Stepping through the waterfall was like stepping through a glass curtain. At the extreme edge where they entered, the tumbling water did not have the force it did in the center of the falls. Once through, the explorers found stone steps cut into a rock face that inclined away from the vertical plunge of the mountain wall. And though the steps were wet, and slimy with black moss, each was carefully carved, wide and broad so that with care no one need fall.
The steps led up under an overhanging roof of rock to a landing of sorts—a natural bartizan. There Durwin and Inchkeith found Quentin and Toli waiting for them as they came lumbering up the stairs.
“This is the lost mine, the secret of the Ariga!” exclaimed Quentin, his voice sounding hollow in the great mouth of the tunnel. “Look!” His left hand pointed ecstatically toward the near wall. In the near-total darkness Inchkeith looked and saw strange figures carved in stone, glowing with a pale golden light. He could not make them out; they appeared to be shapes of letters in some unknown hand. But looking at them made him think of men and mountains and the waterfall churning and rivers and trees and the fullness of the earth.
Durwin stepped to the wall and began tracing the inscriptions, which were deeply carved and looked fresh, as if the scribe had just laid away his chisel. The lines were straight and well formed, untouched by the weather or age.
Durwin began to read. “‘These Are the Mines of the Ariga, Friends of the Earth and All Living Things.’” Durwin turned to the others, smiling. “There seems no doubt but that we have found what we seek. Shall we go farther or wait until daylight to bring our provisions and tools up here?”
It was a needless question. The piercing look of bright expectation on Quentin’s face, and Toli’s quiet excitement, were enough to answer. “Very well, we can start at once. But we will need a light first. Someone must go back for the torches, so we may as well bring all the supplies at once.”
Quentin’s face fell a fraction. “Toli and I will go. You and Inchkeith may stay here, and we will return at once.”
Before Durwin could suggest another plan, they were off, dashing down the slippery steps of the falls two at a time. “We may rescue some sleep from this night yet,” observed Durwin with a yawn. “They will be gone a goodly time. We may as well rest while we can. I think it will be our last for a long while to come.”
They settled down against the far wall, and Durwin fell asleep almost at once. Inchkeith pulled his coat around him and breathed the cool, musty air of the deep earth that rose up from the mine shaft somewhere away in the blackness beyond. But sleep had abandoned him completely; he was wide awake and could not take his eyes from the wonderful inscription shining softly from the opposite wall. Even though it merely marked the entrance to a mine—such an ordinary thing—Inchkeith thought he had never seen anything so inexplicably beautiful.
A shout brought both men to their feet. Durwin rubbed his eyes. “So soon? So it is! I feel as if I just dozed off. How did they manage so quickly?”
He and Inchkeith hurried, with careful dignity, down the steps to the filmy curtain of water and stepped out into a night fading into a pearly dawn. The quick splash of cold water brought Durwin fully awake. “Brrr! Such a rude awakening!” he sputtered, clambering slowly down the rocks like an animal roused from hibernation.
Quentin stood untying bundles from a horse, and Toli was leading the other, loaded down with packs and tools. “I should have guessed,” said Durwin. “This night their feet would have wings. Well, let us begin. Our labor is before us.”
Inchkeith only nodded. He had been strangely silent since entering the mine.
In another hour’s time they had carried up all of the provisions and tools they would need. Quentin, with only one useful arm, had carried the most, making more trips than the others, so eager was he to begin the search. He had no idea what lay in the depths of the mine below, but it greatly heartened him to be once more where the Ariga had been and to see again the works of their long-vanished hands. Being here, his thoughts turned upward toward Dekra.
They piled all the baggage in the mouth of the mine and began dividing up the packs they would each carry. Inchkeith insisted on carrying his fair share, despite his deformity. Durwin allowed that he would need his strength to forge the sword and therefore should conserve his energy while he could—the way would be difficult enough. But Inchkeith would have none of it. In the end he gathered up his various implements, saying, “I carry my own tools, at least. No one touches this master’s tools but the master himself.” The anvil, bellows, and heavier items belonging to the forge were left behind at the mine’s entrance. The party was finally ready.
“Now, one thing more and we will begin,” Durwin announced. “While I light the torches, I want each of you to go back outside and look at the valley in the dawn. Unless I am far wrong, it will be some time before any of us sees the light of day again. I want you all to fill your hearts with a pleasant memory against the time when darkness crowds our way.”
They all went outside and gazed upon the bright green bowl of the peaceful valley. The morning light struck the curling mist with a golden radiance, and the mountains seemed crowned with flames of red gold. Shennydd Vellyn lay smooth and deep and undisturbed, mirroring the limitless blue of a clean morning sky brushed with the lacework of wispy white clouds.
The thin mountain air smelled sweet and fresh, vastly different from the dank, stale air of the mine. Quentin, though he appreciated Durwin’s suggestion as a wise one, was anxious to be off. While he gazed about him intently, his mind was so full of new excitement that he saw little. When they finally turned to go back into the mine, Toli was the last to tear himself away from the beauty before him.
One by one they ascended the tumbled rocks, wet with spray. One by one they approached the thunder of the falls. One by one they parted the shimmering curtain and stepped inside, into the darkness of the fabled mines.
Esme and Bria stood on the high barbican overlooking the gates of the castle and the town below, its buildings clustered like a flock of timid sheep in the shadow of its great protector. On this fresh morning, the narrow, cramped streets were rivers of moving color, all surging at flood stage toward the gates below. Out on the plain, as far as Pelgrin’s dark border, threads of travelers could be seen weaving their way to the city to join the streams moving into the castle.
“Those poor, weary people,” said Esme, her voice softened with awe. “There must be whole villages of people down there.”
“True,” replied Bria. “Fear is a swift messenger, is it not? Two days ago the lords returned from battle. Now look. Some of them have traveled day and night to get here. I would do the same in their place—what else can be done?” These last words were uttered with such hopelessness that Esme turned to her and took her by the shoulders.
“Bria, we are friends, you and I. Are we not?”
“Yes, of course. Why—”
“Then I must tell you something—as a friend would.” Esme searched her companion’s face and looked her in the eyes. Bria was startled by the directness with which this dark-haired beauty addressed her.
“Speak freely,” said Bria.
“We are women now, Bria. Royal women. There is no more room for girlish indulgences. You have eyes; you have seen. We are to endure siege here not many days hence. We must put away all thoughts of ourselves and begin thinking of others first. It must be done. We must be strong for the men who fight, for the people who will look to us for hope and encouragement, and only lastly for ourselves. For the sake of the kingdom this must be; our courage must be a flame which can kindle the hearts of those around us. That is a woman’s duty in time of war.”
Bria’s green eyes fell, ashamed. “Your words pierce me, fair friend. What you say is true. I have walked in proud misery these past weeks— ever since Quentin left. I have been selfish. I have shown myself to be afflicted by the fate that took our loved ones from us—though others had better claim to such recourse than I.” She raised her eyes once more to her friend’s.
“But no more, Esme, no more. You have spoken the truth as a friend ought. I will put away girlish airs and simpering. I will be strong that those around me will take strength, too, and not be at pains to cheer myself when there is more important work to do. I will be strong, Esme.”
Bria threw her arms around Esme’s neck, and the two young women embraced each other for a long moment. “Come, let us do what we can to see to the accommodations for the villagers seeking refuge within these walls,” suggested Bria.
They turned away from the barbican and began walking along the southern battlements. “I feel such a fool, Esme. Forgive me.”
“No, do not chide yourself. I did not speak so to reproach you, for you are far more tenderhearted than I.”
“If that were so, I should have been comforting you, Esme. You are far away from home, and no news has come of the fighting there or of your family. You must be worried.”
“I am, though it was part of my father’s plan to send me here and thus remove me from the threat of war. I honor him by holding to the course he set for me, though I am sure he scarcely guessed that mighty Askelon would fall under siege.”
Esme threw a guarded glance to Bria, then blushed and averted her eyes.
“What? Speak if you will. What is it?”
“Well, to tell you the truth,” said Esme slowly, “I have not thought of my own family as much as I have another.”
“Yes, Toli.” She regarded Bria carefully. “Why? Is something wrong with that?”
“Oh no! Far from it, Esme. It surprises me a little, that is all. Toli is always so quiet, so invisible. I scarcely notice when he is around. But then, he and Quentin are inseparable, and since I only have eyes for Quentin, it should not surprise me that someone else sees in Toli something I do not.”
“Believe me, it was the furthest thing from my mind to lose my heart so easily. I was on an errand for my father, but in those days upon the trail and—Bria, you should have seen the way he protected me when we met the Ningaal. And afterwards, when I saw him alive again, my heart went out to him. I believe he loves me, too.”
Their talk had brought them to the great curtain that divided the inner ward from the outer. They stood looking down into the outer ward at the mass of people moving about, constructing tents and temporary lodgings for themselves. Cattle, pigs, and chickens had been brought along to provide food should the siege prove a long one. The warder and his men were scurrying around, directing the flow of humanity here and there, trying to keep the pathways open for soldiers who would be moving through.
“Can the castle possibly hold all these people?” asked Esme.
“I have never seen anything like it, though it is said that in the Winter’s War, a hundred thousand were besieged here all winter. But that was long, long ago.”
The lowing of cows and the squeals of pigs, intermingled with the general shouting and crying of peasants and villagers, created an overwhelming din. The princesses looked down upon the frightened populace and forgot their own cares, for in the pathetic confusion of the refugees, they heard small children crying.
“Are you sure you want to go down there?” asked Esme.
“I am sure. There may be little we can do for them. But that little shall be done.”
With that, they entered the southern tower and began descending the spiraled ranks of stairs into the noisy chaos of the outer ward.