“What is wrong with you?” he roared as black circles danced before his eyes.
He heard a muffled sob and watched as the girl quickly reached for the water jug. Gasping in pain, she poured the cool liquid over a giant welt that had formed on her hand. She shook with the pain and gingerly rapped her hand in a clean bandage from her bag. She looked up at Tarek in defense and suspicion.
“I’ve never seen the… Big light in the sky before,” she spoke at long last still tense as if waiting for him to prey on her weakness.
“The sun?” his eyebrows shot up.
“Is that what you call it?” he nodded, “I was born in complete darkness. Your light is only heat and blindness,” she said as if accusing him.
“I find it healing and delightful,” he cooly replied, “In fact I think I would heal faster if I was in the light and not in this damp cave.”
A look of horror like nothing he had ever seen crossed her face. Her wild, blue eyes instantly darted to the curtain as if it would fall at his very words.
“It will have to come down eventually my little friend,” she looked back at him, “I cannot stay in here forever. How long have we been here anyway?”
“Four days- But you can’t leave now! You can barely stay awake for more than a few minutes.”
Tarek smiled, “Do not worry. By the time I am well enough to leave this place you will have retreated back into your beloved darkness.”
“You don’t observe your surroundings very well, do you? This cave is only big enough to hold us. There is no darkness to retreat into.”
Tarek’s head snapped around to see that she was right. Reaching out his left hand he touched the very back wall with his fingertips. This wasn’t right… How did she get here?
“How did you come here if this is so small a cave? Surely you have not dwelt…”
The Cave Dweller read him like a book, “What’s wrong?”
Tarek glared, “How did you come here?” his voice was deadly even.
The girl shifted uncomfortably, her eyes straying from his, “This is a form of punishment practiced by my People.”
Her straightforward answer clearly wasn’t what he expected, “You’re a criminal?”
“You do not know my People, so you cannot understand my exile.”
Tarek didn’t care for this reply. Crossing his arms with some pain, his intrusive stare speared her, “Then help me understand.”
It was not a request, it was a demand. She could play this game too, “I will answer one of your questions, if you will answer one of mine.”
Tarek held back the impulse to grin and instead tried to sound disinterested, “If it cannot be helped.”
The Cave Dweller grinned, “I shall go first. What are those tall things that burned?”
“Trees?” Tarek’s brows rose again.
“The tall things? That touch the sky?”
“Yeah those are trees.”
“What are trees?”
Tarek huffed. This girl knew nothing. He could tell her anything and she would believe it!
“The trees are plants- You know what plants are, right?”
“Oh, yes. But plants are normally small and weak.”
“Well on the surface we have giant plants. In fact the trees belong to my people. We climb them. We live in them.”
“No, it’s my turn to ask a question. Let’s start with an easy one: your people, who exiled you, what are they called?”
Now the girl looked at him like he was the clueless one, “The People,” she answered.
“Yes. What are your people called?”
“The Free People of the Cruz,” he said with pride.
“That’s very a strange name,” she said with a smirk.
“It is better than most,” his sarcasm was clear, “So your ‘People’ live in caves?” she nodded, “In complete darkness? Why? Haven’t they ever heard of fire? Or why don’t they just come back to the surface?”
“My People believe only death resides above, which judging by what I have seen isn’t untrue. Though our darkness is not like yours. I can see through your darkest shadow. To me it is a bright as flame,” she smiled, “Now, how many Cruz are there? Are you the only people up here?”
“No,” Tarek yawned, “There three tribes, but us Cruz mainly deal with the Foul.”
“The Foul, these were the people you were fighting?”
“It’s my turn,” Tarek’s eyelids started to droop, “What’s your name?”
The Cave Dweller started and then smiled again, “Serene.”
“Yes, that’s it. What’s your name?”
“Tarek son of Warn, of the house of Drain. Son of the Free People of Cruz, but you may call me Tarek.”
“Tarek,” she tested the word on her tongue, “Very strange,” she whispered as the boy fell back asleep.
Serene occupied herself while Tarek slept by exploring the surface as much as she could during the night. She could never go too far from the cave in case Tarek needed her or the sun started to rise. And everything she discovered only created new questions for Tarek to answer. The moon fascinated her the most. It was so bright and the stars were so wonderful. They reminded her of the glow worms that inhabited her People’s main cavern. It’s low laying ceiling was simply covered in six inch glow worms. And they all glowed a different color. If the worms were frightened they would swarm and melt the skin off the aggressor. Their slime could metal through even the thickest metal or stone. Just like everything else in the Deep, they were dangerous. Her family should have remembered that. Three years ago she had been chosen. Her father had said that of the entire family she was the bravest. That she would be the one to protect them, when the time came. Does he still believe that?
On one of these nights of quiet reflection the present was brought back to the fore front of her mind. She was sitting upon a flat stone just a short ways from the cave, when she heard heavy foot falls behind her. Turning sharply, she peered into the darkness and saw as clear as day, three massive men walking through the forest. It was as if they were looking for something. Her pulse quickened as she realized they were nearing the cave. Without thinking much about her own safety, Serene let out a long sharp, scream before darting into the trees. Needless to say the men chased after her and were about to catch her, when she suddenly stopped disappearing into the shadows. Though her pursues slowed down they didn’t stop. They kept chasing a phantom deeper into the woods.
After Serene was sure the danger had past, she tried her best to double back in a silent, graceful fashion. But her efforts were wasted, Tarek had heard her long before she was even near him. As she entered the cave, he kicked out her legs from underneath her and pinned her to the ground, a sharpe stone pressed against her throat.
“What were you doing? Leading your Foul comrades here?” he hissed.
“Get off me,” Serene said calmly, too calmly.
Tarek only pressed the rock harder against her skin, “Answer me! Are you working with the Foul?”
“I know nothing of the Foul, remember?”
“Then why did you scream?”
“Three men were nearing the cave. I screamed to save you. I was afraid they might find you.”
Tarek’s grip weakened as doubt flickered through his eyes, “What kind of men?”
“Get off of me and I will tell you,” she commanded. Tarek hesitated, but eventually obeyed. As Serene sat up, her back and neck screamed from the pain of being slammed to the floor. Still it could have been worse… He could have just killed her. Maybe he was more healed than she had thought.
“The three men were big,” she began, backing up to the cave’s damp wall, “and they were fast. They wore loose woven tunics and didn’t carry any weapons. They seemed to be searching for something.”
“Foul,” the word was bitter in Tarek’s mouth, “And you say they were nearing the cave?”
“Actually they were on top of it. So when I screamed to draw their attention I saved your life… again.”
“And you woke me up,” he stated simply.
“Pardon me?” Serene glared.
“We have to get out of here, before the Foul find us. How many days have we been hiding?”
“Seven. Why? Who are the Foul?” she asked seemingly unconcerned.
Tarek huffed, “I have neither the time nor the inclination to answer all your questions Cave Dweller.”
“The Foul are the other tribe that your people are fighting against. But why?”
“Because they invaded our land. Our forest.”
“The trees! They invaded our home, so we had to fight them off,” Tarek tried to keep his temper from boiling over, but every moment they tarried made their lives more dangerous.
“But why would the Foul invade?”
“I will answer all of your questions later when we are far from here,” Tarek answered as he used the wall to stand. He grunted at the terrible pain, but refused to collapse again. He’d wasted enough time here.
“You are still too weak-“
“Enough woman,” he warned through clenched teeth, “Run out and find me something I can use to steady myself.”
“This is ridiculous-“
“Be quick!” Tarek roared.
Serene ducked out into the quite night and after making sure there was no one around, she creeped a crossed to the creek. She quickly passed the charred remains of Tarek’s brother and then stooped over the half brunt, decaying Foul brute. Reaching down, she yanked free the spear from his abdomen and even though the spear head was missing, she knew it would make a perfect staff. Rushing back into the cave, she presented the prize to Tarek. A sick look crossed his face as he instantly recognized it, but he took it anyway. After all he needed it.
“Now we must do something about you,” he said, looking her top from bottom.
Serene looked down at herself. She was clothed plainly in the garb of her People: black boots and pants with a tunic that offered her arms no protection.
She saw his point, but was still shocked, “You plan to travel in the day?”
“I plan to make the best time we possibly can,” he replied. He looked about them at their supplies, which were none and finally huffed. He slipped off his own shirt, revealing a tightly woven banged underneath and then he slipped his gigantic garment over her tiny frame. It covered everything.
“Well it certainly smells,” Serene said, wrinkling her nose.
“I’ll just go out wash it, shall I?,” he replied as he tightened the collar and cuffs, so they wouldn’t slip and expose her skin to the sun, “Keep your hood up and,” he ripped a strip of cloth off the bottom of the shirt, “tie this around your face.”
“Brilliant. What about my hands?” she asked, holding up her white digits.
“Keep them in your pockets.”
“Okay,” she said sarcastically, “And my blindness?”
“Simple,” he grabbed one of her arms, “I’m going to lead you… But first give me your hands,” he solemnly held out both of his.
Serene looked down at them curiously, but finally slipped her tiny hands into his giant ones, which quickly closed around them, engulfing them. Next Tarek kissed each palm and recited some strange ritual, “Serene of the People twice you have saved my life and now I owe you a debt, which I can never repay. But here, as the trees and the stars as my witness, I swear Libia Sora to you, who has the highest courage.”
Serene stood in shocked silence. Never had she seen such seriousness in a man’s face and the fact that she had no idea what had just happened between her and the Surface Dweller wasn’t helping anything. One thing she knew; she wouldn’t have to worry about Tarek anymore.
To seal the promise, Tarek kissed each hand again, before dropping them and grabbing up her satchel, “Let’s move.”