“Ahem. We will take the most modest route, my dear,” Ailadas said to Ky and she pouted.
“Can’t we afford to just sell these animals and take the Express Chairs, Uncle?” She was the image of pouting, spoiled Aitza.
“No, Kylinia! I have decided. You may wheedle all you wish but the answer will still be no! Ahem.”
She flounced in her saddle, as much as was possible to do so without setting the mare off and turned to me abruptly. “Fessas, fetch me my other fan!” She pointed with her chin to the baggage mule. “The sweetwood one!”
“This ‘un’s glad tah serve, s’rina.” Gan didn’t bother hiding his grin but looked around as if it were the plaza making him smile, while I rummaged in the bag for her fan.
“The s’rina’s request fulfilled,” I said, handing up her fan. My eyes didn’t go any higher than her shoulder and hers, I am certain, did not go lower than the top of my head.
The line moved slowly as groups were shuffled together to be kitted out for Tunnel travel. Once the tolls were paid, a box on wheels was brought forward and all iron and steel that everyone had was accounted for and locked away. Most harness fittings were ironwood or brass so that was apparently all right. The whole party had a lodestone run over them to make sure, for their safety.
“Ahem. Apprentice. Recite. Do you recall the reason for this bizarre ritual?”
“Ay, sor. There’s places in t’Tunnel where no iron passes. It sticks tah the wall. There ‘s a suit of armour and the halter of a horse left illuminated at t’ Arno air-shaft.”
The animals were all fitted with bags under their tails and the Kadussas came forward to take the lead-rope of the forward animal. Most people stayed on their beasts, content to be led. The Kadussas had the straight-on stare and the tipped head of the sightless, his feet knowing every step to the start-line. The Tunnel Master, sighted, laid the lead rope into the outstretched glove.
Before each party entered, the Tunnel master tapped on a bar running out of the stone in the mountain, waited for a few moments, tapped again. At some interval, whose guiding I could not discern, he halted a group and waited. The fan whirled slowly to a stop, then slowly reversed itself until it was spinning a hard wind in our faces.
A storm-roar came up from the heart of the mountain, a hot, stale, ammonia-stinking howl, the trapped air being blown from the airshaft pumps deep inside. Everyone’s sleeves and hair flapped. Even though this happened more than twenty times a day and the plaza was swept clear every time, the dust whipped and forced us to close our eyes against it. The animals brayed or neighed and had to be held, but everyone expected it. The eagle banners all around the plaza cracked their wings in that wind with sharp pops and crackles.
Then it stopped and the fan as well, and the whole process reversed itself as the mountain inhaled. “Ahem.” Ailadas coughed with really effort once the exhale wind had died down again, except for the steady draw once more. “I believe we have just felt the, ahem, so-called ‘Breath of the Mountain.’”
I had thought we would be starting at the smaller tunnel entrance and so, walking when I had promised Ilesias he could ride on my back, but here we could ride. I took my little brother up on the saddle in front of me and tied his donkey to my mule. He tucked his Bear up in front of him making little growly noises.
We were put with another travelling party, a young Aitzas fellow and his entourage, with flashy horses and satins, even so soon after the war. He attached himself to Ailadas and winked at Kyriala who hid behind her fan, coyly. He and Ailadas were the lead behind our guide, then the women, then I and Gan and the rest of his hangers on.
Shien Itzan really showed himself as a finely turned out young man, wearing his blue satins as trail-gear without a second thought. I wouldn’t have thought of how hard it would be to keep those clothes clean on the road. My trousers were dark brown and dusty.
His horse was high-bred and skittish, the colour of a gold chain with white mane and tail. His hair was almost as white as the horse’s tail. And I rode a mule. A very good mule with a lovely foot who could walk that high-bred into the ground but I was seized with a sudden longing for Nasty. The big black war-horse would have had that stupid nag for breakfast.
Shien smiled at Kyriala far too often with his straight, shiny, white teeth, before the Kadussas led us past the fan housing into the mouth of the mountain.
The light from the plaza stretched its fingers into the mountain less than the length of our little procession and I, since I did not have to guide my mule, I wrapped both arms around Ilesias’s middle and he leaned back against me hugging Indispensible Bear just as firmly.
The darkness became everything. It pressed around and on and into my lungs pressing the air out. It became the only conversation, pressing down, erasing all competition. There was no abrupt line, only a gradually increasing twilight that became dim, it faded to a wedge of haziness, a slender pinpoint, and then only the solid darkness.
The light just failed, not like sunset but like the oppressive darkness we had felt and lived in the caves, only this time there would be no fire to light our cavern, no smokey torches. No torches at all. No candles, no lamps. Fires, and thus light, used up the air we would need. The steady flow of air at our backs, smelling faintly of the hot food vendors at the plaza entrance, and the fresh, clear mountains, was reassuring that the Tunnel fans were on, pulling in enough clean air for us to breathe.
In an Express chair… with the bearers pushing hard and breathing hard, and passed on one to the next at the air shafts… one could make the undermountain passage in twenty beads. We would be in the dark at our pace, for four days.
From up ahead, in the dark I heard the rush of water, and a liquid trilling of birdsong. “Good work, little one,” our guide called as if to the bird.
“Why would a canary sing—ahem -- in the dark?” Ailadas asked our guide.
“Ah, honoured ser. They are workers in the deep here with us, our little brothers. Should there be a pocket of bad air… they will give their lives and thus warn us of the danger. Should we pass and our feathered brother not sing, this one would turn us back until the extent of the dangerous air be determined or until the mountain’s breath cleans the road.”
“There –ahem -- must be a lot of them.”
“Yes, ser. There are,” he said, but no more. Their voices echoed weirdly in the dark as if you could feel the words on your skin more than hear them with your ears.
“If the serina becomes fatigued or frightened,” Itzan said from immediately behind Ky and Kaita riding side by side, but ostensibly addressing Ailadas. “I would gladly offer my assistance, ser.”
“Young man, I will, ahem, certainly keep that in mind.” I found myself grinding my teeth for some reason and unclenched my jaw. Kyriala wouldn’t be frightened you tit. She has enough courage for three of you. I deliberately turned my thoughts away from Itzan, thinking about the Yeoli column of letters that included the symbol for 'Che' instead. There were eleven in that symbol set if I remembered the drawings Gannara had made for me correctly. Let me see... 'Cha' is this symbol with the bottom hook turning this direction, and there's a classic 'Che' and a 'cho' symbol...
I tried to set my mind into the half-doze the Kadussas had suggested to pass the time. Since we had entered the Tunnel around sunset Ilesias fell asleep not too long after that. I could tell because he got heavier and more limp somehow. Something so trusting I had to smile at. I love you little brother. You’re safe between your Bear and I.
By the time we arrived at the first airshaft I’d gone into a peculiar dream-like state, that wasn’t broken by our stopping at the relief areas. Handing an invisible Ilesias to an unseen Gan, getting down from an indiscernible mule, feeling for invisible handholds and squatting over a pitch coloured hole in a tar black cubicle, and then reversing the process just made the whole experience seem more unreal.
And every bead there would be a peculiar set of taps along the bar in the wall and we would stop and brace ourselves against the mountain’s breath. The rhythms inside were hypnotic… the next trilling little bird, the taps and clicks in their various patterns communicating who knew what information, the faint rush of the deep stinking river carrying waste and powering the fans deep under our feet, the higher gurgle of the drinkable spring running next to us the whole way… it was as though I had descended to some odd mythical kingdom under the hill.
I kept blinking and blinking thinking I could see light, but it was merely my eyes playing tricks with me until, when a light did appear, I didn’t recognize it as real at first. A tiny alcohol lamp lit a patch of wall to our right and yes, there was a carefully oiled set of armour held to the wall, crushed almost flat as if a great weight pressed down upon it. Four horseshoes gleamed near the base of the wall and a bit next to a flattened gauntlet as well. All as if the knight and his horse had been picked up and smashed straight against the stone.
“The Tunnel loves iron and steel and keeps them if it can,” the Kadussas said. “An ox can perhaps shift that armour if one could find a way to secure it in such a way that the metal did not tear. It breaks and rips rather than let go.”
“Ahem, most interesting. Ahem. It implies the Tunnel has a will of its – ahem – own.”
“These ones think it does. Welcome to the Arno airshaft. The exalted ones may rest here before proceeding on with the next guide.”