“You’ve grown,” the old woman says. I try to remember her name. All the old women were “grandma” when I was here before. Did she have a husband?
I look down at the ground, which is silly. It’s so dark in here. There will be lights deeper in the caverns, of course, far away from the entrance so no one could see from the outside. And why should I be embarrassed anyway? Of course I’m bigger. They kicked me out a long time ago.
Kaynie shoves her way through the crag and stumbles into the cave beyond. I catch her before she can fall on the rough stone floor. She leans into me just a moment before pulling away. Then she pulls close again.
“You have brought a friend, Aydrik?” the woman asks.
“I’m not his friend. We just meet,” Kaynie answers. She answers really fast. And she’s still pressing against me.
“Ah.” What does that mean? Why can’t women just say what they mean?
Eli steps through with confidence. “We are all here, Mother Tann. We should go deeper.”
“Are you cold, little Eli?”
“I think our guests could use the warmth.”
“And so could you!” She cackles a little laugh before I hear her shuffling away into the black. “This way, this way! Of course you could probably run along here without a guide, couldn’t you, Aydrik? You were always poking your nose outside during the day, wanting to see what was out there. Did you ever find your fish at the floor of the Scar?”
I feel the rest of my face heat up like the cut on my cheek. “There aren’t any fish anymore.”
“But you didn’t know that then!” She cackles again.
We turn a corner, and then another. Kaynie’s real quiet and leaning into me. I put an arm around her. It feels weird. I pretend that she’s Tala, and it’s not that bad.
Finally, around the edge of a corner, we see some light. Another corner, it gets brighter. A final corner, and the tunnel broadens into a comfortable cavern. The air is very stale, but it’s warmer. A handful of men litter the room in various states of sleep. Most of them rest on threadbare cots, but two have chosen to use the bare floor.
Eli gestures to a cot in the corner. “Aydrik, you are welcome to sleep here. Kaynie, Mother Tann will guide you to the women’s quarters so you will be safer.”
Kaynie pulls tighter against me. “I’d rather stay with Aydrik.”
Grandma chuckles. “Not a friend?” She gazes into my face. “Why, Aydrik, you have grown. I see the beginnings of a beard. And…” She looks a little too closely. I try turning away, but it’s too late.
“Eli. He has the beginnings of an infection.” She speaks quick, business-like.
“Kaynie, get away from him. Aydrik, step back into the tunnel.”
“I’m fine,” I protest. They’re not listening.
Kaynie scuttles sideways, looking at me. “You said you slipped on a rock.”
Grandma comes closer. She grabs me by the jaw with cold claws. She pulls my face even with hers. “I don’t think it was a rock, was it, Aydrik?”
I try to answer, but Eli interrupts, “It doesn’t matter for now. If he’s infected, we need to get the healer here.”
The men who were resting have all begun to stir. One stands. “Prin is on the other side of the Pits, but I can run to get her.”
“Go, Vlad. Hurry back.”
I shake my face, but grandma has me too tight in her grip. “Luke?” she asks. One of the men – I see that he’s actually about my age, so not really a man. Well, maybe. I don’t know. He’s about my age, anyway. But he stands. “Go get me Sareh. She needs to learn how to deal with this,” grandma continues.
“Where is she?”
“She lives with her brother. Pit seventeen. Third spiral, second hatch. Go!”
The boy – the man – whatever – is off in a flash.
Eli comes close. “You knew you had this,” he breathes.
“We will deal with that later,” grandma says.
“If he’s got plague, and he gives it to us – ”
“Yes, I know, but it’s done.”
Eli glares at me. “You swore to do no harm.”
I can’t match his eyes.
Grandma finally lets my jaw go. “Follow Eli to the quiet caves.”
As I turn, I see Kaynie. She’s backed away. There’s a tear coming down her face.
Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. We weren’t friends anyway. I was just trying to help some girl. And I guess I helped her. I got her to safety.
Even if I might have given plague to the whole group that was going to give her safety.
Oh, I don’t have plague anyway. It’s not that bad.
And then my cheek flashes with heat and the room goes dark.
I guess I passed out.
That’s probably a bad sign.
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