Ona looked Beelo up and down again. He sniffed, then he turned and walked towards the enormous doma tree.
Naru smiled at Beelo and jerked her head towards the tree. Beelo started to follow the strange old man.
Naru stayed behind and surveyed the forest for a moment. She looked up toward the sky and squinted into the green-tinged light that filtered down through the forest canopy. She took a deep breath in through her nose, held the fresh air in her lungs for a moment, and let it out slowly through her mouth in a soft hiss. Naru did this when it was difficult to keep calm. And she needed to keep calm.
Beelo was surprised at how quickly Ona moved. The old man didn’t seem to be hindered by his bent back and Beelo was soon covered in sweat with the effort of keeping up. They walked toward the gigantic tree but when they reached the trunk and the mat of soft moss that grew beneath, Ona veered to the left and began to walk counter-clockwise around base of the tree.
Beelo stumbled on some uneven ground and he looked down. The roots of the doma tree were so large that they created mounds and waves in the mossy surface. In some places, the roots were exposed and appeared like brown stones rising out of the green moss. Ona walked around one of these brown mounds and disappeared.
Beelo jogged up to where he last saw the old man and nearly fell into a large hole in the ground. The root next to him rose to Beelo’s chest and was shaped in an arch. Beneath the arch, there was an opening. It was a tunnel that slanted down, under the tree. The walls had been widened and stones set into the earth to create a staircase. Beelo stood at the top of the stairs and peered into the darkness. He saw and heard nothing. A touch on his shoulder nearly sent him tumbling into the void.
“Sorry,” Naru said. “I thought you heard me come up behind you.”
Beelo was a little dizzy.
“Nobody can hear you coming, mother,” he said.
Naru smiled at her son and said, “You should learn to walk more like me and less like Beerok. There’s a reason why Ona could hear us from a mile away.”
Naru gave Beelo a sarcastic look. Beelo stuck out his tongue and they both laughed.
“So,” Beelo said hesitantly. “Do we go down?”
“Yes, my son. We go down.”
Beelo stepped carefully onto the first step. It was solid but worn smooth from use. Beelo descended a few more steps and he could no longer see in front of him. He took a look over his shoulder and saw his mother silhouetted against the light flowing down from the surface. Beelo held his hands out to steady himself and he continued down. The steps widened as he went and after a few more steps, Beelo could only reach the wall on his right side.
Eventually, Beelo’s foot could not find another step down. The floor seemed to spread out in front of him but he could still not see. He walked on, following the wall with his right hand and bumped into something. He put his left hand down and found some sort of a high table. There was something on the table but Beelo couldn’t identify them by touch.
Beelo felt a draft of air as Naru walked up to his side. Her hand brushed his as she reached for what was on the table. Beelo heard a soft sliding sound and then a bang as something hit the table. A soft, blue light appeared and Beelo blinked while his eyes adjusted.
Naru held the light source next to her face and Beelo was relieved to see her sneaky half-smile. Beelo watched as she held the light higher and shook it a bit. The glow expanded substantially and pushed back the gloom enough that Beelo could look around.
The stairs landed in a room with a floor of paving stones. The walls of the room were hard earth, but on the far side there were two stone arches that held wooden doors, similar to the door to Beelo’s doma. Another door just like the first two was set on the third wall, perpendicular to the stairs.
Other than the table, there was no more furniture in the room except a bench, under which there were a few pairs of boots and upon which sat Ona. He had slipped on a pair of boots and waited impatiently for Beelo and Naru.
“You’ll probably want to put on a coat,” the old man said.
Beelo realized how cold it was in the subterranean space. Until just then, he had been kept warm by fear and excitement. All of a sudden, Beelo felt colder than he had ever been in his life. The skin on his arms turned to nut brown gooseflesh and he felt an ache in his feet as the paving stones robbed them of their warmth.
Beelo watched his mother turn back to the table and set down the light. On the wall next to the table, three brass spikes were pounded into the earth. On each spike hung a coat. They appeared to be made of buckskin and were the brown color of dead leaves.
Naru pulled two coats off of the wall and handed one to her son. Beelo watched his mother put her coat on and mimicked her. The coat was lined with thick, soft fur. He recognized it as once. A sudden vision of the lapina bleeding on the stone lake flashed through his mind. Beelo swallowed hard and buckled the fasteners in the front. The coat instantly made him warmer. The cozy feel of the fur calmed him and the image of the dying creature faded slowly away.
Naru crossed the floor to the bench and sat next to her uncle. She put a pair of boots on her feet and motioned to Beelo. Ona grunted as he rose from the bench and made room for Beelo. Naru handed her son a pair of boots and Beelo slipped them on his feet. The boots were lined with the same soft fur as the coat. Beelo had never worn anything on his feet before. It felt awkward to not be able to feel the ground but he was thankful for the insulation and the dull pain he felt a moment ago dissipated.
Ona cleared his throat and walked toward one of the doors. Beelo noticed he did not put on a coat.
“The cold does not effect me as it does you,” said the old man over his shoulder.
Beelo looked at his mother. Naru shrugged and gave him another half smile.
Ona walked up to the first door on the left. Beelo and Naru followed him. Now that he was closer, Beelo saw differences when between the door in front of him and the door of his doma. First, this door had a handle and latches on the outside. Second, the window was replaced with an opening. The opening was a little bigger than the window at home and was covered by heavy-gauge wire mesh, which was secured to the door with a ring of brass plate and eight heavy bolts. Wind whistled through the grate and Beelo could feel air pulling at his hair as it rushed into the opening.
Ona looked hard at Beelo. The old man reached for the handle and pulled on the heavy, wooden door. Naru stepped aside to allow it to open all the way and then stepped forward into the opening. She aimed her light into to the room. Ona stepped around her and went in. Naru followed him and hung the light from a hook in the low ceiling. The blue glow illuminated a large wooden table. On the table laid what appeared to be a pile of dark fabric. Beelo carefully approached the table. The shadowy lump became a recognizable shape.
Beelo gasped and took two steps back. He missed the doorway and found himself backed against the cold earthen wall.
“Beelo, it’s okay,” Naru said calmly. “The beast is dead. This is but a corpse.”
Beelo looked from the table to his mother and to the table again. To demonstrate it was safe, Ona laid a hand on the inky hide. He pushed and shook the creature, which laid still after Ona removed his hand. Beelo took a deep breath in through his nose. The cold air stung his nostrils and burned his lungs on the way in but it warmed quickly as he held it in. He let the long breath out through pursed lips. The hissing sound of his escaping breath filled the room for a moment. The fog from Beelo’s warm breath carried away his fear.
Beelo took three steps forward and stood at the edge of the wooden table. He made his hands into fists and then opened them again. He repeated this a few times to work the blood into his hands which had gone numb from the cold. He lifted his right hand slowly, reached forward, and carefully placed his hand on the jet black hide of the dead slink.