"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER EIGHT <=== / ===> CHAPTER TEN
There was nothing comforting about the magically created stairway we were descending. Voice and booming, grinding noise accompanied us, as ever present as our breathing, as our heavy boots falling on the stone steps, and the occasional grumbling when one of us missed a step, had to steady himself. Himself, mind you. Valanda didn’t seem to share our problems. Effortlessly she walked ahead, next to Red, with me in trail. She kept checking the stairwell for any traps with her spells, as far as I can tell. The rest of us were limited to using the beams of our breastplate lights – but what good would that do if something magical were waiting for us.
Yet whatever had created this passage – had killed the dwarves, our friends -, it was content with letting us march on down. If you care to know, by that time we were about a mile below Guardpeak, which meant the regular surface was more than a thousand yards above our heads. Not a comforting thought, and had I known more about this, I would have frightenedly tried to calculate the tons of rock that could crash down on me any heartbeat.
As if I had needed any additional fright. Scraps was walking next to me most of the time, doing his best to keep up with the rest of us, hampered by his stubby legs as he was. But he was a determined individual if there ever was one, and I was marveling at the pace he set – flagging every now and then, with him dropping back to the rear, yet he always showed up at the front quickly.
“Would be better to get this over with,” he muttered at one point, nearly an hour after we started our descent.
He’d spoken to himself, but it was the first time I had the chance to speak, so I seized the opportunity. “It’s nervewracking, that’s what it is,” I said, scratching my head carefully under my helmet. “Better to face it straight out, right?”
“Uhm,” Scraps mumbled. “Of course. Yes.” And then he dropped back, suddenly appearing weary.
I sighed. There was still the same distance I had sensed before. Bluff and Torrindas regarded me with the same strange sense of respect. I wanted to yell at them that I wasn’t a priest, not even a real pilgrim, just a base coward who welches money from strangers. Would they believe me? The day before, certainly, but now? Oh, by Olmawi’s beard, I didn’t quite believe myself.
I was alone again. For a while I tried to concentrate on my steps, not missing the stairs – again. My body wasn’t hurting anymore, and the armor wasn’t chafing. At least I didn’t sense it. I was probably too tired to care, and my nerves reacted accordingly. That’s the best explanation I can find. It was almost as unnerving as the situation, not being able to take refuge in some aches, in overcoming my fatigue.
Instead I had to wonder about myself. Valanda had told me that I had used the right words at Carter’s funeral. She had been right. I ran through all the conversations there, and I couldn’t quite remember myself having ever been that perfectly at ease. Oh, sure, words have been a strength of mine since the first time my father caught me stealing an apple from a neighbor’s tree and I found a way of making it sound righteous. (Not that it convinced my father. The evidence, half-eaten, was still in my hand, after all.) Yet my mind had always been churning at high speed during those exchanges. Every time I’d been trying to con a fool on the road or in a village, I had been watching closely the moves of the other person’s eyes, the tug on the lips, the replies – adjusting my own words and my expression to best suit it. Come to think of it, that was a lot of work. All right, it gets easier with practice, yet you can never rest on the laurels of yesterday’s gold coin, and you have to stay aware of everything around you. There might be somebody smarter walking towards you – or somebody who noticed your act a week before, in the wrong direction.
You get the idea, don’t you? Now I realized that I hadn’t even thought about what I wanted to say when I spoke to Red, to Valanda, or to any of the others. The proper, comforting words had just come out, as if there had been no alternative at all. Thinking back, it took me a heartbeat to devise a dozen alternate ways the conversations might have run. Yet I hadn’t been searching for any options then.
I prayed then, to Decirius, chief of the gods, for guidance, for a sign that maybe the others were right, and I had been forgiven my sins. No sign came. Of course not. In my mind, I could imagine the gods laughing at this. If you are so keen to be told the truth, the Decirius of my thoughts said, then you have not the faith you pretend to.
Next I missed a step.
I flailed out with my arms – more than I would have needed to -, managing to unsettle myself completely, slipping forward – and being rescued by Bluff who pulled me back in time before hurtling headlong down the stairs. “Careful, pilgrim,” he said in a concerned voice as he steadied me.
“Yes, yes, I –“ I shook my head, patted myself down. “Thank you, Bluff, I was –“
“Of course,” the giant of a man nodded. He believed I had been praying for help, rather than pursuing a foolish notion. I really should have put him right. I should have.
Instead I resumed my position in our group and continued walking.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel.
And we missed it almost completely until we stumbled out of the rocky confines of the stairwell. Only Valanda had noticed it – perhaps because she was the only one who didn’t have a magical light shining ahead and painting its circle on the ground and walls. But the wizardess had assumed we had seen it as well, so she was the only one who strode ahead to take a good look around.
The rest of us, we froze in our steps. (The first, anyway. Scraps ran into Red, and Bluff and Torrindas nearly barreled me over, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to follow Valanda.) There was light around us. A lot of light, tinged with the blue of the glowater bowls way above.
It lit a cavern that was so large I am trying hard to think of a different word to describe it. A cavern has walls that you can see, but this one… In the present day, while writing this, I know that there are walls, but they were miles away. You must be wondering about the tunnel we exited – that it should have pierced a wall. My answer is that you are wrong. We hadn’t realized while descending that this stairwell was a corkscrew tunnel like the one we followed earlier – only this one’s winding were so wide we had believed to be walking straight ahead.
Indeed that tunnel ran through a supporting pillar, one more than two hundred feet wide. And there were more of its kind, most of them behind cloudy mist wafting through the expanse. They looked like stalactites and stalagmites, in a distortedly gargantuan way. Distorted and gargantuan, yes, those are good words to describe what we saw.
It was like the cave of a giant, everything bigger than what we knew. Lichen grew on large rockfaces – like debris or the small boulders common above, only these were several times as tall as a man. Many of them, anyway. Smaller, more ordinary kinds were scattered about as well, yet we didn’t pay attention to them for a long time.
The air was moist and warm, like the shore of Shane’s Sea in summer. I believed I smelled the saltiness of the sea, along with a faint trace of seagrass. My home wasn’t close to the sea, but I had spent some time there a year earlier.
I mentioned the lichen. It wasn’t the only growth here. Far from it! Bushes covered the ground, and it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t stone we were standing on but true earth, dirt, ground. Take a look at it, unknowing that you are in a cave a mile below the surface, and you can’t tell it apart from a good piece of soil on top. The bushes and the trees didn’t seem to mind, not one bit, thank you.
There was a grove of apple trees growing right next to the exit, with their fruit ready to be plucked and enjoyed. Bluff cast them a hungry glance, took one step towards them – only to reconsider when he remembered where they were. (Had I mentioned that our supplies had run out half a day or so before? Up to that point I myself hadn’t realized I was hungry. All I knew was that Longstick’s liquor bottle had given me its last drop of relief shortly after entering the stairwell.)
A shadow hastened across a grassy meadow, too fast for any of us to really see it. A squirrel, I thought, running with a load of acorns, to squirrel it away. (Yes, I know, a pale joke.) Then I took a closer look. The meadow was covered by grass, but it wasn’t a hill as I had first thought. It was a number of the giant boulders, part of them ground down into a gentle slope over time, and the grass made them look like the peaceful places I knew from back home, near Deswellyn’s Great Statue of Splendor. There was something alien about it, though, something rough hidden beneath the peaceful appearance – or perhaps, it was just the fact that the rocks beneath, the rough edges at the sides, reminded me of where I really was.
Then there was the squirrel – or what I had thought of as one. The creature rushed up a tree, hid behind a twig or two, then peeked its tiny head out at us, licking a split tongue nervously over its scaly lips. It was a lizard, brownish, lean, long, and twitching its black eyes around constantly. I only had time for a brief glance, then the squirrel-lizard vanished behind the leaves.
“Where’s the light coming from?” Torrindas wondered, calm once more.
“Where did the entire place come from?!” Scraps exclaimed, checking himself the next instant, surprised how loud he’d been.
No evil swooped down on us, nothing at all happened. Nothing except for the breeze continuing to carry salty air toward us, along with something like birdsong. Except that the cadences were all wrong – or at least unfamiliar. No finches, no sparrows, no ravens, none of the familiar birds. Nonetheless it sounded alike, in a strange way, as if an entirely different breed of animals had grown to occupy the same places as the beings above – as birds, as squirrels had.
Was that possible? Could there be a world beneath our own? One so large that it supported an entirely different range of creatures?
Good reader, I must disappoint you in this. I know much more than I did at that time, but I still haven’t found an answer. I could tell you much about this place, yet it wouldn’t suffice. A lifetime of studying it would not, I fear, and neither would such a lifetime produce an answer.
“There,” Valanda said, shaking us from our various ponderings, as she pointed to the sky – or ceiling, I should say. “That’s where the light comes from.”
We looked up, and realized that the roof of a cave should not be aflame with light as a good, blue, sun-lit sky, graced by Atawn’s gift to mortals. It was made of rock, yes, and the light was blueish. “Glowater,” Red whispered, struck by the wealth on the ceiling. How did it stay up there? How could glowater defy the pull of gravity?
Magic? That much I can tell you, it wasn’t. We thought we saw an ocean of glowater on that roof, broken here and there by islands of clean rock – rare islands. In truth there was only the finest cover, warm glowater mist catching on the cold rock, moistening it. So much that its light was streaming down on us, yet still not enough to drip down.
Over time more would gather, and it would start drizzling down. I beware of calling it rain, for it is a rather steady companion down here, and it is so sparse that you catch a few drops here and there. On the other hand, there can be rain occasionally. There are nooks and crannies in the roof – natural cavities, where glowater may accumulate, and sometimes the winds grow so strong that they whip the moisture into your face, as harsh as a storm on the surface can be. These storms are infrequent, I hasten to add. Also, most of the time it is only the wind, slightly moist, that is beating against you.
As we would learn within an hour, you don’t need a rainstorm to get drenched here. The more or less constant drizzle from above is quite enough.
If you wonder about the warmth, that is a natural occurrence as well. There are hot streams about, caused by volcanic activity. What are the streams made of? Glowater. Oh, yes. One was gurgling along less than three hundred feet from us, an entire creek of glowater, resplendent in itself, and worth more than the entire city of Guardpeak.
“If I could bring just a gallon of that upstairs,” Red would marvel, staring at the creek emptily.
Scraps would chime in, in his own way, mumbling the words of a song about glowater and the riches it could bring. I don’t remember much about the song, only that the protagonist was brought down in the end by his own greed.
Not a happy song, but suitable to how we felt.
Before we came there, we had a different, more immediate problem to solve. The growling of our bellies had grown so loud that it seemed to drown out the rock-grinding noise and the voice from beneath. Except that it wasn’t beneath us anymore, it surrounded us, the echoes bouncing off from the rocks, the ceiling and the distant walls.
“I’m hungry,” Cardsleeve grumbled and started walking towards the apple trees.
He hadn’t taken three steps when the earth shook violently under him, enough to make him leap for the nearest rock formation, clinging to it in maddened fear of another quake tearing open the ground.
I gasped. There hadn’t been the slightest tremor beneath me.
Wondrously I looked around and saw that the other men had reacted much like Cardsleeve. Torrindas and Bluff hadn’t tried to wrap their arms around anything, but by the way they stared at the ground, I could tell there had been a tremor underneath them. Red was crouched, bow in his hands, ready for another ambush – by whoever, now that the dwarves were dead. Scraps had hurried back into the mouth of our tunnel.
Valanda looked at me, confusion on her brow. “You didn’t sense anything?” she asked.
“No,” I could only shrug.
The wizardess nodded and held out her hand. “Then come with me, Ahnfredas.”
I took her hand, we walked towards the grove of trees. All the while I kept staring at my feet, more than the way ahead. Good enough to note when there were rocks, bushes, or other natural tripwires before me, but very funny-looking, I suppose. Not that I cared about that at the moment. I was waiting for the earth to swallow me in a violent convulsion.
Nothing happened. “Valanda…?” I whispered.
I felt the stares of our companions drilling into our backs. All save for Cardsleeve, who was doing so from before us. After a couple of steps, he let go of the rock, put his feet firmly on the ground – which tremored instantly, sending Cardsleeve scurrying up the stalagmite as far as he could.
I stopped. “Valanda!” I exclaimed, hardly understanding.
“Keep walking,” she told me, in a firm voice that brooked no disobedience. I did, and as we covered the distance to the grove, she continued, “Whoever is causing the quakes doesn’t mind the two of us going there. We’ll fetch some apples for the others, and for us. Then –“ her head swiveled around to look at me, and somehow I sensed the movement, looking up into her eyes, as sad as they had been since Carter’s death, yet determined, “Then we will think about what this means.”
“All right,” I mumbled. She appeared to be right. We reached the grove of trees, and we heard noise from inbetween the branches. Possibly more of the lizard-squirrels.
Why hadn’t the ground opened up under us? What made us special to the powers around us? (And who were those powers? The dwarves were all dead, weren’t they? Or had there been some fight amongst them, killing off one faction, while the other was waiting for us to take a bath in their cookpots? Oh. I hasten to add that I don’t know whether wild dwarves eat humans, it’s one of the many legends, and… Let’s just say that I couldn’t help wondering about that.)
What made us special, the wizardess and the pilgrim? One of us could do magic, while the other… No, I told myself, you know that isn’t true! You are a pilgrim – not even a real one who might rely on the gods!
I suppressed the wondering when we reached the trees, and there were all these wonderful, red apples hanging from the boughs right before us. So many! I wanted to stuff my cheeks full of fruit, worry about swallowing a while later. Gods! One tiny apple had been all I’d had in the last couple of hours!
Valanda stopped me from taking a bite right away. “Let’s see if they’re real apples,” she said, plucked one of the red fruits and studied it closely.
“What else would they be?” I muttered, and then remembered the squirrel that had turned out to be a lizard. Carefully I took an apple of my own. There were no scales on it, if you’re wondering. It was just an apple, and the tree looked absolutely like the ones I’d known all my life. I whispered a prayer to the lady Sira of Nature. It couldn’t hurt, I thought to myself, and –
Then I froze. “Valanda…” I breathed.
“Just a moment more, Ahnfredas,” she said studiously, “I want to –“
“Valanda!” I said more forcefully, and finally she looked over to me, and at the apple I was holding in my hand. And she saw the soft glow emanating from the fruit, invitingly surrounding it, highlighting a spot here and there, as if to say that this was the juiciest, tastiest.
“Ahnfredas!” she moaned in utter surprise. “That’s…” Her voice choked.
I reached out and touched the apple she was holding. It started to glow in the same manner – except for a darkening, pulsing spot. Something guided me to take my dagger and pick at the spot. A worm was inside, highlighted by the glow. “That isn’t for us to eat,” I said. “The lady Sira, Warden of the Wild, protects it.”
“Her will be done,” she said softly, gently bent over and deposited the apple between the tree’s roots. When she straightened up again, she looked at me strangely. “Can you feel the gods now, Ahnfredas?”
Her words struck me like an arrow between the eyes. Suddenly I was shaken from the reverie I’d felt a moment earlier, and I tried to look inside myself. Was there divine assistance? Was there –
“No, Valanda, I cannot feel them,” I answered truthfully. My voice wasn’t bitter, at all, I must say, to my own surprise. “They are here, though. With us. Let us gather apples for our friends and then be on our way. We have much to do.”
“As you say, Ahnfredas,” she smiled.
I was not as convinced as I sounded, let me tell you that. There had been something guiding me – I just wrote those words, and they were true. I could remember that, I could remember the touch from beyond. And there was happiness associated with that touch.
Neither could I deny the glow in the apple. That was as solid a sign of the divine as I had ever seen, granted to a true priest.
Yet now I felt as mortal as always. There was none of that guidance within me now. Even the happiness was waning, when another thought occurred to me.
Let us assume that I had somehow transformed into a cleric. Which deity was I now beholden to?
There are no priests of two or more gods. There are pilgrims who dedicate themselves to a particular god or goddess, yes, as most of us do. Most pilgrims do not, their faith guides them to the many places of pilgrimage in our world. There is a favorite, I suppose, for all of them, a god whose teachings are most important to them.
I never chose. After all, I am still young, and I thought that maybe one of those days, something would occur to me. Something better than that favorite of all young men, the Lady. Alyssa clearly is the one we cherish most of all while our bodies are still fresh and able. But dedicate yourself to that goddess – and then marry and explain your favorite to your wife who is not necessarily well disposed to that idea?
Ahh, now you wonder how a young man should ever wonder about marriage. Especially when the Lady’s teachings seem to avoid this very topic. They don’t, let me tell you that. The Lady blesses marriages. Don’t forget, she is also the goddess of jealousy.
If I am drifting apart from the tale, believe me, those were the very thoughts coursing through my mind underneath the leaves of the apple tree.
Foremost, the question was whether I had better choose now. Provided, mind you, that I had become a priest. Or was I still a pilgrim? Or, rather, had I now become a pilgrim who could ask any of the gods for his or her assistance?
That couldn’t be true! Then I might be more powerful than a high priest of just one god! More than the Divine Speaker at Faithold!
My head was spinning, I had to sit down. Valanda stopped gathering fruit into a black cloth sling. “Ahnfredas, what is wrong?” she asked, kneeling down next to me, bending over, letting me see her breasts heaving in worried breaths, barely hidden by her underclothes. I stared at them, and thoughts entered my head what it would feel like to touch them.
“Ahnfredas…?” she said, a harsh undertone suddenly in her voice.
Now that was enough to jar my head back up to her face – and for a tiny moment I thought I could hear female laughter pealing in the distance, as if the Lady Alyssa delighted in reminding me of my claim to young men’s favorite deity. Foolish, yes, for what I took for laughter in that instant was nothing but the wind, and it was only my own desires betraying me.
Granted, though, that the Lady Alyssa had had a part in instilling them in mankind.
“Forgive me,” I said earnestly, “it was just…” Could I tell her that Alyssa had played a trick on me? Oh, yes, that is very credible. If that were the case every time, it would make for such a wonderful excuse to staring down a woman’s cleavage, right? If I could only find a way to sell this excuse, why, I could buy myself a well-sized kingdom, couldn’t I? “Didn’t I give you my robe?” I asked, hurriedly trying to distract her.
It worked. For the moment, anyway. “Er, yes,” Valanda shook her head. “I needed something to carry the apples, and it’s warm enough here to…” It worked for the moment, I wrote. She remembered all too quickly. Women. They always can tell when you’re making a fool of yourself.
So much for that idea of selling the Alyssa excuse and buying a kingdom.
“Let’s go, Ahnfredas,” she told me, rose and headed back, the sling fashioned from my robe over her back. And if you’re wondering, even though I trailed behind her, I kept my eyes well ahead rather than allowing them to slide over to the wizardess’ backside.
More than once or twice, that is.