Content Warning: Description of violence
“What is that?” the mourner cried suddenly, interrupting the stranger’s story, for far ahead, so small that he might have imagined it in the gloom and deprivation of their surroundings, glimmered a small point of light.
“Haven’t you been listening to my tale?” said the stranger. They continued forward, and the pinprick of light grew ever brighter and larger, until he began to see vague shapes around him: the walls of the tunnel, the sand shifting beneath their feet, and the silhouette of his guide before him, a smaller, slighter figure than he had imagined in the dark. As they neared the source of the light, he saw that it emanated from a fissure in the rock, only a little higher than his shoulder, and in a sudden desperation he rushed past his companion and scrambled up to raise his face to the opening, so starved for light had even his short sojourn in the tomb rendered him.
Looking out, he saw the mountain sloping down toward the beach, only a short distance away. The waves lapping against the sand seemed to beckon to him, speaking of freedom—from death, from imprisonment, even from sorrow.
Turning in a frenzy of anticipation to the stranger behind him, he cried out, “But how—”
His unfinished question faded into the darkness as he realized that his guide, standing a few feet back from him with an expression of mingled amusement and exasperation, was a woman. The soft yellow light filtering into the cave illuminated her features and her compact, muscular frame, clothed in a man’s garments, which her travails among the waves and beneath the mountain had stained and torn nearly into rags.
“How will we get out?” she asked, finishing his question. “That is exactly why I have brought you here.”
Approaching the great boulder that blocked their exit, she rested her shoulder against it, drew in a deep breath of air, and pushed. As he had almost expected, the boulder did not even tremble, but her feet slid backward, the sand shifting beneath her.
“You see?” she said, standing straight again. “The sand is too slippery to gain a solid foothold. I failed to consider that when I planned my escape from this pit. Without your arrival, I might have been stuck here forever. Already I have been here three days and nights, and I had to kill the poor woman I found still alive when I first entered.”
He gasped, briefly speechless in his horror. “You killed—”
“Cut her throat,” said the woman. “Better than starving to death, and I didn’t know how long I might be trapped here. She was too weak to aid in our escape, but you are strong. Here.”
She beckoned to him in the half-light, walking back toward the tunnel they had just left and pausing at its mouth. “But I am not strong enough to move that rock,” he protested. “Even both of us together couldn’t do it. You might as well have killed me, as you planned—as I asked. I don’t want to starve in this place, either, so close, so close to the light, taunting us—”
“Pay attention,” she snapped, interrupting his growing hysteria. “You were ready to die in the name of your honor only a few moments ago, and now you lose heart at one setback? Look: this wall is close to the boulder, but not close enough for me to brace against. You stand with your back to mine, and raise your legs to brace your feet on the wall. I will push, and you will keep me from sliding backward.”
She took up her position against the rock, and he, growing calm again as she laid out these brief instructions, arranged himself as she directed. With his feet resting against the cold, unmoving rock of the cave wall, he felt the muscles of her back contract against his as she prepared to push.
“I still don’t know—” he began, but without heeding his objection she thrust with all her strength against the boulder.