A cry of a woman’s throat was heard, pressed through gritted teeth. I stemmed my back against the masses of damp wood, push my spine to breach the pile above me.
“LIESCHEN? Is everything alright?” The Professor yelled from somewhere beneath planks and spars.
My pushing finally gave way free of the wood and I saw Brad and the Urshog in blue attempting to do the same. I helped them up and quickly, set to look for Anne. The Professor found her and hastily heaved the broken boards and spars off her. When he revealed her legs, we saw the reason for her distress.
“IT HURTS! IT HURTS, HOW DOES IT LOOK?”
The shinbone of her right leg had need broken to the side, straining against the skin, almost tearing free from it. Anne had her eyes pressed shut and her teeth gritted.
She breathed heavily through her clenched jaw. “I don't think I can, AAAGH, stand. Does it look bad?”
The Professor was still looking for words when Sarita frightfully answered. “Yes.” Which was quickly followed up by Brad slapping his hand against the back of her head.
The Professor tried to both comfort Anne and think of what to do at the same time. I was thinking of the standard procedure in case of comrades injured in the field, as it had been drilled into me years ago.
“A stretcher, we need something to put her down on.” I babbled, before looking all around the pile of rubble for a few boards and spars that might still be of use.
“Good thinking.” Brad answered. “Come girl, help me find parts for a splint!” he grabbed Sarita – who was still rubbing the back of her head – and started to look for suitable parts. The Urshog helped the Professor to get Anne into a more comfortable position.
I found a few boards and spars that seemed rather fresh, as if just a few days ago, the ramp had still been repaired by someone. I put them together to a stretcher and glued them together with magic, forcing the fibres of the wood to grow into one another. It was a process requiring some concentration, as wood – having been alive once – was not as easily understood and manipulated as rock with its solid and consistent crystal structure. I spend some additional time making sure the melded connection was truly sound; the stretcher breaking beneath injured Anne’s weight was my one duty to prevent.
Sarita and Brad had collected parts which would serve as splints for the fracture once assembled but first, the fracture needed to be straightened out, an act requiring much care and finesse.
Anne had taken a few substances from her stock and chewed them, hoping they would quell her pain; her face bore more pained desperation than scholarly wisdom. She seemed eager to stall the excruciating act of bringing her bones back into alignment and so, she took a piece of wood between her teeth and nodded at the Professor.
Brad and I held Anne’s upper body and arms down, I leaned into her shoulders from above, the Urshog held her feet to pull them straight at the signal. The Professor used magic to levitate two boards that would form the sides of the splint next to Anne’s leg. He would use them to exert the force; manipulating living flesh was several magnitudes more complicated than dead wood, apart from also highly forbidden. Even a master transmutor as the Professor would think twice about an act such as that.
The Professor nodded to the Urshog and me, we readied ourselves. Anne closed her eyes and whispered something to herself through the piece of wood between her teeth.
A wet crack made my heart skip a beat, sent feelings of disgusting and wrenching to my guts. Anne’s shinbone came back into alignment. A scream pressed out from her throat, her eyes seized up open and stared into mine for a second, horror and pain sprung onto her face. Her first scream abated and a second followed as the first one’s echo reverberated back to us through the caves.
The Professor finished constructing the splint around Anne’s foot, then held her tight as she stopped to scream and began to breathe normally again. A sombre relaxation came and we mostly sat there as the Professor rocked her back and forth, her head pressed to his chest.
It did not take long after that for the sound of a group of people coming towards us up the cavern. We soon saw the light of moonstone torches illuminate the cavern and its plants, then we saw the people themselves.
They were humans, small in built and around thirty of them altogether, wielding torches, spears and harvesting implements. They saw us from afar and hastened their step.
“You there, what happened here?!” an older man at the front called out to us before the entire group came close enough for us to see them properly.
One of them stepped closer, a man with grey hair and square face, wrinkles of distrust and hostility curling next to wrinkles of age, then he started to curse at us in a vernacular we had actually come to understand by then. “You destroyed our ramp? Why? Who are you?”
Reflexively, I turned to the Professor, who as we had agreed, turned to Anne, incapacitated by pain. Before we could decide, Brad had already stepped forward. “Your crappy ramp crumbled beneath our feet and now one of our companions is seriously hurt!”
Some of them started to surround us, our backs to the cliff. Only now did I notice that most of them were either women or old men, some children. The man at the front came closer still and pointed his spear at Brad.
“You cut us off from the throughway. Our caravans can’t come back anymore! We’re taking you with us and decide what to do with you!”
I wanted to object, but the Professor had already stepped forward with raised hands. “Please, my... Our companion, she needs help and a place to rest.” The way he turned to Anne told me all I had to know. We were in no condition to run or fight. We had to seek mercy at these people’s hands.
The face of the frontmost man remained hard and cold. “That fate will be decided by the remaining elder!”
They surrounded us with sharpened sticks, kitchen knives and spades. Like this, we were put in ropes and led down the cave they had come. Anne was carried on planks of wood by Brad and the Urshog, while two women walked beside her and sang soothing tunes that reminded me of lullabies to the aching and groaning Anne.
We soon reached a large cavern, comparable to the chamber that Uvraitam stood in, but this one entirely without village or town, at least so it seemed. Even here pastures grew, but these with a few animals grazing on them, notably the three-hoofed horses we had already gotten to know on the long and fast one. I saw again dots of light on the faraway stone walls. It was obvious that the homes of these people were carved into the walls to reserve the valuable soil for the livestock.
Before the main entrance, we crossed a mote, ten feet wide and at least as deep. Inside the cavern wall we entered a large hall with staircases wrapping along the wall to many different carved tunnels that led off in almost every direction at various heights of the chamber. Upon our arrival, banging and clanging started to be heard from all sides, as if someone was calling everyone in the many tunnels together.
We were made to sit on the floor in the centre of the hall. The old man who had led the villagers stepped before us. “The remaining elder will decide your fate, but for now, your companion will be brought to the healer, she will be taken care of well.” A group of three women came hurriedly and picked up our makeshift stretcher and carried her down a tunnel that looked too narrow for me to walk upright and shoulders sideways.
The women and Anne were out of view when from another tunnel a wizened lady on the brink of ancient came, supported another woman. A chair was placed in front of us and she sat down.
Her face was round and wrinkly, but friendly, she leaned forward and squinted, trying to see our faces better. “What did these ones do, steward?”
“They destroyed the eastern ramp, the one to the throughway.”
“Hmmmm. Why did they do that? Are they from the Anyee tribe? They look odd.”
In lieu of Anne, the Professor spoke up. “We are travellers from afar and did not mean to break your ramp. It collapsed under the weight of our Golem.”
“Hmmmm!” The old lady leaned back in her chair. “We need that ramp. It does not matter why you did it, we need that ramp. Most of our tribe is away on caravans and some are even overdue.” She pointed to the various tunnels. “The only ones left here are children and the elderly. How will the caravans ever return without the ramp, strangers? Tell me.”
I noticed Brad shifting angrily and mumbling something through his gritted teeth, but he did not speak out yet.
“Strangers you see, we need our paths and ramps to have at least some trade. How will you repay us for all the trade we lose? Or the caravans who cannot return and take other routes? Some tribes may even write this place off as having been lost for good, we might have to send out word that we are still here.”
Now Brad stood up. “Hey, you wait a moment! Our companion was badly hurt because you let that rickety ramp stand there and rot away. Maybe you should have taken more care of the damn thing while it was still strong if you cared so much about it, huh?! You should be apologizing to us.”
The old lady squinted again, this time with anger rather than contemplation. “Be silent! Your kind may not know how important stairs and ramps are, with your climbing and clinging, but we need this. Sit back down!”
Brad was again about to say something in anger when I decided to step in. “Brad, no. We can take care of this!” I turned to the lady. “Dear elder, if I may be so bold to address you.” then I waited.
The lady was visibly impressed with my manners compared to Brad’s. “Hmmmm? Go on then, young man.”
“We cannot continue our journey with our injured friend. If you promise to take care of her and grant us lodging, we can construct a replacement. I am in fact a student of architecture and very close to mastering my craft.”
“Hmmmm?!” The lady seemed pleased.
Brad seemed less thrilled. “I don’t want to have to do anything for them. We keep getting held up, this way we’re never going to make it back!”
“Brad, I know it’s unfortunate, but we have brought much disarray for these people.” I looked over to some of the children peeking around the corner. “I do not know their reason for leaving their young and elderly alone out here, but we can help them and they can help us. Anne will not be able to travel in any meaningful way either way until her leg is healed up, we’d have to carry her everywhere.”
It took him a moment to come to grips with the situation, but eventually, Brad set back down, still frowning and angry.
I turned to the Professor. “I think the two of us can do most of the skilled work, right, Professor?”
The Professor nodded. “Oh yes. It will be a good test of what you learned, boy.”
The steward looked at us with careful eyes, the elder lady smiled. “Very well,” she said, “If you promise to rebuild the ramp, we will shelter you for one duoch and take care of your injured companion.”
A sigh of relief escaped the Professor. “Thank you so much. We will not disappoint you.”
By then I had to come to understand the length of a duoch, 144 tidal cycles, or roughly 72 days, another way I compared it to the time frame I knew was that five duochs were almost exactly one year. One duoch would be time enough for a broken leg to heal and to construct a simple ramp, hopefully it would go over well.
The elder lady made a movement as if she wanted to get up from the chair and the woman by her side came to support her in it. “Steward, please show these people to one of the free rooms.” With these words, the lady and her aide disappeared back into one of the tight corridors.
The steward, as she had addressed the old man that had first approached us, stayed behind and beckoned to us. “Follow me then.” Chryista stayed behind in the hall.
Down the tight corridors he led us, around odd angles and through small open rooms or corners with tables and chairs for eating and meeting, until we reached the end of a hallway with three doors leading off. “You will be housed here; the occupation of these rooms should remain free for quite some while. Please settle in, you will be brought food shortly.” With these words, he turned around and left us.
It turned out that settling in would be rather easy; there was no furniture other than two beds and an empty shelf. The beds were barely big enough for the Professor and me, the Urshog would have to roll up to fit, and covered in fresh but prickly straw and worn and torn linen sheets. Brad and I shared a room, as did the Professor and the Urshog; Sarita would have the third all to herself. I flung my backpack onto one of the beds, then set out to head for the corner with the tables I had seen on the way there. Brad stopped me at the door.
“You got some nerve, you know?!”
“What do you mean?”
“Deciding something like this without consulting us. We agreed that it would be Anne who would be handling situations like this.”
I put my hand to my forehead in frustration. “She has a broken leg, in case you haven’t noticed!”
“And that’s why we should have held council first! You weren’t chosen to call the shots.”
He had a point and I realized it quickly. “Well, maybe this way we won’t have to make enemies again or run for our lives. Isn’t that what you wanted to avoid so shortly ago?”
“There’s no point in bickering about it now. All is set anyway.”
He seemed to have nothing more to bring forth and so, I left for the tables, where two children were setting up jugs of water and baskets of coarse, dark bread. “These are for you, guests.” one of them said shyly before they pattered back down the corridor.
The atmosphere at the table was despondent: Brad was still displeased with the situation, the Professor worried over his niece, Sarita was too intimidated by the former two and the Urshog was just dutifully silent as ever; and so, until we settled into our beds and fell asleep, we talked little.