“Captain! Why have we stopped?” Shira sharpened her voice as she leaned out of her palanquin. Bad enough that she had to serve for five years in this mud-encrusted backwater, but to spend even one more moment in the agony of travel piled indignation upon annoyance. Her breath steamed in the mountain air.
“This man help seeks, Most Holy Sorceress,” the captain of her personal guard replied, bowing his head in deference to her. He was a Vubinian, black as coal, and his Novarran grammar was appalling. But at least his years in the Novarran Imperial Army had taught him some manners.
The panting Ucnian man held by two soldiers had no such manners. One soldier forced him to bow his head, but even as he did so he glared at Shira from beneath his tangled red bangs. She met his gaze, taking in his untamed beard, his ragged woolen clothing, his battle scars. He looked old enough to have fought in the last disastrous attempt at a local uprising.
“What kind of help?” Shira asked, not taking her eyes off the man.
“Boy in cave, he says, trapped is. But this an ambush, could be.” The captain—Gvubi, that was his name—shielded his eyes with one hand and peered off at the horizon, where a thin column of smoke rose from a cleft and stained the gray fabric of the clouds. The vegetation on the stony hills to either side was scrubby, ugly, and tenacious—like the region’s people.
“Send a runner to investigate. If he is telling the truth, I will help.” Annoyance seethed beneath the bronze Sun amulet that lay on Shira’s breast, but she was here to render aid as well as to represent Novarra. The life of a Sun Sorceress was a life of service, to the God and to the Empire.
Even if the Empire sent her to a cold, rocky, mountainous hell of barbarous people, hideous food, and perpetual overcast.
At the base of the column of smoke, a crowd of perhaps seventy people huddled in loose knots around a handful of campfires. Dogs and small children ran between the fires, and a smell of burnt mutton hung over the scene. At each fire men argued in the harsh, spitting Ucnian language, pointing again and again at a small cave that gaped beneath an overhanging brow of rock nearby. But as Shira stepped from her palanquin, the crowd fell silent—an angry stillness that spread like oil from a dropped lamp.
Gritty mud squelched beneath Shira’s sandals as she accepted a warm elk-hide cloak from Captain Gvubi. She noted with approval that he had deployed his nine men in unobtrusive protective positions around her. But it would be better if she could move among the Ucnians without an armed guard.
Perhaps this unexpected delay was an opportunity in disguise. Saving the boy would show these people that she was not their enemy. Then they would give her the respect a Sun Sorceress deserved.
“Who here speaks Novarran?” she called out.
“I have a few words of that language.” A tall, fat man detached himself from one of the groups and strode up to her. His rough woolen shirt and kirtle were plastered with mud, as was his fringe of red-gray beard, and as he approached she smelled the sour ale the locals brewed from oats. He stood nearly two heads taller than Shira and must have weighed three times as much.
“I am Shira Dinarian Rahalia, Most Holy Sorceress of the Sun God of Novarra, and I am here to serve. Who are you?”
The man bowed his head. “I am called Uhric, and I too am a humble servant of a God, though I have the honor to serve the Earth Mother.” For a misguided heathen his Novarran was excellent—far too courtly, in fact, for the circumstances.
“What is the situation?”
“A boy of thirteen summers, by the name of Luca, is trapped in the cave you see before you. He has been there for some three days already, and so far all our efforts to free him have come to naught.” He bowed, an exaggerated gesture of courtesy, and motioned her to follow him toward the cave. Gvubi and two soldiers fell in behind them as they walked. “His foot was trapped by a falling rock, and none can reach it. We have dug, and pried, and even tried pulling him out with a rope tied around his chest, but he cried out so from the pain that we had not the heart to continue.”
The incongruous high diction of this rustic was beginning to grate at Shira’s ears. That, and his great size, gave him an insufferable air of superiority that Shira could not abide in another person. “Where did you learn Novarran?”
“I have visited many parts of the Earth Mother’s broad belly, Most Holy Sorceress.” And he smiled at her, an ingratiating smirk that made her loathe him still more.
“But your fine words have failed to convince your Earth Mother to release the boy.”
The smile remained on Uhric’s lips, though his eyes hardened. “Alas,” he said, “I have been unable to approach the youth’s rocky prison myself, due to my own broad belly.” He patted it. “None but the smallest and slimmest can reach him. Without first-hand knowledge of his situation, and at so great a distance, any attempt to use Earth magic to free him would more likely result in his death.”
Shira said nothing, not wanting to acknowledge that Sun magic had many of the same limitations. As she strode into the dark of the cave, Uhric and the three soldiers had to crouch to follow her.
Shira heard a slow continuous trickle of water and felt a cold moist breeze flowing from the depths. It smelled of unfired pottery. As her eyes became accustomed to the dark, she saw a rope leading from the cave entrance to a small pool of deeper blackness some ten paces in. She said a brief prayer to the Sun God and rubbed her hands briskly together, then held them out before her. A golden radiance glowed from her palms, illuminating the scene.
The rope vanished into a triangular opening barely wider than a small man’s shoulders.
“This is the entrance?” she asked, fear pricking between her shoulder blades.
“It is,” said Uhric. “I am told it widens further in, but then it narrows again.”
“By all the Gods, why would anyone want to go in there?”
“To seek gypsum, a valuable mineral for the making of plaster,” said Uhric with bland assurance.
“For new cavern looking, more likely,” said Gvubi. “Rebels in these caves hide. Smugglers. Tax evaders.” He sniffed pointedly in Uhric’s direction. “Illegal breweries.”
Uhric’s face darkened. “We are a proud people, sir. You insult us at your peril.”
Shira clapped her hands together, extinguishing the light, and the two of them fell silent. “Let me speak with someone who has been to the boy. And bring me some more suitable clothes. I will go in and bring him out.”
She was glad of the darkness, because it meant the two men could not see her tremble.
Back in her palanquin, Shira could not suppress a shudder at the rough, scratchy woolen tunic and pants they had found for her. But from what she had been told of conditions inside the cave, she would be glad of them.
She kissed her Sun amulet as she removed it and placed it in its protective bag. It was only a symbol, and if she wore it into the cave it would surely snag on something. But she still wished she could feel its reassuring weight on her breast, a reminder that even when the Sun was hidden by clouds or roof, or invisible in His cavern under the earth at night, His power never wavered.
Even without the amulet, she told herself, she was still a Sun Sorceress. Everything about her, from her ebon hair to her olive skin to the Sun-Bride tattoo below her navel, proclaimed her a creature of the Sun. And if the power and honor of that position had some unpleasant costs—such as crawling into dark caves or spending the next five years of her life in a chilly, overcast backwater—so be it. The life of a Sun Sorceress was a life of service.
Only three people, a man and two boys, had managed to crawl all the way to the trapped Luca. The man had injured his arm on the way out, and one of the boys could not be persuaded to repeat the journey, so only one boy would accompany Shira, and he spoke almost no Novarran.
Shira, Uhric, Gvubi, and the boy—a fourteen-year-old called Chulic, whose red hair was drawn back and tied with a leather thong—stood at the back of the main cave, peering down into the triangular hole. Gvubi’s torch illuminated it only as far as the first bend.
Shira touched the wineskin lashed at the small of her back, to be sure it was secure. “Tell the boy to go first. I will follow his lead.”
The boy kneeled at the opening for a moment, muttering some barbaric prayer, before lighting his little oil lamp and levering himself in—hands, shoulders, and finally his feet vanishing into the dark. Shira prayed to the Sun God, illuminated her hands, then followed him.
The rock was hellishly cold, and the tunnel floor was slimy with mud. It stank of decay. The light came and went as she pressed her hands against the floor, the walls, and sometimes even the ceiling. She twisted and squirmed and forced herself through the first part of the tunnel. After an endless time she paused, panting hard—feeling trapped already. But she gritted her teeth, twisted her hips, pushed with her knees, and was through the tight space.
Now she could rise to hands and knees, and she crawled forward until she saw the boy’s feet. A few Ucnian words came echoing back to her, and she said “I’m coming. Go ahead.” She had no idea if he understood her, but the feet moved along.
The tunnel grew narrower, then the ceiling lowered as well. Soon she had to crawl on knees and elbows. Her world closed down to a bubble of light no more than a few handspans across, surrounded by a mountain of rock that pressed in on all sides. Rock that hid her from the light, the air, and her husband the Sun. Suddenly the walls seemed to squeeze in on her; her heart pounded, her mouth went dry, and she froze like a bird in a serpent’s gaze. For a long moment she trembled in place. Then she closed her eyes hard, pressed her hands together, and prayed fervently. Gradually the Sun’s heat warmed her heart, until she found the strength to press herself forward.
The cave’s crack-webbed walls seemed to move in the shifting light of her hands. She crawled through mud and rivulets of water, over sharp stones, and through tight squeezes. A cold, damp breeze blew constantly in her face. At one point she had to wriggle on her belly under an enormous rock, sharp as a hatchet blade, that seemed poised to fall and cut her in two. Cold sweat sprang out on her brow.
And always ahead of her were the bare, filthy feet of the boy Chulic, until, suddenly, they vanished. She heard a rattle of falling gravel, then silence.
“Are you hurt?” she called.
“I good,” came the reply. “You come.”
Shira inched forward until she felt the floor end. She raised her hands and saw a slope of loose rocks descending away into the darkness. Chulic waited at the bottom, his face illuminated by his tiny lamp. He waved her onward.
Trembling, she gathered her feet under her, then stepped skidding down the slope. Three long strides brought her to the boy, who coughed as the dust she had raised reached his nose. She looked back up the slope; the top was beyond the reach of her light.
Shira had lost all sense of time. “How long have we been traveling?” Chulic shrugged incomprehension. Then he gestured to a small opening in the wall near his feet. “Luca—is he in there?” she asked.
“Luca,” replied Chulic.
Shira bent and wriggled through the opening into a narrow tunnel, which descended at a sharp angle. Suddenly her hand struck something furry. It moved, and she cried out.
Her cry was answered by a groan, and then a mumble in Ucnian.
The furry thing was Luca’s head.
“Luca? My name is Shira. I am a Sun Sorceress, and I am here to serve. Do you understand me?”
“Help me,” he replied in slurred Novarran.
“I will help you.” Shira backed up a bit—it was surprisingly difficult, in the tight downward-sloping space—and raised her glowing hands to inspect the boy’s situation.
Luca lay on his right side, with his right arm trapped beneath his body and his left constrained by the closeness of the tunnel ceiling. The fingernails of his left hand were ragged, and the fingertips were black with dried blood. Peering down the length of his body, Shira saw that a large rock had fallen across his right ankle, and a slurry of smaller stones encased much of his right leg.
“Thirsty,” the boy said.
Shira wriggled around and untied the wineskin from behind her back. “Here. Milk and honey.” She held the neck of the skin to his lips, and he sucked greedily.
“I am going to try to dig you out now,” she said when the milk was gone. But as she squeezed herself into the tiny space between his back and the tunnel wall, she found that his back was nearly as cold as the stone. Shira pressed herself against him and let the Sun’s warmth flow through her and into his flesh. He let out a shuddering sigh, which then collapsed into a series of sobs.
Shira held him and poured out the warmth as long as she could. It was her oldest and strongest talent—she remembered her mother’s delight and dismay when nine-year-old Shira had so proudly laid her hand, tingling with heat, against her mother’s cheek. Within the month she was married to the Sun, and she had never seen her mother again. But she thought of her mother whenever she used this simplest gift.
The power of the Sun was unending, but Shira’s capacity to channel it was limited, and after too brief a time her bones burned with pain. Finally she could stand it no longer; she choked off the power and lay, gasping and cooling, on the tunnel floor. Luca continued to sob. “It will be all right,” she whispered. “It will be all right.”
But as she began to dig away at the boy’s trapped leg she began to wonder if it would, in fact, be all right. Each handful of dirt and stones she dug away was immediately replaced with another, cascading down from the broken ceiling from which the large rock had fallen. The rock itself was so far down Luca’s body that she could barely reach it, and at her arms’ full extent, even with the strength of the Sun in her muscles, she could exert almost no leverage to lift it. After only a very short time she was sweaty and trembling from the effort, and the cave air was so damp that, despite the cold breeze that blew along Luca’s body, the sweat did not evaporate.
She dug and dug, sometimes thinking that she was making progress, sometimes sure her efforts were only embedding the boy deeper in the earth. From time to time she paused and tried to shift the massive boulder from the boy’s leg, but it didn’t budge a hair. She kept digging.
The grit and sharp rocks sliding down along her arms reminded her of the terrifying weight of earth and rock above her....
No. She must not let her mind travel in that direction.
Shira worked until her arms shivered with exertion, until her breath rasped in her grit-clogged throat and even the power of the Sun was not enough to keep her going.
“I must rest,” she said at last, and backed herself up toward the mouth of the tunnel.
Luca cried out, panicked—a stream of words in Ucnian, then “No leave me!”
“I will return,” she soothed.
“No leave!” And he collapsed in sobs again.
She had no more words to comfort him. She had almost no energy to speak. Silently, painfully, she crawled backwards on knees and elbows until she found herself at the bottom of the slope with Chulic.
The boy brought out some oatcakes from under his shirt, and a wineskin. Shira devoured the cakes greedily, though they were foul with mud.
The food and wine partly filled the void in her stomach, though they did little to calm her troubled mind.
She took a breath. She was a Sun Sorceress and her duty was to serve. She prepared to re-enter the tunnel.
She could not make herself do it.
Luca’s situation was too daunting. Shira was too exhausted. She could not think of any way to free him that she had not already tried, and found wanting. She could comfort him, but the milk was gone and her bones still burned.
Finally she sat heavily on the floor, knowing that if she exerted herself any more she would not have the energy to climb to the surface.
“I’m sorry, Luca,” she whispered too quietly for either boy to hear. “I’m sorry.” Then, louder but still without much strength: “Tell him we must go and return with tools. Do you understand?”
“Yes. We go, bring tools.” Chulic shouted down the hole in Ucnian. Luca’s voice came back, feeble and despairing, and Shira’s heart went out to him. But her body was too drained to follow.
Wearily Shira climbed up the slope of loose rocks. But with each motion she slid down nearly as far as she had crawled. Even with Chulic’s help it took a lifetime to reach the top of the slope.
It was another lifetime of crawling and squeezing and wriggling before she reached the upper cave. What had seemed so dark and forbidding only that afternoon—was it really only that afternoon?—was now an oasis of light and air. Gvubi and one of his men carried her from the cave into the reddening light of an overcast evening.
“Did you reach the boy?” asked Uhric. His face was drawn with concern.
“Yes. But I could not dig him out. I gave him what comfort I could.”
Uhric’s eyes closed hard, and he shook his head slowly.
“I must rest. I will try again as soon as I am able.”
She was asleep before she reached her palanquin.
Shira awoke screaming from a dream of being buried alive. Gvubi was there immediately. “Most Holy Sorceress!”
“I’m... I’m all right, Captain,” she gasped, her heart slowly returning to its normal rhythm. “What watch is it?”
“Third watch.” The darkest part of the night.
“You should be asleep, Captain.”
“Over you I watch, Most Holy Sorceress.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“All right, you are?”
“Yes. I’ll be all right.”
As the curtain closed on Gvubi’s still-wrinkled brow, Shira realized she was still caked with mud from top to toes. She took a scraper from her box of toiletries and began to clean herself. As she struggled to reach between her shoulder blades she regretted, not for the first time, that the Bride of the Sun was strictly inviolate.
But even once she was reasonably clean and clad in a soft, comfortable chiton, she could not sleep. She stared at her palanquin’s cloth roof, thinking how miserable Luca must be in his living tomb.
What could she do to rescue him? Whatever it was, it would have to be done quickly—the boy would die of cold or thirst before too many more days had passed, even with regular doses of warmth and milk. The port of Callulian, where she had arrived, was eight days behind her; her destination, the Novarran frontier town of Galerica, was five days ahead. Even a fast runner would not be able to return with help in time. She was on her own.
Sometimes even the power of the Sun was not enough, and she feared this might be one such time. But for the boy’s sake she would have to keep trying.
She was still staring when the roof began to lighten with the day.
The red-bearded faces above Shira were not pleased.
“What did you tell them?”
“I translated your words exactly, Most Holy Sorceress,” replied Uhric. “You will require much of this day to prepare yourself to work a major magic.”
“They should be grateful that I would undertake a major magic on Luca’s behalf.”
One of the men grumbled something. Uhric gave him a placating response before replying to Shira. “They do not trust Sun magic, Most Holy Sorceress. We are people of the Earth.”
Shira drew herself to her full height. “You should remind them how worthless their Earth magic was against the sorcery and might of the Empire. You are a conquered people, sir, and the sooner you adopt Novarran ways the better it will be for you.”
“I understand, Most Holy Sorceress. But I fear my simple people will be loath to comply.” He spoke to them, and they burst out in angry shouting, at each other as well as at Shira. Gvubi and his men moved in, raising their spears.
“Silence!” Shira called out, and smote the crowd with a burst of light and power that knocked several of them over and left them momentarily blinded. She took on the God-voice then, and in tones of thunder she said “I am the Most Holy Sorceress of the Sun God of Novarra! By the power of the Sun Himself, I will rescue the boy.”
She turned from them and strode back to her palanquin, leaving the men with smoking beards and blinking through tears of pain. Gvubi’s men closed ranks behind her, breastplates gleaming with the might of the Novarran Empire.
But within her heart, Shira worried that the power of the Empire, even that of the Sun Himself, might be unable to save one trapped little boy. They were blunt tools, as unsuited to the task as a bronze-worker’s tongs for removing a splinter.
But now she must save the boy. She had staked herself, her magic, and even the Sun Himself on it.
In her palanquin, Shira anointed herself with scented oil and began to pray. Seated tailor-fashion, eyes closed and head tilted back, with arms outstretched, she opened her whole essence to her husband the Sun. All day she prayed, turning slightly every little while. Though her eyes were closed, and He was hidden from her by the fabric of the palanquin and the clouds in the sky, every particle of her being knew where He was and shifted her body, almost unconsciously, to follow Him in His path through the sky.
Shira prayed harder and longer than she had in years—gathering as much energy into herself as she could possibly contain. By the time she emerged, late in the afternoon, her body roiled with Sun-power. She was intoxicated with it. Her every sense was sharpened; her mind flitted rapidly from thought to thought; the ground seemed to waver slightly as she eased toward the cave. Gvubi’s eyes widened as he caught sight of her, and in the deep brown centers of his eyes, her own reflection shimmered with golden light.
“Bring me food and wine,” she said, and her words thrummed with the God-voice, and even the squabbling Ucnians rushed to comply. “Bring me a bronze pry-bar,” she said to Gvubi, and to the boy Chulic “Come with me.” She continued to step forward, and as the things she had requested were brought to her she accepted them without pausing.
The entrance to the tunnel seemed far too small to contain her God-suffused self, but her mind knew her body was physically no larger than before. In one smooth motion she knelt and wriggled through the opening.
The cavern walls reflected her shining light back at her. She passed through the cave like a Solstice procession through the streets of Novarra, a moving center of light and energy. It was difficult to contain it all within herself, and at the tightest squeezes light and heat flowed from her, causing Chulic to cry out. But she breathed the power back into herself and pressed on.
She descended the last slope like a god descending to the earth, and when she crawled to Luca in his prison he cried and trembled and ducked his head. “Do not fear,” she said to him, and her words boomed in the tiny space. “I am here to serve.” She offered him an oatcake, but his teeth chattered so hard it crumbled into a thousand pieces and ran down his chin. No matter, he would soon be free.
Shira forced her shining self into the space behind Luca’s back. The rock, cold as the pits of hell, drew the heat and light from her, but she held the pry-bar before her like the spear of the Sun Himself, and she thrust it into the loose gravel around Luca’s leg.
She channeled the power from herself into the gravel. It trembled, and sand and small stones began to fly in all directions. Luca cried out and pressed his face against the rock, as though seeking protection from the very Earth Mother who imprisoned him.
Sand and gravel continued to fly, and even Shira was forced to narrow her eyes and duck her head as the wind from farther back in the cave blew the flying stones into her face. She pressed harder on the pry-bar and poured all the Sun’s power into it. The tiny cavern filled with a deafening roar, the groaning, rattling sound of a million tiny particles battering against rock, and the smell was of a sandstorm she had endured as a novice. Luca’s mouth was wide open, his eyes squeezed tight shut, but she could not hear his scream.
Now Shira too was screaming, her bones afire, pain coursing along every vein and tendon. The cave was a typhoon of sand. But still the rock pressed in from every side, and new gravel poured down from above, immediately replacing every particle the Sun’s power forced away down the tunnel. And more. Shira realized that all her efforts, all the power of the Sun Himself, were only burying Luca still deeper.
With a shuddering cry of pain and despair, Shira choked back the power within herself. It burned along her nerves and muscles, but the storm of sand quickly subsided, leaving both of them battered and gray with dust.
Luca’s face was buried in it. He struggled, unable to breathe.
Abandoning the pry-bar, Shira dug out Luca’s head with her hands. As his mouth came into view, he gasped and coughed and spat out sand and gravel.
Shira’s light was fading, the God-power flowing out of her and into the all-absorbing rock like a draining bath. She began to sob, and held Luca’s head out of the pile of dust and sand she had brought down upon him. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her words were a dry hacking whisper with no hint of God-voice. “I’m sorry.”
The two of them cried together in the cooling cavern, listening to the sound of gravel slithering down all around them. Finally Shira wiped her nose with one gritty hand and offered the boy some wine. He turned his head away.
Despairing, she left the wine skin where he could reach it with his lips, then dragged herself backward out of the tunnel.
Chulic had to half-push, half-drag her to the surface.
A great shout of joy came from the throats of the gathered Ucnians as she emerged from the cave, carried by Gvubi and Uhric. But the joy turned to despair, and then to anger, as Uhric explained that the boy was still trapped.
“Set me down here,” she whispered. “Leave me in the light.” She found herself leaning against a cold rock, surrounded by Gvubi and his men, as Uhric gave her wine and honey. The clouds to the west reddened as the Sun set, invisible.
All around them surged angry Ucnian voices.
“I failed,” she said, and dripping tears drew runnels through the caked mud on the backs of her hands. “Even with all the power of the Sun God Himself at my command, I failed.”
“I have never understood why the Sorceresses of the Sun take such a masculine approach to solving problems,” Uhric replied.
“I... I don’t understand.”
“You are a woman. How can you not understand that the Earth Mother must be seduced, not raped?”
“I am no ordinary woman. I am a Bride of the Sun. And your Earth Mother is just a local superstition.” But even to her own ears, her voice sounded weak and shaky.
Uhric shook his head with a sad smile. “I know you Sun-Brides are taken from your parents and married to the God as soon as your powers emerge. This life of force and order—this very Novarran life—is all you have ever known. But we Ucnians, who live our lives in mud and dust, come to know and love the Earth Mother in a way you can never know the Sun.”
“I love the Sun, my husband, with all my heart.”
“I know you do. But does he love you? He is so distant.” He laid his hand on the rock at Shira’s back, and it warmed from his touch. “Our Mother the Earth is ever present, and every thing both living and unliving feels the pull of her love. Even the birds cannot leave Her forever.”
Shira sat up, though it cost her dearly, and hardened her words. “How can you love a Mother who would kill her own child?” Then she fell back against the unyielding stone. Surrendering to the very force that Uhric called the love of the Earth. A force whose existence she could not deny.
“Sometimes a mother shows her love in ways her children cannot understand,” said Uhric. “Perhaps she takes Luca from us because she loves him so.”
Anger welled up in Shira at his words—anger mixed with fear, and compassion, and determination. “Sometimes a mother makes foolish decisions out of love.” She sat up again. “You said She must be seduced. How does one seduce a Goddess?”
“With wine, and words of love, and gentle touch.” He offered her an oatcake.
She took it, and nibbled thoughtfully. “What is the word for ‘love’ in Ucnian?”
Shira stepped from her palanquin the next morning clad in simple woolens, carrying a wine skin she had filled from the amphora with her own hands. She kept silent as she walked toward the cave, waving Gvubi away as he approached with his men. Chulic stood up as she came near, but she did not give him any command; instead she walked to where he stood, looked him in the eye, and said “Will you come with me one more time?” Then she added “Wylyth”—please.
The boy nodded.
The two of them struggled down through the earth together, helping each other through rough patches and tight places. Shira tried to feel the pressure of the surrounding stone as a loving hug, instead of the stranglehold that every fiber of her being insisted it was. It was hard, and she wasn’t sure she had convinced herself, but she kept trying.
Was she doing the right thing? Would the Ucnians interpret her embrace of some principles of Earth magic as abandonment of the Sun? Or, worse, would the Sun Himself interpret it so?
No. The life of a Sun Sorceress was a life of service. She must save this boy. Her husband the Sun would understand. As for the Ucnians... she hoped, with Uhric’s help, that they would come to understand as well.
Finally she reached Luca. The boy was asleep, or perhaps unconscious; his breathing was slow and shallow, and his skin was cold. She gave him a little of the Sun’s warmth, but he did not stir.
Shira crawled back, opening a small space between her and the boy, and poured out a little wine into a hollow in the rock. Placing her hands on either side of it, she stroked the stone gently and whispered the words Uhric had taught her. It was a prayer, a love poem, a gentle request.
As she spoke, she let the Sun’s light and warmth flow through her and into the ground. For though the stone here was cold as hell, other parts of the Earth rejoiced in the Sun’s touch—bringing forth crops, sparkling His light from mountaintops, and returning His warmth to people long after He had hidden His face from them.
The Sun and the Earth together sustained humanity. How could she have failed to understand this?
Shira heard a groan. She looked up, but even if Luca had groaned he was still unconscious and had not moved. Then, as she looked on Luca’s face, the groan came again and she knew it was not from him.
It was the stone, the living stone around her, that was groaning.
Shira’s throat constricted in fear, but she kept chanting, raising her voice a little to be heard above the sound. Slowly, gently, the tunnel opened wider, gravel running down the slope and away as the stone drew back. Luca mumbled and rolled over, and Shira realized the rock that had pinned his foot was drawing back as well. He was free!
A great darkness opened up beyond the boy as the cavern widened still further. Luca began to slip away from Shira, sliding along with the gravel around him. Shira put her hands under his shoulders and pulled. With the power of the Sun in her arms, and perhaps with the help of the Earth, he came away easily. Shira backed up the tunnel, trying to hold the boy’s head away from the rough rock as she dragged him to safety.
The groaning continued, and the darkness spread still wider. Shira felt Luca being pulled away from her—pulled by the Earth’s love. “Huc,” she said, meaning no, but she said it gently, like a mother taking a beloved toy away from a child when it was time for the child to nap. She dragged the boy away from the widening hole and onto the slope where Chulic waited. Chulic’s face lit up with wonder and astonishment when he saw that Luca was with her.
For a moment Shira was afraid the tunnel would continue to expand and engulf them all, but the groaning stopped when the entrance was only a few handspans wider than it had been before. She blew out a breath of relief and sat down, exhausted.
Then, deep in the hole, Shira saw the sparkle of stars. Amazed, she brightened her light and peered inside.
The cave beyond was a huge cavern, larger than any man-made room. It glittered with crystals, white and purple and amber, like a field of flowers all made of ice. They reflected Shira’s light back at her a thousandfold, a sight more beautiful than any she had ever seen.
She bowed her head and said a prayer of thanks to the Earth Mother.
Then she rested for a time in the belly of the Earth, gathering her strength for the long climb to the surface—to Luca’s people, to her Empire, and to her husband the Sun.
As the three of the emerged from the cave, a joyous cry came from the gathered crowd. They surged toward Luca and Shira. Gvubi and his men immediately blocked their path.
“No,” she told him. “Let them come.”
The crowd embraced Luca, bearing him away to food and warmth and family. Shira, they circled warily. Bone-weary, she could only smile at them until Uhric managed to push his way to the fore, his face shining with relief and delight.
“Congratulations, Most Holy Sorceress,” he said. “On behalf of my people, I extend my thanks to you for saving the boy.”
She took Uhric’s offered hand. “It was not I...” she replied, the beginning of a ritual formula. But then she stopped, and amended the formula somewhat. “It was the Sun, and it was the Earth.”
When Uhric translated her words, the crowd moved in, to touch and stroke her arms and squeeze her shoulders. Though their hands were rough and filthy, Shira took it as the gesture of respect it was clearly meant to be.
The next five years might be uncomfortable, but they would not be unbearable.
Shira closed her eyes and tipped back her head to feel the Sun upon her face. He warmed them all, Ucnian and Novarran alike.