Chapter 4. Trapped
I was court-martialed in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.
--Brendan Behan, The Hostage
Storm had a suspicion that hiding in a cave from creasia would not be as effective as hiding in a cave from ferryshaft. He was right. The creasia were more patient.
As the day wore on, and they did not leave, Storm became exceedingly sorry that he had not better planned his escape. What was I thinking?
He had been thinking, of course, that he would save some more ferryshaft, who would then be less inclined to kill him. He was already an outcast with little to lose…or so he’d thought. Now, watching the creasia pace while his thirst mounted, he began to appreciate the advantages of being merely an outcast and the luxury of the cliff cave.
His current accommodation was not more than four lengths from front to back, with an uneven floor and walls. The ceiling was so low that Storm could not fully stand. Hardly any snow had blown into the narrow mouth, and no ice had formed on the walls, so there was nothing to drink. Storm did notice that the back wall was marked with one of the odd symbols that he had seen in the Great Cave and throughout the boulder mazes. He wished he knew what it meant.
Ariand came to the entrance near noon, his muzzle dripping with snow melt. “Thirsty yet, foal?”
Storm shut his eyes. After the morning’s frantic run, his mouth felt dry as sand. He was hungry as well, though he knew he could go several days without food if necessary. Surely they will eventually get hungry, too, and leave. Storm had never heard of creasia hanging around ferryshaft territory for longer than it took to raid. With an effort, he mastered his misery and escaped into sleep.
When Storm woke, he raised his head and listened. Not a sound. The fading evening light barely illuminated his cave. Storm sniffed the air. He could detect no scent of cats. His thirst returned, biting.
Storm came cautiously to the entrance of the cave and looked out. Silence. Evening shadows, delightful drifts of snow mere lengths away. He repressed the urge to scramble out and start gulping up mouthfuls. He thrust his head out and one leg, then hesitated.
Silence. Not a bird trilled. Not a rat scampered among the rocks. He could not catch even a distant murmur of ferryshaft voices. Storm began to recoil.
He caught a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, jabbed his hind legs into the lip of rock, and shot backwards just in time. The cat jabbed its paw into the cave and swatted, but Storm was safe for the moment.
In front of the cave, the creasia were congregating again. They seemed relaxed and confident. One cat caught a rabbit and ate it where Storm could see. “Hungry, foal?”
Storm watched with growing despair. His head had begun to pound. With no other options, he relieved himself in the corner of the cave. The strong odor of his own concentrated urine made him feel ill. Finally, Storm escaped into sleep once more.
This time when he awoke the thirst was instant, acute. He struggled to his feet and felt a wave of dizziness. Not even moonlight broke the darkness outside. The moon must have already set. Storm could not hear any noises, but he knew the cats had not left.
This is hopeless. All they have to do is watch the hole until I starve or go mad with thirst. Did I really think I could outwit them? I only escaped the first time because I was lucky.
That thought made him laugh. I have never been lucky.
Storm buried his aching head between his hooves. I should just make a run for it. I’m only getting weaker. Maybe I can outmaneuver them and get to the cliffs.
This seemed unlikely. He couldn’t even escape the cave’s mouth without wriggling. They’ll rip me in half before I’m even out of the hole.
Storm heard a grinding sound, and then he felt the wall behind him move. He leapt forward with a stifled yelp. Then, because he had nowhere to flee, he turned around. A section of the cave wall had vanished, leaving a dark, ragged hole. Storm held his breath, half expecting something terrible to emerge. After a few moments of perfect silence, Storm took a cautious step forward.
Nothing. Not the faintest hint of movement in the blackness. A current of cool air wafted gently from the opening, showing that it connected somewhere to the outside. Storm ventured closer and tried to peer in, but he could see nothing.
He sniffed the incoming breeze. The air in the new chamber was fresh and damp, unlike the fetid stench of the cave. He could see now that it was a natural extension of his current cave—a tunnel. However, a large rock had created a false back wall. He noticed that the odd symbol was located on the rock. Could I have leaned against it? Is that why it moved?
Storm had to stifle a hysterical laugh. Did I have a way out all the time?
His ears pricked. Somewhere within, he heard water. He took a step forward, but stopped. A strange scent drifted to him on the breeze. He did not remember having smelled it before, yet his fur stood on end.
Storm glanced at the large rock again. Could I really have moved that by accident? And if I didn’t move it, what did?
His head throbbed. It was difficult to think. What choice do I have? A moment ago, I was considering running from the cave, knowing full well the cats will kill me. That way lies certain death. This way lies…possible death. Storm didn’t like to think about what might have opened the tunnel. The rock that had covered the entrance looked too solid to have shifted by accident. He leaned against it just to be sure. It didn’t budge.
Storm hesitated between the two openings. I have to decide soon. Outside, he could see the boulder mazes a little more clearly. Dawn was coming. If he escaped from another exit or tried a run from the entrance, he would need the darkness for cover.
* * * *
Ariand uncurled from a hollow in the lee of a boulder. He groomed briefly, took a few mouthfuls of snow, and then trotted to the place where a sentry waited behind a rock. “Has he done anything?”
“No, sir. He hasn’t stirred.”
Ariand waved his tail. “He’ll stir soon or I’m much mistaken.” If he was smarter, he’d have made a break before now. We would still kill him, but he might have had some fight left. At this rate, he’ll be too weak to even scramble out of the cave.
If the ferryshaft actually died in the cave, Ariand would be disappointed. The foal’s temporary escape was bothering him more than he wanted to admit. Vearil. That can’t be his real name.
Ariand started away and then changed his mind. “Perhaps I’ll have a peek before I hunt.” I wonder if I can get him talking this morning. I should have tried harder yesterday. Ariand approached the cave slowly. The foal’s extreme silence bothered him. He slunk to the entrance and raised his head over the lip.
Ariand’s mouth dropped open. He tried to push his head all the way inside, although he could already see every corner of the tiny cave. The ferryshaft was gone.
* * * *
“He vanished. I have no idea how.” Roup noticed that Ariand did not quite meet anyone’s eyes in the council. His posture was defensive. No one spoke for a moment after he’d finished his story.
“Are you sure you watched the cave all night?” asked Halvery. “The clutter had been awake all day. Perhaps a sentry dozed.”
“I took sentry duty myself the first half of the night,” said Ariand, “and then left a rotation of three creasia. They had such short shifts, I don’t believe anyone could have fallen asleep.”
“Well, he had to have gone somewhere,” said Sharmel. “You’re sure that there wasn’t another exit from the cave?”
“Not that I could see. Of course I couldn’t get all the way inside, but the foal looked miserable all afternoon. I think that if he knew another way out, he would have used it.”
“Not if he was smart,” murmured Roup. “Smart would pretend that he had no escape, wait until the clutter was complacent and mostly asleep, and then slip out the alternate exit. He’d be long gone by the time you started looking.”
Ariand drooped. He said nothing.
Halvery snorted. “It’s a foal, Roup, not a fox. And not a cunning ferryshaft with years of experience, either. Ariand, you had the longest shift. You probably went to sleep!”
Ariand raised his head. He didn’t look at Halvery. He looked at Arcove.
He thinks he might lose his clutter over this, thought Roup with a wince. After losing that fight with Treace...he’s wondering whether Arcove really wants five officers. Roup glanced at Arcove.
Ariand had been the last officer added during the war. He hadn’t fought for the position. He came to us and said that he could drain the lake. Roup could still remember the gleam in Ariand’s eyes then—little bigger than a half-grown cub. Arcove gave him the cats to try. Afterward, they were his.
Arcove stretched—a disarming gesture. Ariand relaxed a fraction. “Well, this raid has at least provided us with useful information. I wanted to know whether the entire herd was in revolt. From what you say, they are not.”
“I disagree,” said Treace. “They have broken faith by not killing the foal. This must be punished.”
Arcove’s tail twitched. “Perhaps, but that is not the same as revolt.” Treace opened his mouth again, but Arcove spoke first. “If they were in revolt, they would have torn Ariand’s hunting party to pieces. Do you really think that ten cats could defend themselves against the entire ferryshaft herd? They allow our culls because they have submitted to our rules. They fear us. Beware the day they don’t.”
Treace grumbled something about a race of cowards.
Arcove continued. “As I suspected, the foal was inspired by his first success to try again. On the first occasion, he could have been merely running for his life. There is actually no rule against doing such a thing. However, no such excuse can be made for this second occasion. He is now in clear defiance of the treaty. However…”
“However,” said Halvery with a grunt, “he’s our problem not theirs.”
“Correct,” said Arcove. “As long as Charder and the herd elders aren’t helping him, they’re under no obligation to assist us. The day we can’t take care of a problem like this is the day we are no longer frightening enough to rule them. Do I make myself clear?”
There was a murmur of assent.
Treace looked thoughtful. “You’re not even going to talk to Charder?”
Arcove smiled faintly. “Oh, I’ll talk to him. If he’s involved, I’ll know, but I suspect he isn’t. Did you get the information I requested?”
Treace stood up a little straighter. He was an exceedingly graceful animal with pale brown fur and sharp green eyes. “The foal’s name is Storm.” He paused. “I don’t know why he called himself Vearil.”
“I could hazard a guess,” said Roup. “It’s probably what the herd has been calling him. The ferryshaft put a lot of store by luck these days. Makes sense, when our culls are so random.”
“Yes, but why would he call himself that?” asked Treace.
No one answered.
You wouldn’t know, thought Roup. We call Nearil the hunter’s moon, “hunter’s luck.” But for years after Turis, they called it “Arcove’s luck.” Haven’t heard anyone say that in a while. We don’t think we need luck anymore. You wouldn’t know that,Treace, and and neither would this foal.
“He’ll be three years old in spring,” continued Treace.
Ariand looked surprised. “I would have guessed two.”
“Lovely,” grumbled Halvery. “Not only are we being bested by a foal; he’s also a runt.”
“His father was killed by a raiding party before Storm was born,” continued Treace. “His mother’s name is So-fet. She mated with another male, Dover, and had another foal, a female called Sauny. Storm has been on his own since his first winter. He made a bit of a name for himself by escaping from bigger ferryshaft foals who tried to take his kills. His friends are all low-ranking orphans.”
Treace paused. “I couldn’t get much background. Most of his relatives are dead. From what I gathered, none of the ferryshaft regard them as very remarkable. The herd seems to hold Storm in disdain. He does not seem likely to attract followers.”
Conversation broke out over this information. Roup turned to Treace. “How did you discover all that?”
“I caught a Ferryshaft and told him that I would release him if he talked to me.”
“And what did you do with him when you were finished?”
“Killed him, of course.”
Arcove spoke over the den. “I think you all realize that we must make an example of this foal while the herd still ‘holds him in disdain.’ If we kill him soon, he will be merely a cautionary tale. Who wants the next bite at this animal?”
“I do,” purred Treace.
* * * *
Almost as soon as Storm entered the tunnel, he smelled the water. He found it difficult to think of anything else, yet he forced himself to go slowly. The passage widened and sloped steeply downward. Storm could hear the clip-clop echo of his own hooves. The echoes seemed terribly loud, and he wondered if the cats could hear them outside.
He could hear the water now. His mouth was so dry… Storm’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the extreme gloom, and he could faintly see the outline of another opening to his right. He followed the sound of the water and peered inside. Somewhere below, an underground stream rushed by in the blackness.
Storm licked his lips. The stream sounded to be only a short distance away. The air in the new tunnel felt cool, but no breeze stirred his fur. This was not the way out.
But when will I get another chance to drink in peace? A whole day had passed since he had had a drink, and he felt weak with thirst. Slowly, Storm eased into the new passage. It was narrower and angled sharply downhill. He stifled a surge of claustrophobia and continued.
Finally the tunnel opened up, and Storm found himself on the edge of what sounded like a large river. It rushed by in front of him, cutting its dark path through the stone to either side. Storm buried his face in the stream and gulped. Water had never tasted better.
As he drank, he became conscious of a faint greenish glow somewhere deep in the stream. It gave just enough light for his adjusted eyes to discern the outlines of his surroundings. Storm was beginning to puzzle over this, when there was a splash directly in front of him and a head popped out of the water.
Storm gasped. Pale fur, huge blue eyes, something like a seal, but longer, uncoiling out of the water.
Storm jumped back as the sea snake darted forward. In a panic, he turned and raced up the passage. He heard a splash as the creature emerged from the water and the swish of its fur over stone.
Storm pounded out of the tunnel and started back the way he had come. I’ll take my chances with the creasia. But he stopped before he had gone three steps. Storm blinked and stared in vain for the outline of the hole that led back to his rank little cave. He saw only a faintly glowing green mass strewn along the ground. He caught a glimmer of movement beyond the strange light in the place where the hole should have been—white fur, gleaming eyes. They covered my entrance! Storm knew now what the strange scent must be. It was the scent of a telshee.
Storm did the only thing he could—fleeing down the unknown passage in the direction of the incoming breeze. All of the telshee stories that he had ever heard flooded his mind. He wondered how many of them were in the tunnel. He wondered whether he would run headlong into smothering coils. He wondered whether death under creasia claws would have been quicker.
Then, suddenly, the tunnel curved sharply upward, and Storm burst out onto open ground. He did not stop running until he had reached a cliff trail—not a sheep trail, but it would have to do. He climbed until dawn, whereupon he lay down on the rocky path, exhausted. He shut his eyes to rest…just for a moment.
I smoothed out the narration here and improved the dialogue in the creasia conference. Otherwise, this chapter follows the original pretty closely, including the choice to deliver creasia impressions and conference out of chronolgoical order with Storm's experience. It makes sense from a continuity standpoint, and I've never had someone tell me they were confused. I think the section after the creasia conference used to be a separate chapter, though. This would have been 2 iterations ago, even earlier than previous version. I think it got too short and was combined. It still sort of feels like a separate chapter to me. Slicing it off would also make the continuity discepancy less glaring. Can't decide whether I should, though.