Wendell walked quickly up the slope by the stream, stepping carefully over the stones on the bank. The soldiers clinked wearily after him, as did Garim and Hangs. Eventually he reached a small embankment of rock, which had a cave-like opening where water poured out. He could hear the water burbling far into the blackness.
“We must go in there,” Wendell said assuredly.
Hangs looked into the darkness, his face emotionless.
“We should probably set up camp for the night for now, the wolves won’t wait for us when it gets dark first,” he said, a bit of his old humor creeping into his voice.
The task of “setting up camp” was something Wendell had never had to do before, certainly not with a group of soldiers. He always simply went to sleep under the miller’s wagon, where there was old straw to lie on, and somehow it was strange to be in the forest at dusk, so far away from there.
When he started gathering branches, Hangs stopped him and said he had orders that Wendell should “save his strength for the journey”.
So he was left to listen to the soldiers foraging, and the distant cry of a wolf or two, and to stare into the mouth of the opening, trying to see if there was any hint of another side, or mostly just trying not to be impatient and bored while staring aimlessly at a black void. At last the soldiers had made a decent camping fire and some piles of leaves and brush on the ground.
The sky soon darkened tremendously, and they were lying around the fire, the soldiers wrapped in their cloaks and sleeping. Wendell was vastly sore and tired from riding, but he found it difficult to sleep. Garim lay on his side, asleep in his traveling mantle, and one weary soldier held watch, looking patiently into the forest.
Wendell faintly heard voices. He must have fallen asleep. The voices were serious and busy discussing something. Slowly he opened his eyes to the frozen forest air and saw Hangs and some other soldiers standing in a cluster, in the firelight. One of them saw Wendell awakening, glancing at him with a wary look. He sat up now, and blinked, trying to wake up and figure out what was going on.
“... came all by itself, without any pack members, and didn’t make a single noise. It wasn’t the least bit wary, and never even whimpered when I stabbed it.”
Now he recognized Hangs’ voice, low and deadly.
“... care what it was. From now on, two soldiers will stand watch. I can’t go back to the king and tell him that his pet was eaten by rabid wolves.”
He looked around for the first time now. The mouth of the cave was still there, with the stream gurgling out of it, just like before. Hangs walked over to him, as did Garim and the soldiers.
“You were almost wolf chow last night, boy,” Hangs said with a sardonic somberness.
He had no reply, but was thankful now to have Hangs and his best men around, even if they were so coldblooded and harsh. In all his meager plans he hadn’t thought about defending himself while sleeping, and he tried to push away endless images of a wolf sneaking through the darkness after him, that seemed more real in the freshness of morning twilight than they would as a fireside story.
At dawn they cleaned up the campsite, after a breakfast of dried meats and cheeses, as well as strips of an unknown meat that were roasted over the embers with a few sticks, giving off a potent smell. One of the soldiers handed him a piece, and as he chewed warily, he was informed that “wolf isn’t all that bad, eh?” He decided not to eat the rest.
“Which way now?” Hangs asked plainly, looking about.
“We should go in there,” Wendell said assuredly, pointing into the black mouth of the cave, which poured water down into the stream.
Hangs seemed to be thinking it over.
“An opening like that no doubt leads to an underground spring,” one of the men said. “There is no point in exploring. Before we reach much further, the cave will be neck-deep in water.”
“He’s right. Let’s move on.”
Wendell stood, and stared at the blank opening. It wasn’t large or small, but rather round. Water poured in a discordant rush from it to the streambed a few feet below.
“I... I think we should go in there,” he asserted.
Hangs gestured towards the cave.
“Very well, you first.”
Wendell walked into the streambed, being very careful on all the slippery stones. Eventually, he reached a hidden dip forming a small pool under the opening, and waist-deep iciness rushed steadily around, dragging him backwards. He felt with one hand in the waterfall and reached a protruding rock, but the unceasing torrent pushed on his hand and made it difficult to get a steady grip.
Painstakingly, he felt a ledge with his other hand, and dug his fingers into it tightly. Now he pulled himself up, and put one foot tentatively on something, perhaps a twisting root... his handholds were squeamish and slipping, but gently, gently, he climbed...
He fell backwards with a wail and splashed into the shallow water.
Soon he was trembling with chill and fatigue, as he carefully chose each stone to climb on, his fingers numb and shaking as they grasped the quivery stones. It was maddening! The opening was right there, just a few feet in front of him, and all he had to do was climb a few silly rocks.
He always imagined that perhaps he would have to fight some horrible creatures, and he bristled with eager fury at the thought, but he never expected such an inane, senseless chore... what was the point of it?
As he climbed, thoughts went randomly through his mind... “why am I so sure the entrance is here? Because of some flowers? A stream? Why would that be a clue? But if it is a clue, who left it there? Maybe Karen dropped some seeds!! But how would they sprout so quickly? And what about the sunshine? It doesn’t make any sense!! Oh, watch that left hand... easy... easy...” Splash!! He got up and tried again.
He had made it almost to the top again... he reached up and clung desperately to the watery surface of the opening, his fingers wavering violently, but he concentrated on tightly, gently holding on... he closed his eyes, and took a deep, shuddery breathe. If someone, something had left clues for him, then he must be able to make it up. A tremor went through his soaked frame. Who could be able to leave such clues? He had no way to know if he could even trust them, whoever they were.
Horribly, slowly, he pulled himself up, his teeth clamped painfully, and reached inside... he felt a sharp rock jutting up, and eagerly grasped its raspy surface. He clambered in, and deep breaths of exhaustion came out, and he rested there for a while. But he couldn’t stop for long, he needed to reach the other side and dry off quickly...
Wendell crawled ahead, stopping every few seconds to reach ahead into the shapeless void and watch out for pieces of rock hanging from the ceiling. Soon the tunnel turned a corner, and he saw bright sunshine at the other end, which sloped upwards a bit. But he was too cold to yell anything back to anyone.
Crawling out now, he was too tired to even look around, and lay on the ground facedown, feeling the warm sunshine on all his soaked clothes. The grass was very soft, and smelled of rich, warm earth.
Finally, he got up and looked around. There was a clearing, and the stream continued to the right, onwards into some more trees, which were taller and different than the ones he had left behind.
He stooped and yelled into the tunnel.
“I’ve found the other side!! There’s some more trees here!! Hey!!”
He waited a little. There wasn’t a reply. He tried shouting a few more times, but soon ran out of voice and had to stop. Wendell sat down on the grass and looked around, more closely... the woods were rather peaceful here, and there was nothing unusual about them that he could see. The trees had leaves that were a slight bluish-green color, and spread their branches majestically into each other.
At another time, it would have been quite a comforting place, if someone else was with him and he wasn’t trying to find anything. But all the peacefulness made him want to do something, and he got up and walked around, trying to form a kind of plan. But the plans didn’t seem to get that far.
Something else was crawling out of the opening... it was Garim! He wheezed and threw himself down on the ground by the stream, his hair dripping softly into the dirt.
“Are you alright??” he asked concernedly. Garim gave a grunt of agreement, and then clutched at the grass wearily.
Someone else began coming through as well, a soldier, who also flopped down onto the ground. Wendell waited, but no one else appeared.