108. Near Dimlic Aern
“There! Among the trees on the ridge. Do you see it?”
Marty came to a full stop before lifting his eyes from his ski tips to the horizon. Eight days of cross-country skiing in the forests of Two Moons had taught him repeatedly how easy it is to fall, particularly when carrying a winter pack. Ahead of them, Teothic and Elfric Ash were already sliding down a gentle slope into yet another narrow valley. The young priest and the sheriff carried the heavier loads, yet they seemed always to have more energy than Marty and Eadmar. Marty had lost count of the ridges they had mounted in the rugged country between the lakes. “I’m sorry, Eadmar. I see only trees. No, wait! Is that smoke?”
“Not the smoke of a fire,” the priest replied. “And not the smoke of Bradburg, the wide mountain. Further on, beyond what we can see here, the mountain itself sends up smoke, some of it poisonous to breathe. But on this side of Bradburg, it is only water. Ah! The water spout!”
Two hundred yards away a geyser erupted, shooting water almost as high as the trees surrounding it. Teothic and Elfric stopped at the bottom of the hill to watch. The eruption lasted about ninety seconds and died away. In those ninety seconds, Marty surmised much about the wide mountain.
“Are there other such water spouts in this region?”
“On earth we call them geysers. They are rare, but I have seen some.”
The weathered priest looked at Marty. “I need to remember that you come from another world. The water spouts of the wide mountain, all this region”—Eadmar swept his hand to indicate the massive upland into which they had been climbing—“are the only ones in Tarquint. At least, they are the only ones known among God’s priests. Long ago, Aldigart Godcild and three brothers came to the wide mountain, fleeing from the devils of Inter Lucus and Eclipsis Lunaris, much as we have come today, in the snows of winter. They would have starved or frozen, except God gave them shelter.”
“A hidden place.”
Eadmar smiled. “Aye. Dimlic Aern.”
They found refuge on a volcano. “Does the wide mountain throw out more than water and smoke? Is there any place that emits hot rock, rock that flows like molten glass?” As far as Marty knew, there was no word in the common speech for “lava.”
Eadmar seemed puzzled. “No. Bradburg has water spouts and poisonous smokes, but no flowing rock. Is such a thing possible?”
The wide mountain: the Two Moons version of Yellowstone. “It is, indeed. On Earth we call it lava. Earth has many volcanoes, and I suspect Two Moons has them as well. Perhaps it has been ages since Bradburg spewed out rock, but I believe it is a volcano all the same. The lava is still there, far beneath the surface. Water seeps down through the earth until it gathers in some underground cavern where the hot rock turns it into steam. The steam builds up pressure until it shoots up in a geyser.”
The priest rubbed his cheek, frowning. Marty watched the old man struggle with new notions. How many times can I turn his ideas inside out before he ceases to believe me? Marty pointed at Teothic and Elfric. “They’re leaving us behind. We should get on.”
“Aye.” Eadmar bent forward over his skis and strode forward; gravity soon pulled him into an easy glide. Marty followed, and when they reached the bottom they began the laborious climb up the next ridge toward the geyser. They walked like ducks, spreading the tips of their skis wide, and lifting the tail of each ski over the other. Both men were breathing heavily when they joined Teothic and Elfric on the edge of a shallow pool of steamy water, no wider than a backyard swimming pool.
The four companions stood without speech for a time, taking in the geyser pool. The scalding water of the eruption had mostly drained away already through a narrow creek bed. The rock of the geyser basin and the nearby channel glistened with reds and greens left by mineral deposits. Further on, the cooling creek water disappeared under a snow bank.
“This is Dimlic Aern?” Elfric questioned Eadmar.
“No. The water spout tells us we are close, but it is not the actual hiding place.” Eadmar pointed to a cluster of firs on the opposite side of the geyser pool. “The gate begins over there. Be careful. Don’t get too close to the water spout; the snow bank can crumble.”
The skiers skirted the pool, staying well back from the snow’s edge. They came to the trees Eadmar had indicated. Under the ancient firs, whose branches interlocked above them, little snow reached the ground. Eadmar untied his skis and used the bindings to lash them together. “Follow me.” He tucked the tips of his skis under his arms and started forward, dragging the tails through piled fir needles and bits of fallen bark. Marty, Elfric, and Teothic mimicked the priest, though Marty wondered at first why Eadmar didn’t carry his skis on his shoulder. A hundred feet into the fir corridor, the path turned left, sharply uphill, and the branches of the wood were suddenly not twenty feet up but immediately above their heads. As they climbed, the men had to bend low to scramble under the branches, still pulling their skis and trying to not snag their backpacks. Soon they were climbing on all fours, on rocks rather than soil, and the rocks were wet. And then, without warning, there were no branches over them. They had reached a narrow space, a rocky ledge, between the trees and a sheer rock wall. The ledge and the rock wall were wet with water trickling down from some place above their heads. Wind blew cold between the rock mountain and the firs, but the closest branches, long enough to brush against the wet stone, were snowless. With tall trees crowding against the mountainside, even at mid-day the place was dim as twilight.
Eadmar laid his bundled skis against the rock face and unstrapped his pack. “Once I’m up, Teothic, pass all our things up to me. We’ll store the skis in the gate and carry the packs. Help me up, will you?”
Marty, Teothic, and Elfric laid their skis by Eadmar’s. Teothic and Marty each cupped their hands to make steps, and Eadmar put a booted foot in each. The old priest wasn’t heavy; Marty and Teothic lifted him to chest height, and then Elfric stepped in to push Eadmar’s feet higher still. And then he was gone, as if the mountain had swallowed him.
A minute later, a rope snaked its way down to them. Eadmar’s head appeared against the sky above them. “The rope is secure. Come on up.” Teothic handed up four pairs of skis to Eadmar before ascending. Thick knots segmented the rope and made climbing relatively easy. They tied Eadmar’s pack to the rope so they could pull it up last. At the top, Eadmar’s hand helped pull them into a cave. Water no more than half an inch deep flowed out of the entrance. When the others had joined him, Eadmar stored the rope in a cleft chiseled into the cave wall. He picked up his pack. “Follow me. We walk in the dark, but the way is easy to follow. The wall on the right is never more than an arm’s length away, and the water runs on our left. It’s not deep or dangerous, but if you keep to the dry stone you’re on the true path.”
Dark indeed. Marty guessed they walked a half-mile in the cave, and after the first fifty yards the blackness was Stygian. Marty listened intently to Eadmar’s soft steady footfall ahead of him and reached out to the right wall often.
“We call this cave the ‘front gate’ or ‘south gate.’” Eadmar’s voice, with no visible source and bouncing off unseen stone surfaces, played tricks of direction, as if someone were fiddling with the balance control on a stereo.
Elfric, immediately behind Marty, asked, “Is there no need for guards?”
“The brothers at Dimlic Aern are few in number, and they have few weapons. Our safety depends on secrecy. Aldigart and the brothers came to Bradburg more than a thousand years ago, and Dimlic Aern was built soon after. The story keepers say that the devils and lords searched for Dimlic Aern and could not find it. I wonder about that. Perhaps the devils and lords were not concerned with God’s people so long as they stayed far away in the wild. Lords, at any rate, could only send sheriffs to search for Dimlic Aern, since lords do not leave their castles. The gates are well hidden, and Dimlic Aern itself cannot be seen from the few boats that sail the northern end of East Lake. In fact, unless one comes through one of the gates, the only way to see Dimlic Aern would be to climb through the poison air of Bradburg and look into the narrow valley from above. As far as we know, Elfric, you are the first of your kind to pass either the front or back gate.”
“You are a sheriff, in service to a castle lord. Your arrival would no doubt create much consternation at Dimlic Aern on any other occasion.”
“But not now?”
Eadmar chuckled. “I think Lord Martin will have the brothers’ complete attention.”
The cave was as dark as ever when Eadmar suddenly stopped. “Ah! It’s been so long since I came here—thirty years! I almost doubted my memories. But here we are.”
Marty listened carefully, but he heard nothing that might be a clue. The water on their left whispered its presence—but even that might only be imagination. “Where is ‘here,’ Eadmar? And how do you know? Do you hear something we don’t?”
“Nothing so mysterious.” Eadmar’s tone was playful. “The right hand wall has disappeared.” Marty, Teothic, and Elfric all reached to the right, though none saw the others’ arms waving. Eadmar’s feet padded away, and before the others could try to follow, a knock sounded, the priest’s knuckles rapping on something wooden. “The brother on duty may not hear me,” Eadmar said. “Come and help.”
Hands extended into the dark, Eadmar’s companions followed his voice. In four strides they were touching him and the wooden thing. “We’ve got to raise the guard.” Eadmar began slapping the wood with the flat of his hand. “It can only be opened from the other side.”
Elfric and Teothic joined Eadmar, pounding on the door. Then a single muffled “Boom” answered them. “Stop!” commanded Eadmar. “They’ve heard us.”
A dot of light appeared on the stone to their left, no more than three inches across, yet almost painfully bright after an hour in blackness. It hardly relieved the darkness of the cave, but Marty could see that the light came through a narrow hole in the wooden door. A voice accompanied the illumination.
“Gratias agimus Deo…”
Eadmar stepped close to the hole. “…et Patri Domini nostri Jesu Christi.”
The light dot disappeared. Whoever was on the other side had covered the hole. Then the door, a massive thing made of pine panels five inches thick, swung ponderously away from them. The new arrivals walked into the full light of day, blinking often as their eyes adjusted.
“My God.” Marty couldn’t help himself.
“The narrow valley,” said Eadmar.
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.