“Hold on,” I urged, trying to find a clear path ahead while Mirna clung trustingly to a face of rock.
What had looked like a traversable ledge skirting the mountain had diminished to a shelf barely deep enough to hold a book. We were too committed on this course now to turn back, but the way forward seemed to abandon us altogether.
“Stay there, I’ll be right back,” I called.
Mirna nodded bravely, and I wondered again how I’d be handling this if my eyes didn’t work. Mirna never failed to astonish me. I eased out onto a section that supported only the pads of my feet and crept around the boulder blocking my view. On the other side of the boulder the shelf disappeared completely. My stomach sank. We’d lose a day backtracking, and we were already tired and weak from lack of food.
Something silver glinted for a moment in a patch of sunlight shooting through the spotted clouds overhead and I paused, pushing just a little farther. I caught it again. Something shimmering. Another carefully negotiated step forward revealed the most welcome, wonderful sight. A web covered a narrow opening. A thick, strong, silvery web, only made by creatures like my dear old friend, Tuktatuk. And if there was a web, then there were tunnels and catacombs connected to it that likely laced this entire mountain range.
“Mirna, it’s difficult, but we can reach a cave,” I called.
“Okay,” I heard her call back, and my heart swelled with pride at my friend’s unceasing courage. “Is there someone ahead?” She asked a second later. “I hear music or something.”
The web was emitting a high hum, now that I noticed it. I leaned closer, reaching to detach one of the strands when it snapped, creating a discordant tone in the high hum. Another strand snapped and another, and then I saw the pincers in the shadows, working to dismantle the web.
“We know who you are,” called a voice. “A friend of Tuktatuk is a friend of ours.”
“We have help,” I called to Mirna as I once again skirted the boulder to return to her.
It took a while to navigate both of our bodies around the boulder, and by the time we did, the web was long gone. Two long dagger-sharp spidery legs emerged from the hole and lifted me away from the boulder, and even knowing these creatures were friendly, I couldn’t help the squawk of fear that shot from my throat as I was lifted over open air to the safety of the tunnel.
“Are you alright?” Mirna called, feeling the boulder face for my hand. “Are you there?”
For the first time I heard fear in her voice. “Mirna, stay calm,” I called. “Our friends are different from us so don’t be afraid. They’re going to lift you to safety.”
I stepped deeper into the shadows of the tunnel to give the giant spider room. Several more spiders lurking in the shaded tunnel shifted aside to create room for me. By the sound of their many shuffling pointed legs, there were quite a few. Mirna screamed. By the time I’d turned, my heart in my throat, her feet were safely on the firm stone of the tunnel. She clutched the hard, hair-lined spider arms and her unseeing eyes were wide and round.
“What sort of creature are you?” she whispered.
“We were, em, we are Tik’ha’she’tik,” answered the one she still clutched.
I frowned. By my memory, Tik’ha’she’tik was not the word for this species. It was a distinction that meant philosopher, or outcast. Tuktatuk lived a solitary existence thanks to his label of Tik’ha’she’tik.
“Are you all exiled?” I asked, peering into the darkness.
“We left,” said the one holding Mirna. “We followed the work of Tuktatuk for some time, and decided to join his rebellion.”
“Tuktatuk isn’t leading a rebellion,” I frowned. He was busy acting the silent sentry, protecting a bunch of kids from the dangers of the world.
“But he was – er, he is,” said the Tik’ha’she’tik behind me. “Tukshassa joined him already a we were, um, we are on our way to them.” A clattering from the depths of the mountain made me jump. “We brought you food,” it said. “Come.”
The tunnel spiraled down for ages, and I clung to Mirna as we shuffled together after our hosts’ clicking steps. She patted my hand reassuringly, and I nearly laughed aloud.
“It seems like they keep correcting themselves when they talk,” she whispered into my ear. “Do you think they’re hiding something?”
I smiled. “Their hearing is better than yours,” I whispered back, gaining a chuckle from our hosts. Mirna squeezed my hand more sharply. “It’s okay,” I assured. “My friend, Tuktatuk, explained that they’re a species of historians. If you feel the carvings on these walls, they’re the ones who carved them, or others like them, that is. It’s the stories of the people of the world around us. They tell stories, so they think of the world in the past tense. Tik’ha’she’tik, or philosophers of their kind, choose to engage in the world. I think these ones are only just learning to translate into present tense.”
“Translate into present tense,” Mirna marveled. I noticed one of her hands leaving mine and had no doubt she was tracing the wall as we descended. “Marvelous!” she breathed after a while.
It took me a bit to understand the change, but I finally realized that I was beginning to see the silhouettes of our guides. “There’s light ahead,” I told Mirna.
“Something’s cooking,” she added.
The light was warm and golden, from a fire in a large chamber. I had the impression of many pillars and a great space from the small globe of sight the fire afforded. Another Tik’ha’she’tik tended the fire and the meat turning on the spit over it.
“Welcomed,” it greeted, clicking toward us with several arms open. The sight was far more daunting than welcoming, but I stood my ground, determined to be half as brave as Mirna.
“Thank you,” Mirna grinned. “We appreciate your assistance. Your dinner smells amazing.”
“We were happy to share with you,” said the Tik’ha’she’tik, bowing with many elaborate sweepings of arms. “I was, oh I mean, I am called Shassatik.” While pronouncing his name he swept a leg back and forth across the ground and tapped, mimicking the sound.
“Oh, how delightful!” Mirna said brightly. “Your language is percussive. Thank you for translating to ours, but I’m so curious to learn more of yours.”
I watched as Shassatik took Mirna’s arm and they chatted gaily on their way to the fire. Tuktatuk had never told me that. I’d always assumed he spoke the same way I did. No wonder he’d laughed at my name. There was no way to tap or swish it. Our rescue team had consisted of Hatuk, Shesheshassa, Tiktuktik, Shassaha and Tiktik, and returning from a hunting expedition were Tukshetik and Hashassa. Even as the others introduced themselves, and I learned that there were also sounds made by rubbing legs together, or just the hair on the legs, or clicking pincers, my name wouldn’t translate. Nor would Mirna’s.
“I should change my name,” Mirna declared happily over our dinner. “Something that can be tapped.”
“Alpha called me Shevus because I can read your carvings,” I added.
What small amount of conversation and movement there had been around the fire stopped. Mirna straightened in alarm at the sudden silence.
“That was not a name we appreciated,” said Shassatik.
“What does it mean?” I asked, worried that I’d just outworn the welcome of our rescuers. I had no clue how deep inside the mountain ridge we were, or how many tunnels led from this chamber to who knew where.
“That was the name given to us by the betrayers,” explained Hatuk. “The fairies,” he added as if uttering a curse.
“Calm yourselves,” said Tiktik. “Remember it is part of our rebellion to question that which we thought we knew. Tuktatuk has said that there may be evidence that our history was not what we were taught and we travel now, remember, to help him find again the lost archives of that time.”
Our hosts took their conversation into the realm of taps and swishes, the intensity rising to a near thunder around our campfire, and echoing off the distant surfaces of the chamber. Hatuk stormed away and was swallowed instantly by the blackness.
“We meant no harm.” Mirna’s voice was soft, but she raised it above the cacophony mightily. It worked, somewhat lessening the noise.
“I really didn’t,” I agreed vehemently. “It’s just what they called me. I had no idea what it meant. Alpha isn’t a nice man, so no wonder he’d use an offensive name.”
“Alpha isn’t a man, if he’s using Esthivan words,” said Hatuk, reemerging from the void. “He must be faerie.”
“He’s one of the architects of Azminan,” added Mirna. “He’s called Axbelis.”
This inspired a new round of taps and swishes, but this one without the fire of before.
“We know of Axbelis, and we’ve been hearing of this Alpha. We hadn’t realized they were the same,” said Tiktik. “You are in deeper trouble than we knew.”
“Yes,” Mirna and I confirmed together.
“It sounds like the Tik’ha’she’tik Rebellion has our first mission,” said Tiktik. The others began tapping a light steady rhythm, and though their language was lost on me, it sounded like agreement. “If Axbelis feel fit to call our friend Shevus, we must therefore respond by keeping our friend out of his reach.” The tapping picked up its pace, and I noticed that Mirna had joined in with a stomping heel, a wide grin across her face.
I joined in.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!