“Never,” my grandmother used to say, “under any circumstances, put yourself in a place with only one way out.” That is an axiom of my people. But I went down the well. Perhaps I was able to do that because I was already trapped.
Dangling from a thin rope, dropping slowly into the blackness, watching the rough-cut walls slowly rise past me, careful not to look up and dazzle my eyes. If Hazel were untrue, she would kill Bags while he lowered me down, and wait with sharp knives while I climbed the moss-covered rough-cut rock of the well shaft. If I could climb it at all. I could feel the mass of the rock around me closing in.
In near-blackness, even the tiniest light seems like the sun. Two-thirds of the way down the well, where patches of slick moss began to appear on the stone, the drilled shaft intersected a natural fissure in the rock, creating long gashes of emptiness on either side of me, gradually growing wider as I descended. Near the surface of the water, a horizontal emptiness appeared — the niche that Hazel had found.
I reached out a foot and pulled myself into the narrow blackness, glad to discover it was deep enough to accommodate me. When I was supporting my own weight the rope went slack. The air clung to my face and coated my lungs, resenting the human intrusion which had broken its long, perfect stillness. Just below me a reflection of the distant lamp so very far above told me where surface of the water was. I touched the water with my toe, and watched the reflection dance.
I untied the rope and let it dangle while I took off the rest of my clothes and stashed them in the niche. All but two of my knives I left behind as well. I took only my versatile hunting knife and the sleek dark-bladed beauty. Hunting knife in hand, the dark one strapped to my leg. I took a breath of the heavy air, another, took hold of the rope, and slipped into the icy blackness.
Beneath the surface my eyes had no function, so I closed them. I did not have to go far before my fingers discovered the first armor-clad body. I ran my hand over his face, past his gaping mouth, to the shoulder strap for his breastplate. I slipped the rope through and returned to the surface for a breath. I held to the edge of the niche and panted for a few moments before diving again, following the rope to complete a knot, my fingers acting from the memory of long practice. I chose a bowline, a knot that wouldn’t slip but wouldn’t be too difficult to untie while the rope was wet.
Back to the surface and into my niche. “First one’s ready!” I called up. “He’s a big one.”
The rope went taut and the body rose to the surface. Once robbed of the buoyancy of the water the dead man’s progress slowed. I heard voices above and the body began to rise in jerks. The two were working together, heaving on the rope in synchronization.
Up went the dead man. As he neared the top he eclipsed the light, but after a few minutes the shaft was clear and after an echoed word which I took to be a warning, the rope splashed into the water. Time to dive again.
I have spoken before about patience. You do not rush hauling bodies out of a well. You do not dive to scout the next load while the previous is still suspended over your head, else when the corpse’s strap breaks and it slaps back down into the water with force enough to kill you, you are tucked safely in your niche and only catch a glancing blow from an armored boot.
The rope dropped again; I tied it around the man’s neck this time, and once again the corpse rose while I tended as best I could to the wound on my shoulder.
Eight soldiers, then, finally, the commander. I was diving deep by this time, and it took me four trips down into the frigid blackness and back up before I had the rope secured. I waited in the niche, shaking from cold, my guts twisting in knots, while the last obstacle rose toward the distant light. The light dimmed, returned, and Bags called down. “Got ‘im!”
The obstacles had been removed; now the mission could commence. I closed my eyes, filled my lungs with air, and dove. The bottom of the well was flat, covered with sand and gravel, like a riverbed. I groped around, the gritty sand sifting between my fingers. I found nothing, and went back for air. I dove again. And again.
There was nothing there. I kept diving, reaching the bottom and groping blindly with desperate hands for a few tense seconds before shooting back to the surface. Nothing. But something was down there; I was sure of it. And the only thing worse than having that thing was letting someone else have that thing.
I crawled into the niche and caught my breath. I had found an odd assortment of things at the bottom of the well, including a fair collection of coins, but nothing of real value. While I caught my breath and rubbed some warmth into my skin I looked at the voids where the vertical crack in the rock bisected the well shaft. I thought of the riverbed-like bottom of the well and I realized it was a riverbed. Water was flowing through; an insufficiently-ballasted load would be swept into the downstream crack. I knew what I’ve have to do. I’d have to follow the flow into that fissure. Blind. I’m a swimmer, but I’m not a diver.
I tied the rope to my ankle. “Hey Bags,” I called up.
The content of his response was almost lost to echoes. “What?”
I enunciated carefully so my words would reach the top of the shaft intact. “When I say go, count to one hundred, slowly. If you don’t hear my voice by then, pull the rope. Don’t be gentle.”
I took a few deep breaths, but I was stalling. “Start counting!” I shouted, took one last breath, and went headfirst once more into the water. I followed the downstream edge of the rock fissure with my hands until I reached the sandy bottom, then reached as far as I could. Nothing. I wedged myself into the gap, a tight squeeze, and felt the pressure of the water behind me, pushing me deeper as I blocked its flow. I struggled against the current, fighting the fear that I might not be able to, lungs bursting and stars dancing in my closed eyes. Finally I pulled myself along the fissure back to the surface. I took a great lungful of the sweet heavy air. “Stop counting!” I called up.
“Got to fifty-five,” Bags said back. “And I was almost out of rope.”
I thought about the pull of the water in the gap. It could take an object a long way. So far that it might be unrecoverable. But would it be unrecoverable to a Soul Thief?
It didn’t matter. I was going back down. “Count the same speed,” I said, “But pull on eighty.”
Down again, my numbed fingers no longer sensitive to the texture of the stone around me, I pulled down quickly and worked my way into the crack in the rock, the current pulling my hair before me. I pushed farther, and felt the tug of the rope on my ankle. I had run out of slack. One last lunge, and two things happened at the same time. My fingers brushed something that was not stone or sand, and the rope tied to my ankle went slack. Moments later I heard the slap as the dropped rope hit the surface of the water above me.
Another reach, wedging myself deeper into the crack, hooking my numb fingers around something that might have been cloth. Then pushing, pulling, fighting the current surging past me, holding with outstretched hand on the bundle I had found.
Of course I made it back to the surface, or I wouldn’t be telling you this story now. But the last part of that struggle I don’t remember. I remember fear, I remember anger, but there is a gap of a few seconds where I can only reconstruct what must have happened. I do remember, however, that as I neared the surface I opened my eyes and realized that there was much more light coming down from above than there had been before. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, to slow my rise to break the surface quietly, and to take my first gasp of air with some level of control.
I bobbed in the cold water, almost fainting, and listened to the unfamiliar voices above.