Bewildering Stories

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part IV, installment 1

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Part III appeared in issue 112.


They reached the summit in midmorning. It was, of course, one summit among many. The sight of the other peaks filled the horizon, blocking any visible way of going down to the other side of the range. Heavy mist filled up the valleys between peaks, giving them a feeling of complete isolation, both from the world they had come from and the one they were supposed to be going toward.

The mountain top on which they stood was not a good place to stay; sudden gusts of wind from all directions swept throughout the area, preventing even the snow from staying on the ground, which was hard as rock. Nothing grew on the summit, and it was open and fairly flat, not even a protruding rock to shelter them from the blustery wind.

“Such desolation!” Dar said, looking around as they dropped to the ground in weariness.

“We’d better look for any kind of depression in the ground,” Nunez said, “there seems to be no shelter here.”

“Wait!” Dar said; “has anybody seen Lilit?”

Since they rose in the morning, when she had seen the old woman emerging out of her snow burial, Lilit had been leading them, unrelenting, to the top. She had disappeared only when they dropped to the ground, exhausted of the climb.

“I saw her go that way,” Nim said, pointing hesitantly at a direction, which was away from where they had come from. The others could see nothing, feeling some confusion; but there was no point in staying where they were, and one direction was as good as any other. They rose and moved slowly in the direction Nim had seen Lilit vanish. A few moments of walking brought them to a sudden edge of the summit’s plain, where the ground dropped into an abyss they had not noticed before. Shaded from the sun, the area appeared dark to their eyes blinded by the bright light. They were unable to see how deep it was.

“Come on down.” Lilit’s deep, vibrating voice came up to them from below.

“Lilit, where are you?” Nim cried, kneeling and looking over the cliff for a way down.

“Look out!” and “Take care!” Dar and Nunez shouted together, hurrying after the girl.

The man caught Nim’s arm. “Let’s be more careful; I can’t see any proper way of descent.”

“Here,” they heard Zik’s voice suddenly, as saw him vanishing downward; only his head bobbed strangely above the cliff’s edge. Coming after him, the others noticed a set of very narrow steps, as if carved in the cliff’s side.

“Here, you go first, Nim, and we’ll support you,” Nunez said, helping the girl down. Zik, standing on a ledge below, held his arm to her.

“Are you coming, Dar?” the fisherman asked the physician.

“You’d better go first,” she said in a calm voice, “you can block my fall if necessary.”

Sending a last look in the direction of the lake, which she could not see from where she was, she knew she would never go back there or see it again. They were going toward a new country without knowing anything about it, supported only by the hope it would be better than anything they had known before. Then she looked down over the edge. She could see the top of Nunez’ gray head, spotted the bald patch on top of it — as tall as he was, she had never noticed it before. He was standing at the entrance to a narrow shaft, and now he raised a flattened face toward her. “You’d better drop into my arms,” he said sensibly, unaware of the bizarre picture he had presented before her eyes.

As Dar put her foot on the first step, the sun had vanished behind the next peak of the range. She stayed for a moment, letting her eyes get used to the darker area. Then she looked in front of her to see the steps, which seemed to be falling into a chasm in the earth lying in deep shadows. The narrow steps looked dark gray rather than black, not easy to distinguish from the surface of the cliff side or one from the other. Dar had to grope for foothold by feeling about with her foot, holding on to Nunez’ guiding hand that led her on. Going down step by step, she felt as if she was going right into the bowels of the earth.

Arriving safely down at last, Dar found herself in a closed cavity, with a bluff of rock covering it from above; the only opening on top was the place where the steps had come in it. The narrow strip of light penetrated through that opening, falling on the cavity’s walls. It was refracted and reflected from them in thousand slivers, giving the place a sense of a jewel-studded treasure house. She could barely make out the shapes of her companions among the shadows.

Then she heard a moan, and asked quickly, “What is it? Is anybody hurt?”

“Zik’s twisted that ankle again,” Dar heard Nim’s complaining voice.

All the way up the mountain there was no mention of Zik’s ankle; it seemed that now, feeling relatively safe and out of danger, the young man had been careless with it, jumped a couple of steps into the cavern and was much more seriously hurt. Zik was sitting in a corner, his leg stretched in front of him, his hands caressing it around the injured area. Lilit was crouching beside him, her hands hovering over his bent foot.

“Let me see,” Dar said, crouching on his other side, looking without touching. The ankle was swollen, looking to the physician rather out of shape.

“What are you doing?” she asked Lilit.

“Just relieving the pain a little,” the old woman answered softly.

Nim, standing over them, asked, rather loudly, “Are you a healer? Can you cure him?”

“No,” Lilit said, lifting her black eyes at the girl. “I can’t really cure him; I leave that to the physician.”

“Nim!” Dar said in a voice both quiet and firm, one of her best physician voices, “keep some distance so that I can see better what is going on here. Nune, can you please turn on one of those light packs? It could do real good here, now.”

“There,” the man said as he was making a short search in his bag. “We don’t have many of them left, so I thought we should use them sparingly.” Switching it on, it emitted a faint, diffused glow. He approached the group in the corner, pushing Nim gently aside and directing the light toward Zik’s leg.

Dar scanned it closely.” How’s he doing, Lilit? You think I can touch it?”

“You should be able to.” The little woman rose from her crouch. “Take heart, Zik,” she said in her vibrating voice.

Dar stretched her hand toward the spot, and Zik emitted a faint scream even before she touched it. “It still hurts!”

“Zik,” Dar chided gently, “I haven’t even touched it yet.” She followed her words with action, feeling the spot gently all over. “It’s broken,” she said.

Standing up, she looked at the geologist with part compassion, part frustration, holding back her anger at the carelessness of his behavior. Still, what’s done was done and there was no point expressing her feelings aloud.

Proceed to the conclusion of part IV...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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