From what the Crystal had intimated it was clear that the prisoners couldn’t all be released at once and setting them free would be a lengthy business, so Kira and Keari left to arrange extra supplies of food and water, and more warm clothing and blankets to combat the chill of the cavern. Then the others turned their attention to the caskets, at which point Poeli cried out in horrified surprise.
‘What?’ Bru asked.
‘That casket,’ Poeli said, pointing to one on the further side. ‘It was fine when we were here before, but now it’s sinking!’
At once four swimmers went into the water and, with great daring, attempted to support both the casket and the man in it. He was only half conscious, and desperately drawn and thin. He opened his eyes, registered their presence and smiled briefly, but then shook his head. One of the swimmers dived down to support his feet, and at that touch he smiled again, but his head kept falling forwards. With a superhuman effort he placed his hands flat against the front of the casket, and two of the swimmers placed their hands over his on the outside. Apparently he drew some strength from that contact, and was able to mouth the words, ‘Thank you,’ but then his hands slipped from the crystal, his eyes glazed over, and he was gone. Within a few minutes the casket turned a dirty grey colour, and when the swimmers loosed their grip on it it sagged into the water, as dead as its occupant.
Sombrely the swimmers returned to the walkway, everyone gathered close to the casket, and Ielen committed it and its occupant to the care of the Powers.
Ielen asked the swimmers to check all the other caskets, try to contact those in them, and to decide if anyone was in need of immediate release. It was accepted that although Niethi was one of their own he would be left until last since he was bound to be fitter and stronger than the rest. However, before approaching anyone else the swimmers surrounded him, spoke to him, dived down and let him rest his feet for a few moments on their backs, and those who could finger-signed their situation to him.
He thanked them, but then he signed for them to go and help the others. In the event they reported back to Ielen that the Weronti in the other nine caskets seemed reasonably strong, so it wouldn’t matter who was released first.
While Mo Turned back to Myldora to fetch more helpers – the swimmers couldn’t work in the water indefinitely and there were ten men to be helped – Bru and Poeli Turned to the capital and reported the situation to the king. He was taken aback and rather affronted that they hadn’t asked his permission before beginning work in the cavern, but he was so glad the Crystal was to be removed that he forgave them and offered to send further help and supplies should they be needed.
The next day, when they were all reassembled they went over their plans. Bru said, ‘I’m concerned by how quickly the casket died when its occupant died. Won’t we kill the whole Crystal by removing all the men? That isn’t what we wanted to do.’
But he was reassured by Ielen that as long as the Powers acted quickly all would be well. She had learned that that casket had been the oldest and much the weakest. Also since the remaining caskets were all on the near side of the lagoon, their crystals could link to support each other and if one was lost, it was not vital to the survival of the entire entity. As long as even one was left it could regrow and flourish, and it had discovered that the touch of the swimmers lent it strength. When Ielen was told this, the Healers were asked to come and touch the crystals which were supporting and being supported by living men; she hoped this would make their release swifter and easier, and that they and the Crystal would suffer less.
At their first sight of the swimmers some Weronti had been terrified, not knowing who these people were who looked so different from themselves and who dared to enter the water and touch their caskets; but Galbon, who’d been fetched by Bru to be the first contact for them, explained who they were, and they were more than glad to be helped.
At last everything and everyone was ready, and through Ielen and her team the Crystal indicated which of the ten it would set free first. The process was worryingly slow. The front and top of the casket were re-absorbed first, and then when the swimmers could support the man inside it, the wrappings gradually disappeared. That took a whole day and night. When he was free of the back of the casket they lifted him out, but he cried out, ‘No, no! Put me back!’ and when Thera touched his chest, it became clear that there was still crystal inside him, and he screamed in pain. Hastily they lowered him back, and turning him to face the remaining part of the casket, they held him against it while what had been wrapped around his heart was slowly withdrawn.
That was the hardest part of the rescue, because he must be kept still and steady, and the swimmers, tiring quickly, had to change over frequently. However at last he made a sign with his hands, and murmured, ‘Out now.’ He was quickly given into the care of the Healers, and Ielen’s team and the swimmers moved straight on to the next casket.
Thera had been prepared to discover deep, freely bleeding chest wounds, even to find a seriously damaged heart, but examining the man he couldn’t see any bleeding, the heartbeat sounded as strong as could be expected, and using his most delicate instruments he found that the inner surfaces of the incisions were as smooth and whole as if cauterised. After consulting with his Seniors they closed the mouths of the wounds, applied salve and bandages, and concentrated on getting the man warm and able to take some proper food.
They were very gentle in their handling of him, his skin had already come away in one or two places where the swimmers had touched him, or where the ropes had rubbed it. He’d been submerged so long that it hardly adhered to his body at all. This and the adjustment back to normal food would be the longest and most difficult matters to treat.
Of course he’d lost all sense of time, but by the next morning he was asking questions, and he and they were horrified to discover he’d been in the lagoon for twelve years. His survival was a wonder to the Healers, and samples of the river water were gathered to be studied later at home.
Day by day the rescue continued, until there were nine beds set up in the widest part of the walkway, as near to the tunnel entrance as possible. The rescued men needed light and air, but not the scorching heat of the valley after so long in the cold of the lagoon.
When six men were out Mo and Keari had Turned Weronti healers from the capital, to take over the care of the best recovered. They all agreed that healing their bodies was perfectly possible, but no one dared to guess what their mental state would be. Poeli spent much of his time near them, and his quiet music, whether it were his harp or voice, had a calming and strengthening effect. Bru also came and spent time with them every morning, and laid his hands on their wounds and on their heads.
‘It won’t achieve perfect healing,’ he told Thera and the Weronti healers, ‘but the worst of the terrors and memories will be eased, and they might be able to live out their lives normally, if quietly. They might want to be together, or on the other hand, never to see each other or you again. Be prepared for either.’
When the last of the Weronti had been released Bru called Ielen’s team together.
‘I want to try to get the body of the man who died. If he’s got family they’ll want it, if not, we might get permission for Thera to study it, but even if neither are possible, I don’t feel it’s right to turn and walk away and forget him. He should be given his due last rites and a memorial.’
‘It might mean cutting into the dead crystal,’ Keari said, ‘and that’s as delicate a matter as the man’s body.’
‘Not quite. The Crystal’s identity survives intact even with the loss of a part; it even regrows. This body is a whole man, it held his entire being and his memories. To the Crystal it’s like us saying “Can we amputate an already dead toe so that we can have an entire man’s body to bury and reverence?” I think it’s worth asking, and I want to do it before Niethi’s set free.’
‘The Crystal’s got to know us over the last thirteen days,’ Ielen said. ‘I’ve felt it’s surprise at our restraint and sensitivity towards it. It expected hatred and revenge, but no-one’s expressed either. I think it’s worth trying.’
So that evening, the team gathered together and with extreme delicacy made their request – the release of the man who’d died. Blank incomprehension was the response. Why would they want a dead thing? Dead crystal was dead – just stone – neither useful nor sentient. Patiently they explained human customs regarding the dead, and the needs of his family. That made no sense to it either. But to their relief the Crystal gave up trying to understand, and they were permitted to do whatever was necessary to remove the body from its casket.
So, while the usual team tended Niethi through the process of his release, another group cut through the now brittle crystal on the other side of the lagoon, and eventually placed the man’s body in a sealed coffin for removal to the capital, where they hoped it might be identified. . . . . . to be continued.