The Heart of the Forest
Part 2: Esther & Amber
He moved towards the stone archway, thinking that she must have moved off. Maybe she thought she had seen the path and decided to check if that was what it was. He moved under the archway and called her name again, but she was not there and she gave no response to his cry. Suddenly, he was frightened; his stomach churned and it felt like someone had pumped it full of battery acid. He could hear his pulse beginning to pulse in his ears and his hands began to shake as he turned this way and that scanning the trees for any sign of Esther. She was not there – everything was still and quiet except for the creaking of branches, like rusty gates being swung slowly open. The sound was natural, normal here, but it the lack of any other noises gave it a menacingly quality. He span on the spot, even looking up at the underside of the archway, though he couldn’t say what he thought he would see. It looked to Robin then as if it were the blade of a guillotine, hovering above him, waiting to descend and strike his head from his shoulders. Spurred on by fear he stepped forwards, out from under the stonework, and the world fell away.
With a thud that knocked all the air from his lungs, he landed heavily on thick, dark soil. No sooner had he landed but he started sliding down, away from the light of the forest above, roots and stones digging into his flesh as he went. Cold, damp earth streamed between his fingers as he tried to stop himself sliding, and he grasped in futility at vines and creepers that snaked their way around him as he fell. What little light there had been in the fall was now taken away and he came to rest, a tangle of limbs, against a stone slab, the taste of blood in his mouth from a split lip. He unfurled himself and then lay on his side, gulping in air.
His voice echoed off a roof somewhere above him, making it seem as if he were in a small chamber, but he could see nothing whatsoever to confirm it. The smell of earth filled his nostrils and the taste of blood filled his mouth. His head throbbed and his ribs ached, but he knew he could not stay here. Turning onto his front, he cautiously tried to raise himself to his hands and knees. It took time and effort, but he managed it. He called for Esther again but there was still no answer. Feeling the ground in front of him, he tried to locate the slope he had slid down, wanting to see if he could crawl back up it and maybe scale the drop and fetch help. No. Got to find Esther first.
He moved along the walls, tracing them, and found that the place he was in was no wider than a corridor at school. The walls were made of earth, but cut almost like stone. He found the edge of the slope, slightly raised up from the level of the stone he was kneeling on. It pressed into his knees and elbows causing them to smart. His hand fell on something that felt like coarse fabric and his heart skipped with relief that it might be Esther. He moved closer to it and found that it was his backpack. Finding the zip, he opened it up and searched desperately inside for the small torch that was attached to his key-ring. The bottles of water got in the way of his search, and other objects, unidentifiable in the pitch blackness contacted his fingers, but at last his hand closed around the jagged outline of his keys and he pulled them out, turning the torch on.
The light was blinding after the darkness and it took a moment or two for him to get used to it. Shapes appeared at first and then gradually he saw things as they truly were. A hole, large enough to crawl through, was set in the wall, just a little off the floor on the side opposite the slope. He shone the torch into it and saw a tunnel that seemed to lead onto a different chamber. Must find Esther. He took the torch from the key-ring, throwing the keys back into his backpack and then slung the bag over his shoulder. Putting the torch into his mouth, he squeezed into the tunnel, pushing his way along, feeling his nails scrape on stones hidden beneath the soil, which brushed into his hair and got into his nose. He soon reached the end and pulled himself free.
This chamber was much larger – large enough to stand properly. Walls made out of grey stones surrounded him on all sides and he saw that he had crawled out from what had once been a fireplace. Above him wooden timbers hung limp and broken, rotten beams that had long ago stopped supporting the floor above. Small holes in the walls indicated where beams had been, and doorways above them opened onto nothing but dark earth. He flicked the beam of the torch around the room, but he could see no sign of Esther. There was a door opposite the fireplace which led out onto some stairs. He moved over, still a little light headed and began to climb. He gripped the banister for support but the wood crumbled under his touch, and he pressed against the stone instead to aid him in ascending the spiral. On the stones of the stairs, which had been worn as though they had been used for centuries, he saw a trail of mud and further up the impression of a shoe. Esther. Reasoning that she must have come this way, he quickened his pace, ignoring the dizziness and the ache in his ribs, taking two stairs at once.
He passed several doorways, all of them blocked with earth, and here and there the white roots of trees protruded through the wall, causing him to have to clamber over them, but splinters on the floor told him that someone else had come this way and spurred him on to a faster pace. Abruptly, the stairs ended in an arched doorway and he scanned the other side of it thoroughly before trusting to step through.
He found himself in a long corridor, a bright light coming from the end of it. He thought at first that it was a candle, but the light was too white. He moved forward cautiously and once again shouted Esther’s name. There was still no response. The corridor was lined with high windows, through which earth had fallen, piling like snow drifts on the red tiled floor. The white light ahead lit the ceiling, projected upwards into the vaulted roof, illuminating a rotten wooden door with iron studs and bars that stood slightly ajar. He approached cautiously, straining his ears to hear any sound that might indicate what the room contained. Finally, he reached the light, which turned out to be a phone, its flash function commandeered to act as a torch. There was no mistaking the device or the picture on its background. Esther’s phone. She had clearly been using it as a torch, but must have placed it down to move the door, which looked heavy. Why had she not picked it up again? He turned the phone’s torch off and put it in his pocket.
Preparing himself, he opened the door hurriedly, moving into the room, convinced that something would strike down on him as soon as he entered. Nothing did. The room was filled with an amber glow, tinted with white sparkles, reminding him vaguely of a planetarium show he’d seen once at primary school. He stood in shadow, though, the source of the light blocked from view by a small, hunched outline.
He moved forwards, aiming the torch at the outline, and saw that it lit on a blue and white striped top and wavy chestnut hair. It was her. She was sat cross legged, her arms folded in her lap, staring in wonder at an orange gem set in the floor, which was giving out the amber light. There were cuts and bruises on her arms and legs, and a cut across her right cheek, which had trickled blood down her face. Apart from that, she seemed to be fine.
“Thank God you’re safe,” he said, kneeling next to her, and smiling.
She didn’t move when he spoke, not even to look at him; she didn’t seem to register that he was there at all. He waved a hand in front of her face, but it made no difference. Shaking her had no effect either. She simply sat still, looking at the gem, her eyes unfocused as though she was not really there. He tried to lift her up, to get her to stand, but some force seemed to keep her sitting.
“What’s the matter?”
He looked down at the gem, wondering what Esther was looking at that held her attention so fully. The surface was made up of hundreds of triangles, all tessellating together to form the gem’s surface. The glow came from deep within it, the colour of it changing the deeper he looked. He wanted to keep looking, to keep watching; knowing that if he did it would show him great happiness from within its depths. Esther. He forced himself to close his eyes, screwed them as tightly shut as he could. The amber light was still visible through his eyelids, so Robin placed both of his hands over his eyes and turned away from it, forcing his mind to think of Esther, of their parents waiting for them, of anything other than looking into the light. The amber light was strong; it crept between his fingers, reflected off the walls. He knew that it was futile.
“Esther!” he screamed, as loudly as he could.