Bewildering Stories

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chapter 8, The Valley part I, installment 2

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 8, part I began in issue 114.

Without noticing any special movement, Lilit was standing before them. “You have the pot in your backpack, Nune, don’t you?”

The man raised astonished blue eyes at the little woman, who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Still, he said nothing but searched and got the pot out of his backpack. “What are you going to cook?” Dar asked bluntly.

“There are all kinds of things on the mountain here, and we don’t have to go hungry,” she said simply. “Come on, Nim, help me gather what we need.”

As the two of them disappeared behind a fold in the hillside, Zik came up to the other two, half-walking half-crawling.

“Zik!” Dar cried, “how are you!” He looked much improved in appearance, his face not wincing with the pain as before.

“That woman did something to my foot, I don’t know. It stopped throbbing, at least, although I still have to be very careful in touching the ground. I don’t know how I am going to climb down that mountain.”

“Come, sit here; it’s lovely in the sun after that dark, foul tunnel, and the rest of what we’ve been through.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said, resentful of his own shortcomings, surreptitiously wiping tears from his cheeks.

Dar noticed that his black beard had also grown, frizzily covering his rounded dark face, intermingling with the hair on his head; it made it appear like a cuddly soft cushion over his very thin body. Dar held back a desire to kiss his full lips when she saw Lilit coming back on her own.

“It’s best to go over to the other side of this protrusion,” she told them. “There’s a niche in the rock there, room enough to make fire.”

Dar helped Zik to his foot with the other one dangling above ground, and they went round the cliff. The niche was situated in the rocky surface away from the valley, looking over the side of the range; but the ledge in front of it was much wider than the one they had emerged at. Dar thought that if they had come there first, their spirits would not have been as high as they were now.

Nim was busy trying to make the fire, and Nune went to help her; by her side there was a shirt, whose sleeved had been tied as it was filled with dry twigs and soft, fresh plants. Zik stared at the girl. “What is it with Nim? Is she swelling with hunger already?” he asked, as if he having had some experience in the condition of hunger.

Dar looked at the girl. Yes, that’s what she had noticed when she had had her profile turn toward her. She had got used to the skeletal appearance of all of them but, from the great contrast between Nim’s thin body and her swollen belly, she appeared to be in advance of the fifth month of her pregnancy.

“But it can’t be,” she cried, “she’s so much ahead of her time!”

“She’s pregnant?” Zik looked unbelievably at Dar, then at Nim. In some way, this sign of the renewal of life mingled with and strengthened their sense of arriving at a point of revival. Overwhelmed by such metaphysical phenomenon (even though he was unable to so define them to himself), the young man fell silent.

Nune had lit the fire with the spark lighter and the soft twigs, and it was now going nicely if not very strongly. The five travellers gathered around it.

“There’s no water on this level of the mountain,” Lilit said, “but we can cook some succulent leaves we’ve found, with last years seeds to get a kind of edible stew.”

“But where all the snow has gone to?” Dar expressed aloud what some of them had been thinking quietly.

“We are much down on the slope,” Lilit answered.

‘I suppose, crawling through the tunnel took much longer than we might assume’, Dar reflected, but avoided voicing her doubts aloud. What was the point? Rational thinking was all fair and good, but sometimes you just have to throw it to the wind, it seemed...

Nim, who had been stirring the stew, interrupted them with a cheerful voice, as if completely indifferent to her being the essence of the discussion, “Let’s eat before it gets burned because of lack of moisture!” Dar was not even sure the girl was aware of the advancement of her condition.

They were hungry enough not to care what they tasted, as long as it had some substances to fill their empty stomachs. ‘We shouldn’t eat too much, anyway’, Dar thought, ‘after that long starvation’. She felt the scant food sitting heavily in her stomach, which had shrunk with disuse.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have a bit of trouble with that food,” she said, “but let’s hope we get over it easily.”

* * *

They stayed on the wide ledge for the rest of the day; in the chill of the night they huddled as close as possible to the niche’s wall, away from the open slope. A whispering breeze blew around them, more comforting than disturbing their sleep that night.

They rose at dawn, ready to start their climb down. They were going on an empty stomach again, except some leaves that Lilit distributed among them. “These will dull the sense of hunger until we reach a more fertile place,” she said; “they are quite tasty to chew but don’t swallow them, and don’t spit them out before extracting all their goodness.”

She then turned to Nune, and between them they plotted the route down the slope into the valley. It was not necessary to go back to the first ledge, from where they were able to see it, because the overall direction down the range was quite clear.

The sun rose on a bright day, only a few white feathery clouds adorned the blue sky; after the chilly night, they were grateful to feel the air warming up. They could see nothing that would impair their advance, their mood was high and expectant.

Still, from the start it was clear that the actual climb was physically much harder than the crawl through the tunnel, even though the external circumstances were more pleasant. There was no visible path leading anywhere; boulders, sharp-pointed rocks, loose stones, thorny shrubs — everything that could block their way did. Lilit and Nune went ahead, alternately leading the file; Nim followed with Zik behind her, and Dar closing the rear to support him when necessary. It was not too bad when walking level with the slope, but any progress necessitated using the support of their hands, and sometimes they had to simply slide down on their backside.

Their advancement was slow and careful. From time to time, either Nune or Lilit would stop to consult the other about the best way further, which would take them down to the valley rather than back up the mountain. That happened sometimes, where a better route was seen to be going up for a while, before finding another one going down. The travelers’ way had led them again to a side on the slope above the valley, but they had no respite to look at it.

When they had to stop for a while, with Lilit and Nune looking for the right place to go next, Dar paid all her attention to Zik, who was hobbling in front of her, doing his best not to utter a complaint. Once or twice he slipped into a painful sitting position, in his effort to keep his leg off the ground; the situation was fairly serious while they were still up the slope above the plain, and Zik understood he was impeding the whole group from achieving their goal.

Proceed to installment 3...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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