John Horne

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XXII. Secrets of a Mountaintop City

March 3rd, 2008 · 1 Comment

That night they carefully looked over the map. “The trail appears to bend northward just a little farther,” Kalon pointed. “It seems to climb toward the wall of northern peaks. I checked the view in that direction from the lookout and spotted an isolated peak this side of the northern range. It could be this spot on the map,” he said, indicating a cluster of symbols to which a northern spur off the western trail seemed to lead. “I believe it will be positioned to sight down the border mountains, and is possibly visible from the plains of Xenar as well as the northeastern regions of Wyeland. It is certainly higher than any place we’ve yet visited.”

“Is it steep?” Samir asked.

“The mountain had a conical profile,” Kalon replied. “It was not irregular but nicely symmetric. I’m fairly sure the lower slopes had forest cover, but the light was failing.”

“We should return to the lookout in the morning,” Samir said thoughtfully. “We will examine the peak in different light. We can take a bearing to compare with the location of the map symbols.”

Early the next morning they returned to the lookout and carefully observed Kalon’s mountain. Far-sighted Samir thought he detected a spiral feature, which could have been a road or trail, winding toward the summit. Consulting the map, and considering other landmarks, they all agreed that the peak corresponded to the cluster of symbols on the map. It even seemed to be, as Kalon had suggested, directly north of the border mountain range, a perfect landmark to anchor the border.

Just as the map indicated, the trail took a turn to a generally northwest direction shortly after they broke camp. It did not climb very much the first day and they found a good campsite in the forest near a stream. That evening Al-tir and Sinril had the men dig a pit and line it with large pieces of smooth slaterock, while they mixed up a batch of dough from flour, yeast, and cooking oil from their supplies. An intense fire was built in the oven pit to heat the rocks and the oven was ready at midnight to receive the dough. By morning a quantity of round loaves had finished baking.

They were not in a hurry to move on since no one had gotten more than a few hours of sleep. The smell of baking bread kept their mouths watering throughout the night. After a breakfast of freshly baked loaves, Garyth caught some fish while Steven brought in several rabbits. Samir was unsuccessful at finding any large game.

They finally broke camp at noon and continued on the western trail, which wound through wooded hills and crossed a narrow stream on a flat boulder, obviously placed there as a bridge. After a short day of travel, they found a good campsite for the night near a clear pool fed by a rocky stream.

Getting an early start the next morning, they made a long day of it on the trail. Occasionally the mountain they were headed for showed clearly through the trees, but the trail twisted this way and that and sometimes seemed to head in the opposite direction. At day’s end they had another clear view and could see that they had made good progress. They expected to find another marker where the spur trail to the mountain forked from the western trail.

Another day of riding brought them to the intersection of the western and northern trails, where they found a stone marker behind a tree trunk. It was carved with prominent symbols and they all felt that whatever lay ahead on the mountain would be important. Garyth peered down the western trail, knowing that soon he and Steven would come back and take that path to his home and family.

The trip to the mountain peak took two more days. The first day’s travel was in a forest of fir and spruce, but on the second day the forest gave way to low, scrubby trees, bushes, and coarse grass. The gray, sandy soil of the higher slopes was littered with dry branches and promised a good supply of firewood. Garyth recognized some of the abundant bushes and pulled a handful of sweet, juicy berries from one growing beside the trail.

Looking up from a distance, they could just make out a city of stone buildings covering the top of the mountain. Early in their climb it became obvious that the mountain summit provided the vantage down the border mountains that they had hoped to find. Each loop around the mountain revealed splendid western views to Garyth. Near the top of the climb he had even seen a valley running from east to west that he was sure connected to the valley where he had grown up. He only regretted not having keener eyesight to discern details.

Their entry into the city on the peak reminded Garyth of the first time he had ridden into Xandar Tahn. Although most of the buildings seemed well preserved, here and there a wall had collapsed. An elaborate group of buildings circled an open courtyard at the very crest of the mountain. It was mid-afternoon when they rode beneath an arch into a large courtyard covered with soft grass.

Samir insisted on getting the survey work done first, reminding them that bad weather could come up and ruin the view. So when the horses were cared for, they found a good southern vantage point and carefully took bearings down the border range peaks. It was clear that the mountain they were on could be seen from many miles out on the plains. Turning westward they took bearings of the peaks of northern Wyeland and Garyth pointed out the gash of the east-west valley that would lead him home. The work was completed in an hour and then they turned to exploration.

The largest building opening onto the courtyard was three stories tall. The lower rooms had vaulted roofs of fitted stone supported by columns and arches. The doors had been made of wood and had long since decayed into dust, leaving rusty metal hinges and binding bars lying in the doorways. There were plenty of windows to light the outer rooms. To their delight, there were drawings on the walls in most of the rooms, as though the building had been a school. Some of the drawings depicted the surrounding mountain peaks, featuring the sky above the peaks, as though the peaks only served to reference directions. They wondered aloud whether they had found a university or a temple. They did not separate but walked from room to room together, discussing what they found.

They finally came to an inner corridor that had no outside windows. The floor of the corridor seemed littered with cylinders of thin brass and many transparent discs. It was Steven who picked up a cylinder, which had a disc pressed into one end and a smaller tube sticking out from the other end. He noticed that a small disc was mounted in the small tube. The cylinder was green with corrosion but did not seem fragile. While the others continued to look through the litter in the corridor, Steven and Garyth took the cylinder back to a room with a window and began to experiment. First, Garyth wiped the dust from the discs at either end. Then he peered into each end of the cylinder while Steven held his fingers near the other end. This did not seem to be satisfactory until Steven stepped over close to the window to get further away. Garyth was looking into the small tube end and let out a sharp cry. Steven quickly ran back to Garyth’s side but Garyth said nothing more and kept the tube pressed to his eye, pointed out the window. Then he handed the cylinder to Steven and told him to point it at a distant peak.

“It turns the mountain upside down and brings it into the room,” Steven exclaimed, handing the cylinder back to Garyth as though it were too hot to handle.

“It does to distant things what the discs do for near things,” Garyth said, as he headed toward the outer door. Steven did not know whether to follow Garyth or run to the corridor and tell the others. Garyth soon found the western view he was looking for and brought the cylinder to his eye. At first it was hard to tell what he was looking at since it turned the world over and switched left and right. It took several tries to aim the cylinder toward the line of the valley. When he finally got it right he knew he was looking at the landslide rubble, stretching across the valley, which he had seen all his life from the other side. The view began to shake because his hands trembled. He braced himself against a wall and strained to see evidence of a trail. But the cylinder could not reveal such fine details.

He heard the others calling him and turned to face them. Kalon was striding forward with a cylinder nearly twice as long as the one he was using. “Try this one,” Kalon said, holding the cylinder out to Garyth.

“It’s heavy,” Garyth muttered, as it was passed to him. He placed it atop a low wall and crouched behind it to get the pointing angle he needed. It took him a bit of searching to find the rubble again, but this time it filled the view. He could even make out the far end of a shimmering lake on the valley floor behind the rubble dam. While Garyth gazed, Steven explained to the others that the tubes turned the world upside down and brought distant things near.

“Samir, you have been in our valley, and you too, Steven,” Garyth said, waving his friends over to have a look. Steven was first and Garyth helped him sight along the outside of the cylinder to find the valley. Then he carefully moved the cylinder to follow the valley to the east end.

“I can see the lake,” Steven exclaimed. “I think I could see a man if he were standing in the right place.”

Samir stepped forward to have a look. “How far do you think it is from here to the rubble pile?” he asked.

“I don’t know how to judge it,” Garyth answered.

“Why don’t we take it over there and aim toward the south to see if we can find some of the lookouts we visited,” Sinril suggested. “We know how long it took us to get from the lookouts to this place. Perhaps the way the lookout building appears from here could help us decide the distance to the rock pile.” She came over and Garyth helped her to find the rubble pile. “How tall is it, Garyth?” she asked.

“Look at the fir trees growing near it on the valley floor,” Garyth told her.

“Oh yes, it’s about half again taller than that tree on the left, or so it seems to me,” she said. “The tree takes up about a third of the view.”

Garyth checked her observation and both Steven and Samir also looked again. Then they carried the large cylinder across the courtyard and Sinril began to look for the last lookout by pointing southeast. It was difficult to aim the device because of the upside down perspective. Sinril asked Kalon to take over the search since it made her dizzy. Meanwhile, Al-tir had taken the smaller cylinder and was also scanning.

“There’s one of them,” Al-tir called out. Garyth quickly came to her side to sight down the cylinder to tell exactly where it pointed. Then he walked over to do the same thing with the large cylinder that Kalon was using.

“A little more to the left, Kalon,” he said. “Not too fast or you’ll miss it.”

Kalon slowly pivoted the cylinder to the left. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “it’s like we never left.” Sure enough, when the others looked, the lookout building seemed very close, with door and windows clearly visible.

“I’ve found the second lookout,” Al-tir exclaimed.

Once again Garyth checked her pointing and helped Kalon to adjust the large cylinder more to the left. The building at the second lookout was visible but appeared about half the size of the closer one. “Garyth, the building seems to be about one third the height of the fir tree in the valley. Does that sound about right to you?” Sinril asked after taking a look.

“I would guess the fir tree would be about four times taller than the building, if they were together,” Garyth answered.

“It took us five days to get here from the last lookout,” Samir said. “Then if we subtract the time we spent in the canyon village, it was about five days between the two lookouts. I think it will take you at least nine or ten days to get home from here Garyth. Of course, you are welcome to go back with us and take the long way home.”

Garyth was ready to leave right away, but he didn’t want to seem too eager. “Why don’t we point down the border range,” he suggested. “Perhaps Samir can pinpoint some familiar landmarks smaller than mountains.”

The shadows were lengthening on the eastern slopes of the border range, so Samir wasted no time in searching the distant plains and mountains. Al-tir joined him using the smaller cylinder. The others began to unpack and set up camp in the courtyard. Garyth and Steven left to look for a store of water. They soon found some small tiled ditches designed to direct water from rain and melting snow in the courtyard to a lower level. Going outside the courtyard, they followed the watercourse to a low dome. Further investigation revealed that the dome covered a storage basin dug into the rock of the summit. There was a low entry door and steps down to the edge of the water. A walkway led from the tank entrance up some stairs and back into the courtyard. When they returned, they found both Al-tir and Samir pointing their cylinders at the full moon, which was just rising in the east.

“Samir, come look at this,” Al-tir said, almost whispering. “Look along the edge,” she told him, “I think there are mountains.” The incredible brightness of the moon hurt his eye. The moon overflowed his view, and he could see no more than about a fourth of the moon’s disc. Along the edge, just as Al-tir had said, rough bumps showed the profile of a mountain range.

“I think I’m looking at a ball, not a flat disc,” Samir said. “No one in Xenar has ever seen the moon like this.”

“No one in Wyeland either,” Garyth said. “If the weather is clear tomorrow morning, you may see your clan’s herds.”

“Then we will both be homesick together,” Samir answered.

Kalon returned to his exploration in the corridor with a torch. He found over six more intact cylinders but said nothing. He had decided that the cylinders had been stored in the corridor on wooden racks that had long ago decayed. There were rusty nails and iron fasteners in the dust on the floor. There was so much to do here, but he felt that if it was to be done correctly, it should be left to Sinril and himself. Perhaps he could encourage Garyth and Steven to leave in a few days. If Samir and Al-tir went with them for a visit, then they would all be happy and occupied, leaving him and Sinril alone to get the real work done. He would just have to see if the wind might blow in that direction.

They all pitched in to bring up water for the horses and build a fire in the courtyard. Garyth wondered if a large enough fire could be seen from his home. “Perhaps one could be built,” Kalon suggested, “after you have had time to get there. But how would we know if you saw it?”

“I could ride with Garyth and Steven and come back with a report,” Al-tir said. “I would love to see his home and meet his girlfriend,” she winked.

“I think we may be needed here,” Samir told her. “There is a lot to do here. Kalon and Sinril could use our help.”

“While there is a lot of work here,” Kalon said thoughtfully, “Sinril and I would love to be doing the work ourselves, while you and Al-tir would probably grow homesick and restless after a few days of it. If you could help us lay in a good supply of firewood and leave us a bow and arrow, just in case, we would be able to get a lot done while you enjoyed a visit to see Garyth’s family. They are friends of yours, aren’t they Samir?”

“Oh yes, they made me and Steven regular members of their family. It would be nice to see them again since we are so close.” It was not the first time that a visit had crossed Samir’s mind. He had sensed that Kalon and Sinril were ill at ease when the rest of them were exploring the sites they had visited. Sinril had barely been able to keep from attacking Garyth when he had wanted to scratch a message on the cave wall where they took shelter from the storm. He thought they were a little too meticulous, but then again, he was not used to real scholars. One of the pack horses was showing some swelling around its ankle. He had decided that he could give the animal to Carlten to use on the farm after the ankle was allowed to rest and heal. It would please him to deliver the horse himself.

“Let us sleep on the thought and talk it over tomorrow night,” he suggested.

Now that real darkness had settled in, except for the beacon of the full moon, Al-tir wanted to use the cylinder to look at stars and wanderers. The wanderers were especially bright stars that did not remain in fixed patterns, but moved about among the Warrior, the Bison, the Goats, and other star patterns. The stars did not prove very interesting, although some showed more color than could be seen with eyes alone. There were two wanderers in the sky and both were surprising. They were not just points of light. One was a disc with faint bands and two tiny stars just to the left, while the other, near the western horizon, was a half disc, like the half moon. She was awestruck, thinking that only the long-dead people who had once lived in this city had ever seen the sight. She almost would not yield the smaller cylinder to Steven because she wanted to be the only one in the world who knew.

The large cylinder was too heavy and awkward to point overhead, but Steven was sure they could build a prop to hold it for tomorrow night. They all moved away from the firelight and passed the cylinder around. Kalon was as excited as anyone and mentioned the drawings in the rooms.

“These people explored the night sky,” he said.

Tags: Another Way Home

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Peter // May 5, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Ah, fiction by a fellow astronomy enthusiast. It’s enough to make me wish I lived somewhere less… populated. The sense of wonder really comes through here.

    I do hope nobody’s going to burn out an eye trying this during the day…

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