We were deep into the woods, west-by-south, for three or maybe four days. Ardrin could move quick if he had too, but Gods when he didn't have to he was about the slowest thing moving. Still, I got a thrill just watching him walk. For such a huge beast, he didn't knock down a single tree by accident and he was always eating apples as we went. He'd just lift his head up to catch a branch between his jaws before dragging his mouth along it so his tusk popped the apples off the branch and down his throat.
We had to walk the horses; there was no sense riding them. Master's slowest gait would have left Ardrin in our dust. They were happy to pick up the apples that Ardrin missed, however, and even Regal became accustomed to the great bear. The preacher had remarked that now the horses knew how the barn cats felt when they stampede into the stable, sending the cats scrambling.
Ardrin had a curious mind to be sure. He understood Oldspeak like he had gone to school as a cub, and seemed to like it when I talked at him. We didn't talk about anything specific, I just jawed on about random things like me, the preacher, the horses, and how glad I was that he had not eaten us, and I asked if he could help us find Papa. He replied in low grunts and growls that I took for either yes or no, and he would occasionally glance sideways to look at me, like I had said something hurtful. I got one of these looks when I mentioned how big he looked compared to the skeleton of the great bear in Springhill. I took it to mean that he could understand me, but when I apologized he made no reply. I was again left with the impression that at the very least he was a secretive bear and I liked that idea very much.
Certainly, the slow pace made for good daydreaming and I was lost in my thoughts more often than not. Being with the bear and thinking on Papa I was often reminded of the legend he told me so many times, the one I'd imagined the night I left Hudson's Landing. The king battled the worbear and the princess travelled through the woods to save him, meeting a lumberman and a hunter along the way, and eventually finding a door with no handle. It was looking less and less like a legend and more like the truth. The lightning bear was certainly Ardrin here, and he was on our side. We only had to find his cave and perhaps we would find a door with no handle and beyond it, my papa! But in the legend Papa had fought the worbear, hadn't he? He never said how he made it past the bear and into Olympus. Well, I had solved that part for myself! I laughed to myself. Or maybe wandering around in the woods, following an enormous bear, had made me insane.
When I retold the legend to the preacher, instead of thinking me crazy, he just looked up at Ardrin and said, "Lady Sam, if you told me that tale a year ago, I would have thought you mad. You would have been clamped in a collar and thrown into the abbey. But here we are. So, who am I again? The hunter?" He said and laughed quietly.
"The hunter, I'd say! I never met a proper lumberman, but I think that maybe Bernard was the lumberman. He had a hammer that used to be an axe and bees rhyme with trees!" I laughed.
"Well, I assume I'm the one with the boyish good looks." He said with a smile. We were certainly in a good mood then, even though our adventure was a strange one, but it seemed like all the strangeness fit together somehow. All the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. Surely this was my destiny.
I held to that belief and for a time it kept me moving, even when I was tired and unsure of our course. But three weeks or more into our forest trek I started to worry and doubt myself, wondering if I had made the right choice in following the beast. It was getting harder to tell which way we were going as the trees were thickening and obscured the sun when it wasn't hidden behind the late summer clouds. Between the preacher and me, we reckoned that we were now south–by-southwest. The preacher made a passing comment, wondering about John Thistle, and I was secretly glad that we were rid of the man. Following him had haunted my dreaming and my waking mind. It was all I could think about. How Papa had gone Beyond, just like John Thistle was doing before my eyes. I pushed him out of my mind and focussed on the way forward.
The days were getting longer since we had left Eastport and Ardrin was becoming an unsteady companion, leading us toward a range of hills that even the preacher couldn't name. The bear was forever stopping to eat, and at first I didn't mind, as I have an appetite healthy enough for three girls. But it wasn't just the eating; he would sleep until noon some days, walk for a mile or two, and then thump down to the ground at dinner time and could not be roused until the next day. That copperhead could have tap danced on his nose and he still wouldn’t wake.
The preacher began to air his concerns with sidelong glances and heavy sighs of disapproval. We were well fed to be sure, and free from basically any danger for the first time since we'd left Gatewater, but how can there be certainties when your guide is a twenty foot bear who only understands a twice-dead language?
The preacher called me over one morning while Ardrin slept. He'd been scouting ahead on Regal. We'd taken turns, scouting, to break up the boredom and to gather more than just a couple of apples for dinner. The preacher dismounted and looked grave, though he forced a smile. I thought maybe he hadn't shot anything.
"There's a low mountain ahead with a bald patch on the top." He opened a saddlebag and threw me a skewered bird wrapped in waxed cloth. "I could see Eastport and the coast. If it's clear when we reach it you can use your monoscope and maybe see the ocean."
"Everything alright?" I asked. I was sure he hadn't had that scratch on his neck before he left.
"To be honest, no. I found a cave, very close. Just large enough for our friend here and it’s in the direction we're travelling."
"What? That's great news! It's his den, you think?" I was borderline ecstatic, this was just what I was hoping for, dreaming about, and wishing on! But I didn't jump out of my boots yet for the preacher had some bad news as well, I could see it in his furrowed brow. "What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"Nothing, it's just a cave is all."
"So no door?" My heart was pounding now.
"I'm sorry. I looked for an hour, but it's not very deep. Who knows, Lady Sam. I'm an old man and I could have missed something." He smiled at me with worried eyes.
"Ha, yeah, maybe." I said, trying to figure my way around it. Maybe he had missed something. Maybe that's not where Ardrin was taking us anyhow. There were caves all over these hills. Thousands, probably. And not a one of them big enough for him, came a nagging voice in my head.
I bounced back and forth all morning between excitement and worry. But most of all I was eager to get there and see it for myself. By and by Ardrin woke—there was no waking him if he didn't want it—and we set out in the direction of the hill with the bald patch. It soon became very clear that he was headed directly for the preacher's cave, which was hidden behind a tall outcropping of silvery stone. We quickly darted ahead of Ardrin, which proved difficult because his pace was quicker today than ever before. He was positively running for that cave like a horse heading back to the barn.
The light crept in for the first few feet of the entrance, but then cut off into a murky blackness. The preacher fired a torch and led us inside. The horses were only too happy to remain behind as we descended the rocky slope into the cave of the lightning bear.
The walls were the same silvery stone, but worn smooth from the passing of generations who had made this cave their home. It was maybe thirty feet deep with a sandy floor littered with branches and leaves. It took only moments for me to realize that it was just a hole; a hole in the earth that would soon house a sleeping bear.
"This has to be it!" I cried. "It just has to be!" I was frantic now.
"Lady Sam." Said the preacher, trying to draw my attention.
"It has to be here!" I screamed at him.
"Sam. It's just a cave. I'm sorry."
And he was right; there was no door. The legend was wrong.
A moment later the outside light was blacked out by the enormous form of Ardrin as he squeezed himself through the opening. We were both shuffled out of the way in a little half circle, retreating from him as he sniffed at the floor, the walls, and the ceiling before collapsing in a heap against the far wall, his great body easily taking up two-thirds of the cave.
The preacher gave me a look of condescension mixed with annoyance, and curled his lips in a frown. I thought he was mad at me so, like a child, I struck first. "Well, this is certainly a fine thing." I whined to him. "He’s hibernating!"
"This is my fault," said the preacher. "I should have insisted that we follow John Thistle or I should have turned us back to Eastport. I let you follow this bear and now we've wasted our chance to see where Thistle has gone. I'm sorry, Lady." He offered me the torch, but I waved it away and gritted my teeth.
"I go my own way. If you'd left I would have gone on without you!" I barked, though I wondered if that was really true.
"It's time to go, Lady Sam. We should make camp and then turn back in the morning. If we can find the road…" He began to walk toward the entrance and then I made him pause.
"I'm staying." I said.
He turned back and held the torch aloft. "To do what? There's nothing here. Look around you, Lady. You're in a cave."
"I know where I am." I whispered, looking down at the sandy floor.
"Do you?" He said sharply.
"Preacher, I'm not leaving until I figure this out. There's a reason I'm here. There's a reason we were led here. You must know that!"
"I admit it was all too perfect. It seemed like there was some kind of fate involved: the abbey, John Thistle, this bear. It's more than anyone will ever believe. But you can't argue with sight. For your own sake, it's time to go."
I did not move, nor look up.
"For your father's sake, it's time to go home!"
But I didn't budge. I sat down quietly on the sandy floor, leaning against the bear’s great paw. "This is not your fault, preacher." I took my hat off and dusted the brim with one hand. "I think I'd like to be alone for a while."
He seemed to regain his composure, perhaps sensing I would come around. And perhaps I would. "Alright Lady, I'll see to the horses. You're sure about the torch?" He looked so kind then and I thought him to be such a selfless man, one who'd follow a stranger on a mad adventure into the great Beyond.
"I'm sure. Thank you, Stephen." He smiled and looked a little sad. I smiled back, though I felt no joy. The preacher picked his way up the slope and I sat in the near darkness, listening to the gentle snoring of the bear.
Perhaps he’ll take us to Papa when he awakes in spring! Perhaps we should gather some branches and make little beds next to him and we should go to sleep!
I kicked my boots off and propped my stocking feet on them and I did what I liked to do best when I didn’t know what else to do. I fell asleep.
I had a most dreadful dream that I awoke to find Ardrin had eaten the preacher, and I found that even deep in my dream I didn’t care. Ardrin had red whiskers from his feast and I sat, horrified, as Ardrin rolled a leg over to me and I began to chew on it. It tasted like maple sap on chicken. When Ardrin finished, he burped before going back to sleep and it was then that the copperhead returned.
It stalked up to Ardrin with a devil-may-care stride and I scrambled to get the Professor out. I finally had him in hand and I aimed carefully for a clean headshot. The copperhead ignored me and kept stepping closer to Ardrin, who was sound asleep. I screamed at the bear, but he could not hear me. The copperhead edged closer and closer to him as I aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. Click! I cocked the hammer and pulled again. Click! I struggled to get my legs underneath me and finally, my legs like stone weights, I stood and ran toward the copperhead in horribly slow motion. But as I ran it felt like I was running through mud and I felt I would never reach the copperhead in time. I pulled the trigger again and every shot was a misfire.
I stood beside the copperhead and physically jammed the muzzle of the gun against its temple and finally felt the explosion of the powder, sending a round directly into him, but he walked on as though nothing happened. The bullets could not harm him. I stood dumbfounded and helpless as the copperhead approached Ardrin and, taking his two hands, squished together the nostrils of the sleeping bear, suffocating him. The bear trembled at first, and then spasmed as he tried to twist his great head, but the copperhead held fast and soon the bear lay still.
I found my feet were rooted to the ground and I could not move just as the evil copperhead turned to face me. His head had no eyes and no mouth, just a surface of vaguely human metal; he stepped toward me and twisted my head in a blink, breaking my neck. I fell and lay with my eyes open, staring into the dead face of the preacher; his detached head laying grotesquely next to me, yet it blinked and opened and closed its mouth like a landed fish.
I awoke confused and upset. My disturbing dream deepened my sense of helplessness and fear. I was still lying against the great fuzzy paw of the bear whose breaths came sometimes in quiet puffs; sometimes in rumbling snores. I picked myself up and stretched out my cramped muscles, trying to shake the nightmare's images from my head. I managed to find my way toward the entrance of the cave, which rounded a short corner, and I instantly saw the night sky lit with stars and little orange flickers from the preacher's fire.
The preacher had his back to me. "How was your sleep?" He asked. He had remarkable hearing for an older man.
"Fine," I said.
"I'm sorry about all this, Sam." He sighed and I only nodded. He gestured for me to sit at his fire and I took him up on it for the chilly night wind was snapping at my coat.
We sat in silence for a time. I did not know what to say and the preacher seemed content to prod the fire, frowning thoughtfully.
"When I was with Isaac in our first years together," he said at last, "he took me on my first pilgrimage to the Great Shrine of Stalwart. This was where he wrote his first essays on the Immortales, inspired, as he said, by the simple and pure people who lived there. I don't expect you know where that is, but its far south of here, south of Georgia. For the most part, the trip was uneventful. The south road along the coast was populated with good folk who still respected the Lord's will. We travelled through Georgia where the dark skinned men live and we met one of their Lords. We took ship, south again, through a bitter storm to the Port of Heavens. Our ship turned west, and when we landed we were instantly beset by wild beasts, slaving bandits, and every manner of mishap a trip could suffer. We awoke one morning to find that thieves had made off with all our possessions, even stealing my tent while I slept. Isaac just laughed and said that Jupiter protected travellers and surely we would meet a windfall around the next bend. Around the next bend was a plague in a great city called Malice that killed half the population. We found no windfall, but piece-by-piece Isaac and I solicited donations from good folk who wished to help us on our pilgrimage. We impressed upon them that it was good luck to help speakers on a journey and the people responded. I ended up with a new tent, Isaac replaced our packs, and we even found a passage on small sea-ship, the kind with a mast and a triangle sail. All so we could cross the final obstacle, The Great Sand. By the time we reached the desert we had travelled for two seasons and the sight of the vast expanse of golden sand struck with me such awe at its enormity. Have you ever seen one?"
I shook my head.
"It is so intensely hot at midday that you can only travel in the morning or the evening. At night, the temperature plunges cold enough to freeze your water pouch. We spent a week or more traversing this lifeless desert, enduring sunburns and being circled by these great long-necked birds that were clearly waiting for us to die. We had plenty of food and water, but the sheer cost and the toll on our bodies was tremendous. I was growing more and more despondent by the hour, but Isaac never wavered. He looked grim at times; he set his jaw and looked up at the horizon and just trudged on. Step after heavy step towards his goal. But, at last, I could not go on. I fell to my knees, completely worn out, and I could not take another step. Isaac was at my side in an instant. He poured his water onto a cloth and wet my lips and he looked at me with such affection that I dreamt he was an angel that had come to save me. 'Stephen' he said, 'this pilgrimage has claimed many lives, but yours will not be among them while I breathe'. He made camp right there and made me a supper of salty soup and dried fish, which, he joked, was an ironic food being that we were so far from the sea. I laid in silence, watching him eat and I was furious at him for taking me on a fool's quest, and furious at myself for failing him. But he was never cross; he never spoke down to me or made me feel silly or inadequate. He just loved me. Without reservation or condition. He told me that he would love me whether I finished the journey or whether I chose to turn back, and he would go with me no matter the choice I made. It was the first time he had ever said it aloud and I trembled to hear it. My emotions were in such turmoil then; full of happiness, fear, elation, and anxiety. I had never been in love before and here it was, pounding at my heart's door. I passed out, I think, fainted, I guess. This was the power of love. Isaac taught me a lesson that day that I did not truly acknowledge until after he died. The lesson was that a good person will do anything for someone they love. When I think on it I often feel dreadful and awfully ashamed of myself because I never had the chance to repay him that feeling; the feeling of being saved."
I did not know what to say. The whole time he spoke he had stared into his little fire with a lost look, the kind a person gets when they’re somewhere else. Tears came to him, slow and quiet, and he wiped them away with his sleeve and then lay down next to his fire, alone with his memories. It was then when I left him; it is always best to bear sadness alone or risk it spreading. I returned to the cave with my heart heavy and made my bed next to the bear to steal his warmth.
I lay there a time wondering about love. I had never been in it, or so I thought. Was it something that you knew you were in or would someone have to tell you? I imagined I would just know. Something strong enough to make the preacher so sad after such a long a time was surely something you couldn't miss. But what if you had it and you walked away from it? What happened then? Did it go away? What if it went away for the other person, but not for you? With these unanswerable questions and with the crooked smile of the rascal Charlie swimming in my head, I eventually fell asleep.
When I awoke the preacher was still sleeping, which was completely unusual. Instead of waking him I found a dry sandy patch near the entrance of the cave and I took out the Professor and carefully cleaned him. I scraped out the barrel and inspected its chambers and pivot rings for rust. I checked the fitting on the hammer and trigger and removed the chamberhouse, inspecting each ignis and ensuring the plug of lard still held watertight. The preacher roused himself while I had the old boy spread out on a cloth in front of me and I nodded a greeting. He looked different somehow. He looked like he was about to say something thoughtful, but decided on a good morning instead, and set about making breakfast. I watched him as I reassembled the Professor. He stoked up his little fire and to my surprise produced a little clutch of eggs from his pack. He must have gathered them overnight somehow, but I didn't ask.
I popped the chamberhouse back into place and gave it a spin. The preacher was going to ask me what my decision was and I still didn't know what to tell him. On one hand I had come all this way... we had come all this way. And he said himself; a good person will do anything for someone they love. To be fair, I wanted to go back. I wanted to see Mama again and I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I wanted to see Charlie again and hold his hand. I wanted Master to grow fat in a pasture and never again be near a violent death. I wanted all of these things and I wanted Papa back at the same time. The two desires had been at war inside me, each side celebrating its victories and yet neither coming close to defeat. Just when I had finally set about on one course with a promise of no regret, I was handed a wall. A literal wall in my case: one of stone that had no door.
I think, when the preacher told me his story about love, he meant to show me that I had done a good thing, even if I hadn't actually found my papa. Who else would go so far with only the slimmest hope of a happy ending? Perhaps I should be content that I had done all I could. I had responsibilities. I was supposed to be governess, if they would still have me. It was the hardest thing I had yet done, but I turned to the preacher and said, "Where shall we go?"
To his credit he did not act surprised. "We should head back to the road." He said, pointing north. "From there, Eastport. We can take a ship to avoid the roads. We can be in Gatewater before middle autumn." I felt a lump of shame in my guts.
It was not a great plan, but it was better than nothing. The preacher must have saw the shame on my face. The shame of being so wrong and wasting so much precious time on this fool's quest. This bear was special, smart, and an incredible animal. But that was all. I had believed in providence, fate, and destiny; childish feelings that drove me to believe in a fantasy.
"Go and take a walk before we leave." He said, and I turned without answering and went back into the den.
It took my eyes several seconds to adjust to the dimness, but I could hear the great Ardrin slowly breathing in the darkness. I held a hand up to the wall and used it to guide me down into the cave. By and by the darkness faded from my vision and I stood at the face of the bear. I wished to say something… to tell him good-bye. I wished to think him my friend, and I knew there would be little chance of seeing him again. I wanted to believe so badly that he was the bear of my papa's legend, but I was a grown-up now. It was time to stop believing in legends.
I stepped up to his great muzzle and listened to him breathing, slowly taking in the smell of his fur and wishing I could wake him to say good-bye. I saw again the pretty little lightning bolt that scattered down his tusk and I felt so foolish that I had felt so sure. I decided to make my good-bye quick before my feelings took over once again. I reached up to stroke the top of his muzzle, but I accidentally poked him in the eye. It was wet on my finger and I drew my hand back quickly, hoping he would not wake in a rage and eat me for an intruder. I held my breath and stood stone still, but he did not wake. Instead, he took a great breath and let out a long sigh, half growling in a contented way. He picked up one of his great paws and shifted his mountainous body to one side and lay again, still in his slumber.
I thought about hugging him, but I didn't want to risk waking him. I stepped over his huge paw, the one I had lately used as a pillow, and I was about to make my way out when my boot came down where Ardrin's paw had been. Instead of the soft sand of the cave floor, I stepped on something hard and flat. I was greatly surprised and I stamped my heel down on top of it and it rang like a watch-bell beneath my feet.
I stooped to my knees and hurriedly wiped the layer of sand away. Why was there a piece of metal buried under the sand in this bear’s den? I thought. The piece of metal was dull gray and perfectly flat with grooved edges. I tried to grip the edges to lift it, but it was fastened tight to a rock on the cave floor. How curious! I thought again. I moved my hands across the surface and I was completely perplexed with what Ardrin had uncovered.
"Preacher!" I called toward the daylight. "Preacher! I've found something!"
He stepped in too quickly and slid down the little rocky slope, landing on his bum and cussing.
"Lady? Where are you?"
"Over here! Just walk straight over." I was wild with excitement.
"What is it?" The preacher said as he found me and knelt down, touching the metal piece with his hands and gasping out a little noise. "Why, it is a trap door!"
"I knew that." I said and I was glad for the dimness that covered my blushing. "How does it open?"
"I think the question is, my lady, if it should be opened." He replied quietly. Then he sighed and looked from the door to me and then to the great slumbering bear and he seemed to resign himself to our rediscovered destiny. "Can it be lifted from the sides?"
I smiled, "No, it’s stuck fast to the rock. I can’t feel anything on its surface."
"Let us clear up the sand then." He said and we both began to wipe the sand away from the face of the door. The square surface was four feet to a side and perfectly smooth, except for a shallow groove about the width of my little finger that ran along the surface on all four sides. I ran my finger down the groove and scooped out the sand. One corner of the groove, the one nearest me, was a little circular indent. All the other corners were sharp. Besides that, I didn't know what to do with them and I didn't know what I was looking for. A handle or something, I guess.
"What did the legend say about the door?" Asked the preacher.
"There was a saying on the door. Something written on it." I said and scrunched up my eyebrows trying to remember. "What did it say! Come on, Samantha!"
The preacher went back to the door and tried to clear the sand away from the outside, but it was imbedded into solid rock. There was not even a hinge, and there was certainly nothing written on its surface.
Why couldn't I think of the saying? I had imagined that legend a thousand thousand times and here I was, at the door to Olympus, and my papa inside, sitting on a pile of treasure while I was mule-brained.
"Maybe you could shoot it open." Mused the preacher.
As a joke and in my excitement I reached for the Professor and the preacher put his hand up with wide eyes. I just smiled at him and he realized with a smile of his own that I was only kidding. I rested my hand on the Professor though, and adjusted the belt so it sat up higher over my chest and the barrel rested just over my heart. It was then when a flash of memory went through my head. "To open this door, pay with your heart!" I yelled, making the preacher jump.
"In the legend, the princess draws the names of the people she loves onto the face of the door and it opens." The preacher squinted a little and turned his head to look sidelong at me.
"Well, I don't know!" I said. "It's worth a try."
"I've never heard of a door that opens this way."
I gave him a playful frown and shooed him out of the way so I could crouch over the door. "I shall draw 'Stephen' last!"
I bent over the door and began to trace the names of my family with my trigger finger. I started with Papa and then Mama, and then Master, Ginny, Stephen, and to finish off, after a sideways glance at the preacher, with Charlie's name. I sat back with a feeling of great expectation, but nothing happened. I cocked my head and leaned forward to try again.
I do not know how or why, but the little medallion that Beef had given me so many months ago happened to be hanging loose around my neck, swinging. As I drew closer to the corner of the door, the medallion ceased hanging loosely and began to pull towards the circular indentation, as if by magic. I was frightened to see the coin behave as such, but I so badly wanted that door to open that I quickly slipped the string from around my neck and, without touching the coin; I dangled the necklace over the door. It began to spin and spin faster and faster and then it popped out of my hand and landed perfectly into the circular indent.
All at once a sound, like a blasting of a great war horn before battle, tore through the cave and we clapped our hands to our ears, bracing ourselves against it. Then a brilliant emerald light leapt out from the grooves of the door and nearly blinded us. The preacher and I jumped back as it groaned and strained. The sand danced around our feet and I looked at the bear who was all lit up in bright green. He was absolutely out cold.
The horn ceased and the light lost its brilliance, but the door still strained and the cave floor shook. Finally, with a great sucking of air, the door cracked open and began to swing upwards. I drew the Professor and the preacher grasped his belt dagger to confront whatever force opened the door. As the door opened fully and came to rest on the sand, we noticed it was remarkably thick, the width of my hand at least. We stayed ready for a minute or more, waiting for an ambush, but none came. I stepped up to the hole and peered down into a pale green light that was not strong enough to light the bottom of the shaft. On one of the walls below, protrusions of metal, or what looked like metal, formed a ladder. I looked at the preacher and he gave me a look I had learned all too well: something between 'don't go down there' and 'this is going to end badly.'
"Can you make a torch?" I asked him. He didn't reply, he only grit his teeth and went outside to fashion us one. He was getting good at going along with my dangerous schemes.
He was back in a minute with a rude torch, just a branch with a rag wrapped around its end. As he was sparking it I noticed too late that he had used one of my spare socks as a topper. The torch caught and flamed and he looked at me and instantly said, "Last time it was my sock. It's your turn."
I holstered the Professor and prepared to climb down. The preacher went first, after a short debate that I let him win, and in a moment we were descending into the eerie green light that seemed to cling to the walls. We were overwhelmed by a musty and dank odour, like mouldy hay mixed with the smoke from our torch that clouded around us as we made our way down. The descent was brief; owing to my sweaty hands, I slipped on a rung and fell the last third of the way. I landed on the preacher and we collapsed in a great cloud of dust that choked us and left us hacking. The sock torch snuffed out and we found ourselves in the dim light, scantly lit by the emerald glow from the shaft above us, and surrounded by ancient dust. I scanned the darkness with the point of the Professor, but only to make myself feel better as I certainly couldn't see anything beyond an arm's reach. The room lit up for a split second when sparks shot from the preacher's flint and when he struck again the torch sputtered back to life.
We stood in a small, empty room that was unfurnished, except for several blank picture frames that hung on the walls. There was a door opposite to us that looked flat, just like the hatch we came through. There was no knob or other normal way to open it, but when I walked over and ran my hands along it a booming female voice came from above us. I jumped about six feet out of my skin and spun around, gun in hand. The voice said three words and then ceased. I looked at the preacher, who held his dagger out, and he waved the torch around us in a wide arc, but there was no one there. The voice boomed again with the same three words. I did not understand them and the preacher looked lost as well. It sounded like flama, flama, flama.
"What is it?" I screamed too loudly as the voice cut off, halfway through my yelp, leaving me yelling over nothing.
"I don't know." The preacher said. He was quite calm considering we were being screeched at by some banshee from beyond the walls.
"Should we get out of here?" I started to say, but too quiet this time as the voice screeched again, "Flama, flama, flama."
The preacher made for the hatchway and I followed, but before I got two paces the whole room erupted in a spray of icy water. There must have been an underground spring, I thought, knowing that it didn't make sense. The preacher's torch was instantly snuffed and I tried my best to cover my gun to keep the powder dry as I headed for the hatchway to escape the water. The preacher grabbed me and began to hoist me up the ladder when the spray ceased and the whole room lit up like a summer’s day, filling the room with a soft white light. The preacher put me down and we both turned and looked around this now watery room. I shook out my hair, which was drenched, and the preacher picked up his dead torch.
He held it up. "Flamma," he said.
"Fire!" I said. "Flamma is the Oldspeak for fire. So the walls are not caving in? The bitch just wanted us to put our torch out?"
"Language, Lady Sam,” he said absently, deep in thought and studying the walls of this room. "I admit, I don't understand it."
"Neither do I, but we should ask her. Hey, you!" I shouted, but there was no reply. The walls of the room were sparkling clean after the sudden bath and I got curious to see if the door would open now that the room was lit up. There was still no handle, nor was there an edge to grip onto; the door was sunk into the wall and I could not squeeze my fingers around it.
"Open up!" I yelled at the door. The preacher was too busy praying about something to notice. I think the lights spooked him. They would have spooked me too, I guess, but Papa had an electricity lamp in his workshop. It was a hand crank that required near constant attention, but it heated up a big coiled wire that grew hot and lit the whole shop up like a summer's afternoon. Of course, you can guess who had to do most of the cranking. This sort of simple thing was strictly outlawed, so I kept that fact to myself.
I gave that steel door a kick and it rang loud, like a bell with a broken knocker.
"Lady, please!" Called the preacher.
"We need to get this door open, help me."
"Where is this light coming from?" He asked, his voice becoming shrill.
"Lucem superam, preacher. I don’t know. Come help me, will you?"
"This is very bad, Lady. I do not know why I continue to follow you. This light is ghostly.” He was beginning to pant. I’d never seen the preacher this frightened. Why he’d faced old Ardrin with more fortitude then this empty room. But he answered my question with a frustrated outburst. “And I simply hate being under the earth!" He cried.
"Answers, preacher, you want answers." I blurted, half mad. I don’t know what made me say it, but it struck a chord and the preacher snatched his dagger and shoved it into the crack of the door, prying hard.
I smiled, "Thank you, sir." But the door would not budge and it damn near broke the preacher's dagger tip. For the better part of a half hour we kicked and pried at that door, but nothing happened. Finally, I started cussing at it, which made the preacher frown so I started cussing in Oldspeak instead.
Not two seconds later the voice kicked back in, startling the two of us. I could not make out the voice this time; it wasn't clear, but scratchy, and it switched from a nice ladies voice to a deep garbled hellish voice before switching back again.
"Open the door!" I yelled back, but nothing replied, then a spark went off in my head. I don't know why I had not thought of it before, but I blame my soaking head of hair for shorting out my thinking bits.
Like a magic spell, the door slid sideways, quickly and quietly, disappearing into the wall and leaving no mark of its former place. As we passed into the next chamber, I think my little head nearly popped off as we entered that room, for it was full of things I had never before seen. We stood upon a wide metal landing with great turning staircases on each side that wound down, perhaps twenty yards, to an enormous room below that held every imaginable piece of machinery. The lights had come on in this room too, but spotty and some flickered like a candle in a wind. The walls and roof were the same silvery rock as the cave above us, but the floor was man-made. The far end of the room was almost lost in the shadows and the floor was covered in row upon row of tables and desks with metal arms: hooks, iron cabinets, and cables hanging from every surface. Hundreds of thin window frames sat atop the desks and hung from the walls, aiming every which way. They were all rectangular and shiny silver. I was beside myself and a little giddy at the sheer enormity of the thing. Like the first time you try to fathom how wide the ocean is by standing on the beach. The preacher, who had been a most stalwart companion, despite his occasional grumblings, now shook like a leaf in a breeze.
I wasn't scared. This was my Olympus. I had come a very long way to get to this place, and in this moment of time I saw what destiny had in store for me in this underground tomb. I had found Bernard and Charlie in Gatewater, and I had found the preacher at the abbey, which led me to Eastport and to the man John Thistle, who led me to the great bear Ardrin, who now slumbered peacefully above my head. Everything in the legend was true.
With a fresh dose of courage from thinking about my destiny, I descended the stairs to the right, as Papa always talked about getting off on the right foot. The preacher followed, but slowly, muttering to himself and waving the torch like a weapon at every shadow. I dared not touch the great cranes and pulleys and metal arms that hung overhead; some still suspending crates yards off the floor. I tried to stick to the lighted areas, but I got distracted and ended up crawling behind a stack of barrels when I thought I saw something shiny on the ground. It was nothing but a bit of metal wrapping that bent and then smoothed itself out flat. I shoved it into my pocket and made my way back to the narrow walkway between the desks. I had to duck under a bundle of strangely textured ropes and when I did, I looked down and I saw that the floor was so dusty I was leaving boot prints. Big boot prints too, by the look of things, far too big to be mine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight and an awful shiver rolled up my back to my scalp. We were not alone.
"Preacher, look!" I said and he spun around half-wild, torch and dagger at the ready.
"Who's there!" He shouted.
"The boot prints. They go that way." I pointed to the far end of the room where a platform was raised a few steps off of the floor.
"I feel like I can't breathe. The air is thin. Thinner than it should be. Are you okay?" The preacher was getting panicky and I wondered if I should send him back. "There's someone here, Sam. I can feel it." He seemed to focus more, squinting into the shadows as the lights above us sparked on and off like a lightning storm.
Despite his panic I had learned to trust his instinct for danger.
Without asking, the Professor was in my hand, heavy and comforting. I looked at the boot prints and whispered a little prayer, to who I did not know. We crept along, silent as mice, the Professor leading the way, and the preacher walking backwards and watching our rear. If the machinery before had been creepy in the dimness and uncertainty, it was now downright menacing. Every crate and metal hook seemed to reach out and touch me and I had to stop several times to take deep breaths as the preacher's danger sense was catching.
As I approached the raised platform the lights flickered and pulsed brighter than before. The platform was circular and three steps up from the floor. On the top step, two large pillars thrust out of the floor, curving high overhead so they criss-crossed. Uncountable cables, ropes, and wires ran the length of the room and connected to these two thick and darkly coloured pillars. They were yards across at the base and soared into the air, disappearing into the ceiling, and decorated with flickering lights and glowing bits that gave the raised platform a pretty, almost serene air. I, however, was anything but serene. I was scared. Borderline terrified. Two steps from petrified.
I took a deep breath and focused on the boot prints. I had to find where they led no matter how much this place made my neck hairs stand up. I crept along following each one right up to a little desk that stood in front of the platform. It was blanketed in the same filth that layered itself on every surface in this ghostly place. Under the dust the desk was covered with switches and buttons, all labelled with little symbols I couldn't read. I grew bold and searched around the platform, hoping the boot prints would lead me further, but they were simply gone. Gone Beyond.
"What is it?" Whispered the preacher, his voice piercing me, sending a shiver up my spine.
"The boot prints disappear on this platform." I returned to the little panel and considered flipping the switches. But which one? I didn't know what any of them did and Gods know I could get myself in trouble fast.
I flipped the first switch on the top row and a great horn sounded from somewhere above, reverberating off the walls and crashing into me, rumbling in my chest. I slapped the switch back up and the sound quit. The preacher was at my shoulder in an instant and I turned to him to apologize for ruining his hearing, but when I did, I had only a sliver of time to reckon why the preacher did not look like himself as I was thrown aside like an old hat, flying through the air and thudding into an ancient crane before smashing onto my face on the cold stone floor.
The Professor was gone, flung from my hand, and I put my hand to my head and tried to quiet my singing head. My neck and back were throbbing with an unnatural pain. My right knee was at an odd angle and I could feel hot blood run down my face, dripping onto the floor. I blinked hard, like waking from a nightmare, and I had a single thought. He's going to have to do better than that.
I pushed myself up to my knees, my right flaring in pain with blood streaming down my face and staining my shirt. The Professor was to my right and I grabbed him and slammed him back into my holster.
My head pounded as I forced myself up to face my attacker. Streaks of lightning flashed across the chamber and I threw a hand up over my eyes as my head sung again with a chorus of pain.
Standing at the little switch desk, now twenty yards away, was the naked form of the copperhead. Dark hair slicked over, a long tear across his arm exposing gold coloured metal. His hands worked furiously over the panel. Little lights blinked on and off and a deep whirring sound began to pulse out of the pillars that wound their way up to the ceiling. More sparks and more lightning flashed around us, telling me I had little time. Whatever this monster was trying to do, it had to be stopped.
I stepped forward and drew the Professor.
"Hey, you son of teching whore!" I cussed.
He ignored me and kept working away on the little panel. Obviously talking wasn't working. I raised the Professor and cocked the hammer.
Instantly the lights went out and I felt a rush of panic. I uselessly scanned the inky blackness with my gun, unsure of which direction I was facing. The whirring sound grew louder and faster, like a slinger hurling a bullet, but on an enormous scale. It grew and it grew and I whirled around, feeling someone or something behind me, around me, and everywhere at once. A great light from behind me burst forth, illuminating the length of the great Tech tomb.
The lights returned to their splashy pulsing. The copperhead was gone.
I tore my scarf from my body and wiped the blood from my face. I crept toward the desk, looking up and around and spinning wildly, knowing the copperhead must be there, watching, waiting. I backed up to the platform, sweeping the length of the chamber with the Professor, wondering vaguely if this Tech tomb would become my own tomb.
I bumped into the desk and was about to turn when I heard a voice from behind me, like an echo from my past. A voice I had wished to hear as I lay awake under starlit skies a hundred hundred nights since I left home.
"Is that my coat?"
I spun and looked and felt my heart forget to beat. My mouth gaped, struck dumb with shock so that I just stood there rooted to the Earth like an old tree. There he was. Papa looked me up and down and then the corner of his mouth rose in an upward half-smile, a smile I had dreamt of for so many long months.
I do not recall much of the next few minutes, but I recall the world being fuzzy at the borders and my legs felt like they would not support their own boots, let alone my body. I grasped at the panel to keep upright and sucked in four breaths worth of air at once. I dropped the Professor to the ground with a clang, and I barely heard it fall. I laughed and cried and ran to him and hugged him so tightly that I thought I would squeeze him into me. He petted my head and I sucked in a breath and started blubbering like a girl with a broken heart on dance night.
He whispered little things while I choked and stammered and shuddered, trying to comprehend if I was awake or dreaming, alive or dead.
He smelled like cedar and camp smoke and it took me back to the thousand nights we spent across a fire, just talking; talking about anything. I had never realized how close I was to losing it all. Now that I had found him again I wanted to squeeze him so tight, but my hands were tingling and I realized I was sobbing so hard I wasn’t breathing all that much, but I did not care. Papa. Papa was mine at last.
He grasped my shoulders and held me at arm's length and looked me up and down like he had never seen me before. I smiled and wiped away my tears and snot, wishing that we could go home and be a family again. He squinted and smiled and looked like he might shed tears as well, but he did not. Instead, with a tiny quake in his voice, he wiped my bloody forehead and said, "He's here.” It didn't register in my head. I thought he was talking about himself.
"Where have you been?" I asked a little more harshly than I meant.
"That's a long tale, Sam. And some of it you may not understand quite yet. Where did he go?"
I hugged him again like I wanted to hug him forever, but he knelt down to me and looked very serious. "Samantha! Where did he go?"
I blinked myself back to reality. "I don't know. He was at the panel and then the light came and when I could see again he was gone, but you were here. Where's my gun?" I asked and spun around to grab the Professor up from the floor. I felt slightly ashamed that I had dumped him down onto the ground. Papa would have had the right mind to holster it.
"Where's the preacher?" I said with a drop in my guts. I had forgotten all about him!
"Preacher!" I shouted and jumped from the platform, running to where I'd seen him last. There was no torchlight. Gods, how could I have forgotten him!
"Who's the preacher?"
"He came with me, he helped me find you! He must have been attacked before me, we must find him!" I shouted.
Papa came over and began looking amongst the crates and desks and cases. We looked everywhere around the pillars, but there was no sign of him. He'd vanished. I looked at Papa with wide eyes and had a flash of memory bolt through my head. My dream! In my dream the copperhead had killed the preacher and then killed Ardrin!
"We must go back up! Come on!" I yelled.
I ran and Papa ran behind me, kicking up dust down the long, filthy walkway. In a moment, we flew up the stairs and into the little room. I grasped the cold rungs of the ladder and climbed toward the stream of cold, gray light above.
The moment my head breached the hatchway a rush of cold air blew into my face and a sick shiver ran down my spine. My nightmare had come to life. The preacher's face was inches from the hatch and his wide eyes stared through mine. His mouth was open, slack. He was dead. I slowly climbed the last rung and peered over the head of my dear friend when I saw the naked form of the foul copperhead step quietly across the cave floor, silently creeping toward the great sleeping bear.
I was swimming. Suddenly my coat was ten times too big and my hands felt thick and would not answer. I tried to call out, but my throat was so dry nothing came but the wind. With the last rung ascended I shut my eyes tight and pulled as hard as I could, willing myself up to stop a second murder by this monstrous thing. The copperhead was close now, leaning over Ardrin and preparing to suffocate him while he slumbered. I could see it in slow motion as a confusion of large strips of flesh had torn away from the copperhead’s back, revealing bright copper wires and flashes of metal. I was standing now, the breeze blowing back my coat and whipping my hair away from my face. There was no time to think or be afraid. Papa was beside me and I heard him cuss beneath his breath.
"Hey!" I called and the devil stopped abruptly mid-step. It turned slowly, so slowly, and I unsnapped the Professor.
"In cor, filia." Whispered Papa. The heart, daughter. Aim for the heart. The fog in my head rushed away and my vision became singularly focused on the copperhead and a tiny patch of torn flesh in the dead center of his chest, a tiny glint, and a small flash of metal.
In a heart's breath, faster than I'd ever moved before, I skinned the Professor and fired.
I did not feel the leather holster under my hand, nor the warm grip or sharp trigger. I did not hear the bark or feel the kick, nor the thud of jamming my friend back home. The flash from the muzzle lit up the cave and momentarily blinded me. When my eyes came back, I saw the thing stumble once, then, with a surprised, almost scared expression, he pitched forward into the sandy cave floor and lay still.
Papa raced to the copperhead and tore at a hole in his back, pulling wires and pieces of half torn metal free from the thing. I did not know his purpose, but I dropped to my knees and rolled the preacher onto his back. He had a huge gash on the side of his head so that the white of his skull showed through. He had bled a great deal and I was so full of emotion that I almost lost control. I looked down into the preacher’s soft blue eyes and I felt a great sadness. I had regained one great man, but I had lost another.
"Oh, preacher." I whispered. "Stephen, why did I forget about you?" I sat down on the sandy floor and put my chin on my knees, wishing I had been faster, wishing I had listened to my nightmare omen. Papa tore free something small and black from the copperhead and then came over and knelt next to the preacher. He laid his ear close to the preacher's mouth and was quiet, watching the preacher's chest. He was so quiet I perked my head up and watched him.
"He is not dead." He said at last and I shot up to my feet.
"What do you mean? His head is split! He ain't breathin’!"
"He is breathing, but barely. He's not conscious, but he's still here. Come help me. We have to take him down the ladder; I can dress his injury there."
As quickly as we could, and me trying my best to help, we lowered the preacher—who was positively soaked in blood—down the ladder and into the Tech tomb. Papa laid him on a table, careful to keep his head wound from getting dirty. I assisted as best I could, which meant racing around the great tomb and throwing open cases, chests, and crates looking for the equipment that Papa tried to describe to me. It reminded me of our days back in his basement laboratorium when I would fetch him his vices and wrenches and straps and such. It might have been fun, like old times, except for our purpose. Each time I returned the preacher looked worse and paler until the white of the table looked darker than he.
An hour or more later, the preacher was still on the precipice of death and Papa was becoming more frazzled. He sewed up the head wound; cleaning the sand out of it as best he could, but just when he finished stitching the preacher stopped breathing and went still. Papa pounded hard on the preacher's chest. I stepped absently around the table, trying to find a little patch of darkness in which to disappear, to escape the end of the poor man's life. Finally, after the hundredth punch, the preacher's chest rose on its own, but barely, and it seemed like each rise would be his last.
I was expecting Papa to resign himself to the man's death, even though I desperately wanted the preacher to live. I half wished Papa would stop, just to let the dying man go, but instead he took a deep breath and looked at me hard and long. I gritted my teeth and waited for something bad to happen. Papa looked down at me and said, "If you want him to live, I must take him back through the gate."
"The machine I came through. I can take him back there and save him."
"Well, why did we not do that in the first place?" I snapped.
He sighed and looked away. "Because someone has to stay behind and throw the switch."
And there it was. I guess I could have said and done a thousand terrible things. I could have yelled and screamed and cried, and I could have flopped to the floor with a broken heart. I could have shot the guts out of that machine to keep Papa from going away again, from leaving me again. And a year ago, I would have. I would have thrown a childish tantrum or pleaded. I would have stamped my boot and demanded I get my way, but something inside of me said no. Instead, deep down, I felt a strange sort of peace. A bit of resignation, like at the end of a good book when the story is done and the hero is a hero and the innocents are saved, when love conquers all and truth and justice win the day. Now I’d answered a question I had asked myself when that spoiled little girl rode out in the rain on an impossible quest: how far would I go to save my dear Papa? So far that I would lose him all over again to know he was safe. I simply looked up at my papa, into his sad, soulful eyes and said, "Okay."
I helped him haul the preacher as best I could, and we laid him gently on the platform. Papa went to the control panel and began to work the buttons and switches until he turned to me, pointed out a switch and said, "When we're ready, flip this switch."
"When will you come back?" I asked.
He grabbed my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. "I swear to you, I will see you again. You will always be my little girl." He wiped snot from his nose as he said this, and I did likewise. Mama would have had a fit.
I took my newfound courage and stepped away from my dear Papa and prepared to send him away to the great Beyond. To undo voluntarily what had taken me months to do. Papa ascended the platform, knelt over the preacher, and held his injured head.
He looked up at me. He looked sad.
I flipped the switch.
Again the lights went out. Again the great whirring started and again the wind swirled around me, blowing my hair back and filling the room with a cloud of foul dust. Again the snap of searing light burst forth from the platform. And I ran. I ran for the platform, and with a great effort threw myself into the ball of searing light that was standing where Papa stood. I was going with him.
I would like to acknowledge the following people who helped make this book possible:
My wonderful wife Ash and our beautiful daughter Abby. You were my daily inspiration and this book would not exist without your help. Your inexhaustible depths of patience will be needed again when I start on book 2!
My Mom and Dad and all my family members who always believed I could do so much more than I ever imagined and encouraged me every step of the way.
My excellent editor Eileen Brettner and my proof-reader Sheena Delisle. I cannot recommend them enough. Eileen you were my co-author more than my editor and this book is as much yours as it is mine.
Amanda Myrfield who paved the way for me and showed that it is possible to live the dream.
Kelly MacFarlane and Christopher S Mackay, University of Alberta professors, for selflessly offering their time and expertise with my Latin translations.
And for everyone else that read early drafts and encouraged me along the way, thank you!
About the AuthorBrian Douglas Rutherford lives with his wife and daughter in Alberta, Canada where he works as a police officer. When he isn't writing he enjoys spending time with his family and their three dogs and two horses. This is Brian's first novel.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, B Douglas RutherfordWrite a Review