To whom I gave the wilderness for a home.
“This goes through our cool rooms and on to the kitchens,” Sem said stepping through the door.
Amis brushed past them, his elbow bumping Sambeth. His eyes scorched hers as he passed by and she shivered at the warning in their depths. Her attention dropped back to Sem, waiting for them to follow.
He noticed the tremble of Sambeth’s fingers and turned to watch the disappearing figure of his cousin.
She followed his glance and colour rushed into her cheeks. Her fingers twitched. She longed to be gripping her knife in her hand again. Her fingers wouldn’t betray her if they were wrapped tightly around its hilt.
“Are you sure everything is okay?” Sem asked. He was rigid, “Did Amis do anything back there in the darkness?”
Caution settled like a stone in her belly.
“No,” she forced herself to say, remembering Amis’s threat. She breathed lightly through her nose. She must sharpen up. She and Rija were at the mercy of whoever dwelt in this strange, underground fortress.
Sem continued to gaze at her face. This tall, fair-haired girl had been so fierce at the lagoon, despite her damaging fall but her sudden caution around Amis was disturbing. He scratched his chin. What had Amis said or done back there in the dark, when she and he fell behind? He would keep his eyes on Amis, he decided. His cousin had been acting oddly this whole visit: he would be friendly and open one moment and then a shadow would fall over him, his thoughts would drift and his mood would darken.
The bustle and hum in the warm kitchen ceased abruptly as Sem and the two young women came around the corner.
Sambeth registered that there were three women in the room. Two were servants, a young one and an older woman, tending the fires and cooking. The other, with Amis by her side, was a impressive looking lady with silver-streaked dark hair. She had regal bearing and was clearly a lady of consequence.
A silver chain circled her waist and from it swung a series of slender chains. At the end of one was an intricately carved, ornamental key signalling that this was the mistress of the house. Other small silver objects and vials clinked against one another. All three were startled into silence, staring open mouthed.
The lady recovered instantly, “Carry on, Bethe and Marta.”
Her command was given in a pleasant, mellow voice, “Amis, you didn’t tell me we had guests.”
“I thought I’d let Sem have the pleasure,” Amis gazed at Sem, his eyes narrow. One side of his mouth twisted down.
“Mother,” Sem, ignored Amis’s hostility and reached out to grip her hands.
“Hello Sem,” she said calmly, reaching up to kiss his cheek.
Sambeth felt keen eyes pass over her, taking in every detail of her dirt-streaked face and soiled clothing.
“Who are these friends you and Amis have brought with you.”
Sem smiled ruefully, “I wish that we had met them under better circumstances,” he said, “we found them in grave danger, Mother.”
“Escapees from Arca,” Amis drawled.
Sem’s mother glanced over at the serving women, their hands still, ears agog.
“Perhaps, Amis, we should save it until we find Noesh,” her voice held a hint of whiplash and the suggestion was definitely a command.
Sambeth smothered a gasp, her mind reeling. Noesh? The name of Sem’s father was Noesh? Her thoughts flew back to the glade, to Proximus and Altor in such deep conversation about a certain Noesh that she and Rija were able to slip away undetected.
She avoided looking at Rija but could see from the corner of her eye that Rija’s chest was heaving and her face had paled.
Sambeth tuned back in to hear Sem say, “Sambeth is still recovering from an incredibly violent tumble. She needs food and rest.”
The lady beckoned Sambeth and Rija forward.
“Welcome to Tetrahin. I’m T’ajar. Sem is my son and I am the mistress of this fortress,” her expression was troubled but kind enough, “come with me and we will arrange for you to freshen up. I think I have clean clothing that will fit you nicely.”
“I am Sambeth and this is Rija,” Sambeth replied, “and what Amis said is true,”
She saw Amis lift his head, surprise in his face.
“we are escaping from Arca–“
“And we owe your son and nephew a great debt of gratitude for helping us,” Rija chimed in quickly.
Sem’s eyes warmed at Rija’s acknowledgement but Amis simply gave Sambeth a level glance. Be very careful, his eyes seemed to say.
They followed T’ajar out of the room. Sambeth found herself reluctant to leave Sem. Although she didn’t completely trust him, he was more familiar than this new person. Sem’s eyes were on them, he gave her an encouraging nod. A warning nudged at her brain, zeroing in on the girl, Bethe, who stood watching everything. The serving girl scowled when Sem smiled at Sambeth and Rija.
Before she could process it, Rija’s hand curled around her arm, drawing her away after the lady.
T’ajar moved quickly, making no conversation. They went through several corridors. Sambeth concentrated on remembering the way but by the time the lady stopped before a tall, studded door, Sambeth knew she could never remember all the twists and turns back to the kitchen.
Had T’ajar led them on a roundabout path in order to confuse them? That she was nonplussed at their arrival was clear.
The door in front of them was of a heavy, wood. T’ajar pushed it open and gestured for them to enter. Instead of a dark room, the high-roofed chamber was large, filled with space, light and even comfort.
There were no windows here. A source of light seemed to come from along the top of each wall, spilling down, making it as light as day. Beautiful, soft rugs, in a myriad of rich colours; scarlet, cobalt blue, soft pink, covered the stone floor. Two beds, recessed in their own alcoves, were set back in the stone wall. Hanging curtains draped luxuriously from ceiling to floor and beyond sat two other doors. A big mirror faced them on the far wall. Her reflection looked dirty and apprehensive.
“I will send someone with refreshments and the clothing,” T’ajar said, “rest, make yourselves comfortable.”
With that she left with the thanks of the two girls echoing softly in her ears.
There was as moment of silence after the quiet click of the heavy door. Sambeth and Rija looked at each other properly for the first time. Sambeth saw a tall, young woman, thin and elegant but slightly older than herself. Her face was pale and smooth. However, it was her eyes that drew Sambeth’s attention; they were as dark as shadows and full of knowing.
Rija surged forward, wrapping her arms around a startled Sambeth.
“Thank you, thank you. I can never thank you enough,” she whispered in her ear.
She leaned back to look at Sambeth earnestly, “How you came to be in the forest and whisked me away from him…” she shook her head, searching for words, “I will never forget what you did for me, Sambeth, never.”
Sambeth gave her a quick smile, her eyes darting away uncomfortably, “I didn’t want them to find me either.”
“You could have slipped away by yourself and left me to my fate,” Rija insisted, leaving Sambeth with the unpleasant guilty feeling of accepting praise for something she didn’t quite deserve.
“Can we trust the people here?” Sambeth changed the subject.
Rija shook her head abruptly and drew a finger across her own lips at the same time. She motioned for Sambeth to stay where she was. Sambeth watched as Rija prowled around the room, peering behind the curtains and tapestries and feeling the walls. Apparently the drapes were there for warmth, decoration or both. Not for concealment.
Rija then turned her attention to the doors within the room. Behind the first was a cupboard holding assorted linens and heavy fur coverings for winter. She appeared satisfied and closed the door softly. Both girls gasped, however, when she pulled back the second door for behind it lay no cupboard, but another room.
“Always check,” Rija mouthed voicelessly, her dark eyes boring into Sambeth’s. At once Sambeth knew, that despite her perfectly serene expression, Rija’s every nerve was also on the alert in this strange place.
The new room appeared to be a place to sit. At the far end was a strange, walled-in-stone section. It had a bare floor and a high bench with a hollowed out dip in it. At the bottom of the dip was a small, dark hole. Both girls stared.
“What is it?” Sambeth asked.
Rija shook her head.
“I don’t know and until we do, keep quiet around it. It may be a listening device.”
“A listening device?” Sambeth echoed blankly.
She drew close to Sambeth and lowered her voice once more.
“I have heard of this man, Noesh, Sambeth.”
Sambeth’s eyes widened and Rija continued, “I have heard of him over many years. Not much, mostly whispers. He was a prominent man in Arca, years ago. An ingenious inventor but the people drove him out just before the Fallen One came.”
Rija tapped her fingernail on the table, “He became odd, telling people to turn away from the growing evil in their lives, stopping strangers in the street to remind them of a great being, the Other.”
Sambeth thought of Sem. He didn’t look like the son of a crazy man. Amis, on the other hand…but there had been nothing in the manner of either Amis or Sem that suggested they thought of Noesh as anything other than the leader of the Noshiri people. It clicked into place…Noesh…Noshiri…there was a people here! Or a particularly large family…
“So, why is Proximus after him?”
Rija paused, looking at Sambeth thoughtfully, “It is whispered that the Fallen Ones are invincible except when it comes to Noesh. He will finish them.”
“And that is why he is here, hiding in the depths of the wild.? Is he hiding from Proximus?”
A quiet knock sounded at the outer door. The two girls froze. After a short pause, the knock came a second time.
Sambeth cleared her throat and called, “Come in.”
A youngish woman stepped in followed by several men. They were dressed in long, fawn coloured garments, belted at the waist, identical to the two women they’d seen in the kitchens.
The men carried pails of steaming of water in either hand, whilst the woman held a large tub. Carefully, she set her burden down on a bed and removed a pile of brightly coloured clothing from within it. She indicated for her companions to take the empty tub and the pails of water through to the far room.
“When you’ve washed, tip the water down the hole,” she made for the door where she paused, “Someone is bringing you food and drink shortly.”
As soon as the door closed, Sambeth sprang toward it. The handle pushed down easily and there was no lock. Peering into the dark corridor she could neither see nor hear anyone. She gently closed the door again and looked around for some object to wedge against it. There was nothing.
“I’ll stand here while you wash,” she called to Rija.
Rija appeared, one of the folded garments tucked under her arm. She stood in the middle of the room motioning Sambeth to her. She put her mouth close to Sambeth’s ear.
“Try to talk normally but don’t say anything important. We must be very careful until we know who these people are and what they intend to do with us. Try to remember even these very walls could have eyes and…ears.”
Sambeth’s thoughts leaped back to the very first door they had passed through, where a voice had spoken out of the wall and Sem had answered it.
Rija stepped back and spoke in a normal voice, “Thank you, Sambeth! That would be lovely. I’ll take this tunic and freshen up. Take a look at the other tunics and underclothes, some are really quite pretty.
She smiled conspiratorially and Sambeth managed a sickly sort of grimace in response.
Sambeth prowled around the area near the door. She rubbed clammy hands on ripped and stained pants while forcing her lungs to breathe evenly. Every couple of minutes she would stop by the door, straining her ears for any sound and staring hard all around. Her thoughts ran over the strange events of the last four to five hours. She shook her head a little, trying to think clearly.
In the clearing she had been in the grip of hopeless grief and horror. She had wished for an end. The savage forest creatures could provide a quick, albeit violent one. How had she gone from seeking death to drawing upon every instinct and skill to ensure her survival and the survival of Rija – a perfect stranger?
Sambeth paced another restless turn around the room. An unsavoury thought tugged, unbidden, at her mind. Would she have helped Rija if she hadn’t known that all the men in the clearing would have searched for Rija and found Sambeth instead, hiding in the shrub?
She shook her head, shaking the thought away. Rija had needed her. It had been clear to Sambeth that Rija did not want an alliance with Altor. Her thoughts spiralled off again. She and Rija had escaped from the Earthborn Altor! Incredible. They had evaded the Fallen One. Nearly impossible. A vision of him, tall and fair, rose in front of her. The blood in her veins ran cold, her heart thumped just thinking of him. It can’t be true, it can’t be true, she whispered, over and over again.
A hopelessness rose up in her. A sob caught in her throat. Poor Rija. If Proximus found them, if Altor captured her…a shiver shook her whole body. Her thoughts turned to the door in the wall, where the wall spoke, then to the strength and confidence of Amis and Sem moving through the forest, to the hole in the bench where poured water vanished away and a wild hope rose in her heart. These people might be able to help. If they weren’t ferociously angry at the peril brought upon them by two strangers. Two unimportant, stray girls with no powerful or valuable family connections to ensure their safety and advantage.
Her thoughts ran on and on, in a frenzy, turning this way and that until the sound of voices in the corridor snapped her back to the present with razor-sharp focus. She paused just a moment and took a slow, deep calming breath. When the knock came she was perfectly composed and pulled the door open.
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