Even after the agony of the crevice, the tunnel was oppressive. Powell soon saw why Matteo had been reluctant to start before everyone was gathered. At best, it wound like a corkscrew, but less evenly, so sometimes they were going down at a vaguely reasonable incline, while at others they were fighting not to slide into the back of the man in front of them. At worst, an obvious passage was ignored in favor of one that forced them to duck into a boulder wedged between two walls, crawling once again. Powell had grabbed Sorenson’s gear and gone on with it was well as his own, and he was glad he had. Of course, he could have given it to any of the privates, but then Sorenson would have gotten grief for it. The man had been through enough.
David’s first regret, once they had been marching for a while, was that he hadn’t made a firm plan as to how far they would go before stopping for the night. He had pressed for a good start. He now thoroughly wished he hadn’t.
Once he had, as far as he could tell, been marching with this regret for longer than otherwise, he decided he had enough. He saw the passage widen slightly ahead, and took advantage.
“Halt!” he called.
The line stopped, and he nudged Salcedo aside, moving ahead of him. He made his way past each and every soldier, occasionally negotiating an awkward squeeze, and ended up in front of Matteo.
Damn, the kid was small. No wonder he had managed that trip so easily. Lucky bastard probably didn’t know how good he had it.
“We should pick a spot to make camp soon,” he said.
No snark this time, just a nod. Then Matteo glanced behind him, back at the line of men.
“Is Sorenson all right?”
Damn, of course word of the reason for the delay would have rippled up the line. Soldiers were worse gossips than any church lady. No one would give him any grief, Powell assured himself. It hadn’t been an easy squeeze for any of them, and the men could always be counted on to figure out where the line was.
“He’s fine. He’s a tough guy.”
“Ah, yes,” Matteo said. “I remember that about him.” Then, in a softer voice, he said, “there’s a little cave not far, but if we press on past that, there’s a whole cavern. They’ll have room to stretch their legs a little.”
Powell looked at Matteo in surprise, and felt a little grudging approval.
“Let’s make for the cavern,” he whispered, and restarted the march.
Matteo let them file slowly into the cavern, expanding his little flame slowly to illuminate the space. As they realized they had room to move away from each other and the walls, the dawning relief on their faces made the grubby mess of men almost beautiful. Matteo smiled to himself, and stepped away from the crowd, a hand raised to guide the floating ball of fire before him. The light illuminated the edges of a lake, clear and still as a sliver of ice. It reflected Matteo’s fire without the slightest distortion or ripple. You could hardly expect a mirror to be more perfect.
At the edge of the lake, Matteo transformed the ball into a rising spire, shooting up for ten, twelve, fifteen, twenty feet, and still more. He heard startled shouts behind him, and the fire illuminated pillars as tall as cathedrals, sheets of stone that were gossamer thin, and walls piled with sugary looking crystals. At the roof, his column of fire arched into a spinning ring, displaying stalactites that were as tall as any of them were. He glanced over his shoulder, and grinned at the line of frozen soldiers, stooped halfway through unpacking their rations and bedrolls. Satisfied, he wandered away, to leave them to their evening preparations. He climbed onto a boulder that overlooked the lake, and sat cross legged on it.
He loved these caves. He loved them to the point of pain. They had been an early escape, and more than that, they had been peace, refuge, a place to be himself, and above all, astoundingly beautiful. Matteo had grown up in a very beautiful place. Splashing brooks, spring flowers and ivy drenched trees were not things that grew less lovely with familiarity. But the limestone caves were something else entirely. They were like the manifestation of some old god come down from the stars, oblivious to the affairs of humanity but in no way malevolent towards it. They were austere. They were fey. They made him, the least reverent person in any room he had ever entered, feel like prostrating himself in worship. Not the worship that plead for favors or expected salvation, but the pure submission of someone who knew he was in the presence of something older, mightier, and beyond all human silliness.
As he looked away from his cavern, and back at the little army, something in him sank. They had been awed, of course, but they were not captivated. They were making camp, opening tins of rations, and occasionally punching each other’s arms. Four had begun a game of cards. Nothing was wrong with that, of course, but… if they were not awed by these caverns, what would they think when they emerged into his world of trees and blackbirds? He expected them to destroy, of course. They were trained destroyers. And he had his agreements with the generals and the politicians. But in the end, it was they who would decide what to do to his home. It was they who would make the decision, to cut off the diseased branches or fell the whole tree. How could he expect them to make that judgment if they did not even properly look at the tree?
“Hey!” a shout came from below. It was the sergeant. “I need these guys to get some sleep. Can you turn that thing down a bit?”
Matteo sighed, and shrunk the fiery ring to about a tenth of its original size. The stalactites disappeared, except for the tips of the very oldest and longest ones. The sergeant moved on without thanks, and Matteo leaned back on the rock, looking up at the fire. He tried to imagine what the sky was like this time of year. The moon was a waxing crescent. He remembered that easily enough from earlier tonight. He raised a hand as if smudging at a blackboard, and a chunk of the ring disappeared. With a few pinches he directed the remnants into the right shape. Then he snapped, and a little spark lit up in the recesses of the stalactites.
Matteo gave it a little attention to sustain it, and then snapped another into existence. Gradually he replicated the constellations, sometimes doubting whether or not he was remembering them correctly. Occasionally he extinguished a spark, only to relight it in nearly the same space.
“Are you showing off?”
It wasn’t the sergeant’s voice, but it was familiar. Matteo made a little lantern flame appear, hovering over his cupped hand, and illuminated the space below his boulder. It was the soldier from last night, Nick Barnes.