The Hidden Fortress
Be a hiding place to them from the destroyer.
Amis took the lead, walking to a small stream near them that fed into the lagoon. It was a pretty and shallow stream gurgling over a stony bed. Without hesitation, he waded straight in, Rija close behind him with Sem and a wobbling Sambeth bringing up the rear. The water barely reached Sambeth’s knees. With the lagoon behind them they headed upstream. Their feet left no trace or scent on the stream’s rocky bed.
“How are you feeling?” Sem asked.
“Better since bringing up that lagoon water.”
She dared not tell him how heavy and weak her legs felt. If these men were leading her into a trap she’d find it hard to make a run for it.
“How far is it to Tetrahin?” she asked, deflecting attention away from her fragile condition.
“We’ll be travelling for roughly two hours,” he watched how carefully she put one foot down in front of the other, “maybe three, at the rate we’re going.”
He returned his attention to Amis up ahead and Sambeth sighed inwardly. She desperately needed proper rest. A good sleep would return her to normal strength.
Amis kept them walking in the stream. She knew exactly what he was doing and approved. She would do the same if she were leading. They would leave no footprints on the stony bed of this little waterway. She shook her head, trying to untangle her thoughts. She wished she were next to Rija but Rija was walking ahead, wading behind that sharp-eyed, unfriendly one called Amis. A rock shifted under Sambeth’s foot causing her to stumble. Before she could fall Sem’s hand steadied her.
“Thank you,” she said and lifted her chin toward Amis up ahead, “but you’re clearly getting yourself into trouble with him. Helping us, I mean.”
“Amis is wary of outsiders but he is the best forester of us all,” Sem spoke quietly, “when he was a child, he and his father were out in the forest alone. His father was killed right in front of his eyes.”
“How horrible,” she replied and an image of her own mother rose before her eyes.
She blinked and focused her gaze on the thick, tall ferns, reaching their arms out to one another from either side of the stream. Their height and the beauty of the green curling fronds dispelled the distressing images lingering in her mind’s eye. It was like travelling along a private, green corridor and, despite the water chill creeping up her legs, gave her a feeling of concealed safety. No prying eyes would see Sambeth, lately of Arca, splashing doggedly forward.
“He was so young he never could tell us exactly how it happened. After that he put everything into learning the ways of the forest and mastering it.” Sem continued, watching the tall, spare figure of his cousin pushing steadily forward.
“I can see he is being very careful,” she remarked, also watching Amis.
He and Sem both wore dark cloth leggings and a thigh length tunic with a supple leather vest thrown over the top. A short sword swung from a wide, leather belt securely fastened at the waist. Amis didn’t wear the grizzled bear fur which was so useful in protecting the neck and shoulders, but she had seen him thrust an extra knife and dagger into the front of his vest. He would prefer fast, light movement rather than shroud himself in a protective layer. He strode forward, alert yet confident, constantly scanning their surroundings.
Sambeth turned her concentration back to the task at hand; pushing her reluctant legs and cold feet steadily through the water of the stream. Her thoughts leaped back to their dramatic escape. How long would the Fallen One follow after Pip before he realised that she and Rija were not with him anymore? She had no qualms for Pip’s safety, nothing on the planet would take on a shimerith.
“Has he lived with you and your parents since his father’s passing?” she whispered.
Sem shook his head, “No. Not since he was a young teen. You see Amis is of the Bashani clan and we are the Noshiri. Our mothers are sisters. He is here visiting us. His mother, the chief of his clan, showed up unexpectedly along with a large number of their people.”
He paused, a troubled look flitting across his face, “There are quite a few people at Tetrahin right now.”
Which could mean one of two things, she thought, either they would be unwelcome guests because of crowding or they might just fit in relatively unnoticed. That would be ideal.
“I fear we will be a great burden to your family,” she said.
His short laugh surprised her, “Tetrahin is huge and we are well provisioned. You won’t be a burden but my parents might be somewhat distracted.”
A slight nausea along with a weary headache nagged at her and she realised that Amis and Rija were almost out of sight up ahead. She fell silent, focusing on forcing her legs to keep going. Although he said nothing, Sem saw her increased pallor and a bluish tinge to her lips.
“Not far now,” he said.
This time when he tucked his arm through hers she was too tired to protest.
When it seemed she could go no further, Amis stopped.
“We’ll leave the stream now,” his face was set as he looked from Rija to Sambeth and raised questioning eyebrows at Sem.
Sem nodded faintly and Amis continued, “on this side we will be walking on rock but be careful, try to avoid stepping in any soft earth.”
Amis thrust through the thinned out ferns. Here the entire ground was a mass of rocks and boulders. Sambeth’s existence was a fog of discomfort: the wet squelch of each step, her aching body, her unhappy stomach. She was only dimly aware of a rocky outcrop stretching above them when they halted.
Amis looked at Sem, his face tight, “Are you sure about this?”
Sem’s mouth twisted and he nodded slightly, “What alternative is there, cousin? Leave them out here in the forest?”
Sambeth looked from one to the other, wondering at the tension that hung in the air between the two men. One minute they seemed to be in perfect amity, two capable men with a shared purpose. Then a word would break it and undercurrents of unknown feeling hung, unspoken, in the air. Clearly something was going on. She wondered what it was and if she and Rija were getting into something bigger than they knew.
“This is our northern entrance,” Sem told Sambeth and Rija.
He strode over to the side of the tower of rocks and pulled at the heavy curtain of foliage. Sambeth could see that the vines had grown down over an overhang of rock. She and Rija scrambled through. Lying at the back was a small cave opening. Rija squeezed Sambeth’s hand as they stood, blinking, their eyes adjusting to the dimmed, greenish light. Sambeth was glad the gloom disguised her startled surprise. Warmth had not been a feature of her life in her father’s household. She restrained the impulse to snatch her hand away from Rija’s.
Outside, Sem and Amis moved about swiftly, removing all traces of their passing and stepped through, arranging the vines back into place.
“There,” Sem stood up, dusting the traces of dirt off against his leggings, “I think we’ve succeeded in leaving no trail behind us.”
His cousin reached up to a concealed ledge and pulled down a couple of cloth wrapped sticks. In a couple of flicks of his flint a flame leaped up hungrily and caught hold of the cloths. In the flickering light, Sambeth saw that the cave contained a rocky tunnel yawning away into the darkness.
Sem took one torch from Amis.
“Follow me carefully,” he said to the young women, “I’ll walk slowly and Amis will bring up the rear.”
With some difficulty Sambeth and Rija stumbled over the rough, rocky strewn floor.
“Ahhh,” Sem was satisfied, “we will soon be with my father.”
His voice was full of eagerness, joy and even a hint of relief. Sambeth wondered about the father that elicited such warmth in his son.
The side of the tunnel felt cool and hard under her hand. Sem’s light, held aloft, was a tiny point of light pushing back the shrouding darkness. It seemed to Sambeth that they walked for hours, following it. From necessity she had allowed Sem to help her through the forest but now, in the pulsating darkness, she wondered what new danger she was getting into.
The blackness pressed into her, she felt smaller and smaller. She remembered as a child being hidden in the closet while her mother had to go out. She had been glad to go in. It was safer, but still lonely and she counted every breath she took. Quietly in…and out… until her mother returned. She had loved the rectangle of light that was her mother opening the door.
Now she positioned herself at the rear, allowing a space between herself and that small pinpoint of light that was Sem up ahead. She and Rija were in the spider’s web now. They had cast their die, staked their lives on the integrity of these strangers. It could be a fatal mistake but with a Fallen One on their trail, the choice had been made for them.
If these men turned on them in the darkness, she might have more of a chance of taking them out if she hung back here a little. Rija walked serenely, confidently. Sambeth envied her assurance. She allowed her to draw in front.
“What are you doing?”
A voice spoke next to her ear. It was Amis. She had slowed so much, lost in her thoughts that he had caught up to her.
“I’m going carefully over this rough ground,” she replied quickly, perhaps too quickly. Lifting her chin, she forced her eyes to remain clear, though his nearness made the hair on her arms rise up.
Amis sniffed, taking her arm, “You don’t fool me, Sambeth. If Sem and I wanted to take advantage of you there would be no need to pretend about taking you to our family.”
She remained silent, her mind spinning over his words. Amis paced beside her with coiled energy.
“Why don’t you want us here?” she said eventually.
The torch light cast shadows on his face, the cheekbones standing out as he looked down at her.
“You’re a complication,” he said strangely, “in an already complicated situation.”
He glanced up at Rija and Sem and swiftly back at Sambeth. Something in his face made her shrink back. The others were far ahead.
He stepped closer and she backed up until she felt the rocky tunnel wall behind her.
“What are you doing?” she quavered, fear rippling up and down her spine. The nausea in her stomach had abruptly disappeared but her limbs were frighteningly weak and useless. Her fingers clutched feebly at her knife hilt.
His eyes glittered.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he lifted a hand and placed it gently around her neck, “although it would be so very easy.”
He held the torch higher, examining her face and pressed ever so slightly on her throat.
Her eyes widened, the pupils dark and large.
“You’re so small,” he said, watching her meditatively, “and thin. How did you have the strength to master a shimerith?”
“I…I..had him from when he was small,” she stammered but his eyes remained narrow and suspicious.
He shook his head, “It still doesn’t make any sense.”
His eyes flicked to her head and in a sudden move he pushed the crimson cloth back from her hair.
“Why is the Fallen One really after you?”
She gasped, “He must be helping Altor retrieve Rija.”
He remained thoughtful, “Let’s just say, Shimerith Rider, that whatever happens in Tetrahin do not go against me. Do not go against my mother, Queen Norea.”
He stared hard into her eyes until she whispered, “Okay.”
He loosened the grip around her slim neck. The skin felt cold where his hand had rested. He took her arm, tugging her forward.
“See? You are not going to be harmed by me.”
He released her.
Her mouth opened slightly and her head spun with the blood rushing through it.
“Amis…” she said faintly and swayed.
He caught her as she crumpled, the clatter of the knife she’d held, hidden, sounding loud in quietness.
She felt the corded strength of the arm that kept her from falling.
“A touch of dizziness,” she murmured.
His face was close to hers.
“Try and stand,” he whispered, “I don’t want to put the torch down.”
Her head cleared, the galvanising thought of being stuck in utter darkness with him speeding the process.
“I’m okay,” she tried to wriggle free but his arm tightened painfully, a hard band at her waist.
“Don’t forget. Stay out of anything that might happen at Tetrahin.”
She nodded and finally he released her.
He bent down and scooped up her knife.
“Let’s go,” he said, “the others will be waiting for us.”
His expression was mocking, daring her to make a scene.
She swallowed and lifted her hand to brush her throat. There would be no mark there to show what he had done. She believed that he meant to intimidate rather than seriously hurt her but the message was clear – whatever was going on in this Tetrahin place, she and Rija had better stay out of it.
She took the knife and thrust it back. With trembling fingers she retied the cloth over her hair.
Over Amis’s shoulder she saw movement. It was Sem and Rija coming back to find them. Their outlines were visible. The darkness was receding and Amis drew back with it. At that moment Sem snuffed out the torch. They halted and Sambeth’s alarm accelerated. A light sweat broke out on her brow and upper lip. She swayed, poised delicately on the balls of her feet, every muscle tensed, ready for an explosion of effort. Instinctively, she reached for her knife. It was cold, hard and comforting in her hand.
“Amis?” Sem’s quietly spoken word hung in the air.
Amis pushed past Sambeth to stand beside him. Sem looked from Amis’s expressionless face to Sambeth’s flushed one and then back at Amis. Although Amis face was deliberately bland, Sem could see that his eyes were alive with a strange expression at the back of them.
Sambeth didn’t dare meet his eyes for fear of revealing her tension, that something had indeed passed between herself and Amis.
“She’s still feeling unwell.”
“I see,” Sem’s voice was still quiet, “we’ll come to the door soon. Help is close by. Can you keep going a bit further?”
Sambeth nodded, the contrast between Amis’s bullish attitude and Sem’s kindness made her eyes sting.
“This is an emergency exit. Not our usual entrance,” Sem told them, “it might take a while to convince them to open it up.”
He smiled, his teeth showing white in the gloom, “They sure will get a surprise when they see you.”
Amis clicked his tongue sarcastically. Sambeth’s stomach tightened again. She felt cold and realised a zephyr of air was blowing past them, drying her nervous perspiration. Who were these people hidden deep in the forest? Why were they living out here all alone? What was the need for secret entrances and locked doors?
She wished she could talk it over with Rija. At least she would be on Sambeth’s side. After all, Sambeth had saved her from the wickedly savage Altor. Sambeth shivered, unconsciously raising a hand to her own fair head. She knew she could trust Rija but could Rija trust her?
They reached the door. At least that’s what Sem called it. It looked like no door she had ever seen. It was a solid smooth silver and there were no gaps around or under it. Low on the side of the wall next to it was a small, rectangle gap. It had a fine mesh over it. She bent down and touched it lightly. It wasn’t soft threads like she expected. The mesh was hard. Through the rectangle gap came the zephyr of air.
She rose back to her feet. Sem was looking at her, an odd expression on his face. She wondered why. Had she known it, he was feeling respect for her acuity.
“Ventilation,” he said, “we’re deep under the earth. This tunnel is an entrance but also a path for air to come in and out.”
So that was what this word ‘ventilation’ meant. A glance at Rija’s face told her that this was new to her too.
Sem stepped up to the door and touched a silver rectangle just beside it. Both girls gasped as it lit up with a strange green light. The light showed a number of small squares with symbols on them. They were not Arcan, Sambeth couldn’t read them.
Her face was a mixture of awe and dread. Seeing it, the corner of his mouth lifted.
“We may be far out in the wilds but we’re not so primitive.”
Sem’s fingers flew over the symbols pressing a significant sequence. As he pressed the final square the lighted rectangle turned red.
“Now we wait,” he said briefly, still focusing on the door.
“Is that you, Sem?”
The girls jumped violently. The strange, tinny voice sounded from somewhere above their heads.
Sem leaned forward and pressed the silver rectangle. He kept his finger there as he spoke, “It’s me, Jared.”
The next moment the door made a small humming sound and to Sambeth’s amazement it drew back by itself. She exchanged glances with a wide-eyed Rija. Sambeth swallowed hard. She had to make a great effort to stop herself from shaking. Nobody could think clearly in the grip of fear. She took several deep breaths, trying to slow the thumping of her heart. It was pounding so loudly she could hardly hear.
Beyond the door was another dimly illuminated tunnel.
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