The reek of the entrance greeted us before we caught sight of the rusty, tired glow from the broken stone doors. Burnt wool, burnt meat … I thought of the feud and swallowed acid. Against sense, we ducked into the full unmoving mass of it, out of the clean carnivorous wind. The sound of our boots thumped clearly, nearly masking the moan, more a heavy breath than any real sound, from the young dwarf. I didn’t dare try to comfort him.
Where could all the chunks of rock have come from? We climbed over them, our scarves festooning our arms, and I peered up into the dim shadows of the roof; no answer. The edges were sharp, fresh, and I had no desire to take off my gloves. Smoldering bits of timber lay here and there, ready to take the sole off an unwary boot.
Deep inside the hill, the youngster stopped, and called into the darkness of a tunnel to one side of the still-lit main one. After a moment, a woman stepped out, with eyes I’d last seen in the mirror nearly half a year ago. My stomach twisted, and I was aware of a dim rage, but I kept silence. She gazed on Dval with a bleak, bleak acceptance. His eyes dropped, and then he fell to one knee, bowing his head … baring his neck, in fact, unwrapping the scarf, and curling down his head. The air in my lungs turned to stone as I waited for her response; what had he done, that they blamed this on him? That he blamed himself? There was a knife in her hand; she brushed the hair from his neck, and laid the blunt edge of the steel against it. He waited for a moment longer, then looked up, and held out his hand. She dropped the hilt of the knife into it, raised him to his feet, and led him off into the darkness. The kid snorted, and reached for my hand.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you trip over anything,” he said slowly, only the dregs of his anger in his voice.
Within moments of our entering the tunnel, the kid – still didn’t know his name – hauled me around a sharped-angled corner, and then around another one. Even the faint glow we could have had from the entrance was cut off. I could feel my eyelids pulling back, my eyes starving for light, and squeezed them shut. It made no practical difference, but I felt a trifle better. I concentrated on the angles we were turning, the slope of the ground under my feet, and not shrieking from sheer nervousness.
Twice I felt a hole in the pressure against my right ear, and once like that on my left. We turned in at the second tunnel on the left, finally leaving the mucky smoke-smell behind. I could feel a whisper of air on my face, and the kid speeded up to keep pace with our leaders.
I heard the cavern before the light from it smacked my eyelids. It was the stifled sobbing you do when you’re trying not to cry, you’ve got your jaw set against it, and it happens anyway. It was a low, very quiet sound, and all the muscles of my back were locking up, all the tendons in my legs starting to blather about distance and direction, and my lungs were squeezing shut in a futile attempt not to let me hear.
I don’t think I want to describe what I saw. It isn’t necessary, I don’t want to pass out ideas to crazy folk, and why should you have nightmares if I can have them for the both of us? I’ll just say that for a solid month we tended to people, buried people, comforted people — cried with people. I learned how to cope with very little air; my lungs just never did want to expand. But I even learned to sing on a quarter-lungful, rocking dwarf babies and little kids in my skinny arms.
You do what you can.