The third novel returns to a multi-perspective narrative and serves as the second prequel to Book One…
The empire continues to colonize the New World and Rildning struggles to unify the natives. Rildning and his companions fan out across the continent to persuade other tribes to join in a common defense, but whether they can put aside ancient rivalries is uncertain.
Elsewhere, the commander of the imperial Frontier Corps acquires Rildning’s journal (the substance of Book 1). As a result, he knows his enemy well and works to undermine Rildnings’ efforts until the Frontier Corps can reach the natives’ mountain safe haven.
While faced with the challenges of unifying the tribes, Rildning must also contend with natives who believe he should be their next high king, while others consider him to be an imperial spy.
The legacy Rildning ultimately leaves for the natives, and the new imperial provinces, will fever the dreams of kings for generations.
Gilgalem, Winterfall 2269
Eniri was startled by the sound of bubbles bursting on the surface of the water. She peered in the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of light, and there it was. Beautiful green-golden warmth.
“Wendon!” she cried. She could hear him sputtering and thrashing in the water. “Breathe! Breathe!” She would never forget the fear that gripped her, of hitting the top of the chamber to find it airless. Eniri continued to encourage him until he was alright. She could now see him clutching the electrum sphere.
“I’m sorry, I failed,” she said after he safely crawled up into the cell.
“You did not fail,” Wendon said as he piled burlap sacks and bits of wool on himself as she had. “You lit the way. But we will need to find a way to unblock the next passage. Ladders have fallen across it.”
The electrum delver’s eye sat glowing on the stone between them. In the dim light she could see his muscles were jerking uncontrollably.
“I cannot feel my fingers and toes,” he said with a smile.
“It will pass,” Eniri said. “When it does, you can eat. Everything up here is old and dry, but edible. And there is plenty of it. When you burst up from the water I saw at least two levels of storage cells above us.”
“So plenty of air then,” Wendon said.
“Is that what you have in the jar?” She pointed to the onion still stoppered in the mouth of the jug at his waist. He nodded.
“This is why you needed a Vayn for this task,” he smiled.
They stared at the glowing orb for a time, pondering what to do next. Soon their cold, aching bodies demanded sleep. And so they did, under bags and vegetables with only the heat of their bodies to warm each other. When they awoke, the chamber looked as they had left it. No dawn to welcome them, no omens to be viewed in the sky. But the electrum beckoned them with a fresh gleam.
“They won’t come for us, will they?” Wendon asked.
“We cannot wait if they do,” Eniri answered.
“I wonder if the Maluram will mine a drain tunnel,” Wendon said.
“It would take a long time.”
“Will we ever find the source of this tragedy?” he asked. “There are so many chambers…dozens, though not all in use.
“We must try.”
“The old tales say the old miners followed the spring and expanded the caves in search of the electrum. When they found little on this side of the mountain, they worked the other where the mines are today. My uncle was once the keeper of the stores, which is how I came down here as a child. I’ve not seen every chamber, but I know the main spring dives under the mountain from the third chamber, just on the other side of those fallen ladders. From that chamber, many passages were hewn, so many chambers connect to the third.
“They carved the caves this way because, my uncle said, the Maluram feared to delve too deeply here. They say one tunnel below here opened into the top of a great dome, and inside far below was a lake of hot water beneath the mountain’s roots. Two miners fell in, but the others could not even hear the splash because it was so far down. That tunnel was sealed long ago.”
Eniri shivered at the thought of the hidden and dangerous depths of the mountain. The idea of being lost to a secret boiling lake was awful. She suddenly longed for the strong trees of Nalembalen, the open sunny spaces and green everywhere. The tree-root tunnels had been the deepest she had ever been underground. She thought of Rildning and her son.
“Could the lake have flooded these stores?” she asked.
“No,” Wendon said. “It is too deep, and this water would be too hot to swim. Something must have happened to the spring. We must move those ladders and have a look at where the spring dives under the mountain.”
“What about your air jugs? We have plenty of jugs and vegetables to cork them,” Eniri said.
“Yes, that could work. We could fasten them to the ladders and raise them out of the way. The delver’s eyes you dropped down there will be more than enough to work by.”
They gathered all the clay and stoneware vessels from their cell and the one above them. One by one they plugged them with onions and turnips. Wendon figured that every air jug could be tied to two other jugs full of stones, pottery pieces, and water to weigh it down to the bottom. They tossed them into the water and watched them disappear. The idea had lifted their spirits, though they dreaded to leave the itch of the burlap for the cold of the water.
When they had sunk enough air jugs, they ate a quick meal of bone-dry venison, stiff carrots, and handfuls of raw oats. Then they gathered more twine from bags and tethered weighted jugs to their belts to bring themselves speedily to the bottom.
They stuffed their ears with garlic cloves on Wendon’s recommendation, as he knew the weight of the water on their heads was heavier down below than it had been elsewhere. With Wendon’s lone electrum sphere in hand, they stepped off together into the black water.
When they arrived at the bottom, they found all the jars waiting for them, like stony plants swaying in the current. They set to work by the light of the scattered delver’s eyes, refastening the air jugs from their weights to the ladders. They succeeded in partially moving one of them, but there was much still to do.
After a while they returned to their cell to rest and gather more air jugs. On their second dive they noticed the water at the mouth of the passage was different. The normal back and forth motion was replaced by a gentle, constant pull. Vegetables and wood bits that floated into the passage disappeared.
The pull from the passage became stronger after the last ladder was lifted out of the way. When they returned to their dry cell for one last rest, they were alarmed to find the cell was now somewhat higher above the water line.
“Should we wait?” Eniri asked. “Perhaps it will drain.”
They watched the water for a moment.
“Seems to come and go,” Wendon said. “We should press on.”
On their final dive, they retrieved the bags of electrum spheres and entered the passage. They were laden with many air bottles and enough weight that they could walk along the floor. They entered the darkness of the third chamber and looked down into the yawning darkness. Although they were deep already, Eniri still could not shake the look of the depths.
They took a breath from their jugs and stepped into the dark. Their heads soon began to ache as they sunk down. Eniri lost a garlic clove from her ear and winced, plugging it with her finger. She could feel her lungs twinge. As they floated down they noticed bits of debris began to rush past them, and they could feel an invisible tug on their toes.
Eniri motioned for them to go back up, but Wendon shook his head. As they debated without words, they felt the water pull at their legs like a great swirling tongue. Eniri felt her long hair pull down her back. Abruptly the pull reversed, pulling her hair upward. They looked at each other with excited realization.
They cut loose a weighted jug each and kicked upward. They saw the spiral ramp near them and swam toward it, feeling the current pull them toward the wall. When they reached the ramp, they could see the spring’s channel along the wall. Eniri dropped a delver’s eye into the channel. It lit up a crate that sat in the channel. They looked at each other worriedly.
She dumped a bag of the spheres along the channel, illuminating the sack-filled neatly stacked within it. One of the spheres disappeared near a ledge on the wall. They felt a strong current pulling them toward the ledge, then it stopped.
Eniri deposited one of the bags of electrum next to the channel, leaving one tied to her waist, and they both left a few air jugs at the same spot. Then they cut loose their weight and swam for the top, which they found to be dry.
“Sabotage!” screamed Wendon just as they broke the surface. They coughed and sputtered as they crawled up into a cell. Eniri clenched her teeth and stared down into the dark water.
“All the food,” she muttered. “Who would do such a thing? Are there no guards for the storerooms?”
“This was the safest place in Gilgalem,” Wendon said. No one ever comes down here, except those tasked with filling the cells, and they have no need to come into the deep chambers that are already filled with food.” His curses echoed loudly. They watched nervously as the debris floating in the water churned. Then it ceased.
“Perhaps I can shout it down,” Wendon jested.
“Maybe the spring is trying to free itself,” Eniri said. “Maybe the weight of the water has become too great.”
“Or maybe the mountain will spew out more. We should lift the crates blocking the channel just as we did the ladders.”
“This is more dangerous,” Eniri said. “When the blockage is moved, it will pull us down into the mountain. We’ll be like those ancient miners, drowned under the roots of the mountain.”
They looked around their cell. They had the same materials to work with. Wendon stood, picked up a crate, and dumped it. Then he refilled it with empty jars.
“We’ll pull the blockage, then lift ourselves with a crate-worth of air jugs. All the weight jugs will be tied to the air crate with one tether, so when the drain clears, one swipe of a knife will cut the air crate loose so we can escape the mountain’s drink.”
“If we get close to that drain under ledge it will grab us,” Eniri said.
“Yes, but its pull comes and goes, as if trying to clear the blockage itself. We can pull the last blockage when we’re on our way up. In fact, we can make air crates for the blockage. This will work. We can always re-block the drain if it’s too strong.” Eniri nodded warily.
They filled two crates with air jars for the blockage, and one crate each for themselves. They tested them and saw that they floated well and needed much weight to pull them under the water. When everything was ready, they stepped into the black with the crates for the blockage.
When they reached the channel they found the drain had stopped its pull, allowing them to work more easily. But several delver’s eyes had disappeared, so Eniri opened another bag and distributed them. They cleared some of the blockage by hand, then fastened the air crates to the rest before returning to the surface.
“Now we take our air crates down and I’ll take hold of the twine we used to secure the weights of the blockage air crates,” Wendon said. “When we cut our weights, I’ll pull the twine, and everything will rise up together as the water goes down. At worst, if the drain is still too strong, we can swim to the spiral ramp and hold on until the water recedes past us.”
Eniri thought it was a good plan, and his confidence put her at ease. Wendon knew these chambers better than her, after all, and the people of Gilgalem were counting on them to save what food was left. But she still wished for a sky omen.
They reentered the cold blackness one last time. They found the water pulling and swirling again. They each took their air crates in one hand and their stone knife in the other. Their heads and lungs ached, and their bodies and fingers were growing numb. They reached the channel and Wendon fished the twine out from the blockage crates where it had become entangled. They looked at each other and nodded.
They cut their air crates loose of the weight. Their air jars immediately sped them upwards. A moment later Eniri saw the twine in Wendon’s hand tighten and then snap. They watched in horror as the twine flagged in his grip, and the electrum light began to fade from view.
Wendon let go of the broken twine and his air crate and began to swim down. Eniri attempted to gurgle a yell, but it was no use. She decided to let go of hers to follow after him, but before she did all of the glowing light below vanished and a crunching, crashing sound rippled through the water.
The water plucked the new garlic from her ears and tried to pull the breath out of her. Vegetables and debris slashed down her body and forced her eyes closed. She could not tell if she was still rising or falling. The crashing and ripping sounds continued, along with a groan from within the stone walls.
Just as it felt her lungs would burst, her air crate burst out of the water and she crashed into it. The jars shattered and the weight fell upon her, but she thrashed and kicked until she had hold of the lip of the spiral ramp.
The water snarled and tore at her legs but it quickly receded. She pulled herself up over the ledge and laid upon the ramp in the cold dark. She could hear the shove and crackle of all the barrels, food, and debris in the soup below as everything fought for a place atop the swirling water. She wept as she heard the sounds of the mountain swallowing its great meal.
When she heard a waterfall, she sat up and pulled a delver’s eye from her last pouch, tossing it down into the dark. The water from the chambers above was pushing through the passage down to the drain, where the water level had settled. There was no sign of Wendon.
The waterfall continued as she slept under burlap and wool. That was how Girtimir found her, with bones stiff and lips blue amid the stench of water-logged food. The blood from her lashed body dribbled down the ramp and into the water below.
She would later recall their efforts to everyone, telling of how the mountain reclaimed the electrum mined from it, and how Wendon became the third brave Gallerlander to perish in the secret sea beneath it.
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