„I am glad you are all doing so well.” Was ironically what Anne said when she heard our report of what had been happening.
She was lucid and able to hop short distances on crutches for now. We had eaten breakfast with her and she had been most grateful for the company.
„I think I can help these people out with simple tasks. Mending clothes or cooking.” She was eager to give back to the ones who had helped her so well. „But that steward said I should stay resting in bed here with the healers until I am fully healed, it seems he is truly worried for my health. Maybe I can help them with their recipes, even if they are crude.”
We of course knew the real reason why the steward would not let her leave the healers' room. We did not tell her, it was better to focus our own worries on the ramp, not that it was necessary. It was coming along very well.
We left her alone again, the Professor’s mood was visibly upbeat. “I have to be honest with you, my companions, I was worried we’d perish here or get stuck but as I see our work progress, I have again hope that we will be able to continue our journey.”
I saw in Brad his disgruntled mood, that was more concerned with the direction of our journey rather than its progress, but he said nothing.
“I cannot wait to reach that exposed pillar. I hope we will find some information there.”
It was then that our Urshog companion informed him that the pillar was the side of Bev-Shturam, a city that sat in that chamber and was known for its scholars concerning the pillars and the gods. At this, the Professor’s eyes lit up and he could barely contain himself. He asked the Urshog every possible question about this city, but the Urshog admitted to have never been there himself.
As the pillars of the ramp grew, the arcs stabilized them, the ramp’s bare skeleton meandered downwards from the cliff face and I worked every stone block set, I felt a sense of pride, knowing it would be something that would endure many years. I decided that on five of the arcs’ keystones, I would write our names as memoriam, foregoing the Urshog’s name on his expressed wishes, instead writing his banner’s name.
We were not at work for long when we heard the sound of many people coming down the cavern, but when I turned around to see who, I realized they were coming from ahead, above the cliff, not behind us from the village.
Soon some heads appeared atop the cliff. It was humans just like in the village, with dark hair and hazel skin. “What happened here? Who are you?” A man of obvious leadership position asked us from above.
The Professor was cutting stones at the gabbro quarry so I stepped forward to answer. “We have come upon the old ramp here and it broke down below our feet, so we agreed to rebuild it.”
The man seemed little disinterested in the story and instead looked around. “How will we get down now?”
We tried working out the solution to that problem together. I sent for the Professor and Chrysita so they may help us and with ropes and some magic we managed to get an entire caravan – forty men, women and children and even more horses – safely down the hundred feet cliff. There was the old magus’ apprentice among the caravan and he too helped from above. He seemed to be a few years younger than me, but wore already robes of the cadres and had a straight, if shy, demeanour.
It took all day and soon the message of the arrivals drew the other villagers in. Much jubilation was heard at every person or animal arriving safely on the ground. When we were finally done, our muscles and veins burned with exhaustion. We were invited to the hall of the village, where the many wares the caravan had brought back were already being laid out.
An entire treasure trove of food and materials. Preserves, bread, drinks, leather, cloth, ingots, rolls of parchment, and many other things a village needed. Some fine cuts of dried meats and amphoras of wine were already being prepared for a small feast, sweets being handed to children and stories being exchanged.
Even we were invited to partake in the morsels by the people who by now had come to trust and appreciate us. I was offered a fine cut of smoked meat when I saw Valdissa talking to the old magus’ apprentice. Of course she would, she had important news to relay to him. Then he handed him that intricate particular key to the magus’ chamber. This would then be the end of our regular tries at helping her conceive then.
I enjoyed the leisure time with morsels some more, soon I would even be denied the joyful breaks in bed with Valdissa and would actually have to put in more work.
We did not return to work that day, instead relaxing at the fire in the big hall and making conversation with all the new arrivals. It was the next day after lunch that Valdissa approached me.
“There is a place I wish to take you, now that the magus’ chamber is again occupied.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you wish to keep trying?”
“We agreed it would be until I can be sure it worked.”
I nodded. “Fine then, where is this?”
“It is a distance, please come with me after dinner this evening.”
I agreed. After Dinner, when the mist had already begun rising again, I met her at the gates to the large hall. She wore a sturdier dress that had been mended a few times. She led me downwards tunnels that became closer and denser with vegetation. Soon, she needed to rest for a moment. I decided to sit next to her. “You will have to help me reach the place, the slopes there are too difficult for me today.”
When we went on and finally arrived at the spot where she asked me to carry her, I realized what it was. We went down a fork of the tunnel with a steep incline where Valdissa had to hold on to my arm to safely descend and finally came to a tight opening in the side of one of those tunnels. Down the ledge of that opening was what seemed like a fast brook flowing through a barren rock tube apart from the tunnel. Right below the ledge was a blank platform big enough for a few people to sit on. The ledge itself was not too smooth and I managed to help Valdissa down by holding her arm from above while she descended first. She found us a good spot at the brook, took off her sandals and hung her feet in the water, the she beckoned me to follow.
When I arrived by her, I could see that a tin swath of mist was rising along the ceiling of the rock tube that the brook had eaten for itself. I too put my naked feet in the water and enjoyed the cool torrent as I observed mist and water flow in opposite directions.
She leaned on my shoulder. “I haven’t been here since my mother could carry me here. We used to come here a lot.”
“You don’t really want to try anymore, do you?”
“No.” She smiled. “I already know it worked. I just wanted to come here again. Thank you so much.”
“Well...” I felt disoriented. She had just told me that I sired a child. “Congratulations to you then.”
I had to wait a moment. “You do know I will leave, right, that was your plan.”
“Maybe you could wait... take the child with you to your far-off land?”
“That was not part of the plan!”
“I know, but it was never a good plan, now was it? I’d have to leave the child to my sister. I want it to grow up with at least one real parent. I know it’s stupid.”
My worst worries had proven true. Despite my stalwart principles, I had violated them. I had sired a child that would grow up without parents and I had even helped this woman condemn herself to a painful death in childbed. I put my face in my hands with frustration. “I can’t and you knew that. I cannot leave without my companions and I cannot make them stay.”
“Maybe you can return with one of the caravan? Staerja sees many caravans come by, most of them travel far, maybe even to your home land?”
“No, it is more than far. We do not even know how to get there, it is a mystery we need to uncover ourselves.”
There was a silence before she spoke up again, as if she was afraid to even ask. “Where exactly do you come from?”
“You would not believe me.”
Her eyes grew unsatisfied with me as if she already was my disgruntled wife. “You owe me. You’re the father of this child.”
I sighed. There was no real reason to hide anything from her. “I come from the surface; a city called Northbridge to be exact.”
She didn’t answer for a while again. “The surface? Outside the divine shell?”
“Then you know the terrors of inky madness?”
I shook my head. “No. I heard of them from down here, but up there, there is no such thing.”
“Do you serve Flakketh, Ijomir or Hamur?”
“The gods that left to take vigilance? The Wanderer, the Radiant, the Eternal.”
“No. But according to Sarita, all gods left, except for the Dear.”
Valdissa chuckled. “Oh, yes, they have a different story. As do the Urshog and the Gisrin of the silver scale and the Gisrin of the white scale and all the others. Then what gods led you down here? Are they not trying to reach those living here for help?”
“Mere bad luck led us down here. We did not wish to come here.”
It seemed I had shattered part of her worldview.
“Then I guess it should be divine will you return to the surface then?”
“I just want to return home, as do all of us.”
She nodded in silence, obviously trying to put some sense together in her head from all of that. We just sat next to each other like that for a while before Valdissa declared herself to be tired. We made it back up the slopes with my help and when we had arrived back at the great hall’s gates where we wished each other a good night. It was not a goodbye, yet it felt like one. We were again on separate paths, although I guess, I would stay with her for the rest of her life in some way.