Tom and Willow took less time than Hallie had anticipated. They were back by midnight, bringing with them the answer.
Katherien had been too nervous to sleep. This was a huge decision for her elders. She knew it could take them quite a while. The sight of the two scouts shocked her. Tom and Willow were met by the point of a sword.
"Whoa!" Willow exclaimed. "We're friends! Is that any way to treat us?"
"Sorry," Katherien mumbled, sliding her sword back into its sheath. "What did they say?"
Willow looked sideways at Tom. "Well, they did say she could come."
Katherien sensed there was something more.
"She must come blindfolded," said Tom, quickly as though it would not anger Katherien if she heard it swiftly. "And be kept in confinement until they are sure she is a friend."
Katherien was outraged. "For Orn’s sake, is she truly that much of a threat?"
Katherien was angry. And when she got angry, it usually meant things got broken. It was lucky that Hallie came out of the tent at that moment.
"What's the problem?"
"She has to go blindfolded! Like some common criminal!"
Hallie looked in amusement at her friend. "Come on Katherien, it's not like their asking us to tie her hands and gag her. Besides, this is a big step for our people. I'm surprised she's even allowed to come!"
Katherien was still not pleased. Even though only a few days ago she couldn't wait to get rid of Caila, now she felt, no she knew, that she owed the young girl something. And she had promised to tell Caila everything. And the only way Katherien could do that was to bring Caila to her home.
Caila didn't mind being blindfolded. She just accepted it without question, trusting Katherien and Hallie completely. Katherien felt uneasy at the way Caila blindly followed them. After all, Katherien certainly hadn't trusted her.
They reached the lake fairly quickly. Caila had to be carried by one of the group. Mostly, Tom held her. They’d become much more friendly. But when he became tired, one of the others would take his place but Tom was never far away. Katherien wondered if it was more to do with Caila being a human, something he would have never seen before. However, she tried to push such pessimistic thinking from her mind.
After the lake all they had to do was follow the river. Caila could probably hear the running water but she would not know what water that could be so they supposed this would be allowed. And the river was the best way to find their home.
It was very peaceful, Katherien felt. The trees grew right up to the river’s edge and in some places grew over the water, their leaves drifting down the river every now and then. The weather was cool but not cold. The others in the group all wore light cloaks but also warm layers. Katherien’s thick winter cloak gave her much warmth. However, Caila was shivering slightly. No one had any spare clothes. Willow had managed given her a warm blanket but shoes were scare. It was lucky that Caila didn’t need to walk.
The trees became closer and thicker as they walked up the river. Soon, they could not get any further. Hallie turned to Caila and Tom who was currently carrying her.
“Move off a bit. She shouldn’t hear these words.”
Tom carried Caila further away from the group, so they could just see the two of them, and set her down on a tree stump.
Hallie turned to the forest. Vines wound around in a thick net. Beyond the first few trees was darkness and murky green leaves. It didn’t look like they could get past even if they went in cutting down everything. The undergrowth was way too thick and anyway, they didn’t condone cutting down trees for no use.
Hallie stroked the nearest tree.
“Tierra Actem,” she whispered. All at once, the vines wound back and the trees moved apart from each other. The undergrowth shrank back and suddenly a clear cut path was revealed.
“All right,” Hallie said, hefting her quiver further up her shoulder. “On ward.”
The group who had been resting picked themselves up, acting like nothing at all had happened. Tom picked Caila up again and brought her over. And they walked up the new path, with the trees closing silently behind them.
They were mainly in silence now. But not deathly silence. They could hear birds and animals rustling about in the undergrowth.
"Good, that means we're not being followed," Hallie whispered to Katherien.
The atmosphere was a lot lighter here, now they were in known territory. Everyone felt too tired to talk and now they were nearly home, they began gazing into the further off trees, lost in distant thoughts. Katherien felt her heart leap with joy at being so close to home again after so long. To be at last in a safe place.
Finally, they came out of the forest. The river continued upstream to the left but Hallie took them up a hill. It was more of a mountain, huge rocks appearing among the grass. Caila felt them going up. She would have loved to see something. But it was only a day. At the end of this journey she could be freed from the blindfold.
At evening, they reached it. A cave set into the mountain side. Sounds of water slamming powerfully against rock reached their ears before they had entered the cave so Caila guessed there was a waterfall nearby. It sounded powerful and for the first time, Caila felt afraid. She hoped nothing bad was waiting for her on the other side of that blindfold.
Tom set her down. She felt the cool stone beneath her feet. She wondered where on earth she was. Tom guided her by taking her arm. He’d been so friendly all day, talking to her about her family and her life back home. Although he’d said nothing about his own life, Caila felt safe with him. She told him all about her village and when it hurt too much to talk about it, he comforted her, with words or with silence. Either way, she felt better talking about what she’d lost. It felt a nice way to remember them, telling this strange individual. Like she was passing on their lives so that others may remember them, not just her.
Indeed, there was a waterfall in the cave, spilling into an undercover lake. If Caila could have seen it she would have been entranced. The cave was huge inside with the ceiling covered by stalactites. They stood by the edge of this pool with its pure clear water welcoming and familiar. The pebbles sparkled under the water, casting their glimmer upon the dark cave walls. The light moved and danced with the ripples caused by the waterfall. It was as though the lake bed was made of a glittering gold. Caila felt the coolness of the rock beneath her feet and saw some faint lights dancing through the blindfold.
Hallie stood out in front, facing the waterfall and she spoke one word: "Lija."
When the word left her lips, there was a great rumbling. The waterfall was shuddering and the ripples in the lake were turning into waves. Caila heard the waves splashing against the sides. She flinched as some of it touched her bare foot. No one had thought to give her any shoes. The waterfall parted, leaving the rock behind. But it was not rock. Instead there was an elegantly carved door, with a strange pattern of vines covering it. The water parted a pathway to the door. Hallie went forward. The rest followed.
They reached the door. Up close one could see the greenish bronze used to form the vines and the water rivets trickling down the dark wood. Hallie reached out and pushed.
Caila of course had no idea what had just happened. She assumed there had been a mini earthquake. The sharp floor made of stones turned into smooth wood. This she walked along for a while. The sound of the waterfall was becoming ever fainter. They seemed to come into a larger space. Caila could feel that the walls were further apart and there was more of an echo. Someone spoke.
"Welcome. I have been instructed to lead you and the human into one of the unused halls."
"Why us as well?"
"They wish the human to have some protection."
"Some guards more like," mumbled Katherien close to Caila's ear.
"Follow me please."
"Can she take the blindfold off?"
They were lead into what felt like a labyrinth for Caila. There were so many twists and turns and goings up and comings down. She heard no one else but the shallow breathing of those on either side of her. Katherien walked on her right and Hallie on her left. Then, abruptly, they stopped. Someone removed her blindfold. She blinked a couple of times to get used to the light and then gasped.
The hall she had been lead into was nothing less than what would have been in a nobleman's home. It was median sized, not huge but there was a wooden boarder with painted vines and iron chandeliers made to look like trees and flowers. The floor was dark wood with green and gold rugs scattered across it. An ornate, marble fire place stood at one end with a fire already lit for the weary travellers. Two long wooden tables were lined up against the two longest walls. The ceiling was light blue, with gold inlay. It looked as though someone had seen the outside world and wanted to recreate it here. Katherien smiled.
"Impressed," she said.
Caila slowly nodded, her mouth hanging open.
"So am I. We don't usually get the visitors hall when we come back."
Katherien turned round to a stranger. It was a young woman, dressed in a silvery grey dress with a plaited blue belt. Caila assumed this was the person who had lead them to the hall.
"Why are we here?" Katherien demanded.
"You must stay here until someone comes to speak with the human," the woman said in a cool, light voice. "They wish to know why you have brought her."
"And what does that have to do with the rest of us?" Hallie asked.
"Please, relax. Food will be served and there are beds through the door to your left. If you wish to change, there are baths on the door to the right. Please, make yourselves at home. And you," she turned to Caila, "welcome to Lija, the home of the Lamentka."