I awoke to darkness. How I clawed myself from beneath that tide of mire I do not know. I was still half-buried and choking with the drying muck on my lips, lining my mouth and throat. I could not reach my canteen, could barely move my arms, and I hacked and coughed myself raw but still felt and tasted damp decaying earth, as if I had been exhumed from a grave.
Laughter burst from my skinned and bleeding lips, crazed and uncontrollable, till tears came to me. Each wild exultation racking my lungs, searing my tormented throat, causing a dozen razors of pain to escape from my mouth and my only audience were the wheeling stars that listened from the cold black sky. With a despairing gasp my laughter ended and some measure of sanity returned.
The night was cold. The ground had hardened beneath me. The muddy wall had become a solid weight pinning me to the ground. At first I broke thick clumps of it free with my hands but then found the knife at my belt and used the keen-edged blade to slice and stab at the earth and then with frantic haste yank my legs free. I was thankful to find them whole and unbroken. They had long since succumbed to numbness and cold and I jumped to my feet, heavy pack with its extra load of dirt and clay notwithstanding, and stamped feeling and warmth back into them with pleasure and joy.
The night was cold but a fire burned inside of me; a fierce sense of life and victory, basic and feral, that I had never quite felt before. Death had held me in her embrace and would surely have drawn me down into her icy realm but I had broken free and lived. The air tasted cold and sharp and sweet as if a kiss still lingered from every woman I had ever loved.
My knife was still in my hands, clotted with mud, and I cleaned it on the hip of my trousers that had remained mud free beneath my sodden wrap of canvas shelter I'd been using as a cape. My face and hair were thick with dried mud and my hands filthy. I unshouldered my pack and drew a canteen from it. I wasted three mouthfuls cleaning the muck which I'd swallowed before drinking a fourth and putting it, regretfully, away.
Around me several lengths of the gouge were narrowed by the collapse of the wall and a scallop of land had been taken from the edge, but still there seemed no foot or handhold that I could dare to pull myself out.
I had judged the gouge to run somewhat to the North and East, and of course, South and West, but the stars did not look right. They were very bright and far too many and in no pattern that I had seen before. A silver glow made this gouge through the earth shine as the silver river had shone. Whoever had carved this path, and I did not doubt for a moment that men had done this work, had made some effort to place turns and bends in its course. Beyond the length where the earth had fallen I could see the turn begin.
The way for me was North or at least what I had thought was North during the previous day and so I kept the small fall of earth on my right and walked the silvery pathway toward what I could not hazard.
Atop my pack were several longer lengths of the wood I had broken from the ruined tree and with these I might have fashioned a torch, though my supply of cloth was small and my supply of oil even smaller, but the light from the stars was enough. In all my travels I had heard nothing of this place, not even rumors, and I had sought them out knowing well what my fate would be should I escape from Ang. Nothing in this wasteland made me fear that my sword could not deal with what I might encounter and with a sense only of precaution I unsheathed the blade and held it ready.
Past the turning the pathway began a series of sharp angles all right then straight then right again. There were four such when I found myself facing a branching of the way. The gouge now went in what I still believed to be vaguely North but on my right another passage was cut. I stood for first one minute then another undecided before choosing to explore and change my direction. The walls of the gouge were still as high, the banks of the silver-light river of earth still as unassailable. After a dozen feet I stopped.
Pacing from one side to another I counted each footstep then turned back the way that I had come. I paced the distance again between wall and wall in the passage I had been following. A smile came to me as I counted out six footsteps more. So small a thing, but finding some difference between one pathway and the next gave me hope. I did not question it.
I turned back toward this new, smaller passage. It ran straight and with as little bend as could be expected as any excavation through this mire. Soon there came a depression to my left and then another. These were no more than a dozen feet in depth and perhaps half as much wide. An irregular mound of earth floored each and the even line that formed the top edge of the wall was rough and irregular as well. I tried standing on these mounds thinking that the extra feet might help leap toward the top of the wall of the gouge but the earth was especially loose and muddy and I had no wish to be buried again.
After travelling no more than a score of yards I could see a dark space on the wall to my right. Unknowingly I slowed my approach and found myself creeping toward this dark space in the reflected starlight that came from the damp surface of the wall. My fingers were white along the hilt of my sword and I flexed them one by one so that my grip would be sure. With the point I reached out into the dark space and found nothing blocking my way. No I wished for some light and I backed away to prepare a torch.
I fumbled for my pack and dropped my sword then wildly glanced up preparing myself for an attack that did not come. All sense of cold was gone in that sudden taste of panic and with careful breaths I calmed myself. The torch was in my hand and with sword and flame I approached the dark opening in the wall.
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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda