Chapter Fifty-Three

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Chapter Fifty-Three – Subterranean Journey

The sound of hunting horns announcing their escape drifted up to where they stood at the edge of the outer crater. Far below, they could see an armed party of berserkers led by Meral, following their footprints in the loose scoria. Talia turned and led the way down the gentle slope to the floor of the old crater. Using outcrops of old lava to disguise their path, they carefully picked their way across the folded black rock towards the inner crater rim. The ground beneath their feet trembled constantly from mini-quakes that signalled the violence deep inside the volcano.

Talia led them around to the opposite side of the active crater and over to the south western edge of the outer rim. “We can hide in those old lava tunnels up there. All we have to do is climb up and enter through that crack,” she said, as they nervously looked about them. The rim of the old outer crater was almost sheer at this point. Max began climbing, followed by Shaila and Tihke. Goran and Talia stood guard at the bottom until it was their turn to climb. As they climbed, they unconsciously helped each other as if they were two halves of a whole, neither of them realizing they were siblings.

While they rested from the climb in the safety of the old lava tunnel, Max peered out looking for any sign of their pursuers. Talia tended to the cuts on Shaila’s neck from the vicious collar, once she had removed it. Tihke and Goran looked into the darkness of the tunnel, wondering where it led. Two hours after they climbed inside the tunnel, Max stiffened as his senses told him danger was at hand. He cautiously peered out looking for Meral’s hunting party. A shiver ran up Goran’s spine. Talia, Shaila, and Tihke sat nervously with their swords drawn.

A war club smashed into the wall of the tunnel above Goran’s head. From out of the darkness behind them, the berserker females charged, screaming their war cries. Goran fired his arrows blindly into the oncoming berserkers, while Max and Tihke fought for their lives with the fanatical females who had dodged Goran’s deadly arrows. “Stop! Put down your weapons and surrender or I’ll kill these two bitches.” All eyes shifted to where Meral held Talia and Shaila with her dagger at her daughter’s throat. Meral’s warriors quickly disarmed them and they were led back down the lava tunnel until they emerged into the open air inside the outer crater. “You saved me a lot of trouble by climbing up here,” Meral said angrily, as she threw Talia to the ground. “As for you, daughter, for your treachery you can join your friends. Take them to the crater and throw them into the lava as a sacrifice to our god!” Meral seethed. Some of her finest warriors lay dead and dying inside the tunnel. They needed to be avenged.

On the narrow crumbling ledge of the inner crater rim, the five sacrificial victims and their executioners stood enveloped by sulphurous clouds of steam released from deep below. The inner walls of the crater dropped almost vertically down to the dull red glow of the molten lava, hundreds of meters below. At a signal from Meral, the female berserkers pushed them over the edge. She reserved the right to dispatch Talia for herself, smiling when she heard the screams of her daughter mingle with the cries of the others as they fell down the steep sides of the crater.

Somehow they didn’t die. They all lay cut and bruised by the fall, hardly able to breath from the poisonous atmosphere around them. Their rapid descent had ended when they landed in a deep layer of sulphur enriched scoria on a less steep part of the crater wall. Goran and Talia found Max, Shaila, and Tihke among the skeletal remains of other sacrificial victims, and together they began searching for some way to escape from the crater. Choking from the thick sulphurous fumes, Max cried out, “Look, over there! I think it might be our way out!” Leading the way, he scrambled across the dangerously loose scoria towards another lava tunnel. Once they were inside, they soon discovered the air was less pungent. A strong airflow came from somewhere below in the dark depths of the tunnel.

“We can’t go back,” Talia said, wiping tears from her eyes caused by the sulphurous fumes. “Even if we managed to climb back up, my mother and her berserkers, will hunt us down.”

“Then we have no choice,” Tihke said, putting into words what they already knew. “We follow this tunnel until we find the source of fresh air. Hopefully it will be many kilometres away from here and your mother.”

~~~

For hours they carefully followed the dark tunnel as it descended. The air was beginning to take on a different, fresh odour as the five slowly moved further into the tunnel’s depths. After many hours in the inky blackness, they stopped to rest. Huddled together for warmth, blasted by the cool air, the friends fell into an exhausted sleep.

When Tihke awoke, he saw they were laying in a cave. Shaila lay with her arms around him with her head resting on his stomach. Talia was curled up in Goran’s arms with her face close to his. Max was nowhere to be seen. Tihke’s sleepy mind cleared. He could see. “Wake up,  everyone wake up!” he said, as he gently shook Shaila’s shoulder. As Goran opened his eyes, he became aware of Talia’s cheek next to his. The sound of Goran’s voice demanding to know where Max was, finally brought her out of her slumber. They all searched the cave looking for their friend, but there was no trace of him anywhere. In the strange light created by the phosphorescence from millions of tiny glow-worms, they sat and decided what to do next.

The cave formed a natural junction from three other tunnels leading off in a gentle slope away from where they sat. “We can’t split up,” Talia said. “We have to stay together. Let’s try calling out to Max in each tunnel mouth. Maybe he’s injured and can’t get back.” And so, they began walking towards the nearest of the three tunnels.

When they reached the entrance, Shaila called out into the darkness, “Max, where are you?”

“Right behind you.” When Max had woken, he decided to explore while the rest still slept. The far right tunnel ended in a sheer drop, so he came back to the central tunnel where Shaila had just called out to him, and descended into its depths. But that one divided yet again into two smaller tunnels leading back to the first one. He climbed back up to follow the final tunnel. “This tunnel leads down to another cave like this one, only much bigger,” Max explained. “It’s got fresh water running through it, and it’s teeming with fish – look!” From behind his back, he produced a fine specimen, still wriggling as it choked to death in the air. They all followed the old berserker in the eerie light down to the next cave. Across its centre ran a deep fresh water stream. On the opposite side of the cave was an entrance high up on the cavern wall. For the rest of the day they caught fish, eating some raw. The cavern was composed of nothing but porous rock. Even if they had fuel for a fire, there was no flint or any other kind of hard rock with which to strike a spark.

When they woke the next day, they gathered up their supply of fish and began climbing up to the entrance on the cave wall. As he followed Talia, Goran became aware of what normally lay hidden beneath her clothing as she climbed directly above him. Once or twice, she made him blush when she caught him looking. She smiled to herself and continued climbing towards the cave.

~~~

For several tiring days, the escapees followed the tunnel as it climbed and descended, twisted and turned, in total darkness, carefully feeling their way, until eventually it emerged into another smaller cave. But this one was different, it was lit by sunlight. The cave they now stood in, looking up to the sky above, was a natural sink-hole, formed when the ground above collapsed. Roots dangled down through the hole from an old tree, whose leaf covered branches shaded the cave entrance. Goran and Max stood shoulder to shoulder linking arms, while Shaila and Tihke lifted Talia up onto the men’s shoulders. She climbed up through the tangle of roots, steadily drawing closer to the hole in the cave roof. “Goran, I can smell the sea! The ground is covered in grass and trees,” she cried happily, from where she rested before climbing out of the hole. She got to her feet and looked around. They had emerged from the depths onto a small island, one of many that had been pushed to the surface when the Earth had been reformed. Later, when the friends had all finally escaped from the depths, they explored their new home surrounded by sea mist.

The island was formed from barren exposed rock with pockets of vegetation and trees, grown from seed, blown there over the centuries. There were birds, but no animals, except for small newts basking in the warmth of the sun on the rocks. Insects thrived across the island. A fresh water spring trickled down from its highest point and vanished inside its depths, below a small waterfall a few meters above a narrow black sand beach on the eastern shore. That night, as the five friends sat around their fire having eaten the remainder of the fish, they wondered how safe they were, and how far away the next habitable landmass might be.

Max, Tihke, and Shaila had quietly left the comforting glow of the fire at Shaila’s insistence, leaving Goran and Talia on their own. “Why do we have to shiver while Talia and Goran stay warm by the fire?” Tihke grumbled.

Max opened his mouth to say something, raising his eyebrows in total disbelief, then closed it shaking his head at Tihke. Shaila frowned. “Are you blind Tihke? Can’t you see that they’re in love?”

Max smiled and chuckled. “Come on you two; let’s go round to the south for the night.” Then seeing the look in Shaila’s eyes as she gently stroked Tihke’s ear, he added, “on second thoughts I’ll go on my own.”

The friends had experienced many changes in their lives in the past months. The new experience of overwhelming warmth, tenderness and safety Shaila felt, when she had woken in Tihke’s arms back in the tunnel, had changed the way she felt towards men. For the first time in her life she was experiencing tender feelings for a man. All their lives she held a sisterly fondness in her heart for Tihke. But after the brutal torture she had endured at the hands of Meral and the berserker women, and despite their predicament, Shaila realized that her infatuation for someone like gentle Torinn was not enough. She needed Tihke. All their lives he had always been the first to jump to her defence to protect her. Shaila always sensed that he loved her. But she knew he would never declare it while Torinn was in her life, content just to be there for her. In Tikhe she had finally found a true soul mate who would love and protect her for the rest of her days.

Max stretched and yawned from the comfort of his bed in the salt encrusted grass of the southern side of the island. Birds sang their dawn chorus as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon of the ocean. He sat up and peered across to the south. The sea mist gradually cleared with the rising of the morning sun. Rubbing his eyes he got to his feet and hurriedly climbed to the top of the island. When he reached the summit beside the natural spring, he turned and looked south once more. On the horizon was the unmistakable shape of a low lying landmass with the sun warmly reflecting back off its high cliffs, no more than thirty kilometres away.

The young lovers looked up with sheepish expressions on their faces as Max burst into the camp. After their night of lovemaking, both couples felt embarrassed by his sudden appearance. Max took no notice as he began excitedly telling them about his discovery. After breakfast, they followed him back to the island’s summit and stared south. The debate over how to get there lasted for a brief time. The friends broke up into two teams, searching for something to construct a boat of some kind. That night they all sat around the fire totally dejected. Apart from a few pieces of rotting driftwood, nothing else of any possible use was available to them. “It’s too far to swim. Besides, the tides are against us. And anyway, even if we could build a driftwood raft, it would soon get waterlogged,” Tihke moaned. Shaila gently pulled her lover to her and cradled him.

“Maybe there’s another way, underground,” Talia suggested sleepily, from where she lay with her head on Goran’s lap.

The next morning when they awoke, Max had vanished again to explore the depths below the island. “No need to go after him this time,” Goran said, when the others became alarmed. “He’ll return, either with good news or bad. We’ll wait for him here.”

For six weeks, they waited; each day staring south, wondering who lived there and what they would find. When Max eventually returned with the good news that he had found a path below the sea to the southern land, both young women were in the first stages of pregnancy. For the sake of their unborn children, it was imperative that the group leave immediately, before it was too late.

Next time – Chapter Fifty-Four

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