The dim light cast its weak shaft upon the ancient floor. Even farther up, higher than my height, the ominous walls of the passage rose up. I rubbed my hand upon my knee and smelled blood, but it was only a scratch. I was sure by now that the sounds which I had been hearing were from Hum. “Al…ow” Sounded like Swallow. Perhaps Hum, too, had tumbled into the precipice and crawled, frantically searching for safety, into this musty, sheltered shaft. I stood up, conked my head on the low roof, and dropped my dagger on the musty ground. A spark momentarily shot up.
The floor was made of flint.
The steel of my weapon – the refuse scattered under my bare feet – light! vision! Hum!
Wildly, I dug my fingers through the gravel shards, raking up what burnable matter I could find. I rubbed the blade of my weapon across the ground, shielding the weak sparks from the cold of the cavern. At last, the light caught. Fire spurted up from the ground, and I screamed and jumped away.
Rubbing my bruised head, which I had so foolishly bashed once again on the roof of the cavern, I knelt and examined the pale, white hand which loomed so dangerously near the fire.
I knelt down quickly and took his hand, which was as cold as death itself. His ice blue eyes blinked with sheer terror, and he stuttered, trying to form words. I saw him turn his head towards me.
“F-find Ibis.” He was able to stammer.
“No way. Are you hurt?” He shook his head weakly.
“Just starving. P-please. Find food and go get Ibis. We can’t let her d-die.”
“Why not?” He didn’t respond. “Ok…fine. Just, don’t move.”
I quickly got up. My mind finally started to accept the fact that I had found Hum, and I wasn’t entirely lost in the woods any longer. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. Now I still had to find food, Ibis, and Da. Why was Ibis in on this? She had used to be so popular, for no apparent reason except that she was exceptionally obedient, but in that trait all of us citizens of the Clan were alike…
There must be something about Ibis that was special, but what? Hum had seemed desperately agitated that I find her, to make sure that she didn’t die. Ibis had always been a favorite child of the Elder clannies, but the clannies mattered nothing to me. The evil Elders might as well be the dirty village streets, streets of a past long forgotten, streets which I crunched between my bare toes, streets which Ibis walked with the spoiled air of royalty –
Could Ibis – could she – was it possible that she was the clan princess, the pet raised up by the Elders to mother Chief Fal’s grandchildren? The future first Chieftess, the supposedly all-powerful, whom the Elders sometimes talked about in whispered voices? Would I, the common and dirt poor, beaten and shamed hut-child work side by side with the most valuable person of my generation? Would she be upset that I had stolen her faithful follower, practically servant, Hum? Could we three youth work together to lead a rebellion, a new generation?
Yes, we could. There was no doubt about it.
Difficult? Yes, of course. Overpowering the clannies’ self-centered desires once and for all would be very, very hard. I, Swallow Frond, along with Hum and Ibis could all die. But impossible? No. There was always the chance that, bravely, we would survive and the whole plan of rebellion would work splendidly… Together, we could overcome….
Sharply, I heard a sudden fragrance of music, the quiet morning twitter of birdsong.
“Could it be morning already, Hum?” I wondered aloud, rushing to the front of the cavern. There I immediately started to try to find crevices in order to climb to the surface of the forest. I placed my hands on the small holes set in various areas over the large rock. As soon as I was high enough, I also realized that I was starving.
The rations in the clan village were awful; normally we only were allowed to have two meals a day, and then it was only very small portions of vegetables and stew. Of course, the day before, after I’d been whipped I had mostly lost my appetite and not eaten most of my portion. Looking back, I realized that that was a idiotic decision because for the most part I knew what was ahead.
When I reached the surface, I pulled myself up, my muscles shaking, and walked around the clearing, trying to find some berries or perhaps a wounded animal.
I was in luck! About two paces from the tree where I had spent the night was a very fat squirrel. He appeared to be wounded; he wasn’t moving at all, a bit like a statue. I moved up behind the rodent and he still didn’t even twitch.
I moved quickly. It disgusted my soul that I was killing another creature; I had always had that ache whenever I took the life of another animal. But we were starving, and of course our cause was worthy to kill at least one squirrel to keep us alive. I gathered up the body and took it to the cave.
Hum seemed much more lively after feasting on roasted squirrel. In the firelight he didn’t appear hurt, just exhausted. After quickly scrounging up every shred of meat on the squirrel (except for a bit which we kept for Ibis) we set out again.
The mid-day sun burned on our shoulders, but we didn’t notice. We were far too distracted with the task at hand. We searched and searched for Ibis but to no avail. She seemed to have disappeared into thin air. After almost three hours of searching, we stopped for a rest.
We stopped directly in front of a clear stream. The water ran free and seemed to wave in the sunlight. The reflection was slightly blinding. After clambering down a bank to its deep waters, I knelt to drink. Hum did the same. We scooped water into our hands and poured it gladly into our thirsty mouths. The liquid refreshed us more than I can describe. As I enjoyed the serenity of the temporary respite, I suddenly felt Hum’s hand on my arm.
“Don’t move,” He whispered into my ear. My heart seemed to freeze. Slightly ignoring his command, I slowly lifted my head to view what he saw.
The worst possible thing we could have run into.