Alissia stood by the door, map in hand and pack slung over her back. Dax was taking a very long time. The noonday sun was past its peak. She looked over to Nora working in the garden at the front of the cabin. “Do you think Dax will be able to protect the both of us, Grandmother?”
“Sure he will,” Nora answered. “He is an elf, you know. Elves have a way about them…even Dax.” With a loving embrace Alissia bid farewell to her grandmother and sister.
At the edge of the yard she leaned over a moss-covered rock wall that separated the high ground from the low. The rock face was about fifteen paces high or the lengths of three tall men and she thought of her fall the day before and stepped back away from the edge. Then she walked to the lowest part of the wall and jumped a few feet down to the trail below and went down the path to where she would greet Dax. Her lynx Samir was waiting there for her where the trail met the river in a clearing she had made many years ago. Are we to hunt? Samir blinked an eye and cocked her head as she watched her come down the path.
I am waiting for my friend Dax, Samir, Alissia thought back. Then she stopped and sat on her favorite rock, looking out over the water. The orange glow from the sun now lit the far bank of the river. The late afternoon had brought with it a chill. “Maybe he fell asleep,” Alissia said absently.
“Maybe who fell asleep?!” Dax came walking briskly up the path, huffing and puffing. “You know elves have the keenest of all ears?”
Startled, she replied: “Where have you been? It is past noon!” She turned on the rock, looking back at him with her arms crossed and a little upset at being startled.
“Sleeping,” he answered. “I could not help it. I have been up before the sun and I had to sleep in my bed for one last time.” Dax nudged Alissia to make room on the rock. “May I?”
Alissia stood up and stretched. “The light is fading and I am ready to go.”
“Not so fast, my dear. This one is weary of his travels. I have packed for the both of us. Where is a horse when you need it?”
“I miss my horse. I miss Breeze. Why did you have to mention horses?” Alissia had her hands on her hips in mock anger.
“I am truly sorry, I am sure she was a magnificent horse.”
“He, Dax…Breeze was a he! Still is a he and we are going to get him back.” Alissia gestured towards him including him in her grand scheme.
“What kind of trouble are you looking for girl!?” Dax exclaimed. “I am up for adventure, mind you, though stealing a horse from a General is, well…not a good idea you know?”
“I see. You don’t have the courage, do you? I thought you did but I was wrong.” Alissia pouted, arms crossed.
“I have courage. I am an elf you know.”
“So you keep reminding me. Can we go now?” And then she jumped down off the rock and turned up the path hiding her smile. Samir took the lead, disappearing and reappearing through the trees and before long, her home was left far behind.
Spider webs glistened in the noonday sun. Alissia began using her walking stick to cut through them. Then she came to one with a huge grey spider sitting suspended in the middle of the path. “I think it is time for some elven courage, Dax.” Alissia let him pass and he grabbed her stick and swung at the spider, sending it sailing through the forest and into the ferns. “Check to make sure it is not on the stick,” said Alissia.
“It is gone Alissia. I saw it go flying,” Dax retorted.
“Good, can I have my stick back?” She grabbed the walking stick from him and continued on the way, singing:
Down the road to the river I’ve been
To the sea and the coast, oh the weather I’ve seen
What makes us travelers seldom is heard
But when we go walking you may hear our words
O sing with me my lovely friend
Just sing with me until journey’s end.
After repeating it a few times the two began singing it together. Dax caught on to songs very well. Oh, yeah, Alissia thought. Dax has a song only for me. I wonder what it sounds like. She sighed and kept moving along.
The path led away from the river the further on they went. The trees here were massive, ancient oaks that were becoming more and more predominant throughout the forest. “We are getting close to the troll-caves,” said Dax after a time. “There, I believe, is the tree that marks the trail,” he said, pointing to a huge gnarly oak.
The hidden trail they took led through an ancient forest of oak with scattered cedar trees, reaching to staggering heights. They came upon a grassy clearing. “Here it is, I believe, right here,” said Dax, pointing to a tree with a peculiar bulge at the base of the trunk. “Now, let me see…how does this work?” He ran a hand over the tree and pressed firmly on the trunk. Suddenly there was a hollow clop followed by the raspy sound of the wooden door in the trunk sliding down to rest. The middle had been hollowed out and a steak driven into the inside wall with a rope tied to it. “Let me go first just to be safe,” said Dax indicating the hole with his hand. “Just hold my pack.”
Alissia caught the pack as it sailed towards her, nearly knocking her to the ground. “What have you got in this thing?” she asked.
Dax looked back at her and said, casually: “Just some necessities and sticks of explosives for a tight situation.”
“You have explosives?!” Alissia beamed with enthusiasm. “I want to blow something up! Can I…please?” The last she ended in a tiny whiny voice.
“They are only for emergencies dear, not to play with.” Alissia crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “I will be right back,” he said. Then he swung out and lowered himself down into the darkness.
Alissia waited impatiently for him to call out to her. Looking down into the hole, she only saw the rope descending into the dark. Finally, after some time, she called out to him, her voice hollow and empty: “Dax?” Silence followed. Samir paced back and forth just behind her, sensing her apprehension. Alissia’s fear got the best of her and she cried out: “DAX!”
His voice came back faint and distant. “I am alright! It is a very long drop to the floor, too far for Samir to jump!”
Alissia sat down against the side of the tree and rummaged through her pack. Samir sat in front of her, casting a curious eye. Alissia procured a coil of rope and looked at her feline friend. “I am going to have to lower you down with this, do you understand?” She asked her aloud and with a thought.
Samir looked from her to the rope and back. No, the lynx thought back to her.
Alissia brought to mind a memory of lowering a bucket into a well and shared it with her. “Now do you understand?” She asked.
Like lowering a kitten, Samir thought back and she shared with Alissia an image of her mother lowering her siblings over the side of a rocky ledge by the scruff of their necks. I am not a kitten, she thought, affronted.
“No, you are not a kitten. This is different. It is too far down and if you jump, you will not survive.” Alissia waited patiently as Samir poured over this troubling proposition and flicked her tail back and forth.
I will do this. For you I will do this. Samir sat patiently while Alissia tied the rope into a harness and slipped it around her. When the time came to lower her down, Samir gave her a look of dismay.
Alissia consoled Samir. “Like lowering a kitten,” she said assuringly and she sent Samir feelings of confidence and love with the thought and then lowered her down.
When Alissia finally joined her friends at the bottom, Dax already had a torch lit, its flame sputtering in the cool, damp air. “Here we are, Delving Pass.” His voice sounded muffled in the small earthen room where huge barren roots covered every inch of the walls. One small opening marked the beginning of the tunnels and they had to crawl through on hands and knees.
Soon they found themselves in a lower and wetter room. The ground here was muddy in places and when it wasn’t it was covered with piles of decaying wood-chips. Two tunnels broke off of the room. Dax turned to Alissia.
“Where is the map?” he asked.
“A moment please, let me get it,” she replied, fumbling around in her satchel. She procured the map from a pocket and held it out to him. Dax gave it quite a long study turning it this way and that. After some consideration he found a spot he believed to be the place they stood.
“This here is where we are and this spot way over here is our destination, I believe, though this may only be a partial map.”
“A partial map?!” Alissia cried, “Dax, I thought-”
Dax held up a hand and silenced her. “The one who made this map long ago never found the troll city. He did find his way out and so shall we.” Alissia nodded and gave him a small, uncertain smile.
The tunnels began to ascend as the three of them hurried from one root-covered room to the next, following their path with a finger on the map. And after a time, they came to one giant room three times the height of a man. In the center was a lake of considerable size.
“What is this?” asked Dax.
“A room with a lake,” she replied. “I do not see it on the map. It should be this room right here.” Alissia pointed to a larger one on the map, which had five tunnels shooting off of it. “Oh, here it is! The farthest corner is our way out,” she said over her shoulder.
She led on, hugging the wall as she shuffled around the lake. When they came to the other side they found a massive boulder. Alissia walked around it and found the tall opening of another tunnel with a pale light that shown at the far end. Excitement got the best of them and they hurried down the tunnel and found themselves in a room open to the sky with trees looming hundreds of feet above them. In the center was a rock pond reflecting the sky above. Standing in the water was a grey and green creature with bumpy, leathery skin bent over a rock as it looked into the water. At first, it seemed to be a statue but moment later it moved its head and raised its eyebrows at them. “Whats are ye doing here in my tunnelzez?” asked the troll in a gruff voice.
Alissia kicked Dax and held her arms in back of her as she fought a smile and rocked on both feet in anticipation.
The troll began walking through the water to them, his murky shadow snaking in front of him. He stood nearly three feet but even with his small size he was an intimidating creature. “Are ye defsez? Can ye talk?” His eyes were wide and spooky, showing whites all around in his spotted gray-green face.
Alissia whispered to Dax: “He’s giving us the crazy look. Don’t move or he may bite.”
Dax swallowed and steeled himself. “We are making are way through to the mountain Anath-Hun, my troll friend.”
“Trollzez don’t have friendzez,” replied the troll. “Ye have to pay to go through the tunnelzez or else ye turn…BACK!” He thrust a finger right at them and squinted his eyes in a funny-looking glare.
They both slowly un-slung their packs and began looking through them, the troll eyeing them all the while.
“Here, have this,” said Alissia holding out a candle. Both Dax and Samir stood silently looking from the troll to their friend.
“Two candlezez for two of ye!” The troll held up two fingers and fixed his eyes on her in a humorous glare.
Alissia handed a candle to the troll who snatched it up and began chewing the end as he waited eyeing her all the while. Alissia reached back in and held out another candle. The troll snatched it from her and quickly plopped down to his bottom with a splash. “Ye may pash,” he said around a mouthful of wax.
When they passed he did not spare them a glance as he sat in the pond, a candle in each bumpy hand. They cast a backward glance at the curious creature and then pushed through a curtain of roots that hung over the tunnel entrance on the far end of the room. A short distance through the tunnel, they found themselves in a room filled with boulders and smaller rocks. A light shown from a hole in a rotting tree high up above that sparkled off some of the rocks. Alissia turned around in wonder. “Dax, do you know how valuable some of these rocks can be?” She picked up a small crystal. “This alone would purchase candles for a year!”
Dax folded his arms and she began sifting through the rocks. “Alissia, we do not have the time for this. Our torches cannot hold out for long. We must find our way out before they fade.”
“Yes, I know…” she sifted through the smaller rocks with her foot. “…How would you like me to pay for a room and a hot meal for the both of us with…” She bent down and picked up a stone. “…this!” She held the stone up to the torchlight and turned it in her hand. It shimmered with a myriad of dazzling colors.
Dax’s eyes were wide with wonder as she held the gleaming stone out to him. “Myridea! Is it truly?”
Alissia beamed with satisfaction. “Now we can go,” she said. Then she snatched the rock from him, placed it in a pocket and headed for the darkened tunnel at the end of the room.
Before long the winding tunnel split off into two directions. They gathered together and consulted the map. “I don’t see this part on the map, do you Dax?” Alissia said in frustration.
He scratched his head. “No, I do not. Perhaps it is somewhere here where water has blotched it. We have not the time to explore each tunnel. We should split up and meet back here. If we are lucky, one will end and the other will not. We will count three hundred steps and meet back here as quick as we can.”
Alissia nodded and watched him disappear down the tunnel to the left. She gazed into the other dark tunnel. A current of cold air wafted from it and she hugged herself. Samir sensed her apprehension and took the lead. She began to count. The further they went, the closer the walls became. Panic welled up in her. Alissia focused on keeping track of her steps to fend off the all-consuming emotion. Samir sensed her fear, but she lacked the language of thought to console her and instead sent her the same feeling of confidence and love that Alissia had shown her earlier. They pressed on, Alissia’s voice close and muffled as she continued to count out loud. She could see her breath and soon she could hear the sound of rushing water. To her delight, they emerged from the tunnel beside the rocky bank of an underground river. The light of her torch glistened off the wet rocks of the cavern. The bank followed the river down to her left. She could go either way and so decided it was a matter for Dax to decide and headed back into the tunnel.
Before she reached the meeting place, Dax appeared in the tunnel ahead. “What did you find?” she asked, relieved at seeing him again.
He stopped and caught his breath. “It seemed to go on forever…and then it split off into two more tunnels. Where did yours lead?”
“To an underground river,” she replied. “Which way should we go?”
“Let me think,” he began. “The river will lead further down into the ground. Can we follow it up?”
“From what I saw we could.” She took the map from her pocket and placed a finger upon it. “This should be the fork in the tunnel, yes?” At Dax’s nod she continued: “Is this the other fork you came to,” she asked pointing to the other side of the watermark.
“I believe so but there is no way to tell for sure.”
She tilted her head like she often did when she concentrated. “See how the one goes off of the map and the other looks like it was left unfinished? I believe that you may have been heading to the troll city. Now this one at the far edge of the map I believe is where he ended up.”
Dax grinned at her and nodded his consent. “We will follow upwards along the river then.”
“Let’s hurry,” Alissia said, hugging herself. “The air is frigid in here!”
Now that they had decided their course, they hastened through the tunnel and soon they found themselves at the river’s edge. The moisture in the air threatened to snuff out the torches as they ascended along the slick rocky bank. The rushing river was deafening to their ears and a constant reminder of the danger it posed if it was to suddenly rise.
Samir prowled far ahead, anxious to find the way out; all the while sharing the experience with Alissia. It goes around a rock that goes up to the sky, Alissia heard her say.
You mean to the roof of the cave, not sky, she corrected her.
Yes, it goes up to the roof. I see no path around it. The loud din of the river took over the thought as Samir sniffed in the dark and the lights from the torches approached around a bend. I found a path.
The bank widened before Dax and Alissia. Far in the distance they made out a rock wall that met the dark ceiling high up above. Suddenly Samir appeared from the shadows sprinting towards them, her hackles raised. “What is it?” Alissia asked aloud.
Samir stopped in front of her. I do not know how to speak it. Alissia bent and caressed Samir. Together they crossed the wide expanse of the cavern floor. The massive wall ended in a cascade of the raging river. This way, said Samir. Alissia motioned for Dax to follow.
Samir led them along the wall and to the top of large boulders. Down behind them was a dark tunnel that led upwards into the rock. They had to hunch down as they carefully ascended in single file. Samir leaped gracefully ahead of them from one rock to the next and then stopped and waited. The din of crashing water calmed and Alissia spoke: “Dax, I see a light up ahead! Is it possible that we have found our way out?”
Dax drew up behind her. “It sure seems so does it not?” The thrill of escape drove them on as they charged upwards. Samir was waiting at the top, her hackles raised and ears back. The roaring of water thundered in their ears like never before as they emerged from the tunnel. Their eyes were wide in disbelief at the chaos below them.
They stood along the edge of a massive cavern, stalactites hanging from high above like the teeth of a monstrous creature. Light shone through an opening in the roof. Through the slick, rock walls many rivers converged to disappear into a yawning void, the depths of which they could not tell and a fine plume of mist rose towards the ceiling meeting the light in a swirling rainbow of mist.
To the right a tunnel led into the rock, circling along the perimeter of the gaping cavern with small openings that let in the light. Alissia stopped at a larger one and peered down into the abyss. Water rushed into it from all directions, disappearing into the darkness far below. The enormity of it and the dizzying height sent her stomach to fluttering and head swimming and she stepped backwards into Dax. He steadied her and she turned and looked up at him and gave him a brave smile. Dax leaned in to kiss her and she turned into him acceptingly. Their lips parted and they stared into each other’s eyes. She felt protected in his embrace and longed to remain there in his arms. Dax clasped her hand and they followed Samir further into the tunnel.
Before long they came to a shimmering wall of water blocking their path. Rivulets of yellow, orange, blue and green danced in the light of the sun. Alissia peaked through a gap between the rock wall and waterfall. She turned to Dax, grinning. “This is it, Dax! We have reached the end of the tunnels! There is a small pond on the other side!” She looked down to her cat who sat on her haunches looking up at her pleadingly. “You will have to jump, Samir.” Alissia knelt and stroked her furry head. “I will be waiting for you down below. It will be alright; you’ll see.” Suddenly Dax jumped and disappeared through the waterfall shouting.
From the other side he hollered up to them: “Woohoo! The water is cold! Come on down, it feels great!”
“You see,” said Alissia, “Dax made it. He is safe; just a little wet and cold, that’s all.”
Samir looked back into the tunnel and then at her and the rushing water. We do this together, she conceded. Alissia gently scooped the large cat up in her arms and leapt into the water.
The evening light was beginning to fade and the rich smells from the evergreen forest invited them to shore where they found a small grassy clearing amongst the towering pines and fir. They gazed about the forest, a welcoming site from the darkness of the tunnels. Dax halted in the center of the clearing beside a long-dead fire pit. “Well, it looks like we’ll camp here for the night.”
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