Not far now, thank god. Matthias had awoke early in the morning, and re-packed his small pack. The girl seemed to have slept well, as much as he could tell. He’d piled some mosses over her and checked her every few hours. He on the other hand, hadn’t slept well at all. After a little rest, he’d re-packed the small bag with the pot, steel, flint and a little kindling he’d made from some wood left over from the fire. Once he’d attached it to his belt, he’d gathered the girl on to his back again, and had set out, pushing hard to stay ahead of the weather. It had slowed as it piled up behind the mountain, then in the last hour, the sky had darkened as the clouds flowed over and spilled into the skies overhead. Even being this close, he quickened his pace, wary of getting caught in a sudden blizzard.
He reflected as he trudged on. Two days, and there was no sign of the girl stirring. His arm was numb as he approached the entrance to the cave. Had been for some time now. The opening was little more than a cleft in the face of the mountain. He looked back. The first flakes of snow were falling behind him. Not a moment too soon. He walked inside, looking around as the stone flared out into a chamber. He moved carefully down a path by a small stream, which flowed off into the darkness. He paused a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. The rock face was dimly lit green, blue and purple by glowing plants which sheltered from the weather outside. The meagre light gave enough substance to the space that he could orient himself, to make his way carefully deeper. The path moved higher, rising and narrowing, seemingly endlessly.
As he passed through a narrow choke point, he let himself relax. The choke opened into a vast space, big enough to swallow a large hall. Near to one wall stood a wooden structure, a structure he’d built over the years since he’d left the halls of his fathers. A refuge from the world outside. He’d worried at first that someone would find this place, but as the years passed, he’d come to realise no-one was going to come. When he’d gone back as the prodigal son, he’d joined his father’s Hunt Pack and kept a house in the village. He still kept this place though. You never knew when you might need to disappear. Need a safe place no-one knew of.
It had come in useful many times over the years since.
Laying the girl down and drawing a blanket over her, he went inside the building. It was bare inside, with little furniture and no attempt at decoration. A small table and two chairs sat on one side, whilst the other side had two doorways with cloth drapes acting as doors, leading off to other rooms. Behind the first was a meagre bedroom. A large bundle of blankets served as both mattress and covering, with a separate bundle as spares, whilst a small set of shelves held clothes, buckles, knives and other small items. The other door led to a kitchen, with a cupboard for holding vegetables, and a bent metal rod with hooks for meat.
He walked into the bedroom, before bending low and sniffing the bed. It smelt far too much. Rising again, he grabbed one corner and lazily pulled the blanket bed into the first room, opposite the chairs, and pulled it straight. Satisfied, he moved back to the bedroom and spread the second set in the spot where the first had been. He tugged at the uppermost one, a rough wool piece, tidying it slightly. He looked around the room, and tutted with his his tongue.
“Well, it’s a bed…”
He turned and left, stopping only momentarily in the kitchen to lift a few strips of dried meat from a set of slender hooks, before moving outside. He sat by the girl, adjusted the blanket over her, and ate.
The cave was never quiet. Not in the way the mountains could be. The water from the stream burbled, echoing through the caverns. From the size and hardness and shape of the rock, any noise anywhere in the caves would be heard in this place. He could hear the chattering of the bats, shivering as they started to warm their bodies for the night. Small insects grew and lived in the rock pools nearby, enough to keep a small colony of Skymice alive, as he’d named them as a child.
Even smaller noises reached him. The creak of the rock face as it cooled, the snow settling on it, and the snow itself, drifting in the entrance, changing the sound of the wind outside. He knew every note of the cave’s song.
He listened to those sounds, and to the sound of breathing beside him. Over time, it changed, quickening slightly.
“I know you’re awake,” he said to the air.
The girl’s eyes blinked open. She looked up at him. He wondered what she saw. What would she make of the scar on his jaw, the two down the side of his neck? The knot on his back, or the dozens of smaller marks that peppered his long, powerful arms. A body that had withstood a lifetime of violence.
If it alarmed her, she didn’t show it. She moved delicately, as if afraid she’d break. Stretched her limbs slowly. Her body was lithe, he noted. Cords of muscle stood out. She was in good shape. The lack of food showed, but hopefully she’d recover well from whatever had kept her unconscious.
Her eyes moved over the cave and building. She did nothing as she looked around. Eventually, she turned to face him and spoke.
“Fhigjn yhermel egreh. Fhigjn,” she said finally, her face earnest.
“Great, you don’t speak English“, Matthias thought to himself. He looked her in the eye, and pointed to himself.
“Matthias”, he said slowly. He drew an arrow in the dirt in the ground in front of him, pointing to where he sat. “Matthias”, he repeated. Finally he took her hand, laid it on his chest. “Matthias”, he repeated again.
The girl looked at him blankly.
He drew in the dirt again, tracing a stick man. He drew an arrow from it to him. He pointed at the man, and at himself.
“Matthias”, he said again. The girl nodded. Drew more men in the sand, and a circle around them. Pointed at the group.
“Matthias?” she asked. Then pointed at the single man he had drawn, and asked again.
He pointed at the lone man. “Matthias,” he repeated, nodding for emphasis.
The girl drew hair on the figure, then pointed to herself.
“Rebeccitha,” she replied. She pointed at him, and then at herself again. “Matthias. Rebeccitha.”
Matthias offered Rebeccitha a strip of meat. He wondered if he should try and tell her what it was. No, too hard to try and get across the specific meaning. To say whether the word meant food, meat, dried meat, or something else entirely. She reached out and took it, began chewing on one end thoughtfully.
Probably wondering the same sort of thing. Need to start somewhere…
He looked at the figures they’d drawn, and began adding more. A woman on her own. A group of woman. A house. A group of houses.
He pointed at the single man. “Man,” he said, before pointing at the group. “Men”, he continued. He pointed to the first one, then gestured with his hand that she said say it.
“Man”, she said, her voice questioning. He nodded his approval, and pointed to the group. “Men,” she said, more confident this time. He went through all the drawings, and drew more as he did. Satisfied, he nodded. “Yes,” he said, before shaking his head. “No.” He repeated them again. She copied him. They continued a few minutes, covering the parts of the day, words for home, house, village, leader and so on. All the basic words he’d need her to understand over the next few days. Things would move fast when they got back to his father’s caer, and she’d need to understand what happened, to some extent at least.
He looked around a moment, thinking, before he stood and began walking from one side of the cave to the other. He looked at her. “Walk,” he said. Then he sped up, turning for a moment to say “run,” before slowing again and repeating it. He walked back, helped her stand. She stretched a moment, her muscles tensing and relaxing as she drew herself up.
“Walk,” Matthias commanded. She walked slowly for a few paces, before turning to face him, checking her understanding. He nodded. “Run.”
She moved slowly at first, as is testing her limbs, before she began accelerating. She jogged slowly down to the entrance of the building, then began running back, picking up speed. She was faster than she looked. She moved with a grace and power he hadn’t expected. She turned and ran back. “Run?” she said. He nodded back, then replied “yes,” to reinforce the earlier usage of the word.
She can learn. We can learn to communicate. Still don’t know what her language was though.
Matthias thought for a moment. A child learned dozens of words a day. They’d have little to do other than to learn the names for things, to teach her how to speak. They could work on that over time. They’d start in earnest tomorrow. For now, they needed to rest.
“Rebeccitha,” he said. She turned to look at him. “Walk,” he commanded, pointing toward the doorway. She seemed to understand, and stood, walking to his side and following him as they made their way inside. He led her into the first room, and pointed at the bed he’d pulled on the floor.
“Matthias, sleep”, he said, before putting his hands flat together and laying his head on them, closing his eyes and snoring. Then, he walked her to the first of the rooms at the back, pulling the cloth door to one side, showing the room inside. He pointed at the pile of blankets in the room, then turned to her. “Rebeccitha sleep.” He mimed sleeping again.
She looked at him a moment, then went and lay on the blankets. She bunched some of the blankets into a rough pillow, then lay down and snored a moment, before looking up again. “Rebeccitha sleep?” she questioned, checking her understanding of his instructions.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Rebeccitha sleep. Matthias sleep. Tomorrow walk. Tomorrow Rebeccitha, Matthias, village, father, leader.” She looked slightly confused, but nodded anyway.
“Yes. Rebeccitha sleep. Matthias village father tomorrow”, she replied.
He could only hope that she understood. He turned and left the room, drawing the cloth behind him.
As he lay back on his crude bedding, he pondered her language abilities. She was picking things up at a reasonable pace. But he wondered if she’d understand why they weren’t staying at the caer.
I doubt it somehow. It’ll be a long time before I can make her understand that. It might be easier if she never really understood.
He found it hard to believe that she’d deal well with knowing that her life would be the cause of his banishment. Something about her seemed innocent, naive almost. She’d been quick to trust him. Hadn’t tried to fight, hadn’t run, hadn’t even seemed scared. He knew he couldn’t have looked like the most gentle person to wake up to. He was a big man, with a hard face. His ego prevented him from saying he was unattractive, but he knew he wasn’t the most beautiful face she’d likely have ever seen. Especially not if she’d been around Augments. They were, almost to a fault, painfully beautiful. There was a reason the slang name for them among the Underdwellers for them was “Elves”. It worried him for some reason. If she’d reacted badly, it would have been more reassuring. Couldn’t shake the feeling that her placidity, her gentle demeanour was a sign of something wrong. Something that wouldn’t be a pleasant surprise when it came out.
Tomorrow would bring what it would, good and bad. For tonight though, he had a bed he knew, in a place he knew, and he was warm. For tonight, all was good.
He slept well.