Loric thought it was strange to return to the empty hut that up until this morning he shared with his grandfather. He looked at the lifeless structure and felt the shadows of despair creep upon his heart. There was no real use in becoming a man, he thought bitterly, for even if he could do everything that the elders wanted of him, it still wouldn’t bring back Oldsir!
“I passed the ropemaking and firestarting tests today,” he thought to himself, “even made my own evening meal from a rock snake that I found under one of the logs. But what good is it? I began this day a boy with a family; I end it a near-man with little family, and in three day’s time, even my sister won’t acknowledge me as kin.” Loric decided that being a man was lonely work. He entered the hut, and for a moment he started, thinking he saw Oldsir’s shadow on the wall where the cooking fire always cast it this time of day. He could hear the floor creak as his grandfather rocked back on his heels, satisfied that the coals were banked just right. He would turn like a sighted man, and give Loric a wink and toss his head toward the table and say something like “Shuck-ears and crabs, burnt the way you like ‘em.” Then he would join Loric and talk into the night until Loric’s head started to droop, then he would stretch mightily and admonish Loric for keeping an old man up so long. After that Loric could hear him moving about stepping out now and then for a sniff of air. Loric realized he had never seen his grandfather asleep at any point in his life, and with a pang, he realized he never would.
“Oldsir, I always liked your shuck-ears, nobody could burn them like you!” With a sob and tear-filled eyes, Loric ran to his hammock and fell weeping into it.
The next day, Loric was put into the Pit. He was given the rope he had made the day before and made to watch as a fist-sized rock was dropped in. It fell and made a splat at the bottom. “Aiee,” thought Loric, “there’s no snakes in there, it full of the Domai, the cave fungus that eats you alive!”
He started to back up and found he was surrounded by villagers. The other end of his rope was tied to a rock and then Dernhelm motioned him forward. He leaned outward and looked down into the darkness. The dark gave no secrets away, and he wondered if he shouldn’t refuse this test. It would mean going back in defeat and trying again when he felt he could pass, but what was the point in that? He would just return to this spot and he knew he couldn’t go on then, either. No, it would be better to face this now with the teachings of his grandfather fresh in his memory.
He shook with the thought of what awaited him below, but he straddled the rope and walked himself down into the darkness. He was very cautious, feeling and looking below him and then up at the expressionless faces above him. He had gotten about halfway to the end of his rope when he felt something below him. It was a sudden shock to him when he felt his rope being cut from above. He let go of the rope and balled himself for the impact into the fungus, but came up short and found that the bottom was only a foot more below him. The bottom made of clay and there was a bit of water seeping into the corner. The rock Loric had seen thrown in had hit this and made him think he was going to be eaten alive! He laughed a bit at his fear and sat down on the floor to think his way out of the hole. He tested the walls to see if he could carve foot-holds in it but the soft clay walls gave no support. He found he could put his toes in a hold, and they would slide right out. There was no way he was going to trust his neck to that!
He examined his rope as best he could from the pit floor; the other end was still tied to the rock, but it had been cut half through. This was a puzzler, thought Loric. If he wasn’t supposed to climb out on the rope, why hadn’t they cut it all the way, or just taken it up behind him? He tested it and knew it would not hold all of his weight, and he tried several times to pitch the other end up and lasso the rock it was attached to.
Finally he got a good throw and tugged on this. It seemed to hold, then he noticed to his horror that the rock was sliding in the clay. At this rate it would fall on his head long before he had made it out of the pit. Dejectedly he snapped the rope and flipped his lasso off the rock. He sat down and noticed that the water had puddled up a bit in the corner. He tested it and found it drinkable, and cleared an area where he could get an unmuddied drink. With his nose a scarce inch from the water, he could almost see the water rise.
Maybe this was his way out! He used his kesh-knife to dig at the spot where the fresh water was coming in, and was rewarded by a squirt of water that soon became a small fountain-like stream. He drank a long swallow and laughed at his success as his feet were soon covered by the cold torrent. He would surprise them all! He would rise to the top without any effort at all, letting the water work for him! He danced in the mud, and threw gobbets of clay and mud out the opening overhead hoping to tag someone watching.
He howled and enjoyed the echoing sound of his own voice. Passerbys would think that he had been taken by madness, but he didn’t care! All the childhood fears of the Pit had fallen away and he felt exalted.
“Bring on the Domai, bring on the mistle-thratch, I fear them not! Oooowwwwwwl!” He howled again and it was quite some time before he noticed that the flow of water had slowed. The water came only to his knees and after marking the wall a few times, and gauging how long it took it to climb the wall, he realized that it would be a long time indeed for the water to lift him even a small bit. He looked up and tried to figure how much daylight he had left.
He knew no one would bring him a meal, that no one would bring light or even speak to him. He was on his own and had to get out on his own. There’s got to be a way! He felt in the water and pulled up the rock. He frustratedly pitched it up at the opening. A rain of clay and dirt was all the reward he got for his effort. “Everything I do make things worse!” He moaned inwardly as he dodged the rock’s return. Crunch! This wasn’t going to do. If he stood in this water all night, he would die of the shudders before they would come back to find him. He didn’t even have a place to lie now! Silently cursing himself, he leaned against the wall and tried to gather his wits. It was small wonder Hiram’s brother had come out of this test blubbering, he had probably done the same thing and gotten sick. They had finally brought him out after three days! “Three days,” moaned Loric, “I’ll be water-rotted by then! What would my grandfather tell me to do? First keep your head. Okay,” thought Loric. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
“Now, instead of thinking about what you don’t have, think about what you’ve got. Fine, what have I got? A pit into the ground, a knee-deep puddle of water, and one end of a rope. What is it you are trying to do? Say it! I’m trying to get out of this puddle and back on dry land. This isn’t going like it should,” thought Loric, “but I’ll finish anyway.”
“Is there another way of looking at your problem? How are similar problems solved? Well, in a way it’s like crossing a stream with no one on the other side. To cross a stream you put a stout stick at the end of your rope, and toss it across to some forked tree or outcropping and test it for fastness. Then you anchor the other end and you hang on it, feet toward the opposite side and work yourself across. Fasten the other side and make it secure for the rest of the party, or the return trip.”
Loric remembered seeing this demonstrated and remembered that the man who went across first had made the far tree sag into the river. He had gotten quite a drenching before tieing enough twist-knots into the rope to take the slack up.
Some of the streams nearby were home to animals that would think nothing of making a meal out of a crossing man. Now, said Oldsir’s voice in Loric’s head. Look at your problem again. “Hmm, I have the same problem, I want to get a man to the other side. I already have one end tied off, but it slips. I need to tie the other end, and take some of the weight off the other end so that it won’t slip loose. Time to try some different things.”
Loric felt around in the water until he found the rock again. He tied the loose end of the rope to it and then swung it about in the cramped space he had. It seemed every time he pitched his rock up to the ground, it would slide along and then fall back in. It was getting harder to see it coming back down as the slanting evening rays marked time on the walls of his prison. The thought of some unseen observer watching his efforts made him doubly frustrated each time the rope and rock back came down. “You haven’t beaten me yet!” He thought savagely. He knew somewhere up there someone was watching to make sure that no one aided him in this test. Probably sitting on a lianas log and smoking oxy root! Loric hoped he hit them with the mud he had thrown earlier, if not with this rock! “Maybe I did, there was one throw where the rock had seemed to have gotten wedged, but not well enough to hold.”
I can’t get a good grip on anything up there! What do you do when your anchor slips? You anchor it to a stake, and achor the stake with lots of pegs. Maybe I can get something to catch if I put several loops on the end of this rope and toss it over to where I thought it had caught!
Loric quickly cut several lengths from the rope and made four loops in the end of it. It reminded him of a tangle foot vine. Which is just what he needed now! Now where was that spot? It was probably a log set out there for the watchers, but it would do if it caught. He had no idea where the spot was, so he marked a slash on the wall and started pitching.
Each time the stone came back he would throw a little to the left of it. Once or twice he thought he had found it, but had only managed to pull a limb or some brush into the pit on top of him. This was a disappointment, but he added it to his ‘anchor’ and worked steadily on. When he was just opposite of where the rope was tied, he succeeded in catching onto something. It gave a little and then held fast.
Now he had a line on both ends, and wondered if he shouldn’t pull the rock down and try the same thing with the other side. No, there was another thing he remembered from his grandfather’s teachings and it was that luck was a fickle spirit and you could easily send it flying away from you if you asked too much. Loric knew he still needed a good bit of luck for the climb out. No, I’ll not ask so much from the luck spirits, I’ll just use the half-severed end as little as I can, keeping it taught as I climb so if this end comes loose, I have a chance to brace before I fall back in. A chance for what, I don’t know, I hope I don’t find out. Perhaps that’s asking too much from luck also. I’ll be trusting my neck to the hidden anchor, and it could slip at any time. I know the other will slip, but I can see it and tell when it’s going to give way. The best course then is to use a bit of each, cinching it up as I go, like the man crossing the stream. Each moment requires the judgement of a new moment, as Oldsir used to say.
Loric said a quick prayer to the Spirit of the Wood to keep luck from fleeing, and started out by working out an equal length from both ropes. This accomplished, he sat on the knot, trying to judge the moment of the rock falling and the fraying of the rope. It creaked ominously, but seemed to hold. Loric looked down at the water that was still seeping into the pit. At least that water and mud will help break my fall, a little. He had the rope looped under his bottom and over his shoulder. He lifted his weight off the rope and put a twist in the rope over his head. Then he slipped his body out of the sling in the bottom and pulled it up with his feet through the twist.
He wormed his feet up and then sat his weight on the new loop made by his efforts. He marked the wall and then repeated his efforts. This was slow work! He watched with concern the rope on the rock. Whatever he had anchored the other end to seemed to hold, so he planned to switch all of his weight to it should the rope give so it wouldn’t snap abruptly. Half a dozen loops and Loric realized he couldn’t keep this up. The rope was so tangled and knotted that he wouldn’t be able to slip it through any more. He stood on the knot and thought a bit, then held himself up by his arms, he flipped the rope around with his feet, and managed to clamp it under his arm. He brought the two ropes together and grabbed the rope with the his teeth and made a loop a round one arm. then pulled it through again with his teeth. Doubled over, he inched up and got his toes into the knot and slowly put his weight on it. He couldn’t believe he managed that and looked up at the rope.
He was shocked by the amount of fraying that his acrobatics had caused. Now he was within a man’s height of the top, but he realized that one more attempt like this was more than the rope would take. It was one more than he had in him, anyway.
“Think Loric! What do you have to work with? Nothing I’m not using, My whole body aches from just hanging here, and there’s nothing else up here but empty space and me! I don’t have a use for my kesh-knife, I don’t want to cut anything…”
“Do I? Can I tie another knot and then cut a length of rope off the bottom and pitch it over the rock?” Loric knew that as soon as he thought it, it was impossible; the rope would sever before he got the first knot tied. “I might as well cut it now and get it over with!” Loric drew his knife and held it in one hand as he used the other to pull up on his braced rope taking some of the tension off the severing rope.
“It would be simple,” thought Loric, “all I have to do is let go with this hand and the jerk would cause that rope up there to snap and I’ll fly into the other wall and then down into the muddy water below. I wonder how many bones I’ll break? Maybe I’ll just be knocked out and drown in the water below. Maybe the slam into the wall would be hard enough to knock me out? I wouldn’t even know it when hit the bottom. No one would blame me, I’ve tried to get out, and I can’t! There’s always a test you can’t pass right?” It was not the way of Loric’s people to give up, but they were not immune to despair. Loric looked up and watched the slow fraying of the rope, now seconds away from separating. He looked at the kesh-knife he carried, it had a long history, and had been made from kesh-wood three generations before and passed down from father to son. “To me,” thought Loric. “I’ll never pass it on now.” He leaned out and started slicing the knife into the clay walls of the pit. “If I can’t pass it on, at least I can see to it that it isn’t damaged in my fall.” If he could strike some kesh-root the properties within his knife would hold it fast. “The men that would free it later would know that I had honored the memory of all it’s owners by not letting it lie with me when I died. If it fell too, it would be burned on my burial pyre, and that would be a loss more grievous than that of a near-man who failed his tests!”
With that Loric thrust blindly into the wall and felt the knife bite and hold. It melded to the living kesh-root and held fast. He grasped the handle and pulled himself over to it. It took all his weight and did not move. The rope he hung from gave way and he slipped downward. He made a quick shift of weight and a mad grab for the kesh knife as the rope fell into the pit below. His slight frame shook with the effort to get one arm over the handle and the other gripping the hilt. His toes dug and dug in the clay wall but could find no purchase. Hardly daring to breathe, he slid his hand over as far as he could without touching the cutting edge of the knife. Then he brought one knee up and rested it on the handle. The gnarled grip bit his skin mercilessly, but he held out.
“Oh Spirit!” thought Loric, “perhaps you have use for me yet!” With one hand, he creeped up the wall and tried to judge how far from the top he was. He couldn’t guess so he finally looked up. He was relieved to find that he was close enough to stand up and reach the opening. That wouldn’t be easy; it was almost dark now, and the opening was dim and unclear. Not easy, but not impossible either. Loric had balanced on thinner limbs when he was younger, but now he was fatigued and rattled. He bit his lip against the pain and stood on one foot. He looked for something to grip but had to settle for knotting his fingers in the grass. He hefted up his other leg and rolled onto the turf. He gazed up at the dark canopy of the forest and moaned at the wave of pain that hit him.
Every strained muscle and scraped shin made itself known to him, but his thoughts were on the pit. He looked at the one remaining piece of rope and saw that he had not caught a log as he had thought but the watcher who had been sitting on it.
All this time he had been silently sitting with a loop of rope over his head and around one shoulder. He sat motionless as stone, lest he somehow interfere with Loric’s trial. Loric recognized the villager as Minial, a man about his sister’s age who was trained in the art of vining and knotting. As Loric hobbled over to him, he winked and rubbed his neck where the vine had rubbed it raw.
“You best be thankful that I’m as stout as I am, or we would both have greeted the Spirit before our time. I wanted to start you over, but Dernhelm wouldn’t let me. As far as he was concerned I was a knot on a log.” He stood and clasped Loric on the shoulder.
“A knot who is thirsty and wants a bit of octli.”
He led Loric back to the village, and talked with him almost as he would any other man. “Almost,” thought Loric happily, “Almost!”