John Horne

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XXI. The Magic Disc from the Past

February 28th, 2008 · 3 Comments

While they were roasting their supper over the fire, Garyth noticed that Al‑tir and Sinril were huddled together examining an object. Walking over to them Garyth asked what was so interesting. Al‑tir held out a smooth disc of transparent glass.

“Sinril found this in the cave room last night.” Garyth could see that the circle of the disc had a piece broken out of it on one side.

“We were wondering if it was a decoration, or something useful,” Sinril explained as Al‑tir handed it to Garyth for his inspection. It seemed to be glass, similar to that used in Xandar Tahn, except that he had never before seen glass so clear as this specimen. Xenarians seemed to be very fond of colored glass decorations. Some buildings and homes used translucent glass to let in daylight but not allow prying eyes to look inside. The disc he was holding seemed very transparent, like clear water. He could plainly see his fingers through it. Then he gasped. His fingers, seen through the disc, seemed swollen and looked even bigger as he moved them back from the surface of the disc.

“Look!” He held the disc with his finger behind it so Sinril and Al‑tir could see.

“Samir, Steven! Come see this,” he called. They were all mystified by what they saw. Somehow the disc made things behind it look larger. The view through the disc was clear for things just behind it, but unclear when shifted to look at things farther away.

“Has anyone seen anything like this before?” Kalon asked.

“Once I noticed how a water bead on my fingertip made the line pattern on my finger look large,” Steven ventured. “I guess the water bead was a little like this disc in that it was transparent and had a curved surface.”

“When I spear a fish in a clear stream,” Garyth said, “I have to aim away from where the fish appears to be. A straight spear seems broken at the water’s surface, with the underwater section bending away from where it should be and it also seems to be thicker.”

The disc and its almost magical power to make things large occupied their talk around the campfire. Al‑tir caught and examined several moths that had been attracted by the fire, and then Sinril peered at the weave of her cloak. Kalon scanned some of their notebook entries and commented how useful such a thing would be to help weak-eyed people to read. And so it went, well into the night. They all finally drifted off to sleep satisfied that a real discovery had been made.

Quite by accident, another power of the strange disc was discovered the next morning. As they were breaking camp, Al‑tir was using the disc to examine a beetle she had spotted crawling away from where her tent had been. It was early, but the sun was up. As she followed the beetle with the disc, the insect ambled into a patch of sunlight. Al‑tir lifted her head away from the disc to ask how breakfast was coming along. She did not notice the intense spot of light that appeared on the back of the beetle when sunlight hit the disc. The insect’s amble immediately changed to a scurry. When Al‑tir looked back down, the beetle was gone but smoke was curling up from a very bright dot on the leaves. As she moved her head back toward the disc to see better, her shadow extinguished the bright spot. She moved her head slightly to one side so that the sunbeam again fell on the disc. Her experiment worked as the bright, hot spot reappeared on the ground below the disc.

“Come see this,” she called to Garyth, who happened to be nearby.

“What is it, an interesting bug?” Garyth asked as he came over to her.

“Don’t block the sunlight,” she said sternly. She had gathered a tiny pile of old leaves and dead grass. “Watch this,” she said as she moved the disc into position to get the smallest, brightest spot. Almost immediately smoke appeared. She gently blew it into flame. Garyth was astounded. All his life he had made fire with flint and steel or else two flint chips. Although it had never seemed a chore, it was certainly harder than what Al‑tir had just done. She was beaming with his amazement.

“Everyone, you’ve got to see this,” Garyth called.

Unfortunately, while the other campers were coming over, an errant cloud choked off the sunbeam. Al‑tir had snuffed out her small fire to demonstrate her new skill to the others. She had not noticed the loss of the sunbeam. As they gathered around, she was just about to tell them not to block the light when she realized what had happened. “It won’t work, Garyth,” she said.

“What won’t work?” asked Steven.

“Al‑tir used the disc to make fire,” Garyth exclaimed.

“What did she strike it with?” asked Kalon.

“I struck it with light,” Al‑tir answered, rather mysteriously. “It won’t work without sunlight.” As she spoke, the sunbeam began to re-form. “Move over so the beam will strike the disc,” she said, motioning for Samir to step to one side. The effect was almost immediate. Quick as a wink she had a wisp of smoke and then a growing flame.

Now everyone was interested and both breakfast and departure were delayed as they each experi­mented with using the disc to start a fire. There were several conjectures as to how it worked, but they eventually came to agreement that just as the disc caused things placed behind it to appear larger, it somehow made the image of the sun appear smaller, and much brighter. Steven reasoned that since the sun warmed things up, the very small, intense spot of sunlight made whatever it touched very hot indeed. They all agreed that the effect was interesting, but usually fire was most needed when sunlight was in short supply.

By late morning they had broken camp and resumed their journey. As the day progressed, clouds moved in and formed into towering thunderheads. The wind steadily increased as the sky darkened and by early afternoon they found themselves in the fury of a storm.

The lightning was intense and the thunder claps deafening. The horses were frightened and difficult to control, so they had to seek better shelter than the trail offered. Samir led them off the trail to the left, the downslope side, following a ridge of ground that seemed less steep and treacherous than the usual trailside drop-off. After descending for about three hundred paces through the forest, their path veered to the right and carried them toward the base of an overhanging cliff. It seemed as if the face of a sheer cliff had collapsed, leaving something like a huge, shallow cave. There was no doubt that it was a natural formation, but the flatness of the cave floor seemed unnaturally tidy.

The overhang was large enough to shelter both them and their horses, and they were soon fairly comfortable against the cliff face at the back of the cave, with a fire blazing just inside the drip line from the ledge high above them. They always carried enough dry wood under an oilskin to get a fire going, and they were all thankful for reliable flint and steel to start the blaze.

Kalon and Sinril began a careful examination of their surroundings as soon as the horses were unloaded. Since the day was so dark, they each held a burning brand from the fire to see more clearly. It didn’t take long to find markings and symbols scratched into the rock in many places. There seemed to be no organization to the glyphs, as Sinril called them, so they decided that they had been put there by people taking shelter just as they were. In fact, a couple of the inscriptions were in Xenarian, scratched by hunters and decorated with pictures of deer. Garyth was all for adding some scratching of his own, but Kalon and Sinril were shocked at his idea. They convinced him that scholars would come to study this place and it must be left as they had found it.

They were all comfortable in the cave and it was obvious the weather would not clear that day, so Kalon and Sinril assigned a section of the glyphs to each of them to copy. The rain slowed to a light drizzle just before sunset and the low thick clouds cleared to reveal a high overcast. Samir, Garyth, and Steven each took bow and arrow and spread out in the forest below to try to find game for supper. Samir managed to shoot a deer, which they tracked until it finally fell. It gave them plenty of meat for their supper and more to smoke overnight to replenish their provisions.

The next morning they regained the westward trail and continued through the forest for the next two days. Game was plentiful and their food reserves were soon restocked. Kalon said that the trail would climb out of the forest again and food would not be so easy to hunt. The mountain plants and herbs were familiar to Garyth, who was able to cook up a delicious stew. The trail began to climb again on the third day after the thunderstorm, and by evening they had left the tree-clad slopes below them.

From Kalon’s map they knew that they should be nearing another observation post so they kept a careful watch. As with the first lookout site, they came to a stretch of trail bordered on the north by a sheer vertical escarpment, with the southern trail edge dropping off steeply. Feeling confident that the observation post was atop the cliff, they began to look for a way up. However, a careful search did not reveal a nearby path. Samir, Kalon, and Sinril scouted further along the trail while Garyth, Steven, and Al‑tir backtracked. It was Samir who finally spotted a faint path branching off to the north just as the main trail turned southward. Samir rode back to bring the others while Kalon and Sinril started up the path. Samir had made them promise to go slowly since they were not experienced trackers.

Soon they were all walking ahead of their horses, trying to pick out the path. Since they thought they would find the observation post atop the trailside cliff, Steven wanted to head there directly. But Kalon insisted they stay together so as not to miss any markers. For awhile they seemed to be moving away from their destination, but they eventually came upon a standing stone marker. It had two sections of the strange writing, which they were getting used to by now. Below the top section was a left-pointing arrow, and a right-pointing arrow was carved below the lower section.

“I think we’ve come to a fork in the path,” Al‑tir giggled.

“You are one smart scholar, Al‑tir,” Garyth pronounced.

“I guess this means there is something interesting in either direction,” Kalon said. He was kneeling in front of the stone with the map spread out in front of him. “Here is the symbol we think stands for lookout posts,” he said, pointing to the lower section of glyphs. “Look, the map also has one of these on it,” he said, pointing toward a particular symbol in the upper section of the inscription on the stone tablet.

“Come,” Samir said, “let’s find the lookout post first and perhaps we can get some sightings down the border mountain range.”

They headed off to the right, but everyone was breathing pretty hard from the effort as the path became quite steep. They were on bare rock now but there was a faint indentation to mark the path. It took them longer than they had expected before they leveled off at the top of a rocky dome, higher than they had yet climbed on their trip. They could see something like a stone building ahead, perched on the edge of the dome’s steep southern slope.

This lookout post was less primitive than the first one. There was a building of dressed, fitted stone, with thick outer blocks on the west side of a walled area. The building had several rooms, with doorways and windows but no roof. Toward the south a waist-high wall overlooked the far plains and was engraved with bearings to distant peaks to the southwest. However, they found other sighting walls to the east and north. Each wall had carvings with the outline of the peaks and bearing lines and symbols. Garyth found a steep stone stairway that took him to the top of the thick, west-facing wall. The atmosphere had a thin haze and the high overcast had not broken, so the view was not entirely clear. However, his heart raced when he thought he saw familiar mountain profiles at the edge of his vision to the far west.

“If we could find water nearby, we could camp here and hope for a clear morning tomorrow,” Samir remarked. They had brought the horses up so they had everything they needed. From his higher vantage, Garyth looked around and then hurried back down.

“I think there is a pit over there, probably where these building stones were quarried,” he said as he headed for the spot. Sure enough, the quarry pit held a pool of water, probably melted from winter snows topped off by the recent storm.

Samir first smelled it carefully, and then tasted a few drops. “To be safe we need to boil it for drinking, but it is fine for washing,” he said, adding, “We have to be watchful for animals that might come here to drink.”

They set up camp and used their store of dry wood to make a fire for cooking and boiling water to drink. Garyth and Steven slept outside the walled enclosure near the horses, which seemed to dislike having to overnight on hard stone. During the night the horses were frightened by something in the darkness out toward the quarry pit. Garyth used horse speech to calm them while he got a large stone ready in his sling. Steven went to waken Samir and brought back a burning limb from the fire. When Steven emerged from the building they caught a glimpse of two yellow eyes, reflecting the torchlight. Garyth let the stone fly. They only heard a clatter as the stone hit and rolled, but the eyes disappeared and were not seen again. Samir thought it best to start a second fire beyond the horses and toward the quarry, so he brought wood out and took the first watch.

The morning dawned very clear with the rising sun illuminating every detail of the border mountain range. They took bearings of the peaks and Garyth sketched the view on a sheet of Sinril’s precious paper. As soon as his duties allowed, he climbed to the top of the west wall and knew without doubt that he was looking homeward. Kalon, Sinril, and Al‑tir stayed busy making rubbings of the wall engravings and inspecting each room of the building. They stopped to eat breakfast about midmorning. There was no sign of the bright-eyed beast of the previous night and the smooth rock surface yielded no footprints.

When Garyth looked into the pool, the morning sun glinted from an object on the bottom, about ten paces out. He decided a bath would feel good and dove in to investigate. The depth of the water surprised him but he was soon back with a piece of clear rock or glass very much like the disc that made things large and could start fires, only this one would have been twice as big had it been whole. As it was, about half the disc had broken off. Garyth laid it on the verge of the quarry and went back in looking for more interesting stuff. He found that the bottom was covered by rock chips and mud, probably the residue of a quarry operation. He was disappointed that he found no more disc remnants, but he did come up with a corroded metal bar. The bar seemed to excite Kalon much more than the disc.

“It’s part of a quarry tool,” Kalon exclaimed, showing it to Sinril. “Do you think there may be more things like this in the pit, Garyth?”

“There could be,” Garyth answered, “but looking for stuff stirs up the mud and makes the water murky. You will have to let it settle down a bit before you can hope to find anything more.”

“We can’t stay here another night,” Samir said, with some authority. “We have to press on and get more surveying done. Besides, this isn’t a good place for horses.”

No one objected to packing up and moving on. Kalon would have liked to explore for another day, but he felt that if he cooperated perhaps they could take the other fork in the trail and discover something new.

In a few hours they had returned to the stone marker and he managed to be in the lead when they got there. He had gone a hundred paces down the west fork before Samir had a chance to voice an objection. However, Samir was curious as well and needed no urging. Besides, the trail was taking them downward and they were soon seeing more vegetation and a few trees. By late afternoon they had descended into a thin pine forest penetrated by rugged, rocky gorges. There had been no clouds all day so the strong, slanting light of late afternoon cast inky shadows into canyons. The trail eventually took them along the western rim of a gorge when Steven suddenly shouted, “Look!”

He pointed to the opposite canyon wall below the rim. It took just a minute to realize that below the rim, the canyon wall was undercut. But rather than a smooth curve, there was a straight vertical wall with rectangular windows and doorways opening onto a ledge. They halted, awestruck.

“It’s a village or a city,” Sinril exclaimed. “How wonderful!”

They moved slowly along the rim trail, marveling at the sight of door after door opening to the ledge path.

“I think a second, lower level begins just ahead,” Al‑tir pointed out. “We can’t see this side of the canyon but there could be more rooms under our rim.”

This prompted Garyth to dismount and ask Steven to help him. With Steven holding his ankles, Garyth lay down on his stomach and peered over the edge of the trail.

“The ledge rolls back under us,” he explained, “and I can see a flat path down there. There is a stream at the bottom of the canyon far below the doorway trail.”

“Well, don’t break your neck trying to see what will be clear with a little more riding,” Samir warned.

Now they quickened their pace and the trail began to descend. Across the canyon, the upper level of cliff houses ended and the ledge path sloped down to the lower row. They rode some distance before the trail curved to the right and dropped down to the valley floor. Sure enough, as they looked back up the valley, cliff houses were clearly visible under the canyon rim they had just ridden.

“There must be hundreds of rooms,” Steven murmured.

It was getting dim as the sun dropped below the western ridges. The valley floor was a fine campsite, so they lost no time in setting up camp and gathering wood for a cookfire. The horses seemed glad to find some grassy banks along the stream for grazing. Garyth rigged some fishing poles from willow boughs and headed along the stream to find fish, followed by Steven and Al‑tir. They managed to dig up some worms and beetle grubs for bait and the fishing was productive.

Garyth had been feeling very good since his sighting of the westward peaks. And now to be fishing in a mountain stream with two good friends as twilight faded seemed just perfect. Except for whispered remarks, so as not to spook the fish, the only sound was the gurgle of the water over the streambed rocks. They finally returned to camp loaded down with their catch, guided by the glow of the campfire. It was a lovely evening, with plenty of fish to eat and plenty more to smoke for later. The fishermen had gathered some water sorrel on the way back to add a refreshing salad to their meal. The horses were picketed near the fire and a watch schedule was agreed upon before everyone but Sinril, who had first watch, bedded down.

Kalon and Sinril were up very early, heading up the lower western path toward the first cliff houses. When Al‑tir awoke a little later, she followed after them. Garyth checked on the fish, which were staked near the embers of the fire to dry, while Samir took the horses back to graze on the lush, streamside grass. Steven had had the last watch and returned to bed to get more sleep when he saw dawn break. When he woke up, he joined Samir and Garyth around the campfire where they were toasting pieces of fish for breakfast.

“What an interesting place,” Steven said, looking up the canyon. “Yes,” Samir agreed, “but we can’t spend too much time here. We are into summer now and still need to penetrate further west to get the information for the Council. It will be hard to pull Kalon and Sinril away from this place, but we have business to complete.” His look told them that he expected their support when he told the others it would be time to move on. “We will stay here a couple of days to give the horses a rest, but then we return to the westward trail.”

Everyone joined in the exploration of the cliff rooms later in the morning, after Sinril had strictly charged them to carefully note the position of anything they picked up so it could be replaced in the exact spot if it was not kept. Her fussiness took part of the fun out of their adventure, but they did make some interesting finds, including unbroken pottery bowls and one metal cooking pot. In the afternoon, exploration shifted to the houses along the east canyon wall to take advantage of the sunlight. Al‑tir found a rusty metal rod with a chain and hook that was obviously used to hang a pot over a fire.

After lunch, Samir grabbed a fishing pole and headed downstream. He noticed that the streambed was littered with broken pottery pieces washed down from the canyon. He also saw faint traces of a trail leading downward, away from the canyon mouth, but decided not to mention it. He had been a little on edge lately and as he thought about it he realized how hard he had strained to see evidence of distant smoke to the south from the last lookout. This was the time of year for burning sections of the grazing corridor. It was the second year in a row that Samir had missed the northward migration of the herds. It dawned on him that part of his hurry was to return to clan life as soon as he could. The understanding seemed to ease his tension, and he resolved to push no harder than the job required.

That evening, when light had dimmed and they could no longer see into the dark rooms, they all returned to the camp to sort and wrap the things they would carry away and to talk about what manner of people must have inhabited this canyon.

“The stonework is so precise,” Kalon exclaimed. “The stones in the walls seem to have been cut from the cliff face to extend the rooms back under the overhang. Several rooms we saw today had small storage compartments carved farther back into the canyon wall. Those compartments held the best pottery.”

“What were the lookout posts used for?” Steven wondered aloud. “Did the people have enemies on the plains?”

“We haven’t found any metal weapons yet,” Kalon answered.

“Not any stone ones either,” Sinril added.

“They could have had gardens along the canyon floor beside the stream,” Al‑tir suggested.

“You know,” Garyth said, “looking down on the stream from above suggested to me that the rocks were placed to create a series of stepped pools.”

“That would help store water for dry times,” Kalon mused, wishing he had taken time to study the canyon a little more.

“The ground out from the canyon mouth appeared to have some depth of soil,” Samir chimed in. “They could have grown abundant crops. I think there were some traces of irrigation ditches fed by the canyon stream.”

It was decided that Samir and Kalon would survey along the stream the next day while the others would continue with exploration of the village. They all agreed that their discoveries seemed to get better as they journeyed further west and they had not yet come to the cliff that had produced the map they were following. Kalon unrolled it in the firelight and they located the symbol for the canyon city. He and Sinril both thought that only a few more days of riding would be needed before they reached the carved cliff map.

Their second full day of exploration produced some iron arrow points and gardening tools. They found it hard to select what to pack and carry and what to leave, but they favored the lighter implements and chose good pieces of decorated pottery rather than unbroken pots, which they carefully packed in a room near the canyon’s mouth.

The next three days were uneventful except for rain showers that slowed their progress. The map did not hint of any more discoveries until the symbol that Kalon believed marked the site of the cliff map itself. Steven killed a deer the third day after regaining the westward trail so their food reserves were replenished once again.

The fourth day dawned dry, but overcast and cool. Near sundown, the northern trailside rose up in a high cliff and Kalon announced they had arrived at the cliff map. The symbols were seen by all, but not until the setting sun dropped below the overhead clouds and sent piercing beams in from the horizon did they realize how much detail was exposed. They all bent over Kalon’s map to make sure everything had been copied correctly. They were late setting up camp, but managed it in the fading afterglow of the sunset. Now they had come as far as Kalon and Sinril had ventured the year before.

Sunrise put the cliff face in shadow, so they did not delay in getting underway. The map showed another lookout post perhaps two days further along, and Samir hoped this one would give them a view along the spine of the mountain range separating Wyeland and Xenar. Garyth quietly hoped the view would give him absolute proof that he was getting closer to home.

Two and a half days of riding brought them to the path leading to the third lookout. It was fairly easy to find, perhaps because they were becoming more skillful. They arrived at the lookout late but ahead of sunset. It was very similar to the last one, with a sturdy stone building and views in all directions. The day was clear, but the southern view revealed distant thunder clouds over the plains. They were still a little eastward of the border mountains, but able to spot the familiar landmark ridge peaks clearly. The view to the west gave Garyth assurance that the distant western profiles matched those in his memory.

Samir and Garyth took the horses back down to the main trail to set up their camp while the others stayed to explore the site. Sinril found a disc larger than her hand in a dusty corner of a room. It was a complete circle of clear rock or glass, curved outward on each side.

“You should see the tiny bright spot it makes of sunlight,” Al‑tir told Garyth when she returned to the camp. “It’s too bright to look at!”

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter // Apr 30, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Would you believe it’s taken me until now to finish this chapter? I started when it was posted.

    The canyon city, while certainly reminiscent of actual Earth civilizations, puts me in mind of Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. Nice little world you’ve got here.

  • 2 John // May 1, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Your perseverance is admirable. I read _Tunnel_in_the_Sky_ when I was 11 or 12 (it came out in 1955). Perhaps an unremembered influence… I was thinking more of Walnut Canyon Arizona and other SW cliff dwellings. Those are stone-built rooms under cap-rock overhangs, not carved. The difference is iron tools.

  • 3 Peter // May 12, 2008 at 9:28 am

    If I’d had a few extra minutes to breathe, I would have finished a lot sooner!

    Thanks for the historical note. My curiosity has been piqued.

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