A gouged landscape in browns and dark greens stretched out before a bald eagle in flight, with here and there the silver glint of a brook. The all-seeing eyes of the lordly bird scanned for activity, finding not a hair out of place, but it was patient. The high winds took it far and wide as it ranged the Doras Massif and all its woodlands.
Out of the underbrush rushed two figures. The eagle had already set in descent, but halted when it saw they were human children. It flew off to find a thermal, screeching its annoyance. She needed mice, not men.
The two boys reached the clearing in a clatter of wooden sticks, the one boy driving the other backwards. The drover was taller, but with a gaunt look to him. The smaller boy cursed and spat as the sticks moved back and forth, receiving more blows than he dealt.
‘Yield,’ the taller jeered, his high-pitched voice scaring a flock of birds.
‘Never,’ the other replied. ‘Heroes don’t give up. Especially not against long-legged monsters.’ They continued with renewed vigour and laughter.
The forest clattered to the sounds of their skirmish. The tall youth slashed in wild abandon, but had a better reach; the smaller one was fast and precise, dodging and parrying, ducking through brush cover and under overhanging branches from the pine trees. Waxy needles would trickle and stick onto their skin with every swing of a stick. Sometimes a stick would break; then there would be a wild scramble for a new weapon, coating hands and garments with all the other dirty treasures a forest harbours.
After what seemed like hours of wild fun, the boys entered a dead patch of the forest. The pines and firs had a greyish bark and coarse brown needles covered the ground. Deeper in, only stunted stumps stood, leafless and with broken branches. It was a graveyard of trees, and animals scarcely ventured there. The two fought their way through the heart of it, leaping onto tree stumps or fallen logs.
‘I’m king of the hill! You better bow before me, barbarian!’ Tycho hollered, stick raised high.
‘King of the hollow, more like,’ Stephanos swiped at the little boy’s legs.
‘King of your hollow head!’ Tycho brayed with laughter and sprang right at Stephanos, who stepped back and held up his stick. When the two sticks collided and Stephanos recoiled farther, his foot sank through the cover of needles and branches. With a surprised yelp, he thrashed down into a sinkhole a meter across, taking a deluge of branches and needles with him.
Tycho stopped and stared, stick still raised. ‘Steph? Gingerly he approached the hole – much deeper than expected – and heard a soft groaning. ‘Steph, are you alright?’
‘Why don’t you come down and find out!’
‘Is it deep?’
‘I think I broke my leg,’ Stephanos moaned.
The hole was a surreal, gaping pit of blackness amidst the carpet of dead brown needles, like an eagle’s eye. With all the old branches piled up around the edge, Tycho couldn’t see a way down. ‘So, deep?’
‘You have to come down and help me, Ty. This is your fault, you know.’ Some more moaning ensued and a crackle of branches suggested movement.
‘My fault? You’re big and stupid, that’s what!’ but somewhere inside a little voice blamed Tycho. It had happened again, like before, when Father had gotten hurt.
‘Fornicating Furies, Tycho, come down here! Help me.’ The note of panic worried Tycho.
‘Okay, give me a second. Zeus!’ he cursed when his first step nearly sent him sprawling head forward. Foot by foot he climbed down on the outside of the pit, poking his stick ahead of him, whacking away at rotten branches.
‘Will you stop that? I need my head too!’ it came from down below.
‘There’s too many sticks in the way. Hang on!’ He poked a hole and could see dark rocks glimmering in the noon sun. The rock made the pit no less dark, but it looked solid. His next footfall was on a stony outcrop. The thin leather shoe first caught hold, then slithered out from under him.
With another rumble of crashing branches, Tycho slid down the slick rock incline, fearing for the longest half-second in his life that he would land on top of Stephanos.
‘Smooth,’ came the familiar voice in hollow echoes, it sounded remarkably low and manly all of a sudden.
‘Where are you?’ The light filtered through a sieve of darkness.
‘Here, follow my voice, there’s a passage.’
‘We shouldn’t go deeper. We haven’t got any light,’ Tycho stammered. His eyes peered into the gloomy darkness to adjust and slowly he could make out the hunched silhouette of Stephanos.
‘I can see light beyond the bend. Come on.’
Together they scrambled through the narrow passage slick with standing water and covered in pine needles. There was no way for even Tycho to stand upright. Their dirty breeches gashed and tore on the sharp rocks underneath the layer of needles. What remained got so dirty it wasn’t fit to be called rags.
After cussing the gods all the way, Stephanos made it to the light, massaging his leg and walking his fingers around a red gash.
‘Is it broken? Can you crawl?’ Tycho entered the beam of light coming from an irregular shaft reflecting on the dark stone. Grim lighting showed the passage lengthening ahead, but a hard feeling sank into Tycho’s chest when he noticed the lack of illumination.
‘We must be in one of the mines.’ Stephanos said, wincing as he moved his leg.
‘It must be,’ Tycho hesitated, hovering near Stephanos, watching his leg guiltily. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured.
‘Your leg, the pit. I- Sorry, Steph,’ he blurted.
‘Don’t you start whining; I’m in enough pain as is. Let’s just move on.’ His voice sounded nasal again, with a flicker of annoyance.
‘I’ll go first,’ Tycho said, crawling past Stephanos in a hurry.
‘My leg! Watch it!’
‘Sorry.’ Another pang of guilt hardened in Tycho’s gut.
Feeling ahead with his hands, the boy determined they could both walk upright from here on out, but as the light dimmed to darkness, the pace slowed to a hand’s length per second.
‘Wouldn’t there be lamps in a mine?’ Tycho asked, the sound muted by the claustrophobic space.
‘Of course not. They must take them back up.’
‘There aren’t any tools neither.’
‘They take those back up too, stupid.’
‘And these rocks are smooth. How do they get them like that?’
‘Stop asking stupid questions. This has to be a mine shaft. Just our luck to fall in one. These hills are rife with them like the lice in your hair,’ Stephanos groused.
Tycho walked on, blindly stumbling and feeling for other exits. Their footfalls were wet, hollow slaps on the dark stone and their breaths came in frightened little gasps.
‘Steph, I really don’t like this. Couldn’t we have tried to shinny up the pit? I don’t know where the exit is.’ There was no light anywhere now. There was no difference between eyes closed or opened and yet at times, a wall would shimmer darkly.
‘Don’t be a baby, Ty, we just have to follow the breeze. Follow the fresh air, my father always says. That was always good enough a reason to stay updraft from him. Now get a move on,’ he shoved Tycho halfheartedly forward.
‘Hey, I’ve still got my stick! You stop that,’ the small boy trilled.
‘Just let’s get home, yeah? Furies, you’re on edge. It’s just a little dark.’ And then he started yelling, ‘Tycho is a scaredy cat! Ty the tyke is scar-ed!’ Cruel echoes reverberated along the tunnels and Tycho actually hit the ceiling in his panic.
‘Stop! Stop that, stop!’ the boy whipped around his stick and smacked Stephanos on his right arm.
‘Ow! You bloody satyr. Give me that!’ They wrestled with the ends of the stick and soon a soft crack sounded louder than it should have been. Tycho hung on to his end of the stick, but Stephanos threw his down.
‘Move,’ Stephanos shoved Tycho again.
They went along the narrow tunnel for what seemed like ages until they reached a fork.
‘Left?’ Tycho asked.
‘Right, wet your finger and feel for yourself.’
They went into the right tunnel, no larger or smaller than the one before, though much more irregular and slanting slightly upwards. A little while later Tycho called a halt.
‘It’s wetter here. And the ceiling’s lower. You’ll have to crawl through, Steph.’
‘Why me? Aren’t you coming?’
Tycho gave a surprising laugh. The sound felt absurdly wrong. ‘I can go underneath easily. Don’t worry.’
Eventually, when the tunnel grew to walking size, Tycho stopped again.
‘It stops here.’
‘That’s impossible. You can feel the draught on your face,’ Stephanos’s anger flared. His ragged pants were sodden.
‘There’s a small hole and lots of rocks.’ Tycho felt around for some purchase, but the rocks were all quite large.
‘A cave-in. Hades!’
‘Shut up, idiot! Do you want to get buried alive?’
Remarkably, Stephanos did shut up. The walls shimmered occasionally and Tycho didn’t dare ask Stephanos if he noticed it too. He feared the dark god Hades himself would jump out of the wall and strangle them with hands cold as stone and eyes the colour of onyx.
‘Turn around. We’ll try our luck with the other tunnel.’
‘But that will likely bring us deeper into the mines!’ Stephanos quailed with sudden fear setting his voice to tremble childishly. His gangly body stooped and the shivering along his spine set his leg to pulsate painfully.
Tycho whispered, ‘It’s the only way.’
So they retraced their steps with a moist wind breathing down their necks. On several occasions Tycho turned around and thought he saw a fell, pulsating luminescence crawl through the stone like a snake beneath the stirring grasses. But he saw no burning eyes and felt no grasping hands, to his relief.
For many dark minutes that stretched into hours did the two stumble in the gloom. They chased down every whiff of air they could perceive, but everywhere they turned the tunnels were blocked or faded to small slits or ran with cold water that washed around their ankles. Necessity drove the two ever deeper and their fear of being quenched by the rocky hatred of Hades or one of his monsters was replaced by the rising waters and fear of drowning.
‘Shouldn’t we turn back?’ Stephanos asked eventually.
‘You’re asking me?’ Tycho almost laughed, but thought better of it as he waded after his taller companion. The water came to above his belly and was icy cold. At first, the chance to drink had overpowered for a few minutes both their fear and desperation, but it was past. Now all they could think of was the numbing cold.
‘Wait, I see something ahead.’
‘Really?’ The small boy eagerly looked beyond his companion’s back and saw the dimmest outline of a chamber ahead. The walls shimmered and eerie light danced on the black rock, but any light was welcome now. ‘Let’s go see!
They trudged on and soon heard the rush of falling water. The tunnel ended in a series of growing cascades that ran down to the bottom of an enormous cave, filled with a lake of stony still water. Small ripples traveled out from the waterfall, but lapped only a little way, queerly so, as if the water were lazy or deemed motion injurious.
At the edge of the lake, on a plateau near to the tunnel exit, stood a circle of standing stones, crumbled or crumbling, with a great stone coffin at the centre. New chills ran down the boys’ bodies as they beheld the cave and the dark altar. Like the mockery of a temple, the great space looked mean and menacing with stone formations standing as teeth or claws upright on and around the plateau, in the shallows and depths of the waters, and hanging with ill foreboding from the ceiling.
One small hope came to the two boys however when they saw that a small path led from the great stone to an archway in the far rock wall, and there the ground sloped up. They crawled carefully along slimy rocks onto the rock plateau and shook the water from their ragged clothes as well as they could.
‘What I wouldn’t give for a fire,’ moaned Stephanos, feeling chilled and weak from loss of blood.
Tycho held up the cracked end of his stick and mournfully thought of fire too. Only a little fire and heat would go a long way towards putting some courage back into his trembling hands, feet and heart.
With a terrible gust of wind, a low woosh and a flash of the centre stone a ways off, at the end of the stick a flame crackled to life. Stephanos turned in amazement as Tycho dropped the brand in awe and terror. The fire went out before the wood fell to the floor, but even faster than that came the cry and curse of the taller boy.
‘Fool! Craven! How did you do that? Why did you drop it!’ He stooped to pick up the stick, intending to horse-whip Tycho in his fury and panic, but at the touch of his fingers the branch blew steady as a torch again.
‘Impossible,’ they both said. Yet, as the light of the torch grew and spread all around them to cast shadows and light, the shimmering, eerie veins of blue and green light that had crept along the walls dimmed. Only the great quadrangle of stone, black as pitch, at the middle of the plateau shimmered every so often.
‘Let’s check out that shrine or altar, Ty. We’re in some godly presence – I just know it –, some benevolent spirit who wishes us to escape the dead earth.
‘Benevolent or no, I’m scared, Steph. Did you see the great light?’
‘At the centre stone? Yes, like lightning struck it. Maybe Zeus looks kindly on us here,’ and Stephanos smiled like a fool. All the old stories of their folk came rushing in to his terror-addled mind. Had not the gods brought down fire to help man see in the dark? Zeus had sired many heroes on mortal women and given them great power. Maybe they had found the tomb of once such a giant among men; maybe the father’s sympathy shone down on those who came to look on this gravesite.
‘We are in an august presence, Tycho, don’t you feel it?’
‘Steph, I’m afraid. All I feel is horror and I don’t want to come any closer to that stone. Besides, isn’t Zeus god of the skies?’ He fidgeted and stepped slowly after Stephanos who was taking large strides toward the centre dais.
‘Scaredy cat. You’re a coward and a baby, Tycho. And you can’t fight for shit either. I don’t know why I spar with you but you’re the only boy in ten miles’ distance. Now come over here and help me push.’
The words stung as acid or a slap in the face, but Tycho obeyed in a sullen mood. If not for him, they wouldn’t have been sparring or they wouldn’t have fallen in the hole. Every step closer made his apprehension wax until finally he felt the little hairs on his arms and neck rise, while his long hair felt scratchy.
‘What is it?’ Despite his anxiety, he felt curious. The black stone was polished smooth, perfectly rectangular and faint tracery was on all sides and surfaces. There were strange curlicues and a great range of depth in the relief, but the two of them couldn’t discern any clear overall picture. All they saw were two great fronts of waves inside waves flowing towards each other, at some points clashing, at some yielding, at some winning or losing, but there was a harmony there on the whole. Very faintly now, shadowy light would flow along a line, or trace a whorl or bend.
‘There’s an edge here. I think the top slides off.’ Eagerly, Stephanos set to. He laid the brand in the cup of a nearby rock and grasped the cover stone with both hands. Thoughts of a hero’s belongings, his sword and shield, his armour and riches, filled the boy’s head. Faintly there was also some unrest, some superstition and dark dread for underground monsters, for creatures that crawled in the dark and laid traps for trespassers. His sense of adventure was however overriding that dread.
Tycho noticed how pale and weak Stephanos’s hands seemed in the flickering light of the torch. He lent whatever strength he had reluctantly and together they opened up the sarcophagus to a sideways slit, large enough to stick an arm through. Standing on his toes, Tycho craned to look into the stone casket, expecting a foul reek or other corpse smells.
When the light shone into the sarcophagus, they did not find a skeleton, as they had expected. No great hero was buried here, and no dangerous monsters were free to devour them.
‘Nothing,’ said Tycho. ‘That’s even stranger than anything at all.’ For a seconds his fears dissipated, and he thought of going out and up by the archway, finding the light of the setting sun spilling over him, and running home to tell of an exciting adventure. Mother would be furious at him for running off into the woods, at his clothes and his haggard face and the fright she had taken. But she would also listen and whisper how brave he had been as she sheltered him with her warm body.
‘Oh wait, I see something in that corner.’ Stephanos smiled grimly as he reached for the glossy glimmer he had seen in the light of the torch.
Tycho’s fears redoubled as he saw the thing Stephanos held in his right hand. All thought of a happy ending paled when he beheld the sinewy corpse hand, stripped of flesh and dangling with pale strips of cartilage. The ivory sheen of bare bone glowed like devilish milk in the torch’s sputtering light. Something was dreadfully off about the thing, and it took a while for Tycho to notice that parts of it were dangling free without any muscle or flesh to stitch them together, keeping to the general shape of a hand.
‘Throw it away,’ he murmured darkly. ‘Throw it in the water, Steph! Crush it with a stone or put it back and let’s close the lid!’ The little boy recoiled and his face went white as a sheet as he saw Stephanos jiggling the hand in front of him, smiling and laughing at his friend’s discomfort.
‘Are you afraid of some bones now? There’s another one at the far corner. Here, take this,’ and he cruelly chucked the grisly thing at Tycho, who veered out of the way. With a rattling slap the hand struck a standing stone and fell to the floor, unharmed.
‘Oh look,’ Stephanos hollered with maddening gaiety, ‘they come with a pouch. Now pick that one up and put it in here. He held a leather satchel with a greyish tinge of age, looking rather thin and worn. It had a buckle of extremely tarnished metal and a long shoulder strap that was frayed at the middle. Stephanos put the second hand – in no better state than the first – in the satchel and gave it to Tycho.
‘Since I’m carrying the torch, you can carry the satchel with our great booty, he smirked.
In the same way Stephanos felt compelled to take the artifacts and proofs of their adventure to the surface, Tycho felt compelled to leave them deep, deep in the earth, to await quakes and rock slides, floods and ceiling collapse until even the moles couldn’t find them anymore. Yet, he saw the ragged state of Stephanos, his one leg held stiff in pain and the rags around it soaked with blood and mud, and he relented all opposition.
‘If you say so,’ the boy plucked up his courage and shoveled the other desiccated hand into the bag.
Guided by the stalagmites on either side of the path, they made for the archway. Like chipped and rotting teeth the stone around them was agonizing to look at as the glare from the brand was reflected on the waxy and sometimes nearly transparent structures.
By a winding and uneven tunnel they walked upwards. Stephanos occasionally tripped, and not due to a lack of light. Tycho was at his side by the end, supporting the torch-bearer the best he could. The older boy was heavy and Tycho was tired of trudging through damp caves. He didn’t look at Stephanos’s face overlong, but he knew that the toll of their little adventure was creeping into the increasingly worried face of his friend. His breaths came slower and shallower every time he fell.
‘We’ll be home soon and you can have a proper lie down and some nice bacon with bread and peas…’ He murmured small encouragements from time to time; little white lies he wouldn’t regret later.
Stephanos had gotten beyond the point of caring whether Tycho shut up or not. He held the flame in front of him and stared in wonder at its splendorous dancing, how it flickered back and forth, consuming the wood around it, like a child licking a sugary treat. The flame wanted to consume as much of the wood as possible, it seemed to Stephanos, but it savoured every splinter like a glutton. After half an hour of staggering, stumbling, faltering and falling down, Stephanos collapsed on top of Tycho. The torch guttered and died.
‘Steph? Steph,’ the little boy pushed at the lump of meat in vain, whispering in leaden tones, ‘this is not funny.’ He huffed and felt the weight of Stephanos on his chest suffocating him. ‘Steph, wake up!’ The boy felt rock-hard worms digging into his lower back. The terrible hands inside their satchel made a rattling sound, crushed between the children and the dark rock.
‘Get up. Get up!’ Tycho cried and pushed ever harder, kicking with his legs and thrashing his body until he came face to face with Stephanos. There was no breath.
Big tears of realisation were running hot as lava over his face as he heaved one last time to set Stephanos aside. He reached for the dead boy’s throat and gingerly worked a bone amulet from around the neck. His hands glanced off the erstwhile torch, but recoiled as if burned. He put the amulet over his head, checked the satchel’s contents with a trembling hand and crawled upright. At length, Tycho came to the end of the tunnel, sobbing and vomiting in the pale light of a slivered moon. He said farewell to his friend and turned his feet for home, one hand clutched on the satchel, the other on Stephanos’s amulet.