Surrounded by People and Strangely Alone

The entryway to this cave is quite interesting. (I am starting at the beginning again! Hurrah!) By the light of only the moon and stars, Zebediah helped me over a particularly rough patch of large rocks last night, and suddenly we were there. Just to the right of a very large boulder were two spindly, bare trees, two flat rocks stacked between them, as Professor Eberhart had told us. The trees appeared to sit right against the face of the mountain, but if one looked closely one could discern a slender crevasse in the stone. Zebediah went first, holding my hand and sliding his body between the bare branches and the rock, taking slow, careful steps. I heard a sound like "Psst!" from within the cave's entrance, but simply hurried on my way, as Zebediah could not call out that we were friends and not foes.

"Hello?" I asked softly. Then again, a bit louder, "Hello? Professor Eberhart sent us. I am Bernice Sophronia Philomena Greenwater, and Zebediah Miller is with me."

I heard scuffing footsteps, then a lamp was held up practically in my face. I winced and squinted my eyes nearly shut, huddling close to Zebediah, who had put his arm around me. "What's the password?" a gruff female voice asked.

My heart thudded within my chest. Password? "He gave us none," I said, beginning to panic, wondering how we would ever get in if we did not know the password.

There was a pause. "Do you know who's in here?" the voice asked. Feet shuffled, and I began to make out a shape. The girl had her hair pulled back in a tight braid, and was rather short and stout.

"I... St-students," I stammered. "From the academy. Eastern Madison Academy. Um... the professor told me... to listen to what, um, Lucas Jenkins and... and Ivy Means said. Are they here? Might they allow us entry?"

Another pause. I heard whispering, and made out another shape, this one of a small, girlish figure and large, bright eyes. "Wait," the first voice told us, and the other girl scurried off down what seemed to be a tunnel.

Zebediah, I saw, had his hand in his pocket; no doubt his hand was closed around the handle of a knife or gun. I hated to think what could happen if we were attacked, or even if it seemed like we could be in danger, as I knew he would not hesitate to protect me. Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened.

A few minutes later, a young man appeared next to the first girl. He leaned forward, peering at Zebediah's face, then at mine. I recognized him as Lucas Jenkins, with whom the professor had left that night our lesson was interrupted. "We weren't expecting anyone," he muttered, but then his expression changed to one of surprise. "Oy, I know you! You're that girl the professor called his niece, the one he said I shouldn't menti--oh. Err, come on in, you two, sorry for the fuss. Can't be too careful. Thanks, Gertrude." They both turned and started down the passage. After a second, Zebediah started forward as well, taking me with him. It soon became too narrow for us to walk abreast with his arm around my shoulders, so he went first and held his hand out behind so I could hold onto it, both for comfort and balance, as the floor sloped down in the middle, like a channel had at one point been dug out of the rock.

A few moments later, we emerged into a cavern at least as large as the dining hall at the academy. I could only tell by... well, by feel, I suppose. A sixth sense, perhaps, of spatial awareness. Seeing it today, with a sliver of sunlight making it down the "corridor" to illuminate the cave, as well as the light of a couple of fires and a couple of lamps, I knew my estimation to be correct. "I'll bet you're tired," Mr. Jenkins said as he turned to face us. The girl he'd called Gertrude was already walking back toward the entrance with the slender girl, taking the lamp with her and leaving us in almost total darkness. "Whoops, sorry." Mr. Jenkins said, and a moment later there was a little blue flame hovering over his cupped palm, giving just enough light so we could all see each other's faces. "That's better."

"How do you..." I stopped myself before I could finish my question, however. He was Gifted, of course. Everyone in this cavern was, and so was I. "Can I do that?" I asked, wide-eyed.

"I dunno, can you?" he grinned. "Someday soon, I'm sure." His eyes flicked to Zebediah, then our clasped hands. "Your... brother?" he asked me.

"No," I replied simply, not wanting to explain everything at the moment. "He cannot speak, though we have a way of communicating. Please, Mr. Jenkins, I'm very sorry to cut off proper introductions, but we have been walking half the night, and we're very cold, so if--"

"Of course, of course," he said eagerly, nodding his head. "Sorry, I'm such a dolt. Girls this way, boys that way." He pointed to his right, then his left, with his free hand. I couldn't see anything but inky blackness, but I assumed he meant that each sex slept on their own side of the cavern. "Ladies first," said Mr. Jenkins, and walked us to his right.

There was a curtain of some thick material hung across a crude doorway at the end of another short corridor; it seemed boys and girls had their own rooms. "Be quick, this helps keep the body heat in," Mr. Jenkins whispered, referring to the curtain. Having no chance to bid Zebediah a private goodnight, I simply squeezed his hand, then slipped inside, letting the curtain fall back into place behind me.

I could see nothing, even after I stood there for a moment to let my eyes adjust. After talking myself into for a few minutes, I cupped my palm, then tried to call forth fire, as Mr. Jenkins had done. A flame flashed into being, but it was right atop my palm, and it burned my skin! My concentration broken, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, and I was left to clutch my injured hand to my chest and bite my tongue to keep from crying out.

The curtain was still just behind me; once I had recovered from the burn somewhat, I reached out to feel it, then stretched my hand out further to feel the rough stone wall. Inch by inch, I crept along the edge of the "room," sliding my feet lest I encounter any obstruction. Soon enough, I felt something soft with the toe of my boot; a sleeping girl, I supposed. How would I get around? Better to go across, I thought, than risk losing track of the wall. I steeled myself, then raised my right leg and stretched forward...

...only to plant my foot firmly on top of someone's arm. She gasped and raised her head, knocking into my leg, which caused me to lose my balance and fall on top of her. I was mortified! "Sorry, sorry," I whispered, trying to get to my feet.

A golden light appeared then, and I saw it was cupped in the girl's hand. "Be still," She said softly, studying my face. "You're new."

"Yes. I'm Bernice Greenwater. Um. Mr. Jenkins let us in?"

"Lucas." She rolled her eyes. "He didn't think to give you a light? Typical." She sighed and sat up, then extended her free hand to help me sit up as well. Somewhere behind me a girl stirred and murmured in her sleep, but otherwise all was quiet. "I'm Ivy," the girl with the light said, and extended her left hand, as the flame sat in the right.

Put off for a moment by facing the wrong hand, I held out my left and shook hers. "Miss Means?" I asked, for clarification.

"If you must," she said with a shrug. "I don't suppose you can do this?" she asked, gesturing to the flame in her hand.

"Sorry, no." I felt terribly inadequate. Likely all the students here were far more practiced with their Gift than I was, and I would be of no use at all to them.

"We'll soon fix that," Miss Means said cheerily. "Come on, let's find you a bed." I saw as she kicked off the blankets that she was lying on a thin pallet; I supposed it was better than the ground. She seemed to be fully-dressed, sans shoes, but there probably was not time to get a nightgown from her dormitory, fleeing in such haste as they had done. Miss Means picked up a tiny lamp from the other side of her bed and shook it, then handed it to me. The little spheres inside began to glow, and I stood up, then followed her down the wall to the end of it, where a pile of pallets similar to hers sat, as well as some blankets. "No pillows, sorry," she said as she dragged a mattress off the top of the stack.

"That's all right," I whispered back. "I'm used to using my coat." She gave me an odd look, but said nothing more until my makeshift bed was ready.

"Let me know if you need anything. The WC, such as it is, is back into the main cavern," she pointed toward the curtain, "and straight ahead from where the entrance is. It's got a curtain, too, but I'd, um... knock first, just in case."

I nodded, then sat down to begin unlacing my boots. "Will anyone mind if I keep this on for a while?" I asked, pointing at the lamp.

"Should be fine," she replied. "See you in the morning." She picked her way back between sleeping girls, then extinguished the flame in her hand. I wrote the previous entry here, then fell asleep myself.

This morning I awoke to the familiar but nearly-forgotten sound of many other girls waking up: stretching, yawning, unplaiting hair, searching for shoes and such. It brought a reminiscent smile to my lips for a moment as I thought about Saint Anne's, but then I recalled my actual situation, and sat up. I took my time putting on my boots and pinning my hair up (without a mirror, though I'd grown used to it during my stint in the forest) so I would be the last one to leave the room. Many of the girls watched me from the corner of their eyes, but said nothing. Miss Means seemed content to let me be, and they apparently took their cues from her.

When I emerged into the main cavern, students were splitting up into small groups of three or four. A couple were already practicing Illumination. One group worked together to stack a pile of sticks into a crude miniature house. Another had a box of dirt between them, and were taking turns shaping the earth into little animals or other figures.

"Miss Greenwater," said a voice at my side. I turned to see the brilliant blue eyes of Mr. Jenkins smiling at me. "You're with these three," he said, placing his fingertips very lightly on the small of my back to guide me toward a group at the edge of the cavern. "Since you seemed so fascinated with it last night." He winked at me, then hurried away, toward some other group which he began to help as they coiled and uncoiled a rope around a rather nervous-looking boy.

"Hello." The quiet greeting drew my attention back to my own group. The slender, large-eyed girl I had seen at the entrance last night was speaking to me.

"Hello. I... I'm not quite sure what I am supposed to do." I scanned the room for Zebediah, wondering what he was doing, but did not see him.

"Lessons," she said. "I'm Tulia Laurel."

"Bernice Greenwater," I replied, still somewhat distracted.

"I know. I met you last night. Sort of."

"Oh, yes. Right."

"Miss Greenwater." A tall, sturdy-looking boy with violently red hair called my name and, unsurprisingly, got my attention. "If you please." He cupped his hand, and in it appeared a little flame. It was harder to see with all the other light in the cavern, but it was there, hovering an inch over his palm. "Miss Laurel," he prompted.

She held out her hand and concentrated. A weak light flickered in her palm, then disappeared. This happened twice more before she sighed and dropped her arm to her side. "You'll get it," the boy said, then nodded to the other young man in our group, one with very short black hair and square spectacles.

We went around the circle practicing for a little over an hour. Though at the end of that time, I still could produce nothing more than a faint yellow-orange flicker of flame (and even that was warm enough and close enough to my skin to nearly burn me again), I did learn the names of my group-mates. The redhead is James Mason, the other boy is Edwin Standish.

At breakfast, which consisted of a mug of black coffee (the taste of which I dislike, but the warmth I welcomed) and a hard roll with a single slice of apple, I saw Zebediah. He told me, after drawing me to the edge of the room where we would be somewhat less easily observed, that he had spent the day so far carrying water from the spring at the back of the maze of caverns. Apparently a "kitchen" sits further back from the main cave, and beyond that, through a twisting tunnel, is a dark cave from which water springs up and drains away in another direction. It used to drain out the entrance we came in, but had been stopped up and made to go another way in order to clear this space for use.

We drew many strange looks because of the way we communicated, but no one approached us. I think they did not trust us, as newcomers, but had to endure us because of what Mr. Jenkins and Miss Means said.

The rest of the morning was spent in more lessons, each group rotating through the stations set up throughout the cavern. In addition to Mr. Jenkins and Miss Means, a couple of the older students circled the room, helping groups or individuals now and then and overseeing the whole thing. I was quite successful with the rope (though it horrified me, to a degree, to be wrapping it around little Miss Laurel), though I did less well working with the others to build the stick house. Both Mr. Mason and Miss Means told me I was trying to do too much of the work myself, but I could not stop wanting to do it all. That is how I was accustomed to doing things with my Gift! I did not see why we had to work as a team for this exercise, but did not ask questions.

Lunch was slightly more substantial than breakfast in that a bit of cheese and a hunk of tough, dried meat (leather, more like) was added to the roll, sliver of apple, and cup of coffee. And then more lessons.

We are on a break now. I am sitting with Zebediah in the part of the cavern that is most like an actual corner. He is watching me write while keeping an eye on the games, conversation, and laughter going on in the rest of the cavern. I know I should not keep to myself so much, but I am frightened, Dear Reader. This seems so odd to me, students governed by other students, and none of us doing real lessons but practicing Illumination instead. I feel that something terrible could happen at any moment, whether someone blows us up from overexertion of their Gift, someone finds us all here in this cave, or Mr. Jenkins and Miss Means think the better of it, decide we are useless, and kick us out into the snow and cold.

Zebediah has put his arm around me and I feel better. Yes, I know that you are reading this, you sneak. (He is laughing now, in his quiet way.) I suppose it will be supper time soon, and then perhaps more lessons. Hopefully someone can explain to Zebediah and me what we are all doing here, and how there came to be so many Gifted young people all in one place, but I am too nervous to approach anyone. And there is the bell which Miss Means uses to demarcate the various portions of the day. Goodbye until later, Dear Reader.

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