“The boy’s fate is for the council to decide, Red Bear” said a gray-haired man stepping up out of the hut behind him.
Red Bear growled and pushed past as the old man motioned for them to enter the hut. The angry native stomped across the bridge and out of sight.
Lem walked through the doorway and looked nervously at all of the stern faces sitting around the center fire. He stopped just inside, not sure what he was supposed to do. Running Wolf walked up behind him and led him to a pile of furs on the floor. Lem slowly sank down onto the unusual seat. The gray-haired man walked around the fire and sat down cross-legged in the only other empty spot.
“I am Standing Elk, the chief of the underland tribe. Your presence here causes us great trouble, offlander.”
Lem looked away embarrassed. His curiosity had led him into a great many problems in the past, but never anything like this before. He didn’t know what to say.
“Perhaps,” replied Standing Elk, “but that does not change the facts. The facts are these: our underland tribe has remained a secret for over one hundred years. During that time, we have not had to face the trials from the offlanders that our brothers who chose to stay on the surface have endured. We will not easily give up the freedom that we enjoy here. Therefore, we will not take any risks that our location might be found. “
“Um, ok,” Lem stammered. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
“No, you will not,” Standing Elk sighed sadly.
Lem began to panic. Were they going to kill him after all? “Wh…what do you mean?”
“I am sorry, but we cannot allow you to leave here. Do not worry. We will not go as far as Red Bear suggested, but you will not set foot up on the surface again.”
“B…but, but, wait. That’s not fair. I have to go back. My mom and dad… You can’t do this!” Lem grew angrier and angrier as the reality of what Standing Elk meant began to sink in.
“I am sorry, but that is my final word. Running Wolf will find you a place to live and help you get settled in. You are his responsibility now.”
Lem glanced over at Running Wolf still shocked at what the chief had said. Running Wolf didn’t look pleased.
“But my parents,” Lem all but shouted as an idea occurred to him. “They’ll look for me. They’ll get the whole town involved. You don’t know them. Won’t it be dangerous to have everyone searching the forest? They might find you anyway.” Lem smiled triumphantly.
“We will ensure that the search takes place on the far side of the island. There will be no danger to us. Running Wolf.” Standing Elk looked at the native boy sitting next to Lem and nodded dismissingly.
Running Wolf nodded back and stood up. “Come.” He looked down at Lem who was still sitting there dumbfounded.
“Come!” Running Wolf repeated sternly. He grabbed Lem’s arm and pulled him to his feet.
“B…but…” Lem stuttered as Running Wolf pulled him out of the hut. He couldn’t believe it. He was a prisoner! He’d never see his family again. His eyes scanned the cavern walls as Running Wolf pulled him back across the bridge and down the path. He’d have to escape. That’s all there was to it. But as he looked around, he realized that would be all but impossible. Guards stood at each entrance. He knew that he’d never be able to get past them.
It began to grow difficult for him to breathe, and his chest felt unusually heavy. Lem feared he might have a panic attack. He forced himself to calm down. They can’t keep me here, he thought. My parents will find me. Or if they don’t, I’ll be able to escape. I can do this! They can’t watch me all the time. It won’t be easy, but I will. I will get out of here! I will!