Her eyes met Briar’s and Marine felt a tingling across her cheeks as they bent wide into a smile.
‘This is a river?’ She asked, her eyes drawn irresistibly back to the tumultuous water.
‘It is.’ Confirmed Briar, joining Marine in gazing out across it.
It was enormous, if she squinted, Marine thought she could see grass on the other side of it but the darkness of the evening made it hard to make out. Everything was hazy, and the jumping shininess of the water made it the thing her eyes wanted to focus on most. ‘Can you go in it?’ She asked shyly, unsure what she wanted the answer to be.
‘You can,’ Briar nodded, ‘But you don’t last long. Safer to go on it.’
Marine’s head snapped up, ‘On it?’
Briar laughed, ‘Yes, in a boat.’
‘What’s a boat?’ Marine asked but was Briar was interrupted from answering by a procession of torches heading their way from the darkness. Marine tensed, and felt Ezria backing up towards her.
‘It’s ok,’ Briar soothed, putting out a hand to show everything was ok. ‘You’re safe. Nothing will happen to you here.’
Marine peered at the line of Tingions coming from further down the river towards them. There appeared to be a lot; all very tall like the Topsider party they had met beneath ground. Kurann, Rishekke and Eleff all gathered in tighter towards Ezria and Marine and they braced themselves for meeting more strangers.
‘You are back.’ Called the Tingion at the front of the torched procession.
‘Safe and free.’ Called back Briar, and Marine watched the tension go out of their shoulders. ‘It’s my mother.’ Briar said, turning their head slightly back to round to address the City Tingions. The new group arrived and clustered around. Briar greeted their mother with a hug. The two rangy Tingions stood close together with their heads bowed, deep in intense conversation.
Marine was fascinated by the clothing of the Topsiders. These Tingions who were in the raiding party weren’t dressed in the woven, brown combats that the others were. They had feathers and grasses woven into clothes made of all sorts of things Marine didn’t recognise. One Tingion turned around and Marine was startled to notice that their trousers crunched and made such a racket. As she peered closer she realised she recognised the design on the trousers: it was something she had seen once in a museum in the City. Some sort of human waste that they often dropped, apparently. It was curious that these Tingions felt no need to hide or camouflage… everyone beneath ground wore muted browns made from woven, treated roots so that they could hide from animals or, god forbid, human eyes.
Briar’s mother approached Ezria and smiled warmly. ‘Sinfire,’ she said, indicating herself and nodding her head to Ezria. Ezria mirrored her nod and smiled back.
‘Ezria.’ The two women clasped hands in the Tingion trust greeting and then Sinfire shuffled back and spread her arms wide in a welcoming position to the small band of City dwellers.
‘Welcome to the Topside,’ Sinfire called, her face the very picture of the matriarchal welcome she professed with her body language, ‘I understand you have had a long journey and a tumultuous amount to deal with. Perhaps we can offer you food and a safe bed for the night.’
Marine’s stomach answered for the group, gurgling loudly. Marine wanted to sink into the floor and die as Briar’s eyes caught hers and one eyebrow flicked up into an amused arch.
They followed Sinfire’s torchlit procession along the pebbly ground with the river to their left. The noise of it was astonishing - Marine couldn’t keep her eyes off it. What was making the water move? How did so much of it get into one place? What was keeping it in such a neat line? Why did it jump and bounce? Where was it going? Where did it come from? How would it feel to be inside it? Would it hurt? What was a boat?
She barely knew where her feet were leading her as she followed Rishekke’s footsteps towards Briar’s home.
Their settlement was the most beautiful thing Marine had ever seen. They had processed down the river until a sandy gully to the right led them up the bank and under a huge hedge.
‘Is this it?’ Marine asked Briar, looking around in confusion.
‘Look up.’ Briar said simply, and Marine looked up in astonishment. The hedge above her was alive with activity. Tingions moving up and down branches that had been carefull bent and secured to make pathways and platforms that they could sit, settle, cook and sleep on.
‘Oh my!’ Marine couldn’t help saying, and Briar’s chest swelled at Marine’s obvious amazement.
‘We don’t stay too long in one place,’ explained Briar, ‘But we’re pretty quick at making a place home once we arrive.’ Briar wasn’t kidding. The hedge was incredible - intricate walkways from thick branch, to sturdy trunk. Sleeping nests that dotted the edges. Marine could see the faces of children peering down towards her. Food was being moved about by pulleys and the whole hedge was lit by flames in clear boxes that spun the light out in all directions. It was unbelievable. So far removed from the musty, stale air of the mud caves they lived in beneath ground. Marine knew it was the extra oxygen in the air above ground but she felt light, giddy and free. An entire new world was suddenly in existence, one she knew nothing about.
‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ Mortglade was at Marine’s side.
‘Yeah…’ The word fell out of Marine’s mouth through a slack jaw. ‘I just… why don’t we all live like this?’ It was so exciting and communal, noisy and warm.
‘Why live somewhere you are less protected? Why live somewhere where there’s more chance of having to move? Why live somewhere where it rains?’
Marine opened her mouth to provide answers to all these questions, but Mortglade raised a hand, ‘I agree, pet, but society wants what it wants.’
‘Does it know it could have this?’ Marine said with wonder, and Mortglade clasped a firm, friendly hand on her shoulder.
‘Of course not.’ She said sadly.
‘Hungry?’ Came Briar’s voice, and Marine nodded eagerly and followed them in the direction of some incredible smells.
By a large, contained fire, several Topsider Tingions were roasting and boiling and stirring and chopping. Steam and smoke poured around under the branches - filling Marine’s nostrils with scents that were new and familiar. Her stomach growled so loudly she was afraid she would attract rats.
‘Sit.’ Said Sinfire, and indicated to the newcomers a clearing with a ring scooped out for Tingions to sit in and have a bowl of food in front of them at a higher level. Marine thought this was an ingenious idea. She sat, feeling giddy and over stimulated as shells of food were passed round to each Tingion sitting in the circle.
Eventually, everyone was seated with a shell piled how with steaming food in front of them, they ate hungrily and Marine watched as Sinfire and Ezria talked fervently and in depth on the other side of the circle. She was sat between Eleff and Briar, but much to her annoyance Briar was deep in conversation with the Tingion to their right and Marine couldn’t break into the conversation. She began to feel sulky, but unsure exactly why as she did her best to join in with Eleff and Kurann.
When the food was gone and the shells cleared away, Sinfire stood up to address the party. ‘I welcome you with open arms to our home, I hope you will treat it with the respect that we would show yours were we to venture into your City. Which, by the way, we will be happy to do if you promise to make your ceilings a little higher.’ There was a genuine wave of laughter from the collected Tingions. ‘I have much to discuss with Ezria tomorrow, we have been nervous of Vanweer’s behaviour for some time, and this confiscating of a potential lost stone seems to be evidence indeed in support of some of our worst suspicions. Gaining control of the stone is imperative.’
Marine went cold. She could feel the stone sitting innocently in her pocket, her eyes flashed unbidden to Ezria’s but Ezria blinked and spoke a paragraph with her eyes. Sinfire continued, ‘For now, we will show you a place to sleep safe and dry. In the morning there will be work. You have my protection.’ She bowed, and the little group all raised their half cups in salute. Marine joined in feeling numb.
One by one the City Tingions stood up and followed the Topsiders to various sleeping areas beneath the hedge. Marine stood, feeling tireder than she had ever felt before. She couldn’t really recall properly the last time she had slept. Briar slipped a hand into hers, ‘I’ll walk you.’ They said, and Marine happily followed.
She was surprised though, when Briar didn’t lead her to a sleeping spot but instead seemed to be headin straight out from under the shelter of the hedge.
‘Where are we going?’ She asked, and Briar winked.
‘On to the river…’ They said, and led Marine towards the racing water.