/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (11)

The Demons Den

Mercedes Lackey


The Demon's Den

by Tanya Huff

Born In the Maritimes, Tanya Huff now lives and writes in rural Ontario. On her way there, she spent three years in the Canadian Naval Reserve and got a degree in Radio and Television Arts which the cat threw up on. Although no members of her family are miners, "The Demon's Den" is the third story she's written about those who go underground, and mines have been mentioned in a number of her books. She has no idea where it's coming from, but decided not to fight it. Her last book out was No Quarter (DAW, March 1996), the direct sequel to Fifth Quarter (DAW, August, 1995) and her next book will be Blood Debt (DAW, April 1997), a fifth Vicki/Henry/Celluci novel.

The mine had obviously been abandoned for years. Not even dusk hid the broken timbers and the scree of rock that spilled out of the gaping black hole.

Jors squinted into the wind, trying and failing to see past the shadows. -.Are you sure it went in there?:

:Of course I'm sure. I con smell the blood trail.:

.-Maybe it's not hurt as badly as we thought. Maybe it'll be fine until morning.: His Companion gave a little buck. Jors clutched at the saddle and sighed. :All right, all right, I'm going.:

No one at the farmstead had known why the mountain cat had come down out of the heights — perhaps the deer it normally hunted had grown scarce; perhaps a more aggressive cat had driven it from its territory; perhaps it had grown lazy and decided sheep were less work. No one at the farmstead cared. They'd tried to drive it off.

It had retaliated by mauling a shepherd and three dogs. Now, they wanted it killed.

Just my luck to be riding circuit up here in the Great White North. Jors swung out of the saddle and pulled his gloves off with his teeth. :How am I supposed to shoot it when I won't be able to see it?: he asked, unstrapping his bow.

Gevris turned his head to peer back at his Chosen with one sapphire eye. :It's hurt.:

:I know.: The wind sucked the heat out of his hands and he swore under his breath as one of the laces of his small pack knotted tight.

:You wounded it.:

:I know, damn it, I know!: Sighing, he rested his head on the Companion's warm flank. :I'm sorry. It's just been a long day and I should never have missed that shot.:

:No one makes every shot, Chosen.:

The warm understanding in the mind-touch helped.

The cat had been easy to track. By late afternoon, they'd known they were close. At sunset, they spotted it outlined against a gray and glowering sky. Jors had carefully aimed, carefully let fly, and watched in horror as the arrow thudded deep into a golden haunch. The cat had screamed and fled. They'd had no choice but to follow.

The most direct route up to the mine was a treacherous path of loose shale. Jors slipped, slammed one knee into the ground, and somehow managed to catch himself before he slid all the way back to the bottom.

:Chosen? Are you hurt?:

Behind him, he could hear hooves scrabbling at the stone and he had to grin. :I'm fine, worrywart. Get back on solid ground before you do yourself some damage.:

Here I go into who-knows-what to face a wounded mountain cat, and he's worried that I've skinned my knee. Shaking his head, he struggled the rest of the way to the mine entrance and then turned and waved down at the glimmering white shape below. -.I'm here. I'm fine.: Then he frowned and peered down at the ground. The cart tracks coming out of the mine bumped down a series of jagged ledges, disappeared completely, then reappeared down where his Companion was standing.

:I don't like this.:

If he squinted, he could easily make out Gevris sidestepping nervously back and forth, a glimmer of white amidst the evening shadows. :Hey, I don't like this either, but...:

:Something is going to happen.:

Jors chewed on his lip. He'd never heard his usually phlegmatic Companion sound so unsettled. A gust of wind blew cold rain in his face and he shivered. :It's just a storm. Go back under the trees so you don't get soaked.:

:No. Come down. We can come back here in the morning.:

Storm probably has him a bit spooked and he doesn't want to admit it. The Herald sighed and wished he could go along with his Companion's sudden change of mind. I can't do that.: As much as he didn't want to go into that hole, he knew he had to. I wounded it. I can't let it die slowly, in pain. I'm responsible for its death.:

He felt reluctant agreement from below and, half wishing Gevris had continued to argue, turned to face the darkness. Setting his bow to one side, he pulled a small torch out of his pack, unwrapped the oilskin cover, and, in spite of wind and stiff fingers, got it lit.

The flame helped a little. But not much.

How am I supposed to hold a torch and aim a bow? This is ridiculous. But he'd missed his shot, and he couldn't let an animal, any animal, die in pain because of something he'd done.

The tunnel slopped gently back into the hillside, the shadows becoming more impenetrable the farther from the entrance he went. He stepped over a fallen beam and a pile of rock, worked his way around a crazily angled corner, saw a smear of blood glistening in the torchlight, and went on. His heart beat so loudly he doubted he'd be able to hear the cat if it should turn and attack.

A low shadow caught his eye and against his better judgment, he bent to study it. An earlier rockfall had exposed what looked to be the upper corner of a cave. In the dim, flickering light he couldn't tell how far down it went, but a tossed rock seemed to fall forever.

The wind howled. He jumped, stumbled, and laughed shakily at himself. It was just the storm rushing past the entrance; he hadn't gone so far in that he wouldn't be able to hear it.

Then his torch blew out.

:Chosen!:

:No, it's okay. I'm all right.: His startled shout still echoed, bouncing back and forth inside the tunnels, :I'm in the dark, but I'm okay.: Again, he set his bow aside and pulled his tinderbox from his belt pouch with trembling fingers. Get a grip, Jors, he told himself firmly. You're a Herald. Heralds are not afraid of the dark.

And then the tunnel twisted. Flung to his knees and then his side, Jors wrapped his head in his arms and tried to present as small a target as possible to the falling rock. The earth heaved as though a giant creature deep below struggled to get free. With a deafening roar, a section of the tunnel collapsed. Lifted and slammed against a pile of rock, Jors lost track of up and down. The world became noise and terror and certain death.

Then half his body was suspended over nothing at all. He had a full heartbeat to realize what was happening before he fell, a large amount of loose rock falling with him.

It seemed to go on forever; turning, tumbling, some-tunes sliding, knowing that no one could survive the eventual landing.

But he did. Although it took him a moment to realize it.

:Chosen! Jors! Chosen!:

:Gevris ...: The near panic in his Companion's mind-touch pulled him up out of a gray-and-red blanket of pain, the need to reassure the young stallion delaying his own hysteria. :I'm alive. Calm down, I'm alive.: He spit out a mouthful of blood and tried to move.

Most of the rock that had fallen with him seemed to have landed on his legs. Teeth clenched, he flexed his toes inside his boots and almost cried in relief at the response. Although muscles from thigh to ankle spasmed, everything worked, :I don't think I'm even hurt very badly.: Which was true enough as far as it went. He had no way of telling what kind of injuries lurked under the masking pressure of the rock.

:I'm coming!:

:No, you're not!: He'd landed on his stomach, facing up a slope of about thirty degrees. He could lift his torso about a handspan. He could move his left arm freely. His right was pined by his side. Breathing heavily, he rested his cheek against the damp rock and closed his eyes. It made no difference to the darkness, but it made him feel better. :Gevris, you're going to have to go for help. I can't free myself, and you can't even get to me.: He tried to envision his map, tried to trace the route they'd taken tracking the cat, tried to work out distances. :There's a mining settlement closer than the farmstead, just follow the old mine trail, and it should take you right to it.:

:But you ...:

:I'm hot going anywhere until you get back.:

I'm not going anywhere, he repeated to the darkness as he felt the presence of his Companion move rapidly away. I'm not going anywhere. Unfortunately, as the mountain pressed in on him and all he could hear was his own terror filling the silence, that was exactly what he was afraid of.

It was hard to hear anything over the storm that howled around the chimneys and shutters, but Ari's ears were her only contact with the world and she'd learned to sift sound for value. Head cocked, tangled hair falling over the ruin of her eyes, she listened. Rider coming. Galloping hard. She smiled, smug and silent. Not much went on that she didn't know about first. Something must've gone wrong somewhere. Only reason to be riding so hard in this kind of weather.

The storm had been no surprise, not with her stumps aching so for the past two days. She rubbed at them, hacking and spitting into the fire.

"Mama, Auntie Ari did it again."

"Hush, Robin. Leave her alone."

That's right, leave me alone. She spat once more, just because she knew the child would still be watching, then lifted herself on her palms and hand-walked toward her bench in the corner.

"Ari, can I get you something?"

Sometimes she thought they'd never learn. Grunting a negative, because ignoring them only brought renewed and more irritating offers, she swung herself easily up onto the low bench just as the pounding began. Sounds like they didn't even dismount. I can't wait.

"Who can it be at this hour?"

Her cousin, Dyril. Answer it and find out, idiot.

"Stone me, it's a horse!"

The sound of hooves against the threshold was unmistakable. She could hear the creak of leather harness, the snorting and blowing of an animal ridden hard, could even smell the hot scent of it from all the way across the room — but somehow it didn't add up to horse.

And while the noises it was making were certainly horselike ...

From the excited babble at the door, Ari managed to separate two bits of relevant information; the horse was riderless and it was nearly frantic about something.

"What color is it?"

It took a moment for Ari to recognize the rough and unfamiliar voice as her own. A stunned silence fell, and she felt the eyes of her extended family turned on her. Her chin rose and her lips thinned. "Well?" she demanded, refusing to let them see she was as startled as they were. "What color is it?"

"He's not an it, Auntie Ari, he's a he. And he's white. And his eyes are blue. And horses don't got blue eyes." Young Robin was obviously smarter than she'd suspected. "Of course they don't. It's not a horse, you rock-headed morons. Can't you recognize a Companion when you see one?"

The Companion made a sound that could only be agreement. As the babble of voices broke out again, Ari snorted and shook her head in disbelief.

"A Companion without a Herald?"

"Is it searching?"

"What happened to the Herald?"

Ari heard the Companion spin and gallop away, return and gallop away again.

"I think it wants us to follow it."

"Maybe its Herald is hurt, and it's come here for help."

And did you figure that out all on your own? Ari rubbed at her stumps as various members of the family scrambled for jackets and boots and some of the children were sent to rouse the rest of the settlement.

When with a great thunder of hooves, the rescue party galloped off, she beat her head lightly against the wall, trying not to remember.

"Auntie Ari?"

Robin. Made brave no doubt by her breaking silence. Well, she wouldn't do it again.

"Auntie Ari, tell me about Companions." He had a high-pitched, imperious little voice. "Tell me."

Tell him about Companions. Tell bun about the time spent at the Collegium wishing her Blues were Gray. Tell him how the skills of mind and hand that had earned her a place seemed so suddenly unimportant next to the glorious honor of being Chosen. Tell him of watching them gallop across Companion's Field, impossibly beautiful, impossibly graceful — infinitely far from her mechanical world of stresses and supports and levers and gears.

Tell him how she'd made certain she was never in the village when the Heralds came through riding circuit because it hurt so much to see such beauty and know she could never be a part of it. Tell him how after the accident she'd stuffed her fingers in her ears at the first sound of bridle bells.

Tell him any or all of that?

"You saw them, didn't you, Auntie Ari. You saw them up close when you were in the city."

"Yes." And then she regretted she'd said so much.

:Chosen! I've brought hands to dig you out!:

Jots released a long, shuddering breath that warmed the rock under his cheek and tried very, very hard not to cry.

:Chosen?:

The distress in his Companion's mind-touch helped him pull himself together. -:I'm okay. As okay as I was, anway. I just, I just missed you.: Gevris' presence settled gently into his mind, and he clung to it, more afraid of dying alone in the dark than of just dying.

:Do not think of dying.:

He hadn't realized he'd been thinking of it in such a way as to be heard..'Sorry. I guess I'm not behaving much like a Herald, am I?:

A very equine snort made him smile. :You are a Herald. Therefore, this is how Heralds behave trapped in a mine.:

The Companion's tone suggested he not argue the point so he changed the subject. :How did you manage to communicate with the villagers?:

:When they recognized what I was, they followed me. Once they saw where you were, they understood. Some have returned to the village for tools.: He paused and Jors had the feeling he was deciding whether or not to pass on one last bit of information. :They call this place the Demon's Den.:

:Oh, swell.:

:There are no real demons in it.:

:That makes me feel so much better.:

:It should,: Gevris pointed out helpfully.

“Herald's down in the Demon's Den." The storm swirled the voice in through the open door stirring the room up into a frenzy of activity. All the able-bodied who hadn't followed the Companion ran for jackets and boots. The rest buzzed like a nest of hornets poked with a stick.

Ari sat in her corner, behind the tangled tent of her hair, and tried not to remember.

There was a rumble, deep in the bowels of the hillside, a warning of worse to come. But they kept working because Ari had braced the tunnels so cleverly that the earth could move as it liked and the mine would move with it, flexing instead of shattering.

But this time, the earth moved in a way she hadn't anticipated. Timbers cracked. Rock began to fall. Someone screamed.

Jors jerked his head up and hissed through his teeth in pain.

:Chosen?:

:I can hear them. I can hear them digging.: The distant sound of metal against stone was unmistakable.

Then it stopped.

:Gevris? What's wrong? What's happening?:

:Their lanterns keep blowing out. This hillside is so filled with natural passageways that when the winds are strong, they can't keep anything lit.:

:And it's in an unstable area.: Jors sighed and rested his forehead against the back of his left wrist. .-What kind of an idiot would put a mine in a place like this?:

:The ore deposits were very good.:

:How do you know?: Their familiar banter was all that was keeping him from despair.

:These people talk a great deal.:

:And you listen.: He clicked his tongue, knowing his Companion would pick up the intent if not the actual noise. -.Shame on you. Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves.:

Only the chime of a pebble, dislodged from somewhere up above answered.

:Gevris?:

:There was an accident.:

:Was anyone hurt?:

:I don't... no, not badly. They're coming out.:

He felt a rising tide of anger before he "heard" his Companion's next words.

:They're not going back in! I can't make them go back in! They say it's too dangerous! They say they need the light! I can't make them go back in.:

In his mind Jors could see the young stallion, rearing and kicking and trying to block the miners who were leaving him there to die. He knew it was his imagination, for their bond had never been strong enough for that kind of contact. He also knew his imagination couldn't be far wrong when the only answer to his call was an overwhelming feeling of angry betrayal.

The damp cold had crept through his leathers and begun to seep into his bones. He'd fallen just before full dark and, although time was hard to track buried in the hillside, it had to still be hours until midnight. Nights were long at this time of the year and it would grow much, much colder before sunrise.

Ari knew when Dyril and the others returned that they didn't have the Herald with them. Knew it even before the excuses began.

"That little shake we had earlier was worse up there. What's left of the tunnels could go at any minute. We barely got Neegan out when one of the last supports collapsed."

"You couldn't get to him."

It wasn't a question. Not really. If they'd been able to get to him, they'd have brought him back.

"Him, her. We couldn't even keep the lanterns lit."

Someone tossed their gear to the floor. "You know what it's like up there during a storm; the wind howling through all those cracks and crevasses...."

Ari heard Dyril sigh, heard wood creak as he dropped onto a bench. "We'll go back in the morning. Maybe when we can see...."

Memories were thick in the silence.

"If it's as bad as all that, the Herald's probably dead anyway."

"He's alive!" Ari shouted over the murmur of agreement. Oh, sure, they'd feel better if they thought the Herald was dead, if they could convince themselves they hadn't left him there to die, but she wasn't going to let them off so easily.

"You don't know that."

"The Companion knows it!" She bludgeoned them with her voice because it was all she had. "He came to you for help!"

"And we did what we could! The Queen'll understand. The Den's taken too many lives already for us to throw more into it."

"Do you think I don't know that?" She could hear the storm throwing itself against the outside of the house but nothing from within. It almost seemed as though she were suddenly alone in the room. Then she heard a bench pushed back, footsteps approaching.

"Who else do you want that mine to kill?" Dyril asked quietly. "We lost three getting you out. Wasn't that enough?"

It was three too many, she wanted to say. If you think I'm grateful, think again. But the words wouldn't come. She swung down off her bench and hand-walked along the wall to the ladder in the corner. Stairs were difficult but with only half a body to lift, she could easily pull herself, hand over hand, from rung to rung — her arms and shoulders were probably stronger now than they'd ever been. Adults couldn't stand in the loft so no one bothered her there.

"We did all we could," she heard Dyril repeat wearily, more to himself than to her. She supposed she believed him. He was a good man. They were all good people. They wouldn't leave anyone to die if they had any hope of getting them out.

She was trapped with four others, deep underground. They could hear someone screaming, the sound carried on the winds that howled through the caves and passages around the mine.

By the time they could hear rescuers frantically digging with picks and shovels, there were only three of them still alive. Ari hadn't been able to feel her legs for some time, so when they pried enough rubble dear to get a rope through, she forced her companions out first The Demon's Den had been her mine and they were used to following her orders.

Then the earth moved again and the passage dosed. She lay there, alone, listening to still more death carried on the winds and wishing she'd had the courage to tell them to leave her. To get out while they still could.

"Papa, what happened to the Companion?"

"He's still out there. Brandon tried to bring him into the stable and got a nasty bite for his trouble."

Ari moved across the loft to the narrow dormer and listened. Although the wind shrieked and whistled around the roof, she could hear the frenzied cries of the Companion as he pounded through the settlement, desperately searching for someone who could help.

"Who else do you want that mine to kill?"

She dug through the mess on the floor for a leather strap and tied her hair back off her face. Her jacket lay crumpled in a damp pile where she'd left it, but that didn't matter. It'd be damper still before she was done.

Down below, the common room emptied as the family headed for their beds, voices rising and falling, some needing comfort and absolution, some giving it. Ari didn't bother to listen. It didn't concern her.

Later, in the quiet, she swarmed down the ladder and hand-walked to where she'd heard the equipment dropped and sorted out a hundred-foot coil of rope. Draping it across her chest, she continued to the door. The latch was her design; her fingers remembered it.

The ground felt cold and wet under the heavy calluses on her palms, and she was pretty sure she felt wet snow in the rain that slapped into her face. She moved out away from the house and waited.

Hooves thundered past her, around her, and stopped.

"No one," she said, "knows the Den better than I do. I'm the only chance your Herald has left. You've probably called for others — other Heralds, other Companions — but they can't be close enough to help or you wouldn't still be hanging around here. The temperature's dropping, and time means everything now."

The Companion snorted, a great gust of warm, sweetly-scented breath replacing the storm for a moment. She hadn't realized he'd stopped so close, and she fought to keep from trembling.

"I know what you're thinking. But I won't need eyes in the darkness, and you don't dig with legs and feet. If you can get me there, Shining One, I can get your Herald out."

The Companion reared and screamed a challenge.

Ari held up her hands. "I know you understand me," she said. "I know you're more than you appear. You've got to believe me. I will get your Herald out.

"If you lie down, I can grab the saddle horn and the cantle and hold myself on between them." On a horse, it would never work, even if she could lift herself on, she'd never stay in the saddle once it started to move; her stumps were too short for balance. But then, she wouldn't be having this conversation with a horse.

A single whicker, and a rush of displaced air as a large body went to the ground a whisker's distance from her.

Ari reached out, touched one silken shoulder, and worked her way back. You must be desperate to be going along with this, she thought bitterly. Never mind. You'll see. Mounting was easy. Staying in the saddle as the Companion rose to his feet was another thing entirely. Somehow, she managed it. "All right." A deep breath and she balanced her weight as evenly as she could, stumps spread. "Go."

He leaped forward so suddenly he nearly threw her off. Heart in her throat, she clung to the saddle as his pace settled to an almost gentle rocking motion completely at odds with the speed she knew he had to be traveling. She could feel the night whipping by her, rain and snow stinging her face.

In spite of everything, she smiled. She was on a Companion. Riding a Companion.

It was over too soon.

* * *

:Jors? Chosen!:

The Herald coughed and lifted his head. He'd been having the worst dream about being trapped in a cave-in. That's what I get for eating my own cooking. And then he tried to move his legs and realized he wasn't dreaming.: Gevris! You went away!:

:I'm sorry, heart-brother. Please forgive me, but when they wouldn't stay....: The thought trailed off, lost in an incoherent mix of anger and shame.

:It's all right.: Jors carefully pushed his own terror back in order to reassure the Companion. :You're back now, that's all that matters.:

:1 brought someone to get you out.:

:But I thought the mine was unstable, still collapsing.:

:She says she can free you.:

:You're talking to her?: As far as Jors knew, that never happened. Even some Heralds were unable to mind-touch clearly.

:She's talking to me. I believe she can do what she says.:

Jors swallowed and took a deep breath. :No. It's too dangerous. There's already been one accident. I don't want anyone dying because of me.:

:Chosen ... The Companion's mind-touch held a tone Jors had never heard before.. I don't think she's doing it for you.:

When they stopped, An took a moment to work some feeling back into each hand in turn. Herald's probably going to have my finger marks permanently denting his gear. Below her, the Companion stood perfectly still, waiting.

"We're going to have to do this together, Shining One, because if I do it alone, I'll be too damned slow. Go past the mine about fifty feet and look up. Five, maybe six feet off the ground there should be a good solid shelf of rock. If you can get us onto it, we can follow it right to the mouth of the mine and avoid all that shale shit."

The Companion whickered once and started walking. When she felt him turn, Ari scooted back as far as she could in the saddle, and flopped forward, trapping the coil of rope under her chest. Stretching her arms down and around the sleek curve of his barrel, she pushed the useless stirrups out of her way and clutched the girth.

"Go," she grunted.

He backed up a few steps, lunged forward, and the world tilted at a crazy angle.

Ari held her uncomfortable position until he stopped on the level ground at the mouth of the mine. "Remind me," she coughed, rubbing the spot where the saddle horn had slammed into her throat, "not to do that again. All right, Shining One, I'll have to get off the same way I got on."

His movement took her by surprise. She grabbed for the saddle, her cold fingers slipped on the wet leather, and she dismounted a lot farther from the ground than she'd intended.

A warm muzzle pushed into her face as she lay there for a moment, trying to get her breath back. "I'm okay," she muttered. "Just a little winded." Teeth gritted against the pain in her stumps, she pushed herself up.

Soft lips nuzzled at her hair.

"Don't worry, Shining One." Tentatively she reached out and stroked the Companion's velvet nose. "I'll get your Herald out. There's enough of me left for that" She tossed her head and turned toward the mine, not needing eyes to find the gaping hole in the hillside. Icy winds dragged across her cheeks, and she knew by their touch that they'd danced through the Demon's Den before they came to her.

"Now, then ..." She was pleased to hear that her voice remained steady. "... we need to work out a way to communicate. At the risk of sounding like a bad Bardic tale, how about one whicker for yes and two for no?"

There was a single, soft whicker just above her head.

"Good. First of all, we have to find out how badly he ..." A pause. "Your Herald is a he?" At the Companion's affirmative, she went on. "... how badly he's hurt. Ask him if he has any broken bones."

:I don't know. I can't move enough to tell.:

Ari frowned at the answer. "Yes and no? Is he buried?"

:Only half of me.:

:Chosen, I have no way to tell her that.:

.•Then, yeah, I guess I'm buried.:

"Shit." There could be broken bones under the rock, the pressure keeping the Herald from feeling the pain. Well, she'd just have to deal with that when she got to it. "Is he buried in the actual mine, or in a natural cave?"

:She seems to think it's good you're in a natural cave.:

Jots traced the rock that curved away from him with his free hand. His fingers were so numb he could barely feel it. :Why?:

:I can't ask her that, Chosen. She wants to know if you turned left around a corner, about thirty feet in from the entrance to the mine.:

:Left?: He tried to remember, but the cold had seeped into his brain and thoughts moved sluggishly through it.

"I — I guess so."

"Okay." Ari tied one end of the rope around her waist as she spoke. "Ask him if the quake happened within, say, twenty feet of that corner."

I don't know. I don't remember. Gevris, I'm tired. Just stay with me while I rest.:

:No! Mean-brother, do not go to steep. Think, please, were you close to the comer?:

He remembered seeing the blood. Then stopping and looking into the hole in the side of the tunnel. :Yes. I think no more than twenty feet.:

"Good. We're in luck, there's only one place on this level where the cave system butts up against the mine. I know approximately where he is. He's close." She reached forward and sifted a handful of rubble. "I just have to get to him."

A hundred feet of rope would reach the place where the quake threw him out of the mine, but, after that, she could only hope he hadn't slid too deep into the catacombs.

Turning to where she could feel the bulk of the Companion, Ari's memory showed her a graceful white stallion, outlined against the night. "Once I get the rope around him, you'll have to pull him free."

He whickered once and nudged her and she surrendered to the urge to bury face and fingers in his mane. When she finally let go, she had to bite her lip to keep from crying. "Thanks. I'm okay now."

Using both arms at once, then swinging her body forward between them, Ari made her way into the mine, breathing in the wet, oily scent of the rock, the lingering odors of the lanterns Dyril and the others had used, and the stink of fear, old and new. At the first rockfall she paused, traced the broken pieces, and found the passage the earlier rescue party had dug.

Her shoulder brushed a timber support and she hurried past the memories.

A biting gust of wind whistled through a crack up ahead, flinging grit up into her face. "Nice try," she muttered. "But you threw me into darkness five summers ago and I've learned my way around." Then she raised her voice. "Shining One, can you still hear me?" The Companion's whicker echoed eerily. "You don't need to worry about him running out of air, this place is like a sieve, so remind your Herald to keep moving. Tell him to keep flexing his muscles if that's all he can do. He's got to keep the blood going out to the extremities."

:What extremities?: Jors heard himself giggle and wondered what there was to laugh about.

:Chosen, listen to me. You know what the cold can do. You have to move.:

:I know that.: Everyone knew that. It wasn't like he hadn't been paying attention when they'd been teaching winter survival skills, it was just, well, it was just so much effort.

:Wiggle your toes!:

Gevris somehow managed to sound exactly like the Weaponsmaster, and Jors found himself responding instinctively. To his surprise, his toes still wiggled. And it still hurt. The pain burned some of the frost out of his brain and left him gasping for breath, but he was thinking more clearly than he had been in some time. With his Companion's encouragement, he began to systematically work each muscle that still responded.

The biggest problem with digging out the Demon's Den had always been that the rock shattered into pieces so small it was like burrowing through beads in a box. The slightest jar would sent the whole crashing to the ground.

Her eyes in her fingertips, Ari inched toward the buried Herald, not digging but building a passageway, each stone placed exactly to hold the weight of the next. Slowly, with exquisite care, she moved up and over the rockfall that had nearly killed Neegan. She lightly touched the splintered end of the shattered support, then went on. She had no time to mourn the past.

Years of destruction couldn't erase her knowledge of the mine. She'd been trapped in it for too long.

"Herald? Can you hear me?"

Jors turned his face toward the sudden breeze. "Yes ..." -.Gevris, she's here!:

:Good.: Although he sounded relieved, Jors realized the Companion didn't sound the least bit surprised.

:You knew she'd make it.:

Again the strange tone the Herald didn't recognize. :I believed her when she said she'd get you out.:

"Cover your head with your hands, Herald."

Startled, he curved his left arm up and around his head just in time to prevent a small shower of stones from ringing off his skull.

"I'm on my way down."

A moment later he felt the space around him fill, and a rough jacket pressed hard against his cheek.

"Sorry. Just let me get turned."

Turned? Teeth chattering from the cold, he strained back as far as he could but knew it would make little difference. There wasn't room for a cat to turn let alone a person. To his astonishment, his rescuer seemed to double back on herself.

"Ow. Not a lot of head room down here."

From the sound of her voice and the touch of her hands, she had to be sitting tight up against his side, her upper body bent across his back. He tried to force his half-frozen mind to work. "Your legs ..."

"Are well out of the way, Herald. Trust me." Ari danced her fingers over the pile of rubble that pinned him. "Can you still move your toes."

It took him a moment to remember how. "Yes."

"Good. You're at the bottom of a roughly wedge-shaped crevasse. Fortunately, you're pointing the right way. As soon as I get enough of you clear, I'm going to tie this rope around you, and your Companion on the other end is going to inch you up the slope as I uncover your legs. That means if anything's broken, it's going to drag, but if we don't do it that way, there won't be room down here for me, you, and the rock. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Good." One piece at a time, she began to free his right side.

:Gevris, she doesn't have any legs.:

:I know.:

:How did she get here?:

: brought her.:

:That's impossible!:

The Companion snorted. .-Obviously not. She's blind, too.:

"What!" His incredulous exclamation echoed through the Demon's Den.

Ari snorted and jammed a rock into the crack between two others. It wasn't difficult to guess what had caused that reaction, not when she knew the silence had to be filled with dialogue she couldn't hear. She waited for him to say something Herald-like and nauseating about overcoming handicaps as though they were all she was.

To her surprise, he said only, "What's your name?"

It took her a moment to find her voice. "Ari."

"Jors."

She nodded, even though she knew he couldn't see the gesture. "Herald Jors."

"Are you one of the miners?"

Why was he talking to her when he had his Companion to keep him company? "Not exactly." So far tonight, she'd said more than she'd said in the five summers since the accident. Her throat ached.

"Gevris says he's never seen anyone do what you did to get in here. He says you didn't dig through the rubble, you built a tunnel around you using nothing but your hands."

"Gevris?"

"My Companion. He's very impressed. He believes you can get me out."

Ari swallowed hard. His Companion believed in her. It was almost funny in a way. "You can move your arm now."

"Actually," he gasped, trying not to writhe, "no, I can't." He felt her reach across him, tuck her hand under his chest, and grab his wrist. He could barely feel her touch against his skin.

"On three." She pulled immediately before he could tense.

"That wasn't very nice," he grunted when he could speak again.

She ignored his feeble attempt to tug his arm out of her hands and continued rubbing life back into the chilled flesh. "There's nothing wrong with it. It's just numb because you've been lying on it in the cold."

"Oh? Are you a Healer, then?"

He sounded so indignant that she smiled and actually answered the question. "No, I was a mining engineer. I designed this mine."

"Oh." He'd wondered what kind of idiot would put a mine in a place like this. Now he knew.

Ari heard most of the thought and gritted her teeth. "Keep flexing the muscles." Untying the end of the rope from around her own waist, she relied it just under the Herald's arms. It felt strange to touch a young man's body again after so long. Strange and uncomfortable. She twisted and began to free his legs.

Jors listened to her breathing and thought of being alone in darkness forever.

:I'm here, Chosen.:

:I know. But I wasn't thinking of me. I was thinking about Ari... Ari...: "Were you at the Collegium?"

"I was."

"You redesigned the hoists from the kitchen so they'd stop jamming. And you fixed that pump in Bardic that kept flooding the place. And you made the practice dummy that ..."

"That was a long time ago."

"Not so long," Jors protested trying to ignore the sudden pain as she lifted a weight off his hips. "You left the Blues the summer I was Chosen."

"Did I?"

"They were all talking about you. They said there wasn't anything you couldn't build. What happened?"

Her hands paused. "I came home. Be quiet. I have to listen." It wasn't exactly a lie.

Working as fast as she could, Ari learned the shape of the stone imprisoning the Herald, its strengths, its weaknesses. It was all so very familiar. The tunnel she'd built behind her ended here. She finished it in her head, and nodded, once, as the final piece slid into place.

"Herald Jors, when I give you the word, have your Companion pull gently but firmly on the rope until I tell you to stop. I can't move the rest of this off of you so I'm going to have to move you out from under it."

Jors nodded, realized how stupid that was, and said, "I understand."

Ari pushed her thumbs under the edge of a rock and took a deep breath. "Now."

The rock shifted, but so did the Herald.

"Stop." She changed her grip. "Now." A stone fell. She blocked it with her shoulder. "Stop."

Inch by inch, teeth clenched against the pain of returning circulation, Jors moved up the slope, clinging desperately to the rope.

"Stop."

"I'm out."

"I know. Now, listen carefully because this is important. On my way in, I tried to lay the rope so it wouldn't snag, but your Companion will have to drag you clear without stopping — one long smooth motion, no matter what."

"No matter what?" Jors repeated, twisting to peer over his shoulder, the instinctive desire to see her face winning out over the reality. The loose slope he was lying on shifted.

"Hold still!" Ari snapped. "Do you want to bury yourself again?"

Jors froze. "What's going to happen, Ari?"

Behind him, in the darkness, he heard her sigh. "Do you know what a keystone is, Herald?"

"It's the stone that takes the weight of the other stones and holds up the arch."

"Essentially. The rock that fell on your legs fell in such a way as to make it the keystone for this cavern we're in."

"But you didn't move the rock."

"No, but I did move your legs, and they were part of it."

"Then what's supporting the keystone?" He knew before she answered.

"I am."

"No."

"No what, Herald?"

"No. I won't let you sacrifice your life for mine."

"Yet Heralds are often called upon to give then- lives for others."

"That's different."

"Why?" Her voice cracked out of the darkness like a whip. "You're allowed to be noble, but the rest of us aren't? You're so good and pure and perfect and Chosen and the rest of us don't even have lives worth throwing away? Don't you see how stupid that is? Your life is worth infinitely more than mine!" She stopped and caught her breath on the edge of a sob. "There should never have been a mine here. Do you know why I dug it? To prove I was as good as all those others who were Chosen when I wasn't. I was smarter. I wanted it as much. Why not me? And do you know what my pride did, Herald? It killed seventeen people when the mine collapsed. And then my cowardice killed my brother and an uncle and a woman barely out of girlhood because I was afraid to die. My life wasn't worth all those lives. Let my death be worth your life at least."

He braced himself against her pain. "I can't let you die for me."

"And yet if our positions were reversed, you'd expect me to let you die for me." She ground the words out through the shards of broken bones, of broken dreams. "Heralds die for what they believe in all the time. Why can't I?"

"You've got it wrong, Ari," he told her quietly. "Heralds die, I won't deny that. And we all know we may have to sacrifice ourselves someday for the greater good. But we don't die for what we believe in. We live for it."

Ari couldn't stop shaking, but it wasn't from the cold or even from the throbbing pain in her stumps.

"Who else do you want that mine to kill?"

"This, all this, is my responsibility. I won't let it kill anyone else."

Because he couldn't reach her with his hands, Jors put his heart in his voice and wrapped it around her. "Neither will I. What will happen if you grab my legs and Gevris pulls us both free?"

He heard her swallow. "The tunnel will collapse."

"All at once?"

"No ..."

"It'll begin here and follow us?"

"Yes. But not even a Companion could pull us out that quickly."

:Gevris ...: Jors sketched the situation. :Do you think you can beat the collapse?:

:Yes, but do you think you can survive the trip? You'll be dragged on your stomach through a rock tunnel:

:Well, I'm not going to survive much longer down here, that's for certain — I'm numb from my neck to my knees. I'm in leathers. I should be okay.:

:What about your head?:

:Good point.: "Ari, you're wearing a heavy sheepskin coat, can you work part of it up over your head."

"Yes, but ..."

"Do it. And watch for falling rock, I'm going to do the same."

"What about your pack?"

He'd forgotten all about it. Letting the loop of rope under his armpits hold his weight, he managed to secure it like a kind of crude helmet.

"Grab hold of my ankles, Ari."

"Ari, I can't force you to live. I can only ask you not to die."

He felt a tentative touch, and then a firmer hold. :Go, Gevris!:

They stayed at the settlement for nearly a week. Although the Healer assured him that the hours spent trapped in the cold and the damp had done no permanent damage, Jors wore a stitched cut along his jaw as a remembrance of the passage out of the Demon's Den.

Ari was learning to live again. She still carried the weight of the lives lost to her pride, but she'd found the strength to bear the load.

"Don't expect sweetness and light, though," she cautioned the Herald as he and Gevris prepared to leave. "I was irritating and opinionated before the accident." Her mouth crooked slightly, and she added, with just a hint of the old bitterness, "I expect that's why I was never Chosen."

Jors grinned as Gevris pushed his head into her shoulder. "He says you were chosen for something else."

"He said that?" Ari lifted her hand and lightly stroked the Companion's face. She smiled, the expression feeling strange and new. "Then I guess I'd better get on with it."

As they were riding out of the settlement to take up their interrupted circuit again, Jors turned back to wave and saw Ari sketching something wondrous in the air, prodded by the piping questions of young Robin.

:I guess she won't be alone in the dark anymore.:

Gevris tossed his head. :She never had to be.:

:Sometimes it's hard for people to realize that.: They rode in silence for a moment, then Jors sighed, watching his breath plume in the frosty air. :I'm glad they found the body of that cat — I'd hate to have to go back into the Den to look for it: Their route would take them nowhere near the Demon's Den. :That was as close to the Havens as I want to come for a while.: And then he realized.

:Gevris, you knew Ari wanted to die down there!:

:Yes.:

:Then why did you let her go into that mine?:

:Because I believed she could free you.:

:But...:

:And,: the Companion continued, :I believed you could free her.: