The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 8

The Theban Trilogy Cover
The Theban Trilogy Cover

The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 8

By Tony DeLorger © 2011


CHAPTER EIGHT

’RETURN TO IBA’

Arlin contained the sacred crystals in the casket taken from Mangarna’s chamber. He locked and secured it in his pack, which he carried strapped to his back. As he trudged through the cold, white landscape, he felt their power against him. They gave him strength with every step, while Pen’s frail image continuously flashed in his mind, urging him on.

Thankfully there was little wind, but a definite sharpness to the air. With each breath came a burning in the lungs and with each exhalation the air almost crystallised. Arlin pulled down the jus over his ears; even the effort of the trek was not keeping the cold out. Arlin looked lovingly at Desta; Toran had given her a tarka fur coat and she appeared lost within its thick covering.

The incline increased as they climbed from the gully floor and up ahead some distance away, rose the top of the gully ridge. Weather allowing, they would reach it by the beginning of twilight. Several caves were just beyond the ridge, perfect for their first camp site and offering ideal protection from the wind.

As they drew closer the vegetation changed, becoming denser. Sparse scrub suddenly turned to masses of thickets, with patches of conifer saplings reaching upward, competing for the light. Their branches creaked under the weight of the white cover that adorned them and occasionally the weight would become too much and icy white clumps would fall heavily to the ground, followed by a mist of white powder. Jaff muttered under his breath, having just been struck by one. The others tried desperately to contain their laughter as he cursed, angrily brushing the cold flakes from his hair and beard.

Arlin looked up ahead and saw the first of the grey rocky outcrops that marked the beginning of the ridge and the plateau beyond. One by one they pushed and dragged one another over the coarse stones and finally alighted at the top, a little before twilight. They all sat for a while exhausted from the climb and drank some water. Arlin sat Desta with Kaelin and took to the air, scouting ahead to find a suitable cave in which to spend the twilight.

Meanwhile, Orla sat propped up against a broad tree trunk, his face flushed and wet from exertion.

‘I’m getting too old for this,’ he said, still a little out of breath. Toran ambled across and leant over him.

‘Or maybe it’s just this?’ he said, patting Orla’s huge stomach. Orla replied with a swift kick to the shin but Toran, young and fleet-footed as he was, sidestepped the blow and did a little jig, with a cheeky grin on his face.

The trees became even taller and thicker as Arlin flew across the plateau and eventually he gave up the flight and landed in the thick white cover. It was almost two feet deep, which made moving through it difficult. Further up ahead beyond a clump of conifers, Arlin saw a rocky rise and in it appeared a large alcove, perhaps a cave. He changed direction and headed toward it. ‘This may do it,’ he muttered, as he struggled through the icy cold cover.

Strangely his pack suddenly felt heavier, as if it were holding him back. He thought that he probably should have left the crystals with Kaelin, but on the other hand they were his responsibility, so on his back they remained.

The weight was becoming even more uncomfortable and Arlin stopped to adjust the straps of his pack. The balance seemed wrong somehow and he tried to move the casket into a better position. As he did, Arlin noticed a strange rumbling beneath him. He heard a low resonating hum that was increasing, and he looked down with a perplexed expression, trying to figure out what it was. Then, without warning, a crack appeared in the cover beneath his feet. Accompanying it, a grinding wailing sound that grew in intensity as the crack opened wider and branched out in front of him.

Then the sound stopped, and for a moment Arlin thought it was over. To his surprise the ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet and he found himself falling helplessly into a deep cavern. Unable to spread his wings to save himself, having just tucked them away under the pack, he plummeted through the blinding cloud of white and eventually came to rest on a narrow ledge twenty feet below. He lay on his side unconscious, with the casket thrown from his backpack, teetering on the end of the ledge.

As the cloud of white powder subsided, the gravity of the fall became clearer. Behind Arlin was a cave entrance and below a cavern so deep no end to it was visible. There, right at the edge of this precipice, sat the sacred crystals.

Orla was growing impatient and took another drink from his gourd. ‘Arlin’s taking his time,’ he said, a little concerned. The other Terras seemed ambivalent and merely shrugged at him. Kaelin was not so calm and quickly got to his feet.

‘Take care of Desta, I’ll check,’ he said, dashing off in the direction Arlin had gone. Desta also became worried; it was not like Arlin to be this long.

‘He’ll be fine,’ added Nolt, not the slightest bit concerned.

Kaelin kept on going in the general direction Arlin had flown which had of course left no sign of his passage. On and on Kaelin went until at last he discovered Arlin’s footprints in the deep icy cover. It was deep there and Kaelin, who was much smaller than Arlin in stature, found wading through it hard going. His legs began to feel numb; the tarka fur boots he was wearing made little difference. Then up ahead he saw a jagged opening in the cover, and instinctively turned toward it.

Gingerly he stretched his neck over the edge and peered down into the opening. To his amazement he saw Arlin below, unconscious on a small ledge. ‘Arlin!’ he shouted frantically, but there was no response. Kaelin saw the casket resting precariously on the edge of the stone platform, and his eyes widened, the panic rushing through his mind like a torrent of water.

‘Don’t move!’ he screeched and dashed off to get the others.

He ploughed through the soft dense cover as fast as he could, and when he arrived back he was so distressed and out of breath that he could barely speak. He bent over with his hands on his knees, panting heavily with clouds of condensed air streaming from his mouth and into the chill.

‘What’s wrong?’ snapped Toran, as they all crowded around. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Arlin...he’s fallen. He’s in trouble,’ Kaelin replied, trying to steady his breathing.

The Terras quickly grabbed their packs and with Desta, headed off through the pitted cover. Kaelin steadied himself, took a deep breath, then followed closely behind.

They were now all peering down into the cavern where Arlin remained in the same position. Jaff hurriedly removed a plaited rope from his pack and leapt over to the other side of the opening. He secured one end of the rope to a nearby tree and then gently eased the rope down. It barely reached the ledge below but would have to do. Jaff pulled tightly on the rope to check the tension, then looked at the others.

‘Arlin!’ cried Desta. There was still no response.

Jaff knelt down at the edge of the opening with a good grip on the rope, just about to descend when the sound of movement came from below. Jaff hesitated and all eyes turned back down to Arlin.

From the cave opening behind Arlin, appeared a huge clawed paw. It slowly extended out and covered the casket, gently dragging it back into the cave. As it passed by Arlin, he began to come to, and half lifted his head trying to focus. Before him was a large scaled creature, inspecting something in its paws. It suddenly turned and with a swish of its tail disappeared into the cave.

Arlin, still blurry-eyed and confused, suddenly felt the weight missing from his back. ‘The crystals!’ he yelled, looking down into the cavern below.

‘Arlin, are you all right?’ shouted Desta. Arlin looked up in a panic. ‘The crystals, where are the crystals?’

‘The cave, in the cave!’ bellowed Nolt. Arlin peered into the darkness but saw nothing, then looked back up in confusion.

‘Wait, we’re coming down!’ shouted Jaff. Arlin signalled in recognition and waited. Toran remained with Kaelin and Desta and the three Terras lowered themselves down to the ledge and Arlin below.

‘That creature has the crystals,’ said Orla, nervously. Arlin rubbed his face trying to clear his head.

‘What is it?’ asked Nolt. Arlin looked up.

‘I didn’t get a good look, but whatever it is, it’s big,’ finished Arlin.

‘Great!’ added Jaff. ‘Just what we need.’

Arlin knelt down and found some of the creature’s footprints. ‘It went this way,’ he said, pointing down an adjoining passage.

Jaff took a torch from his pack and with his fire stone quickly ignited it. The passage lit up and Jaff moved to the front with Arlin.

‘I hope it’s not another Gerf,’ he said. ‘Facing one in a lifetime, is enough.’

Arlin all but ignored the comment; his mind preoccupied with the crystals. They had all come so far, and now this. The responsibility he felt, sat squarely on his shoulders alone and now, whatever this was, he would have to deal with it to redeem himself.

As they quietly moved through the passageway it broadened, then suddenly forked into two. The ground beneath them was solid rock and there was no obvious sign of the creature.

They peered down both tunnels wondering which way to go then, in a stroke of luck, they heard a sound echo from the left tunnel.

‘Come on,’ whispered Jaff, entering the black opening.

They hesitantly moved into the darkness wondering what hideous creature awaited them. The dim torchlight offered only a few feet of vision and they remained on guard and ready for anything.

A hundred feet along the passage a dim light appeared in the distance. As they drew closer they realised it was a well-lit chamber. They entered it with some trepidation but were surprised to find many torches on the walls, bedding and food stores.

‘Who could possibly live here?’ Arlin enquired, dumbfounded.

Another smaller adjoining chamber came into view as they entered. An unusual bluish white light emanated from it, and the gentle trickle of water echoed throughout the chamber. Arlin moved towards it with the Terras close behind. There, in the centre of the chamber, was a stone font. From the font bubbled a fountain of cool, clear water. The soft light was emanating from the water itself and it glistened in its own clarity and purity.

‘Welcome to the Font of Melas,’ boomed a voice from within the chamber.

Arlin edged back, the Terras huddled behind him.

‘Who’s there?’ shouted Orla, his spear held at the ready.

There was no reply. Arlin moved ever so slowly toward the font and as he drew nearer into its light, he saw the casket on a small shelf behind it. Arlin’s eyes lit up.

‘Wait here,’ he whispered, and then stepped silently around the font toward the casket. As he passed it, a sudden movement to his left alerted him. Arlin withdrew his knife and leaned back against the stone, waiting for whatever it was to reveal itself.

To his amazement the large scaled creature that he had seen so fleetingly, stepped out into the light. It towered over Arlin, its long slender neck bending down to address him. Its massive head was dragon like and its broad mouth revealed long sharp teeth.

‘Welcome!’ the creature said in a most pleasant deep voice, bowing respectfully. Arlin leant further back, not believing what he had just heard. He nervously mumbled something but nothing legible came out. The three Terras had assumed battle stance, down on one knee with spears ready.

‘I do apologise if I scared you, I’m not used to having company,’ the creature explained with a soothing tone. ‘Welcome to the ‘Font of Melas’, I am the humble guardian of the font. I am so glad you have come. You do not know of the great service you have done. The crystals, they have saved the font,’ he followed with a reptilian smile.

Arlin straightened himself, nervously. ’You can talk?’ he said, taken aback by this eloquent, congenial reptile.

‘Of course I can talk!’ he snapped, ‘I suppose looks can be deceiving.’ Arlin moved closer to get a better look.

The creature was even larger than Arlin had first thought. It was covered with coarse brown scales that sat in neat rows and looked something like the cover of a pinecone. Its massive girth tapered to a long slender neck and tail, with sharp jagged protrusions running along its spine. The creature’s head revealed small ears, large flared nostrils and enormous round soulful eyes. The two rows of long, razor-sharp white teeth only confused them, being in complete contrast to its congenial nature. This was no beast. On the contrary this was an intelligent and polite being, not what one would expect in the depths of a dark, moist cave.

The huge creature moved over to the casket and gently picked it up, its long tail swishing by Arlin, almost knocking him off his feet. ‘Sorry!’ he said apologetically.

‘These crystals have once again brought life back to the font,’ he followed, turning to Arlin and handing him the casket. ‘I was beginning to think that everything would die, but thankfully I was wrong.’

‘You are returning the sacred crystals?’ he asked.

‘Yes, to the Diva,’ replied Arlin with a smile. The creature looked pleased, and then his expression became more serious.

‘Are you injured?’ the creature enquired, ‘from your unfortunate fall.’

Arlin moved his shoulder and grimaced. ‘Only a few bruises,’ he replied squinting a little from the pain. The creature took a small cup in its huge claws and carefully filled it in the bubbling font, then turned to Arlin.

‘I am sorry, it was the only way I could get close to the crystals,’ he began. ‘When I felt their presence, I could hardly believe it. I had just about given up hope. Their power has made the font pure once more and when the crystals are returned to the Diva, they will continue to do their work.’

The creature began to smile. ‘This sacred font has saved many a creature, pure of heart and purpose. It is a symbol of hope,’ he added. ‘And so it will continue to be.’

‘Drink up my friend!’ he said joyfully, passing Arlin the cup.

Arlin looked at the glistening water and without hesitation drank it quickly. It was refreshing and he felt a glow from within. As it pervaded every cell in his body his aches and pains slowly subsided, until after only a moment his shoulder felt healed, with not an inkling of pain remaining.

‘I feel fine,’ he said hardly believing his miraculous recovery. The creature began to laugh heartily.

‘Drink up, all of you!’ he chuckled. ‘Take your fill!’

One by one they all drank the life-giving elixir, each in turn singing its praises, filling themselves and their gourds. The creature, amused, revelled in their enthusiasm.

After they finished, Arlin turned to their host.

‘I thank you,’ he said with warmth in his voice.

‘Ah, I thank you my friends. You are bringing life back to Thebos, you are righting a great wrong,’ he added, leaning down closer to Arlin. ‘And you can call me Pen,’ whispered the creature with a cheeky grin.

‘What did you say?’ asked Arlin, not believing his ears.

The creature raised its head and turned to the others and spoke in a more serious voice. ‘You must join your friends now, they will be wondering what has happened to you.’ Arlin was studying the creature’s face, hardly believing what he’d said.

‘The entrance to this chamber will soon close, you must hurry!’ insisted the creature.

Arlin snapped out of his malaise and quickly secured the casket into his pack. Still with a perplexed look on his face he thanked the creature and left hurriedly, with the Terras not far behind. The huge creature smiled broadly and watched them disappear into the tunnel.

As they reached the entrance by the ledge, the walls of the cavern began to tremble and creak. Kaelin peered down worriedly. ‘Have you got them?’ he shouted. Arlin waved, almost losing his footing as the ground shook beneath him.

‘Quickly!’ screamed Desta.

Jaff, then Nolt scurried up the rope followed by Orla. His ascent was not so sprightly as he kept losing his grip. Everyone was shouting at the poor fellow, as he struggled, inch by inch, with the opening slowly closing over him. Arlin, not a second too soon, placed his pack in one hand, spread his wings, and swooped up grabbing Orla by his belt. With all his might he strained to lift him up, Orla’s thick legs swinging up just as the opening closed tightly shut beneath him. Unable to hold his weight a second longer, Arlin let go, sending Orla face first into the thick, white cover. Arlin recoiled out of control, and joined him. They both sat up laughing and brushing off lumps of ice and snow; relieved they had made it.

Arlin sat there holding tightly to the pack that contained the crystals. He felt like he would never again let them out of his sight. Still a little out of breath, he remained mystified by what had happened and what this reptilian creature had said. Did he say Pen? Had he heard it right?

Orla suddenly interrupted his thoughts. ‘It is getting late, we must find shelter for the twilight,’ he said, still removing white flakes from his clothing.

‘You’re right,’ replied Arlin, helping Desta to her feet, ‘The cave up here should suit our purpose.’

It wasn’t a deep cave but it would shield them from the wind and would provide satisfactory shelter. They collected wood for the fire and quickly set up camp. Fortunately Arlin still carried enough food for himself, Desta and Kaelin, the Terras once again settling for Kabir, and whatever fruit remained.

The Terras often became complacent with kabir, but during the cold periods fresh game was rare and kabir being a dietary staple, often kept them alive in difficult circumstances. It provided protein and energy and its rather strong meaty flavour was not all that unsavoury.

While Kaelin stoked the fire, Arlin and Desta snuggled up together both lost in thought and mesmerised by the flickering flames. Toran and Orla were already asleep, Orla snoring loudly as always, while Nolt and Jaff sat together passing a flask of carna back and forth. No-one spoke. Jaff was lost in thought.

Jaff was a brave Terra and fiercely protective of those closest to him, but he was not a warrior like Nolt. He never enjoyed confrontation; it was more out of need than will. The quest had been long and he had begun to miss his mate Lian, and their little ones Gert and Armus. He kept picturing their grubby little faces and their antics. It brought a smile to his face.

He was not tall for a Terra, of medium build, no longer young but in better physical condition than his elder, Orla. Jaff’s skin was deep brown and smooth, and he wore a full beard, not as long as most Terras. Jaff had a kindness and softness in his eyes the others lacked. He didn’t have the fire of the young Toran but nor did he have the slowing down of Orla. Jaff did what he had to do and did it with the benefit of his age and experience. He was a great asset and loyal friend to each member of the envoy.

Eventually all of their thoughts turned to dreams and the twilight, as it often did, was over in a blink. A chilling breeze howled outside but no white had fallen. The brooding clouds that had gathered were whisked away in the wind leaving only a blanket of twinkling stars above.

When the sun began its lonely and shallow rise into the twilight sky, the clouds had once again gathered and a gentle fall touched the landscape. Arlin was first up and hurriedly packed his belongings. Home was only a twilight away and Desta was still too weak to fly. The font water had made a huge difference but she was still not strong enough and Arlin didn’t want to tax her.

In single file they trudged through the thick cover. Their passage was slow and exhausting, the cover often more than two feet deep. They rested often to drink water and to relieve their aching muscles. The fall continued throughout the waking hours and was at times almost blinding. Even the Terras were showing the strain of the trek.

As the light began to dim and the twilight slowly approached, Arlin’s eyes squinted to peer ahead through the heavy fall. It looked like pine trees in the distance, perhaps the edge of the forest. Thankfully he was right.

‘Look, it’s the forest!’ he shouted, ‘I can’t believe it.’

In front of them was the edge of the great forest, the place where Desta had been abducted. They all stood there for a moment, realising how close they were, then slowly and mindlessly trudged on.

‘We’re going to make it Desta, we’re almost there,’ said Arlin with his arm around her tiny frame. She peered out through the thick tarka fur and smiled, exhausted. A short distance on he had to carry her; she could go no further.

They trudged on and on for hours until at last a dim light appeared in the distance. Arlin blinked several times to clear his eyes and to verify what he was seeing. At last it was Iba; they were home.

As they approached, the ground cover became lighter and they were soon walking on the southern path into the village. Arlin could hear the whooshing of wings overhead and the sound of distant voices. Up ahead he could see the villagers leaving their huts and dashing out to greet them. The voices became louder and louder until he lifted his head to see the entire village rushing excitedly toward them. Elgan’s face stood out from the rest; he wore a smile as broad as the sun.

‘You’ve come back to us!’ he shouted, overcome with emotion. As his father came hurtling toward him, Arlin stood barely upright with an oblivious Desta in his arms, responding with only a pained smile. Elgan slowed down and stopped short of barrelling poor Arlin over.

‘I found her, Father,’ he said, removing the hood from Desta’s face.

‘Desta, she’s alive?’ Elgan said in complete surprise.

From the centre of the crowd came a desperate voice,

‘Desta! Desta!’ the voice cried. It was Tia, Desta's mother. She had all but given up hope of seeing her daughter again and now with this miracle, she pushed her way excitedly through the crowd, the tears rolling down her face. As Tia held Desta, she awoke and promptly burst into tears herself. Arlin eased her feet to the ground as she desperately embraced her mother, their emotions overpowering them.

Arlin then turned to his father. Elgan’s eyes were welling with tears of happiness.

‘I thought we’d lost you, Arlin,’ said Elgan, holding him tightly. Nya and the children burst through the crowd and collided with them both.

Tears of joy fell like rain as the entire village welcomed their returning hero. The villagers swarmed around them, trying to congratulate them personally and give them a well-deserved pat on the back. The Terras laughed heartily and were enjoying the attention as Ephram made his way to the front.

‘We are so glad you are safe, Arlin,’ he said in a warm voice. ‘We have had no word.’

Arlin released his family for a moment and removed the pack from his shoulder. He carefully withdrew the casket and faced Ephram. He unlocked it and opened the lid to reveal the sacred crystals. The crowd hushed in awe of their beauty. Ephram’s expression turned to one of pride and a huge smile beamed from his face.

‘You have all done well,’ he cried almost bursting.

‘And Mangarna?’ he enquired.

‘Banished by King Gob himself,’ Arlin happily reported.

‘He is no longer a threat to anyone.’ The gathering burst into a rousing cheer as a few white flakes began to fall.

‘You need shelter, food and family. We shall talk again on the morrow,’ said Ephram, directing the Terras to the great hall. Arlin kissed Desta gently on her forehead and warmly touched Tia reassuringly.

‘Thank you Arlin, you are a miracle,’ she said with tears in her eyes. Tia then took Desta home to treat her injuries while Arlin, arm in arm with his family, made their way back to their hut.

Jot was full of questions, excitedly circling Arlin and jumping up and down relentlessly.

‘Stop it Jot!’ said Nya sternly, ‘There’ll be time enough later. Arlin’s tired.’

‘It’s fine, I don’t mind,’ said Arlin, relieved to be back home with his family. Lil walked holding tightly on to her brother’s leg, not letting him out of her sight, while both Elgan and Nya could not have been prouder of their son.

A well-stacked fire blazed in the hut, its warm glow inviting Arlin’s triumphant return. After he stowed his gear and placed the crystals in a safe place, he sat quietly in front of the fire while Nya tendered his many bruises and abrasions. Elgan sat contented, finally at peace, something he had not experienced since Arlin’s departure. Jot continued to annoy Arlin with his never-ending questions while Nya kept shushing him. Eventually Jot gave up and left to torture Lil’s flower doll; Lil still attached to her brother’s leg.

Arlin was preoccupied, sifting through the experiences of his journey, not wanting to talk. He desperately needed rest but he was eager to return the crystals to their rightful place. The image of Pen’s frail body weighed heavily on his mind and he remained confused by the creature of the font.

One thought began to drift into another and Arlin slowly drifted off into sleep. Nya helped him to his feet and only half waking him, tucked him into bed. He eased back and immediately fell into deep slumber. Nya adjusted his cover and snuffed the candle out sitting by his bed, then kissed him gently on the cheek and left the room.

By the warmth of the fire Elgan and Nya sat together, giving thanks for the safe return of their son. They comforted each other and quietly celebrated his success, revelling in the enormous pride they both felt.

‘He is no longer a child,’ said Elgan proudly, but with a tinge of sadness to his voice. ‘Soon he will take his chosen one,’ he added. ‘Our job will be over.’

Nya smiled, understanding his melancholia. She gently rubbed his neck, then placed her head on his shoulder and sighed.

The fire flickered softly in the hut, its warm gentle rays enveloping them and giving them a sense of peace. They retired shortly after and held each other throughout the twilight, sharing the love that they had always shared. At last all was back as it should be and their family was once again complete.

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