When the monitors were finally gone, Tip helped Val and Kerrick get the younger children into bed. Most of them were badly shaken up by the monitors’ visit and needed a good amount of soothing and storytelling to settle in for the night. Tip found herself reassuring more than one anxious young voice that, no, she hadn’t been hurt by the mean guard’s blow, and that yes, she and Kerrick would definitely hunt the man down and leave frogs in his bed as revenge.
With the task finally done, Tip crept back downstairs to find Marit in the kitchen. The old lady was sitting on a splintered chair, tiredly contemplating the mess the men had left behind. The monitors and their guards had ransacked the pantry, pulling out everything that could be eaten without cooking. They had gorged themselves on the food and spoiled the rest by stamping it underfoot or throwing it into the fire. It was a staggeringly senseless wastage. The orphans could have fed themselves for several days on what had been ruined.
Looking around at the debris of their visit, rage began a slow boil in Tip’s belly. She was almost furious enough to go after the men and beat them all bloody. Or attempt to anyway. There was a 97% chance she’d simply have been knocked down and kicked into submission instead. Better not to waste broken ribs on something that wouldn’t bring anyone any benefit.
With a sinking feeling, it dawned on her that she had brought this on the Crib. Her doomed attempt at looting the warehouses had been the driver. The monitors might never have come if she hadn’t gone out and provoked those warehouse guards. Normally, the monitor visits were once or twice a year in spring or autumn. They wouldn’t have come tonight except for Tip’s arrogance and foolishness.
The guilt welled up inside her throat. “Marit…” She began hoarsely, and had to pause, swallowing hard, before she could go on.
Marit turned her head to look at Tip. The lines on her face were deeper than usual and she looked every bit as old and feeble as she sometimes pretended to be.
“I’m an idiot,” Tip croaked. “If I hadn’t gone out…” She broke off, unable to say the rest.
Marit shook her head. “I know you meant well,” she said, before lapsing back into silence.
But sometimes, meaning well isn’t good enough, Tip finished the sentence in her head. Everything was wretched. Not only had she failed to bring back any new supplies, she’d caused most of the food they had to be stolen or ruined. Now they were much much worse off than before. “And now they’re going to cut our rations…” she blurted.
“They’d have done that anyway,” sighed Marit. “That horrible, petty man doesn’t have the power to decide something like that. It was just good timing for him to be able to deliver the news right when he had us over a barrel. Don’t take that part on yourself, Tip.”
The other parts are on you, though, said Tip’s brain. You’ve let everybody down.
Out loud she said, “What are we going to do?”
“We’ll think of something,” said Marit. But the old lady’s usual fighting spirit wasn’t behind her words. And she wasn’t making any attempt to tidy up or salvage the scattered food. She just kept on sitting, staring at the mess, doing nothing.
Tip could bear it no longer and slunk out of the kitchen. She would return later to clear up but the current atmosphere was more than she could take.
In the hall, she found the others waiting for her. Kerrik, Valerian and Sol.
Kerrick was 19, the oldest of the group. As a child, he’d suffered a leg injury that hadn’t healed right. As a result, he couldn’t walk fast or carry anything heavy, and had been passed over for work in both the mines and foundry. Marit had made the case for him to stay on at the Crib in order to help her with the more exhausting work of running the orphanage, and this had been allowed. Despite his criticism of Marit’s tactics, Kerrick had also been known to exaggerate his infirmity in front of the monitors. It was simply the way you stayed alive in Grevick. The rest of the time, he was strong, cheerful presence in the lives of all the Crib’s young residents and a capable provider with his hunting and foraging skills.
Like Tip, Valerian had been at the orphanage for as long as she could remember. With its rudimentary conditions and rough laws, Grevick mining settlement wasn’t an ideal place to raise children, and many babies were abandoned at birth on the Crib’s doorstep. Marit was quite used to opening the front door and taking in a new arrival with the morning’s milk. Valerian had been one such orphan. Even as a baby, she had been captivating, with dark curls framing a heart-shaped face, out of which stared deep blue eyes with thick lashes. There had been a lot of speculation over who the parents of such a beautiful baby could have been, but nothing definitive was ever discovered. Val had grown up for the most part a healthy and well-adjusted member of the Crib’s residents. In recent times, the early promise of beauty had begun coming to fruition in her stunning features. Unfortunately for Val, the wild, lawless conditions of Grevick made beauty more of a burden and a curse than a blessing. In order to avoid undue attention, Val mostly stayed at the Crib or in the surrounding forest. If she had to go into the settlement, she wore one of Marit’s old shapeless clothes and covered her head with an old sack. Having grown up in Grevick, Val was well aware of the kind of dangers she could face for being too pretty and approached the problem with her typical businesslike and pragmatic manner.
Marit had often commented that, as lifelong orphans, Val and Tip had things somewhat easier than many of their fellows who had arrived at the orphanage after first losing their parents in a horrible way. One such example was Sol, a sensitive, twelve-year-old boy who had lost both parents in a foundry accident the previous year, and was still deep in his grief. He’d attached himself to Val in the first weeks in the Crib, and had quickly become part of their group. Sol was a dreamer, often caught gazing off into middle distance, oblivious to what was going on around him. The others quickly learned that he couldn’t be trusted to pay attention to what the younger children were doing and that he wasn’t to be left in charge of a cooking pot. Despite these weaknesses, Sol occasionally made a remark that startled the rest of them with its acuity and insight.
When Tip came out of the kitchen, the three of them were in a huddled conferral. Val noticed her first, and stuck an elbow in Kerrick’s side. “Go on, tell her.”
“I don’t need to tell her,” said Kerrick.
“He told you so,” Val said loudly. “He told you you shouldn’t have gone, Tip! And now look what’s happened.”
“You don’t need to tell me,” said Tip miserably. “I know I’m an absolute idiot.”
“Admitting you’re an idiot doesn’t bring back our food! Or stop them cutting our rations in half!” Val had let out her hair from under the scarf that had been covering it and the dark chestnut waves were trembling in time with her impassioned words.
“She knows Val,” said Kerrick, putting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.
“She might know now, but what about next time she wants to go rushing off? What about then?”
“I’m glad you’re not dead, Tip,” said Sol. The stark simplicity of his words caused even Val to fall silent for a moment.
“Thanks, Sol,” said Tip, feeling choked up again. A moment passed, and then Val crossed the hall to hug her. She was joined by Sol who squished himself in at the side, and Kerrick who surrounded them all with his big arms. They squeezed each other close in a mutual bundle of arms and warmth. Tip was home and safe. It was the best thing in the world.
The group hug came to a natural end and the four of them wandered out to sit on the side verandah huddled under old blankets and staring into the surrounding forest. “Did you at least spot anything useful while you were out?” asked Kerrick.
Tip knew he was probably talking about potentially interesting piles of supplies that they could investigate later on, but it was the perfect chance to tell them about her discovery. “I did actually,” she said, and proceeded to tell them about the chase up the mountainside and her subsequent fall and slide down into the cave with the glowing lake. “It was some kind of underground waterway, I’m a hundred percent certain,” she said. “There were boats and everything!”
The others were appropriately astonished to hear about her adventures. “Where was this exactly?” asked Kerrick. “You were running up the main path up Litton? So the cave you found must be inside Litton mountain.”
Tip nodded. “That’s right. I slid down a long way, but I don’t think it was far enough to have crossed into Gretton. Besides, the mine is under Gretton, and I didn’t hear or smell any sign of mining. This was a separate cave. And it looked natural, not mined.”
“Are you sure there wasn’t another entrance into the cave?” asked Val. “I mean, isn’t the waterway in use if there are boats?”
“I didn’t see any other entrance,” said Tip, “and boats looked like they hadn’t been disturbed for a long time.” She couldn’t have told them how she’d known that. The boats hadn’t been covered in a thick layer of dust or any other helpful sign, but she’d somehow had the strong feeling that the entire cave system had been dormant until she’d come along to wake it.
“The waterway must be magic,” said Sol in a decided tone.
The others glanced at each other, amused and then Kerrick said, “What brings you to that conclusion, Solly-boy?”
“Well it glows, for one thing,” said the boy.
Tip smiled at him. “It was amazing. I can’t wait to show you all.”
“Probably some kind of glowing algae or something,” mused Kerrick. “I’ve heard about that kind of thing from fishermen.”
Sol shook his head. “Tip said you could see the bottom. So the water must have been clear. Not filled with algae.”
“The water was very clear,” confirmed Tip.
“It’s magic,” repeated Sol. He looked at Kerrick. “When are we going there?” he asked.
Tip could have hugged him. She had been determined to persuade the others to go as soon as possible to look at the underwater cave system and see where the waterways would take them. And now Sol was doing most of the persuading for her.
Kerrick wrinkled his brow. “I don’t know. It sounds interesting, but I’m not sure we can leave Marit at a time like this.”
“I think we can use the waterways to go for food,” blurted Tip.
Val and Kerrick stared at her. “What?” said Val. “How?”
“I’ve got a feeling that the boats were used to transport things,” Tip said. “They look like those kind of boats. Long and flat with a lot of room for stacking things. So the passages off the main lake must lead somewhere where you can fetch things.
“What if they were simply used for taking stuff away from Grevick?” said Kerrick “Maybe the cave system is from before the foundry was built. Maybe it was an early way to shift the mined ore to somewhere where it could be smelted.”
“If it was useful for taking stuff away, then it must have led somewhere,” insisted Tip. “Which means we can go to that place and bring stuff back.”
“None of this makes any sense,” said Val. “If this was such a useful underground waterway, why is it buried under a mountain? Why don’t we know about it?”
“Let’s just go there,” begged Tip. “You’ll all understand more when you see it.”
“Let’s go now!” said Sol. “I’m not tired.”
Kerrick’s brow wrinkled. “I don’t know. It’s late, and Marit…”
“Marit needs us to bring back food,” insisted Tip. “If we take a boat and travel through the night I’m 90% certain we’ll reach somewhere by morning. And then we can bring back food for everyone by tomorrow evening.” It was all completely wild speculation, but it sounded plausible to her ears, and she had to get the others to go with her. She had to.
Val looked half convinced. “We do need food,” she said. “Tip are you certain it’ll lead somewhere we can get food to bring back?”
“99.9 per cent certain,” said Tip, sounding far more certain than she really felt.
Val looked at Kerrick. “Maybe we should go.”
Kerrick was fully frowning by now. “Valerian, weren’t you just complaining about Tip’s mad schemes and the trouble they bring down on everyone?”
“This isn’t like that,” insisted Tip. “If we don’t find food at the other end of the waterway, we’ll just come back and no-one ever has to know.”
Val looked indignant. “Tip, we can’t just go off without telling anyone.”
“We’ll leave a note,” said Tip. “No-one has to know the details of where we’ve gone. It’ll be better than giving them all false hope.”
“What if we all drown?” asked Kerrick. “Marit will be worse off without us there to help with the little ones.”
Tip wanted to point out that at least Marit would have fewer mouths to feed, but Sol spoke first.
“We won’t drown,” he said. “We’ll ride the magic Underrun and bring back food for everyone.”
He said it in a tone of such certainty that even Tip stared at him.
“Well, there we are then,” said Val. “Let’s go.”
- Graz, Austria
I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website: victoriakellywrites.com
I'd love to hear what you think of my stories so feel free to leave comments. I'm also happy to trade feedback as long as you write in a similar genre.