The darkness was unlike anything Quentin had ever experienced. Far darker than the blackest night, it was a palpable thing, primitive and insistent. Almost as if alive, it crouched around each turn and on every side, waiting to smother all intruders in its velvet embrace. The torches they carried seemed fragile and ridiculous things, mere toys against an unrelenting foe of stupid, savage cunning.
Still, the spluttering pitch torches served somehow to keep this awesome darkness at bay, though they always seemed to be on the verge of guttering out completely and plunging their bearers into a void as black as death. Each person carried a torch except Inchkeith, who labored doggedly along, weighed down with his delving tools, as he called them. Durwin went ahead, relying on his sparse knowledge of Ariga mining lore to serve as a guide. Quentin, arm in sling but toting a large pack nonetheless, followed Durwin. Inchkeith hobbled along behind Quentin, and Toli brought up the rear, grinding his teeth with every step into the mountain’s black heart.
After walking for what seemed like days on end into the darkness along a low-roofed, wide corridor of solid stone, Durwin halted the party, saying, “No doubt you young men could go on walking this way until you wore the soles out of your boots. But I think it is time for rest. A bite to eat would not be unwelcome, either.”
“Take no thought for me, hermit. Do not stop on my account,” said Inchkeith. But Quentin noticed he loosened his pack all the same.
“It is not for anyone but myself that I sit down, sir. My feet tell me it is time to rest a bit, and my stomach agrees.”
They ate, and Quentin realized how hungry he was after all. As he munched, he wondered whether it was day or night outside. But in his mind he pictured it exactly the way he had seen it last. Durwin had been right— it was a useful thing to carry a little sunlight with one into this dark hole.
Toli ate little and said less. He had grown sullen and had withdrawn into himself, becoming, if it were possible, even more quiet than usual. Quentin pretended to take no notice of his friend’s behavior, for that would have only served to make it more painful to him. He knew precisely what was bothering Toli: the Jher did not like the smothering confines of the mine. It was a supreme act of bravery for Toli, born of a people who roam the earth at will, following the wild creatures, to have even entered the hateful place, which seemed to him worse than a grave.
And there was something of the same uneasiness that bothered Quentin, too. But in him it took the form of a puzzlement. The Ariga, whose every word was a visible, tangible song, had constructed a most unappealing mine shaft. Not that Quentin had expected the brightly colored, sweeping galleries of Dekra to be reproduced below, but he did anticipate something of their remarkable flair, which usually showed in even the most mundane articles of their everyday life, to be present here. All he could see was a black tunnel of stone that glistened in patches where water seeped down its sides.
“If I am not mistaken, we are still in the entrance shaft. Soon, I think, we will reach the first level. How many levels there are, I cannot say, nor on which one we shall find the lanthanil,” Durwin said. “We will search each level and every gallery until we find it. My own guess is that it lies very deep and that we must descend to the lowest level.”
At that Toli made a strange grimace, as if he were eating a most bitter fruit. Quentin would have laughed if it had been anyone else, but he knew how much this experience was torturing his friend. So he turned away and said to Durwin, “You mention the lanthanil. I would hear more about it, for all I know is what little you have said and what I remember from Dekra, which is so wrapped in legend as to be beyond belief.”
“Do not be certain of that. Yes, often the stories men recite about such things do grow in the telling. But the Stone of Light—that is what the word means, roughly translated—is a most fantastic substance. It has many exotic and powerful properties.”
“If tales are to be believed,” said Inchkeith, staring into the darkness, “hear this one. Many years ago my father was traveling the world with his father. He was but a small boy at the time, and they were seeking the secrets of weaponry and armor, of forging and forming rare metals, of setting gems in their bezels—all the craft which an armorer must know.
“In Pelagia they met a merchant who sold arms, and they became friends when the merchant saw a sample of my grandfather’s work. When the merchant realized that he was talking to a great craftsman, he took them into the back of his shop—for in that country they had stalls outside covered with awnings, and inside—where the merchants and craftsmen lived and worked—they kept the very finest articles of their trade. To be invited inside was a considerable honor.
“This merchant, a well-known and respectable man—I cannot recall if I ever heard his name—took them in and led them to a very small room in his large house. He unlocked the bolt across the door to this room and then led them inside. My father said it was very dark. He remembered the walls of the room were extremely thick and the door was very heavy, for it groaned on its iron hinges like a drawbridge.
“The merchant closed the door and brought out a casket from some hidden place and put it before them on the table. The case was bound with locks and chains, though it was but a small one. When he had unlocked it, he took out an object wrapped in cloth. My father said the object was not very large, and appeared to not be much in weight, for the man handled it with ease and with great reverence.
“The merchant did not speak, but unwrapped the cloth and revealed a chalice of surpassing beauty. But most remarkable of all—the thing my father remembered most clearly until the day he died—was the way it shone in the darkness, as if lit with an inner flame. He said he cried to look at it, it was so beautiful, but then, he was a small boy.
“He reached out to touch the shining cup, and the merchant pulled it away, saying that it was enchanted and to touch it with bare hands diminished its power. He said it was very old and its power was only a fraction of what it had been, but that it was still great. He said that cordials sipped from the goblet cured at once, that the very touch of it healed all infirmities.
“My father’s father then did a very unusual thing. As proud as he was of his work, he said he would give the merchant his finest dagger for one touch of the chalice for himself and his son. My father noticed the strange look which came over his father’s face as his voice pleaded. The dagger was finely wrought; it had a golden handle with rubies inset. It was worth a great deal, and yet the merchant hesitated.
“But in the end he relented and let them touch the chalice. My father remembered how the light that leaped from the exquisite cup lit his father’s face and seemed to infuse him with a new power of creating and a heightened understanding of his craft—though this was observed much later. When his father finally passed the chalice to him, he was afraid to touch it, but his father urged him to, and he did. He said he never felt such strength and wholeness, and nothing in his life ever moved him with such emotion after that. Though he was but a small boy, he knew even then that he would never recover that feeling or see such beauty again; so he treasured it in his heart.
“My father spent the rest of his life trying to achieve in his craft the beauty that he saw in that cup. And you know he lived far beyond the natural span of a man’s years. He always said it was because of the chalice and that had his father given a hundred golden daggers, it would have been but a paltry sum for the gift of that one touch.”
Inchkeith’s voice softened to a whisper. Quentin, Toli, and Durwin, too, sat rapt and staring in amazement at the story the armorer told. For a long time no one spoke, but at last Quentin broke the silence. “What became of your grandfather? How did it affect him?”
Inchkeith was slow in answering, and when he at last opened his mouth to speak, he turned eyes filled with sadness toward them. “His was not a happy fate. He, too, lived long and prospered. But he became obsessed with finding another chalice, or some other object made from the mysterious metal, and when he could not, he tried to make one himself. But he was always disappointed. For though his works became the most highly prized in all the realm, he was yet unsatisfied. He died bitter and broken, consumed with despair. Some said it was the despair that killed him in the end.”
“Did your father not share his fate, then?”
“To some degree, yes. He, too, was never satisfied with the work of his hands after having held the chalice. But you must remember he was a small boy. I believe his heart was yet innocent and untutored in the ways of the world. The touch of the chalice, rather than leading to bitterness in the end, inflamed him with a burning desire to seek that beauty. He died at last unfulfilled, it is true, but not unhappy for that.”
“Your story is most moving,” said Durwin. “I begin to see now why the Most High has chosen you to accompany us on this journey. It seems your family has some part to play here.” He looked around at them all and said, “Well, we have rested and talked long enough. Let us continue our quest. Onward!”
Slowly and painfully, they shouldered their burdens once more and lifted their torches to resume their long, slow descent into the mine.
If the outer wards were filled with the frenzy of frightened citizens, the inner wards were filled with soldiers feverishly preparing for the impending siege. A steady stream of soldiers marched from the base of the southern tower, emerging from the donjon with armloads of spears and bundles of arrows. Others, bent to the task in smaller groups, labored over objects of wood, rope, and iron on the ground; they were assembling the machines of war. Still others tied piles of straw into bundles and sewed heavy pieces of cloth and skins together.
Horses were led to the stables around the ward yard, where squires sat at whetstones sharpening sword, lance, spear, and halberd. Provisions, brought up from the town by the wagonload, were stacked away in kitchens and pantries by cooks and their helpers. Dogs chased cackling chickens and honking flocks of geese, while children, uninhibited by the danger and excited by the bustle of activity around them, ran and played, dodging the footsteps of their elders and staging pretend battles.
Eskevar roamed the battlements like a shade. He seemed to be everywhere at once. His commanders looked up to see him watching them as they drilled the troops; the donjon keeper found him inquiring about the level of water in the reservoir, dipping the measuring rod himself; the squires were instructed in better sharpening techniques by one whose hand bore the royal signet. At the end of the day, there did not seem to be anyone anywhere within the walls who had not seen him.
“Sire, I must protest!” exclaimed Biorkis, clucking his tongue. “Durwin would tell you if he were here, and so I tell you in his stead— listen to him if not to me: you must rest. Your strength is but half recovered, and your ride into battle has tired you. Rest, I say, and let your commanders make ready all that is necessary.”
Eskevar fixed him with a baleful stare. “You little guess the danger gathering at our gates. Who is there to see to those preparations if not the king?”
Biorkis, well warned by Durwin regarding the obstinate pride of his patient, did not flinch from his duty. “What good will you be to your people when you lie exhausted on your bed, unable to even lift your head, let alone wield a sword or shout a command? Rest now while you may.”
The king frowned ferociously. “I am sound enough, I tell you! My strength is none of your concern.” Even as he spoke, he tottered uncertainly.
“How so, Sire? It is now the concern of every man and child in the realm who would see his king deliver him from the hand of the enemy. You need rest. Gather your strength that the day of the trial does not find you enfeebled.”
“Enfeebled! The way you talk! And to your king, by the gods!” Eskevar snapped. His face darkened in such rage that Biorkis thought it best not to press the matter further for the moment. “There is much to do, and someone must see to it that it is done well,” Eskevar growled as he went out again. Biorkis did not see him the rest of the day, though he waited near Eskevar’s chamber for the king to return.