Ahem. Ahem. Light had a value, a weight, a sensitivity and a tangible existence. One imagines this place will not see the light of the sun until the mountains crack in two… from waystop, to waystop, a faint glow pressed all around by darkness. That glow would never see the view it reveal to hungry, grasping eyes, starving to be filled as no starving man's belly could be.
We were in a place banished forever from the light of the Sun and I wondered if my own light could endure through this darkness. Would I be as frightened as those others riding, who stayed awake fighting hard to conceal their fear with song, with talk, with chatter more and more idle and frantic to drive back the dark?
Ilesias slept and I understood that the very young and the very old – drawn along helplessly in carts and rickshaws – often slept. The very young, as if they were returned to the womb. The very old as if preparing for their own future darkness, the closing of all earthly eyes. One reason I rode. I was of that long-sleeping age. Those empowered would repeatedly strain the pace of the porters, eager for this walk into the abyss to be over.
Only the kadussas were tranquil here in their home -- no, their faces held little expression, since they could neither see those of their companions, or assume that their own carried any message and visible only briefly at the islands, the besieged puddles of light, that are the airshaft waystops.
They were the places where, if one is not in the honeycomb beds, twenty times a day the breath of the mountain pressed down upon one, demonstrating the weight and force and true presence of air as a substance with as much weight as gold. With as much weight as light and dark down here.
I had never breathed -- a funny phrase, that -- breathed a word of my relationship with air to a living soul. In these tiny, thin, constricted passages I was reminded of the time in my youth when every day, every breath, a subtle shift in the rock too small for the mountain to notice, would seal off the passages of air forever.
The breath of the mountain is a force and a power. But against the size of the mountain attempting to breathe it is small. A mouse’s lungs labouring to fill the earth with panting, trembling, trip-hammer gulps. And not even gulps. Sips. Thin tapestry threads of air keeping one’s suffering body held tight to life.
In that sense the air was like darkness. How often had darkness relieved the straining, overheated body, cool air finally relaxing the head-bursting, skin-pounding, full to the brim with boiling in the tiny veins in the head blood? And then. And then reached down into wrinkled, flabby, cooked lungs with sodden wet hands, filling every thread-passage full of thick moisture?
Darkness and air, dancing in my old lungs. My chest strained and opened once more. Then again.
Between Tal and Fasanian… in the dark… there was a massive creaking and rumbling. A roaring of water and an enormous, not yet stinking splash and spray. A waterwheel it sounded like. A secret groaning engine of the kadussas taking huge amounts of water that would otherwise collapse the tunnel and channel it to useful purpose, like allowing the mountain… and us… to breathe.
I did not ask for information as we were led by and the blind porter did not offer. I wondered what other things were down here in the dark, locked away from the fragile sighted. Things no one dared see, like the interior workings of the body, perhaps? Things that only a healer might bear to know? Not the mere conduction of people and goods from one side of a mountain to another, but a vast and mysterious operation full of arcane and fearful knowledge. One may imagine anything in the dark.
The walls might one day suddenly decide that iron is not what they craved to hold fast, but flesh and blood and bone and one might – one day -- find one’s self pinned helplessly, like that poor knight and his horse. Cuddled so hard to the wall of the mountain that oxen may not pull you free. Why not? If the Tunnel may decide it wishes iron, what is to say it will not change its desire one day?
Stupidity. A theorem spun out of darkness and thick air and seeing things in the dark. We are three quarters of the way through. My old mind will not crack, though I might dare to wipe the back of my hand across young Ser Itzan’s mouth if he does not close it once in a while. Ah. A young man’s fantasies. A young man’s knowledge of his own prowess at violence.
True violence is this darkness in its abundance and this air in its lack, thrusting their excesses into one’s mind. The violence of indifferent death and destruction that does not recognize the mind and understanding it kills. The unknowing destroying that which knows and darkness is its outrider, its spearman, its giant.
I should be glad to see the pin-prick light that I knew was coming at Safussifan. This was the longest stretch. The deepest, with the peak above us higher than the first. The weight of earth more pressing. I breathed deep, because I could. The last leg, thank the Gods, was shortest. It was very strange. A man who curses the Sun has never been in the Tunnel. A man who curses the Tunnel has never been enslaved under the Sun.
Up ahead, Ailadas coughed, a wet sound slapping against the walls and ceiling. Gannara rode just beside me and Ilesias was a partly awake, warm weight against my chest. I ground my teeth in the dark. I had grown to despise Itzan’s smooth, endless, prattle that he doled out carefully along every foot of the journey through as though he proceeded into a maze and might need to follow the thread of his words back to his starting point should his mind go astray.
The mountain’s breath had shifted after Safussifan, a life-line thread in my need, my urge to get through, get through, get through, striking toward light the way a swimmer strikes toward the surface. The exhale breath was at our backs now, instead of in our faces, the inhale fans drawing phantom outside smells to hook into our noses and draw us onward. Relief was coming. Our bodies could feel it though the dark was as unrelenting as ever.
The birds sang differently it seemed, the communication taps echoing back and forth between the porters sang more lightly on the ears.
“So, Gannara, how would I say “How much is that?” in Yeoli?”
“K…Ka…mya ess..sssa.” He said, stuttering a little, struggling to dig into his memory, around the massive blocks of pain the Mahid would have installed in his head, to keep him from speaking his own tongue. It would be good for him to teach me the simple phrases I was asking him. At least I hoped it would help.
“Kamya essa.” He said more firmly, correcting me. It was the sort of thing that Misahis would have done to help him heal, help him get his language back.
Misahis, were you rescued? Are you home now? Safe from crazy Imperators and twisted Sparks? Misahis would have known how to ease Gannara’s remembering, what remedies would have made the loosening of his tongue easier. Selestialis save him from crazy Arkans who would hurt him.
I repeated the phrase he told me out loud once, and then again to settle it in my memory. I had my eyes closed because it didn’t make any kind of difference. The first leg of this Tunnel, I had noticed that I was seeing lights where there were none. By now I was seeing faces, the Marble Palace library apparently off to my left and people I knew I’d never met… but I knew them from their portraits. Ilesias the Great was frowning at me sometimes. And I could see Chevenga, smiling… that big grin of his, like the day I bounced in on him wearing my dog costume all those years ago.
I didn’t hear these phantoms speak to me and I didn’t try to listen. Over the long stretch in the dark I saw my older brother once or twice and he and Sinimas played kickball with the fat guy’s head all along the passageway. I knew they weren’t real but they looked real. So I started closing my eyes and that made everything go back to just random spots of light.
I hadn’t managed to sleep at all at the last waystop, opening my eyes over and over again, just to see the stone above my face. I’d reach up and touch it to make sure it was really there, the cool, damp stone hard against my fingertips because I’d pushed to make sure.
“Minakas, Gannara,” Kaita said quietly. “There is a fly buzzing around the ears of my mule.”
“We must be close,” Gannara said, just as softly.
“I’m keeping it quiet because I want to run screaming… I am supposing others would want to, as well.”
The mules were starting to bray and snuffle and push up against the lead line and the rear porter, riding a donkey, started hanging back to keep them from running over the front porter’s heels, stampeding over him. I reached around Ilesias and took up my reins, by feel, for the first time in the Tunnel.
“Hey! I think I see light!” Gannara hissed softly, and I snapped my eyes open. I wasn’t sure at first that what I was seeing was real light or more hallucinations. Vague shapes in the dark as though we were ghosts manifesting.
“I think you’re right, Gan.”
The kadussas kept us moving steadily so we didn’t run right over the party in front of us. They had started before us by three tenths and had been carefully kept at that distance, and to give our dark adapted eyes time to adjust, so we would not blind ourselves in our rush to get out. I took a breath and crushed the wild urge to cut loose from the lead-line, kick the mule hard and flee for the outside like fleeing hayel itself.
One of Itzan’s entourage behind me, began to yell, his noise turning words into incomprehensible waves smashing against our delicate ears. I turned, throwing my hands and arms over my head, one hand over one of Ilesias’s ears. He thrashed awake, his own hands over his ears so I covered both of mine. I couldn’t see what was happening but I think the boy tried to ride loose. It would cause a stampede. I don’t know how the porter managed to calm him, stop him before he injured someone ahead, but he did.
The porters stopped us, which hurt, but was very wise given how close we were to all breaking and running. “We shall sing,” the rear porter said. “Everyone together, if all please.”
The song was traditional, an ancient plea to an ancient God before the Ten. Everyone sang it and it evened our progress, put a rhythm to our procession. The light grew slowly, gentle as a lover’s touch. Our eyes were not assaulted with it and when we came to the Tunnel mouth and over the river bridge and out, we emerged in calm and good order into an evening plaza, brightly lit. I was amazed at how bright something as dark as a moonless night was.
For an instant I was afraid I had gotten turned around in the dark and just gone back, so similar was the plaza but on this end, but the great creature greeting us in glass and pour stone was a stooping eagle done in red and blue so it shone purple in the light and the sight of it was enough to make me weep. All of us were weeping. Something that happened upon emergence I was later told. No one cared that we showed our tears.