No,” instructed Durwin. “These will not do.” He handed two shining green rocks back to Toli, whose eyes sparkled as he looked at them. “Neither green, nor amber, nor blue, red, nor even gold is suitable. Perhaps for chalices and utensils and the like, but not for the Zhaligkeer. The Shining One must be made from white lanthanil, for it is the most rare and possesses the greatest powers.”
Quentin looked around. “I wondered why so much of the precious rock lay about. It was the white the Ariga prized most.”
“So it is! We will have to delve for it if we are to fashion a sword,” Durwin stated. “For I have not seen a showing of white since we entered here.”
“Nor have I.”
At Inchkeith’s suggestion they spread out, each to a different quarter, to search for a vein of white ore among all the rainbow traces of colored lanthanil. Inchkeith schooled them on what to look for and how to go about it, so that at the end of several hours’ search, they were well acquainted with the methods of the miners. But by the end of the entire day’s search, they were no closer to having found a speck of the rare white ore.
The next day’s search brought nothing but sore fingers and knees to the miners. The following day was the same. Quentin considered these periods of activity to be days since they were bound on each side by intervals of rest, but how long in duration they were, he could not say. At the end of it, as they sat before the small fire Toli had made in a ring of stones, frustrated and longing for sleep, Inchkeith grumbled to himself— a habit he had fallen into of late.
“What was that?” asked Durwin.
“Nothing,” growled Inchkeith. He raised his cup once more to his mouth.
“You said something about the water,” replied Durwin. “I think I would like to hear it again.”
“I said this water tastes as stale as stone!” Inchkeith glared at the hermit with a look of smoldering exasperation.
“I think you may be right,” said Durwin, tasting his water. “Very like stone.”
“What is so odd about that?” inquired Quentin. He believed they were all beginning to show signs of strain and exhaustion. “We have been drinking this water for two days.”
“Yes,” added Toli, “ever since we emptied the skins we brought with us.”
“Where did you fill them, Toli?” asked Durwin eagerly, leaning forward in the light of the fire.
“Why, at the pool over there. Just below where we entered. But it is safe enough. I tested it myself and found no ill effect. It is stale because it has been so long in the cave, away from sun and air.”
“Then the pool is not fed by a spring?”
“I should say not. If it were, perhaps the water would have a fresher taste.” Toli looked narrowly at Durwin.
“Why this sudden interest in our water? We have been drinking it some little while, as Toli says. It has brought no harm.” Quentin shrugged, and as a show of confidence in Toli’s judgment, he drained his cup.
Durwin stood abruptly. “Take me to the pool.” No one moved. “At once!”
Toli rose and led him off. Inchkeith and Quentin stared at one another, mystified. “Well, we might as well trail along after them as wait here. I am ever amazed at the notions that hermit takes into his head. There will be no sleep until he is satisfied anyway.”
So the armorer and Quentin followed the figures receding in the glowing half-light of the great vault. When they caught up with them, Durwin and Toli were down on hands and knees, peering into the ebony depths of a pool whose surface looked as hard and polished as black glass.
“No, I cannot see anything,” sighed Durwin. “But I think we must try.”
“Try what?” asked Quentin.
“I cannot be certain,” began Durwin. “But . . .” He hesitated.
“Out with it, you pesky hermit. What do you suspect?”
“Only this, and it is a forlorn guess—that it would be very like the Ariga to further conceal their prize in a way that did not altogether hinder discovery.”
“You think it is in the pool?” Quentin knelt and stared into the water in disbelief.
“Perhaps,” intoned Durwin. “I did not say for certainty that it was.”
“Bah!” said Inchkeith. “This is seepage water, nothing else. You will find nothing down there.”
“Oh, do not be so sure. Have you seen any seepage or running water since we entered the mine?”
“A little, of course.”
“Very little, sir. The Ariga miners knew their craft—far better than any miner living today. Water is a constant danger in a mine. But as you yourself have seen, no such hazard threatens this mine; the Ariga had ingenious ways of disposing of it. Therefore, I am inclined to believe that this pool is here for a purpose.”
“Of a purpose or no,” Inchkeith said, squinting into the fathomless depths, “how do you propose to delve down there?”
Durwin shook his head and stood. “That I do not know. But let me sleep on it. Perhaps something will come to me in my dreams.”
They all went back to the place where Toli’s fire still burned and pretended to try to sleep. But the attempt was far from effective because each had fallen prey to the puzzle of the pool: how to remove the water. So each tossed and heaved under their cloaks and thought about nothing but the pool and the white lanthanil that might lie buried in its black depths.
At last Quentin sat up and said, “It is no use. I cannot sleep, and if my ears tell me anything, they tell me no one else is sleeping either. We may as well talk about it.”
“You are right,” grunted Inchkeith. “There will be no rest until we have solved the riddle of how to get ore from a puddle.”
“So it is,” Durwin said, rising up. “Has anyone thought of a way?”
Blank stares met over the fire. It was clear that no one had any idea of how the mining operation might proceed.
Slowly Toli got to his feet. “There is only one way,” he said. “I must go down there.”
Silence followed the pronouncement. Toli’s features had become a mask of fear and revulsion such as Quentin had never seen on his friend before, not even in battle. “Toli, there is no need; we will find another way.”
“What way would that be?” Inchkeith muttered.
“We could drain it, or . . .” Quentin could not think of another way to suggest.
“You see, my way is best,” said Toli softly. He appeared as a man going to his death.
“But—,” Quentin started to object.
Durwin stopped him, saying, “No, I believe Toli is right. His is the only way. I see no reason to talk about it any longer. We might as well get on with it since no one feels like sleeping.”
“No!” Quentin protested. “I will not hear of it, even if Durwin thinks it is the only way. If anyone must go, let it be me. It is supposed to be my sword, after all.”
“Think of what you are saying.” Durwin turned a steady gaze on Quentin that made him feel like a small child. “Are you fit to swim and wield a pick underwater? With your arm, what could you do?”
Durwin continued, “Who of us better than Toli? Inchkeith? Myself ? No. Toli is right. He is the only choice. Of all of us, he has the best chance of succeeding.”
“Then I will go with him,” said Quentin hotly.
Durwin shrugged. “You may be of some help. All right. Let us begin.”
Within a short time they were ready. Toli and Quentin stripped off their clothes and, wearing only their leather baldrics—to which had been attached long ropes, tools, and on an inspiration from Inchkeith, small pieces of glowing lanthanil so that they might be seen as they descended and worked in the inky depths—they stood on the brink, looking morosely into the pool as if Heoth himself waited below to embrace them in his icy grasp.
Durwin and Inchkeith held the ends of the ropes. “Remember, you have but to tug on the rope and we will pull you up in an instant. Do not try to swim—save your energy and lungs. It will allow you to work longer. The weight of the tools you carry should take you down quickly enough. Save your strength, both of you.”
Toli said nothing. His countenance had hardened into features as cold and unreadable as the stones of a castle wall. Whatever he felt inside had been pushed far back into some remote corner of his being.
“This is a brave thing you are doing, my friend.” Quentin put a hand on Toli’s shoulder and felt the tenseness of the Jher’s muscles. “Do not worry. I will be beside you.”
Toli nodded briefly, never lifting his eyes from the pool. Then he took one step, and sank out of sight with scarcely a ripple. Quentin took a deep breath and followed, clutching his injured arm to his chest so that it would not float awry.
The shock of the icy water upon his bare skin almost caused Quentin to gasp at once. It felt like ten thousand dagger points tearing at his flesh. He swallowed air into his stomach, and bubbles spouted from his nose. An instant later he was numb to the icy assault of the chilling water. He opened his eyes as he drifted down and down into the black, silent, dreamlike void. He looked up to see the faintly luminescent glimmer of the cavern above as it receded and dimmed with his descent.
Close beside him Quentin could feel Toli’s presence, though he could but faintly see his friend. At three spans or so below the surface of the water, they reached a sharp overhang and felt along this shelflike projection with their feet, almost walking along it, until it dropped off again. Underneath the shelf was a great hollow, or that was the impression Quentin received, for he could see nothing at all. Even the dim glow above was now obliterated beneath the overhanging rock ledge.
It was with some surprise that Quentin’s feet touched smooth rock once more. Whether it was another rock ledge or the bottom of the pool he could not tell. But here it was that Toli decided to begin searching for the elusive white ore. Quentin felt a slight swirl of movement beside him and knew that Toli was inching forward toward the wall that he imagined was directly before them.
Quentin made to follow and immediately stubbed his toes against a lump of rock. The sudden pain caused him to lose some of his air as he stumbled awkwardly and slowly to his knees. With grace and ease he righted himself and weightlessly followed Toli, whose belt of glowing lanthanil he could just see before him.
Toli had reached the rock wall, and with a jarring bump Quentin reached it too. They had only been underwater for a few moments, though already it seemed like hours to Quentin. He wondered how Toli was taking it. Another swirl of movement, followed by a small clink, and he realized that Toli had wasted no time or motion and was already picking away at the surface of the rock face with one of Inchkeith’s handpicks.
With his good hand Quentin fumbled at his baldric for a tool and followed Toli’s example. He picked blindly away with the slow, cushioned movement of the swimmer. He could hear, like the clink of coins struck together, the tap of their tools upon the rock. After but a moment of this exertion, Quentin’s lungs began to burn, and he reached out to signal to Toli that he was going up for air. Toli acknowledged his signal with one of his own. Quentin tugged on the rope and stepped back away from the rock wall. All at once he began ascending rapidly—so much so that he had to kick furiously in order to avoid the overhanging shelf above.
With a fizz of bubbles and a gasp, Quentin bobbed to the surface. Durwin and Inchkeith were peering down at him intently. “It is c-cold as ice down th-th-there!” Quentin chattered involuntarily.
“Can you see anything?” asked Durwin, ignoring the temperature report. “What is down there?”
“There is a rock ledge three or five spans below me here. Just under that is a space large enough for a man to stand and work. Whether it is the bottom or not, I cannot say. Toli is still there, but he should be up for air shortly.”
“That sounds as good a place as any to begin looking,” said Inchkeith eagerly. Quentin thought the old armorer would gladly have changed places with him if offered the chance; his face gleamed in the soft light of the vault with a glaze of intense anticipation.
“Toli is staying down too long,” observed Quentin. He ducked his head beneath the water, but could catch no sign of Toli’s glowing belt surfacing. Inchkeith still held Toli’s rope slack in his hands.
“I shall fetch him; he has been down long enough.”
“Yes, go and see what is keeping him. No need to overexert his lungs, even if he can swim like a fish.” Durwin began paying out rope again, and Quentin dropped at once back into the cold, silent viscid world of the pool. Once below the rock ledge, Quentin could see the dimly shining belt of Toli just below. He pushed on as quickly as he could and approached his friend in long, weightless strides.
Quentin felt in the water for Toli’s shoulder and, touching it, turned the Jher around. But Toli turned away again, and Quentin felt the swirl of motion and heard the odd, faraway clink that meant Toli was continuing with his picking.
Quentin, becoming worried for his friend, thought to grab Toli’s rope and tug it himself and so get him hauled to the surface whether he wanted to go or not. As he reached for the rope, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
He turned and saw a very faint spidery crack appear in the rock wall, as if a shining web of delicate silken strands was glowing there. He took up his own pick and, following Toli’s lead, began chopping away at the rock before them, leaving Toli to his own judgment.
In a moment the black wall of rock before them crumbled away with a flash of silver, and there before them, blazing like the sun with cold brilliance, opened a vein of white lanthanil two hands wide.
Toli, quick as a snake, reached out and placed his hands on the radiant stone, and Quentin saw, in the inundating glare that so suddenly shone forth, Toli transformed. It seemed to Quentin, feeling so cold and unnatural in this watery grave of a place, that Toli suddenly appeared larger, stronger, and more noble.
He had little time to wonder about what he saw, for Toli was already hammering at the stone and breaking off a big chunk of the precious rock. Quentin had hardly blinked his eyes when Toli offered him a huge piece of white, shining ore. Quentin looked at it, strange in this underwater world, and at Toli, who was grinning in spite of himself. Already Quentin’s lungs were beginning to burn again—it was time to surface. He wondered with amazement how Toli could remain submerged for such a time.
Quentin reached out to grasp the stone Toli offered him, with no more thought than to take it up to the surface for Inchkeith and Durwin to see, to tell them they had found their treasure at last. But as Toli tumbled the stone into his hands Quentin felt the shock of heat sear through his body like a flame. He tingled all over as if he had been struck by lightning, but the burning passed in an instant, leaving behind a warm glow of peace and well-being. Even the ache of his lungs vanished in that instant. He suddenly felt more alive and whole and at peace than ever in his life.
In that very same moment—though Quentin was never really certain, for it all happened so fast—he felt a long shiver course through his right arm. The arm tingled as if needles pierced it all over. And then, deep within his arm, in his very bones, he felt a strange warmth that grew and grew until he thought his bones were on fire.
But the fire left just as quickly, to be followed by a rush of soothing cold, as if water were running over his arm. This startled Quentin as much as the fire had, for it was the first time he had experienced any feeling in his arm in many long weeks. He looked at Toli in the weird, shining light, and Toli grinned knowingly back at him. He stretched out his hand to touch Toli’s face, and the hand obeyed him once again. The fingers flexed, and the arm swung freely, though encumbered somewhat by the splint still attached to it.
Toli broke off another piece from the vein of blazing ore and jerked his hand upward, signaling for them to rise. Quentin had quite forgotten they were underwater; the urge to return to the surface had vanished the instant he touched the stone. But now he was eager to show their find to the others. So, quite forgetting to tug on the ropes, they began swimming to the surface.
Durwin and Inchkeith, growing apprehensive over the unusually long time the two had been down, were discussing whether to pull them up—especially Toli, who had not come up for breath at all.
Suddenly Durwin shouted, “Inchkeith! By my lights, look there!”
The armorer looked where the hermit was pointing and saw two bright objects, like the glowing white eyes of some monstrous sea creature, rising rapidly toward the surface. With a hop Inchkeith jumped back a step and threw his hands out before him, so strong was the illusion of a sea monster boiling up out of the pool.
But next the hermit’s voice split the air like thunder that rolled and echoed through the vast cavern. “It is the lanthanil! Praise be to the God Most High! He has shown us his high favor! We have found it!”
Then, quite unceremoniously, Durwin began to hop about in a wild dance with Inchkeith while the two water-soaked, happy divers looked on.