Caranne shushed him. “Yes, he does. How else would he have told us to look for it?”
His brother scratched his chin and then nodded. “He’s really centuries old?” he whispered.
Caranne sighed. Aldric’s naivety hadn’t abated over the years. But his brother was an important part of the puzzle, perhaps the most crucial. And what lay before his eyes confirmed it further.
Behind the small cavern where Aldric’s three wobbly and gnarly desks stood lay the entrance to a cave. A cave filled with the remnants of a past civilization, so old that it seemed almost like myth to Caranne. He wouldn’t have even believed it, if his father hadn’t shown him the busts of the old kings, crumbling around the edges but yet so life-like that he knew it was nothing any stone-mason today could chisel and carve.
Aldric though, had made it his life’s work. The enormous cave housed hundreds of artifacts discovered and excavated from the city buried underneath, which ostensibly and according to Aldric’s constant claims had been the centre of the old civilization. Caranne had found small pockets of the civilization all over the continent, but none of them were as vast or remained as well preserved as this one.
Caranne had been to the cave over five years ago, when Aldric had taken over from their father. Back then, it had seemed a jumble of statues, books, posters and paintings among a wide assortment of other objects. But Aldric, it seemed had been far more productive than all his ancestors.
The north wall was stacked up with statues and although, Caranne couldn’t see a pattern to their arrangement, he sensed one. The south wall was packed with an assortment of furniture, huge portraits, and strangely enough, culinary utensils.
Caranne turned to ask Aldric about collecting utensils, when the light of his torch lit up the far west wall of the cave. The cave expanded both in girth and height and Aldric had lined the entire wall with cabinets till the ceiling. Within them lay stacked hundreds of books.
Caranne stepped forward illuminating the cabinets further. “Aldric, this is….”
Dah-Kun interrupted. “Tell me what you’ve learnt.”
The accent was alien to any he had heard and he knew it would intimidate his brother.
Aldric stammered. “Yes, my liege. I came across more writings and books. I can’t still read them and they seem to be all in different languages. The last building we excavated must have been a library of some sort. A grand sort of library, which housed books from all across the land, which I have catalogued here. And you would be surprised to know that the Doggers…”
“Doggers?” Caranne couldn’t help but intercede.
Aldric’s eyes glowed with excitement. Caranne had seen it many times before. It was the same excitement the five year old Aldric had had when he had seen a leaf fly caught in a gust of wind. He sighed. This would be a long winded revelation.
“That’s what I named the civilization. It’s a name I came up for the time being. For all we know, there were distinct cultures much like we have. I think they indeed were different cultures. Atleast that’s what the different languages show.”
The drawl grew into a growl. “We already know that. Your forefathers found that out. What about magic?”
Caranne winced. Aldric better have something important. Otherwise his brother was as good as dead.
Aldric, however seemed to be unaffected by the show of displeasure. “Well, there is no direct reference to magic. There never has been. They always talk of some kind of supreme beings. I believe deities is the term they used, who supposedly had unnatural powers and abilities. But then again, it’s impossible to determine whether these beings existed or whether they were concocted as bedtime stories for children. But I did find a curious coincidence.” Aldric moved towards the cabinets.
Caranne saw now that each column of cabinets had a ladder propped across it.
“Brother, set down the torch. It isn’t wise to bring heat close to many of these books. They barely hold together. There is enough light.”
Carranne nodded and set the torch down in middle of a holder on the floor. His master stood with his arms crossed and the glow of the torch illuminated only his grim lower jaw.
Caranne muttered a short blessing to the stars. At least his master was a patient man.
Aldric approached the north end of the wall but didn’t climb up the ladder. Instead he hovered around the lower shelf of the cabinet, crouching and shuffling.
“Here,” he pulled out a small book, barely larger than a pamphlet and walked back towards them. “This, I believe, belongs to a time when the Doggers were just getting established, I’d say about a thousand years into their civilization.”
“A thousand years….” Caranne exclaimed, but a short grunt from his master gave him pause. He hadn’t imagined that a civilization would take a thousand years to settle in. And if they took a thousand years to be established, how long were they around?
Aldric stepped closer to the floor torch, yet stood about ten feet away. Caranne noticed that Aldric’s left hand covered with a violet silk cloth, upon which he held the book.
“That’s more like pages sewn together.” The book was not more than fifty pages thick and looked dried up like wrinkled leaves.
“That’s because it isn’t really a book. It is a collection of the first depictions of the deities. At least, the first I could find. If I am correct in judging the nature of the bark used to make these pages and the dryness, it is about eight thousand years old. Which is why, we cannot touch them. The sweat from our hands can disintegrate them. Which is why I ordered these cotton jackets to be made for them.” Aldric pinched up a thin transparent film of cloth covering the book.
“Master Viallan, while I enjoy your discourse, you best make sure you have hands with which to destroy these books.” Dah-Kun growled.
Caranne shook his head. “Aldric, tell us how this connects to magic. Now!”
The younger man nodded, hesitation and fear creasing his forehead. “Like I said, these were the first ones I could find. And they all were from the same place. Some city named Maxxad. Which, I don’t think was too far from here. About ten leagues east, I think.”
“So what?” his master snarled.
“Hold on,” Aldric scampered to the south end of the wall and began climbing the ladder in front of the last column, fumbling with the book already in his hand.
Before Caranne could react, Dah-Kun moved below the ladder and wrenched Aldric off the ladder and onto the cave floor.
Aldric groaned and writhed on the floor. Caranne took a few steps towards his brother, but a wave of a hand from Dah-Kun had stopped him cold.
His master stood over Aldric and looked straight down. Caranne could almost feel his brother’s fear.
“I do not care about your books, Master Viallan. And I only allowed you your precious cotton covers and cabinets for the books; because I believed you would be able to find me what I wanted in them. Now, if you have something for me, speak now or you will burn along with the work of your ancestors.”
“It ended with Maxxad too.” Aldric choked out between half sobs, pushing himself up to a seating position.
“What?” Dah-Kun growled, but Caranne sensed that this was more of an exclamation than a question.
“This column is from the time of the fall of the Doggers,” Aldric pointed to the column he’d tried to climb. “Their culture faded, their way of life, crafts, arts, professions, all faded. One by one, their cities fell into disrepair and chaos and somehow, it seems, the people lost the will to live. Many of these books account for mass suicides and madness,” Aldric had pushed himself to his feet, regaining part of his exuberance as he narrated.
Caranne saw the bandit lord’s face cringe in horror for a moment but the grim look returned before he could make anything of it.
“And it seems to have coincided with the loss of deities as well. Their worshippers dwindled, fought amongst each other in a spate of wars, till one by one their own mention vanished from the pages. Maxxad was their last bastion, as it was their first.”
Caranne shook his head. “But what does any of that have to do with magic?”
It wasn’t his brother who answered. “It ends where it begins. The north this time.”
“What do you mean?” Caranne asked.
Dah-Kun didn’t acknowledge. “Do you have the scroll from the messenger?”
“The one from the Throddens? Yes, of course.” Caranne pulled out the scroll of paper, half of it stained crimson.
“Is that blood…?”
Caranne ignored his brother and handed over the scroll to Dah-Kun.
“But what does this scroll have to do with….. Maray!” Caranne exclaimed, as realization hit him.
The tears had stopped but the salty trails remained on Elena’s cheeks. She sat around the hearth on the upper floor, watching a line of ants meticulously make their way to the kitchen provisions and back.
Her father had doubled up the guards around Dirma’s house, but she knew a few extra guards wouldn’t be able to hold off the entire town.
“Elena, my love,” her father burst in, slamming open the kitchen door. “Are you all right? The men told me you were in the shop…”
“Father, I’m fine. A little shaken up but fine.” She stood up and embraced her father. “But you should have seen the people. They had this crazed manic look in their eyes.” She shuddered at the memory.
“Don’t worry, Elena. I won’t leave this town again. Not till all this has calmed down.” Lord Tarbon tousled her hair. The mayor stood a good head taller than her and his shallow gaunt face held only the vestiges of his time as a captain in the Throdden army. His built however, had remained the same and the small town life had meant a lot of manual labour which Elena knew he enjoyed more than settling the squabbles in town.
Elena wrung her hands together. “Hogarth was leading them. I think he’s the one inciting everyone. You should have him cuffed and paraded around on a donkey.”
Her father laughed. “Hogarth is a no good ruffian but the people do have a right to be concerned with all that has been happening.”
“But why are the people after Dirma? You know he didn’t do all those things. Nobody could do them.”
Her father sighed. “People don’t always look at it that ways. If there are problems, they try to find a source to blame. And….” His brows creased together.
She stepped back, a scowl coming over her face. “You can’t seriously think Dirma did all this?”
“Elena, I don’t know what to believe. But each of the accidents that have happened have had one of Dirma’s jewels around. And I went into Craven today. One of their sacred trees ate up a man.”
“Ate a man? What do you mean?”
“I didn’t see it. But many folks did. And they said, the tree pulled the poor man right under its roots, swallowed him whole.”
Elena shook her head. “What? But how?”
Her father shrugged. “But we found these hanging from one of the branches,” he said, pulling out a bracelet from the side pocket of his leather vest.
Elena took the bracelet in her hand and turned it over. It was a silver linked bracelet with rectangular inlaid green prase. “I made this. For a travelling merchant.” Elena stared at the bracelet in disbelief. “You don’t think Dirma’s stones are the cause of all this, do you father? It’s ridiculous.”
“I don’t know, Elena. But Dirma’s stones are the only things which seem to connect the incidents.”
Elena looked up in shock. “You can’t let them hurt Dirma, father. You just can’t.”
“Of course not, dear.” Her father cupped her right cheek and then patted her head. “But I will have to send them away. For their own safety.”
“You can’t. They’ll hunt them down. Only you can protect them.”
“It’s out of my hands. Soon the other mayors and nobles will start baying for their blood and I can’t control what they or their people would do. And I’ll be sending Dirma and his family into the safe custody of the Throddens in Sen-Tian.”
“The Throddens would do that for us?”
“Of course, love. They are very understanding. And Thaddius is a noble king.” He sighed and cupped Elena’s face. “I know your grouse with Fabius. But he was a young prince back then. I know it hurts but these things happen in life. And besides, you can’t call the Throddens bad rulers because a prince broke your heart. I already sent word of all this to Sen Tian with Alanne a couple of months ago. He should be returning soon with some royal help. It will all be fine, Elena. You’ll see.”
“My Lord Tarbon…..” a voice called from below.
Her father moved to the window. “Yes, Dalmer, what is it?”
“A few of the townsfolk have come to apologise about the incident at Dirma’s shop.”
Lord Tarbon nodded and turned away from the window. “See, things are not as bad as they seem. Do not fret. My dear.”
Elena nodded, a small smile acknowledging the hug from her father, who left. She squirmed at the thought of Fabius, love and hate coursing through her together. No, I won’t waste any time thinking about the man who doesn’t care about me.
She turned her attention to the bracelet in her hand. “This is stupid,” she said to herself. After all, Dirma hadn’t made this bracelet. He hadn’t even picked the stones for it. She had.