Regardless of where he was, Flint knew he was going to have to go up if he was going to get out, and the stairs behind the dais seemed to be the only way.
His boots kicked up clouds of dust as he ascended the long staircase, but the dwarf pinched his nose shut to avoid sneezing. As far as he was concerned, the less he disturbed the oppressively silent darkness, the better. He already had the disconcerting notion that something watched him from the concealing shadows—and watched in disapproval.
Flint could feel—as well as he could feel the prickling of the hair on the back of his neck—that his intrusion was not welcome. But as long as it looked as if he was doing his best to make his way out of there, perhaps whatever—or whoever—it was that lurked in the inky shadows would leave him be.
Like walking through a dark dream, Flint wandered through the labyrinthine corridors and chambers, slowly making his ascent and trying to ignore the shivering that intermittently clutched him. His clothes clung damply to him.
The place must once have been a wonder of glory, with its cavernous halls and delicate, spiraling staircases. But the action of water had transformed once-proud statues into little more than grotesque forms. Rich tapestries that had adorned the walls hung in ghostly tatters, like the spinnings of some great, shadowy spider. Flint leaned close to one of the weavings, and the touch of his finger was enough to send the tapestry crumbling to dust. Chambers that once had been bright with the reflection of a thousand torches gleaming off their gilded walls were now murky dens, barely pierced by the feeble glow of Flint’s candle, the air fetid with the smell of ancient but unforgotten death.
The atmosphere weighed heavily upon Flint and his dwarven heart. Tales of long-lost dwarven kingdoms echoed in his ears.
As he wandered through the darkened halls, Flint was sometimes forced to backtrack along his footprints in the dust when a corridor suddenly dead-ended or led back to a chamber he had passed through before. But generally his dwarven senses—registering the slightest changes in the movement of the air or sloping of the stone—led him on a course that wound its way steadily upward. Exactly how far he needed to go, however, Flint was unsure. He couldn’t know how far he had fallen down the chute—or even if he were anywhere near Qualinost anymore.
Finally, however, his stump of candle burned low. Flint let out a yelp as the flame scorched his finger, and the last bit of the candle flew from his hand, sizzling as it landed in a puddle and went out. Darkness closed swiftly and silently over the dwarf, as if no light had ever been there.
“Damn!” Flint swore softly, sucking on his burned finger. He knew in his heart he had been getting close to the outside; just a minute ago he was sure he had caught a whiff of slightly fresher air. But there was little he could do. Realizing how exhausted he was then, he supposed it couldn’t do him any harm to rest his eyes for a bit while he tried to think of some way out of this mess. And perhaps his clothes would dry out a bit.
The shadows were troubling, but Flint pushed thoughts of them from his mind. They had left him alone so far, so he hunkered down against a wall to rest. Meaning to shut his eyes for only a moment or two, the dwarf quickly fell into a deep sleep.
Imperceptibly at first, there was a faint lessening of the darkness along the horizon, the half-elf noticed. Soon the stars began to fade, and a faint light crept from the horizon into the sky.
With the raucous visit from Fleetfoot, Gilthanas had partially awakened, then slipped from unconsciousness into sleep. Tanis, too exhausted now to doze, could do nothing but watch as the light slowly grew, until eventually the sun rose above the wispy clouds of morning, staring like an unblinking crimson eye. Below, the ravine was shrouded in silken mist.
Off to the east, Tanis heard the drum that signaled that the three Ulathi had left the Tower to seek Porthios at the Grove. There, they would dress Porthios in a gray robe, the mate to the one that Gilthanas wore, and lead him to the palace for the Melethka-nara, the ordeal of questioning, criticism, and goading.
Tanis looked up at the thirty feet of cliff face. With the coming of the light, it looked as though an agile climber might be able to scale the rock, taking advantage of cracks and remnants of juniper stumps. He only hoped that his cousin would be able to follow.
The first thing Flint realized upon waking was that he could see. Barely, that was true, but a wan light hovered on the air, pale and gray, just enough so that he could make out the dim shapes cluttering the chamber he was in.
Flint groaned as he stood and stretched. He must have slept for several hours. The shadows seemed less menacing now; whatever the source of the grayish light, they appeared to be wary of it. Although the light was pale, it wasn’t an eerie light, not like that of the fish he’d seen earlier. Rather, it lifted the dwarf’s heart. Flint searched about the chamber, wondering where the light came from, then suddenly he saw.
In the wall, just above the place he had curled up to sleep, was the tiniest crack in the stone. The dwarf knew exactly what it meant. The light was daylight, and beyond the wall, somewhere, lay the outside.
Flint examined the crack and the area around it. The lines were almost imperceptible, but Flint grunted. He was certain this had been a window once. It probably had been sealed for some reason. Flint could see the barest outline where the opening had been secured.
He hefted the heavy hammer he kept faithfully at his belt and, with all his forge-hardened strength, struck the stone. It shuddered, and Flint grunted in satisfaction as he saw the crack lengthen. He swung again, then a third time. The crack widened, and another joined it, letting in a thin shaft of light. This heartened the dwarf, and he began to pound at the wall in earnest. Luckily, the stone was not thick, and the one crack had been a symptom of a general weakness that pervaded the rock. No doubt the hastiness with which this window had been sealed so long ago was working to Flint’s advantage. Had the craftsmen used all their skill in the wall’s construction, Flint’s hammer would have been as useless as a willow switch against the stone.
Within a minute, chunks of stone began to fly from the wall. The crack grew into a hole, then suddenly the whole thing gave way, crumbling before Flint, the stones cascading away as light flooded the chamber, sending the shadows fleeing into the deeper recesses of the halls.
Once again, there was no way out but up.
There was no way out but up, Tanis thought as he glared up the cliff face. Next to him, Gilthanas finally stirred and opened his eyes. Despite a bump the size of an egg and the color of rose quartz on the side of his head, Gilthanas appeared healthy.
“Tanis!” he exclaimed. A flicker of relief, then anger crossed his face. “You defied the Speaker’s decree!”
“I came to rescue you,” Tanis said as the Melethka-nara drums sounded again from Qualinost.
Gilthanas struggled to sit up, sending a shiver through the ledge. “The drums!” he said, green eyes panic-stricken. “I have to get back for the Kentommen-tala.” His movements brought him perilously near the edge of the outcropping, and Tanis caught his cousin’s arm to pull him back. Fear was added to the relief and anger battling for ascendancy on the blond guard’s face.
“Do you think you can climb up?” Tanis indicated the thirty-foot rock face above them. “Or should I leave you and bring back help?”
“Leave me?” Gilthanas echoed, easing to his feet and reaching up for the first handhold. “I’d be remiss in my duties if I let you escape.”
“Escape?” Tanis murmured. The stone ledge, loosened further by their movements, shuddered again.
But the call to duty seemed to have given the neophyte guard strength, for he was doing a passable job of clambering up the cliff, though the ankle-length robe hampered his efforts somewhat. Finally, Gilthanas tucked the hem of the robe into his belt, which made it easier for him to climb. It did, however, delay Tanis’s departure from the slab, which showed more signs of weakness. Nervously, Tanis waited until Gilthanas had climbed above the half-elf’s head, then he followed, using the same handholds and footholds that his elven cousin had.
Half an hour later, Gilthanas helped Tanis over the edge of the precipice. The last scramble loosened a medium-size boulder, which slipped over the edge with a scraping noise and bounced off the slab where the two had spent the night. The slab creaked, then tipped further, then slowly came loose from the cliff and dropped, turning, through the clear air to the river below.
In the distance, the drums gave one last roll and ceased.
“The Melethka-nara has begun,” Gilthanas said. “Porthios is in the chamber far beneath the palace. Now the ordeal begins. I have three hours to get to the corridor between the underground chamber and the Tower.” Still, Gilthanas stood quietly, gazing to the west, and Tanis knew he was in the chamber with his brother, in his mind’s eye.
“Gilthanas,” Tanis said. “Did you see your attacker’s face?”
The elf wrenched his attention from Qualinost and looked at Tanis. He then shook his head and began moving toward the ravineside path. “It was dark. He was hooded. Did you see him?”
Tanis shook his head and explained what had happened between his escape from the palace and his dive off the cliff. He diverted Gilthanas from his trek toward the path, returning to the crevasse that Flint had disappeared into. Tanis shouted for the dwarf; he tossed pebbles down the slender opening to see if he could tell by sound how far his friend might have fallen. There was no reply, and Tanis was too large to fit into the hole.
“We have to hurry,” Gilthanas urged.
Tanis, still not sure he should leave Flint, hesitated. Gilthanas swiftly reached over and drew Tanis’s sword from his scabbard. It never occurred to the half-elf to stop the cousin he trusted—then suddenly Tanis was facing the point of his own blade. His mother’s pendant formed a spot of silvery light on the hilt. Forest birds continued to chatter around the pair as though nothing were amiss.
“You’re my prisoner,” Gilthanas said formally. “You’ve violated an order of the Speaker. It’s my sworn duty as a ceremonial guard to arrest you and return you to Qualinost for judgment.”
Tanis glanced again at the sword that Flint had made for him, then up at Gilthanas. The serious look on his cousin’s face squelched any protest. Tanis pondered the situation. He was stronger and larger than his slight cousin, and he had a dagger. Tanis knew he could overpower Gilthanas, even if his cousin was armed with the half-elf’s sword.
But then what would he do? Tie up Gilthanas and leave him here unguarded? Such a prospect might be acceptable nearer to Qualinost, with folk about, but the area around the Kentommenai-kath was deserted. Reluctantly, silently vowing to return, Tanis allowed Gilthanas to lead him away from the crevasse.
The chute was a ventilation shaft, Flint decided. He looked straight up, about twenty-five feet. Striving to avoid straining his tender shoulder, the dwarf angled his stocky body through the opening and crawled into the chute, which was about as wide as a barrel of ale—a wistful thought that Flint quickly squelched. He stood atop the litter of old pine cones and dirt; near the wall lay the desiccated skeleton of something about the size of a raccoon. He tried not to think of the animal dying down here, however many years ago.
The dwarf saw a circle of light at the top, with a few spruce branches waving far above that. He searched for handholds—no luck. The shaft may have been wide enough for him to inch his way up by bracing his shoulders on one side and his feet on the other, but his shoulder was too weak; his attempts only landed him with an “oof!” on the spongy bottom of the chute.
“Reorx!” he said softly. Then, louder, “Reorx’s hammer!” He sat, disconsolate, at the shaft’s bottom. His fingers traced the scars that stoneworkers had etched into the walls millennia ago—T-shaped chisel marks. The shaft’s artisans were long dead now, probably plying their craft with Reorx in the afterlife. Flint examined one of the T-scars; he’d seen a mark just like it on Lord Tyresian’s forearm. Unbidden, the sight of Eld Ailea lying dead before her fireplace came to Flint’s mind again: The exposed calf, the purple skirt, the sleeve pushed up to her elbow. The “T,” the scar, the heir, he recalled.…
The force of the realization brought Flint’s nodding head up so fast that he cracked it on the stone behind him.
“The scar, the tea, the heir,” he whispered. He’d made the same mistake with “T” that he’d made with “air.” He remembered, now, after the attempt on his life, taking the cup of tea from Miral, and the way Ailea had later administered one of her own potions, causing him to vomit. Then, several days later, the mage had asked Flint whether his medicinal tea had had any effect—minutes before they’d received Ailea’s message that she understood Lord Xenoth’s death.
The mage had given him poisoned tea! And Ailea had realized it. Yet Ailea had taken the time to mull over the situation before making an accusation. Then, when she was sure, when some last bit of information had snapped into place, she had excitedly sent a message to Flint—who had immediately shared it with … the killer!
“Reorx, help me!” the dwarf prayed as he scrabbled through the debris at the bottom of the shaft, flinging pine cones aside in his search for anything that would help him.
If he was correct, Porthios, the Speaker, Gilthanas, and Laurana would not survive the day.
In the middle of his search, as though Reorx had heard his call and sent the most unlikely rescuer possible, Flint heard a mule bray. Suddenly the light dimmed, and Flint looked up. Something was blocking the chute’s opening. Instead of out-of-focus pine boughs, the dwarf now saw a grotesque muzzle, two ears nearly as long as his leg, and a pair of brown eyes steaming with passion.
“Fleetfoot!” He stood. “You wonderful animal!” The creature blinked. “I’m still in Qualinesti!”
He never thought he’d see a day when the sight of his mule would bring tears to his eyes. What particularly thrilled him, however, was the ten feet of chewed rope attached to her collar. The elves had laughed when he’d fashioned a collar for a mule; now he’d have the laugh on them. A bridle never would have held.
Except that he was still fifteen feet short of the rope that dangled in the shaft while Fleetfoot snorted above.
Flint took stock. He had flint and steel, hammer, dagger, and rope ladder. The ladder probably would reach from the top to the bottom of the shaft, but the mechanics of setting up a limp rope ladder from the bottom seemed hopeless.
Fleetfoot brayed again. The sound reverberated in the stone chute, nearly deafening Flint.
“Stop that noise!” Flint called. When the mule began to back away from the hole, pulling the lead rope with her, he shouted, “No! Wait! I didn’t mean it!”
Tentatively, Fleetfoot peered over the edge again. Not very attractive at eye level, she looked absolutely absurd from below. She also looked irked. Flint had a sudden horrible vision of the mule stomping off in a huff. And indeed, she began to pull away from the edge again, and the end of the rope rose higher in the chute.
“Fleetfoot, you”—He thought quickly and changed to a wheedling tone—“entrancing creature, please come back.”
The rope stopped, trembled, and dropped down a few inches. Wet brown eyes searched his. One ear flopped.
Flint unwrapped the rope ladder from his middle. If he could just get the thing up to the mule … He gauged the distance and tossed the ladder overhand.
The thing dropped back down on him like a pile of snakes, and Fleetfoot brayed.
“Sure, you beast,” Flint muttered. “Laugh.”
He untangled himself and tried again, with the same result. Finally, on the third try, his shoulder aching from the effort, he tried an underhand toss and a foot of the ladder looped over the edge of the chute, where it snagged for the barest second on a rock. Fleetfoot lowered her wet muzzle and snuffled at the ladder, dislodging it and sending it spinning back down on Flint.
A hee-haw boomed down the shaft like thunder.
He threw the ladder again. This time, two feet of ladder flipped over the edge, lying on the ground right next to the mule, who gazed at it with stupid eyes. The bottom edge of the ladder dangled before Flint’s face, but the dwarf didn’t dare touch it lest he jiggle it loose. The ropes began to slide back into the chute, and Flint cursed softly.
Then Fleetfoot lifted one dinner-plate-size hoof and held it above the inching ladder. The dwarf held his breath.
Just as the last rung was going by, the mule delicately, deliberately, placed her foot on it. The ladder stopped with a jerk.
With a delighted cry, Flint placed one hand on the bottom rung and tugged. The mule snorted and appeared disconcerted at this sudden pressure on her hoof, but she maintained her stance.
Favoring his shoulder as much as he could, Flint clambered halfway up the ladder. Soon the end of the rope that he’d attached to the mule’s collar swung at his side. He had another ten feet to climb.
The mule shifted restlessly.
“Fleetfoot, no!” the dwarf shouted.
She lifted her foot.
Flint lunged for the dangling rope, and the mule’s neck bobbed a foot because of his sudden added weight. The ladder hurtled by him to the chute floor below. “You mule-brained idiot!” he hollered, dangling from the rope.
With a jerk, the mule reared back from the shaft and galloped several paces. With a strangled cry that exploded as he emerged, the dwarf came shooting up out of the hole like a trout hooked by an angler.
“I’m sorry, Tanis,” Gilthanas said as they trotted along the path above the ravine.
“You know I have to do this,” Gilthanas said. “I’m pledged, as a ceremonial guard, to uphold the Speaker’s edicts.” He’d long since sheathed the sword in the scabbard, which he’d also taken from Tanis. He seemed to assume Tanis would make no move to escape.
The half-elf nodded. He was too busy pondering his situation to engage in chitchat. Yet …
He might learn something that he could use later.
“I understand,” the half-elf said. He looked over at the elf. Gilthanas’s face was ruddy from the pace they’d maintained for nearly an hour. His cousin looked back, and for the first time in years, Tanis saw the friend he’d had when they were little. “What part do you have in the ceremony?”
Gilthanas, panting, drew to a stop in a clearing. He waved Tanis to a seat on a nearby boulder and took one himself, not far away.
“When Porthios leaves the chamber beneath the palace, he will lift his hood—he’s wearing a gray robe, like this one—to conceal his face. He will pass from the chamber to a spiral staircase—ninety-nine steps, one for each year of his life so far. The steps are called Liassem-eltor, the Stairway of the Years. Porthios must climb the stairs in complete darkness. At the top, he’ll find an alcove with a single candle, plus flint and steel to light it.”
“And you …?” Tanis prompted, wondering briefly why he himself had not been taught the specifics of the ceremony.
Gilthanas continued. “Beyond the alcove will be a long hallway, which appears on no maps of Qualinost because it is used only by elves who are neither child nor adult—elves who, therefore, don’t really exist. Thus, the corridor doesn’t exist and appears on no maps.”
Tanis tried again. “Your part …” But Gilthanas, entranced by the celebration that he too would undergo someday, appeared determined to tell the whole tale.
“The corridor is called Yathen-ilara, the Pathway to Illumination. It leads to the Tower of the Sun. The youth makes his way along the pathway in silence. At the end is a door, where he waits until the one who has conducted the vigil at the Kentommenai-kath opens the door, admitting him to the central hall of the Tower of the Sun.”
So that was where Gilthanas came in. He sounded as though he had learned his role by rote—repeating it to Miral, no doubt. “I will wait outside the door until a gong sounds. Then I will open the door, slip inside, let the door close, take the candle from Porthios, and say—in the old tongue, of course—‘I am your childhood. Leave me behind in the mists of the past. Pass ahead to your future.’ Porthios will open the door and move into the Tower of the Sun.”
A glimmer of an idea began to form in Tanis’s mind.
“You will remain in the hallway?” the half-elf asked.
Gilthanas sounded a little peeved. “I’m supposed to represent Porthios’s vanished childhood, so I really shouldn’t be at the ceremony itself. But Miral says no one will notice if I crack the door just a bit to listen. After all, I’ll be having my own Kentommen in only sixty years.”
Tanis had his plan now to stop Porthios’s murderer.
They resumed their run to Qualinost. Finally, the path sloped downward. Drums and trumpets sounded again from the direction of the palace and Tower, and Gilthanas cried, “We have to go faster! I’m late!”
Through the thinning aspens, Tanis could just barely see the western bridge arcing over the River of Hope. Without pausing to think, he misstepped and bumped into Gilthanas. When his cousin turned toward him, startled, the half-elf tackled him.
Five minutes later, a gray-robed figure emerged from a copse of trees. Behind him, the shrubbery jiggled and a muffled noise came forth, as if a large animal had been bound there. Someone who looked closely at the robed figure now trotting down the path would have seen the faint outline of a sword under the left side of the robe.
Tanis hoped no one would.
He pulled the hood over his face, broke into a run, and crossed the bridge.