Alya jumped. Gwen’s uncanny ability to read the other girls’ minds was still quite unsettling.
“Dangerous, crazy, most likely to result in death…” Gwen laughed hysterically. “I like it.”
Jade was rubbing her hands together in anticipation. She grinned and cocked her head at Alya. “Me too!” she paused, cocking her head to one side. “What is it?”
Athadius’ lips twitched. If it had been anybody else, Alya might have presumed it was the beginning of a smile. Lynn face was a little doubtful, but she looked expectantly at Alya.
Athadius turned to Alya. “Tell us your plan.”
“Alright,” said Alya, setting her teeth. “Athadius, you said that this was another way out. If there is a ravine, how could we cross it? If this is another exit, there has to be a way other than across the ravine.”
“Alya,” asked Lynn hesitantly. “Are you saying-”
“Yes. We go down.”
“Wait,” said Jade. “We’re not fighting soldiers?”
Alya shook her head firmly. “We have no chance against one hundred.”
Jade gave a dismissive gesture. “Pshaw, no worse than my little pigs!” She looked around at the other girls and sighed. “Fine. How?”
“Well, don’t you think there might be a rope or something? It may be concealed, but surely…” Alya stepped to the edge, looking for any trace of a rope. There were shouts above, and a large cracking noise, and the ground Alya was standing on disappeared.
“Alya!” came Lynn’s frantic call from above.
“I’m alright!” she called back. “It’s not a long a drop! I knew there would be something here! Jade, you ought to come next so we can have some light.”
Alya stepped backwards, careful of her footing, in case there was a drop off. The ground felt soft beneath her, like sand, but not dry. Jade landed lightly beside her. Alya blinked as a blaze of light formed in front of her eyes. One by one, the girls jumped down. Alya examined her surroundings. They were in a sort of cave. There was no exit, but as she had hoped, a rope, coiled by the edge of the cave. It was already tied firmly around a large boulder. Immediately, Athadius walked over to it, checking for durability.
“Jade, get down there so we can have some light.”
Jade nodded and grabbed hold of the rope.
“There are torches,” she called, already from far below. “A bit old and rusty, but they’ll do,”
“Take one if you can, but don’t light it yet,” ordered Athadius down to Jade. “We can’t let them see us.”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “That’s very good, Athadius, but shouldn’t you lower your voice a little? They could hear us too, you know. Or don’t the Sanhildin have ears?”
Athadius didn’t look at her. “Can you tell how far down it is?”
For a moment there was silence, and Alya was horrified to think that something might have happened to Jade. But then her muffled sounded from far down.
“I’m at the bottom now. I’d say it’s a solid twenty to thirty feet, but there are plenty of footholds.”
Athadius turned to Lynn. “You’re next. Gwendolyn will be down soon after you, so don’t wait too long.”
Lynn nodded, smiled encouragingly, and disappeared into the blackness. Gwen followed soon after. Alya was left in the dark silence with Athadius. Unnoticed by the two girls, the knotted rope slipped the tiniest bit. Alya tried to peer through darkness at the older girl.
“Athadius?” she ventured.
“Don’t speak,” came the whispered reply. “They’re here.”
A loud crack sounded, and the shouts were immediately above them. Unconsciously, Alya grabbed Athadius’ hand. They stared up, barely breathing, as a man stared straight back at them. For a moment Alya was sure he had seen them, but his eyes remained unseeing, for the darkness engulfed the two girls entirely. The man stood staring for the whole of eternity, then glanced and disappeared. Athadius squeezed Alya’s hand ever so slightly.
“Alya.” Her voice was barely audible. “Go.”
With an effort, Alya released her hand and stepped toward the edge. She felt for the rope and slid over the edge. Athadius’ figure slipped silently over the edge. And then- Alya felt the rope jerk, and then it seemed to fly out from under her, and for the third time in way too-soon, she fell, unable to hold in her terrified screams, to the unknown place beneath her.
Almost as soon as it had happened it was over. She felt an extra surge of wind beneath her, and her fall slowed. The pain surged through her ankle as she landed. Athadius dropped to a landing beside her, apparently unruffled by the event.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
The tears had already sprung to Alya’s eyes, but she forced the back as best she could, and choked out, “Yes. Are they-”
“Yes. They’ll be here soon. We’ve got to hurry. Jade, let’s have some light!”
Immediately, there was light from a few yards away, and Jade’s faced appeared, then Lynn’s and Gwen’s. Jade lit a torch she had grabbed and handed it to Athadius.
“They’ll be here soon?” repeated Gwen. “You mean they’re following us?”
“Unless you think they are deaf, and I assure you they are not, than yes. Of course they are.” Athadius turned away from Gwen and faced the others. “Let’s go.”
They followed the hall-like passageway for several agonizing minutes. Alya’s ankle was throbbing painfully, but she refused to be a burden to the other girls and hurried along as best she could. Athadius led the way with the torch. She came to an abrupt stop. It was a fork. There was no time to lose. If they chose the wrong path than-
Athadius turned decidedly to the left. Not even Gwen stopped to question her, for now the running footsteps of men could be heard far down the passage. All the girls had begun to run down the stone cavern when a loud rumble was heard, and the opening behind them caved in.
Through the last small opening, Alya thought she saw a glimmer of something, and then it disappeared as a last boulder dropped into place, cutting off completely anyway for the enemy to get in, or for the girls to get out.
Alya didn’t know how long they traveled through the darkness. No daylight reached them through the tunnel. They ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired. It was always the same. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Sleep. At first the pain in her ankle gave Alya something to focus on, other than the never ending tunnel. But eventually even that lost its novelty. The throbbing became just as routine as the rest of it. She didn’t realize when she added something to her routine. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Breath. Sleep hung over her like a curtain. She couldn’t do anything to stop it. Her head ached.
“Athadius?” she had managed to croak once.
“Don’t talk,” was the reply. “Don’t waste the air.”
Even that realization hadn’t awoken Alya in the slightest. Walk. Eat. Breath. Don’t talk. Sleep was no longer a part of the routine. It was too hard. Her head throbbed uncontrollably.
So it was going to happen. She was going to die down here. It didn’t seem so bad after all. Sleep. It sounded so beautiful. After so much work, it couldn’t be so bad… just to stop. She didn’t care anymore. It was too much trouble to breath. Her head ached. When would it stop? If she could only have an easy breath of air-
All the girls lifted their eyes. And breathed. How beautiful. A cold draft of air had suddenly flooded through the tunnel, rustling their hair, filling their lungs. With a sudden strength none of the girls knew they had, they raced on. The tunnel began to brighten, and suddenly, they burst through the crumbling stones into the crisp cold air of a forest.
Alya squinted to see. Long ago they had left the lighted torch behind. It was strange to see, no not the sun, but the moon again after so long. She laughed. She couldn’t help it. And then, the laughter rippled among the girls- although Athadius’ laugh was more of a snort. It was nice to have something to laugh about after so long.
When the laughter died out, Jade spread her arms wide and said dramatically, “Welcome, my friends, to the Kingdom of Kaciot!”
Alya, Gwen, and Lynn cheered, but Athadius silenced them roughly. She looked around into the woods.
“We’re not alone.”
By A. Choi
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This blog post is part of a collaborative writing project (The Five Fledglings); if you’d like to read the story from the beginning, click here.