Walking the Dust
32: Going Underground
I'm not embarrassed to admit I was scared, going into the caves. I didn't have much choice, of course — it was either that or take a knife in the back from one of the scouts.
But that didn't make it any easier. Nothing I'd ever done in my life prepared me for the feeling of walking into a goat-damned mountain.
I thought I could handle it. But then we turned a corner, and the daylight behind us vanished. The only light now was the flaming torches carried by the scouts and hunters who'd found me wandering through the hills. Trespassing on their territory.
Again, I thought I could handle it. I've walked around at night plenty of times with nothing but a sputtering flame to light my way. But never in such an enclosed space, with the blackness of the walls and ceiling sucking up all light, and the sudden realisation that I was walking underneath millions of tons of rock.
What if it collapsed? What if something blocked the exit?
I panicked, tried to get out of there. You'll have figured by now that fighting isn't exactly my strong point, but somehow I knocked one scout to the floor, pushed his companion back over him, and started running the way we'd come — into the darkness, sure, but at least I knew there was daylight at the end.
I didn't get far. Something stabbed at my ankles, and the next thing I knew I was saying hello to the rough stone floor. Pretty sure that was where I got this chip in my front tooth.
Anyways, they picked me up, bound my wrists with a bamboo fibre rope, and we started moving again. One of the scouts, the one I pushed back, coiled a whip while watching me, and spat at the ground as I stumbled by. So that's what caught my ankles.
Conversation had been pretty minimal from the moment they saw me outside, just orders to "walk," "stop," and so on. They hardly spoke to each other, too, but seemed to know what was going on all the same.
Were they always like this? Or was it just that they'd hunted together for so long, they didn't need to say much?
I assumed they were taking me to a leader of some kind, and started to worry that if he was no more talkative than the others, this could turn out tricky.
It felt like we walked for hours, even though I'm sure it was only about ten minutes. It's hard to tell with no sun, shadows, or landmarks to gauge time by. We made dozens of turns down passages, some barely wide enough to get two people through abreast, and I soon realised there was no way I could find my way back out.
The only hope I might have would be to follow the cool air — the farther we went into the tunnels, the hotter it got, and soon I was sweating freely.
My wrists itched like crazy where the sweat got under the rope around them, but I tried to ignore it. I had a feeling complaining about it would be a waste of valuable breath.
Suddenly, one man behind me grabbed that rope and yanked it, as everyone else stopped walking. Two scouts went on ahead, around a corner, leaving the rest of us standing there.
A scout to my side eyed me all the way up and down. I gave him the meanest scowl I could muster, but I knew exactly how vulnerable I was at that point, and I have no doubt it showed on my face.
The heat was getting unbearable, but my captors didn't seem to notice. They'd been shedding layers as we went, removing coats and wraps, tying them around their waist and body, without a care. Just another day underneath a goat-damned mountain. One scout came back, and nodded at the rest of us. Without a word, we resumed walking, rounding the corner up ahead.
And suddenly all my fears vanished... only to be replaced by new ones. We stood at the entrance to a cavern. Taller than a house, wider than a river, and filled with people. Men, women, old, young — this wasn't just a hunter community, it was a whole damn village.
And sure enough, there at the back, sitting on a pile of blankets, was the chieftain. He didn't look pleased to see me.