Majestic was the name men had given this mountain at the base of the River Arenton. The dwarves called it Khresh in their ancient tongue, and the elves called it Dwrmynneth, or old mountain. Felanar had long ago noticed that elves had a habit of naming objects in their most literal way possible, but when he pointed this out to Alessa as they climbed the slopes of Majestic, she looked at him blankly as if trying to understand why this would be considered noteworthy.
They had been climbing for several hours along the northern flank of the mountain. Dolen was not certain where the mine entrance would be found, but he presumed his ancient ancestors would have made use of the river's proximity to trade material with the peoples of the land further north. The people of that day, said Alessa, were men from Argan and the east who had settled along what is now the Elven Plain, back when the elves allowed such settlements so close to Elaria.
Alessa looked down and toward the north from time to time to see how close their pursuers were to the mountain. She gestured to the others to look at one point and, following her outstretched arm, they saw clearly the men on horseback almost at the base of the mountain. There were twelve men on twelve horses, not the ten that Alessa had thought. They were too far away to make out detailed features, but even at this distance it was clear these were men, not saarks. There was no doubt: these trackers came from the autarch.
“Do you think they can see us on the mountain face?” asked Felanar of Alessa.
“At times, yes,” she said. “There are moments when we are hid by rocks and trees, but at other times we must stand out like insects on a hut wall.”
“How much success are you having, Dolen?” Felanar turned to the dwarf who was studying the ground.
“I see no trail,” he answered without looking up, “but with so much time passing, surprised I am not. Still I think the most likely place for an entrance is farther in this direction. Perhaps beyond that ridge over there.”
“Keep climbing then,” said Kara. “If they can track us over desert, rock, and water, they will have no trouble tracking us on a mountain. Let them see us climbing. It is the mine trail that we put our hopes in.”
“In addition,” said Alessa brightly, “they will have to leave their horses once the reach the mountain base. From then on we travel at the same speed and we have a head start.”
They continued searching for an entrance. The day was drawing to a close and dusk was settling around them. As Alessa looked behind her she saw their pursuers lighting torches and beginning to climb after hitching their horses to trees near the base. It was a race on foot now and they had a several-hour lead. With the light fading, Dolen crossed the ridge and seemed satisfied.
“Aye, this is the place where an entrance should be,” he said, pointing toward a wide and level platform cut into the mountain face. It was several hundred yards ahead of them and they scrambled toward it. They wanted to reach the entrance while there was still some light. Another night spent in the open did not appeal to them.
As they walked over the rocky ledges and pathways along the mountainside, Dolen continued to look for an entrance. Kara looked down toward the river that stretched northward, its water sparkling in the sunset, and thought wistfully that at the end of that water lay Elaria and safety. It seemed so close to her from this height that she sighed audibly, catching her brother's attention.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she replied, and explained what she had been thinking.
“If only we had wings,” said Felanar.
“I'm beginning to think they could track us through the air itself,” Kara said.
Dolen let out a cry of delight and the others turned toward him.
“There!” he cried, pointing toward the rock face directly ahead. They climbed the last few yards until they stood upon a flat surface cut into the slope of the mountain. It was old and undisturbed and overgrown, but there was no doubt it had been cut. It was not a natural feature. They walked swiftly along the flat ground. It was well-trampled down with time, and showed that it had been once clear of debris but over the centuries rocks had fallen upon its surface here and there. They saw no sign of life in the ground. Alessa allowed them to create a torch in order to see better. She felt that last ridge hid them from sight for now, but they needed to hurry before their pursuers crossed the ridge line themselves.
Dolen walked up the path to where it widened out the most and came to the face of the mountain as it resumed its climb. Before him lay what had once been an open and reinforced entrance that could allow five dwarves abreast to walk across its threshold. Now the entrance was overgrown with brush and plant life, and one of the beams along the ceiling of the entrance had rotted away until it had collapsed across the middle of the doorway.
“An open entrance without a door or lock?” asked Felanar.
“So was the way of my people when in a land without enemies,” said the dwarf proudly. “We had no fear of violence against us, and we traded fairly all that we found in the mountains, so why would we fear theft? Still,” he added, “those were olden days and olden ways.”
“It is safe to enter?” asked Alessa. “We should be moving forward.”
“Aye,” said Dolen, “as far as I can tell the tunnel holds despite the appearance of that beam. What we find beyond this entranceway I cannot say, but if the reports of my ancient people are to be believed, I think we can trust the tunnels to be passable for the most part, even at this length of time.”
“Then let us make a torch for each of us and go in,” said Felanar.
They took some thick branches they had been carrying for this purpose from the forest at the base of the mountain and lit three more torches. With a last glance behind her in the fading light, Alessa confirmed that no one had crossed the ridge yet and their passage into the tunnel would be unseen.
“They may not realize why we were climbing the mountain,” said Felanar to the elf.
“I hope not,” she said, “although our climbing it instead of walking around it might make them wonder.”
“They might think we were taking a shortcut. Since they were so close to us, after all, they might think we panicked and tried to go over the mountain.”
“Perhaps,” said Alessa, “and soon the darkness will cover our tracks well, but I have learned not to assume too much with these Hírrik Jakkír. I will feel better once we are in a maze of passageways, led by an able dwarf.”
“I too will feel better once I am underground,” said Dolen, “so let us be off.”
With that the four of them, torches held aloft, walked across the mine threshold and into the darkness within. The ground continued to be smooth as they walked the first few feet into the mine. They walked around that fallen shaft, but otherwise it was empty and undisturbed. Rocks that had fallen along the path on the outside had not made their way inside. On the left wall about ten feet into the mine was a carved notice that Dolen stopped to read.
“Hmm...it is in the ancient tongue,” he said softly, holding his torch near the inscription to read it. “'Here is Khresh,' that much I can read at the beginning, and it says something about its founding. Alas that my father is not here with me for he knew the ancient tongue well and I had yet to learn it to the same degree. This I will study hard when I return to Khrea.”
The inscription had been carved into the rock face of the wall, and was still in readable condition if one knew the language. It was covered with a fine dust, and a couple of places saw the letters crumbled, and along the right side of the message there was a gash that separated some of the letters by a few inches. Perhaps an earthquake in the past had caused this to happen. Dolen kept trying to interpret the message, and had figured out enough to realize that it was a message of welcome to visitors, when Alessa suggested they move much farther along the passageways, and certainly out of sight of the entrance, which still showed dusk in the distance.
“Our torches will be like beacons as long as we are in line of sight,” she urged. They moved onward.
From the entranceway they moved in a straight line forward for several hundred yards, and then they found themselves facing a fork in the passage. To the left the tunnel continued more or less in a straight line forward as far as they could see, but the right passage started downward.
“Which way?” asked Kara.
“Which way would our pursuers expect us to take?” asked Alessa. “I think the straight way.”
“Aye,” said Dolen, “they would not expect us to be exploring the mines so much as trying to cut through to the other side.”
“And that is even assuming they follow us inside the mines at all,” said Felanar. “We might have evaded them this time. Alessa, are they still following us?”
“I continue to listen, but I would not expect them to reach the mine entrance until another couple of hours have passed. I will let you know when and if I hear anything, of that you can be assured. I am on my guard at all times on this journey. What we must decide in the meantime is which way to take, assuming they do manage to follow us into the mines. I think if we descend we will be more likely to throw them off. Dolen, you say you can find your way no matter how twisty the trail underground. But will we come to a shaftway that leads to a dead end?”
“It would be unlike my people,” said the dwarf. “Even the last tunnel in would have, at its end, a cut through to a neighboring shaft. We dwarves never leave ourselves cut off underground without at least a couple of ways to travel.”
“Then let us explore the mine to the right,” said Felanar, and off they went.
The tunnel started downward on a gradual slope at first, and then as it began to curve back to the left it became steeper. Dolen's height was fine for the tunnel, but the other three occasionally found themselves ducking as the ceiling was made more for dwarves than others. The passage straightened out and became more level after a time, but they saw nothing of note as they walked. This was an ancient tunnel that had been smoothed out by centuries of activity. Their torches showed nothing more than a smooth floor covered in dust and a somewhat less smooth ceiling and walls. Nothing else was to be seen, and as often as Alessa tried to listen she heard no sound other than the one they were making.
As Dolen had predicted, they soon came to an intersection of tunnels and once again had a choice of direction. They paused here to decide, finally picked the left tunnel for no greater reason than the right tunnel looked slightly more covered in dust, and soon found themselves climbing higher. After a short walk another intersection appeared, this time with three different passageways leading off the main path. At Dolen's instructions they kept going and soon found yet another set of tunnels branching off.
“How are you doing keeping track of our direction?” asked Kara of Dolen.
“No trouble so far,” he answered.
When they reached another intersection, the left way heading upward and the right way heading downward, Dolen said to take the left way.
“I see what you mean,” said Alessa as they stood there. “It would be confusing to anyone following us. But there is one way they might be able to track us yet.”
“How?” asked Kara.
“The dust,” said Felanar, as he realized what Alessa must mean.
“Yes, the dust,” she said. “Look.”
She held the torch close to the ground and showed them how they were disturbing the dust on the floor that had accumulated for centuries. They could see clearly that they were sweeping the dust as they walked and an observer would notice it.
“What should we do?” asked Kara. “Even on our toes we would disturb the dust. We cannot fly.”
“Maybe we can,” said Alessa thoughtfully. “Dolen,” she continued, “come with me into this right-hand passage.”
“That is not our way,” said the dwarf.
“I know,” Alessa said, “it's just for a moment. The others can wait for us here. Come.”
They walked into the right-hand tunnel. Felanar and Kara watched their torches bob along into the darkness until the light eventually faded and their steps were no longer heard. Then after a few minutes of silence they again heard steps, but in a different rhythm than before. Soon they saw the torches, but the carriers were walking backwards. The two of them stepped back into the main tunnel and stopped.
“There,” said Alessa, “we have made conspicuous tracks for hundreds of yards into that passage until we came to a bigger intersection with four different tunnels leading off. We then walked backwards, making it seem as if there were indeed four tracks going in that direction. There the trail will end and they will have a fine time guessing our route, with many wrong possibilities awaiting them.”
“But we still have to go to the left without making tracks,” said Kara.
“I have thought of that too,” said Alessa proudly. “Kara, hop onto my back.”
“Just climb onto my back,” she repeated as she crouched low to make it easier.
Kara climbed onto the elf's back and Alessa straightened. She then walked as delicately as Felanar had seen anyone ever walk as she made her way to the leftward entranceway without making a trace on the floor.
“Stay were you are,” she said to the others waiting, “do not make any tracks. I will be back in a few minutes.”
Alessa continued into the tunnel making not a sound nor leaving a trace of her passage. Several minutes went by before she reappeared in silence but alone.
“Your turn, Dolen,” she said, pointing at the dwarf.
He grunted as he climbed onto her back, and she noted that he was heavier than he looked. But she managed as before, more slowly this time, and soon she was back for Felanar.
“Elves amaze me,” he said to her as she crouched for him. He carefully placed his right arm around her shoulder and neck while his left arm held his torch aloft. Alessa straightened and began to carefully walk forward. Felanar felt her strength surging through her muscles as she took her steps. Her arms did not appear especially muscular, but she clearly had great hidden strength. So much of the elves was hidden, he thought as he held on tight. He also thought that Alessa's hair smelled wonderful, and considering they had been trekking across the wilderness for many days, he had no idea how that was possible. He felt his own body's dirt keenly at this moment and this made him self-conscious about holding onto Alessa as tightly as he was. In fact, though he did not know it, Alessa was quite pleased to have Felanar holding onto her.
After several hundred yards of extraordinarily careful walking, they reached a new intersection where the others awaited. Climbing down off Alessa's back, he looked behind him with his torch and saw not the slightest sign of their tracks.
“I do not know how you do it,” he smiled in amazement as he turned back to face her.
“It is simply a matter of understanding what it is like to be dust,” said Alessa with her usual matter-of-fact tone when explaining the ways of the elves, but Felanar saw that she was pleased at the praise and caught a small smile on her lips and perhaps an extra gleam in her eyes. Felanar smiled more widely at the sight and this made Alessa smile more too, and then she blushed.
They marched on for several more hours following a twisty trail of tunnels that left all but Dolen confused. Then they decided they had walked far enough to be safe for the night and to stop near a main tunnel junction for some rest. Two of their torches had burned out by this time, but they had found other torches hung along the walls in various locations and had extended their light source as they moved along. The wood from these ancient torches was treated with a sticky, black substance that kept the wood intact, but it had a smell they found unpleasant. Still, they could transfer the fire from torch to torch as they moved along. They now kept one torch lit and hung in a holder on the wall while they got ready to sleep.
“It must be the middle of the night,” said Kara as she placed her pack on the ground to serve as a pillow.
“Almost exactly the middle,” said Alessa with authority. “We have been marching for six hours and we began as dusk descended.”
“One of us should keep watch,” yawned Felanar.
“I can do so,” said Dolen, who now sat up again.
Alessa held out her palm. “Rest, Dolen,” she said. “I am fit and able to stand watch, and more important tonight, to listen.”
“Aye,” said the dwarf, “your ears are impressive, I'll grant you that. And I could use some sleep. I'll accept your offer.” With that he put his head on the ground and began snoring almost immediately. Felanar and Kara followed shortly thereafter.
Alessa stood for a while as she kept listening for any sound that might indicate danger, but she soon found a spot near the junction and sat down. She closed her eyes, not out of tiredness but to concentrate. An elf could rest quite effectively by staying still with eyes closed, and yet could remain very well aware of the surroundings. Alessa tried this technique now and found that it did help her rest. She was learning much about her abilities on this journey, skills that her sheltered life had never prepared her for. She had taken training from the Findáran knights but only at her insistence. Her parents never suggested it or even thought it necessary in any way, but Alessa had been persistent. Until this journey, however, it had been a game to her, something to do to keep up with her big brother, Dalonír. Now she was finding uses for this training and wished she had learned more. She was, she admitted to herself in this quiet moment, just a child in so many ways.
Alessa bolted upright at a sound. Felanar jumped at the sight, for it was his quiet footsteps that had roused the elf from her seated position.
“I'm sorry,” he said quietly as he approached Alessa, “I didn't mean to startle you.”
“No, it is I who is sorry,” she said, “for I should have kept better watch.”
“You seemed alert to me,” he said softly. They were several yards from where Kara and Dolen slept.
“If I had been alert I would have heard you the moment you stirred in your sleep. Instead I found myself so lost in thought I heard nothing until you were almost upon me!”
“I was walking as quietly as I could,” offered Felanar gently.
“Not quietly enough to fool an elf,” said Alessa.
“You're too hard on yourself, Alessa. You have done amazing things for us on this journey. We would have been lost without you.”
“You are kind to say it, but I could do more.”
“We all could, but all we can do is enough to see us through, and I think we will make it through, don't you?”
“Oh yes,” said Alessa, “we should be safe as soon as we get through these mines and make our way to the Elven Plain.”
“So then,” said Felanar, “we have done enough, don't you think? No need to be so hard on yourself.”
“I know, but I have been thinking about how much more training I should have had in my life.”
“Nothing shows you what you are lacking than a journey full of danger that tests your skills, eh?”
“There is so much to this world and I know so little,” said the elf.
“We all have much to learn. You have been wonderful.”
Alessa shyly turned her head down. “Why did you awaken?” she asked quietly, turning her eyes back to Felanar.
“I don't know,” said Felanar, “just a dream I had, I suppose. And then I wanted to see if you were doing all right on your watch. We rely on you so much with your elf skills that I can take you for granted sometimes. I wanted to make sure you were well.”
“And to see if I was keeping proper watch – which I was not as it turned out!”
“No, no, no,” cried Felanar, who put his right hand on Alessa's shoulder in a gesture of support. “Nothing would get past you, of that I am quite sure. I just wanted to make sure you were fine.”
Alessa ran her left hand over Felanar's right arm and smiled at him warmly. Her eyes shown even more brightly than usual in the gloom. “You are a good leader, Felanar,” she said. “You care about those you command.”
Felanar chuckled. “I do not command you, I befriend you,” he said. “I care about you as a friend.”
“I care about you too, my friend,” said Alessa, and she put her arms around his shoulders, as he did hers. To his mild surprise, Felanar felt himself pulling her closer. He leaned forward to kiss her. She closed her eyes and leaned in toward him. When their lips met, Felanar felt a spark surge through his body, and then warmth. They kissed for what seemed a long time. When they stopped, they continued to hold each other in their arms and to stare into each other's eyes. The eternity that Felanar always felt he could see as he stared into Alessa's eyes never seemed more vast than in this moment.
“I have never done that before,” she said shyly.
“I have never wanted to kiss someone as much as I do now,” he said softly.
They leaned forward a second time and kissed again. The same spark and warmth enveloped Felanar. He felt totally secure and at peace, and dimly realized in the emotional swirl that this was the first time in his life he had felt that. As for Alessa, words could not capture what she was feeling, and words did not enter her mind. But very strong emotions took hold of her and made her feel things she had never before experienced, but which she wanted to experience again.
After a few more minutes of kissing, and several more of just embracing, Felanar backed away gently while still caressing her arms.
“This was not my intention in coming over,” he smiled.
“You are a good leader,” she joked, “for you do what is needed to make those in your command happy and secure.”
“I would not command you,” he softly reminded her, and he briefly kissed her for emphasis. They released their embrace.
“I am still tired,” he said, “and need to get my rest, though at the moment rest is the last thing on my mind. But still, it would not do to stay up the whole night embracing you only to march half asleep the whole of the next day. There will be plenty of time for this when we are safe again.”
“I agree,” she said, “go rest, and I promise to do a better job of standing guard.”
“I trust you will,” he said as he turned back to rejoin the others.
“Sleep well,” said Alessa as she watched him walk away. For the rest of the night her thoughts were a jumble of emotions, but at no time did she close her eyes, and while she kept a keen ear open for any sound, not once did her gaze stray from where Felanar slept. And it was a very long time before the smile faded from her lips.
When the others awoke the next day (as Alessa assured them it was), they had a brief breakfast from their dwindling supplies while Alessa told them that she heard nothing all night. If they were still being followed, their pursuers were nowhere near them in the tunnel structure.
Breakfast finished, they began to march upward along a path of tunnel that grew wider as they walked. Till now they had seen only those parts of the mines where the actual mining had been done. They had seen where the workers worked but not where they lived. Dolen explained that sooner or later they would come to a location where there would be living quarters, and now he excitedly assured them that the widening of the tunnel meant they were close.
“We are coming to a central section,” he said as his steps increased in pace along with his excitement at seeing how his ancient people had lived in this underground complex. “See how the tunnels are beginning to converge, and how wide the walkways are now? See how the walls are smoother than in the work areas?”
As Dolen rapidly pointed out each new detail, Alessa kept stealing glances at Felanar and having them returned with smiles. Kara noticed this behavior after a while and began to realize that they were not smiling at what Dolen was saying or his pronounced enthusiasm. After a few more incidents of these glances she knew something was changed between the elf and her brother. Siding up to Alessa while Dolen grabbed Felanar's arm to show him some particularly intricate stonework, Kara whispered her suspicions to Alessa.
“The way you and my brother keep looking at each other is different,” she quietly said. Her look was friendly but inquisitive. Alessa blushed and said nothing at first, hoping that perhaps Kara would move on to some other subject if she were to stay quiet. But the inquisitive look continued and got more urgent. Alessa finally gave in and told Kara about the events of the night. As curiosity gave way to understanding in Kara, her response was simple and matter-of-fact.
“What do you mean?” asked Alessa, with genuine puzzlement.
“I mean you both love each other, and have done so for some time,” said Kara.
“Is this true?” asked Alessa. “I hardly know what I feel even now.”
“How did you feel last night when you kissed him?”
“This is something I spent the night wondering myself,” said Alessa quietly as her head turned down in thought. “I had intense emotions dominating me as it happened, but I am having a hard time identifying the nature of these emotions or their proper meaning.”
“Poor Alessa, so young and inexperienced,” teased Kara.
“I am four times your age!” objected the elf.
“Indeed, but you seem so innocent about many things.”
“Yes,” Alessa said wistfully, and her voice trailed off on that single syllable.
“Then trust me on this account,” said Kara as she put her arm in her friend's arm, “you have loved him for a long time, as he has loved you.”
Alessa said nothing, but her beaming face told Kara she was right. The two women walked arm in arm behind Felanar and Dolen as the dwarf kept pointing out more details of dwarf construction and life. The living area was indeed impressive to the others. There were great halls filled with columns of carved stone, and leading from the halls were smaller living areas that had been carved out from the mountain to provide a very comfortable life. An underground life, to be sure, but if you were a people used to such a life this was a place of luxury. There were wooden structures in many of the rooms that had evidently served as tables and bed frames long ago. The wood was mostly broken and decayed now, with only the rock itself standing, as it had for thousands of years, but the mind could picture how the living area had once been quite comfortable and home-like. Alessa even complimented Dolen on the ornate carvings in the columns and how it showed the artistic life of the dwarves.
They continued climbing as they walked, and Dolen explained that they were probably headed to a high central location where the leaders of the miners would have lived and worked.
“In fact,” said the dwarf, “I would not be surprised to find a lookout carved out on the surface of the mountain where they would have been able to look north toward the river and see both friend and foe approaching. This, I think, is where our climb will take us if we follow this left fork.”
They did follow that fork and the climb became steeper. The walls continued to be the same smooth surface as in the other living areas, but the pathway grew narrower. Dolen explained that only a few would walk this way, so there was no need for a wider tunnel.
“Dwarves are economical in their tunneling,” said Kara.
“Aye,” agreed Dolen, “no sense disturbing the rock if you do not have to.”
In a few minutes the tunnel opened up into a room that surprised them not only for its size, not only for its ornateness, but also for its light. They were seeing natural light for the first time in a day of darkness broken only by torches. This room, soaringly high in dimension, was carved in such a way that on the left was a short passage leading to the outside, just as Dolen had predicted. They could see the blue sky at the far end of that passage. When their eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, they realized that unlike all of the other rooms they had seen, this one contained fresh wooden furniture, and cloth, and lanterns, and art work, and scrolls. It showed every sign of current occupancy. And just when the idea of that began to sink in, something caught their eyes down that passage to the outside. There, framed darkly against the bright light of day, was the figure of a person. A woman. Who began walking toward them.
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