Actions

Work Header

Fractures

Chapter Text

Five Years Ago

 

“Namaari.”

“…”

“Up, my morning mist. I know it’s early my love, but I need you.”

Namaari wished she could just say no and return to the sweet bliss of unconsciousness but she couldn’t. Not when it was her mother calling to her. Not when she sounded harried.

The sky was still inky darkness. From what Namaari could see through her windows the stars weren’t even visible. That meant cloud cover. Virana was sitting at the edge of her bed, a lantern in hand. She’d mercifully thrown a shade over the light so it was softer on Namaari’s eyes.

“Raya is here. I need you to keep her company.”

“Okay,” An ingrained response to offer her mother help when she could answered for her. Only after she’d pulled herself from the bed did her mind catch up. “What?” She turned on her mother, eyes wide.

“Raya. Of Heart. She is here. In the dining hall. Listen to me Namaari it is imperative you make her feel welcomed.”

“Raya’s here? Why? What is she-” Every muscle in Namaari’s neck and chest tensed, “She’s here to steal the gem. Or to kill me or… or you.”

“Shh,” Virana soothed, combing her fingers slowly through Namaari’s hair. She placed her hands on both of Namaari’s shoulders. “She isn’t here to hurt anyone.”

“You can’t know that.”

“A mother knows these things.”

Namaari caught the turn of phrase. Those were the words Virana used when Namaari had skirted training because of bullying. Those were the words she used when Namaari wasn’t finishing meals so she could take a share to Atitaya. Those were the words she used when she knew Namaari was lying about her nightmares.

Those weren’t the words Virana used when she’d predicted Tail betraying them in a trade deal. It certainly wasn’t the words she used when she asked Namaari to get close to the heir of Heart for the sake of their people.

So why were they the words she used now, with Raya?

“Mother-”

“I understand where your apprehension comes from, but this is an opportunity we mustn’t let slip past.”

“Why me?”

“You’re the one she’ll feel the most comfort around.”

“No, she won’t. Not after what I did to her.”

Virana’s expression sharpened at the edges and she cupped Namaari’s cheeks. “We need information about the gem from Raya. We need to understand how Heart made its magic work for them. We need to get her to open up. She came to us, there is a reason for it. I need you to try, please, my morning mist.”

Namaari nodded. Of course, she was going to try. She didn’t believe she was going to be successful, but she would still try. If she was the one who could learn what they needed for their people then that’s what she would do.

“She came to us?”

“A patrol brought in her not long ago. She approached by our main pathway, making no efforts to hide herself.”

“Why?”

Virana shook her head, “Why she came to us, I don’t know. No whispers about her have reached my ears since she escaped Talon a moon ago. I can only guess what’s happened in that time. But she seems injured.”  

“Injured?”

“I can tell you no more. She hasn’t spoken much beyond asking for a meal.”

Namaari nodded once more. She changed out of her nightclothes. Her mother left with the promise of finding her again soon. She left behind the lantern for Namaari. Even with its light, the halls were still dark and the quiet of the early morning seemed to chill her more. Her chest was tight, all the muscles seemingly refusing to let her breathe as she descended to the lower levels of the palace.

The familiar doors to the dining hall stood before her with anything but their usual welcome. The gilded metal strung cold as she pressed her palm flat against the surface. She pressed her ear to the doors, listening. No sounds. Not from the dining hall.

She could hear the stirring from the kitchens in the opposite direction. But the doors in front of her gave no hint of what awaited Namaari on the other side. An ambush? A smile? A bloodied body? Namaari knew which one she hoped to find. She also knew which one was most likely.

Footsteps suddenly flattered behind her and Namaari turned. A kitchen hand, young lad, maybe only two or three years older than Namaari herself stood like a deer caught in headlights. He wasn’t one of the usual severing staff, Namaari knew their faces. But likely no one else was on hand, giving the time. The way he carried the pitcher in hand, both his hands around the neck instead of holding the handle, was a dead giveaway he was out of his element. Strangely she felt soothed, having someone else who was dragged out into uncertainly with her.

A final breath, filling the air in her lungs, hoping to find stability. She didn’t. But she pushed on the doors anyway.

No ambush. No blood. No smile. Just a small body at the table, wolfing down the contents from two plates. Raya froze when Namaari and the kitchen hand walked into the room. She eyed them both, lingering on Namaari longer. Slowly she took another bite. When neither Namaari nor the kitchen hand made any indication of stopping her she shifting back into a hurried pace. She had a plate of Som Tum, green papaya salad with a sauce made from signature Fang peppers and steamed fish, still half wrapped in fig leaves in front of her. Even at a glance Namaari could tell the meal was one thrown together quickly, the fish lacking any of the usual adornments and sides their chef usual would have served it with.

The kitchen hand stepped around Namaari with his pitcher. Raya tensed again as he drew closer, her eyes shifting from Namaari to him. He pulled her cup to the edge of the table, filling it quickly before stepping away into the corner of the room. Raya waited until he was out of reach again before taking the cup and downing it all in one.

She eyed the kitchen hand with such an intensity Namaari worried she was going to attack him. But she cleared her throat and in a voice timider than Namaari expected, asked, “Is there more?”

The kitchen hand glanced down at the pitcher and startled. He tripped over himself to pour another cup for her. He left the pitcher this time. Raya drank three cups in a row before she slowed down.  Namaari took that opportunity to sit opposite her at the table. ‘Make her feel welcomed’ her mother had said. She placed the lantern on the table and leaned forward on her elbows.

“Hi,” She ventured.

Raya glared at her, not answering as she continued to eat. She’d finished the Som Tum and was working her way through the last of the fish.

No reply. That was fair. Namaari hated feeling like she was failing her mother, but this was one time she thought her mother’s idea was flawed. Raya wouldn’t be comfortable around Namaari. Right now Namaari didn’t feel comfortable around herself, so thrown off by seeing Raya again.

It had been eight months since she’d last seen Raya as they’d fled Heart with a shard of the Dragon Gem. The change in those months was dramatic. Her face and eyes were drawn in, her skin a shade darker from their last encounter. Her clothes, Namaari recognized the cut and colors of a Heart warrior from the times they’d encounter some near their borders but the cloth was soiled and ripped, a hollow memory of former splendor Heart’s colours.

It took Namaari a moment to notice Raya was dropping some of her bites before she could bring it to her lips, her hand clumsy around her utensil. Her left hand, Namaari observed. She tried to think back to the meal at Heart and the hand Raya used there. Which arm had been the lead in their fight? The thought was too diluted from all the times she’d retraced the steps of that day to trust if she remembered correctly which hand Raya used as her dominant. 

But now, Raya’s right arm was tucked close to her body and, oh, covered in bandages. That might explain why she was using her left. The bandages rose up to her shoulder where dried blood, dark, almost black, stained the cloth.

“When was the last time you changed your dressing?” Namaari asked, forgetting who she was with. Forgetting this wasn’t a fellow Fang soldier she was sitting across from. Raya pulled her cloak over her shoulder and arm, shrinking back from Namaari.

Namaari was certain her mother’s judgement was flawed now.

As though summoned by her thoughts, Chief Virana strode into the room then, quiet and calm like an old river bend.

“Princess Raya, how was your meal? Forgive its simplicity. Unfortunately, short notice is not an ingredient in Fang’s best meals.”

That’s something about her mother Namaari truly admired, how she kept all emotions out of the equations when it came to matters of the people. Here Namaari was, too deep in her own thoughts to say more than ten words strung together. Yet her mother was placid.

“Chief Virana, please allow me a moment’s conversation with you.”         

Oh, so Raya was fine speaking with her mother. It was just Namaari then she took issue with. Understandable, but Namaari still felt an edge of annoyance.

“You are welcomed to as many moments as you desire, but please allow our physician to look at you first,” Virana called someone into the room, Fang’s head doctor who nodded to Raya.

Raya’s hand moved to her shoulder again, clutching at the fabric.

“I need to talk to you first,” Raya said, “About the gem.”

“I want to speak with you about the Dragon Gem as well. But you’re injured. Let’s take care of that.”

“I’m fine.”

“There have been rumours about your time in Talon,” Virana said carefully.

Raya’s expression darkened and she stood, the chair scraping against the floor cutting the air. Namaari stood as well, shifting so she was between her mother and Raya.

“Raya, I wish to talk, same as you.”

“Then talk,” Raya said.

There was a moment’s silence and in an instance, Namaari saw her mother calculate an unknown number of paths and came out with the one she deemed most favourable. Her posture went from open to the rigid demeanor Namaari most associated with her mother when in a council meeting. 

“The Gem, how did Heart use it?”

Raya blinked. “We didn’t use it. We protected it.”

“You must have used it. There is something we don’t understand. Something to the magic. A trick.”

“The Gem didn’t give us the prosperity you think it did. We only protected it.”

Virana’s eyes narrowed. “You said you came here to discuss the gem. What do you want to discuss?”

“We need to bring to gem together. If we do maybe it can reverse what the Druun have done.”

“You posture Heart has never used the gem, yet you come asking to do just that.”

“That’s,” Raya inhaled sharply, “This is not the same.”

“How Princess Raya?”

“It’s just not.”

“We want to provide for our people, same as you want to protect yours. Tell us how to use the gem.”

“The gem doesn’t work like that,” Raya’s voice grew heated now.

“Then how does it work?”

“I don’t know! My Ba, he just believed it would bring our people together. We could have been Kumandra. But you ruined that.”

Raya stepped forward and Namaari got ready, sensing the attacking coming. Raya’s arms raised at the same time but the moment her right hand lifted towards her shoulder her body seized. Namaari’s guard dropped as she hesitated. Their physician, Khamla moved to Raya. Namaari was going to stop her, but Virana’s hand on her shoulder pulled her back. She gave a small shake of her head.

Khamla pulled back Raya’s cloak, pressing her fingers to the bandages. Raya winched, grabbing her hand to stop her.

“How long as this injury been like this?”

“A month, since I left Talon.”

“It shouldn’t be swollen at this stage.” She said and looked to Virana, “She needs treatment. This argument can wait until after.”

Virana nodded once, “Help her.”

“I don’t need-” Raya started to push her away but moving her arm brought another wave of pain.

Khamla didn’t let her argue again, helping her stand. She led her from the room.

Namaari looked to her mother, who without turning her head to return the gaze said, “Say what’s on your mind.”

“Nothing, mother.”

“Nothing?” Virana turned her fully at that.

“I- we can’t trust her, but her pain seemed genuine.” 

“There is a reason I didn’t bring my staff to this meeting.”

Namaari only then realized her mother didn’t carry the staff and she silently chided herself for missing details.

“And if our suspicions are true and Raya has the fifth shard that didn’t turn up at one of the other tribes I suspect strongly she didn’t bring it with her either.”

“Was this a ploy to get her shard?”

Virana’s head tilted to the side, “You know I won’t lie with you.”

Namaari nodded.

“Two shards is a tempting and if the opportunity were to lay before us, I would consider it.”

“Yet, there is an addendum you’re thinking of.”

“What factors would change if we were to have a second shard?”

“Having more could bring us the prosperity Heart had?” Namaari ventured.

“There is a potential to that, yes, but what are the certainties?”

Namaari thought, “The other tribes.”

“Yes?”

“Which each tribe holding one piece of the gem each we have a tentative stalemate. If we were to gain a second, their eyes would turn to us.”

“Is that worth the potential of prosperity?”

“Not the potential no.”

“This we agree on. I was honest with Raya and asked plainly want I wanted to know.”

“Do you think she’ll tell us?”

“I think we should let her be, until Doctor Khamla has treated her. And that you should return to bed. Your rest is important.”

“Yes, mother.” Namaari bowed to her mother, but she didn’t return to her room. She went to the training grounds, taking up one of the dulled Ngao from the racks. She’d always picked her daab’s, her swords like second nature, but the longer reach of the staff wasn’t one she’d found a comfort in as of yet. She was determined to work at it until she had.

“Is it true?”

She was well into running through memorized forms when Atitaya’s voice broke her concentration.

“Is the Heart Princess here?”

Namaari nodded. Atitaya gave a low whistle.

“She’s bold.”

“I don’t know what she is.”

“Fang would make her four for four.”

“Four?”

“She’s been to the other tribes in the past weeks.”

“I only knew of Talon.”

“Talon is where she made the biggest showing. No wonder that’s what people are talking of. But some patrols along the Spine border were chatty with some of our men. She’s been to Spine and Tail as well.”

“Mother would want to know this.”

“I’m sure your mother already knows. I’m surprised you didn’t.”

“Why did she go?”

Atitaya shrugged as she chose a rencong, a heavier and longer sword than the daabs Namaari preferred from the racks.  “She asked for the same thing at each tribe, to see their Chief. Tail refused her outright. Talon turned into a mess and Spine fully refused to open its gates to her.”

“She asked mother to bring the pieces together.”

Atitaya snorted, “Yeah. Certainly bold. So you talked with her?” She joined Namaari in her exercise, going through the motions of repeated attacks and blocks, warming up.

“I wasn’t the one talking.”

“Where is she now?”

“The medical wing.”

“In th- did you attack her?”

“No, she was already injured.”

“Is she okay?”

“I don’t know,” Namaari answered honestly.

“Don’t you want to know if she is?”

“I don’t know,” She says again, less honest this time.

“Well, I want to see her.” Atitaya moved as Namaari swung a faux attack. She stumbled when the resistance of a block she’d been expecting never came.

“Atitaya, wait.” She dropped the staff and ran after Atitaya.

She followed Atitaya to the medical wing, glancing around.

“Why do you look scared to get caught?” Atitaya narrowed her eyes at her.

“Mother said we shouldn’t interrupt Doctor Khamla.”

“We’re not going to interrupt. I just want a peek.”

As if to spite them both, they heard Virana’s voice and out of instinct pressed themselves to the wall.

“Were her injuries serious?”

“They could have been. A fractured bone in the shoulder that wasn’t set properly. I don’t even know how that girl walked her on her own. She would have been in constant pain the past weeks. I managed to set it, but it wasn’t pretty. I also redid some stitches she’d done herself.”

“Did you say where the injuries came from?”

“No, didn’t say much to me. But I can I guess where they did happen. Even us medics are talking about what Dang Hai did.”

Virana made a noise in the back of her throat, “I understand wanting information on the gem. But what he did, he’s as lawless as the rest of his people.”

“They say she never talked,” Khamla said.

“Impressive for a girl her age. She’s only a bit younger than Namaari.”

“Seeing those injuries, if Dang Hai couldn’t get what he wanted, either she doesn’t know or was telling the truth.”

Virana didn’t respond at first, then, “Is she awake?”

“She should be. She refused the pain draught I offered her.”

“Will you let me speak with her?”

“You are my chief and I will heed your orders.”

“You are her doctor and I will listen to what you think is best.”

“…Try not to get her worked up again.”

Namaari and Atitaya listened as Virana’s footsteps moved away from them. They skirted around the edge of the building to keep listening. The conversation didn’t last very long, Virana and Raya going around in the same circles as earlier. Raya remained insistent the gem gave no magical advantages. Virana was stubborn in her disbelieve. Raya asked that the gem be used to save those turned to stone. Virana wasn’t going to hand over the gem knowing the other tribes would never agree to the same.

They talked around each other until a heated back and forth left Raya coughing with a groan of pain. Virana simply dismissed herself at that point, rejoining Doctor Khamla.

“She’s delusional if she thinks she can get the tribes to relinquish their gem pieces,” Namaari said.

“But, if it’s true, don’t you think it’s worth it to try? If we can return everyone from stone?”

Namaari chewed the inside of her cheek, “Sisu was the one who reversed the Druun’s powers. Without a dragon, the gem would be useless.”

“Maybe Heart does know how to use the gem and she’s hiding it.”

“If she is, then she can’t be trusted.” Namaari pulled on the hem of Atitaya’s shirt, “We should go.”

“No, please. I want to hear your opinions.”

Namaari and Atitaya’s heads shot up. The window above their heads was open and Virana looking down at them. They both jumped to their feet, Atitaya bowing.

“Mother.”

“Ma’am.”

“Do I bother asking what you’re both doing? Or shall I say my assumptions?”

Namaari straightened her shoulders, “I wanted to inquire of Princess Raya’s health.” She didn’t how much of that a statement was a lie. Hopefully, that meant her mother wouldn’t be able to read the lie either. Virana’s eyes narrowed for a moment. She saw right through Namaari.

“You don’t inquire by hiding outside of hallways.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Yes, Chief Virana.”

“To answer the question you didn’t ask, she’ll heal completely once she doesn’t aggravate the injury.” Khamla said, “I’m going for one last attempt to convince her to take something for the pain. I can give you a full report after.”

Namaari nodded, her skin hot and her mother’s boring gaze locking her to the spot.

“Chief Virana, I was the one who asked Namaari to come.”

Namaari, somehow, suppressed the urge to look at Atitaya. She just said a quick, “Don’t.”

“You should listen to your princess, Atitaya. Her actions will always be her own, no matter the influence of those around her. It is not your job to take responsibility for Namaari’s actions. As for your own decision to come here to eavesdrop you are better than such lowly acts. One day you will rise to be an important voice in Fang. I wish for that day to be sooner rather than later. Prove to me you will rise the expectations I have you.”

Atitaya nodded, her neck stiff.

Virana exhaled, expression softening, “Your concern for the Heart Princess is not out of place. You, both of you, are well within your rights to ask about her condition. I brought a potential enemy into Fang and offered her aid she needed. If you asked out of concern for the people of Fang having an enemy among them and why that is well within your right as the Princess and as a Captain. If you asked out of concern for Raya herself, then it is an admirable quality. You can look at an enemy and also see a person. You are both above lurking outside, especially when you each have reason to be in this room as well. All you needed was to ask. Understood?”

Namaari and Atitaya nodded together.

There was a sharp cry from the infirmary, the three of them turning to the sound. Namaari was the first to react. That cry had been Khamla’s. She was sure Raya had attacked the doctor by the sound of it. She vaulted through the open window, down the hallway to the doorway of Raya’s room. She kicked the ajar door fully open, running in, ready to strike. But her momentum flattered when she only saw the doctor in there.

“What?”

“She’s gone. She was just here.”

Namaari quickly assessed. The bed was empty. There were no potential hiding places. The pack Raya had with her was gone. Virana and Atitaya appeared in the doorway. Namaari met Atitaya’s gaze.

“She’s running. Get Sinn and Seo-Jin. She can’t be far. We’ll track her.”

Atitaya nodded, turning. Virana caught her shoulder, holding her firmly in place.

“No, you are not.”

“Mother,” Namaari started.

Virana cut her off with a firm, “No.”

“But.”

“Why are you going after her?”

“Because she’s running.”

“She came her of her own accord. And we offered aid of our own accord. She is not our prisoner. Enemy or not, she has given us no reason to detain her.”

“But-”

“But what Namaari? What will you do if you bring her back? Throw her in a cell? Under what charge?”

“I-I don’t know.”

“We allow her the dignity of this choice. You will not pursue. We will not lower ourselves to the same level as Talon thugs.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Good. Both of you, to your duties.”

“Yes, Chief Virana.”

“Yes, mother.”

Namaari trusted her mother completely, even when she didn’t see reason with her. Her mother was older, wiser. She understood things Namaari was only just becoming aware of. She never doubted her. So it couldn’t have been doubt that carried Namaari to the infirmary later that day.

She was, of course, going to listen to her mother’s orders, so asking Doctor Khamla if Raya could have gotten far with her injuries was a moot point. And asking how they’d heal without proper care wasn’t a factor she need concern herself with.

“I set the bone properly while she was here. Her stitching could use some work, but her bandages were well done, so she can handle that on her own. She’s young, so she should make a full recovery once she doesn’t try to use the arm for anything extraneous in the coming weeks.”

“Good to know.”

“Why do you ask?”

Namaari swallowed. She didn’t have an answer. Not right away. After a moment she decided her reasoning, “I suspect this won’t be my last encounter with the Heart Princess. If our next meeting is with weapons drawn I’d like to know if this injury would leave her with any lasting effects I could exploit.” That sounded reasonable enough that Namaari even believed herself.

The next time she met Raya, two months later, it was with weapons drawn. The patrol in the area had claimed seeing a Scale. Fang warriors came upon Raya first, Namaari arrived on the scene when two warriors were already disarmed and on the ground, and the third barely keeping Raya contained.

Namaari understood why she was mistaken for a Scale. The Heart colours were gone now. Replaced with muted colours aligned with no tribe. Her hair, open and wild. And a sword that looked too big for her, but she still held with an expert grip. An expert grip in her left hand.

Her injury hadn’t left her with a handicap. It had increased her versatility. A burning jealousy settled under Namaari’s skin, hardened when Raya left her winded on the forest floor, making their fight seem like it was play for her. In Raya of Heart, Namaari decided then, she had found a rival she wouldn’t lose to.


“Do you remember when Raya came to Fang asking we use the gem to save those turned to stone?”

General Atitaya shifted in her saddle to look at Namaari next to her. It was four days since Raya had come to Fang with them. She’d been helping since then. She’d joined Namaari and Atitaya in construction. Yesterday afternoon she’d assisted their camp’s chef preparing the evening meal. Everyone talked about it being the best meal they had in weeks afterwards. Today they’d ventured from the housing construction, travelling to fields being cleared for agriculture. The area had been cleared of trees and now they were working on uprooting the stumps left behind. They could sometimes use their serlots for assistance but Fang’s mounts were better for speed and agility so most of the stumps had to be dug out by hand. The serlots were used mostly for pulling the stone and wood on sleds once they’d been dug out.

However, Tuk Tuk had proved to have better pulling power than a serlot. He’d demolished some of the trickery stumps. But even he was taking time with this one deeply embedded root system. They’d been working on it continuously for three hours now, digging down and readjusting the ropes to give better leverage.

“You know I do, so ask your real question.”

Namaari snorted “You’re too much like my mother. No chance for preamble with either of you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Now, what’s in your head Namaari.”

“What do you think would have happened if we’d agreed?”

“Nothing. We know now only reuniting the stone with shared trust could have stopped the Druun. Even if Fang had been willing then, the other tribes weren’t. And if we’re honest, Fang wasn’t willing then either.”

“But, what if, we’d asked Raya to stay when she was injured?”

“Maybe she would have proved to be a good ally than as she has proven now. Maybe we could have joined in her search for Sisu instead of being her pursuers. But energy and time spent on the missed opportunities of yesterday only take those away from planning for tomorrow.”

“You really are too much like mother. Not meant as a compliment.”

Atitaya laughed, “Namaari, you punish yourself for past choices. You don’t want Fang to be recorded as history’s villains.”

“That’s what we are to the other tribes.”

“Right now all the tribes are shedding the idea that we’re advisories. For all the tribes, not just with Fang. The history is being written now. Our actions will colour those words. And even if Fang is called the villain, so what? We’ll prove them wrong.”

She lightly kicked Namaari’s shin, “Chin up Princess. I swear your mood has been a pendulum the past few days."  She shook her head at Namaari before looking back to th fields, "Okay, what are they doing now?” She leaned down to detach Seo-Jin from the sled he had been pulling with Sinn.

All the other workers had retired for the day, about to lose the last vestiges of daylight. Namaari and Atitaya had just cleared their last loaded sled for the day. Now the only group who remained at work was Raya and six Fang workers all trying to pull out the demon stump as they’d taken to calling it. A few minutes ago they’d watched one of the men walk away, assuming they were giving up for the day and the others were just untying all the ropes before retiring for the evening as well. But that man was now walking back one of the large sledgehammers on his shoulders.

Atitaya rode up to them.

“There’s no shame in admitting defeat for today,” She said, “Half an hour more you’ll be working in the dark. We can tackle this in the morning.”

“General, we’ve figured out why this one refuses to move,” A man called from in the hole they’d dug around the large stump.

“The roots grew around a boulder,” Raya pointed to a slab of stone the roots were interlocked around.

“How long have you been digging?” The last time Atitaya had seen this hole it had been at least five feet shallower.

The man in the hole laughed, “At first we thought we could dig out the stone, but it kept going down.”

“Boodie,” The worker carrying the sledgehammer joined them at this point, kneeling down to pass the hammer to the man in the hole.

“We’ll shatter the boulder and we’ll call it an evening, General,” Another worker said, “We already have the hammer out here.”

Atitaya could see series of metal wedges had already been bored into the stone as points. She nodded. She understood not wanting to leave a task unfinished.

Raya got Tuk Tuk ready in case the stump started to slide back into the hole once the stone it was anchored around was smashed so the stump wouldn’t fall back on Boodie in the hole. Atitaya dismounted and tied Seo-Jin to the rope array as well as extra insurance.

In the hole Boodie started hammering away, the heavy falls of the hammer echoing faintly with each strike to the metal wedged in the stone. He’d gotten two chunks off, the second one falling out of the roots and landing to the side of him with a dull, almost hollow sound at the bottom of the hole. With that part broken off, they could see the stone went deeper than they’d dug.  

“Okay down there Boodie?” One worker called as she coughed in the dust cloud.

“Two more wedges and the stone should be free of the roots.”

His next strike missed the metal wedge, the hammer slamming into the stone. The vibrations reverberated up the stump and through the tension of the ropes. And seems to pass into the ground.

“Wait, wait,” One of the workers called, but it was already too late.

The vibrations got stronger, the earth around the edge of the hole starting to cave in.

“Boodie!”

With a heavy crack and groan the ropes looped around the trunk went taunt as it slid back into the hole. Tuk Tuk, not prepared rolled backwards with the sudden force. Seo-Jin, with a panicked growl, clawed into the ground, but there was only loose dirty, dug up from the hole and gave him no purchase.

Raya and Atitaya both grabbed ropes, trying to pull in the opposite direction.

“Boodie!” Someone was leaning over the edge reaching for him, but he was pulled back by someone else as the edge of the hole kept fallen in. Boodie had vanished from sight for anyone looking down.

The stump was dipping lower and lower, Tuk Tuk and Seo-Jin being pulled with it. Raya saw one root, looped with rope bending back. Her hands left the rope she was bracing and she tackled Atitaya moments before the root snapped off, recoiling in the space they’d been standing. It pinged off Tuk Tuk’s shell.

Sinn bounded in, Namaari jumping off, cutting the ropes binding Tuk Tuk and Seo-Jin. She grabbed Atitaya and Raya, pulling them back as the hole widened. It swallowed the trunk.

Then all was still.

The hole had almost doubled in diameter and the bottom wasn’t visible.   

“Boodie!” One of the men called down.

Namaari threw a small stone down. One second, two seconds, three seconds, fou-… it hit something. “Get more ropes!” Namaari shouted in the direction of the workers running from the camp.

Raya drew her sword from Tuk Tuk’s saddle, stabbed the edge into the dirt and jumped into the hole.

“Raya!” Namaari tried to grab her but was a second too slow. She disappeared into the darkness. There was a moment quiet.

Then, “He’s pinned under the rubble! But he’s breathing.”

“Is he conscious?” Atitaya called down.

“No!”

“I’m tossing down a water skin. See if that snaps him awake.”

At the bottom of the hole, Raya heard the water skin land near her. She felt around, grasping nothing but air and dirt for a few seconds. But she grabbed the soft leather of the skin and pulled the stopper off, pouring it over Boodie’s face.

Dirt and grime was caked on his face and a gash somewhere on his head hidden by his hair was bleeding down the side of his face and into his ear. The water washed it away. He spluttered, spitting the water out. Instantly he screamed.

“Don’t try to move,” Raya said when his first reaction was to pull himself.

Some dirt fell on her head and Raya glanced up to see Namaari being lowered down, a rope around her waist. She dropped the last few feet.

“You’re conscious. Good,” She said, seeing him looking at her. She scanned quickly, taking in the situation.

“Looks like we dug into a cave. You’re lucky it wasn’t deeper.”

“I don’t feel so lucky right now,” He grimaced.

“You are. I think this means you get some time off,” Namaari tried to joke. “Raya, help me with this.” She nodded to the stone on his feet. Standing on either side, they lifted together, Raya slipping under it to brace it with her shoulder. Namaari pulled Boodie away and Raya let the slab fall again once he was clear.

“We should splint that leg before we pull him out,” She said pointing above them.

“Namaari we’re dropping a torch!” Atitaya’s voice came down, “Lookout.”

A length of wood dropped down next to Raya, making her jump. A beat after, something smaller, flint, dropped. Raya lit the torch, holding it so they could see his leg.

“Definitely needs a splint.”

She cut off a length of root from the stump that caved in. Raya ripped the edges of her cloak handing it to Namaari. Bracing his leg with the root, they tied it. Then Namaari looped the rope in a crisscross around his shoulders and chest.

“Not great, but you won’t have to be like this for long,” She offered him a small smile before calling up, “We have Boodie tied off, don’t pull quickly.”

She and Raya helped brace him for the first few feet as he was lifted before watching him rise above their heads slowly. Namaari kept her eyes on him the whole way up, while Raya picked up the torch again.

“Hey, Princess Undercut,” She called, pulling Namaari’s attention, “I don’t think we dug into a cave.”

Namaari turned, seeing a tunnel stretching out ahead of them. The floor, walls and ceiling were made from slabs of cut stone. Just at the edge of the firelight in front of them, an ornately carved tile, more decorative than any of the others they could see. And in the centre, a Fang symbol.