Chapter 6 – Touch of a Shadow
Having to crawl through the restricted tunnel while holding the torch proved difficult going. It only lasted a short while though, no more than a couple of minutes, before she came to the end of the tunnel, where it sloped down to another drop, down into another tunnel below. Peering down through the hole, Kathri could see another light, one natural in origin. Relief swept over her at the sight of it.
Kathri dropped the torch down through the gap, where it landed on the ground below. It flickered for a moment during the fall and the landing but remained lit. Lowering herself through, she dropped down to join it.
Reaching down to pick up the torch, she spotted footprints on the ground. A single set of prints led towards the natural light while two sets headed the other way, deeper into the darkness.
This is the tunnel we entered by, she realised. It looks like Astiara got out as well. I wonder how he got by the traps?
She looked up at the hole in the roof above. It had been hidden from sight as they had entered by an outcrop of rock thrusting down from the roof and they had walked beneath it unnoticed. She frowned though. The tunnel above seemed odd, having a drop at either end. It seem unlikely that it had formed that way naturally.
Standing beneath it the hole, she rested a hand on the wall around her, running it along and getting a feel for the stone. Barely perceptible, there was a change in it from one side of the hole to to the other. A tingle ran through her fingers at a certain point on the wall, marking the point where the wall went from natural to cut. Whoever had been responsible for it had done it in such a manner that the new tunnel appeared natural to all but the closest of looks, or one whose blood had an affinity for the earth.
So, the tunnel originally climbed upwards and they simply drove a new tunnel through, continuing it along on a flat plane and in the process cut off the tunnel above.
She backtracked her way down the tunnel, deeper into the tomb complex. A little distance along it, she came to where the rock slide had collapsed down into the worked tunnel below. Peering down, she could see the still open pit trap that had almost claimed her life on first entering.
The layout and construction of the complex began to make more sense to her. The initial worked entrance to the tomb lay somewhere below her, having been filled in after the burial of Ajanathad, as was standard for the tombs of Hajanri emperors. The secondary tunnel above that she stood in, utilising the natural cave system, had been connected up at one point, as an exit in case of emergencies she suspected. When the tomb had been sealed, it too had been sealed off, separating it from the tomb, only to be reopened by a rock slide at some point.
Turning about, she headed back towards the exit of the cave. The light grew brighter as she pushed on and she extinguished the torch. The way out was a low opening through which bright light streamed. She ducked under it, out onto a ledge set high up on the wall of a steep slope. A lip of stone curled over the ledge, sheltering it from the worst of the sun, as well as casual observance. The stone around her was streaked through with various shades of reds and browns.
From where she stood, she could see down a mostly barren slope, one of dry red earth, baked hard by the sun, and fields of rock, interspersed with hardy shrubs and stunted bushes. Many were festooned with long thorns and their leaves were more grey than green. At the bottom of the slope, the land flattened out into a narrow valley though which an old waterway wound, long since dried up, leaving behind cracked earth and windswept dirt and sand. Beyond it, the ground rose up into another slope.
The heat of the landscape hit her upon emerging from the tunnel, a heat that had not been present inside, a dry heat that sapped the moisture from her body. The sun above shone bright, glaring down on a region of near inhospitable wasteland.
It had not always been that way. Hajanri records indicated that the region in their days had seen farming and herding. The waters had failed for unknown reasons, and the farms had died as the rocky deserts had encroached upon them.
A rough path led down from the ledge, winding down to the riverbed below, picking its way between precariously balanced boulders. Kathri followed it, headed back towards where they had established their camp while exploring for the tomb. The sun beat upon her, energy sapping in its intensity. Kathri pulled a dusty brown scarf up over her head to get some shelter from it. Her aching head had mostly cleared up but too much sun would only see it surge back again.
Walking alongside the dried out water bed, smooth worn stones dotting it, she spotted a cluster of trees ahead of her. Tall they were, with smooth grey bark and broad branches, ancient things with deep root systems that tapped into hidden sources of water far beneath the ground. It was there that they had established their camp, a welcome source of respite from the sun.
“Astiara!” she called out as she neared the trees, her voice echoing through the surrounding hills that lined the river bed. No answer came to her.
She entered the welcome shade provided by the trees, pulling the scarf from her head and letting it rest upon her shoulders again. The air hung still around her, not a breath of a breeze disturbing it, and what life lived out in the deserts about slunk in shelter, waiting for the worst of the heat to fade. Her clothes clung to her body, moist with the sweat of exertion, by the time she reached where they had set up their camp. In a sheltered nook at the foot of the hills where ridges ran to either side, a small waterhole existed, fed by water, fresh and sweet, that bubbled up from beneath the ground. The trees and plants around it looked greener and fuller than elsewhere and in the evenings birds could be seen to visit it. In the hostile lands it appeared as a welcome oasis of rest and relief.
Not only was Astiara not there waiting for her but neither was their camp. Their horses were gone, as were their supplies, all taken by Astiara she suspected.
Not that I blame him. He must have thought me dead, crushed beneath the falling rock and in the chaos of the tremor and the marauding guardian checking would have been impossible. I would have done the same in the same situation no doubt.
Kathri knelt down beside the waterhole, splashing water over her face and head, leaving her hair wet. After the heat and the sun, it was a relief. She opened up her canteen, drained the last its contents and refilled it before drinking deeply again.
Refreshed, she sat down beside the pool, setting her pack alongside her, and considered her options. Almost out of habit she searched through her pack. Besides the raven figurine, still wrapped up tight, and the scroll, she had only what she had taken in with her; the pouch of glyphtstones, rope, flint & steel, a half burnt torch, a change of clothes, a knife, the canteen of water, spare parchment and a case with quill and ink, and a small amount of dried meat. If she stretched it, it would last perhaps a couple of days but no longer.
The waterhole at least provided shelter and water, allowing her to wait and hope that she would be found by others. It might take weeks, though, before anyone happened along, making it a risky venture. If she waited too long and no one did come, she would lack the strength to make it out.
The other option was to try and walk out, across the desert. It had been a two day ride from the nearest inhabited place, a small mining community that clung to a precarious living by scraping out gold and opals from the earth. Two days by horse would be longer by foot.
Travel by day could not be attempted. Even with all the water she could carry and an innate tenacity few could match, she would not survive under the boiling sun. Longer than most, certainly, but the desert would claim her in the end like it did all others who ventured unprepared into it.
That left travel by night, while seeking out a source of refuge to shelter during the day from the heat and the glare of the sun.
It is all I have to go on. All other options lead to death and I will not die here.
She settled down alongside the waterhole, leaning against her pack and letting her eyes close, seeking out sleep until the night came and she could start her trek.
As the first traces of slumber began to brush over her, she felt a shadow pass over her, accompanied by the rustle of wings. Cracking open an eye, she saw a dark bird alight in a tree before her. It turned towards her and regarded her with pale eyes. It tilted its head to one side and then let out a melancholy cry, first of three short calls followed by a long one that slowly died away.
Kathri sat up and stared at the bird, one it matched with an unwavering gaze of its own. “Among the Vianosa,” she said, speaking conversationally, “Those people who came from across the sea and were the ancestors of those who live in the Seven Kingdoms, to feel the touch of a raven’s shadow was meant to be the herald of death. For the ancient Briotha the raven was seen as a messenger, both wise in council and a bringer of knowledge, and yet at times it could be a rogue as well. The blood of both those ancient peoples run in my veins, which begs the question, of the two, which are you?”
The raven merely hopped sideways along the branch, tilting its head to regard it with its gaze further.
Kathri settled back down, folding her arms behind her head. “I am part rogue myself, so I choose the Briothan view of things. What message do you bring this day, wise raven?”
The raven spread out its wings and let voice a cry, one that echoed through the trees and beyond, into the hills.
“Exactly,” Kathri replied, a faint smile on her lips. She let her eyes shut again. “Wake me when evening comes.”
It was the touch of cool that came with the night that roused Kathri from her slumber. The sky had darkened and through the leaves above she could make out the first scatterings of stars strewn across the vast empty skies. The desert, so hot during the day, would be cold at night.
The raven had disappeared from the tree, though other birds could be made out flashing about, darting down to the waters edge to take a drink. Kathri rose and joined them, drinking as much as she could.
She took from her pack the small pouch that contained the dried meat. Breaking off a fragment of it, she began to chew on it, savouring the strong, salty flavour of meat and wood smoke. She did not have much of it and it would have to last as long as she could make it, but walking on an empty stomach would not do. The small piece did little to assuage the hunger building up in her though.
Gathering up her belongings and slinging her pack over her shoulder, she walked over to a large boulder that was mostly red in colour. She set her hand upon it, feeling the lingering warmth still in the rock, drinking it in as much as she could before the chill began to settle down.
The sound of birds echoed around her as she walked through the trees, to the edge of them, the barren lands opening out before her. A sliver of the red moon had began to rise. The white moon had still not yet put in its appearance to bath the lands with its illumination. The last, burnished hues on the western horizon marked the lingering light of the sun, soon to disappear.
“I will not die here,” Kathri promised herself, stepping out from under the trees and starting down the dusty riverbed to the open lands beyond and the long work to safety, leaving the shadows of the raven behind her among the trees and the ruins.
I will not die here.
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Here ends Part One of The Crown of Fire. Part Two, Song of the Earth, sees Kathri attempt the long trek to safety.