Poor Minis. He needed to remember that he was supposedly fessas now and couldn’t be annoyed with Aitzas boys. The dark was odd. Very peaceful. I could imagine music based on the sounds in the tunnels. Perhaps, one day, after I was home, I would ask a musician to write something based on it. It was only the first leg of our journey in the Tunnel and the dark was starting to become a thing all its own in a way, and the light too.
I was so sleepy at the third rest stop, I switched from my mare to the ladies’ saddle behind Ailadas and once my feet were safely on the step I found myself leaning against my ‘uncle’s’ back, with my head on his shoulder. He smelled like a scholar, comfortingly of leather and books, even after we had been years away from the libraries and offices. I suppose it’s natural. People give off the scent of their spirits which is why perfume was always so thick in the Marble Palace. Nasty courtiers trying to cover up their own soul’s smells.
I wondered what we all smelled like to the porters, who had no choice but to use their noses and ears. Do the sighted smell different than the blind? They certainly are quieter, possibly because they do not wish to fill up their ears with noise when they need them.
But the dark imposes a kind of silence on people if they aren’t used to it, it seems.
“Kylinia?” I had to think and remember that this was my name for now. I was a little slow to respond.
“Are you, ahem, all right my dear?”
“Yes, uncle, thank you.”
I thought that the dark was more oppressive on Ser Itzan than some people. He was trying to fill up the blackness with polite chatter. He tried singing, with not too bad a voice but the gloom smothered that attempt. He pushed his horse along faster till it almost fouled the line.
“If the honoured ser would slow down, ser. The honoured ser will only make himself more anxious, and this lowly one suggests, ser, that the exalted keep to the pace of this lowly guide?”
“Oh, yes, yes. Certainly, I didn’t realize.”
The kadussas was very calm, very polite, but he must have impatient, nervous people like Ser Itzan all the time. The sighted kadussas on the plaza had given us a little speech about some of the things we might experience in the Tunnel and how to deal with them. Perhaps Ser Itzan had forgotten.
I wanted to embroider a cloth telling what the Tunnel was like, but I would have to make it black thread on black silk and the only way to ‘see’ it would be to run one’s hands over it, take up the weight of it and wear it for a while. A Tunnel coat. That would be something to feel. I could not say ‘something to see’. Everyone should do this passage once in their lives. The dark changes you.
They told us there would be different things happening to us the further along we went. The next stretch, after Arno, would be the shortest time in the dark, but the wettest. I longed for Arno because sun-lights were allowed there, to give the sighted some relief.
I’d be able to see again and remember that I had eyes by more than feel. I blinked and could feel the sweep of my eyelashes, the smoothness of my eyelids over my eyes, but other than that, no effect at all. I imagined what I should look like with no eyes and shuddered against Ailadas’s back.
“I’m all right uncle, thank you for asking. Just a shiver.”
At Arno I wanted to touch the metal on the wall, seized by the urge to secretly take off a glove and really feel it, but of course I could not. I was insulated from the world by my life. A layer of cloth and a layer of propriety and a layer of space all around me. I was the centre of sheets of protective coatings to keep me safe but I was starting to realize that I hated them, even as I craved them. I could feel nothing through them, isolate. It was like the dark. I was cocooned in my safety, blind, deaf and dumb to the real world.
I loved it when Ilesias burst through those layers and laid himself on my lap. I understood more now, why Mama loved babies and children. They connect you to the world and I look forward to having my own one day. I remembered the look in Minis’s eyes when he gave me back my blessing box. He’s in love with me and doesn’t know it. He just thinks he likes me.
It was a little like taking his heart away from him. I carried it wrapped in my waist-scarf with the treasure. Just below my own heart. He didn’t want to release me. I don’t want to be released. But it’s the right thing to do. I got down from behind my ‘uncle’ by myself because I could see.
It was like being re-born. Ilesias, who had been sleeping, limp in Minis’s arms, woke up and stretched and complained and Kaita went to get him. He was getting so big, soon she’d have to get one of the boys to lift him up.
Minis and Gannara were unpacking our bags… just the ones Ailadas and I might need if we wished to refresh ourselves, and our animals were led to the stable cubby in the rock to be looked after.
We would be here several beads, just to rest the animals, and ourselves. Even though many could doze enroute not everyone could and a solid nap would help everyone deal with the dark. The dark inside our slumber is less frightening.
“Welcome to Arno, Sers and serinas.” A kadussas woman. For Kaita and I. She stood under one of the tiny sunlights, like fireflies, and my eyes found them very bright after the omnipresent darkness.
Frail sighted. We needed the light the same way we needed water. I’m not sure I have the strength to be blind. The rooms at Arno were low enough and big enough that they looked like slots in the rock, just barely cut for the tallest to not hit their heads and I was able to sit down on a chair that was not moving. The walls were rough and pink and gray and white and black stripes coiling around one another. Another kind of tapestry. I sat next to the rock and, surreptitiously, under the cover of the table, I slid off one of my gloves and tucked the hand behind me to touch the wall.
It was cool and rough against my palms and fingers, gritty and intense as a shock. I could feel the tiny angles and planes, a smoothness of some kind. I wondered if it was the flashes of flat stone that glittered like black glass I was feeling. The warmth of my hand sank away into the stone and cold seeped in. I pulled my hand away and tucked it safely back into my glove under the table. The feel of the stone stayed on my skin as if I had picked it up somehow and now held it inside my glove.
There was kaf and hot food, a simple stew. “How is it,” Ailadas asked. “That there is air to burn safely here, to heat food?”
The rest stop master, a thin man who looked less like a chef and more like an accountant, answered softly, as all kadussas seemed to. “The ser has it correctly. Dangerous air from fires may be safely guided outside here, on the breath of the mountain.”
The cubicles we were shown to were like a honeycomb in the rock. Tubes where people could lie down but not high enough to sit up. Not everyone could bear sliding into them and there were several bigger rooms where people could sleep, albeit with less privacy. I found it almost comfortingly close, like being wrapped in a warm quilt when cold.
I found myself reluctant to close my eyes on the lights, and slid into the bed with my head by the opening, so I could see them. I thought that drowsing part of the way here would make it hard for me to sleep but the dark somehow dragged my wakefulness away and my need for deeper sleep pulled my eyes shut.
I was awakened by two things. Ilesias, in the tube bed above me, singing a nonsense song to his toy and faintly, under that, a woman out at the hospice opening pleading with her husband.
“…don’t please. Don’t make me go back into the dark. Please, please. No. Husband… I’m begging you…” I couldn’t hear his response, just the soothing rumble of his voice and the murmur of the kadussas… more than one. “I can’t. I can’t… husband, please…” I heard her weeping, softly at first but growing louder.
“Sera, please, sit. Have a warm cup of kaf.” I heard someone say, and her weeping desperation growing softer. I remembered from the little talk… just a quick mention, that if one panicked part way through and either attempted to run into the dark, or go back, the porters would administer something to calm you. In extreme cases they would put you to sleep. I hoped they would do this for the poor woman. She needed to see light, not darkness.
I tested my own feelings, and closed my eyes to call up images of sunlit hills. I was all right, though I could imagine the enormous bulk of the mountain over us. I would rather this, than go through another pass. I would rather give my guidance over to a blind man than watch more men and horses slip and fall. I think Mahid would never like to take this route. They would have to give up too much of their control into another’s hands.
I slid out of my bed and found the kadussas woman there with a basin of cool water for me to wash. Today, or tonight, I had no idea other than the bead clock by the big main door, which it was. It didn’t matter. We’d head on to Tal airshaft next. It felt like night.
Then the Fisanian and the last Safussifan. It seemed forever. I would be a tiny grub burrowing through the mountain, crawling through the hair-thin needle hole in the bolt of cloth.
Minis wasn’t saying much, he was playing his part so well. He and Gannara had us all ready to go, well before Ser Itzan’s entourage dragged themselves out of the beds. I had no idea why those men insisted on speaking and laughing so loudly and I made myself smile at them, even as I wanted to kick them to make them all shut up. They almost hurt my ears. Being without my eyes for so long had made everything else more sensitive.
I had them put the ladies' saddle on my mare and insisted that Minis ride her and carry me. I don’t think he minded that much. In the dark I could lay my cheek, very properly, against his back and no one would see or comment, even if they could see. He smelled good. Warm. A little musky, almost like baking bread.
“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.”