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Chapter 15

A Flash of Gold in the Dark

The next day Cheryl and her friends said good-bye to the Trastille Elves. The elves wept and bade them peace on their way. Even Emrey's eyes were not dry as he said farewell to the children who had come to mean much to him.

The child Ralph had rescued from death, the little elf-maid named Elmirie, presented her hero with a bouquet of wildflowers like the ones plaited in her light brown hair and kissed his cheek. "Thank you for saving me," she said in her clear musical treble. Ralph turned red, but took the flowers and thanked her.

Viara had volunteered to travel with the children to meet the Dwarves who would lead them through Mount Shimron Meron, though Emrey had to stay with his people. The elf-maiden would stay with them at least until they met some Dwarves, but then she, too, must return to the Trastille.

Leaving the Bluewood came hard to the four children. They had grown to love the freshness and green life of the wood, despite the many dangers they had encountered. The spirit of love was strong in the wood, and they had come to depend on the bluish glowing of the trees at night for comfort and refreshment. Cheryl knew the rest of their journey wouldn't be half as pleasant.

Now they faced the tall peak of Shimron Meron. Viara led them up a meandering path that threaded among the gravelly spots and jagged boulders. Unlike most mountains, Shimron Meron had no vegetation. There was only the barren, flame-scorched valley in which they'd fought the dragon, then the cliff of the mountain. Farther down the valley from where the dust of the dragon still lingered, the cliff angled back so that an ascent was possible, and it was here the path was set.

The rough trail was narrow and twisting, and while there were no pebbles under foot to make slipping inevitable, the path's steepness and roughness called for great effort on the part of the climbers. Viara's woodsman's stamina stood her in good stead, and active Arim was close behind her, but Cheryl the book-lover and Lenny the scholar struggled to match their pace, and Ralph lagged ever farther behind, still weary and sore from his fight with the Katamobe the day before.

Lenny glanced back once, and was instantly sorry. Twenty feet down the trail he glimpsed Ralph's white, sweaty face and beyond that… down was the right word for it. They'd barely traveled half a mile up Shimron Meron's slope, but it was plenty far enough to make Lenny's head spin. He dared not look back again.

They stopped once to rest. The others were alarmed to see how far behind Ralph had fallen. When he finally reached them a full ten minutes later, they were rested and ready to go, but the green-eyed boy was panting and sweaty, his face pale with effort and tight with pain.

Lenny drew out Chumégal in an effort to relieve his brother's suffering, but the jewels did not shine of themselves. There was no effect on Ralph's hurts.

Lenny frowned. "I desire to help you, Ralph," he said. "I dislike seeing you in pain. It--it disturbs me."

Ralph shook his head. "Sometimes you just have to live with it," he gasped out. "I'll be all right."

"I don't like it, Aim growled, putting an arm protectively around his friend's shoulders. "It isn't fair."

"Few things in the universe are," Viara murmured casually, though her forehead was creased with concern. "For example, by all rights it should be seasoned warriors like Chaeremon, Tirzah, and Emrey who are preparing to battle Ryoo, not you children."

"Yet we are chosen," Cheryl replied. "Who can fathom the wisdom behind the decisions of our High King?" She shook her head. "Surely not I. But the most foolish foolishness of Abba is wiser than the wisest wisdom of us earthly creatures. The Maker knows what he is doing, and Ralph is right, sometimes we must bear our hurts and go on. But I really wish Ralph didn't have to."

"Well, from now on one of us must be sure and stay by Ralph," Lenny said authoritatively. "Help him over the rough spots, catch him when he stumbles, encourage him when he falters, and generally be a shoulder to lean on."

Cheryl nodded. "An excellent suggestion. I volunteer to stick with Ralph, the rest of you go ahead."

"No," Lenny said decisively. "I'll stay by him and help him. You all must continue on."

"Hey! I'm his best friend! I say I should be the one." Arim stuck out his chin stubbornly.

Viara chuckled gently. "Then we're agreed. We'll stay together and go only as quickly as our injured friend can manage, and we'll all help him. We shouldn't separate. It only gets more dangerous from here."

So passed the morning. Ralph had no lack of helping hands and 'shoulders to lean on.' Someone took his pack, and he found the going made easy by his friends, who made every possible effort to help. They traveled quite rapidly in this manner, each helping and encouraging each other, with special consideration for Ralph. He was feeling quite buoyant with good spirits again, and hardly felt the pain that had so terribly gripped him before.

They had left the aura of love inherent in the Bluewood, but seemed to carry a piece of it with them. Even the most fiery among them were loving and gentle, going out of their way to make the load easier for their neighbor.

Thus they came companionably to the cave that led into the tunnels of Shimron Meron. The entrance was pitch dark, but carefully carved in an oval shape and obviously made by hand rather than nature. Above the cave the slope steepened enough to make ascending it impossible without mountain-climbing gear, but the black cave was no more inviting.

Viara frowned. "This is odd," she said slowly. "The dwarves usually have torches burning at the entrance, and more lighting the path to their dwelling places that none may lose their way."

Cheryl blinked, trying to pierce the dark gloom with her eyes, but she couldn't see beyond two feet inside. "That is strange," she replied. "But what will we do for light?" As soon as she asked the answer came to her. "Morrévril!" She drew the great sword and, as she thought, it was shining brilliantly with a pure golden light.

Viara's face lit up. "Come, follow me," she said, gesturing for the Terran girl to walk by her. "I can lead you to the Dwarves' dwellings."

The unflickering radiance of the tibian blade cast clear shadows on the smooth-hewn walls of the tunnel. Unlit torches measured their passage every ten paces and the bright oval of the entrance quickly vanished behind them as the tunnel curved gently upward.

They continued on a slight uphill slant for several hours. When the tunnel quite suddenly leveled and branched into two passages, Viara was perplexed.

"I remember not this split," she said, tracing with a slender hand the dwarf-rune above the left-hand branch. "Only once have I entered the domains of our dwarven allies."

Cheryl shuddered imperceptibly and held the glowing Morrévril closer to herself. There was something… something wrong, here. She could not put her finger on what bothered her, but a horrible miasma of dread enfolded her heart.

"We needn't choose our path immediately," said Lenny reasonably. "Let's take a few moments to consider our options."

"Yeah," said Ralph and Arim simultaneously, Ralph because he was tired and Arim for a different reason. "I'm hungry," the Maychorian boy finished. "Let's have lunch now."

"Good idea." "An excellent suggestion." "I concur."

They ate.

For a while they wavered between the left tunnel and the right one. The right curved down, and Viara was pretty sure the dwarven village was deeper down, but the left one bore that rune…. What did the strange sign mean? None of them knew dwarvish.

The left passage continued level, and from it they could feel a cool fresh breeze. The right seemed darker than the other did, and down it the air seemed heavy and still--not quite oppressive, but rather stuffy.

What decided them were the torches. So far unlit torches had marked their path on one wall or the other about every ten paces. They could see none of the thick branches in the right tunnel, but in the left the torches continued.

Cheryl remained silent through the debate the others waged. She still had a premonition of evil, but she had no idea which choice was right. Morríenna seemed to have failed her, not informing her of everything, just giving her this vague impression of wrongness.

The silver-steel locket grew heavy, and the point of Morrévril slipped toward the ground. "Here, Lenny," Cheryl gasped. "You take a turn carrying the sword."

Lenny's eyes lit, and he eagerly accepted the sword. Then they began down the dark tunnel to the left. Lenny led with Viara close behind, then Arim, Ralph, and Cheryl strung out behind them in the passageway, which had narrowed.

Cheryl did not voice her thoughts, as she believed them to be silly, but that haze of dread remained. She stayed silent as the path continued smooth and level, but narrower, and she dared not speak of her trouble, even as the light breeze became cold and cutting and unlit torches ceased to mark their progress. The walls were bare--and rough! Up to now, the dwarf-mined tunnels had been amazingly smooth, but now they looked much more natural.

The tunnel had broadened slightly, but some of the doubt Cheryl felt showed in Viara's face. Soon the passage was broad enough to walk three abreast, but Viara put her hand on Lenny's shoulder to stop him, and the five companions halted.

Viara's face was troubled. "Something is not right," the elf-maiden said slowly. "I do not like it."

"Why, what's wrong, Viara?" Ralph asked, as Arim chimed in, "What is wrong?"

"I don't think this tunnel was mined by our dwarf-friends. Theirs are smooth and level. Two can walk abreast, and the ceiling is a scant six feet from the floor. But see! The walls are rough, the floor uneven, the roof far above our heads! It is very odd. I feel a lingering sense of danger. We must turn back."

Before Cheryl could voice her affirmation of the elf-maiden's caution, Ralph spoke. "Why?" he asked. "If it turns out to be a dead end we can always go back. And what could hurt us? I have my dagger, and Cheryl has her sword, and we have these neat jewels. Nothing bad will happen."

"No," Cheryl said. "It feels like the rotten spot, and the valley where you fought the dragon. This fear that holds me so--it is like that I felt in the presence of the Katamobe."

"See? That was just a spell! If I hadn't fought, we all woulda died! This fear you have now is the same way--a lie! There's nothing to be afraid of!"

"But as you said, we might have died," Cheryl argued softly. "Surely there was some truth in the spell."

"That's what makes Katamobe spells so bad," Ralph argued stubbornly. "There's that little bit of truth in it. But we were all right then, and we'll be okay now. Maybe there is a little danger, but we can handle it."

"Speaking of which," Viara interrupted, "you were hurt, Ralph. Why do you wish so badly to put yourself in another dangerous situation? Surely you do not enjoy pain."

"I'm all right," the little boy said stubbornly. "Sometimes you have to face the danger."

"Yes," Cheryl said gently, "but this is not one of them. Your courage is bordering on the fool-hardy."

Ralph was rather irritated, but he answered calmly, for him. "What if this is the way to the dwarves' houses? Maybe they were attacked like the Trastille village! Didn't you say that the village felt like the rotten spot, too? The dwarves might be in awful danger, and we're just standing here! Let's go!"

Viara was silent for a moment, considering his statements, holding Ralph's sleeve to prevent his continuing without them. "Lord Ralph's arguments have merit," she said at last. "I feel we must continue this way, at least until we find what is causing this fear. But your doubts are also credible, Cheryl. I still feel badly. I do not like this."

"Neither do I," concurred the other girl, shuddering.

"We'll be all right," Arim said, faithful to his Terran friend.

Cheryl shook her head slowly. Lenny hesitantly put his hand on her shoulder.

"I agree with Arim," Lenny said softly. "Don't you feel this deep peace that I do?"

"No," answered his sister sadly. She favored him with a wan smile. "Perhaps this is an area in which you can help me, instead of vice-versa."

He returned her smile, then stuck his hand back in his pocket.

Arim took a turn carrying Morrévril, and they continued en masse.

Despite his fatigue, Ralph was not about to bely his courageous attitude. He stayed close at Arim's heels.

Cheryl still anticipated nothing but disaster, but the two boys were unquenchable. Arim relinquished Morrévril to Viara to play tag with Ralph, despite the girls' warnings. At first they were content to circle around the other three, laughing in their game, but Ralph soon took off ahead down the dark tunnel, Arim close behind.

"Wait! Ralph, Arim, wait!" Cheryl cried, but they did not heed her.

She felt a sudden urge, as if someone was pushing her. Run Cheryl! You have to catch up with Ralph! Now! She took off, and despite her heaving sides ran headlong. Morríenna shone almost white, lighting her way, but she hardly noticed.

Run! Ralph needs you! Dread pinching her heart, Cheryl flew down the tunnel, faster than she had ever run before. "Eagle swiftness be lent to your feet…" a line from the Allistrey blessing whispered in her mind.

It really did seem that the speed of an eagle was lifting her tired feet. As the tunnel grew light with the last rays of a setting sun, Cheryl caught up with and passed Arim, who was flabbergasted to see the chubby girl beating him.

Less than thirty seconds after the urgent dread had first seized her, Cheryl passed out of the tunnel and onto a steep ledge at the edge of a cliff. She stopped short and barely managed to prevent falling over. Where was Ralph?

"Help!" a tiny, desperate voice cried.

White-knuckled fingers were gripping the edge of the cliff. "Ralph!" Cheryl fell on her knees and grabbed the boy's hands.

"Cheryl…" Ralph's voice was very small and frightened. "Cheryl, I was never scared of heights before…."

Despite their dangerous predicament, Cheryl chuckled. "Me neither. But just hold on to me, all right? You'll be okay."

The girl flattened down on her stomach tried to inch back on the pebbly ridge, but Ralph's weight on her arms pulled her forward, so that soon she had a beautiful view of the sheer, thousand foot drop. Her shoulders were now over the edge of the cliff, and she could see her brother's pale face at the end of both their arms.

"Ch-Cheryl--I'm scared…."

"So'm I," she said through gritted teeth. Her arms were starting to ache, and her loose hair was getting in her eyes.

Cheryl looked up and saw nothing but rocks. The tunnel had exited on the north side of Shimron Meron, and here it dropped sharply down. A quarter of a mile away was the rocky slope of the mountain next to Shimron Meron. To her right the two mountains curved gently, then joined each other a quarter of a mile east. Far away and down to her left, she saw the blue glow of the forest shining a hail to the coming night.

Ralph clutched so desperately Cheryl thought her finger bones would break. She squeezed back. It had to be horrible, just hanging suspended in mid-air with nothing but air beneath and nothing preventing death but one set of young, whitened hands.

At that moment the rest of their group stepped cautiously out of the tunnel and onto the ledge. Cheryl peeked over a shoulder at the sound of footsteps on loose rock, and the movement caused her to slip further forward.

"Whoa!" Ralph shouted as he jerked crazily at the end of the human rope.

"Hang on!" Cheryl cried. Sweat dripped into her eyes, stinging fiercely and blocking her view. She wished to heaven she could wipe it away.

"Lenny, are you there?" she called, not risking another glance back.

He came to her side. "I'm here, Cheryl. What can I do?"

"Unbuckle the belt and scabbard around me and lower it to Ralph. Hurry!"

As Cheryl continued slipping over, Lenny did as she asked, so quickly his fingers got in the way of each other. In seconds the tough leather scabbard was dangling by Cheryl, and the belt snaked over the cliff until it was sufficient to reach Ralph.

"Grab it!" Cheryl called to her white-faced brother. The little boy was heavier than he looked, and red pain had blossomed in her shoulders.

Ralph managed to loosen his death grip on her with one hand, and she almost yelped as all the weight hung from one already stretched-to-the-limit arm. She suddenly hung lopsided and slid father. Only her legs prevented both her and Ralph from a fatal fall. In her Maychorian boots of supple leather her toes dug for a nonexistent brace in the gravel-covered rock.

Ralph's body swung a little in the chilling night breeze as the sun disappeared beyond the Bluewood. He stretched upward for the belt, grasping frantically. "I can't reach!"

"I'm holding the very end!" Lenny cried. But he flattened down on the cliff so a few more precious inches snaked down. In a sudden fit of wisdom, Arim sat on the gray-eyed boy's legs to prevent him from falling over, as well. Unfortunately, no one thought to do the same for Cheryl.

At last Ralph grabbed the belt, but not before Cheryl had slipped farther. He let go of her hand just in time to see her fall inches from him!

"Cheryl!" He grabbed for her and missed.

Cheryl was far too terrified to scream. I'm definitely dead, she thought, watching the dark cliffs flash by.

Then she heard Viara call in a language she didn't know yet understood, "Falkor! Madra needs you, Prince of Eagles!"

Cheryl saw the jagged boulders rushing up at her and mentally braced herself for the impact. She wasn't altogether disappointed. Gold flashed into her vision, and she slammed into something feather-soft and iron-hard at the same time. Then black closed in around her, and her memory faded as gently as the coming night had immersed Mount Shimron Meron in shadows. She knew no more….

Someone was holding her hand. She was surrounded by softness, but it was firm, supporting, like a thick comforter on a granite slab. These two things she was absolutely certain about, but she was sure of nothing else. Was she alive?

As if in answer, a soft childish voice said, "Is she okay? Is she alive? She lies so very still…."

A voice so deep it reminded Cheryl of the black depths of a wishing well she'd once peered down replied, "She will live. She is hurt and sick of body and heart, but she will live. I doubt not she is as strong as thee, young dragon-slayer."

Yes, she would live. But it was at that moment she realized she was in awful pain. It was as if a giant had picked her up and shaken her until her teeth rattled, then dropped her into a pile of rocks. At least she wasn't dead. Could she move?

Cheryl tried the experiment. She managed to move a little finger, then slightly grip back on the hand that held hers, but her eyelids remained stubbornly closed, and her voice refused to work.

"She squeezed my hand!" Ralph's excited voice would have made Cheryl smile if she weren't hurting so badly.

Then she sensed his head move closer to hers, and felt the warmth of his breath on her face. "Cheryl? You in there? You've had a rough time… how are you feeling?"

At last her eyes opened. She smiled a little. "Ralph--you never change, do you?"

His concerned face grew longer in a frown, then suddenly brightened. It was like the sun came out. "Of course not, Cheryl! I'm even worse than before!"

Cheryl almost laughed. "Silly Ralph. You're better than you've ever been."

He grinned, then moved back so she could see the owner of the deep voice. It was a short man with a long gray beard and smiling brown eyes. "Greetings, Lady," he said. "I am Aláric, healer of the dwarven people. Thou art in the Chambers of Healing, and thy valiant brother has received my attentions as well. The rest of thy company is being entertained elsewhere."

These few lines put Cheryl's mind at rest. She had indeed wondered about the others. Curiosity overcame the pain now she had a chance to look around.

The Chamber of Healing she was laid in was a smooth-hewn, round-domed cave. The brown rock was lit by a bright fire that burned in the center of the cave, and on the far wall she saw shelves filled with dried herbs and bottles of colorful glass, some empty and some not.

With a sudden shudder Cheryl remembered her fall through the air. How had she survived?

"How did I get here?" she asked. "The last thing I remember is falling toward the rocks, and then a flash of gold, and I struck something. What happened?"

"Viara called her eagle," Ralph answered. "Cheryl, I was so scared! I thought you would die, and I couldn't stand it! But then Falkor, a big golden eagle, swooped down and caught you on his back. You were still hurt pretty badly. The minute Lenny and Viara hauled me up on the cliff, I went and passed out, too. When I woke up I was here, and as soon as Aláric would let me I got up and came over to you. And then you woke up. And here we are. How do you feel?"

"Pretty bad. Everything hurts. But what about you? I can't remember that you've ever fainted in your life!"

"Boy, I don't know. I haven't taken time to think about myself." Ralph looked at the dwarf beside him. "How am I doing, Healer Aláric?"

Aláric smiled. "Thy body has been healing steadily these three days thou has been in my care, Lord Ralph. But it would be best if thou slept yet a little longer. I see by thy face thy wounds still pain thee. Go and lie down now. I will care for thy sister, do not fear."

Ralph obeyed with reluctance, pressing Cheryl's hand and offering a cheerful grin before going to rest.

"And how am I doing, Healer Aláric?" Cheryl asked, echoing Ralph.

Aláric's voice was deep and soft and gentle. There was no more soothing sound in the world, she was sure. "My Lady, thou'rt not seriously injured. A few ribs were broken, an ankle sprained, and there are many bruises, but thou mayst continue thy journey in a few days. I doubt that not thou art in a great deal of pain. Now thou must rest. Sleep, heal, and fear not. Thou art in the Chambers of Healing, and thou art safe."

The soothing warmth of Aláric's words was almost a lullaby, and Cheryl drifted gently off.

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