The large bed in my room was as comfortable as I hoped it would be, but I had a hard time falling to sleep that night. Memories of Aoki in that beautiful dress, the feel of her lips as we kissed good night were still too fresh. I don’t know how long I lay there in the dark with my mind racing. Finally I faded off into a fitful sleep.
Unbar joined Aoki and I at breakfast the next morning in the great hall to discuss our plans. Unbar looked no worse for having spent the previous evening draining the stores of the local taverns. He appeared to be in better spirits than any day since Mardel’s passing.
We told Unbar about Aoki’s guess regarding the latest directions. “I don’t think you are wrong but I see one big flaw.” The big warrior said between bites of cheese which he carved from a large roll on the table. “Even if we know which mountain to go to, look at their size. We could search for six months and not find the cave. How are we supposed to know where to look?”
I hadn’t thought of what we would do once we got to the mountain. Unbar was right, the mountain was way too large to search blindly. The instructions on the scroll told us to look for black and white immovable objects and go under them.
Thinking of a phrase that Mardel had said to me not long ago I said, “Perhaps events will help make our decision easier. “
Unbar nodded his head and Aoki simply smiled at me which she was doing quite often during breakfast.
While we ate Balmanes joined us. He was an excellent host. He asked each of us about our homes and families which forced me to fudge a little. The man had a way about him that put everyone at ease. I had never met anyone like that before. Finally Balmanes asked us the question that had been hanging in the air all morning.
“So how long will you be staying in Griforlus?”
“We’ll be leaving today.” Aoki and I said together and both laughed. Unbar gave me a smirk but didn’t say anything.
“May I ask where you are headed?” The man probed further.
I wasn’t sure what to tell him so I waited a bit in silence hoping Aoki or Unbar would speak up. They gave no help. They were used to letting me make these decisions. Judging by what I had seen so far of Balmanes I decided to trust him.
“We are leaving for your central mountain in search of a cave. What we’ll find in the cave we don’t know. We just know we have to go there and the less people who know about it the better.” All eyes were on Balmanes.
After a long moment he rang a bell that sat on the table next to him. The servants who stood just inside the doorway to the great hall left the room, leaving the four of us alone.
“I know the cave you speak of and I know the quest associated with it. I can tell you where it is but must give you ill news, your quest is in vain.” Balmanes’ face had a look of profound sadness. “The place you seek is called the golden cave. I hope it is not for this fool’s errand that Mardel gave his life.”
Aoki spoke, her voice rising with each word, “Mardel gave his life for his friends to see us and the crew to safety. His life was not spent in vain.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” said Balmanes, “I spoke out of my heart forgetting my head. Of course his death and sacrifice were not given for foolishness. A man such as I who didn’t know him should never question or trivialize it. My apologies.”
Balmanes stood from his chair, faced Aoki and swept a long bow. Her anger seemed to fade after hearing the man’s heartfelt apology. I thought about her reaction. Perhaps her anger was in part due to him hitting a little too close to the mark.
“I can see that you are set on going so I will help where I can.” Balmanes said, taking his seat again. “I will provide you good mounts and re-stock your provisions. The location of the golden cave is known to each of the members of the council although they are not allowed to enter. In fact it is said that the homes of the council members point in a direct line to the cave itself.”
Aoki and I exchanged glances but waited for the man to continue.
“The entrance to the golden cave is marked by a large white stone on the southeastern approach to the mountain on the borders of the forest of Dimshadow. The stone is as large as four men wide and one and one half tall. It is quite easy to find.” Balmanes lowered his voice and took a quick peek at the doorway. “When you find the stone, look straight up the mountain. You will see a second stone that is black and almost the same height and width. When you are half way between the two, you will find a hole in the side of the mountain leading down a narrow tunnel into the golden cave. The entrance is easy to miss so count your paces.”
“Dimshadow, that doesn’t sound like a very nice place,” Unbar said in between bites of bacon. The man could pack it away like no one I had ever seen.
“Really it is only a small wooded area compared to its former glory. The forest used to cover the entire valley floor stretching for hundreds of miles. Over the last few centuries it has retreated to the southern reaches of the mountain including a small concealed canyon over the crest of the valley. This is mostly due to the logging needs of our people who for years did not re-plant trees when they cut them as they do now. The result is that we must go further and further for wood and obtain it only at a premium. The forest has retained its former name but it is a pleasant place. Some in Griforlus including myself have built lodges there for housing when they go to hunt.”
“Now Travelers, I regret I must take my leave. If there is anything more I can do to help, please make it known and I will try my best.”
As he finished, Balmanes stood to go but I stopped him.
“Balmanes, thank you for everything. You have been more than kind. You’ve given us a place to stay and more help than we could have hoped for. I wish there was something more that I could say but words aren’t my strong suit.”
“You say you are not good with words yet you speak with grace and honor. It is my pleasure to have helped in some small way; I hope that I may now number Tomeri the Courageous and the Travelers among my friends” Balmanes bowed to each of us before departing.
We left Griforlus shortly after with fresh mounts and fresh spirits. There was a renewed excitement in the group for the next stage of our adventure. Aoki’s stallion Grinny still would not accept a rider so she picked a new grey mare from Balmanes’ stables. Grinny didn’t seem to mind being relegated to the duties of a packhorse. I rode a beautiful white stallion while Unbar picked another black stallion, the largest in the stables.
According to Balmanes, the ride to the golden cave should take no longer than a day and a half setting a good pace. A feeling of urgency began to push me to get to the cave and complete the quest. My memory of what had happened when I read the book was completely gone now. I had no more indication of what would occur than did Aoki or Unbar.
We reached the foothills of the mountain and the trees of Dimshadow as night fell. Around the campfire we sat talking and laughing. A feeling of genuine happiness hit me, just being there with the two of them. My thoughts of the day before returned. How much would I miss back home? The faces of Unbar and Aoki were lit by the firelight as they laughed, telling stories about Mardel.
They treated me like a man. Could I go back to being Tommy Travers the fifteen year old boy again? Did I want to? Was there any way to keep from being pulled out? Eventually my mother would come to my room and call for me. If I made up my mind to stay would I be able to say no to my mother’s call?
In my dreams that night I ran through a forest towards my mother’s voice or was it away? As I ran I found Aoki crying. She begged me not to go. She faded away and I found Unbar battling dozens of little creatures with axes and clubs, he was wounded and bloodied.
“Tomeri, help me,” he said reaching out. My skill with the sword was still developing but I reached down to draw my weapon anyway. To my horror I realized I had no sword, one of the creatures hit Unbar hard, driving him to his knee. I cried out but Unbar faded from view as well. Next came the girl Amelia asking me to accept the training. The scene faded before coming into focus again. Next, she was surrounded by a gang of young men carrying clubs, about to attack her. The young men knocked her to the ground; Amelia turned to me and yelled “Run!”