Rufus and Shilo walked for hours. They came to a small spring running in glistening sheets down the wall of the tunnel. Rufus traded his torch for Shilo’s water skin and filled it. They shared the last of his water between them and he filled his skin also. Shilo held the torch and looked at the map.
“It’s very accurate,” she said. “We haven’t passed a single turn that wasn’t marked.”
Rufus wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Is this spring on there?”
“What’s this next thing?” he said, peering close. “Tharrowfend. What does that mean?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose,” Shilo said, folding the map. “I wonder how long it is to the end.”
Torchlight filled the chips and ridges left by the picks and chisels of the dwarves. The air was cool and damp. An hour’s march brought them to an enormous face carved into the wall. It reached from the floor to the ceiling and had long hair bound by a diadem set on its heavy forehead. Thick, bushy eyebrows shadowed the large, deep eyes. A great beard and mustache spread down onto the floor.
Rufus touched the rough stone. “He doesn’t look so lean-witted.”
“Anything but,” Shilo said. “He looks… wise.”
“Do you think this is Tharrowfend?”
“I bet so,” Shilo said. “Must’ve been a king.”
Rufus and Shilo burrowed deep into the dense maze of tunnels. The walls were carved in places; creatures, spirals, interlocking circles and grids adorned the passages. They came to a square chamber, wider and taller than the tunnel. Three other tunnels joined it and the walls were carved with intricate scenes.
A tall alcove was cut into the wall. The floor of the alcove was recessed into a deep basin. On the back wall of the alcove was cut in relief the shape of a tall, jagged mountain.
At the top of the mountain a great flame was carved. Just beneath the flame, from a crack in the rock, a heavy trickle of water seeped out and flowed down, glistening into the basin. The water came to the very top, but did not flow over. It went out through some unseen way, back into the stone of the mountain.
“I wonder what the fire means,” Shilo said.
Rufus shrugged. “What makes you think it means something?”
“Any fool can see it means something,” said a husky voice.
A small flame appeared in one of the adjoining tunnels and into the chamber stepped a short, broad-shouldered man with a thick beard and a frowning brow. He wore a leather apron, heavy boots and gloves and a flat leather cap with a burning candle fixed to a mirror on the front. He held a pickax across his shoulder, which he swung down to the ground to lean on.
“Well,” he said, “I knew such folk as you existed in the world, but never did I think to find ’em here.” His voice was friendly, but he frowned at them.
“A dwarf,” Shilo said.
“I can see he’s a dwarf,” Rufus said, nodding and smiling at the stranger.
“That’s what I am,” the dwarf said. “You’ll want to keep your voices down. If the prince finds you here he’ll fork trouble over you like bad straw.”
Rufus and Shilo glanced at each other.
“Of course, the same could be said of me. I suppose that makes us friends. My name is Thrym.”
Shilo smiled. “I’m Shilo.”
“Pleased to meet you both,” Thrym said. “If you wouldn’t mind, the patrols come here pretty regular for water and talk. Follow me.”
Thrym went down the same way Shilo and Rufus had come. They watched him go and stood frowning after him. The light from Thrym’s candle glowed on the wall of the tunnel.
“Stay if you want to,” he said from around the bend, “but you’ll be caught. I’m going where it’s safe. You’re standing where it’s dangerous.”
Shilo and Rufus listened to Thrym’s footsteps fading. The light vanished. Shilo turned to the fountain, filled her water skin, corked it and followed the dwarf. Rufus opened his mouth and closed it again. Then he set off behind her.
“It’s not my business, you being down here in the Crypt,” Thrym said, taking hold of a metal ring set into the wall, “but how you got here is a matter that concerns me.” He gave the ring a turn and a hidden door slid open without a sound.
Rufus and Shilo looked at each other.
“Now, now, you just suit yourselves,” the dwarf said, stepping through the door, “but if I wanted to hurt you I could’ve done it back there at the fountain or anywhere along the way. All I’d need is these.”
Thrym held up his hands. They were large and gnarled and strong as stone. Shilo nodded. She and Rufus followed Thrym into the chamber and told him everything.
“So your friends are wandering around the Crypt without a map,” Thrym said, clutching his beard. “That’s not good. Well, you’ve told me how you got here. Would you mind explaining why you came?”
Rufus put his hands behind his back and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Shilo looked at the wall.
“Some kind of trouble?” Thrym said.
“Well…” Rufus said.
“We should tell him,” Shilo said. “He’s nice enough.”
A smile twinkled in the corners of Thrym’s eyes.
“We’re following the star,” Rufus said.
Thrym nodded his head but the twinkle went away. He sighed. “I see. I might’ve known it. That blasted star.”
“What’s so bad about it?” Shilo said.
“Well, it hasn’t helped me any. It’s because of that star that I’ve been declared an outlaw.”
“An outlaw?” Rufus said.
“That’s right.” Thrym sighed again and paced the floor. “Remember that fountain? That was the likeness of Rathrágodrak, the Old Mountain.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Above us now, visible from every corner of Everándon.”
“Everándon?” Shilo said.
“The lost country?” Rufus said.
“Nothing lost about it,” Thrym said. “If you can see that mountain, it means you’re standing on Everándish soil. And long ago, it meant you could see the Balefire.”
“The Balefire,” Rufus said. “The fire in the carving?”
“A magic fire,” Thrym said with a nod. “It burned day and night, for everyone to see. But it was stolen away.”
“Stolen away where?” Shilo said.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Seventy years now I’ve been searching, excavating the trail of king Thárrowfend.”
Shilo lifted the map. “The carving!”
“Thárrowfend was a great king,” Thrym said. “Maybe the last. He went looking for the Balefire. He cut most of these tunnels in his search. He was lost, went down into the Fire Warrens and never came back. Since then it’s been unlawful to come down here at all, never mind carrying on the search.”
“What happened?” Shilo said. “To Thárrowfend, I mean.”
Thrym shrugged. “Nobody ever knew. Some say he found Jargadda.”
“What’s Jargadda?” Shilo said.
“A vast and ancient system of tunnels, all gold and gems. The digging is hard and never-ending. It’s where we go when we die, or while we’re alive, if we’re very lucky. Some think Tharrowfend found the Balefire and it was so beautiful he didn’t want to come back. I don’t believe it. He’d’ve come back for sure. I think trolls got him, or gnomes. Whatever happened, he was lost. The tunnels were sealed off and to go there has been forbidden ever since. They came to be known as Thárrowfend’s Crypt.”
“Trolls?” Shilo said.
Thrym shook his head. “I’ve never seen one down here. But the gnomes are real enough.”
“I don’t understand,” Rufus said. “What’s all this got to do with the star?”
“Once the star appeared, there were whispers about following it, what with the tale of Silverlance and all. Prince Dornthelf got scared, some old prophecy about doom and darkness. He convinced his brother, King Thrudnelf, to start sealing off the east-facing portals in the mountains above. Some youngsters were caught trying to make their way out through the upper tunnels of the Crypt, off to follow the star. After that Dornthelf sent patrols down inside. They found my journals and maps.”
“Now you’re an outlaw,” Rufus said.
“They’ll never catch me. I know these tunnels blindfolded.”
Shilo shook her head. “Is Silverlance really real?”
Thrym nodded. “I’d say so, real as rock. It’s said that when he comes, he’ll claim all thrones for himself. I think that’s the real reason Dornthelf is nervous. Nobody wants to give up their throne, however small it might be. Yes, indeed, that star marks the start of great and terrible days, if you believe that sort of thing.”
Shilo folded her arms. “Silverlance must be very strong.”
Thrym nodded. “He’s still king in Everándon. Make no mistake. There are some who’ve never thought otherwise, some who’d be willing to fight to see he gets his crown back.”
“Like you, maybe?” Rufus said.
Thrym shrugged his massive shoulders. “Let’s just say I’d rather see the mountains torn down than pretend a thing isn’t there that is.”
“Well, nobody’s fighting yet,” Shilo said. “Will you show us the way out of here?”
“I will. That map shows you the long way. It’ll get you there, but it would take days. I’ll have you to Great Cave in ten or twelve hours.”
“Thrym,” Shilo said. “Will you keep an eye out for our friends?”
“I’ll do that, too. And I’ll spread the word.”
“To whom?” Rufus said.
Thrym smiled. “There are others who share my… interest in these tunnels. There’s a good chance we’ll find your friends. That is if they didn’t end up in the Fire Warrens. But let’s get moving. I’ve got work to do.”
* * *
They spoke little during the torchlit march. Thrym whispered to them of the carvings and arches they passed. There were fountains and alcoves with benches, stairs and ramps and columns hewn from the stone.
“The old mastery had faded by the time this project was begun,” he told them. “After Thárrowfend was lost the pride just went out of it. His daughter, Queen Fulda, turned to other matters, started playing it safe where tunneling was concerned. The craft went into decline and never recovered. The Griffin Stair is a monument, of course, but the finest work, the very best, is said to be at Dwarvenhearth, wherever that is, made by the dwarves of yore, when Weln was queen of the griffins.”
Thrym stopped at the top of a wide stair. He cocked his head and listened into the darkness that swallowed the steps. Nothing stirred. He nodded and pointed with his thumb.
“There’s your way out,” he said. “Down those steps and into the Great Cave. You’re just in time for sunrise. Once you’re out, head north. Look for Hixima. She’ll help you. Keep a clear watch for giants. Good luck. I hope you don’t get killed.”
Thrym turned and walked back into the tunnel. Rufus and Shilo watched his light vanish around the bend. The sound of his steps faded. Thrym was gone.
At the bottom of the stair was a high ledge in the back of an enormous cave. A narrow stair led down to the floor of the cave, where huge mineral columns reached up to the ceiling. At the cave mouth, they stood and looked out. The star shone clear and below it the sun was rising on a wide, snowy valley that glittered with morning.
* * *
Raefer crouched beside his tinderbox, blowing on it. “We can’t put the torch out every time you think you hear something,” he said as an orange glow appeared.
“I did hear something,” Dindra said.
“I’m sure you did,” Raefer said. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just I’m almost out of tinder.”
“I swear I heard a pot clang.”
“The echoes are funny in here,” Raefer said. A small flame sprang up in the tinderbox and he reached for the torch. “I just wish we could be sure before we go snuffing… hey!”
Dindra kicked the tinder box and the dim light vanished.
“Fmmmph!” Raefer said as Dindra clamped her hand across his mouth.
“Quiet!” she whispered. “Look!”
Torchlight flickered in the tunnel head. Dindra hauled Raefer to his feet and they backed away into a side passage. Heavy feet drew near.
A short, broad fellow stopped at the opening to the side passage where Raefer and Dindra were hidden. He wore heavy boots and gloves and a studded leather jerkin. On his head he wore a flat cap with a candle fixed to a mirror on the front. On his back he carried a pack as big as himself with pots and pans and all sorts of things dangling from it. He touched his chin with his finger and frowned.
“Dang,” he said. “Which way was it?”
He turned and took three steps up the tunnel where Dindra and Raefer stood watching. They both held their breath as the light of the candle fell upon them. The young dwarf was frowning and never looked up. He put up one finger as if making a point.
“Ah, yes!” he said, still looking at the ground. He turned and went back the way he’d come.
Dindra and Raefer exhaled together. They listened for a moment. The pots clanged and rattled and the sounds faded into the tunnels.
“Follow him!” Raefer whispered. “He’s getting away!”
They hurried after the dwarf as the light from his candle vanished around bend after bend. The pace quickened until at last they rounded a turn and found total darkness. They took hold of each other’s forearm and pressed ahead. After twenty paces, Dindra stopped.
“This is useless,” she said. “We’ve lost him.”
“Well, now we’re lost for sure,” Raefer said. “Should we light a torch?”
“Good idea,” said a voice and the passage appeared in bobbing light.
From an alcove in the wall stepped the dwarf. In one hand he held a small round shield with a spike in the middle. In the other he held a short, broad sword.
Raefer looked at the candle on the fellow’s cap. “How’d you get that lit so fast?”
“Never mind that,” the dwarf said. “Tell me who you are and why you’re following me—a pair of law breakers, I’ll wager, come here to hide. Well, you’re not gonna rob me anytime soon.”
“Rob you?” Raefer said.
“Sure, only you saw that I was too much for you and you wanted to sneak up behind. But I was too smart.”
Dindra laughed. “Too much for us? You?”
“That’s right. Besides, if you’re not law breakers and fugitives, why are they searching for you?”
“Who?” Dindra said.
“Others, like you,” the dwarf said, pointing at Dindra with his chin. “Only different. These fellows were all marked up with paint.”
“Baruwan,” Dindra said.
Raefer nodded. “You’ve seen them?”
“No,” the dwarf said. “I only heard about ’em. A griffin embassy came to my father’s hall and the subject came up. These friends of yours tried to cross on the Griffin Stair. The griffins turned ’em away. The ambassador said they had spears and nets.”
“They’re not our friends,” Raefer said.
“So, you are running,” the dwarf said.
“Anyone with half their wits would run from Baruwan,” Dindra said. “Oh, all right then, you might as well know. We’re following the star.”
“So am I!” the dwarf shouted and the tunnels rang. His eyes brightened and he smiled wide, opening his arms. He glanced at his sword. “Oh, uh, sorry about that,” he said and he sheathed it. Then he hung the buckler on the side of his pack and opened his arms again. “So you really areoutlaws. If my father knew you were here he’d pop an eyeball. Well, I’m an outlaw, too. Or I will be when they find my note. My name is Nosh, pleased to meet you.”
Nosh shook their hands and Raefer winced from the strength of the young dwarf’s grip.
“Well, it’s good to have companions,” Nosh said. He slapped Raefer on the back and the dryad staggered forward. “Three is better than one or two. Plus, I know the way out of here. You’re not lost anymore, right?”
Raefer winced and tried to smile. “Right.”
Nosh smiled wide. “All we need to do is find Hixima.”
“Hixima?” Dindra said.
“The Warra priestess… lives in a hidden dell north of the Old Mountain. She knows spells and things and reads the planets. Word is she’ll protect us. Let me have those torches.”
Nosh turned away from his new friends and crouched down to the ground. Raefer stepped up behind him and peered over the top of Nosh’s pack. Nosh saw him and hunched down low over his work. “Quit lookin’, will ya?” he said.
Raefer shrugged. “Sorry.”
Shadows fled into the tunnel as Nosh lit the torches. He stood up and handed them to Dindra and Raefer.
“I sure like that hat you’re wearing,” Raefer said.
“I’ve got an extra in my pack you can have, but I’m not digging it out now.”
“Who’s your father, anyway?” Dindra said.
“Thrudnelf, Dwarven King,” Nosh said. “All right, then. Follow me.”
It was cold beneath the mountains and there was a constant dripping sound. They came to knee-deep water and Nosh just stomped through it as though he had not seen it. Dindra shrugged at Raefer and trotted through after. Raefer shook his head and sat down on the ground to take off his boots. Nosh only laughed at Raefer’s loud complaints of frigid water and sharp stones.
“I could’ve told you that,” Nosh said. “That’s why I left my boots on.” He turned and sloshed away into the tunnel.
There was a musty smell in the air and the tunnels were shiny with seeping water. Small patches of fungus grew on the craggy, jagged walls and ceiling. Clusters of capped mushrooms sprouted among the rocks on the floor.
First the mushrooms were small and ordinary. Soon they were ankle deep and Raefer marveled to Dindra about their size. After a time the mushrooms were knee deep, then waist deep, shoulder high and so it went until at last the group was walking beneath the caps of enormous mushrooms the size of trees. Dindra and Raefer gazed up and around, amazed at the vastness of the chamber they were walking in.
“It doesn’t have a ceiling,” Raefer said. “It has a sky!”
“No one knows how far the system goes,” Nosh said. “There aren’t any maps.”
“Can you eat the mushrooms?” Dindra said.
“The big ones are too tough,” Nosh said. “Can’t cut ’em with a hatchet. Some of the smaller ones’ll kill ya. But some you can eat. I can never remember which.”
There were mushrooms of all sizes and shapes and colors. Some had tall caps and narrow stems, others were thick-stemmed with wide, flat, ruffly caps. Some had one cap with many stems, others had one stem with four or five caps. Some were glowing with green or red or blue light. Some wiggled and retracted as the torches passed by. Some made popping sounds, others whistled or hummed. High above, patches of glowing fungus blotched the walls and ceiling of the cave.
“It looks like stars,” Raefer whispered.
Cave after cave full of mushrooms went by. In one, a wide stream flowed through. In another, a waterfall rushed down to a lake with patches of glowing, bulbous toadstool things floating on it.
“Keep your eyes open for boats on the lake,” Nosh said. “The gnomes like to spearfish sometimes.”
“Are they dangerous?” Raefer said.
“Nah, just a nuisance,” Nosh said. “But this is their territory. We, uh, really should have permission to be here.”
“And we don’t,” Raefer said.
“Heck, no. It’s a big deal to get permission. You need all sorts of papers and agreements. My father would have found out for sure.”
“What’ll happen if they catch us?” Dindra said.
“Oh, we’d be in violation of some article of the treaty or other. The important thing is they’d tell my father. Well, we might as well save the torches.”
Nosh snuffed the flame on the narrow path. He tore off a fistful of glowing fungus and held it before him. Dindra and Raefer did likewise. The light lasted for several hours before it faded. Cave after strange, glowing cave went by.
“I could do with a splash of water,” Raefer said.
“Me, too,” Nosh said, walking as he sipped.
“And a rest,” Raefer said.
“Rest?” Nosh said. “Oh, well, if you have to.”
“I wonder how the others are doing,” Dindra said. She frowned and thought a moment before taking a drink.
“They’ll be alright,” Nosh said. “As long as the dwarf guards don’t catch ’em, or the gnomes, or the trolls… and so long as they stay well clear of the Fire Warrens. Come on, rest’s over.”
“What is that, anyway?” Dindra said, capping her water skin as she started forward. “I saw it on the map.”
“The Fire Warrens is where old King Thárrowfend disappeared. It’s a system of tunnels that goes way down, even deeper than the gnomes will go.”
“What’s down there?” Dindra said.
“Nobody knows. It was newly discovered when Thárrowfend vanished. It’s been off limits ever since.”
“Why’d he go there?” Raefer said.
“Searching for some special fire supposed to be burning deep under the mountain. A magic fire they say. My cousin Thrym knows all about it. He’s mad about the whole thing. Careful there, Dindra, that mushroom’ll spit needles out of those tubes on top of it. One hits you and you’ll be asleep for hours. Always amazes me, all the different kinds.”
A deafening cry blared out at them. In a huge clay pot stood a round mushroom the size of a pumpkin, glowing bright blue. It let out such a blast that Dindra, Raefer and Nosh had to cover their ears for the pain of it as they ran away down the path.
“What was that?” Dindra said.
“Trumpet fungus,” Nosh said.
From up ahead came the sound of running feet.
“That way!” called a voice. It was shrill and angry.
“Hide!” Nosh said. “Gnomes see better than cats in the dark!”
Into the dim glow of the luminous mushrooms came folk shorter than Nosh, wiry and nimble, carrying torches and spears and knives. They had dark skin and large eyes and blue paint on their fierce faces. The leader stopped and peered into the mushrooms on both sides of the path. Then he waved his troop forward and the gnomes ran off up the trail.
Nosh shook his head as he stepped into the open. “I should’ve known they’d have some kind of sentry this close to the shaft.”
“So we’re near the end?” Dindra said.
Nosh gave a nod, still looking up the path where the gnomes had gone.
“How far?” Raefer said.
“Half a mile, maybe,” Nosh said. “They think we were headed in but they’ll figure it out. We don’t want to be here when they do.”
“I thought you said they weren’t dangerous,” Dindra said.
“Well, they are,” Nosh said. “Now let’s get going before they decide to double back.”