Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 35 of 69

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Rain ran a hand along the wall slowly, his croaking voice unusually silenced. The stone seemed to warm under his hand, reflecting the colour of his palm and turning the green and grey stone soft browns and pink. Of course, it was all an illusion: the stone had been worn smooth as a mirror by the icy waters as they melted away, and even now melt-water had frozen in tiny, glittering lines all over the walls, floor and even ceiling. The tunnels were smooth, and echoed the sound of running water and birdsong into a wash of bright, hollow sound.

"It's beautiful," the scout breathed. Numair glanced back at him, and then looked around the cave indifferently.

"Yes," he said, "I suppose it is. Cold, though."

The man remembered the time he had spent here, and shivered at the memory. It had been a haven of strong walls, where he could hear anyone approaching by their softest footstep, and where the light never dimmed. He had found it when he had started to regain his mind, and had discovered the caves quite by accident, stumbling blindly on clawed feet after a scrawny rabbit.

The rabbit had escaped, but he had come face to face with another animal. It had stood before him suddenly, almost silent as it staggered on deformed feet. Black, straggling hair hung in greasy locks over its pointed face. It had stared at him with hollow black eyes and screamed. The tattered remains of a cloak tangled in the creature's wings as it raised them, and the hawk mage had felt his own struggle with the cursed human clothes that still trapped him when he raised his hands to defend himself. Then his ragged claws had scraped across the frozen stone, and he had realised he was fighting his own reflection.

The shock of seeing himself – of actually seeing what the creature looked like – had forced frantic tears of laughter from his eyes, and he shook with mirth until the feathers fell away, and he was human again.

Then what? He looked like a man, but he had no mind, and no memory. He crept into the nurturing womb of the mountain and slept, drawing the rags over his skin as he shivered from both nightmares and the cold. If he woke up and forgot his shape, he looked into the eyes of the human in his reflection, and he remembered that, at least.

Numair had told Daine that his memory had simply returned, but it was not true. His memory had been carved from these caves, etched into the stones as he ran his hands over every inch of his reflection. He studied his broken nails and chapped fingers, the dirt that coated his skin and the streaks of lighter colour in his filthy black hair. When he realised that he was simply looking at dirt, not skin or flesh, he crept outside and washed himself in the icy melt-water of a stream. His hands felt clumsy and stilted, but the ice cold water ran through them in a comforting stream, and for a few moments his panicked ignorance faded, and he felt peaceful. He returned and forced himself to remember everything when he saw it. Every scar, and every freckle. He remembered himself as a picture. In the weeks that followed, even when he couldn't remember his name, he could at least remember his shape.

One morning he was pulling his hair back from his face, making sure that the birdlike features hadn't returned when he had drowned in dizzy dreams. His hands automatically twisted the overgrown locks into a horsetail, and for a split second he recognised the man who he saw in front of him, and knew that he had a name. He froze, and the hair fell back around his face, and the memory faded. But now he knew that it was there. The next day, he deliberately tied his hair back with a scrap of rag. He looked at the man in the mirrored wall, and forced himself to say the name out loud. It meant nothing to him; he couldn't claim it as his own, but he knew that the man he could see was called Numair.

After that, the memories returned. Some came in a fleeting rush, some in a slow trickle. He couldn't quite place them even when he'd recalled them. He remembered his name being spoken in other voices, and then he put faces to those sounds. He remembered being summoned, and he remembered where he had been when he heard his name being shouted. He built his life around his name, reciting every word to his reflection and watching it become a person.

After another month, when winter had almost drawn in, the guilt returned. Now Numair knew who he was, and he also knew what had happened to him. It was in these caves that he had made his decision to surrender to the townsfolk.

This was the part of his story that he had told to Daine. It was an easy decision, and he left the caves without looking back. He climbed the mountain trails, reasoning that the snow might kill him as effectively as the soldiers. When he reached the first town in the valley he was exhausted, and sick, and peacefully ready to die.

Now, months later with the chorus of spring burning in his ears, he had returned to the caves, and every footstep he took felt familiar. He had to wonder if it had all been worth it. Any good he thought he was doing seemed to have backfired horribly.

When he'd told Alanna that he was prepared to be the hawk mage again, he wasn't just being dramatic. Alanna had asked him what three people could do against an army, and in a cold shock Numair had realised that he was weak. It hadn't bothered him before, but now he realised that if he had his magic under control, he could probably rescue Daine in a few hours, using concealment and destruction spells. He felt suddenly useless, and even though he knew deep down that the soldiers would be just as effective as he would have been, he also understood the delicate political situation that meant that the officials and the knights would be dancing around each other for weeks, or even months. They were all unable to do anything to help Daine except wait for the tide to turn.

The hawk mage, Numair told himself bitterly, wouldn't wait. He looked at his reflection, and this time it showed him a man who longed to see the bird-like creature staring back. Yes, the hawk mage would not be weak. He would have his power, and he would have no desire to wait. The problem, though, was that he would also have no real aim. The hawk just liked to hunt, and wouldn't care if the bodies it tore through were Gallan, Tortallan, foe or friend.

Numair had come to the caves hoping for some kind of tether, or something that would help him remember why the hawk had let him reclaim his own self in this place. Something that would help him understand the hawk, and maybe... maybe... find some way to focus its power so that it would only hurt the people who deserved it. Staring at his reflection, seeing his own black eyes staring back mockingly at the man called Numair, he realised that it would never happen.

He shook himself and turned away, leading Rain deeper into the cave. The other reason he'd decided to come back here was far more interesting. They walked miles further into the labyrinth of tunnels than he had ever been before, and the light turned from the grey-blue into a strange watery green. Numair looked up and rested one thin hand against the curved ceiling of the cave.

"What do you think is above us?" He asked the scout, his voice quiet so it wouldn't echo. Rain looked up, frowning.

"More caves, I reckon. How far back does this one go? They might link up with..."

"Yes – more caves. That's what I thought, too. Do you..." Numair stopped speaking with his brow crinkling as he tilted one ear up. "Do you hear that?"

Rain listened, and then said uncertainly, "It sounds like the wind."

"The wind doesn't literally howl." Numair ran his hand along the ceiling again, glancing back along the tunnel towards the cave opening again. The sound was unsettling. "Does it?"

Rain squatted down on the cave floor and pulled out a piece of bread. "What were you thinkin' about this place?"

Numair shook himself off and accepted a chunk of the bread. "This cave has to lead under the keep." He said. "That place is built right into the rock. It goes on and on – Daine said there were dungeons, and a pit, and... and torture cells, and even she hadn't seen everything. They'd've had to cut into the stone to build it all, but I don't think they would. Why spend all that effort when you can just find a cave network, and build into it?"

"Clever." It wasn't clear if the munching Rain was talking about the builders or the idea, and he shrugged. "If there was a way out here, mind, they would seal it off. It is a castle, after all. You know, castles? Those big stone-y things, built for defence?"

The mage ignored the sarcasm. "It was built for that a long time ago, true, but now it's... just a prison, really. As long as the prisoners can't get out, why would they care who gets in?"

"You said you lived here." Rain said through a mouthful, "Didn't you explore?"

"No." The answer was curt, and Numair turned away to hide the expression on his face. Although it had taken them a day to walk here, and another morning to climb the rise, he knew there was a difference between making friends with another person and trusting them enough to describe the kind of madness that makes you scream when you can't see the sky. He stood up and brushed off his knees, and then they heard the sound again.

It couldn't have been the wind. It was a moan, low and drawn out, echoing in the caves. It seemed to come from all around them, but they moved slowly towards a smooth wall which had cracked in some spring thaw, both feeling instinctively that in its dark depths, there must be something to create the sound. It might be a groaning glacier, perhaps, or a channel for the wind to shriek through. The hair rose on the back of their necks, but they kept moving forward into the icy cave, because nothing could possibly be as bad as not knowing what that sound was. It would turn into demons in their nightmares if they couldn't see its face.

The crack was not filled with melt-water. It was scored all the way through the rock to the darkness on the other side. They pressed their faces close to it, squinting to see through the darkness. Then the sound changed. Slowly, the low moans turned into a stilted giggle, and then a high pitched guffaw as a single, yellowed eye glared at them through the crack.

The noise came from a human throat. Once they had realised that it was human the sound was horrifying. The voice sobbed through the crack, and now they could hear it properly: a man's voice, broken by years of being unheard. It was not a sound that any person would voluntarily make. It was a sound born of broken, furious anguish, and it was laughing.

The maniac's laughter followed them like a curse as they dragged themselves away and ran. Both of them refused to look madness in its baleful eye.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 35 of 69

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