“Good friend,” began Staun, but the face interrupted.
“You are not here by accident, you know,” the sworl trap said. “You are not that important, after all. No, no, no. Not that important.” It harrumphed. “Not many that important, that they can just have accidents here and there. No, no, no. We are all placed where we are, yes indeed. Placed.”
“Placed by who, friend?” whispered Staun, leaning closer. He had cocked his head to hear better, and his expression was lost in the dark.
“Who do you think?” the face asked. “No, no more silly questions. Sit down and I will teach you.”
“The ground is cold, friend,” Filia said. “Staun is hurt and I need to build the fire up more. See? It’s already going out.”
“Hmmmmm, yes, yes,” the face replied. “Quite so. I have waited before, and I can wait some more. Build the fire. I will wait.”
The face fell silent. Filia looked at Staun, her body pulsing with an involuntary shiver as she did.
“Will you be okay?”
“Yes. Do what needs done. I’ll be fine.” He looked stable enough, so Filia turned and headed back to the tunnels again.
Filia made several trips. The tenth tunnel had quite a bit of woody debris, and she was able to build a convincing fire. The water flowing from the spring proved to be sweet.
“We should wash your wound,” Filia said.
“We should boil the water first,” added Staun.
“We have nothing to boil it in,” Filia replied.
“Old friend,” Staun asked, “would there be a kitchen near here, where there might be cups?”
“No, no kitchen,” the face replied. “Cups, cups, cuuuppss, …” it mused, falling silent for a moment. “Perhaps over … there.”
The blue light from the ceiling dimmed, save for one spot across the chamber.
“Another tunnel? Filia asked wearily, taking up the torch.
“No, no,” the face replied. “Near the tunnel, but in the chamber.”
Filia headed that way, reluctant to leave the fitful light and heat of their tiny fire. She had almost reached the far wall when she saw a small tumble of debris. Closer inspection revealed it to be a mass of broken pottery mixed in with crumbling wood. She guessed it had once been a table. One or two of the cups were still whole. She returned with the two largest.
“Sure enough,” she said as she approached. “A cup.”
“Good,” replied Staun.
She washed the cups, filled them with water, and set them into the fire. After a few minutes the water was boiling. She pushed them back out of the fire with a stick and waited for the water to cool.
“It’s cool enough now,” she announced after a few minutes. “Do you need help?”
“No, I can do it,” replied Staun. “I just need you to tell me if I miss anything.”
Filia watched as Staun tenderly cleaned his wound, keeping her eyes from straying too far from the affected area. As she watched him she also washed her own wound. It hurt like mad, but after she was done she felt better about the wound. She wished again that they had some cloth to cover the injury.
“Old friend,” she asked, “is there anything around here we could cover our injuries with?”
“Hmmmmmm,” the face replied. “I don’t know.” It fell silent.
“Well,” Staun said after a bit, ” I think that’s as good as it gets.” Filia took the cups and emptied them, washed them again, refilled them with water. She returned to the fire and gave one to Staun, who drank from it.
“Well, old friend,” Staun said when he was done, “I think we can talk now.”
“Good, good,” the face said. “I must tell you where you are going to go.”
“How do you …” Filia started to ask, but Staun silenced her with a touch and a wave of his hand.“How do I?” replied the sworl trap to her unasked question. “As we all must, I play the role assigned me. I am a sworl trap. For more years than you can count I have gathered the spent magic of the whind. And the sworl I have gathered has brought me messages, messages from the Primary. Primary is watching you, you know.”
“Primary?” Filia asked.
“I’ve heard of Primary,” Staun replied. “Some of the sworl traps had mentioned it before. What is Primary, old friend?”
“Primary is our goal,” the sworl trap replied. “It is what we all seek.”
“I seek to get back to the airship, have some food, and put some clothes on,” Filia replied.
“Food is important, yes,” replied the sworl trap, “and clothes can be nice too, but we all seek something greater. You must go from here, if you are to serve the role that Primary has for you.”
“Where must we go?” asked Staun before Filia could speak again.
“It is the first tunnel,” The trap replied, and the lights in the ceiling again indicated a spot across the chamber. “It leads down, and down again, and then up, and always across. It is ruined, yes, but it is safe.”
“Where does it go?” asked Staun.
“It goes under the forest, and across the forest, and will take you safely to the edge of the great desert. There you must find your own way forward. I can see no further.”
“And what if we don’t go that way?” asked Filia curtly. “What if we just go back out?”
“You will go that way,” replied the sworl trap. “Why bother to discuss anything else?”
“So you say this is our future?” asked Staun. “How is it that you can see the future? I’ve never heard of any sworl trap doing that before.”
“The Primary leads me,” replied the sworl trap. “The Primary leads us all.” It paused. “Besides, that is where the best food is.”
Filia’s stomach growled. “What kind of food?” She remembered her last inventory of the food in the sack, and it wasn’t much.
“Mushrooms,” Staun replied. “I can tell you which ones they are.”
“How far?” Filia asked.
“Not far at all,” replied the sworl trap. “And water as well, twice between here and the desert.”
“How far away is the desert?” asked Filia.
“Two days in the tunnels, and then a short distance through the grasslands.”
“Two days?” replied Filia, dismayed. “How can it be two days? We were only in the balloon for a few hours!”
“The winds aloft can be very fast,” replied Staun. “A few hours at those speeds can mean days by foot.”
“The tunnels are safe, young woman,” the face replied, “and will take you almost directly to where you must go. It really is the best way.”
“How do we know that we can believe this … this thing?” Filia asked. “It might be, I don’t know, defective or something.”
“I can check,” Staun replied. “But it will take a while. The whind blows very weakly here.”
“I tell you the truth, young woman. But I see that you do not trust me. So trust your young man here. He can t’see. He can reassure you.”
“I will,” replied Filia.
“To do this I will need to meditate for a while,” Staun said. “You may as well get some sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” she replied. “The floor is too cold. I’ll just sit quietly and watch.”
“You need your sleep, Filia,” he replied. “Here.” He stood up and stripped off his shirt. Filia looked away, startled by the sudden completion of his nudity. “Lay down on this.” She took it from him, looking at it. It was falling apart, but more slowly than her blouse and skirt had. She carefully laid it on the stone floor and arranged herself on it. She used the knapsack for a pillow. She twitched and sat up suddenly when he touched her.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I was thinking — it might be uncomfortable at first, but if we lay together, it’ll keep us both warmer.”
Filia stared at him for a moment, then nodded. Then she remembered his blindness and spoke.
“You’re right.” She lay back down and didn’t move as he lay behind her. She flinched as he pressed his bare body against hers. She hadn’t felt this sort of contact since she had last lain with Jaspin, and to feel it now did not bring back pleasant memories. But Staun’s body was warmer than the underground air against her naked body. She thought of something, and sat up.
“What is it?” asked Staun, sitting up as well.
“My utility belt,” she replied, removing it. She laid it aside, somehow feeling even more naked than she already was. “I didn’t want it digging into you while I slept.” She lay down again.
“Thank you,” he replied, and again spooned up to her. “Now you can sleep, I hope, while I meditate. I won’t do my stanzas out loud, so you can sleep.”
“OK.” She lay there, quietly, and overhead the blue light dimmed. The fire crackled and flickered in front of her. She tried not to think of what parts of his body were pressed against her. She squeezed her eyes shut and wished she were anywhere else. She wondered if it would be better if she tried to imagine that it was someone else back there. Some other man. She imagined what it would feel like if it were not Staun, if the man behind her did not have blue skin, was not annoying and haughty and aloof, but was warm and caring and approachable. She could see herself and this man, both lying naked together, warm and tender. It actually felt comforting, somehow, to imagine that there was someone with her in this darkness who actually cared about her. She could see his face, in her mind, and was startled to realize that the face belonged to Dartain.
“Are you okay?” Staun asked.
“Yes,” she said, startled. “Why?”
“You gasped, I thought.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m going to get some sleep now.”
“OK. I’ll wake you when I start to get tired. Good night.”