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Old Jul 3 2012, 11:27 AM   #5
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Default Re: The Case of the Dragon's Den

5. The Search

A few days later the expedition set off. M’tak had jumped south to check and correct his threadfall predictions. A journeyman harper in Nabol had sent a report back to Harper Hall that two lads had hired a large fishing vessel to take them and their runners to the mouth of a river down south. Byrt stated his belief that it would prove to be the one that flowed down past Landing.
With permission from M’tak and Lyza, N’key was allowed to jump back in time so that they arrived a day before the boys were due to land. By nightfall they had flown cross-country to the Vienna-on-Jordan stake hold where they camped for the night. Siluth hunted for his supper: a couple of adult wild milchbeasts. The herd had never seen a dragon before and didn’t realise their danger until it was too late. After that the herd; males, females and youngsters, scattered, bellowing, in all directions.
The two humans built themselves a small fire to warm a number of meat rolls they had brought with them, and to boil some water to make klah. Then they rolled themselves in their cloaks, relaxed back against Siluth, and fell asleep.
They were woken next morning by the rising sun. The fire was kicked into life and the pot of klah put on it to heat up.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Byrt stretching, “it was a lot more comfortable leaning against Siluth here,” slapping him, “than my usual mattress when sleeping out. Runners don’t oblige by spending the night lying still. They wander around and graze.”
N’key laughed. “Pity you didn’t impress then. Think of it, with your own dragon we would have to keep flying you and your menagerie here and there. And, when you wanted to heat up some metal: he could blow a few flames in the right direction.” He laughed again. “Siluth says it sounds like fun. He’d like to melt metal: can he try?”
Byrt looked at Siluth. The dragon’s eyes were whirling gently in shades of blues and greens. “We’ll see old fellow. When we’ve finished this quest.”

-o-0-o-

Plyne and Almore duly arrived south. They climbed down into the skiff that had been towed behind the fishing craft, and their runners were swung hoisted out of the hold and dropped into the sea to swim ashore. Plyne was not best pleased that his runner was so anxious to get ashore that it pulled him out of the boat and towed him ashore. Almore arrived dry and laughing but, by the time his mount had arrived on the river bank he was almost as wet as Plyne.
With the animals tethered, the two ex-apprentices waited for the skiff to return from collecting the rest of their gear. They didn’t know it, but they were already a day and a half behind the official party.
With their gear eventually loaded on their runners, the two climbed on and set off up the valley towards the stake hold named ‘Sydney’ on the map. Quite sensibly they had decided to find the nearest settlement and to stay in any remaining shelter until after the next thread fall. They’d then have a few days to get to Landing and look for more shelter. If necessary they just had time to treat back to Sydney sit out another fall there.

-o-0-o-

To live in a set of caves, the Au Connells would have needed a good water supply so N’key and Byrt were flying along the river valley with Vienna-on-Jordan on their right. They were roughly two thirds of the way along the stake-hold’s border. In the past the river must have been more powerful and it had cut a ravine through the interlocking spurs. In places, where there was softer rock, it had carved out caves but mostly they would be flooded when the spring melt water rushed down to the ocean.
Though there were threads circles in places, they were surprised to find that in the grassy areas these were smaller than they would have expected. Within the few woodlands they overflew there appeared to be very little damage at all visible.
What they were looking for was a cave that would stay dry. Finally they came to a fault line that had caused a ledge to climb gently up across the face of a truncated spur from river level to the plateau above, widening as it rose. Part way up it they could see some openings. On the far side, to the east, the land sloped back from the river and was wooded. But here the bluff, to the west, was steep and bare.
“How about there?” N’key called over his shoulder.
“Best we’ve seen so far: let’s land and see.”
As Siluth banked in to land a large tawny animal, basking among the rocks along the edge of the plateau, leapt to its paws and roared at them.
Siluth flew straight at it and roared back whereupon the animal, joined by half a dozen others, fled across the rocks and disappeared amidst the long grass.
“Shards!” yelled Byrt. “What’s that? I’ve never heard of these. I’m glad we don’t have them in the north.”
“I’ve no idea, but they certainly look like meat-eating predators. Siluth, once we’ve landed I want you on watch up on those rocks.”
The two men approached the caves at the back of the ledge with due caution: after all there might be more of the creatures within.
Armed with glows, Byrt’s sword and N’key’s belt knife, they quickly checked out all four openings, heaving sighs of relief when they proved to be empty: at least for now. They returned to the uppermost cave, a small one, and, ducking under the low lintol, did a slow walk round looking for any evidence of previous human occupancy. Nothing.
“N’key sniffed. “Smells a bit rank.”
Byrt nodded. “At least it’s just a bit animal. It doesn’t actually stink. They don’t seem to foul their lairs.”
Both the first two small caves were bare of evidence but, in the third and largest cave they found some. In one of the many back corners were some pieces of broken pottery; about enough to make a pair of plates and a bowl.
“Well somebody lived here; probably the Au Connells.”
“We’d better record this. I’ll mark it on the map if you make notes in OUR journal.”
“Fine, let’s check out the last cave first though.”
This was the smallest of the set; they had to crouch as they moved around it. Perhaps his investigation of the inscription at Fort Weyr had made him more alert to such things but, in the dancing light of the handheld glows, Byrt caught a glimpse of some markings on the wall.
“Hey, look at this.”
Somebody had scratched at the rock, probably with a knife, it wasn’t cut deep enough to have been done with a chisel. ‘Pat = Tr ...’ they couldn’t read the rest, lichen had spread down the wall and was covering it up.
“There was a Pat O’Connell; one of the younger men.”
“Yes; but didn’t he partner Lally Moorhouse?”
“Yes; but he didn’t meet her till later and further on, when the two families met and joined up together.”
“So; this is just a bit of adolescent passion?”
“I should think so. It does, however, raise the level of probability that this was the Au Connells’ start point.”
“We might as well move on then.”
A bit later, when they had just taken off, N’key shouted back, “I’ll just get Siluth to hover while I fix the view in my memory.”
“Fine. If he can hover long enough I could make a quick sketch of it too.”
As they started to fly away from the river Byrt reminded N’key of the next objective.
“We’re looking for an isolated lump of rock in the middle of the grass.”
“We’d better go really high then to cover a wider area. It should be around two hours out.”
“I agree to us going high. The boys are still the other side of Landing. At least we haven’t got to cover the full circle: just the south-western arc.
Siluth flew forwards climbing higher and higher and a wider and wider area of landscape became visible. Mostly it was grassland with the occasional clump of scrub. Off to the north the land became more rolling with small streams meandering across it. Away to the south the peaks of a mighty range of mountains were illuminated by the morning sun now swinging round to their north. N’key was scanning the arc to the north of their flight line and Byrt, peering over his shoulder, was keeping watch to the south. After roughly a glass and a half, Byrt tapped N’key on the shoulder and pointed. In the distance was an isolated crag: a miniature Red Butte. Siluth banked briefly and started a shallow glide in that direction.

-o-0-o-

Plyne and Almore reached the old Amsterdam stake-hold in the evening twilight. They had not been able to travel as fast as Plyne had optimistically planned. The stretches of open grassland were easily traversed but the riverside woodlands had think undergrowth which drastically reduced their progress.
As they rode along the riverbank, and the afterglow faded away, Plyne’s runner stumbled over a heap of stones in its path. He was busy swearing at the unfortunate animal when Almore interrupted.
“Hey; this heap’s in a straight line. It must be an old wall or something.”
Plyne finally focussed his attention back to their surroundings. There were a whole series of wall; most of them had collapsed, some of them totally. One or two were still standing to a reasonable height. Well away from the river there was a corner of an open sided shed still intact. The stone covered roof still existed, at least in part. The right hand end rested on the collapsed remains of the wall at that flank.
Plyne gazed round. “It could never have been much better than a cothold.”
“Well, they’d only been here a few years. It takes time to found a Hold.”
“If it had been me, the first thing I’d have done was build a grand hall. How else can you establish who’s in charge? Who ever held here must have been a bunch of drudges.”
With their runners hobbled, they finished the cooked meat they had brought with them while a pot of water heated over their fire to provide them with klah. They had picked and eaten a selection of fruit while on route, easily done from runner back, but had saved a few to finish off their evening meal.
Next morning, when they crawled out from under the roof, gave all the signs of being the start of a fine late summer’s day. They had been woken by animal noises. Down by the river, where the bank had been trampled into a ramp, a small herd of wild milchbeasts were drinking. Catching sight of the humans, the bull peered suspiciously at them and then led his herd off at a trot along the bank.
“Shells!” exclaimed Plyne. “I really fancy some fresh meat, and we ate the last of the cooked stuff last night.”
“How were you going to catch and kill one of those? They’re pretty frisky. And, we don’t have a bow, or arrows.”
“Well; we could sort of trap one of youngsters between us and slit its throat.”
“And what do you think the bull would be doing?”
“What do you suggest then?”
“It would be easier to some wherries roost and feed. We could then weave a trap. Or, we could weave a fish trap, or even rig some sort of fish line and catch some river specklies.”
“You’d better do it then: Know-all!”
Almore was feeling more and more upbeat as the domineering Plyne revealed his ignorance of practical matters.
“Well, at least I didn’t spend my boyhood la-di-lahing around a Hold in fancy clothes with other Lord Holder kids. Whenever I could get away from family, I was out with the sons of hold-guards and cot-holders. The older ones used to teach us useful things. Now, we need to water the runners and we don’t know when threadfall’s due, so we need to find a way to get them into some sort of shelter.”
Since you’re so knowledgeable and bossy all of a sudden: you sharding well do it. I’m going to have my breakfast, even if it is only fruit and klah.”

-o-0-o-

As they got close to the butte N’key directed Siluth to fly a lap round it to see whether they could spot the caves used by the Au Connells. In the heat of the day they could see a heat haze shimmering over the butte, and somehow it seemed to cause more turbulence than its size and the gentleness of the prevailing breeze would warrant. They were over half way round and had seen nothing. Siluth was gliding on, using the thermals to stretch his glide, and they were approaching the north-western side when both riders shouted.
“Shells!”
“Oh, no!”
The rock face had fallen away and was piled against the base of the cliffs. The exposed surfaces of the cliff showed clean and fresh against the weathered cliffs elsewhere.
“I hope ...” began Byrt, and then fell silent.
With the rest of the lap completed fruitlessly, N’key told Siluth to land near the rock fall.
“They wrote that their shelters were among fallen rocks. We’ve seen no sign of falls anywhere else. They must be behind this lot.”
“I wonder,” pondered N’key, “why only this corner has had the rockfalls?”
“I expect it’s the weather corner. If the prevailing wind is from the north-west most of the rain will hit this corner. So you’ll have a lot of erosion and frost shattering. We’re not going to find anything here. Let’s go up top and have a look round. Then we might as well head back to Vienna: we’re due for threadfall mid-afternoon. Or do we spend a night back north?”
“Forget threadfall for now; let’s go north. It’s kinder to Siluth than expecting a fighting dragon to sit out threadfall in a cave. Come on let’s mount up and see what’s to be seen from the top.”
They looked around. Off to the west and north, the grass covered gently rolling hills as far as the straight horizon. Here and there small clumps of shrubs and trees occupied shallow valleys where there was sufficient water. It looked hot, dry and lazy.
“No wonder they gave up trying to get to Killarney. There’s no chance of shelter out there.”
To the south the view much the same but, far away, the grass lifted into the foothills of the mountains. To the east, the way they had come, the late morning shadows demarked a dry valley threading between the hills.
“Bet you that was their route in, and out. It’s about the best way for wagons. We couldn’t have seen it from up aloft.” N’key waved a hand at the sky. “Seen enough?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s go then. We’ll hover for a bit for you to exercise your artistic skills before going between.”

-o-0-o-

Fort being far to the west of the search area, it was only mid-morning when Siluth poppede out from between over the Harper Hall. Kandar, along with Sinteen whom he invited to join him, was very pleased with the interim report from the pair of explorers.
“So, you’ve located both Vienna-on-Jordan and their first stop? Good, good;” stated Kandar gazing avidly at Byrt’s sketches. “How amazing.”
“Did you find any bits and pieces left behind?” asked Sinteen
“Not much after this length of time. Just some rubbish really: broken plates and so on at Vienna. We couldn’t search at the butte because of the rockfall.”
“Well; I think we ought to have that pottery in the archives. We’ve got some of their written records; it would be nice to have some of their things too.”
Kandar looked up from studying the picture of the butte. “They can always go and collect up the pottery later after they’ve found Gaillimh, however you’re meant to pronounce the ‘mh’ at the end. We still need to get there before our young rivals.”
“Can I borrow your map?” asked Sinteen. “I’d like to update one of OUR copies.”
“Of course.”
Sinteen picked it up carefully and carried it away.
“Have you seen anything of ‘the gang’?” asked Kandar when the door had closed.
“No. But we haven’t bothered to look.”
“Do you want us to?”
“It might be wise. At least to know where they are: if you can achieve that without disclosing your presence.”
“Finding them would just take time,” said N’key. “If I was them I’d be moving form one to another of that row of stake-holds along the river. They’ve got to time it from shelter to shelter between threadfalls. I’d estimate it’ll take them from seven to ten days to just get to Landing. As for not letting them know we’re watching them ... our only way of finding them would be from the air. Unless it’s very cloudy; if we can see them, they can see us.”
Their discourse was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Come,” called Kandar.
The twins came in. They both started talking.
“Master Kandar, we think we’ve got an idea for the drum.”
“Uncle Byrt! Why are you here?”
Kandar gave them a mock glare. “How come I’m ‘Master’ and he’s ‘Uncle’? He’s a master too you know.”
“We’ll call you Uncle as well if you want.”
“Or Granddad.”
“Cheeky pair! What’s this about a drum?”
“Well, composition class was let out early,” “and we were crossing the courtyard.” “A pair of kitchen drudges were chucking this cauldron” “on the rubbish heap” “’cos they’d burnt a hole in its bottom.” “And we are pretty sure we can find a hide big enough to cover it.” “So, we’d like to try” “and then see” “how far the sound carries.”
They paused for breath. Filona rummaged in her shoulder bag and produced a square of hide.
“Here’s a neat copy of the drum cipher.” “We finally got it all worked out” “with the help of Master Piet.”
Kandar took the hide from Filona and bent to look at it. Then he glanced up at the two men. “By the way, despite the twins being a pair of chatterboxes, this scheme is being kept secret for now. All right?”
They both nodded.
“I take it you looking to use drums to send messages?” asked N’key. “The Hold Runner families aren’t going that.”
“There’s no way that we will be able to set up drums to cover everywhere. The idea is to set up a chain or two linking major centres but, unless the message is FOR a major centre, we’ll need the Runners to carry it on out to the minor holds from the drum stations. And, we still don’t know if the idea will work at all. None of of previous schemes have. We’ve just got a chance to try the next stage of this one.”
Byrt sighed. “If you’re going to put a skin over that cauldron, I’d better see about getting the handle off ...”
What ever he was going to say next was lost as a ringing bell interrupted him.
“After nooning,” said Kandar.



Second Rough Draught of Drum Cipher
(as devised by Filona, Maree and Master Piet.)

-o-0-o-
Byrt and N’key returned south appearing from between over Landing. In accordance with Kandar’s request they flew northwards down the river looking for their rivals. It was early morning, mist was curling off the water and, except for the occasional small herd of animals drinking, they saw no signs of occupation.
As they came in sight of the estuary Byrt tapped N’key on the shoulder.
“What now?” he yelled.
“We could go between to the Butte, or we could land and have breakfast.”
“Breakfast!” Byrt decided.
When they had landed he continued. “We were probably too early for them. You know what lads are. They’re probably still asleep. If we fly back straight later we’ve more chance of catching them.”
Sure enough, on their return flight, they were flying along the boundary where the Bavaria stake-hold met the river, when they spotted one of the ex-apprentices squatting on the river bank. To Byrt’s eyes it looked as though he was examining a crude fish trap.
They went between.

-o-0-o-

“What do you mean: a dragon?” yelled Plyne. “You stupid fool!” He drove his fist into Almore’s stomach. “Now they know where we are.”
Doubled over, Almore yelled back. “What was I to do? I was just about to empty the trap of the fish you insisted on having for breakfast, when there it was: a sharding blue dragon with two riders. Just as I saw it they went between. There wasn’t any time to do anything.” He stood back up. “And remember, you may like hitting people, but I KILLED that idiot, AND I enjoyed it. It felt good! You hit me again and I’ll kill again. I’m fed up with this. It was your oh so clever plan. Now we’re stuck here until that sharding boat comes to pick us up.”
“Well it may have been my idea, but you didn’t have to come.”
And two angry young men turned their backs on each other and stalked off in opposite directions; sulking.

-o-0-o-

Back at the Butte the two explorers, riding Siluth, slowly circled the outcrop and then landed and dismounted.
“They certainly used that valley,” said Byrt. “It’s the only viable route in and out for wagons, although we know that carried out their reconnaissance on runner back. I wonder if they went all the way back to Vienna, or if they found a cut off to the south-east back to the river.”
“There’s only one way to find out. Let’s fly Master Smith.”
“After you, Brown Rider.”
Sure enough, after around a glass and a half’s flight, another valley diverged of to the south. N’key looked over his shoulder at Byrt who nodded. Siluth banked onto the new course. After a few miles the new valley bent back towards the south-east, and the vegetation changed. Before long the riders were getting occasional flash of sunlight off water visible between almost continuous clumps of bushes and trees. At N’key’s silent command Siluth started to climb higher. Now, of course, they could see much further. Finally, with the sun just past the zenith, they caught their first glimpse of where their stream flowed into the Jordan. As they got quite close, Byrt tapped N’key on the shoulder and pointed down at the confluence. N’key nodded and put Siluth into a fast descending spiral. The two men descended.
“That was fun,” declared N’key.
“My ears don’t think so.”
“Just swallow every little while. I remember being told of a lad many years ago who impressed ... a green I think it was. Fine on the ground. Dragon grew well and developed well, but they were useless in the air: couldn’t take the pressure changes. Apparently he used to scream with pain even on a gentle climb.”
“What did they do with them? You can’t undo impression.”
“They tried putting them in the Queens’ Wing but, in the end ... One threadfall they just disappeared between. Nobody ever knew whether they’d been scored, but a number of people said it was in shame. Nooning?”
“Best idea I’ve heard since breakfast.”
That afternoon the duo were feeling excited that they were probably drawing near to their goal. Within minutes of taking flight again, they found the overhang. Like the travellers they were following, they were in the late summer and the water levels were way down after the long spell of dry weather. The Au Connells and Moorhouses would have been able to get themselves, their wagons and animals under the undercut some dragon lengths long. True, those standing in the water would have up to mid thigh, but many especially the children could have sat on the carts and kept dry.
They didn’t stop long. Byrt did another of his aerial sketches and then they flew on. After another glass or so they spotted a lake, hopefully the right one. One of their problems during planning was that the map makers had noted only the presence of mountains. The lake was up a side valley to their west and it was the sun’s reflection off the water that drew them that way. Part way up, the valley had been blocked by some deposition of material almost like a giant dam; far lager than anything that man had achieved on Pern. The lake spread out as a series of narrow ‘fingers’ penetrating up the intersecting valleys almost like the imprint of a gigantic dragon’s foot, so vast that it would take at least a half glass to fly from one end to the other.
N’key turned his head and shouted at Byrt. “It’s going to take a long time to search all this shore line.”
“I just hope,” Byrt replied leaning forward to speak into N’key’s ear, “that our caves are still above water.”
“Don’t with that on us. Hadn’t we better find somewhere to spend the night? If we’ve got a base, we can do one finger tonight and pick it back up tomorrow. Thread should be due the day after.”
“Sound man. Good plan. Where shall we land?”
They picked a promontory with water on three sides. As soon as the riders had dismounted and unloaded him, Siluth plunged off the low cliff into the lake.
“N’key grinned at Byrt. “He says it’s a shame we don’t have enough soapsand to give him a scrub. Still we could join him even-so, how about it?”
“I’m game,” said Byrt undoing his jacket, “So long as we can climb back out.”
“If we can’t, Siluth can fly up back up.”
The lake waters were pleasantly cool. After their dip, and despite how early it was in the evening, N’key and Byrt started to eat their evening meal. Watching the water boil up for klah, while they chewed their way through a large pile of fish-rolls, supplied by Ephi, they sat silent.
Byrt broke the silence slapping at his neck. “Sharding things.”
“What, the biters?”
“Yes.”
“There don’t seem to be many over here by Siluth.”
Byrt got up and moved. A few minutes later he said, “You’re right. I wonder why that is? They really like runners and milchbeasts.”
There was a pause.
“Perhaps they are a different type of biter? Or, perhaps they don’t like dragon smell?”
“Could be. Which ever it is, Siluth? you’re going to have company tonight.”
As they were washing the last of the fish-rolls down with klah, N’key asked, “are we going to do any exploring tonight? There’s a good bit of daylight left.”
“Yes, we said we would, didn’t we? Let’s do the one we arrived along. It runs more or less east-west so it’s well lit and we didn’t exactly do a close search of it on our way through.”
They flew at low level back towards the dam and although they saw one or two caves, they were singletons and at water level. Here and there streams tumbled over the cliffs on either hand. Some of them landed in a jumble of rocks while others fell clear into the lake.
Siluth backwinged to land more or less in the middle of the dam. To either side natural spillways let water rush down the outer face of the dam on its way down to the river.
You know,” said Byrt over the noises of turbulent liquid, “most of the water in the Jordan down there, must come from here. The other branch, although it’s in the main valley, is only a minor stream. I reckon the Jordan starts right here.”
“I wouldn’t disagree.”
Taking off again, they flew towards the setting sun, flying back much higher.
Rolled in their cloaks and more or less biter free as they rested against Siluth, N’key asked, “did you notice the differences between the two sides of that finger? The north side had patches of really broken craggy bits.”
“Yes, and the south, though still rock, was much smoother? Yes I did.”
“I reckon they could, with care, have got their carts along on the south. In the morning let’s search round that way.”
“Good thinking that man.”

-o-0-o-

Next morning was grey and dull. As they breakfasted Byrt was watching the sky.
“I don’t like the look of that lot.” He said pointing to the north-west. “I reckon we’re in for a real dowsing.”
N’key stood up and walked round Siluth to where he could see in that direction.
“I agree. It looks like the first of the Fall storms. There’s just a nip in the air this morning: summer’s about over.”
Byrt emptied the dregs from his beaker of klah over the fire. “There’s a heavy feel too; could be some thunder. Let’s get on. We’d better load everything back onto Siluth. I was going to leave it here, but there’s no point in getting it all wet.”
They flew up their first search area of the day at low level. The wind was fluky: dead calm one minute and whipping up cat’s-paws on the water the next. Their search of this arm of the lake was fruitless. The steep rocky edges dropping almost sheer into the lake, except in one place where extensive rock falls had piled a visible heap of rubble.
They returned, and Siluth banked round into the next finger. It was different. The side walls still dropped into the water but, after a few hundred yards, the valley floor came sloping up out of the water almost like a beach onto which the rising wind was driving small waves. The slope continued to rise gently until it met the cliff tops a mile or so away. On the plateau running way to the south and east pockets of soil had gradually accumulated allowing patches of grassoid to thrive. In the middle distance they could see that the patches gradually merged into continuous groundcover on which a herd of what looked like milchbeasts were grazing. Heavy drops of rain started to hit them. Byrt could see them bouncing off Siluth’s hide. Both men spotted the caves at the same moment and both pointed. Siluth swerved; backwinging to a stall and dropping the last couple of feet. The men hastily unbuckled their harnesses and, grabbing gear and kit, ducked into the cave just as the first flash of lightening crackled across the sky. They hadn’t needed to duck: the cavern was a large one. But they did need to squeeze to one side as Siluth backed himself in also.
A loud outburst of noise told them that they were sharing their shelter with a flock of wherries. It was very smelly.
Byrt looked down at his boots now covered in wherry dung. “Oh shit!”
“You say truly my friend. Oh well, it’ll wash off.”
They waited out the storm standing as close to fresh air as they could without getting soaked, and watching hail stones bouncing on the rocks outside.
When the storm eventually passed they ventured back out into the open. The runoff of rain and melting hail was forming runnels down the valley floor. N’key went and stood in one to wash his boots. Byrt joined him and, while one force of nature removed the evidence of another, looked around properly for the first time. There were some more caves on their side a bit further up the slope including one somewhat larger than their erstwhile shelter. He pointed to it for N’key’s benefit.
“Yes, I’ve just spotted it too. Do you think this is it?”
“Could be. There’s only one way to find out.”
Byrt stepped up out the water and, followed by N’key, squelched his way to the large cave.
After the bright post-storm light, they had to pause to let their eyes get used to the dimness within.
“This has got to be as big as our hatching cavern,” whispered N’key, his voice only just audible over the noise of falling water.
They looked around. There were the side caverns just as described in the journal. There at the back left was the stairs and, to their right, was a flat wall with water running down it and dropping into a pool.
“Let’s explore.”
“We’d better get the glows out then.”
They started along the left-hand side where a natural channel carried away the water. There was only one side cave here and they got into it stepping across the flow. The cave was empty, but there were streaks of soot patching the uneven ceiling.
“Someone’s been keeping themselves warm anyway.”
“They don’t mention that in the journal.”
“Not important enough?”
“Probably; but there may have been other groups who stayed south.”
“True, but it would be a bit of a coincidence if, given how big south is, they both chose to stay in the same caves?”
“Oh, I’m sure we’re in the right place, it’s exactly as described, but someone may have beaten us to the hoard. Let’s get on.”
The bottom of the stairs had a twist in them, leaving a gap on their left out of which the water flowed. Byrt walked past the stairs to look at the masonry wall beyond. The centre section, about an yard wide, had been built recessed about an hand’s depth back. The water was flowing down this central section issuing from a slot at the top of the wall and landing in a semi-circular basin cut into the rock floor. The pool looked very deep. Byrt found a flake of stone and dropped it in. It took quite a while to reach the bottom. Byrt stood there thinking.
Meanwhile N’key had climbed the steps and had disappeared into the upper cave. He reappeared and called down to Byrt, disturbing his train of thought. Byrt stirred and looked up. N’key beckoned urgently.
The Master Smith walked up the stairs and found the Rider had gone back to his discovery. The top of the steps spread into a square of landing, extending into the cave, from which one stepped down onto the cave floor. The left hand third of the cave was dry. The rest was an underground lake which flowed smoothly out under the right-hand side of the landing to become the waterfall. Here and there stalactites dangled from the roof and stalagmites grew up out of the lake. Sometimes a pair had fused together. The nearer ones were lit by their glows, but the light didn’t reach the furthest ones. All were reflected in the almost mirror like surface of the water, only disturbed by the occasional drop of water linking as it landed. The exposed layers of different rocks in the walls made patterns and swirls.
“It’s almost like tapestries,” N’key whispered.
“It’s ... special,” Byrt whispered back. “I could stand here all day, but we’d better get on.”
They retraced their steps a little way and examined the stairs. The risers were set back about a finger depth from the front edges of the treads, and the leading edge of the treads had a groove across the width of its top surface. The top tread on ly was also grooved on the underside as well. They tried griping it and pulling but it wouldn’t budge.
“What else can we expect? It hasn’t been moved for centuries.”
“That’s why I asked for a mason.”
“Shall we go and get him?”
“No; not yet. I want to finish exploring properly first before we bring the twins and others in.”
They descended the steps and N’key looked at the fall.
“We’ve got to get through there?”
“Yep. We’ll need to build a platform to work off. That’s pools too deep for paddling. We’ll have to fetch some planks and beams.” Byrt looked round “Where’s Siluth? I’d expect him to be poking at least his nose into this cavern.”
“He decided he as hungry and made use of some of the other occupants of our recent shelter. He’s eaten four and is now sleeping them off.”
Leaving the water they moved towards the unexplored side, heading for the next cave. This one, they found, had been used as a quarry for the wall. They could see where blocks had been cut out and one or two, surplus to the requirements of the amateur masons, were still standing around. There was nothing else of note in that cavern so they moved to the last. To do this they had to go round a large rocky buttress.
As they approached it N’key nearly tripped. “What the ... there’s something here.”
They turned their glows that way and by their light they disclosed a skeleton.
“Well: we’ve found the rider anyway.”
He was sprawled on his back where he must have fallen at the end of the fight, arms and legs awkwardly asprawl. The clothing had rotten away a long time ago but, lying among the ribs and vertebrae, were the rusty remains of buckles and fastenings.
“If Master Sinteen wants those for his archives he can pick them up himself.” Observed N’key. Byrt’s grinning reply went unseen.
In the last of the side caves, Byrt, turning his glow this way and that, caused a momentary gleam off something bright. He bent and picked it up. It was a shiny metal handle. To his surprise there was a blade folded into it. He took it outside to examine it in daylight.
He could see that the outer third of the blade had been snapped off: presumably the reason the knife had been abandoned. A groove in the blade invited the insertion of a finger nail. The joint was very stiff but, after a few tries he got the blade moving. As he fully extended the blade there was a click, felt as much as heard, and, when he went to close the blade back in, it seemed to be locked into place. There was a small knob on the side of the casing positioned just right for the index finger when held in the normal right-handed over-grasp. He tried moving the knob in various directions and gave a grunt of satisfaction when he eventually found that it moved inwards and released the blade for closing.
N’key came to find out what he was doing. Byrt showed him the knife.
“There’s no way this is going into Master Sinteen’s archives. This is Smith business. It goes back to OUR archives. Look at the workmanship in that handle: those diamond grooves chased into the sides of the handle to give good grip.”
“What’s that written on the blade?”
“Where? I hadn’t noticed that.”
They both peered closely. The lettering seemed rather old fashioned.
“What’s stainless steel?” asked N’key.
“I’ve no idea,” confessed Byrt. “I know steel: it’s hard to make. You have to add various minerals to molten iron and you have to blow air through the hot mixture. We don’t make very much of it. I’ve never heard of steel being stainless but here it is. I wonder how you make it. And stainless is right: not a trace of rust after what, at least five hundred turns on Pern? And, it’s probably even older. It may have been brought here by a settler.”
Byrt tucked the knife away among his kit and stood back up.
“Right: let’s check these last two caves then we can head back home.”
The nearer cave held nothing of interest except the evidence that the milchbeasts they had seen in the distance used it as a shelter.
“I wonder why they don’t use the large cavern?” mused Byrt.
“Perhaps it’s too big: they don’t feel secure? Or long ingrained herd instinct? They probably wouldn’t have wanted to spend time in there while that body was rotting down.”
“I don’t know enough about animals to guess which. Let’s move on.”
The last cave had been adapted. The entrance had been closed off with crude masonry, set an arm’s length back from the cliff face, leaving a narrow gap near the centre, just wide enough for humans, though some might had to turn sideways (Byrt had to).
“Oof! Tight, but it keeps the animals out.”
To one side of the entrance a pair of low masonry walls jutted out. They were around waist high and their exposed tops were grooved at regular intervals. In the mortar joint about halfway down each wall there was a row of rust spots at similar intervals.
Byrt squatted down to look closer. “A cooking hearth; sort of. Look; you can see where the fire-bars were down here. The ash would fall through and leave a clean fire. And cooking bars up the top. They could use different grooves to adjust them to suit the pots.”
“Or, they could use all the grooves. With the bars that close you could put slices of meat on them and grill them.”
They moved inside.
“Hey look; another hearth. It’s still got a couple of fire-bars in it.” He poked one and it fell to pieces in a small cloud of rust. “Oops.”
“They weren’t idiots were they,” observed Byrt. “An indoor hearth for bad weather and a good weather one outside.”
“Perhaps that’s where you get your brains from?” N’key grinned at his friend.
“I don’t think I’m descended from the Au Connells.”
“Could be: four hundred turns back. You never know.”
Apart for some more broken pottery in one corner, that was it.
“Are we finished then?” asked N’key, as they wriggled back outside.
“I guess so.” Byrt squinted up to where the sun was a glowing patch in the clouds. “It’s well past noon; let’s eat. Then I’ll write up my journal: we’ll do the placement picture and go report.”
__________________
"Truth is stranger than fiction: fiction has to make sense." Leo Rosten.

"When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
C. S. Lewis

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The Pedants are revolting! (against bad grammar)
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