Part 12 – Words and Worms
The Star Witch smiled. Jala found this unsettling. With Kru, as with any witch, there was a knowing behind the smile, a wry and prideful intelligence which suggested she was privy to a great many things that you were not. The Star Witch spread her hands wide, wind caught up in the hall in which the four plus mascot stood. Lights twinkled in the darkness, swelled and flashed and spiralled around them. Images in the mists of the wind, images of the past, began to play out before the bewildered warrior and her little friends. Jala saw the Star Witch, young and beautiful and…
“Kru! Enough!” The interruption came from the dwarf. “Always such a show with you to tell the simplest of stories.”
“You think you can do better do you?” the Star Witch taunted.
“I think I can do simpler. This is a dwarf hall. We tell stories with words.”
“Fine,” Kru said. “Use your words.” There was some amount of patronisation in her tone.
“Thank you,” Avatkch said, choosing to ignore any insult meant. “Like I said, it’s a enough simple story. Kru and I…” The others leaned into the dwarf, an easier task for Freya than it was for Jala, awaiting an explanation. “We were lovers!”
Jala, being an adult and trained from a young age to control her emotions – a hunter must always be in control – restrained herself to the merest flick of a dubious eyebrow. Freya, being younger and less worldly wise, could not resist allowing a short, heartfelt laugh to escape her belly. She immediately clasped her hands to mouth in embarrassment when she saw she was the only one.
“And what is so funny about that, little girl?” the dwarf asked Freya.
“Well, it’s just that you’re a little…” Freya stretched for an appropriate word that might get her out of this without causing too much offence. Avatkch moved towards her, hands on hips, a scornful and cautionary look on his face.
“Hmmmm?” he drew out to inexplicable length.
“Beardy?” came Freya’s attempt.
chimed in with brutal honesty, hoping to take the heat off the child a bit.
“Young?” This came from the Star Witch, who once again had that wry smile, which once again sent a shiver through Jala’s soul.
“Oi!” the dwarf puffed up with hurt pride, gesticulating with a fat, stubby finger towards the stoat. “That’s enough lip out of you. You’d do well to keep quiet and hidden in your little girl’s tunic!” Avatkch straightened up his chainmail and smoothed down his beard.
“Well, despite my being a beardy, midget, youngling what-the-stoat-said,” the dwarf said, unwilling to repeat Marek’s words in polite company, “It’s true! Is it not, Kru, dear?” The Star Witch nodded.
“But,” Freya began. “I mean… well… how?”
“Even I was young once,” the witch explained
“Ha ha! Yes you were!” Now the smile with meaning behind it was worn by the dwarf, but Jala was no less disturbed, although for altogether different reasons.
“Ahh, that was marvellous time,” Kru said “A true adventure. But this is a story for another time, perhaps for a successful spin off novel. For now, I feel we have dwelled too long.”
Avatkch agreed and led the way, and soon the group, probably better described as a mixed bag of nutty individuals, found themselves once more within the claustrophobic terror of the dwarfish tunnels. As they travelled, Avatkch could not resist relating the entire history of every chisel stroke on every wall of every tunnel they passed through. His talk might have been tedious, but it echoed beautifully through the network of underground passages, each reiteration making the facts less interesting and the tunnels seem more endless.
Freya began to tire quickly due to her age, and soon began to believe that there might truly be no end in sight to their dirty scrabbling. But with Marek chittering in her ear and pulling her on, she was not going to be the one to slow her friends down. Besides, the going was easiest for her, being the smallest of the group. The tunnels, despite appearing infinitely long and winding and complicated (she had no idea how Avatkch navigated them with such ease and speed, never a hesitation or a mistake, as far as she knew), were more than spacious enough for her to stand her full height and still have a clear foot of space above her head. As such, she managed to keep speed well with Avatkch and was at his heels all the way.
Jala, on the other hand, took up the rear and not through choice. As she stooped and struggled her way through the diminutive catacombs she experienced something she was not accustomed to, something she barely even had a name for. Envy. The dwarf, the child, the stoat, all were presented with no difficulty in traversing those cavernous depths. And the Star Witch? Jala could not even comprehend what she saw when she looked to the movements of Krung Nak To. Clearly her limbs moved, but that movement seemed entirely separate from whatever force propelled her forward. Clearly she was hunched over, just as Jala was. She would not fit in the tunnel otherwise. And yet, at the same time, she seemed to be stretched to her full height, proud and comfortable. The Star Witch glided along without effort, with total grace, and that drove Jala mad.
The warrior, Jala, was beginning to flag. She could feel the muscles in her back begin to tighten from the constant stoop that she was forced to endure. She hated herself for it, but she would soon need to stop. Jala stretched out her hand and opened her mouth. She had expected to hear words, something she had intended to say like “Wait,” or “Hold on.” Instead, she heard a rumble, distant and low and earth shaking. The dust on the walls shook loose and scattered a dark icing over the travellers. Jala might not have uttered the sound herself, but it still had the desired effect. Everybody stopped dead and listened.
Freya went to say “What is that?” but was halted by a raised hand from Avatkch.
“Wait,” the dwarf said. They waited, they knew not for what. The rumble came again, louder this time, small pebbles dislodged from their ancient nooks and scratched at the arms of the adventurers.
“No,” Avatkch said, turning his thoughts about. “Run!”
The dwarf pelted down the left of a fork that lay ahead of them, sloping upwards towards the surface, and the others wasted no time in following suit. They could see the worry in his eyes.
“What is it?” Freya shouted ahead to Avatkch as the thundering grew louder and the shaking stronger.
“Miner Worms!” the dwarf replied.
“They feel more major to me!” Jala chimed in, her voice carried easily by her strong lungs.
“No, no,” Avatkch explained. “Miner, like a dwarf! And no short jokes!” This he shot at Freya along with a cutting stare. Freya returned to him a practiced look of innocence. Butter would not have melted. “This way!” the dwarf concluded as he swiftly changed direction again at a crossing between tunnels, once more heading for the steepest incline, up and away to safety.
All the while the travellers ran the quaking grew more and more intense. Soon, larger rocks were beginning to fall around them, fractures started to appear in the walls and floor at their hands and feet. Freya thought she could hear the worms munching away at the rock around them. She tried to listen closer, to hear them, to better understand taking her concentration away from her flight for one crucial moment.
A large rock, practically an entire piece of the wall to her left, dislodged and fell against her left shoulder, knocking her to floor and winding her. Freya fell to her knees, her shoulder in agony, her world spinning, temporarily paralysed. A second boulder came free and tumbled down towards her. Freya could not have moved, even if she had been aware of her impending destruction. Fortunately for Freya, she had friends. Jala’s lightning reflexes moved her towards Freya before even Jala herself, her higher functioning self at least, was aware of precisely why. The warrior moved fast, but not quite fast enough. The rock came down hard on Jala’s hand crushing the bones within it. But, despite the intense, burning pain that shot through her body, her hand did not concern her. Jala’s thoughts were all with Freya. The warrior had managed to knock the girl far enough to secure her life, yet still the child screamed a hard and terrible cry. Jala searched quickly with her eyes for the source of Freya’s laments and was dismayed when she looked to her own ruined hand and saw underneath the torn and fractured leg of the child. Oh stupid, slothish creature! You were too slow, too useless, she chastised herself silently.
Ahead, the dwarf and the Star Witch tackled problems of their own. The final quake that had shaken the fateful rock down upon Freya and Jala opened up the world beneath Avatkch. First to sink was his heart, as for a moment he felt himself hover in midair, entirely unsupported by the rock below which had tumbled and cracked away into the deep abyss of the belly of the world. This feeling left him swiftly though, and he closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable oblivion which would end his fall. All of this occurred within a fraction of a heart beat, no time for the dwarf to truly react. And now that heart beat finished. As did another, and then another. Soon the dwarf began to feel dubious as regards to how long one could feel as though one were floating in midair before one was forced to face up to the fact that one could clearly fly. In this case, however, he was not the one. The Star Witch hovered above him, her hand gripped tightly onto the scruff of his chainmail. Slowly, she moved them both back to the safety of solid ground, gently placing her ex-lover back on the floor, with the care one might afford to an injured puppy.
This puppy showed no gratitude however, not a bark, not a lick, not even a nuzzle into the soft folds of Kru’s dress. For as he had floated gently back to Earth, he caught sight of the plight of his companions and wasted no time in racing to their aid. In seconds the expert hands of the dwarf had the rock off and away from the broken bodies of his new found friends. Freya continued to cry out in agony, wishing she might pass out from the pain, but every swoon was met with a new wave of intense pain which jolted her back into consciousness. Jala, more stoic, lifted herself up with her good arm and stared with dismay at the chasm that had opened up between the group and their escape route.
“With two good hands I might get us across,” she said. “But not like this.”
“I’m sorry,” Avatkch said. “I let my defences down for too long. The mental barrier you two experienced usually keeps them away.”
“It is not you fault,” Jala consoled the dwarf. “We should not have trespassed in your realm.”
“I never said it was my fault!” Avatkch was indignant. “It’s hers!” he yelled, thrusting a stubby finger at the Star Witch.
“What?” Jala asked. Kru did her best to mimic the innocent gaze Freya had managed so effortlessly earlier, but she lacked the purity of childhood, and the image she portrayed was distressingly unconvincing.
“Oh, don’t think for a moment that anything you do around her is by choice,” Avatkch explained. “Nothing happens near Kru that she didn’t want to happen long before it did.”
“Is that what you think?” the Star Witch thundered at the dwarf.
“It’s what I remember,” Avatkch replied.
“Well, we shall see. Freya, be a dear and stop you screaming for long enough to pass me your stoat.” Marek responded himself, fortuitously, as it was unlikely the child would stop crying any time soon, and slid his sleek body into the grip of the Star Witch.
“What are you doing?” Jala asked.
“I shall enchant this stoat, large enough to jump across, he will carry you. You four can make your escape.”
“Us four?” said Jala.
“I shall stay,” the Star Witch explained, “And hold back the worms.”
Avatkch’s head dropped at the words of his lover. For a moment he could not speak for embarrassment. Finally, he said, “I am so sorry, Kru. Thank you.”
The Star Witch nodded and held her hands over the little animal. A bright light began to emanate from between her fingers and around the body of the stoat. As Jala watched, the brightness swelled and engulfed Marek until Jala was forced to turn her eyes away. Once she felt the heat of the magic come off the back of her neck, she looked back. And there was Marek, in the hands of the Star Witch, still stoat sized.
“Wow,” Jala mocked. Kru elected to ignore this. She was far too focussed on what lay in her hands to care for the petty sarcasm of the warrior.
“This stoat,” she said quietly, almost to herself, “Has been enchanted before.”
“What?” Avatkch said.
“I can do the magic, make him large, but it will take more than petty sorcery. This will require blood magic, bone magic.”
“What does that mean?” asked Jala.
“One of you,” the Witch explained, “Must make a sacrifice!”
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