109. At Dimlic Aern
The travelers emerged from the “front gate” onto a stone shelf carved out of the north side of a perpendicular mountain. The shelf had no parapet, and when the ponderous door swung fully open it reached beyond the edge. One could not step around the door without falling into the abyss.
“Move aside, please.” The guard who had opened the door motioned them away from the opening. The visitors squeezed together, dismayingly close to the brink, and their host pushed the door shut. The door and its jambs were recessed into the mountainside; once it was closed the men were able to move away from the dizzying fall.
The “narrow valley” indeed! The south and north sides of the chasm paralleled each other less than a hundred yards apart. Noonday sunlight brilliantly illuminated the snow-covered upper reaches of the opposite side high above them. A thousand feet below the bright snow, the gate shelf enjoyed a gray half-light, and sunlight would never reach the valley floor, unless at midsummer it shone straight down.
As a teenager Marty had visited Seattle’s Space Needle and remembered how cars had looked like bugs from the observation deck. But this is higher, much higher. I’d guess it’s two thousand feet down to that lake. The narrow valley extended more than a mile both east and west from the shelf where they stood, and a black line at the bottom indicated run-off water had collected there. Marty marveled at the smoothness of the vertical rock on both sides. It’s more like a crack in the mountain than a valley, as if a giant chopped Bradburg with a cleaver.
“Welcome, my brothers. Welcome indeed. I am Nyle. You are the first visitors through the south gate in five weeks.” The gate guard wore an animal skin coat over a plain brown tunic. Wool leggings tucked into his boots. Nyle bowed awkwardly and then bent to pick up a heavy timber at least six inches square. Elfric and Teothic quickly moved to help the guard fit the ends of the wooden beam into grooves chiseled into the mountainside on either side of the door. With the beam in place, the door from the cave was very effectively barred.
Eadmar inclined his head in greeting. “Fair afternoon, brother Nyle. I am Eadmar, from Down’s End. I have come with these companions bearing greetings from Guthlaf Godcild of that city. Are you a priest?”
“God willing, my ordination will come this summer.”
“Nineteen then, still. I thought you looked young.” Eadmar’s blue eyes twinkled. “Yet you get gate duty alone? Is there no one to help you? What if we had been enemies?” Eadmar looked at Elfric as he spoke, remembering the sheriff’s question about guards.
“Basil Godcild says solitude will be good for my soul, provided that I use my days wisely. Enemies? I am commanded to open the door only for those who give the password. In a thousand years no enemy of God has found either south or north gate.”
Eadmar raised his eyebrows in a silent question to Elfric. Elfric nodded, acknowledging the point. But he said, “Things change, Priest Eadmar.”
“Aye, they do.” Eadmar rubbed his cheeks. Cold wind was blowing from the mountaintop, and his bald pate looked red. “Brother Nyle, I introduce brother Teothic, from Down’s End. He is one of our story keepers.”
“Well met, Teothic.” Nyle inclined his head.
“And these men,” Eadmar continued, “Are not priests. They are not enemies either, but this one at least has a sword.” Eadmar indicated Elfric. “It would probably be best if you took Elfric’s weapon.”
Nyle’s green eyes went wide. “Not priests? But you said the secret name in their hearing!”
“All will be explained when I present Elfric and Martin to Bishop Basil.” Eadmar extended a hand. “Your sword, Elfric.”
The sheriff sent a questioning glance to Marty, who said, “Eadmar’s right. I’ll get no answers if they don’t trust us.”
Elfric unbelted his scabbard and sword and handed them to Nyle. The guard held the scabbard awkwardly, as if he didn’t know what to do with weapons. Teothic chuckled and touched the youth’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, brother. Just lead us to your bishop.”
But Nyle was thinking quickly, and he had noted Elfric looking to Marty for direction. “And this man?” He pointed the sword, still in its scabbard, at Marty.
Marty met the young guard’s gaze. “Fair afternoon to you, Nyle. My name is Martin. I am not a priest, but I am a worshiper of God, and I have come to Dimlic Aern to learn from the brothers here. I carry no weapon. Beyond that, I should not speak, until I have met Basil Godcild.”
Nyle scowled. “I cannot allow this.”
Eadmar spoke gently. “You have Elfric’s sword. You can stay here and guard my friends while I go to the house. After I have explained my mission, one of the other brothers will come and bring the others in. Would that be satisfactory?”
“You know the house?”
“I was last here thirty years ago, when Basil and I were new priests. I don’t suppose you’ve moved the house since then.”
Nyle sighed. “We are supposed to practice hospitality. But…”
Teothic said, “As Elfric says, things change, brother Nyle. You are the first guard in the history of Dimlic Aern to admit a non-priest. When this is over, your name will go into a history and the story keepers will learn it.”
“Flattery is a temptation,” said Nyle, considering Teothic’s words. “Still, I will accept the old priest’s plan. I will stay here with you three. You, Eadmar, can go on to the house.”
Marty, Teothic and Elfric waited two hours with the young guard before Eadmar returned with another priest. Treddian looked to be about thirty, a lean and hale man with curly black hair. He said that Basil Godcild wished to see the newcomers and he told Nyle to come to the house as well.
The path from the front/south gate was clearly the product of human labor. Carved into the face of the mountain, it was four feet wide or wider and very close to level. If not for the vertigo-inducing fall on the right, it resembled a city sidewalk as much as anything else. Across the valley, a similar path had been created, running up at an angle. Apparently the back gate (or north gate) was higher in the mountain than the one they had entered.
Marty wondered about the gate left without a doorman. “If Nyle leaves his post, what if someone comes to the gate? Without a guard to open the door, would not a visitor be trapped in the mountain?”
Treddian laughed. “The day’s light is fading already. It would be cruel indeed to make a man spend the long night alone on the shelf. If he were to roll over in his sleep… Oy! And if he were to open the door and move inside, so as to sleep in safety, then visitors might come upon him with the gate open.
“Rarely, visitors do come and find themselves barred at the gate. Then they must choose: wait in the dark or follow the water as Aldigart did so long ago. At least they would be warm.”
Elfric asked, “Warm?”
Eadmar, walking in file between Elfric and Marty, broke into the conversation. “Before we even came to the gate, back at the water spout, Martin was explaining to me his ideas about the wide mountain. He has seen such things before, he says.”
Marty blew out a breath. How much can I say? If I talk about Earth do I mark myself as a madman or a devil?
“This is what I think. Aldigart came to the wide mountain in winter, and he was saved by hot water. The region of Bradburg, the wide mountain, has many hot springs. I imagine that the water in the cave, that is, the front gate, comes from a hot spring, or perhaps more than one. Remember, Elfric, we walked only on the right side of the water in the cave, and the floor was level. I do not think that is natural. I suspect the brothers of Dimlic Aern, by long years of work, have smoothed that walk, just as they cut the path we walk on now. Obviously, men also cut the mountainside for the door. But when Aldigart first came, there was no door. He had to follow the hot water all the way to the source. I suspect the house of Dimlic Aern is very close to that source.”
“Good guesses, and close to the truth,” said Treddian. “There are many little hot springs in both caves, the south and north gates. But you are right that the path must be maintained by human hands. Otherwise, we would have to crawl in the water as Aldigart and his companions did. It is possible, still, to follow the water path all the way to Dimlic Aern, but it is a painful squeeze. Far better to enter the narrow valley by the door and use this path.”
At the western end of the narrow valley the towering cliffs north and south came together. In the lee of the mountain the winter afternoon was quickly turning to dark. Lights appeared ahead of them, yellow lights of oil lamps. The path on the north side of the valley now joined with the southern path, and they passed under a stone roof. On either side were openings cut into the rock, windows into rooms, rooms with beds, chairs, and tables. A thousand years gives lots of time to haul in lumber.
They came to a wide door recessed into the rock at the western end of the veranda. Welcoming light shone through the open door, silhouetting a gray-haired man in a black cassock. “You return, Eadmar. Is the man with you?”
“Come in, please.” The priest ushered the newcomers into the room behind him. There was a long table, with food set out. Behind them, Treddian shut the door. At a gesture from Treddian, the new arrivals laid their travelers’ packs by the north wall. Another priest, who looked to be about Treddian’s age, about thirty, pulled heavy cloth curtains across the room’s window openings. Dimlic Aern had no glass for its windows, and the room’s walls, floor and ceiling were stone, but it was not the cold medieval monastery that Marty had imagined. Bright tapestries decorated the walls, and a large oval carpet lay under the table and chairs. Oil lamps and candles provided light. And on the western side of the room, where one might have expected a fireplace, a low brick wall enclosed a steaming pool of water. Often, but at irregular intervals, boiling water would shoot into the pool through a crack in the mountain. It would bubble and steam for a few minutes, and then gradually drain away. Water condensing on the walls ran down into a channel on the floor and out of the room. Marty thought: It’s like a combination sauna and dining room. I’d bet the tapestries and carpets need replacing pretty often.
“Welcome to Dimlic Aern.” The older priest faced Marty. His face was deeply lined, especially around his brown eyes. “I am Basil Godcild. You’ve met Nyle and Treddian. The boy is Desmond. And this is Seaver, our story keeper.” Marty hadn’t noticed a youth standing in the shadow of a passage leading out of the room; Desmond. Seaver was the brown-haired priest who had shut the window coverings. “Nyle, please help Desmond bring drink for our guests.”
Nyle and Desmond disappeared into the passage. Basil’s attention remained on Marty. “Tell me about yourself, Martin.”
Marty shot a look at Eadmar, whose blank face told him nothing. No point in hiding anything. Eadmar will have told all. “My name is Martin Cedarborne. I came to Two Moons from a different world, a planet called Earth, by means of castle technology, though people here call it ‘magic.’ After I came to Two Moons, I discovered that the priests of the ‘old god’ worship the same God I worshiped on Earth. I also discovered that I am lord of the castle Inter Lucus. I did not intend to become a lord. I bonded with Inter Lucus completely by accident.”
Marty sat down on a chair and looked up at Basil’s face. How many improbable things can a man swallow all at once? The old priest frowned, pulled a chair close and sat on it. The soft brown eyes searched Marty’s face. “Go on.”
The simple command surprised Marty. What more do you want? “That’s about it. I am a lord of a castle, but I am also a worshiper of God. I know that in the past, castle lords have sometimes imprisoned or killed people who are loyal to God. So you may have reason to not trust me. But what I say is true.”
Basil pursed his lips. “I believe you.”
Marty opened his mouth, and shut it again. He had expected greater skepticism.
Basil turned his attention for a moment to the others. “Please, take seats. Sup is prepared. Ah! Here come Desmond and Nyle.”
Nyle sat at table with the priests and the visitors, making a party of eight. Desmond, who looked to be about twelve years old, sat on a chair not far from Basil, ready to fetch more food or drink when asked.
Basil poured white wine into plain earthenware cups and handed one to Marty. “You still have not told all, Lord Martin. While we dine, I expect fuller answers. But first…”
Basil held up his wine cup as if to make a toast. Marty and Elfric joined with the priests in mimicking him. Basil said, “God gives us wine, and sustenance, and love. Praised be God forever. Amen.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.