At the end of his lecture Deacon Elderberry reached for the small silver bell that sat on his podium and rang it one time before setting it carefully back into its place. Quara jumped slightly and then gave a small sigh of relief that she had not been asked a question all day long, for while she was usually one of the most conscientious students in the class, today she hadn’t heard a single word that he had said. She had spent hour after hour going round and round, wrestling with her own thoughts.
It was best not to go with her sister to whatever secret hiding spot that she’d set up. She would do just as her mother expected and go up to the meadow to help tend the animals. It was late spring and she hadn’t been up to the meadow since many of this year’s kids and lambs had been born. She smiled at the thought, and her shoulders, which had been tense all day as she debated and questioned every decision that she considered, relaxed ever so slightly.
Without looking over at her sister, who was sitting close beside her, she got up and picked up her bag and moved towards the door. She stepped out into the training area, but she hadn’t managed to take more than a step when she felt Lina’s strong, small hands grasp her elbow and pull her in the direction of the stairs that they took almost every day to get home.
“You need to come with me. I know you don’t want to, but you have to. This once. In all my life I’ve never asked you for anything. I need you to come with me now. Don’t worry. It’s as close to home as you can possibly be. You’ll even be able to hear Mother’s voice singing down in the kitchen while she bakes. You’ll be completely and utterly safe. But I need you to see something. Please.”
Quara nearly began to protest that Lina let go of her, but before the first word left her mouth she realized that her sister’s claim was true. In over a decade as sisters, the small, cherub faced girl had never once asked her to do anything for her. She’d never asked to so much as hold her doll or share a snack when they were small. She had often gone out of her way to help Quara, as she had yesterday when she’d carried the water all the way home, and while Quara had also helped her sister many times, even saving her life on a regular basis when she was small and constantly in more trouble than she could get out of, she couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that Lina was, for the first time in her entire life, asking for something that was important to her.
And it’s not as if she’s asking me to go up to the surface, she reminded herself. We’ll be just above the Heart, close to home. From the sound of it we’ll be able to smell the bread baking.
She gave up resisting her sister’s insistently tugging hands and allowed herself to be pulled across the training field, for the first time curious about what it was that her sister so desperately wanted to share with her. They moved faster now that she wasn’t resisting, and because the drills in the center of the field were in full swing they skirted the outside edge, listening to the sound of clashing swords and the yelling of commands as they moved swiftly past the practice battle.
They’d left the classroom quickly, without speaking with any of their classmates, and so they were well ahead of the crowd of students who usually walked together, chatting and pausing to watch their older brothers and sometimes even fathers and uncles, practicing for a war that they all fervently hoped would never come. For if war did come, if they were ever discovered and rooted out, then even if every man, from the boys still in the school room on up to the oldest grey beard sitting by the cook stove took up swords, they would still be out numbered at least a hundred to one. And those would be the best possible odds, the odds that they would have if the wicked King only sent the fraction of his colossal force that happened to be stationed at Naracal Fort, an old castle set deep in the side of the first of the sheer granite walls on the far west side of the mountains.
“Quara! Lina! Wait!” Both girls stopped when they heard the voice and turned to see Iggy jogging towards them, the bright red hair that set him apart from every other person within the Caverns, tussled and wild.
“Are you trying to grow a beard?” Quara squinted at his chin a half smile that she adopted when she was trying not to laugh pulling up the corners of her mouth. “Lina he is. He is obviously trying to grow a beard!”
Iggy rubbed his chin and tried to frown at her, but his naturally sunny disposition shown through.
At sixteen Iggy was the third born of the Kalena children and if their Mother’s claim was to be believed, the easiest of her children to raise from the very moment that he was born. If the stories were true he had let out a great cry and then regarded the world around him with wide curious eyes. His happily easy going nature had quickly become evident. In the previous year he had grown into a giant of a man, with strong broad shoulders and a narrow waist that made him appear somewhat older than his years.
If the gossip they’d heard was true he was very proficient, both with a bow and a sword, although neither he nor Xav was prone to boast and so it was hard to pry a single word of their own accomplishments from either of their lips. He was dressed in the garb of the Guard, although he was still a Squire, with a light weight white tunic belted at his waist, and grey breaches showing above black boots that nearly came up to his knees.
Iggy peered at her with bright sapphire eyes as he answered that he was not, in fact, trying to grow a beard, but he had hardly been home in a week to shave, if she hadn’t noticed, and when he had been home his sisters had been hogging the only mirror in the house as if they expected suitors to arrive any minute. The last part of his story was not actually true but he knew that the words would cause both girls to blush, at least slightly, before he returned to his reason for stopping them.
“Xav and I have something really important to tell Mother about at dinner tonight. We’ve already spoken with Father, so he knows, but please try not to irritate her too much before we get home.” His eyes moved to Lina’s face as he said the words and she shrugged ever so slightly.
“Will you tell us what you’re going to be announcing?” Lina was the one to speak up, her eyebrows raised and her eyes firmly focused on her brother’s gaze.
“I will tell you tonight when we tell mother. I don’t want you ruining the…” his voice trailed off as he searched for the right word and for a moment the smile fell from his lips and Quara felt a pang of worry about the news that he was bringing “surprise that I have for her.” The last words came out in an oddly flat tone and Quara felt the old knot of worry that she had carried with her for nearly her entire life growing heavy again.
“It’s not bad news, is it Ig?” It was Quara’s turn to speak now and her eyes were soft and pleading as he turned towards her. She was suddenly struck with the idea that their entire family stood on the edge of some great, and yet perilous moment and that perhaps, in a few days’ time, they would all be changed forever and nothing would ever be the same again. Not if I can help it, she responded to the thought, pushing it away as she waited for his answer.
“It’s not bad at all. It just might not be something that she’s thrilled about. Being as protective as she can sometimes be, and all. But I have to get back out there and beat on Xav a little more before we’re done for the day. Just please. Stay out of trouble.”
“We will.” Lina promised as he jogged back to where Xav was waiting for him on the opposite side of the field, his sword in hand.
Quara gave her a hard look. “Maybe today isn’t the best day-”
“It is.” Lina cut her off. “It’s the only day that we know that we have. Who knows what might happen tomorrow, since it seems as likely as not that the enemy’s armies are moments away from storming the Cavern Dome and banging down our doors. In which case, I might add, you would likely wish you’d listened to me and headed down into that city far within the earth, because I’m absolutely certain we wouldn’t be found there.”
“It’s true. Anyways, you’ve already agreed. We’re going. And I cannot believe how hard I’m having to work to get you to accept a present that I have just especially for you. In fact I think you might want to work on being a little more grateful when someone has a fantastic present that they just can’t wait to give you.”
Now it was Quara’s turn to raise her eyebrows and cast a suspicious glance at her youngest sister’s face, but Lina ignored it, grabbing her sister’s hand and dragging her to the gate, impatient to set her plan into motion. If she knew her sister at all then the plan should work. She wasn’t entirely certain how long it would take to kindle her sister’s curiosity to the point when she could no longer resist Lina’s requests, but she was nearly certain that with the tools at her disposal she could do it. If she could just get her sister up to her secret hiding place without any more interruptions.
Lina led her sister in an indirect route towards their home. It would have been simpler and quicker to go up the steps that led directly up the side of the Chasm, but Lina wanted to be absolutely certain that they wouldn’t run into their mother, which would inevitably lead to questions about why they weren’t in the Meadow, which the youngest member of the Kalena clan was quite certain would ruin her plans for the rest of the day.
So they snaked through corridors, going up a series of steps that ran from hallway to hallway in between apartments that were nearly fifty living quarters away from the staircase that ran up the side of the Chasm itself. “This seems like overkill.” Quara muttered the words as she walked, but her sister pretended not to hear her, listening instead for the sound of steps in each hallway that they passed by. She would rather not have to meet anyone and risk having to explain what they were doing to in that part of the Caverns, especially with her older sister’s propensity to immediately volunteer the truth to absolutely anyone that asked her a direct question.
After they had walked up so many steps that Quara was certain that they were far past their own home, Lina grabbed her hand, which she had long since dropped and pulled her sideways into a new corridor. “We’re almost there.” The younger girl whispered the words excitedly and for a moment Quara was nearly swept up in the excitement too.
They walked past many empty doors, some entirely shut and some gaping holes where no door remained, leading away into darkness. Just as they were about to come to the main corridor, which must have meant they were almost directly above their own home, Lina stopped and pulled her sister sideways into the last entry way that led off of the narrow, abandoned hall. There was an old battered wooden door, with dents and dings, and it swung open on quiet hinges when Lina gave it a light push with the palm of her hand.
“Quick.” She whispered the word and pulled her sister into the room, which would have been completely dark if it weren’t for the small cooking stove, which cast light over a small portion on the far side of the room.
“You keep the stove going?” Quara wasn’t quite sure why she was whispering, but it felt wrong to speak out loud.
“Of course. I’m here a lot. Whenever I can get away really. And you all are so used to me disappearing that you don’t really notice anymore. It’s down to embers by now though.” She went to the stove and picked up an old piece of fabric and then used it to catch a flame from the embers to light the wick of an old oil lamp, which cast a wide, flickering circle of light over the room, giving Quara her first clear view of her sister’s hiding place.
The apartment was smaller than the one below it, and appeared to be only one room, which must have been meant to include the living area, cooking area and sleeping area.
“I think it was a Guard Station of some kind,” Lina said the words as she watched her sister search for a door that would lead further back into the bedrooms. “It’s only the one room.”
Quara nodded and continued to look around, standing just inside the door. There was the stove, a tall wooden table with three stools, a pile of pillows a few feet from the stove, and a large trunk in the corner of the room furthest from the door. As her eyes traveled up the barely lit walls she stepped forward and moved to the wall closest to the door, reaching out to make sure she was seeing exactly what it was that she thought she was seeing.
“No one missed them.” Lina spoke with a shade of defensiveness in her voice. “They were tapestries that had never even been put up downstairs. I hauled them up here years ago and no one has ever even noticed that they were missing.” Quara shook her head slightly and Lina suspected that she had rolled her eyes in the dim light, but she couldn’t be entirely sure. “Here, sit down.” Lina walked back across the room and pulled her sister over to the pile of pillows that Quara was certain were pilfered from their downstairs common area.
The older girl sank down onto the huge pile of pillows, and sat forward with her head on her knees as she watched Lina go around the side of the stove and bring out a small tea kettle and a bucket filled with water that must have been hidden completely in the shadows. “These were here when I found the place.” She said the words as if she expected Quara to accuse her of stealing the tea pot and the cups as well, as she ladled water into the kettle and then set it on top of the stove to boil.
With the kettle in place Lina straightened her back so that she was standing and began to pace. “I know you’re wondering why I asked you to come with me and why this is so important to me. It’s that I think you need to see this with your own eyes. You need to understand what you’re giving up and asking me to give up, and I think I can show you that without asking you to even step outside of this room.” She said the words slowly, not looking at her sister, her shadow cast large across the wall and the door, in the flickering light of the lantern.
After a moment’s silence Lina crossed the room again, this time kneeling beside the barely visible chest. She ran her hands over the smoothly worn wooden surface before lifting a latch on either side of the front panel. The hinges creaked as she pushed open the top, propelling it backwards slowly until it leaned heavily against the wall, before reaching down and moving several items that Quara couldn’t see from her vantage point across the room. Once they were out of the way she slowly lifted what looked to be a wide flat box wrapped in dark fabric from the very bottom of the chest.
“I’ve thought about bringing this out and giving it to you at least a hundred times. I brought it up out of the ground for you and while I think that there are many people who would appreciate it for the knowledge that it contains, I think that I could not do better than to place it in your hands.”
Quara regarded her sister with an odd expression, not reaching out her hands to accept the gift as she watched Lina standing awkwardly a few feet away, waiting for her to say more. Her younger sister had always seemed young for her years. Her impetuous nature and quiet character had ensured that. Her silence for years on end had baffled everyone and Quara knew had often caused those outside the family to question her intelligence.
In a small way Quara understood why people made the assumptions that they made, because while she knew that her sister was very smart, it was easy to forget just how much she perceived when she had been entirely silent for so many years. Not for the first time the older girl began to realize that in all those years Lina had never missed a moment of what was going on. Still, even knowing her sister as well as she did, in the last days Lina had revealed a side of herself that Quara had never imagined. She seemed to speak as if she were far older than her years.
“What is it?” Quara said the words to fill the silence and also because she didn’t feel quite ready to reach out her hand and take whatever it was that her sister was holding. Somehow she felt that she would be better off if she went on not knowing what this gift was that Lina was so determined to force upon her.
“It’s just a book.” Lina said the word just with an odd little inflection that made Quara think that the exact opposite was true. But her curiosity was piqued. Sitting up a little straighter Quara reached out her hand and was immediately struck by the weight of the package that her sister had handed her.
The book was wrapped in a navy blue piece of silk. She’d seen silk one other time outside of the ancient wall tapestries in their home, when a girl her age who didn’t attend the school had worn a very old, very pink dress to a party and their mother had sighed at the extravagance when they got home and asked how anyone could allow a child so young to wear such a costly and rare garment. The children of the very richest members of Cavern society nearly always had their own tutors so that they wouldn’t pick up any coarse habits from the children who came from lower stations in life, but Quara had remembered smiling at the little girl, who had smiled back as if she wouldn’t have been entirely opposed to making a new friend.
Unwinding the silk Quara redirected her attention to the package that lay in her lap. Inside the silk, the book was wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with a coarse tan string. Lina moved the lantern close to her sister’s feet, so that it cast its flickering light brightly in a circle about her. Moving silently across the room she retrieved a single candle from the tall table and after lighting it from the wick of the lantern, she set it near the stove so that she would be able to see what she was doing when she poured the weak tea that had brewed in the tea pot into two small tea cups.
Quara’s hand felt suddenly thick and clumsy as she tugged at the edges of the string. The knot came free easily and the string fell away, leaving only the thick paper between Quara and whatever was inside. She had never felt more nervous about a book in her entire life, but this moment felt as if it were almost certain to be life altering. Before she had even held the book in her hand she had felt that by opening the cover she would be swept along in a direction beyond her control.
Still, she knew that she wouldn’t put it down. She would open the book and read the words that were written within it, if she could. With that thought, she felt an odd mingling of excitement and worry. What if the book was written in a language that was long lost to centuries past? The very idea caused her to bite her lip in dismay and she quickly unfolded the final layer of paper and set it aside, away from the flame, beside the navy silk, without realizing that it was unlikely that her sister would give her a gift that she couldn’t understand.
The book was bound with a red leather cover. The spine looked as if the branches of a tree had been painted in gold upon it, but the front was simple, and there was no title printed on the leather.
“What is it about?” she glanced up at Lina, who was now standing beside her, a tea cup in her hand, regarding her sister with an anxious expression. “I’m guessing we’re going to learn something about this city of yours. Have you read this?” as she asked the question her fingers ran along the edge of the cover and felt the golden edges of the book under her finger nail.
“I’ve skimmed it, but I want to see what you think. I think it’s a journal of some sort. By a historian.” Lina’s words were mostly true, for she had skimmed it. And she’d also studied it closely, trying to unravel the secrets that she felt it contained.
As Quara grasped the edge of the front cover she realized that her hand was trembling ever so slightly. She wondered if her sister had noticed her hesitation, before asking herself why she was so nervous about opening a book. After all, it was just paper and ink, bound up in leather. Taking a deep breath she turned to the first page with writing splashed across it, which was several pages in, and bending close to the book in the dim light, she began to read.