Under the Ground

Appia had her eyes squeezed shut, but was it enough? Could you see ghosts through your eyelids? She buried her face in her sister’s sleeve.

‘Stop pulling me,’ said Gaia.

Appia shivered. It was cold under the ground. She could smell wet stone, and dark water, and the smoke from her sister’s torch.

‘Can you see the dead yet?’ she said, and then, ‘Don’t tell me.’

Gaia was silent. Their footsteps echoed in the dripping tunnels. Did dead feet make a sound?

‘Okay, do tell me if you can’t see them, but don’t tell me if you can.’

‘I can’t. Are you sure you’re okay to come with me? Do you want me to take you back up?’

‘No! I’m coming. He’s my brother too.’ Appia felt for the charm around her neck, the bulla that had hung against Aulus’ heart since they were nine days old. She wrapped her fingers around it, twin instinct still clinging on.

Gaia screamed. Gaia the fearless screamed in the dark, and Appia screamed with her, clinging to her, hiding in her cloak. ‘What? What is it, tell me what it is!

‘A d-dog… a really big dog…’

Appia opened her eyes.

She saw a pale shape in the torchlight, bigger than a horse, bigger than a bull, lifting a wolflike head from its paws to gaze at her with bright intelligent eyes. And then a second head, a third! Was it three dogs or one? One bushy tail thumping softly on the stones. One broad neck collared with a heavy chain, clanking as it moved.

‘Dog!’ cried Appia, running forward.

‘Don’t, it’ll eat you! It’s Cerberus! Come back!’

‘Dog, dog!’ Appia held out her arms, and the great dog lumbered to its feet, filling the tunnel. Three heads bowed to sniff her. ‘I love you, I love you!’ said Appia, and a huge pink tongue slapped warmly against her cheek.

‘Living child,’ three voices rumbled, deep as the earth, ‘you are the first to say those words to me, and I am as old as death.’

‘You – you can talk,’ said Appia. Her voice sounded very small and quiet by comparison.

‘I am a god.’

‘But you’re in chains!’ She ran her hands through the dog’s thick fur, and tears came into her eyes. ‘You’re a god and they keep you in chains!’

The dog just looked at her with his old, old eyes, full of mysteries and sorrow.

‘Gaia, let’s help him!’

‘I’m scared,’ said Gaia, with her back against the tunnel wall.

‘It’s all right. Look, it’s just a big choke chain. Let’s both pull.’

The dog laughed softly, and shook his three heads; but he let them try.

Gaia propped the torch against the wall, where it threw ghostly shadows on their faces. There was nowhere near enough light, and the chain links buried in the dog’s warm fur were as thick and strong as serpents, and as cold. The smell of rusted iron got into their lungs and under their nails. Appia screwed up her face and groaned urrrrr to make herself pull harder.

And the chain fell, with a clang that struck sparks from the stones and sent both girls skittering out of the way. Cerberus lifted his three heads, noble and free. ‘My thanks,’ he said solemnly. And then he shook himself as joyfully as a puppy by the sea, and the flapflapflap of his six ears echoed in the tunnel. Appia grabbed her sister’s hands and jumped up and down.

‘Gaia,’ said Cerberus, startling them both, ‘you know my name, but do you know what I guard?’

‘The – the gate of the dead…’

‘Take up your torch, and follow me.’

Around the corner, the tunnel opened out into a cavern, tall as a temple, where a grey light shone behind a towering gate of black wood barred with iron.

‘Freedom for freedom,’ said Cerberus, ‘your brother’s for mine.’ He lay down before them. ‘Climb on my back.’

Appia scrambled on at once, wrapping her arms around the great dog’s neck, hugging him with all four limbs and burying her cheek in his fur. Gaia, nervous and hesitant, crept on behind her.

‘Hold tight.’ Appia felt the dog’s voice rumble against her chest. She felt his muscles coil to spring, and then the ground dropped away, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. He was going to leap over the gate.

She almost fell off backwards, then she almost fell off forwards, and then the ground came thudding back, and the shock almost knocked her off straight upwards.

There was light overhead, like a shadowy sky, and it dawned on her where she was. The world of the dead. Fear squeezed her stomach and she covered her eyes again.

‘Gaia? Is it scary?’

‘It’s all right. Just people sleeping.’

Appia peeped between her fingers. It was a grey world, with grass the colour of ashes. All around them, pale people dressed in mist were stirring in their sleep. Some sat up and blinked at them, yawned and rubbed their eyes. There were millions of them, filling the landscape like white flowers in the grass, out to the stalagmite mountains that faded into clouds.

‘There’s too many,’ said Appia. ‘How do we find him?’

‘Have you anything that belonged to him?’ said Cerberus.

‘This.’ Appia lifted the bulla from around her neck. Even holding it out at arm’s length felt too far. One of the three heads twisted back to sniff it, then all three dropped their noses to the ground. She heard the swoosh of his tail behind her as he caught the scent and began to track. She leaned down over his neck, straining as far forward as she could, hoping to see her brother a second sooner.

Cerberus nudged the body of a sleeping child. ‘Not him,’ said Appia. This one was too small to be Aulus, and too pale.

‘Yes it is,’ said Gaia behind her. Appia felt suddenly freezing cold.

The great dog lay down carefully to let the girls dismount. Gaia was already tumbling into the grass and running to their brother, Appia trailing clumsily in her wake. Their feet sounded loud in the silent world. Aulus didn’t stir. He lay curled over on his side, one hand under his cheek, thumb in his mouth. His lips were white, like wax.

Gaia dropped to her knees beside him and caught him up in her arms. His head tipped back, lifeless as a doll’s, and she cradled it. Appia hung back, biting her knuckles; then she saw him move. ‘Mmm?’ he murmured, husky with sleep. His eyes fluttered open, blinked up at Gaia, trying to focus on her face. Then he gasped. He threw his arms around her neck and clung to her, starting to cry. Appia burst into tears too.

She flung herself at him, skinning her knees in the grass, and then the two of them were crying together in a tangle of limbs, a babble of twin-words even Gaia couldn’t understand, while their big sister held them both and rocked them. His skin felt like ice against hers.

‘You’re so cold,’ said Gaia, rubbing his arms.

‘Cold?’ he said blankly. Appia looked at him.

‘Aulus? You haven’t got any tears.’ She touched his cheek. ‘Your face isn’t wet.’

Gaia suddenly went very brisk. ‘Right, well, let’s not worry about that now. Let’s just get you home.’ She hustled him to his feet and wrapped her cloak around him. Then he caught sight of Cerberus.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Dog!’

As they helped him onto Cerberus’s back, they saw a flicker of light behind them. Appia, now riding at the back, twisted to look over her shoulder. Huge clouds were billowing up on the horizon, dark as a bruise. Thunder roared, and she saw two mouths opening in the clouds, two angry faces towering higher and higher. She screamed and clutched her brother.

‘The King and Queen are rising!’ Cerberus cried, and he began to run, to gallop. Rain came down like spears. He soared over the gate and landed running in the dark tunnel. The forgotten torch lay flickering by the wall.

‘The light!’ yelled Gaia.

‘I need no light,’ said Cerberus, and they tore into the dark. Behind, the thunder followed them, and flashes of lightning etched their shadows on the rocks.

Something was glowing green in the tunnel ahead of them. They were caught between it and the thunder. Appia shrank in fear as it loomed closer, brighter; and then it was almost on them, and she saw that it was daylight on green grass, the end of the tunnel, and they were through into a world so bright it hurt.

Cerberus flopped to the ground, panting. Appia could feel his sides heaving. ‘Safe,’ he gasped. ‘They will not follow.’ Under the rocks, the thunder raged.

As they climbed down, Appia looked at her brother. Out here in the light, he looked terrible. His face was ashen. She took his cold hand in hers, white against her pink skin. ‘We should be the same colour,’ she said.

Gaia held his wrist for a moment, looked scared, put her hand to the side of his throat. The colour drained from her own cheeks.

‘Gaia? Is my heart not beating?’

‘It’s going to be all right, baby,’ Gaia said. ‘We’ll g – we’ll get you to a doctor. He’ll know what to do. Just don’t panic. Just don’t -’

‘I forgot,’ said Appia. ‘You need this.’ She took off Aulus’ bulla and gently hung it back around his neck.

‘Ow!’ Aulus crumpled, holding on to Gaia.

‘What‘s wrong?’ Appia wrapped her arms around him, keeping him safe between herself and her sister. He was shivering violently and she could feel his heart pounding.

‘I’m cold,’ he moaned. ‘I’m really, really cold.’ He started to cry again, and his tears were wet. Cerberus licked them away with his warm tongue.

‘Welcome back to life, little one,’ he said. And Gaia the brave finally cried.

‘Thank you, Cerberus!’ Appia kissed the wolflike muzzle. ‘Thank you, thank you!’

‘The score is even between us. Your brother’s freedom for mine.’

‘Come home with us! Our parents will love you!’

The great dog chuckled. ‘Thank you, child. But I shall return to my dead.’

‘But – we set you free!’

‘I am the watchdog of the dead,’ he said. ‘I am the guardian of their sleep. I let no evil thing come near them, no mortal cares disturb them. Bond or free, I am still their dog.’ He bowed his three heads to the three children, and kissed each of them. ‘Goodbye. I shall remember you.’

‘Oh, dog,’ said Appia. ‘Will I ever see you again?’

Cerberus’ tail thumped softly in the grass. ‘Of course.’

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