out gathering the Marked in the southern villages would use these tunnels. They were at risk of being come upon from behind again. He directed them right at the fork, following the path that the soldiers had taken. Since they already towed Marked captives he assumed they were making their return journey north and so they should follow.
Both Dom and Tira were weary in body and mind but they dared not stop again in the caves. They had been extremely lucky to successfully hide the first time, they could hope to be so again. Trudging along, footsteps scrunching in the sand, torches held high, they did not immediately recognize the change in the light. Tira came to a sudden stop, Dom glancing at her before doing the same.
“What –“ he began, then noticed what she had, “Sunlight!” Their pace increased with excitement. An opening in the dark yawned before them and Tira wanted to run to it, to burst out into the daylight and fresh air. When they had almost reached the door way, Dom threw out an arm, barring her way and coming to a stop. She looked to him, confused.
“Carefully,” he muttered. he moved ahead of her, peering out of the cave before stepping into the light. He carefully scanned the landscape, listening intently. He beckoned Tira forward and she walked slowly outside, breathing deeply and turning her face up to the sunlight. He couldn’t help but smile watching her. She turned to grin at him, the relief evident in her bright face now that their journey through the cave was over. Her blue eyes sparkled and it warmed him in an odd way to see her happy. He blinked, trying to cast the unrecognizable feeling aside.
Looking up at the sun he considered their options.
“It won’t be long until nightfall,” he told Tira, “We could camp but we best get well away from here to do it, we don’t want to be spotted by any other soldiers that might exit the tunnels.”
“Good idea,” she agreed, “I think we could both use some sleep.” They had emerged from the caves into a sparse forest of tall pine trees. A thick bed of dry pine needles covered the forest floor. A light breeze stirred the air, bringing a chill with it that sank much deeper into Tira’s skin than the cold in the caves. She turned, looking back at their exit from the tunnel. The dark door way was at the base of a soaring, rocky cliff. Looking in either direction, the cliff stretched on as far as she could see. She had never crossed the mountains before, never known what had lain on the other side. She was awed by the view. She looked to Dom, he seemed to be thinking as his eyes scanned the forest around them slowly.
“Let’s go west,” he suggested, eyes following the sinking sun, “We’ll keep to cliff and hopefully find somewhere sheltered enough to sleep. We may even be able to make a fire. It seems much colder on this side of the range.” That was a concern of Tira’s also, she had brought clothes and a bedroll suited to the winter that she was used to but if it really did get colder as they travelled north it may not be enough. She nodded and they set off, the pine needles crunching beneath their boots.
The setting sunset cast streaks of red and purple across the sky. Tira took slow, deep breaths, enjoying the return to open air and the smell of pine. She gazed up through the tall spindly pines to the darkening sky. She could hear the call of birds as they ended their day, a few that she recognized but many unfamiliar and it emphasized the reality that she was the farthest from home she had ever been. Rustling through the brush and needles sounded, animals making their way to their burrows and nests for the night. ‘I’d be quite happy if I never entered another cave as long as I live’ she thought to herself. Dom stopped and in her distraction she collided with his strong frame.
“Oomph,” she stumbled back, nearly losing her footing.
“Paying attention, are we?” he chuckled, “There’s a grove, just there, see how the trees are tight together? The brush around will give us some cover. We’ll camp there for the night. We can risk a small fire, I think, enough for a little warmth.” She followed him into the small grove of trees, turning to gaze around her, a small smile playing on her lips as though she held a little secret.
“What has you smiling so?” he asked her, warmly.
She laughed, as she continued to spin a circle around the grove. She came to a stop, facing him. “When I was child, I found a grove like this is the woods south of Holdone. My mother convinced us it was a fairy grove and my sister and played there often, for hours on end. My mother would watch on, smiling endlessly at us.” A sadness came into her eyes as she remembered happy hours spent with people she loved and lost. She looked beautiful like this, he thought before mentally berating himself for even thinking of viewing her that way.
“Your parents clearly loved you and your sister,” he said softly, thinking of how her father had fought to keep so many from the possibility of losing their children.
“Yes, I believe so,” she looked away from him as she spoke and he suspected he had upset her.
“It’s getting cold fast, we can make a small fire I think. I’ll gather some wood.” He left her alone in the grove of trees. He did not intend to be insensitive but sometimes his lack of family connections meant he did not fully understand the deep seeded emotions such memories might evoke.
When he returned with an arm load of sticks and branches she had created a small circle of stones and removed the grass from within. He made a pile nearby with the wood and began breaking the branches down into smaller pieces. She began to arrange the kindling within her circle and fetched a flint and strike from her pack. It took them only a few minutes, working together to have a small fire burning in their glade. The sun had fallen and darkness encroached, but in their secluded glade Tira was not afraid. She felt safer outside of the caves and to her surprise, she felt safe with Dom. She sat, staring into the fire as long moments passed, unaware that Dom was watching her. He wondered if she was still lost in the memories of her family, knowing those thoughts would surely lead her to the loss of her sister.
“Tira?” he asked softly, after a while. She started and stared up at him.
“Sorry,” she muttered, turning to rummage through her park. She produced a small pot and a leather sack that she opened and tipped into the pot. It contained a chunky, greyish powder. Dom didn’t think it looked at all appetizing. Adding water from her canteen, she nestled the pot into the glowing logs on the edge of the fire.
“What exactly is that?” he asked, tentatively.
“Soup,” she told him, “It’s not as foul as it looks, I promise. The barley and vegetables make it filling, it’s good for travelling food.” He nodded, still looking at the pot with a skeptical expression.
“As we walk tomorrow I'll try to hunt some game for us,” Dom suggested, “What food we have brough will not last us long.”
“I’m quite a lousy shot to be honest,” Tira told him, “I always hesitate.” He smiled, he wasn’t entirely surprised. He could imagine her reluctance to take a life, even one that would feed her.
“Well, lucky for you, young lady, I happen to be an excellent shot,” he told her with dramatic bravado. She laughed lightly. He was charming and he seemed to know when she needed to have her mood lifted. Still, she thought to herself, growing serious again, she didn’t want to get too close to him, too attached. This whole crazy expedition was bound to end in blood and tears and if she cared too much for anyone else then it would become all the more difficult.
Tira had thought she would sleep well in the pine grove that night, with the relief of being out of the cave, but she was plagued by dreams of her sister and the fateful day that she watched her hauled away by the King’s Men. She awoke feeling irritable and questioning their mission. It was clear to Dom from their first exchange in the morning that Tira was not happy today and his usual attempts to make her smile were probably going to make things worse. He kept quiet and gave her her space as much as possible as they traveled. When he spotted the opportunity, he hunted them two rabbits and good sized pheasant that he was surprised to find on it’s own. They back toward the east, mostly perpendicular to the cliff face, hoping to find the road again. There was no certainty that the King’s Men used the road but they figured since the soldiers had no real need to hide from anyone as they traveled there was a decent chance. They were still working on the assumption that the soldiers took their quarry north and at the very least the road would take them in that direction. Every step of this trip was a hope and prayer as far as Tira was concerned so she went along with the most logical idea at the time. She wasn’t even sure they would survive to find the north. She tried to rein in her pessimism as they traveled, knowing it wouldn’t serve anybody.
As they walked she listened to the sounds of the forest around her. She wasn’t sure how far they were from Holdone now but the forest smelled and sounded so much like the one she had grown up in that she could believe her home town was just across the field. The bird calls and rustling leaves soothed her and her tension eased as they pushed on. As she listened intently to the familiar sounds, naming as many birds as she could recall from long walks in the forest with her father as a child, she heard something that didn’t belong. She paused, mid-step, straining to hear the out-of-place sound once more. Dom paused behind her, listening as she seemed to be doing.
“Horses,” he muttered. Grasping her arm, he pulled her with him behind a bushy shrub. The crouched side by side, peering through the leaves as the pound of hoofbeats grew louder. Creaking leather and the jangle of metal sounded as a group of riders came closer.
“We’re much closer to the road than I thought,” Dom whispered by Tira’s ear. They remained, still and close, in their leafy hiding place as the oblivious group rode by. Listening to the receding sound, Tira breathed a small sigh of relief. She hadn’t realized she was so afraid of running into any other people on the road. Was it really that dangerous for travelers to be out here?
“Do we really need to be so afraid to be spotted by anyone?” she whispered to Dom, waiting for his cue to move from her crouched spot.
“I wouldn’t want to be seen by any of the soldiers,” he told her, “I’m sure there are still groups moving about. And anyone who sees us heading this way becomes a potential witness should we get ourselves into…trouble.”
“oh,” she hadn’t thought about it that way.
“There’s also the fact that not everyone who wanders is as trustworthy as yours truly,” he nodded his head to her with a somewhat ironic smile. She frowned. That she did know, but she had ignored all of her instincts toward safety to embark on this journey with him. It didn’t mean she should throw all caution out the window however, plenty of unsavory characters were known to prey on folks on the road and the soldiers that were about, despite serving the monarch and supposedly existing for the protection of the people, were unlikely to do anything about it.
“So we need to keep to ourselves and stay off the road until we get north,” she thought aloud, “Then what? At some point we are going to need to speak to other people because we don’t really know where we’re going or what’s happening to the Marked.” She pointed out to Dom. He nodded, thoughtful.
“Let’s deal with ‘then’ when ‘then’ comes shall we?” he suggested, standing and gazing in the direction that the riding group had traveled, “I’m going to check out the road, decide if it’s likely to be the highway North and then we shall choose how to travel on, yes?” Tira stood up beside him and nodded, with a shrug. She had trusted him so far and so far he had not given her reason not to. She would likely not have made it this far on her own and she thought her chances of surviving all the way to the North would have been very slim on her own.
She waited behind the bush, listening carefully to the sounds of movement. Once Dom had stepped around the bush that hid him she could not even hear his footsteps, he moved so carefully over the forest floor. He must have been careless the day they met, she thought. She closed her eyes, trying to focus on what he ears picked up. It was an exercise her father used to do with them in the forest, when he tried to teach them to track. She had never been very good at it though and her tracking and hunting skills weren’t impressive. She thought her father would be disappointed now, he had wished his daughters to have the skills to fend for themselves so that they may remain independent if they wished. Not that he would ever have told her mother that. Now here she was, very dependent upon Dom for her survival. Her heart sunk a little at the thought. Surely she could contribute something to this expedition though? Otherwise Dom wouldn’t have brought her, he would simply have come on his own. Her heart sunk further when Dom appeared back around the edge of the bush without her hearing his approach. He cocked his head slightly as he observed the frustration and disappointment he saw in her face. Something was clearly wrong today, but as much as he wanted to know what he did not want to impinge on her privacy to find out. He tried to shake off the concern he felt, he knew that he shouldn’t. by agreeing to bring her he had vowed, if only to himself, to look out for her safety and protect her physically, but he had never intended to care for her emotional wellbeing. That was far too close to another person for his liking. Reaching across, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She attempted to offer him a smile but it was strained.
“Is something wrong?” he asked her, softly. She wanted to tell him everything that was playing on her mind, that in itself bothered her. She wasn’t usually the open type. She could say no but she knew they would both know that she was lying.
“I’m not sure,” she muttered, going with something close to the truth. His hand seemed to grow warmer on her shoulder the longer it remained there. From the odd way he looked at it she thought that maybe he noticed too. He pulled his hand away and collected his pack from the ground by her feet.
“Tira,” he hesitated, he felt as though he was crossing some kind of line if he reached out to her this way. He knew it was a line of his own creation, he did not realise she shared the sentiment. “If you need to talk, I know we began this as strangers, but-“ he paused again, and sighed slightly, “I believe we are, at the very least, companions now and perhaps even growing into friends. I can be supportive, if you need.” Without looking at her again, he began to move away, in the direction of the road. Surprised, she shouldered her pack and followed him. She could see them becoming friends if she was being honest, but she wasn’t sure that was what was best for either of them. It had grown obvious to her that they were both afraid of getting closed to others and that was probably as recipe for disaster.