“I know what you’re trying to do.” Quara’s eyes narrowed and she said the words in a flat, disinterested voice that belied the excitement that had begun to unfurl in her chest at her sister’s first mention of a library. A library bigger than her entire world, hidden away beneath the earth? She wouldn’t even have set foot above ground to see it, to sit and flip through the pages of giant tomes, reading about men and women and events that had long since been forgotten.
No, she pushed the thoughts away with a shake of her head. “I know exactly what you’re trying to do and it isn’t going to work. At all. I’m not some child that you can entice to join you on some fool hardy adventure by simply promising a library full of books. That’s ridiculous.” As she spoke she focused on the corridor leading down to the Lake, avoiding Lina’s gaze.
“I’m not trying to do anything. You know me Quara. I’m not subtle.” Lina caught her sister’s eye and shrugged, a movement that was not easy with the pole pressing down on her shoulders. “Let’s finish our walk home before Mom sends Xav down to find us. Dad’s probably already home by now. We may have already missed dinner entirely. Do you think Mom meant it last month when she said that anyone who wasn’t home by dinner wouldn’t have a scrap of the meal that she made? I mean I know that was directed at me, since I’m always off doing the sort of things that I tend to do, but do you think she’ll really stick to it, especially since I’m with you?”
“I don’t think she will but if she does I know where Xav and Iggy have a box of treats hidden and since they’ve been staying down at the Garrison just about every night I don’t think that they’ll miss it.”
“They have food hidden?” Lina was clearly shocked by the news, but Quara sensed that the shock was because she knew nothing about their secret hiding place, rather than surprise that the stash of treats existed in the first place.
“Yes, they do. But I don’t think we’ll need it. Mom knew where we were going.” They trudged on in silence with Lina steadily refusing her sister’s offers to take her turn carrying the heavy load.
“Quara, there’s one thing that I haven’t told you yet.” They had walked for some time and were nearly to the entrance to the Training Field when Lina half whispered the words so that for a moment, Quara wasn’t entirely certain that she had heard them.
“What is it, Lina?” She said the words gently, mentally commending herself for not revealing the stress that the idea of another surprise brought washing over her body.
“There’s a place that I go to sometimes. A little hiding place. It’s not far from our house. And it’s totally safe. I started hiding there sometimes, when I needed space and quiet, when I was five or six.” Quara’s thoughts went back to frantic searches when Lina slipped off, despite the family’s thorough efforts to have eyes on her at all times, only to reappear an hour or two later exactly where she’d last been seen, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “There’s something there that I want you to see. I don’t think that it will change your mind, but I think that you should be the one to have it.”
Without waiting for her sister’s response she stepped out into the bright light of the Third Level, not looking to see if Quara was following behind her. Quara stood for a moment, watching Lina move easily around the edges of the busy field. The Guard looked as though they were preparing for some major operations in the near future, and people were running here and there carrying armloads of armor and weapons across the field towards the staircase leading down to the Guild Halls. She spotted Xav and Iggy by the doors of the Garrison, but she didn’t have time to go over and ask them if there was anything that they could tell her.
A sinking in the pit of her stomach told Quara that, more than ever, she needed to stick by her sister’s side and make sure that she stayed out of trouble. She ran after her, dodging Squires that were running here and there carrying out their orders in an attempt to keep up with her nimble footed sister.
Quara caught up to Lina just before she reached the staircase leading to the government level. She walked beside her smallest sibling, a comfortable silence falling between them with each girl entirely lost in her own thoughts. Despite Quara’s adamant speech, her thoughts turned back to the library and her mind wandered through the aisles, her arms outstretched, her fingers trailing across the spines of a hundred thousand books, each just waiting to be plucked from the shelf and opened so that it could reveal its secrets to her.
Lina had walked the entire distance from the landing in the Lake Corridor, with a small smile playing at the corner of her lips. She had spent more time with Quara than she had spent with any other person on the face of the planet. Quara was the one person who she never really tired of being around. And knowing Quara as she did she knew that the library had an appeal that her sister simply would not be able to resist.
The library in the Walemont Caverns paled in comparison. It wasn’t that it was too terribly shabby. But it was absolutely unimpressive. And Lina knew that now, every time her book loving sister glanced at a book she would be imagining all the books that had been left behind in the city that Lina was determined she visit. She doubted that her sister’s imagination had truly captured the magnitude of the city that lay deep down in the rock below their feet, but she knew that whatever she was imagining was grand enough to do the work that needed to be done to convince her to come along for the adventure that Lina had been imagining since she first discovered the City nearly three years earlier.
Still, even if Quara, through some super human effort managed to resist the temptation of a city sized library, Lina knew that she had one last weapon at her disposal in breaking her sister’s resolve. She’d brought it up out of the ground six months ago after strapping it onto her back and beginning the long, slow climb up the tunnel to rescue it from its millennia long resting place. It had weighed heavily against her back and in places she hadn’t been entirely certain if she would be able to maneuver it through the narrow passageway. Occasionally she’d even had to slip it off her back and push it in front of her to guide it through some of the tightest places. It hadn’t been easy to bring it back with her, but now Lina was certain that it had been worth it.
The next morning Lina was sprawled beside the outer door that opened onto the stairway. The small bag that held her tablet and chalk were flung on the floor beside her. Quara, who was usually the first one out of the house, was taking longer than usual to get ready but the small girl laying in the entryway, her head propped on her hand, was determined not to miss her. Lina could barely make out the sound of her footsteps somewhere in the back of their little home.
The residential apartments in this part of the city were fairly standard. They had been made long before the fall of the King, when Walemont had been a busy, prospering city, and this portion of the residential wall had overflown with children. By and large, most of the apartments had small bedrooms carved from the mountain, along with a common area, a small cooking area, and a water closet, where the two buckets of water they’d brought home the night before could be used for washing, in between trips to the long communal pools that they all visited several times a week.
Many empty residences lay off of the long corridors that snaked back, deep into the Dome. The members of the Kalena family who had first stumbled upon the Caverns had been allowed into the hidden city, but there were many within the community who had not been entirely sold on allowing outsiders to live next door to their families. As a result they had been given a home on the very edge of the area that was still considered habitable.
Still, Lina couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The walls of the cavern had been carved smooth and flat by one of her ancestors who had made the journey from the plains. Her father had explained that it was because they missed the look of the flat vertical walls and so they had carved them so that if a tapestry was hung across from one side to the other, the fabric lay flat against the stone, and the room resembled a room in one of the large Plains tents. And tapestries there were, aplenty.
Her mother liked to say that surely they had the warmest home in all of the Caverns, for every wall was draped with at least one thick tapestry. Some walls were covered with two or three tapestries layered on top of each other, for there had been generations when women had stitched away, year after year, and when they were finished they couldn’t find an inch of open space on the walls and so they had hung their latest creation on top of one that was already up. After all, there wasn’t much storage space in the little home. Over the years some of the tapestries had made their way to other caves, as children grew up and started their own families, but the best tapestries stayed there, shuffled at times from the back to the front when they were taken down and the dust was beaten out of them over the edge of the Chasm.
The earlier tapestries depicted places and moments in the world outside the Cavern Walls. One showed a dozen scenes that all looked to have come from their ancestors life on the Plains. Lina’s favorite showed a great glowing white castle, with a long line of men and women on horseback filing down a smooth road to its gates. A few months ago her mother had hung that tapestry in the center of the common area, after a morning of cleaning the house, but she had quietly taken it down and put up another in its place when her husband returned from a day of making swords and his eyes had rested on the tapestry, his mouth turning down at the edges into a rare frown.
In its place she’d hung a deep crimson drapery, a brocade hand stitched with gold silk, in a neat, steady hand, that must have been brought with the family when they arrived at the Caverns, for silk had not made its way here anew since the closing of the main gate when the people of the Walemont Dome went into hiding. The design showed the sun at the center and Lina wondered if the woman who stitched it had sorely missed the life that she was leaving behind when she crossed the threshold into the Caverns and said goodbye to the open sky and fresh air she had always known.
The floor in the common room was littered with pillows of varying sizes, piled here and there to form seats. Some were as large as Lina and others were much smaller, in a variety of colors and fabrics. There were no large pieces of furniture in the room, except a long low table where they ate, sitting on the ground, a tradition that they had held onto at home, although it was not a custom that was known in the Caverns before their arrival and most of the neighbors thought that it was quite strange.
The common room opened into the cooking area, which was small and had a few shelves, a small table for food preparation, and a little stove with a pipe that carried the smoke out of their home and into a space above their living quarters that ultimately vented into the Chasm at a high level, where the smoke could drift out of sight and was eventually vented out somewhere, without polluting the air below. The stove, while not large, did a more than adequate job of heating their already temperate living quarters to a comfortable temperature.
A short hallway began at the spot where the common area and cooking area met, and off to the right there was the water closet, and then three bedrooms with three doors that faced each other. Off to the right was the boys’ room. If one continued straight down the hall they came to the master bedroom. And on the left hand side lay the girls’ room. Each of the children’s rooms had four sturdy beds, stacked two and two so that the floor had a bit of space, while their parent’s room had one long low bed which lay on the ground in a room that had nearly as many pillows as the common area.
Quara came into the room Lina reclined in, plaiting the end of her long braid and looking at her sister thoughtfully, a hint of suspicion not quite hiding at the corner of her mouth. She was wearing a pair of rust colored breeches, which she usually wore when they went to the Hidden Meadow, and a loose ivory blouse that was brought close to her body by a thick olive vest. Quara tied a green ribbon around the bottom of her braid and twisted it worriedly for a moment before throwing it back behind her shoulder. When she glanced at her sister she saw that she was now sitting up, her bag on her lap and one eyebrow raised as she regarded her older sister curiously.
They walked silently to the door and were about to step through the threshold when their mother came bustling in, a shawl thrown across her shoulders and a basket in her hand.
“Girls, I didn’t think I would catch you. I bought you both sugar rolls at Smitty’s this morning. Here, take two of them with you. I managed to catch the boys at the training field and I thought I might see you down there already on your way to class.” She pressed warm, sticky rolls wrapped neatly in wax paper into their hands. Both girls avoided their mother’s eyes as they quickly tucked the packages into their school bags.
“What time is it? Are you going to be late?” She said the words as she walked to the kitchen and put her basket lightly on the little table before lifting the thick woolen shawl from her shoulders and hanging it quickly on a peg. She was wearing her light blue work dress, which matched her eyes, with a sparkling white apron that covered and protected nearly the entire of the front of the dress. The apron had two large pockets and she dropped her hands into them for a moment, as if to check to see if she’d forgotten anything, and then pulled a list from the right pocket, glancing at it quickly before turning to deposit it back in the basket she had been carrying.
Quara noticed that her dark shining hair, which had been streaked with silver for as long as she could remember, looked more silver that morning than brown, and her eyes, while still shining with energy and cheer, had a collection of tiny lines around them, along with an uncharacteristic smudge of plum half circles adorning the lower part of her eyes, that made Quara wonder if she had worries weighing upon her mind that she had not spoken of to her daughters, for she looked as though she had been worrying late into the night.
“We won’t be late Mom. We’ll fly down the stairs.” Lina answered for both of them as Quara slung her bag over her shoulder, giving her mother a long look, until the older woman thought she might say something more. When Quara didn’t speak her mother continued her line of questioning.
“You’re dressed for the Meadow. I hadn’t realized you had a shift. Are you girls planning on going up there after school today? I thought you might help me with some baking for the boys. Things have been busy down in the Garrison and it seems that they’ve hardly been feeding them.”
“I think we might be taking over a shift to help out, but we’re not sure just yet.” Lina said the words with a wave of her hand before her sister could give any explanation for her chosen outfit. “But we’ll see you later. Love you.” The small girl tossed the words over her shoulder and her older sister echoed them as they hurried out the front door and began their descent down the long staircase.
“That was close.” Lina said the words to her sister in a whisper as they walked across the Heart. “You would have spilled everything if I gave you a chance to say a single word. Lina’s hair shook from side to side, as she tossed her head. “I mean I know that you can’t lie to save yourself, but it was worse than that. Just the idea of not being entirely honest turned your cheeks ten shades of pink. They still are. And the rest of your face is as white as a ghost.”
Quara stared at her sister, not because of the words she had said, which she was certain were true and which came as no surprise to her, but because she still found herself marveling that in the last day she had heard her little sister say a hundred times more words than Lina had ever before shared in the entire twenty eight hours that it took for their little planet to spin around one time.
“Is it safe to assume that you haven’t changed your mind? That you don’t want to see that library?” Quara shook her head in response and Lina nodded. “I didn’t think so, I just wanted to check to make sure. But you will come with me after our classes today to my hiding place.” Lina caught the doubtful look in her sister’s eye and saw that after the conversation with their mother she was wavering and was actually considering going up to the Hidden Meadow to help tend the flocks. Or maybe that really had been her plan all along.
The Hidden Meadow was the source of the Walemont Caverns food supply. The Meadow wasn’t open to the sky, as one might imagine upon hearing the word meadow, but was instead inside of an enormous cave several times larger than the Heart. Like the Heart it had a large, spectacular golden light source. It had much in common with the Heart light source, in that it burned brightly and never flickered while it was lit. No one really knew for certain what it was formed off or how it had been made. It gave off a warm golden light that warmed the skin and kept the Meadow at a balmy temperature year round.
Yet there were distinct differences that set it apart from the Heart. It was shaped like a glowing amber egg and its width was so great that if it had been on the ground it would have taken four men with their arms stretched as far as they could go, to encircle it. That was impossible to do, however, since it was set deep in the black granite of the cave ceiling, so that only half of its surface was visible.
The light source came on every morning as the sun outside came up, and it dimmed every night, eventually going out altogether as the sun sank behind the southern horizon. It was said that the real end of the Walemont Caverns would come when the light went out, but people didn’t really worry too much about it. It had been burning away, lighting their world for as long as anyone could remember and no one could think of any reason why it wouldn’t continue just as it always had.
Still, the Egg’s most striking feature wasn’t its appearance. Its value lay not in its great beauty but in its ability to make almost anything that was planted even at the very furthest edges of the Meadow grow into a robust and healthy plant. This was the real source of the Walemont Caverns continued survival. You cannot feed an entire city for generations on overhunted deer and an average sized river that a man might easily swim across, regardless of how it teems with fish. But inside the Meadow an underground farm existed.
It was irrigated by a small stream that had either already run through the cave when the Meadow was created, or that had been diverted from somewhere else so long ago that it had already begun to carve a path for itself through the stone floor. The crops were grown in raised beds, with a layer of river stone at the bottom so that the water could drain off. The rich dirt which was brought in from outside was fertilized with manure from the Cavern’s livestock population.
The Cavern’s livestock, included a small number of cows, bulls, sheep, goats, chickens and roosters that were mostly cared for by the children in the Upper Classroom who took turns tending them during the spring and summer months, under the guidance of a few permanent workers who had made tending the animals their life’s work. There were even several boxes containing bees on the very far side of the huge space.
Knowing her sister as she did Lina couldn’t help but think that going to the meadow was the worst possible idea for her own plan. She needed her sister to see that there were worlds beyond the tiny sheltered existence that they had been born into and that there were possibilities far beyond what she had ever imagined. Lina wanted Quara to see that she wouldn’t shatter if daylight touched her skin. Perhaps if she widened Quara’s world just a bit by sharing her secret city with her, she would consider going up, above ground, with her.
Lina wasn’t entirely sure herself why her sister’s presence was somehow vital in the set of adventures she had in mind. She’d never had a problem going into any of her other adventures alone. And it made sense that a day trip above ground to explore wouldn’t be that different than spelunking down into the depths of the earth. But something held her back. There was a picture she had always had in her mind of the two of them up above ground together. Perhaps, she’d found herself thinking again and again, if she could convince Quara to come down to her city, she could convince her to go up above ground on an adventure as well.
The pictures weren’t static. Sometimes they weren’t even pictures. They felt almost like memories, although that was the exact thing they couldn’t be, since neither girl had ever set foot on the surface. Sometimes the visions came in the form dreams and they shifted and changed on a regular basis.
In one that frequently unfolded in different variations the two girls were out, astride horses, staring out over the plains as a battle unfolded before them. At other times they were running through a dark forest, and Lina knew that if they didn’t reach the place that they were going disaster was almost certain, but she could never form the image of where they were going, and in her dreams they never got there in time, and a thick darkness settled over her, leaving her gasping for breath and struggling to move when she finally pushed off the haze of sleep and woke.
Sometimes she dreamed of her adventures below the ground and in those dreams she was nearly always alone. Yet in her dreams of the world above the ground she was never alone, and while she had never been a child who placed too much importance dreams, she sometimes awoke from visions that she knew must be true and afterwards she was left with the unmistakable impression that her sister was a necessary piece of the puzzle for doing whatever it was that she was supposed to be doing. No, she corrected the thought. Her sister was a part of something that they were supposed to do together. And if she wasn’t mistaken it was something that was far more important than just collecting strawberries on the side of a hill.