“Rolar!” Aylme shrieked as she reached down and shook the boy. Some of the dark powder slid off his tunic and he gave a small moan, but his eyes remain closed. “Cace!” Aylme called to the side. “Cace, come help me!” Then she took hold of Rolar’s arm and pulled it around her shoulder. “What is it with you boys today?” she asked wearily. “Must I spend all my time saving you?”
“Aylme?” Cace groped through the twilight, trying to make his way to her voice. “Aylme, where are you?”
“Over here!” she waved an arm. “Rolar’s unconscious, you have to help me carry him.”
“Oh!” Cace said as he scampered over the roots and saw the older boy’s head lolling to the side. “What’s happened to him?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he was bitten by something and poisoned. Help me get him away from here and back to the camp.”
Cace ducked underneath Rolar’s other arm and together the two of them were able to start moving the lad. It was difficult over the uneven roots, and it didn’t help that Rolar would suddenly give a cry and fling his head one way or another, nearly tipping them all over as he did.
“Rolar, can you hear us?” Aylme asked fearfully. “Rolar, speak to us!”
Rolar’s eyelids opened a slit, though not enough to actually see. Still he turned his face towards Aylme and gurgled out “It’s innnn my throaaat!” before his head slumped forward once more.
“In his throat?” Cace asked in surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. Here, let’s lay him down on his back.”
They did so, not quite so gently as intended, and Aylme pulled back his lips to reveal that the same black powder that had been over his tunic was coating his teeth. Looking down she saw that his hands were black with the powder as well.
“He’s been eating it!” Aylme said in shock. “Fetch me the waterskin. Quickly!”
Cace hurried back to the camp and soon was back with their waterskin. Aylme removed the stopper and carefully pried the mouth of the bottle between Rolar’s teeth. She squeezed a palmful of water into his mouth, then turned him on his side as he gagged, choked, and finally coughed out a large pile of the soggy powder. “Blech!” he exclaimed, finally returning to full consciousness. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the other two with fearful eyes.
“Help me!” he gasped. “Help me! Get it off!”
“You’re alright,” Aylme reassured him, palm pressed against this temple. “We’ve got you now, you’re alright.”
“No! My hands! It’s still on my hands!”
Aylme and Cace looked down at his ash-blackened hands. The fingers were bent unnaturally, scrabbling wildly in the dirt, like living creatures burrowing for safety.
“I can’t control them!” Rolar insisted. “Get…that…stuff off of them!”
Aylme reached to rub the dark powder off, but paused just short, realizing she didn’t want to transfer any of the stuff onto her own skin. Cace grabbed the waterskin out of her lap, though, and doused each hand. The ash washed away quickly and Rolar’s hands finally relaxed.
“Oh thank you!” the boy gasped.
“What was that?” Cace asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. But it was terrible!”
“I was digging at the roots of the tree, trying to see if there’s something blocking the moisture from getting to it. And then there was that black stuff–that powder–just beneath the soil. I tried to dig through it, tried to get down to the roots, but my hands started to shake and go numb! I couldn’t feel them and then they started moving on their own, like spiders! I wanted to move but they kept lunging deeper and deeper into the soil, pulling the rest of me down to it. I tried to call for help but they grabbed the soil and shoved it onto my mouth! I clamped shut, but they smothered my face until I gasped and then pushed they pushed the soil straight in! That was the last thing I knew…and then I was here with you.”
Cace and Aylme shivered.
“We’re going to die in this place!” Aylme sobbed. “We shouldn’t have ever come!”
Cace didn’t say anything, but silent tears ran down his cheeks as he hung his head.
Rolar almost wept with them, but he snapped himself out of it. He had to shove his ordeal down, had to make himself strong for the others.
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. He sat upright and put his hands around the other two. “Look, I’m okay. Something bad happened, but we made it didn’t we? Just like we have every time already, just like we always will.”
“You would have died if I hadn’t found you!” Aylme wailed.
“But you did find me! You did. One of us couldn’t make it alone, but together we’re invincible. You save me today, I save you the next. We’ll never fail so long as we’re there to save each other.”
Cace blinked back his tears. “How do you know?”
“Believe me, Cace,” Rolar smiled back. “I just know. We didn’t make it this far just to fail now. But we’ve got to keep our faith in each other. We have to keep our trust alive.” He held out his hands to the other children in a pledge.
Aylme sniffed deeply and wiped away her tears with the side of her hand, then took one of Rolar’s hands in her own. “Well I’m scared…but I do promise I won’t let you two get lost. I promise I’ll take care of you.”
“That’s the spirit,” Rolar nodded. “And I promise I’ll take care of you two, too.”
“And I’ll take care of you two, too” Cace affirmed, grabbing the others’ free hands with his own.
“Doubly protected,” Rolar said.
“Doubly protected,” the other two repeated.
And with that Cace decided…he would go back to the Ether that very night.