“You have your gift.” Dana said, rolling up the map. “You’ll find it someday, even if you don’t think it exists.”
I shook my head. “I’m just glad you aren’t dead. That’s good enough for me right now.”
“So am I.” He smiled. “Now, when did you want to depart?”
“As soon as Rex returns.” I said. “It should be a couple hours. Do you need some rest? You look like you do.”
Typically, he shrugged dismissively, but then he swayed slightly, bracing himself on the table. “Well…”
I fixed him with a stern look. “Go lay down.”
He was certainly tired, for he put up no protest. “As you say, your highness.”
After watching him depart into the cave to ensure he didn’t change his mind on the way, I also abandoned the makeshift table to check on status of the men assigned to the hunting party.
For the rest of the day, I left Dana to his slumber. Since I did not see hide nor hair of him all that afternoon and evening, I assumed he remained asleep, and when I padded silently into the cave late that night, I discovered my assumption to be correct. He lay on his own out of the way of the rest of the infirmary a short ways from the mouth of the cave. Had the enemy attacked at this moment they would have mistaken him for a dead man, so soundly he slept. Pathseeker rested on the ground at his side, its red jewel glimmering in the moonlight that drifted in from outside.
I knelt beside him, hesitating a moment, then reached out and shook his shoulder, whispering, “Dana.”
He didn’t respond.
I shook him a little harder. “Dana.”
His sword flashed and he jerked upright with a startled yell. I pulled back to avoid being skewered.
“Hey, take it easy!” I hissed, darting a glance about the cave to see if anyone had been aroused by his outburst.
Recognition played in his expression, and he lowered his sword. “I’m sorry, just…” He sat up fully, calming his breathing. “Just dreaming.”
I study him. Obviously not dreaming.
He evaded my gaze and rose, straightening his cloak. “Are we ready?”
I stood, also. “I am. Are you?”
He sheathed his sword, giving a firm nod. “Aye. Let us free our comrades, then.”
That was as good an answer as I had time to get at that moment, so I led the way out of the cave. My footsteps made a gentle sound on the grass, and his slightly heavier behind me. The weight of RuneBinder in its sheathe on my back became more distinct as I thought of our mission ahead. We entered the cave across from the one we’d just left, and moved silently amongst the sleeping soldiers there towards the back, where the cave narrowed into a tunnel that slopes upwards. Darkness enveloped us at the first turn, and I navigated the tunnel by memory, running my hand along the wall as I walked. I listened to ensure Dana remained close. I guessed he did the same to keep from running into anything.
Up ahead, the sound of running water drifted into the passageway. The tunnel opened into a cavern riddled with stalactites and stalagmites. A mixture of bluish light and luminescent green light flickered along the walls from both an opening in the ceiling, and the glow-moss that lined the bottom of the river. The river itself was located fifty feet from the tunnel opening, fed by a waterfall cascading from a hole high on the right wall. It flowed at a steady pace into the yawning blackness of another, much larger tunnel.
Dana took a deep breath, and murmured, “Good, we’re going the right way.”
I glanced at him. “I hope you don’t mind boat rides in the darkness.”
The boat in question rocked on the surface of the water; a skiff, moored to an outcropping of rock.
Dana eyed it. “As long as it goes better than the last time you piloted a boat.”
“That wasn’t my fault.” I climbed into the skiff, moving to sit by the rudder.
“Maybe,” He stepped in, as well. “But I still remember three sailors going swimming when we rounded anchor point. And not voluntarily, either.”
I remembered that as well.
“I have no comment.”
I untied the rope, and let the skiff drift into the current, which caught it and pulled it along deeper into the cavern tunnel. In the dank atmosphere, Dana pulled his hood up and drew his cloak about him. He drew his sword and a whetstone, beginning to slide one against the other to sharpen the edge of the blade, but as the sound echoed in the chamber, he stopped and sheathed his weapon once more. I gave him a questioning glance.
He shrugged. “Habit.”
I returned my attention to the course ahead, my hand on the tiller. The darkness closed in, though this time instead of becoming completely black, a faint light could be seen at the far end where the tunnel opened once more. I guided the craft towards it.
“Travel this often?” Dana asked after a time.
“I’ve done it once fully,” I replied. “And once part way.”
“There’s another stop just up ahead. It was going to be our regrouping point, should we need it. This river leads all the way out of the mountain, though.”
As I spoke, we glided into the cavern in question, much larger than the first. Several skiffs akin to the one we occupied bobbed up and down by their moorings. They’d been left there after our last evacuation drill, but tomorrow some of the soldiers were meant to come and transfer them back to the first cavern. By then I hoped Dana and I would have our skiff back for them to use.
Above us, a winding opening ran along the cavern ceiling, letting in the light. The water reflected like stars on the stalactites, and the sound of dripping water whispered through the air.
The river forked. I turned the tiller to take us down the right branch. The ceiling grew lower once more, and the light lessened. A draft of fresh air wafted over us from ahead, and the water rippled silently in the wake of the bow.
My thoughts drifted to the events of the previous month. I had avoided allowing my mind to linger over the details of the battle – or rather, retreat – at Campbell’s castle, but now I couldn’t help it. So many men had died because of the treachery of one. While it might not cost us the war, it still made an impact. I hadn’t even been able to see Percy and Seph when I got the order to retreat. They’d sent a messenger, and I just…
I caught Dana’s glance out of the corner of my eye before he looked ahead again. “Our loss wasn’t your fault, you know.”
I watched his back for a moment, realizing I had been frowning. Sometimes I wished my expressions didn’t show my feelings so obviously. Though at other times, I knew that could be a good thing. At least it meant I didn’t lie very well.
“I know.” I replied at last.
Neither of us spoke again.
Ten minutes later, we glided into the open air. Behind us towered the mountain, and a thick forest lined the banks of the river. Abandoning my ponderings, I veered the boat against the riverbank, snagged the rope lying at my feet, and jumped out. Dana waited until I secured the mooring line around a nearby tree before climbing onto dry land, as well.
“Best to hide it.” He said, reaching down and hauling the bow onto the grass. “We’re nearer the castle, and the patrols go wider than you might think.”
I came to assist him. “We can sink it, and then haul it up when we need it again.”
“In sunlight, that water is too clear to hide anything well.”
“As you say.” I grasped the side of the boat and heaved until we got the boat out of the water, and amongst the forest underbrush well out of sight to anyone who passed by.
“Besides,” He said, straightening and adjusting his cloak once again. “I’d rather not get my boots wet when we don’t’ have to just yet. Shall we?”
I chuckled under my breath and headed along the bank, but my mirth faded with each step closer to Campbell’s castle that we took.---------
Note: You'll have to bear with me. I'm still trying to figure out how to keep these segments short, but still interesting, and leaving the readers wanting to read more. I'm also working on the prose; it's a slightly different dynamic transferring skype history to prose format rather than just writing prose right from my head. Feedback is definitely appreciated on both scores.