18.) “You will have to leave your wagons behind,” Marsianne said.
“We can’t do that,” I said, immediately thinking of Seed.
“Then you will never reach Moregone.”
From her tone of voice, I knew that she was right. I looked up at the steep mountains that surrounded us. It had always been a faint hope that we wouldn’t have to leave the wagons behind.
We loaded what we could to the pack mules. As we lined up to leave, Marsianne led Tomber’s two pack mules over to us. “The Goddess wishes to pay for the wagons and supplies you leave behind.”
I opened the top of a pack and saw glittering red, green, blue, and white stones. There had never been any real hope that this expedition would pay for itself--until now. I looked around at the Inhutians who were gathering to see us off. Many of them wore the cheap trinkets and beads Tomber had brought.
I shook my head, not understanding. Any village that could mine such gems should be wealthy beyond measure.
“We serve the Goddess,” Marsianne said, as if reading my mind. “We have no need of riches.
Two mules had drawn the applecart and I needed but one to carry my personal supplies. I took the largest crate from the back of the cart and tied it to the extra mule, then led it over to the back of the train, where Toug was loading the four mules that had pulled the dinner wagon.
“You may load this mule as well,” I said, “but leave room for the crate.”
Toug never questioned orders. He didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow but simply nodded as much as his enormous neck would allow him to nod. I went to the middle of the newly configured caravan, which was my usual position. Tomber was in the lead, with Marston astride Splittooth beside him.
To my surprise, our guide was Marsianne. The other Inhutians were ignoring us now, as if we weren’t even there.
The mayor strode to the side of Tomber, and looked back at me, as if to ask if I was ready. I motioned my arm forward. As we started out, jostling, trying to find a rhythm where we didn’t stumble over each other, I looked back. The last mule in line was the one I’d given Toug, the crate riding high. I saw a flash of brown, the crate shivered, and then it was still. Everyone else was looking ahead and no one saw it, even Toug.
To my surprise, we turned away from the mountains upon leaving the village. Marsianne led us downhill for a time, then turned north along a high ridge. The ridge ended at the side of a tall cliff. It looked like a dead end from where I was, but then Marsianne and Tomber disappeared from view, as walking into the rock face.
Rows of gigantic boulders were at the base of the cliff and the path led around them. The trail wound its way between the boulders and the cliff side, until turning abruptly into a large crevice, which led steeply downhill. The light rapidly diminished as my eyes struggled to keep up. I bumped into the rear of the mule ahead of me, which hawed indignantly.
The train started moving forward slowly, and as it turned a corner, I saw flickering light ahead, which grew brighter as I approached. It was only in the last few yards that I saw that there was a small cave entrance, about as tall as a man astride a mule, and just barely wide enough to accommodate its girth.
Marston was at the side of the entrance. Along the trail leaned a row of torches, which he was bending over and lighting one by one, handing them to every other member of the party and then ushering them into the darkness beyond.
When I reached his side, he handed me the torch without comment. I knew that the man hated confined spaces and suspected he’d volunteered to hand out the torches as a way to avoid the inevitable until the last moment.
I started forward. Behind me, Marston finally spoke in a low voice, “I hope this isn’t a trap.”
Not bothering to turn around or answer, I ducked my head instinctively as I led my mule into the cave. There was a large cavern beyond, which the light of the torches couldn’t quite reveal fully. It was obviously a staging ground, with tents and tables, half completed torches, bail of straw, bags of broken stone with gems embedded, picks and shovels, and other sundry mining equipment. At the far end of the chamber were two tunnels—one leading steeply downward, and one spiraling gently upward.
To my surprise, Marsianne was climbing to the top of the spiral, and ducking into another hole as I watched.
A chill went down my spine, though I could see no reason for a trap. If the Goddess had wanted to do us harm she didn’t need to trick us.
Marsianne I wasn’t so sure about. She’d avowed her dedication to the Goddess, but it had seemed to me that she was leading our party begrudgingly. Still, I doubted she would flout the Goddess’s wishes.
I reached the top of the incline, looked back down into the cavern. Toug was entering from the far side, and I could see the shadow of Seed’s crate against the torchlight.
Seed must be terrified.
I wasn’t sure how I knew this.
I ducked into the tunnel at the top. The path was worn as if it had been traveled upon for generations. The walls were carved, arching overhead, with plenty of room for even those of our party who were mounted atop mules. The passages were carved smooth, our footsteps echoed. No one spoke.
The tunnel ran straight for what seemed miles. There were little side passages every few hundred yards, much narrower and darker. I felt winds from a few of them, and even when I didn’t feel the wind myself, the torches flickered.
The long level stretch suddenly ended in a split, again either going upward or down. Again, Marsianne chose the upward path, a tunnel that narrowed, it ceiling now so low that I had to duck.
Poor Tomber. He must be bent over in half.
The rocky sides were now dark and seemed to reflect the torchlight, but even then I didn’t realize what I was looking at for a long time.
My torch brushed against the top of the tunnel and sparks rained down, and only then did I see the red tint to the walls.
I stopped abruptly. The snout of a mule pushed against my back, and I heard the curse from the person following me. I thought I recognized Hutson’s voice.
Lifting the torch closer to the wall, I put my hands out and ran my fingers across the smooth, glasslike surface of red obsidian. Not just a few fragments, which would make a person rich in the Thirteen Principality, but what appeared to be an entire mountain of it.
“What’s wrong?” Hutson asked.
“Don’t you see it?”
“See what?” There was no mistaking the confusion in his voice.
From behind him, I heard shouts. “What’s the hold up? What’s going on?”
Melete was The Goddess of Memory. Which also meant she was the Goddess of the Forgetting. She was protecting her realm by making sure that no one knew of a mountain of the rarest mineral in the Thirteen Principalities.
“Nothing,” I muttered, then raised my voice so that the others could hear. “Carry on!”
We continued upward, the tunnel getting narrower and lower with every mile, until there was barely enough space for a fully laden mule to pass. I was deep in thought, wondering why I was immune to Melete’s spell—or was she granting me a glimpse?
In the darkness, I reached into my pack, drawing out the small hammer I used to secure the spikes of my tent. Still walking, I slammed the head of the hammer into the wall beside me, my other hand trailing beneath. There was a sharp pain in my palm. I slid the hammer into my belt and reached out gingerly to feel the sharp glass fragment in my hand. It was wet with blood.
I slid the sharp object into my pocket, hoping it wouldn’t cut through as it chafed against the bottom.
A few hundred feet further along, I did it again, even daring to stop for a few moments to get more than one fragment. Hutson cursed behind me, but I ignored him, and then hurried to catch up with to the others.
A cold wind blew against my face. The sound of those ahead of me, which had been loud and echoing moments before, became muffled. The train slowed and stopped.
“What’s happening?” I shouted ahead. No one answered; it was if the head of the snake had been cut off.
A circle of light shimmered ahead of me. I pushed my way past the woman immediately preceding me, and then the next mule and next traveller, and the next, until I reached someone too bulky to pass. For a moment I was stumped, then I crawled over the top of the mule, slipped over its head, feeling it snap at me as I passed. I made it the rest of the way to the light and stepped out into a wind so strong I almost lost my footing.
We were high up the mountain. Above there were only a few hundred feet of rocky pinnacle. From where the tunnel ended there was a small shelf of rock, not quite level, big enough to comfortably accommodate only the first third of the caravan. Below appeared to be a straight drop down into the clouds.
“Why aren’t we moving?” I asked.
“Where?” Tomber said, gesturing to the sheer cliffs.
Marsianne stood with her back to the mountain, eyes closed, her face white. I started to make my way to her. I hadn’t taken more than two steps before my feet went out from under me and I started slipping across the shelf. My fingers scrambled for traction, but slid off the icy surface. My feet struck something hard just inches from the edge, not quite enough to stop me. My legs bumped over the barrier and I knew that I couldn’t stop.
I was jerked back, my legs dangling over the edge. Tomber had ahold of my cloak, drawing tight against my neck. His long arms were stretched, his legs wrapped around the only rock protruding from the flat surface. With a grunt, he pulled me up. On my hands and knees I managed to crawl back to the tunnel entrance.
Marsianne hadn’t moved. From where I was, I shouted at her. “Is this a trap? Why have you led us here?”
Without opening her eyes, she motioned downward. “This is the way…”
“It can’t be done,” I said flatly.
“It can be done because it has been done,” she answered. She edged her way inch by inch toward me. I grabbed her when she came within reach and shook her. I felt like pushing her off the mountain.
She opened her eyes long enough to point.
To one side of the shelf I saw a straight line of snow. I followed Marsianne’s example and inched my way toward it with my back to the mountain and pushed my foot against the nearest accumulation. A small avalanche dropped away over the cliff, revealing a path not more than three feet wide.
The line of snow circled downward around the mountain until bending out of sight.
“Impossible!” I heard Marston exclaim.
I closed my eyes, in my mind the objection seemed to echo; impossible, impossible, impossible.
I felt someone brush past me. Tomber walked onto the path, sliding a little at first, but managing to stay upright. He went to the next accumulation of snow and kicked it away, revealing another ten feet of path.
He nodded. “Not much choice is there?”
“There is no way we can all get down that way,” Marston insisted.
Tomber laughed grimly. “Oh, we’ll get down all right, some swifter than others.”
“You know what I mean…” Marston muttered.
The cold seemed to be increasing with every moment we stood there hesitating. “If we are going to do it, we’d better start now,” I said, willing myself to join Tomber on the path. He carefully crossed the cleared stretch, kicked away again at the snow, then moved on. It was starting to look almost routine.
I looked back at Marston and Splittooth.
Cursing, Marston started toward me. Splittooth let out a loud haw, but followed. The mule seemed more surefooted that us humans. Before I turned away, I noticed Marsianne pushing her way into the tunnel and out of sight.
The path sloped downward gradually; any steeper and we would have slid off. Even so, it was slow going, the humans inching along with our backs to the rock, the mules seeming impatient, their hooves clattering on the stone. If just one of us froze, it would doom everyone behind them.
I looked back. A long line of figures stretched upward, moving so slowly that they didn’t appear to be moving at all. As I watched, I saw one of the figures jerk, then start to fall. Whoever it was reached out for the nearest mule, which toppled over sideways.
I couldn’t tell if the horrible scream came from the human or the mule or both. They tumbled out of sight.
No one said anything, but it took a long time before the line began moving again.