And Other Stories



There had probably been some way to get out of it. Not for the first time, Mary Tannas found her thoughts creeping back to the matter of alternatives to her present vocation. It was not really a question of whether they had existed, as tempting as it felt to frame it so. There had been ample alternatives, some more feasible than others, but she hadn't taken any of them. She had been obeying the nominal obligations of her homeland, but ultimately it had been her own choice to join the army under the Crown. She had harbored hopes of winning respect, and proving she was a loyal and productive citizen. She had wanted to win acceptance from her peers, as well as to show all the suspicion and derision wrong.

It had not quite been turning out that way. Rather than the expected position in the local guard of her small town, or in service of the surrounding farms and hamlets, Mary had found herself selected to be shipped to territory far away. She harbored misgivings about that, but she tried to face her lot with admittedly cautious optimism. The war that had loomed so prominently in the background of her childhood life had ended a handful of years before, a victory for her people. Their vanquished opponent had been conquered, and it was in that annex that Mary had been stationed, a member of occupying and administrating forces.

That, in itself, was not so bad. Aside from the jarring feeling of unfamiliarity with her surroundings, the mixed blessing of a largely blank slate of relations with her new partners, and the lingering air of tension with the residents, her role and duties were mostly what she had expected. Her mixed makeup still complicated things, even more than before, but there were some positive reactions among the resentment. Not founded on sympathy or egalitarian principle, although she certainly didn't spurn those, but some measure of kinship. She wasn't sure if she could claim to feel it in return, but it had been in some sense gratifying to meet an elf other than her mother.

There was one last exception to her expected duty, however, which managed to dwarf the others. That was the local terrain's preponderance of wounds in the earth, holes and chasms and caves which led to all manner of unseemly subterranean abominations. Whatever had gouged those spaces and tunnels into the ground had done so with malicious intent, she was sure. It was in one of those tunnels that Mary found herself descending, doing her part to fulfill the vague objective of her assignment. Just how far into the godsforsaken thing she was meant to scout, she didn't know, although she imagined her superior had expected it to end or open up sooner than it had. Still, it hadn't yet extended past the extent one soldier could reasonably survey, and she trudged on by torchlight and a cautious eye.

The tunnel was wide enough to potentially accommodate a procession traveling two by two, easily if not comfortably. Yet the ceiling was low, and so Mary found herself cramped even with her naturally diminutive stature. But it was just manageable enough that she could traverse it without nearly as much trouble as the others, hence the solitary nature of her particular endeavor. The torch illuminated things well enough, but there was little to bear much note. Rocks, dirt, and the occasional bug skittering between the cracks and corners of their usually dark haunts had so far been the sum total sights of her foray. It was almost enough to make the shortsword in her other hand feel unnecessary. But not quite. She was traveling downwards, after all, even if the incline of her descent had been fairly gentle throughout.

Eventually, she found her torchlight shining upon the start of a chamber. She approached it slowly and carefully, the mouth of her tunnel opening up much wider and higher to join an open space. She could barely make out its back wall from the edge of the tunnel, apparently only one of several that branched off from a roughly circular chamber. That would have been enough to turn back and report, with a count of the other branches and a few estimates of distances. Mary was no cartographer, but she understood that was a large part of their assignment, absent dangers issuing forth from the treacherous depths.