Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)

The Treasure of Totowa Hills

© 2000 Melissa K. Michael
11,200 words

The Treasure of Totowa Hills
by Melissa Katherine Michael

The common room of the sea coast inn was crowded and noisy, full of smelly men in drabby clothes, yet Jenora had a table to herself and her bottle of wine. She’d been there for hours trying to decide what to do. Westport’s only wizard wasn’t at all interested in a journey, even if he could have attempted it, so old and decrepit was he.
The innkeeper approached her table, not, she allowed herself a sigh of relief, to eject her, but to usher three odd women to share it. The dwarf adjusted her battle ax as she sat on the bench then promptly dropped her head to the table as if to sleep despite the din of over a hundred men celebrating workday’s end. The other two were of a height and thin. One had short-cut mousy brown hair. She looked like a normal girl, perhaps a bit undernourished which was certainly normal. But the other, the swordwielder, had white hair and red eyes. On second glance, one was red and the other a brilliant blue. Her white hair, thin, limp, and uncut hung a little past her shoulders. Jenora had seen an albino rat once with hair and eyes like that. Scared her, as did this young girl. Despite the strange coloring, Jenora saw the hard edge to the flesh around her eyes, the thousand-league-stare the child had, they all three had. So, they’d been blooded, had they?
Jenora spoke up in her usual abrupt fashion, “Might you be knowing where one wizard be?”
The albiness and the other who had not yet taken the hood from her short hair, stared.
“Uh, that be, er, Jenora me called.” She stuck out a hand and tried to grin. Smiles were more and more difficult to manage as one’s purse grew flat.
“I’m Arlin,” the albiness said, taking Jenora’s hand with an answering attempt at a grin. “This is Honeysuckle,” she gestured to the girl beside her whose stare had not moved, then the sleeping dwarf, “and that’s Corry. She’s tired. What do you want with a wizard?”
Jenora was taken back, not at all prepared to reveal the words that slid from her lips, “A dying woman’s wish.”
Honeysuckle’s eyes blazed with interest. A serving maid brought steins of clabbered milk. Corry roused long enough to drain hers then laid her head back down.
“M-m-my backmate, you know, my closest . . .” Jenora held up crossed fingers.
Arlin nodded. Corry was her own backmate, through thick and thin, hell and high-water, and recently, both.
“She . . . she told me to find a wizard.” Jenora looked from Arlin to Honeysuckle and back.
Arlin seemed to be waiting and only returned her gaze.
“You’ve found one,” Honeysuckle said softly but so intense was her voice that Jenora jumped in her seat.
“B-but.” Why did her voice fail? She, a veteran of twenty campaigns, why was she frightened by these children?
“She’s the wizard,” Arlin said casually, easing back in her seat to nurse her stein. “I’m just a freak.” It was a common mistake.
Dinner arrived. Corry roused, veritably inhaled her food then returned her head to the table. Honeysuckle and Arlin were more reserved, trying each dish in turn and enjoying it with the relish of the travel-famished.
Jenora knit her brows in consternation looking back and forth between the two.
Honeysuckle noticed her suspicious scrutiny and asked, “What will convince you that I am a wizard? Conjuring gold?” A pile of gold coins appeared in her hand. “No, any illusionist can do that.” They vanished. “You’ve piqued my curiosity. How do I convince you I’m a wizard so you’ll tell me your secret?”
Jenora took a deep breath and squinted as though considering. Then her face clouded like a hailstorm approaching on the horizon. “Bring Nail back,” she said and hung her head and bawled into her wine cup.
Arlin looked to Honeysuckle who shrugged and finished her meal. When Jenora had composed herself, Honeysuckle said, “I can’t do that or I’d be a necromancer.”
Jenora nodded, and seeing her chance, Arlin asked, “Do you have a room here? Innkeep said he was full due to the ship bringing so many people from across the Sea.”
Jenora nodded. “From the 99 Isles come me.”
“Might we share your room? We could talk privately there. We’d be fine in the barn but it is going to rain and you can see how tired we are.” Arlin gestured to Corry’s limp form.
“Oh surely you be stay with me. And let us our way there make.”
Arlin nudged Corry and let Jenora lead the way cradling her wine and cup. She let them in and Corry threw her pack down, unrolled her blanket and lay upon it muttering, “At least she’s not another damned virgin. Maybe she can lead us into some healthy sin.”
Honeysuckle threw two magelights up to the ceiling then saw about arranging her pack alongside Arlin’s.
Jenora stared in wonderment at the blue glowing balls suspended by nothing. She looked to Honeysuckle. “Truly you a mighty wizard be. Nail me said to find such. On me own me try, but stumped me.”
Arlin hurriedly shut the door to damn the flood of words rushing forth into the hall.
“Me use me last bit of coin to cross the Emerald Sea. But now me said Mr. Harbormaster, the Totowa Hills hundreds of miles be, and worst, not a one go there from here, and has never, but me tell no one for why.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Arlin drawled softly to Honeysuckle, her mismatched eyes glowing blue and violet in the magelight. “Could be either the swamp, or the desert, or the jungle where they eat people.” Then her striking eyes fixed on Jenora. “We were just there and turned back.”
“Just where? Totowa?”
“No. The Great Canyon. We came down the Ice River and stopped there at Dry Run where they said it was the last village before the Sea on account of the floods and the Swamp. But it’s not, they’re jealous of Seula, who gets their business because it’s not at the bottom of a canyon. We were going to head east, but they told us in Dry Run that civilized folks don’t go that way.”
Arlin sat on the edge of the bed with a deep sigh before continuing. “I’m a guide by profession, but I’m from up north, not around here, and I haven’t seen a map of anything east of the Ice.”
Into the silence Honeysuckle asked in the quietly disconcerting way that was her habit, “Why have you traveled all this way to go further east?”
Jenora dug into her shirt front. “This it be. Nail give it me when she died. Been in her family eons, said she. Holding the Tackies off our lord were we, so that he could bolster up the line and drive them out. Only, not, did he. Used the time Nail bought him by dying to steal the gold candlesticks and run off, did he. Then, I stay and Tacky be, or follow this what she give me,” Jenora held out a paper. “This me said, Nail did, ‘Promise me you’ll take a wizard. You’ll never find it without a wizard.’ And true ‘tis. Gone me money and got only me feet for walking all that way yet.”
When she finished speaking, Honeysuckle narrowly scrutinzed the paper in the otherwhere before taking it, running a spellcheck. She unfolded it then spread it out on the room’s bed, the only furniture, so that Jenora and Arlin could see.
“Hm,” she said. “There’s the Ice, but that says Singing Desert, where it’s called Sighing now. And look, the Thriving Swamp is split into three and named Thrice Swamp on this map. This is our coastline,” she said tracing it with her finger down to where the Ice made a delta and entered the Sea, back along the Big Turtale River through the swamp to, “Turtle Lake is the same name. And they called this jungle the Maneater Jungle when we were in Dry Run. But what’s this?” She pointed to an odd symbol in the bottom right corner under the Totowa Hills.
“That treasure be. This map in Nail’s family be for hundreds of years. Me said she sometime the younglings went after it but nobody come back. Me said she must a wizard to get along. But I guess two more for the treasure, too.” She gestured uneasily to Arlin and Corry. “Good swordarm at my back me always need.”
“Hm,” Honeysuckle said drawing the attention of Arlin as well as Jenora. “These rivers might have changed course somewhat in hundreds of years. And how did you propose to carry this treasure back all that way? You’ll need a team of asses and a handler for them. And what about this?” She pointed to the decorative scrollwork bordering the map on four sides. “This looks like Sanskrit. You need a priest to translate it before going any further. And you need a priest for the journey too. Yes, with a mule handler, that’ll make six, and the priest will make seven. This journey calls for a company of seven.”
“What me say?” Jenora demanded. Suddenly the quest was no longer hers. “Only fancy decoration be. Priest no need. Wherefrom jackass money be? No have I. And--and, me count four of we here. And you a wizard be unknown to me, how can trust you me?”
Honeysuckle and Arlin shared a chuckle and Arlin got up to lay out her bedroll.
“I hardly need to steal your gold, Jenora,” Honeysuckle said gently then, lifting her arm, and let a shower of gold coins fall and roll into the corner. “That’s for the ass train, and--”
“Horses for us to ride,” interjected Arlin and pretended not to notice Honey’s sour grimace.
“Although I think we can buy the asses in Canyon City,” she continued. “And that’s not decoration,” she said tapping the map’s edge. “It’s very important instructions, I’m sure. I recognize the script as that of a dead language, one that only the vaishnavas read now. You’ll never find it without knowing what it says.”
Arlin reached into her shirt and pulled out a sleeping sprite then laid it gently into her bed.
“Wh-what that be?”
“That’s a who. Not a what. She’s Heide,” Honeysuckle answered. “The sixth member of our party. Now, Arlin and Corry and Heide will want their share, but I only want first choice of any magical artifacts. Then there’s the ass handler and the priest’s shares. But that can be discussed tomorrow. First you must locate a vaishnava who can read this. There’s no use in starting out until then.”
She began folding hte map. “I suppose the best route is through Dry Run and into the jungle. There’s no use going through the swamp or the desert.”
Honeysuckle looked up sharply toward the door. She looked into otherwhere which permitted her to see what lay on its other side. Her eyes narrowed in anger as she leapt up. Arlin was beside her with a drawn sword that glowed with unholy orange flames. Honeysuckle drew back her hand in a claw as Arlin jerked open the door.
“What?” Jenora began but she was cut off by Honeysuckle’s bloodcurdling scream of, “Misstanifllitvey!” as she threw her hand forward like lightning as though hurling a stone at an attacker.
Jenora followed Arlin and Honeysuckle into the hall and watched, her own sword at the ready, as Honeysuckle bent over a fallen man. He could have been one of the many from the common room downstairs.
Presently Honeysuckle stood. “He heard nothing of consequence,” she said and swept past Jenora and returned to the room.
“But, but what him you do?” Jenora asked in fear.
Honeysuckle regarded her a moment before answering. “I froze him still then looked into his memory to see what he knew about us and our plans. All he heard was that we need a priest. He’ll roust in an hour or so with a splitting headache and think he fell down drunk. I took all knowledge of us from his mind. He won’t remember why he followed us to our room.”
Arlin, her blade glowing with only the normal sheen of good steel, set about stroking it with a whetstone, more to calm her nerves than any need of sharpening.
“But how me find an honest priest, and how me know he read this sure?” Jenora asked with a poke toward the map where it still rested on the bedstead.
“There’s plenty of them in the market everyday selling their books and sweetmeats,” Honeysuckle answered patiently. “You’ll find them at their temple very early. And you ask if they can read it.”
With that, Honeysuckle curled up in the middle of the bed and fell asleep. Jenora thought better of protesting and unrolled her own blankets on the floor.
“Why sneak away at this ungodly hour?” Corry asked with a yawn as she saddled her golden-haired pony.
Arlin was helping Honeysuckle saddle a black mare, her own grey gelding standing patiently outside the barn, saddled and ready to start for Canyon City.
“She really believes she has a treasure map, and doesn’t want anyone else to know,” Honeysuckle answered, glancing doubtfully at what seemed to her, a huge monster just waiting to throw her and stomp her with its deadly hooves.
“Look,” Arlin called her attention. “Knee it in the ribs while cinching up the girth, see? They always puff out their belly, and if you don’t get it tight enough you’ll slide over while you’re riding.”
Honeysuckle nodded dubiously. She liked walking plenty fine. They’d walked from Dry Run, why did they have to ride back?
The three led their mounts out of Westport’s main gate and found Jenora astride her roan gelding, purchased with Honeysuckle’s gold, and a stranger in Jenora’s hooded cloak atop a matching roan gelding.
“Let’s go,” Jenora said and wheeled her horse about to walk along the road that led to Piketon Road.
Arlin and Honeysuckle exchanged glances but mounted their beasts without comment. Corry had ridden from the stable. She liked being able to keep up with the taller people by riding. While walking she had to jog on her own short legs to keep pace with their longer strides.
Honeysuckle clicked her truthtell on, then leaned over to the new addition to their company and asked, “Are you a vaishnava?”
The woman nodded without meeting Honeysuckle’s eyes.
“And you can read the Sanskrit on the map?”
Another nod. What she could see of the woman’s face led her to believe she was no more than a child. But it was a hard world where children often attempted the deeds of adults. Lord above knew she herself had, what to speak of Arlin and Corry.
The misty morning on white dunes of scraggly seagrasses quickly gave way to a sunny day over rolling meadows. Arlin taught Honeysuckle the rudiments of horsemanship; heels down, toes in, holding the reins, and posting while trotting while the new girl looked on and copied as best she could in a full-length dress, until finally with a scowl, Jenora called a break and gave the girl trews to put on. After that the horses covered miles and crossed three rivers and as many shallow streams to get the party in to Piketon just after sundown.
The girl was reticent to speak and Honeysuckle never could seem to get her away from Jenora to question her privately. Another day’s pleasant ride under a bright sun led them to Canyon City which overlooked the Great Canyon. Jenora and the new girl stared in amazement at the deep cleft in the earth herself. The canyon was so huge and deep that several mountain ranges rested comfortably in its bottom. But they were dead mountains, beautiful spires of barren orange and black stripes. The level striations could only be visible at such a distance if they were nothing but bare rock. Vegetation would smudge and green the eerily elegant lines.
“Never looked down at a mountain before?” Heide asked from Arlin’s shoulder.
“Down that go we?” Jenora asked after giving herself a shake.
Arlin looked at her oddly. “Yes,” she answered. “We go down that.”
“Just as soon as you get us a team of donkeys with a guide,” Honeysuckle said. “Do you have enough gold?”
Jenora felt the weight of her purse and smiled.
“Someone who can get us down to Dry Run, across the Ice, and is willing to go to Totowa Hills with us,” Honeysuckle detailed.
Jenora nodded and left Arlin to care for her horse as soon as they arrived at Canyon City’s only inn. Ice River trade and traffic mostly bypassed Dry Run and went on down to Seula, where it didn’t have to be transported up several miles from the bottom of the Great Canyon. Thus Canyon City and Dry Run were relatively small and slow villages. Everything in Seula was built to weather the yearly spring flood of the Ice by moving to the second story.
“What did you say your name was?” Honeysuckle made use of Jenora’s absence to approach the girl.
“I didn’t,” she said and looked about as if for Jenora’s timely return despite the fact that negotiations for a pack team could take hours.
“Please, I--” she began then bit her lip. “Jenora said I wasn’t to talk to any of you. I-”
“Why on earth not?” Honeysuckle asked thunderstruck. She’d been thinking the girl simply didn’t like them, being a devout spiritualist thrown in with a group of devout materialists. “Do you--” Honeysuckle stammered in confusion. “Did you want to come with her?”
The girl only looked around in fear.
“Come along,” Honeysuckle said and drew her into the inn’s stable where Arlin and Corry were assisting the stableboy in unloading their animals with the advice of an excited Heide bouncing on Arlin’s shoulder.
“Tell me what you’re doing here. Start from the beginning, when you met Jenora,” Honeysuckle said. “You should know by now that I can easily protect you from her.” Although actually, the girl couldn’t have seen her do much more than start the cookfire for Corry by magic.
The girl took a relieved breath and closed her eyes. “I know that, yes, but I didn’t think that you’d want to,” she said and opened her eyes to meet Honeysuckle’s for the first time. The girl’s were bright green. Wisps of blonde hair framed her face where it had come loose from her braid.
“How old are you?” Honeysuckle asked in a voice gone deathly quiet.
Honeysuckle nodded and held her anger. Jenora was its target.
“She spoke to me in the market and showed me the map asking if I could read it. I told her yes, I could read the devanagari, that’s the script. Sanskrit is the language. I even recognize the verses but there were words wrong and I wanted to check my dictionary before giving her the translation. She said to bring my books and meet her the next morning, during our first service, an hour before sunrise. When I found her she threatened to kill me-”
At this Honeysuckle sucked in her breath and a fierce light shone in her hazel eyes.
“-if I didn’t come and speak nothing to any of you.”
Arlin with Heide on her shoulder and Corry at her side stepped forward away from their mounts to hear more.
“I’m-I’m betrothed to Yashomati Nandana, but he-he won’t take me now that I’ve been out of my father’s house overnight.” She burst into tears. “I thought it would be nice, you know to have treasure, to take care of myself. But if she’d asked me I might have prepared, and told my mother not to worry, and broke it off with Yashomati Nandana. I don’t really like him and I don’t want to become a cow like my mother and my sisters, but I don’t know how to do it like you all. I can’t even ride a horse.”
Honeysuckle put her arms around the girl and let her bawl into her shoulder. After considering the girl’s words she burst into laughter. “I’ve never ridden a horse before either, you know,” she said. “We’re making this up as we go along.” Honey looked around to Corry, Heide, and Arlin who nodded with agreeing smiles.
The girl pulled away to see her expression.
“Corry’s running away from your same fate. She’s King Goldenlight’s only daughter. Though he has sons to take the throne, she’s supposed to act as a brood mare and be sold off to the highest bidder. I’m trying to become a wizard but my teachers keep throwing me out or dying on me. Heide already had sons to insure the succession of her father but didn’t love any of the fathers. Neither did they want to marry her. Arlin’s the only true hero. She weilds the Sword of Light by divine right, and has saved two wizards of which I am the second, and put to an end many evil-doers.”
Arlin rolled her eyes at the accolade but remained silent.
“What is your name anyway?” Honey asked abruptly.
“Surya. It means light. Sunlight, or godly light. It’s in one of the verses on the map, actually.” In the warmth of Honeysuckle’s attention, the young girl seemed to blossom with congeniality and to lose any self-consciousness, or Jenora-consciousness.
“Na tad bhaasayate suuryo,” she recited. “Suuryo is a form of surya. Only,” she paused. “The last line of that verse is missing.”
“Perhaps it was miscopied,” Arlin offered.
“That would seem so, but one word in the first verse has been changed completely.”
“You’re sure of that?” Honeysuckle said.
Footsteps sounded outside the stable and Jenora entered with a scowl on her face.
“We were just asking Surya here,” Honeysuckle said rising to face the Islander squarely, “how it was that she was kidnapped and threatened to come on this quest against her will.” Honey let tension fill a small silence. “Very foolish, Jenora. Hiding a secret from me. Very foolish. Dangerously foolish.” She let her own threat hang in the air. “So. That was quick. No luck?”
Jenora debated whether to take her offer of a change of subject as though nothing had happened, then did so. “Ah yes. Leave at dawn we. A pack of twenty wanted she, but told her ten be fine me. Said lose them all in the jungle we.”
“Did you tell her you have a wizard along?”
“Only way agree she. To meet you soon come she. But all ready by dawn said she.”
“But we haven’t even gone over a list of supplies,” Corry said with fervor.
“All in Dry Run be,” Jenora said.
Honeysuckle turned to Surya. “You can go back if you like. We’ll pay you for your translation of the map’s legend.”
“But-but,” Jenora sputtered. “You say me must have a priest go we.”
Honeysuckle turned on the older woman, a dangerous glare in her eye. “Yes, we do. And we’ll wait right here or at Dry Run until one floats by and joins our party willingly.” Her whisper was like the warning hiss of a poisonous serpent.
Jenora blinked and quieted.
“She can’t go back by herself,” Arlin said.
Honeysuckle whirled to face her, bewildered by Arlin’s tone of disgust. “Two days on horseback,” she pointed out.
“She’s never ridden before. Can she remember the crossings and forks on the road? Can she feed herself if she gets lost? Can she defend herself if someone attacks her, a defenseless young girl completely alone?”
“I want to come along,” Surya said in a small voice like a child when its parents argue about its welfare as though it wasn’t there.
Honeysuckle’s mouth clapped shut on an angry retort. “You do?”
Surya nodded while looking at the stable’s straw floor, drawing into herself now that Jenora was back and everyone seemed to be disturbed.
“Tis good be,” Jenora said.
Honeysuckle echoed her words with a sigh.
After a restful night inside, the company started out early and met Perie Ann, their guide and ass handler, (“All my donkeys are male and haul as much as any she-mule.”) at the head of White Falls Trail. The descent was steep but the path was solid beneath the hooves of their animals which was fortunate, for a thick heavy fog billowed off White Falls and wrapped the company in a blanket of moist cotton.
“It’ll burn off by noon,” Perie Ann promised, to Arlin, to whom she confided all the necessary details of keeping the asses calm and out of the mouths of the wild boars they’d meet in the jungle. Arlin had given up the attempt to convice the woman that Honeysuckle, and not she, was the wizard and needed to hear these details. Was she branded a witch for life by her odd hair and eyes? And dammit if Heide didn’t go all spooky on her, trying to act like a familiar.
The trail switched back and forth, back and forth, almost as though they were pacing instead of descending. Gradually the fog receded and Arlin could see twenty paces ahead of her. There were scraggly trees growing off and on along the trail, a large clump stood ahead. Then she blinked, for a group of men astride hardy mules such as their baggage animals were not, filed out from behind the trees.
“Oh shite,” Perie Ann cursed softly. “We’re in it now.”
“In what?” Arlin demanded. “Should I call Honeysuckle?” She was back to the rear trying to establish rapport with the beasts of burden while Perie Ann guided.
Surya perked up behind them.
“No, but you can bet they’re up to no good.”
The two lead men stopped ten paces from them, blocking the trail, and appeared to confer. Perie Ann kept her ass moving. Arlin turned in her seat and was about to call to Honeysuckle softly when Surya burst into song.
“Namaste Narasimhaya, Pralaadhalaada-dayine.”
The men looked up to see the source of the sound.
Surya’s voice was clear and high, piercingly sweet like the bite of a lover. “Hiranyakashipur vakshaha, shila tanka nakalaye.”
The men looked at each other nervously.
“Ito narasimho, parato narasimho.”
They warily pulled their mounts to the side of the trail and let the party pass.
“Yato yato yami tato narasimho,” Surya sang.
When they were out of earshot, the women pushed around Surya demanding what she’d done.
“You didn’t use magic,” Honeysuckle said, her tone somewhere between a homage and an accusation.
“It’s a song we sing for protection about a horrendous demon that was trying to kill a devotee. The Lord incarnated to protect him and tore the demon to shreds and made a garland of his guts.”
Corry cocked her head in interest.
“But I thought you vaishnavas were pacifists,” Honeysuckle said in confusion.
Surya looked at her strangely. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Perie Ann clucked at the pack asses to get them started again. The sun was a high white, hot disc. Honeysuckle had the asses tied to the back of her own saddle so that Perie Ann could lead. Then came Arlin with Heide sitting atop her saddle horn, Corry, and Surya. Jenora brought up the rear behind the asses, grumbling occasionally about green turds and black piss.
Reaching out with her mind, Honeysuckle could easily feel the seismic energy of the water’s thundering fall to the north of the trail and Mother Earth’s gentle enjoyment of the pounding, a relieving scratch on the little patch of dryness on her skin, the hundred-and-fifty-mile-long canyon and its surrounding areas. Below her horse’s hooves, Honey felt the dry earth. Easily she reached down and saw the age of the multi-hued rock layers making up the canyon and far below she felt the rich and endless vital force of the earth. These she understood and tapped easily. A slight breeze stirred the short hair at the back of her neck. Wind was a product of the sun’s action on air. Heat came from these and was stored in wood. Light also. Readily, dozens of heat and light spells leapt to her mind. With a sharp shake of her head, she tossed these imaginings away and tried again to find the jackass energy. A line of ten of the beasts lumbered along behind her and so dull was she to their vital force it was as though she rode alone.
Jasper, the dwarf wizard who’d called her to take his dying breath, thus giving her his long life’s knowledge willingly, had ridden ponies, like Corry. He had a few general soothing spells cast as he gave the beast (or human, or dwarf) a friendly pat. It only worked on that one being. Honeysuckle tried it on her horse. It breathed a sigh. There were healing spells that worked as well on animals as humans, and some having to do with cows’ five stomachs, falcon wings, and cat whiskers. And Sheba, the wizard she’d killed defending herself, had left Honeysuckle a roomful in otherwhere of ultimate control spells. Yes, the little asses would do her bidding, but how to make it known to them? She didn’t want anything more from them than that they follow behind, and that they were doing willingly. She just had no feel for this. Protect them from dangers that attacked the party, that would have to be good enough. That decided, she went back to making curlie cues and rainbows with the rushing waterfall and sunlight.
By the time the sun set, they’d reached Dry Run but the day never cooled. It was much warmer at the bottom of the canyon than the top, and stayed that way year round.
The next day was spent crossing the mighty Ice River which flowed strong, swift, and deep, being the accumulation of rivers from its source in the Ice Mountains many leagues north, the Greenwood Hills, the Black Mountains and South Mountains, the Rolling Hills and all rivers in between, to even the White River which flowed from the Seacoast Hills and which they’d followed since Piketon. The donkeys were used to the great rafts towed along ropes that spanned the Ice, but the horses were skittish and required careful attention and a calming spell by Honeysuckle. She took two at a time with a hand on each nose.
“I’m just no good with animals,” Honeysuckle lamented after the third trip. Neither Sheba nor Jasper had kept animals as pets and Honeysuckle had never had a pet herself either.
“Shush, you’re doing fine,” Perie Ann said as they rode the raft back for another load of asses.
After lunch, Perie Ann suggested they go ahead and make a late start. There was a campsite a few miles away. They reached it by sunset.
“This slow, two weeks ride up we be,” Jenora grumbled.
Climbing the canyon was much more difficult for the animals than coming down had been. Honeysuckle tried her best to encourage the beasts. Still, after a full day of riding the party made the top and were back on a flat plain that showed a green line on the eastern horizon. to the north, the scraggly scrub land gave way to true desert. To the south it gave way to marshland but that was further than the eye could see.
“It’s still hot,” Arlin observed as they made camp that night on the canyon’s rim. She would ever remember the beautiful, breathtakingly colorful vistas it held.
“Hot on this side,” Perie Ann agreed, dashing Arlin’s hope that the tempertaure would cool as night fell.
After three days of slogging it; back across the mighty Ice, up the canyon’s steep face, and across scraggly scrubland, the party entered the steamy shade of dense jungle only to be greeted by aborigines charging with deadly spears.
“The asses! Don’t let them get my asses!” Perie Ann cried, distracting Honeysuckle.
“Oh my God!” Surya shouted, her faith in divine protection momentarily forgotten.
Arlin drew her sword and her horse reared. Flames shot forth from the naked blade though she felt no heat. Heide held onto the saddlehorn for dear life. Corry pulled her double-headed ax from her saddle thong and raised it for a roundhouse swing.
The attackers ran forward on foot screaming some hideous curse in their strange grunting guttural, their pale skin covered head to toe with dirt and clay, their hideously huge, misshapen lips painted red as blood. Human finger bones hung in the matted locks of their hair and the foremost warrior had a garland of infant hands preserved by some dastardly process adorning his chest.
Arlin used her sword to parry his spearthrust and swung back to decapitate him. His head flew from his shoulders turning and turning in the air, slinging blood over his fellows. Those close enough to witness his death howled with rage and turned and fled, but others who had not seen quickly replaced them in the mad charge against the companions.
Even astride a pony, Corry still managed to duck beneath her adversary’s thrust and bring her ax around to cut into his midsection. A shocked expression on his face, the savage slowly dropped his spear and crumpled to the ground.
Which way to go? What to do? Honeysuckle sent her mind to otherwhere searching, looking, while pushing herself to come up with something quickly. There. This band of fierce savage warriors was from the south, just across the river they called Jwala. They were a hunting party venturing out of their normal and at present depleted hunting grounds. Human or horse, both were rare delicacies for these hideous people.
“Back! Back!” she cried to Perie Ann and Surya. Why hadn’t she detected their approach and avoided all this?
Without pause, Arlin kicked her horse forward to dodge the two spearmen charging from her left. Then she yanked the reins savagely and wheeled around to present her right arm with the Sword of Light burning forth from it with a flame of death. The first flinched and her swing cut across his shoulder. The horse’s momentum carried her around to the second who jabbed at her mount. Arlin thrust for his face and connected. He wheeled away with a scream and Arlin’s horse reared, screaming in pain from its wounded shoulder.
An ass brayed in pain, it’s throat cut by a rusty cannibal blade. Corry’s feisty little pony reared once and like a flash of lightning, its hoof lashed out across the attacker’s face. With a crimson splash he fell back. Corry whipped her head around to meet the next attack but there was none. The clay-covered devils had vanished. Those that could. Her eyes met Arlin’s. Honeysuckle and the others were gone.
This way, came Honeysuckle’s voice, but not to their ears.
They trotted back the way they’d come, back to where trees met dry brushland, where there was no water to spare for cleaning a bloody sword or an ax. Arlin used her own drinking water. Corry followed suit.
Perie Ann went through the ass team one by one and checked that all gear was still secure after their flight.
“Where is Jenora?” Honeysuckle asked Arlin who dried her blade.
Arlin shrugged. “She was rearguard. I haven’t seen her since the piss hit the pot.” Her blade rode home in its scabbard with a savage clap before she met Honey’s eyes.
“Oh dear,” the wizard murmured unable to meet Arlin’s fierce gaze. Normally she was not at all usettled by the albiness’ mismatched eyes. Normally, there wasn’t bloodlust in them. “That was terrible. We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing here,” Honeysuckle continued as she touched Arlin’s horse with a calming spell. She sank into otherwhere and called upon a visionary trance to aid her sight of the horse’s injury. A ragged rip of muscle and other tissue revealed itself to her inner eye. Ah, their blades are dull and dirty. Drawing from poor dead Jasper’s stock of healing spells, she quickly set the horse aright.
While still in the trance of existence that was the only existence in otherwhere, Honeysuckle sought the familiar energy of the 99 Islands woman, Jenora. There she was walking a lathered horse not far back into the scrubland surrounding the Great Canyon. As Honey observed unseen, the woman turned the horse and headed back toward the party.
“She’ll be here soon. Her horse must have bolted when the cannibals attacked.”
No one met her eyes.
“They were screaming,” she said.
“A heel in the ribs’ll make a horse bolt, too,” a voice muttered that sounded like Perie Ann’s who’d been back with Jenora since they had reached the trees and her duties had reverted to sole ass handler.
“She leads from now on,” Arlin said. “I want her up front where I can watch her. Corry, you take rearguard.”
The dwarf nodded.
“Well, I’ll be more on guard, too. We won’t be caught like that again,” Honey promised.
Surya looked from face to face as each spoke.
“Do you even have a knife?” Heide asked her sourly from her customary perch on Arlin’s shoulder.
She shook her head. “No. Do you?”
Heide laughed. “I don’t need one.” Then she turned to Arlin’s ear. “Can you help her out?”
“Why didn’t we think of this in Dry Run? Or better yet, back in Westport?” But she reached into her sleeve and fiddled a moment before coming up with a small knife in a tie-on sheath. “Tie it on your ankle, like this,” she said, lifting a trewsleg to show the one she had on each side of her ankle. “It’s nothing but iron, so keep it dry and oiled. You ever fight with a knife?”
“Oh, no,” Surya shook her head vigorously with large eyes.
Corry sniffed and went to stand a little away from the others. She scanned first the trees, then the scrubland, listening. She knelt down and felt the earth, being a dwarf she was an earth daughter and was attuned to her mother’s speech, but there was nothing abnormal in this particular clearing.
“Don’t take it out until they’ve got you,” Arlin spoke to Surya. “Your only advantage is surprise. Pull it out where your attacker sees and he’ll take it from you.”
Surya made experimental jabs in the air.
“Like this,” Arlin said and wrenched the hilt away with one hand.
Surya gasped in consternation.
Arlin handed the little knife back. Then she pulled another out from her other sleeve. “Put this on your other leg. I never use the ones in my arms. As soon as they see you going for a sleeve, they jump. Wait for your chance, then stab them in the gut and twist it around. Then run like hell.”
“But, isn’t it better to get them in the heart right away?” she asked, perplexed.
“Of course, but it’s difficult to hit when they’ve got two arms protecting it. Go for the gut, or better yet, the family jewels. They’d never expect that from a nice lady like you.”
Surya’s head cocked over in wonder.
All heads turned to observe Jenora’s approach. She had the grace to look sheepish. “Guess me horse spooked.”
“Is that what you told your backmate what give you the map?” Arlin asked in a cold dry voice blown in from somewhere north of the Ice Mountains.
Before Jenora could respond from her stunned expression, Honeysuckle spoke up. “We need to plan and organize better. I now know that the locals live in tiny villages to the south of the Jwala River some miles south of us, what we would call the Ingot that feeds into the Ice just below Dry Run. Their appearance here was a fluke which may have been a fortunate warning for us. They’re far from their village due to poor hunting in that area. And . . . they are maneaters.”
Surya gasped. Perie Ann nodded gently.
“Come Corry, you’re part of this council, too.”
Arlin laughed and looked over to the dwarf who couldn’t bear to make a decision.
“I’m standing watch, a practice I suggest we institute from hereon out. Count my vote with Arlin’s.” With that, she turned her back on them and started pacing around their resting place.
“We have to use their trails,” Perie Ann offered. “When the jungle gets thick there’s no getting through any other way.”
Honeysuckle frowned. “Jenora, let’s see the map.”
Jenora frowned in Arlin’s direction, but pulled it out of her tunic and spread it on the ground before her. Honeysuckle studied it for some time.
“If we follow the Ingot east we’ll have to cross all these rivers coming out of the Farview Mountains and the Totowa Hills when we turn south. If the jungle is bad as you say with tangles of vines and wild boars and poisonous snakes, then I’m almost sure these maneating savages must live all along the Ingot.” Honeysuckle was spoke as if to Perie Ann alone, who although admitting to nothing more than rumors, had heard more of this land than any of them. “Are you sure it’s too marshy to go around the southern side of Turtle Lake?”
Perie Ann shrugged and shook her head. “Not sure of anything, Mistress.”
Honey blinked at the title. Although not very formal or regal, it was an honor, a courtesy to which she was unused. She bent her head to the map in embarrassment. Had she proved herself by the information gleaned from the savages mind? Or was it that she’d acted to protect Perie Ann and her precious asses along with Surya whom she knew couldn’t fight?
There was no help for it. “Let’s camp here,” she said, raising her hand to forestall protest. There were several hours of daylight left. “I’m going to attempt a farsee of the Lake, and maybe even beyond.”
The companions broke up to attend their routine chores.
“I remember someone saying that something like 800 years ago, our ancestors came out of the east, from across the canyon,” Surya said as she helped Perie Ann unload the asses and Honeysuckle set up her witching circle. “They were fleeing some terrible conquerors that came down out of the Farview Mountains. I’d be just as glad if we didn’t go that way.”
Finished with the asses, she spoke to Arlin who stood watch nearby while Corry started a cook fire. “I never heard of any treasure left behind but I imagine the temples were hidden and the Deities put to sleep. I guess they continued on across the sea to her islands but a lot must have stopped at the coast.” She gestured to Jenora who sat near Honeysuckle mumbling, though ready to assist. “People are nice there, in Westport. They accept us. I suppose those Deities could have had some treasure. We get ours nice silver platters sometimes, from the South Mountains, and They have a few gold bangles and earrings.”
They watched as Jenora drew her sword and left Honeysuckle’s preparations to head for one lone rock. Heat shimmered in the afternoon air though their camp was shaded by short trees. Jenora’s gait grew stealthy as she approached the rock closely. Her blade lifted slowly then fell almost swifter than the eye could follow. Her laughter floated to them on the heavy, heat-ladened air. Beyond her, a large reptilian body flopped about for several minutes before it stilled, similar to the nonmoving lizards they’d seen occasionally sunning themselves since rising from the canyon.
Surya started and turned her face away. “Could you teach me more about the knife?” she asked Arlin. “So that I could use it before someone captures me?”
Arlin studied the young girl. She saw someone ripped from all the security she’d ever known trying to learn the stroke and make a go of it, instead of being dragged under by the current. She nodded. “You’ll need a short sword to begin with. Build up your arm. Then you can learn a real sword. You still have some growing to do, if I’m not mistaken. Best age to start, I believe.”
“But you need your short sword,” she said anxiously.
“Yes, but I know where to get another.” With that cryptic comment Arlin walked over to Honeysuckle, knelt and whispered a moment. The wizard looked over to Surya in surprise. Surya tried not to flinch. Arlin spoke again then Honeysuckle gave a quick nod and smile and Arlin returned.
“Who’s she going to share that with, or even cook it with?” Arlin asked in an amused tone as Jenora approached the camp carrying the gutted lizard carcass. “Maybe she’ll make boots of it.”
“No one eats meat?” Surya asked.
“You don’t, do you?” Arlin countered.
“But I’m a religious fanatic,” she said with a smile. “What’s your excuse?”
“My parents are farmers. Cows give milk, bulls till the land. We always had more than enough to eat without bloodletting.” She shrugged. She’d had stews with fish or chicken in it upon occasion. Made her stomach hurt.
She continued, “Corry loves mushrooms, being a cave-dwelling dwarf, you know. Heide was raised on honey and flower nectar. Honeysuckle can hear a death since she became a wizard and won’t cause anything to be killed because of it. Dunno about Perie Ann. Wish we’d brought along a milk cow. I sure do miss my milk and butter, I can tell you that.”
“And curd and yogurt,” Surya agreed.
They watched Corry shaking her head repeatedly until Jenora stomped off to make her own fire.
The next morning Honeysuckle announced that indeed there were maneater villages along all the five major rivers between their position and the Totowa Hills. Corry raised an eyebrow at Surya’s new short sword of obvious South Mountain crafting, but said nothing.
“The marsh is firm enough this time of year to the west and south of Turtle Lake. While no maneaters live thereabouts, probably due to yearly floods from lake drainage, there was some presence that I couldn’t quite understand. Something from the marsh I suppose. Now is the driest time of year, so perhaps we have little to fear from that direction. Still, I agree with Corry’s suggestion to keep a watch at all times.”
“Good,” Arlin said.
Jenora and the others nodded, then made ready to leave. Jenora helped Perie Ann load the mules.
“You stay back with Corry on rearguard,” Arlin said handing Surya a pair of rocks the size and shape of goose eggs.
“What are these?” she asked.
“While you’re riding, drop the reins and hold them out like this.” Arlin extended her arms straight out to either side. “Then do this a hundred times.” She lifted her arms until the backs of her hands met above her head.
“What ever for?” Surya asked.
Corry tried to hide a snort of amusement.
Arlin extended a fist in front of herself. “Put the rocks down and hit my hand. Try to knock it.”
Surya laid the rocks down and with an uncertain smile she hit at Arlin’s hand. It did not budge though it was so far from her body, her center of mass.
“Harder,” Arlin said.
Surya tensed her lips and made a fist then swung for all she was worth.
“Ow!” she cried and cradled her hand between her legs.
Corry gave up and laughed uproariously in her throaty giggle. Arlin’s hand hadn’t moved. “When you can do that,” she said, “you can hold a sword. You’ll never be big and strong as a man, and it’s more than likely to be a man to attack you.” Arlin’s face was grim as her voice. “So be as strong as you can.” Then she smiled. “And Corry and I will show you a few tricks.”
They rode south for days through wet, sucking mud after swimming the Ingot before sighting the great Turtle Lake. Though what they could see had many trees in it, its waters seemed to stretch so far away east and south as though it were a sea. After a night on its banks, they crossed the western portion of the Big Turtle River that threaded its way through the Thriving Swamp to meet the Ice as it joined the Emerald Sea.
Honeysuckle rode ahead of the asses with Arlin and Jenora. Perie Ann moved about fretting among her charges and Corry and Surya brought up the rear as they had since the fracas with the maneaters. The wizard kept a repel spell going ahead of the party set especially for snakes and anything bigger than a baby warthog.
“Seems like you’d have a familiar. Arlin does,” Jenora said with a cross frown. The nearer they got to their destination, the more irritable she became. “You’re a wizard aren’t you? I always heard a wizard had to have a familiar.”
Honeysuckle’s voice cut the thick moist, superheated air with bright cheery peals of laughter. Jenora only scowled at her, sure she was the butt of some joke. Arlin rolled her eyes.
When she calmed, Honeysuckle said, “I guess Corry will do for that,” in a serious whisper which she ruined by laughing again.
Jenora looked nervously to the back of their train where Corry and Surya sang together. Then she swatted at her neck where something had bitten. “Shite! The stinger’s still in.”
“Let me look,” Honeysuckle said bending over in her saddle and reaching out a hand, a smile clenched between her lips.
But then a small black splinter appeared on her own hand and stung mercilessly. Immediately, while all around the women and animals began crying out as similar thorns rained down on them, she looked into otherwhere for the source of this sudden rain of madness.
“Heide, no!” Arlin yelled, as Heide jumped for a branch of the tree she’d run to for shelter. But Heide, the sprite she was, leapt away and was gone in a flash of green leaves.
Arlin had drawn her sword but saw no enemy. Numbness spread from each of the tiny wounds the darts inflicted on her. She looked to Honeysuckle and beyond her to locate Corry and the rest. Then the arrows stopped as unexpectedly as they had begun. A high-pitched tirade rang out among the tree trunks that could only be Heide throwing a whopper of a tantrum. Arlin kneed her horse closer to the trees.
“Yes! Bow down your worthless shite-filled head to me, you insufferable little worm-dung! It is I! Princess Sharilla Heide Fjordhill, eldest daughter to King of all Greenwood Hills and Emperor of all sprites throughout the land His Imperial Highness Jocktaw Lerrew Fjordhill the Fourth!”
Honeysuckle had returned to this where. “A savage tribe of sprites,” she gasped out to Arlin. Her shrug said, just as eloquently, that she couldn’t prepare for everything. “If we take no more thorns we should be all right.”
“What wretched vassals you all are for father! What a pitiful excuse for a sprite! I’m ashamed! Ashamed I tell you, to belong to the same race!”
“I think we should head on and let her catch up,” Arlin said to Honey’s gasp of amazement. “If they haven’t killed her by now, they’re not going to,” Arlin said practically.
“And look at you! Fithier than a pigsty, all of you! You’ve taken lessons from the swamphogs, I see! My father will be so disappointed when he hears about this!”
“You’re sure?” Honeysuckle questioned.
Arlin nodded then signaled the others to move out.
“He’ll probably send a special detachment of kitchen scrubbers to dip you all into a lyebath so offensive is your aroma!”
A few moments after they were out of earshot Heide dropped out of a tree and into Arlin’s lap and lay there panting.
“That’s fortunate they spoke your language,” Jenora ventured to the weary little sprite.
“Oh no, they couldn’t understand a word I said,” she answered between pants.
“Then how . . . ?” Honeysuckle asked, thunderstruck.
“It was regal my manner what did the trick,” she answered with a dignified sniff.
Arlin smiled at Honey, “That’s my Heide.”
Once past Turtle Lake the companions followed the course of the Totowa River as it meandered northeast while keeping to her south side to avoid maneater villages that Honeysuckle perceived with her farsight spells. Where the map showed the shortest distance to the Dead River, the party slogged through thick jungle, hacking at vines by turn with short swords that Honey conjured after a night spent in a magic circle looking ahead to their goal. She detected no living entities along the Dead River or in the southern parts of the Totowa Hills to which they were headed. Between the Totowa and Dead rivers, the jungle changed gradually from the dense and dim canopied affair to a thinner version with trees of a height they knew from the west that permitted beams of sunlight to play over their path. And it hadn’t rained all day. A brief though fierce shower had wet them every afternoon since entering the jungle. New and strange trees cropped up, one appeared to have roots growing upward and branches growing down. It was a gnarled twisted oddity and barely recognizable as a tree rather than a great uprooted bush.
“A banyan!” Surya cried in excitement and jumped from her horse to bow down in the forest mold. “That must be one!” She looked around to the companions. “I’ve never seen one. They don’t grow in Westport.”
“How very odd,” Honeysuckle remarked to Arlin and Jenora at their place ahead of the mules and rearguard. “There’s another,” she said pointing ahead. They were easy to distinguish from the strange things with no leaves or branches until their tops with had a huge cactus and large green fruit. When inspected on the ground the fruit proved hard and intractable as rocks. Perhaps they could be somehow cut or cracked in twain and used for bowls.
Jenora, her mood dour and impatient, demanded, “How will we ever find which banyan tree?”
“It will have a feel of great age about it,” Honeysuckle said. “Like around 800 years worth. Let’s call Surya,” she said to forestall another sour comment.
Surya led her mare past the asses and tried to ignore Jenora’s scowl. The woman’s mood had steadily worsened, far beyond anything monthly trials could account for.
“Uurdhva-muulam adhah-shaakham,” she recited. “‘There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns.’ Now, the original verse ends, ‘yas tam veda sa veda-vit.’ ‘One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.’ Our scriptures. But the last line on the map ends with aishvaryam, great treasure. ‘One who knows this tree is the knower of great treasure.’”
The others all seemed to be looking to her for direction so she said, “We just keep going toward that place on the map then look around that area--”
“All 400 square miles of it,” Jenora growled.
“--and look for a banyan tree big as a house.”
A day later the Dead River narrowed and the party crossed where it came from uphill and was shallow. They were officially in the Totowa Hills and surrounded by forest though no sign of a banyan anywhere.
The day after that, Perie Ann announced during thier noon break that they’d better start half-rations. Luckily, the asses and horses had plenty of forage even if they broke odd-smelling wind because of it. The humans had found fruit but nothing fresh would keep long in the heat. The hills were gone and the party traversed a wooded plain.
They mounted up and continued trudging between the trees, going slow to spare their horses a twisted fetlock.
“Oh my,” Arlin breathed and pulled her mount to a halt.
“It must be,” Jenora echoed Arlin’s awe.
Before them, through a thick stand of trees rose a banyan the size of King Jonish’s castle, twisted roots and branches of thicknesses ranging from fingersize to something a horse could walk through grew in every direction. Its leaves ranged from palm-size to broad as a dinner platter. At the outermost edge of the great tree, they dismounted and left Perie Ann with the asses. Corry insisted on staying to watch and survey the far side of the banyan though Honeysuckle detected no immediate threat in the vicinity.
“Surya get up here!” Jenora demanded from deep within the tangle. “See what this says!”
Surya, Arlin, and Honeysuckle struggled to reach her side through the mass of tangled branches while Heide lightly flitted above as though on a path made specially for her alone. The excitement in Jenora’s urgings impelled Surya to great feats of strength, pulling herself over and through the maze until she stood panting before a stone slab. She saw the devanagari carved where Jenora pointed and held back vines.
“Sattvam, rajas, tama iti gunaah prakriti-sambhvaah. That’s the three modes of material nature.” She frowned, puzzled and stepped back to look at the door. Arlin and Honeysuckle helped pull back more vines to expose the full block.
“Well!” Jenora demanded.
The stone slab was inscribed with faint pictures Surya recognized as demigods, humans, and demons. Brahma, greatest of the demigods and presiding deity of the mode of passion, appeared in the upper foreground atop a protruding lotus flower. So did Vishnu and Shiva, the presiding deities of goodness and ignorance, among their human and demon subjects.
“Press the three lotuses at once!” She cried.
Jenora pushed past Honeysuckle to press two while Surya presssed one. The huge slab slid inward to reveal a dark tunnel with a golden glow at the end.
“But there is no opening above, only that hill,” Jenora said, perplexed, pointing to the rise behind the banyan tree.
Surya quoted the runes on the map, “That place is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by fire. One who reaches it never returns.”
“Wait!” Honeysuckle exclaimed. “Let me check!” But Jenora paid no heed and disappeared into the dark tunnel.
Honey looked into otherwhere and ran a spellcheck. After a moment she recieved the clear, no magic was waiting to trap them. Then she and Surya followed Jenora in.
“I’m going to scout out here and find where that light’s from,” Arlin said ignoring Surya’s interpretation of the verse.
The tunnel was short and opened into a large stone hall that glowed by its own illumination. No openings were present and the air smelled musty and stale. The walls and all adornments appeared covered with ages of mold and slime. As their eyes adjusted to the gloomy illumination, they cautiously approached the far end.
“Deities!” Surya exclaimed and pulled off her shoes and knelt in the slime to offer obeisances. “It looks like Radha Krishna.” She couldn’t be sure but went forward to take a rag and some water to Their faces. She started on Krishna while Jenora strode the perimeter of the grand hall, looking for any openings and Honeysuckle went back out to inform the others and start camp. A thorough exploration would take days. Jenora went in and out of several passages before Surya had Krishna’s face recognizable. The water and rag had brushed his flute several times.
“Look, the flute looks like gold, and Their eyes are made of huge gems,” she smiled happily and stepped aside to work on Radharani.
As Jenora made to step onto the altar Surya warned, “Take off your shoes.”
“In this muck be?” Jenora sneered and hopped up and pulled Krishna’s flute from His hands.
Surya gaped in astonishment, as Jenora eyed it critically. “All here only be,” she mumbled. “Splitting this seven ways me not be.” With that she drew her dagger and buried it to the hilt in Surya’s chest.
Surya’s lungs strained to draw breath for a scream of agony and terror but a tremendous trembling and grinding of the stone beneath their feet drowned out every other thought and sound. The figures of Radha and Krishna moved forward. The altar and all its supporting marble, still for over eight hundred years, toppled over. Jenora jumped from the altar at the first grumble and made haste toward the tunnel entrance.
Outside, Honeysuckle and the others ran forward to see as the entire hill behind the banyan tree collapsed forward onto it, tearing and uprooting its massive spread, and covering the tunnel entrance. They ran to where Arlin had been searching for another entrance on the far side of the hill, above where Jenora and Surya had been. Honeysuckle was the first to spot Surya lying far away from what used to be the altar. She stumbled and slid down the combination of shattered stone and upturned earth to Surya’s side. Grasping the hilt of Jenora’s dagger, Honeysuckle spoke the blood staunching spell before drawing it forth. She bent her head nearly to touch Surya’s wounded chest and sent her mind wandering the pathways of Surya’s vitality. Drawing on Surya’s own energy, strong and healthy for she was young, the wizard knitted flesh and organs.
At last, Surya was safe and Honeysuckle could look up to see the result of the untimely earthquake. The huge statues lay in thousands of pieces all about the temple room, as Surya had called it, now open to the afternoon sky. Perie Ann watched from above and Arlin and Corry stood over Jenora’s limp form. Finally, Corry shrugged and gave a pull on the beautiful, shining, golden flute embedded in Jenora’s chest. She took it away to wash.
As she turned away, she stopped in shock. Honeysuckle rose to her feet to see what new horror threatened. Perie Ann gasped from where she looked on from above, speechless. Arlin and Honeysuckle quickly joined Corry at her side. Where the altar had fallen forward, the Deities bases had lifted to reveal a storeroom of raw and cut gems and jewelry.
Honeysuckle made a snap decision. “Let’s load the mules and get out of here by sunset.” She paused then said in a loud voice as if addressing unseen listeners, “With the idea that we will take nothing unless and until Surya gives us permission.” Then in a normal tone, “She’ll sleep a couple hours, then hopefully, be fine. Corry. Why don’t you cook us something? Unless there are some particular pieces you wanted? Let’s see, we still have seven mules. Load four, all right?”
She looked around. “I only want a few gems of power. There probably is nothing here of the requisite purity and clarity. Heide wants nothing. That leaves an ass each for you four and the other three for our gear. Agreed? I’ll stand watch until you’re tired.”
The others nodded, dazed by their sudden wealth and Jenora’s sudden, vicious death apparently on the heels of her sudden, vicious murder attempt.
Corry called them to eat when she finished cooking and spoke with a miner’s approval of their choice of small cut gems and finished jewelry. Some of the stones were so huge there would be no dealer who could afford them. Thus it was pointless to carry them out.
Arlin and Perie Ann rested while Corry and Honeysuckle took a look at the store room. A pattern caught Honeysuckle’s otherwhere eye. She reached down and closed her physical hand on a stunning silver necklace. Within it were stones of many different colors and properties arranged in a powerful magic-channeling fashion. On the wearer, three black stones rested on the right shoulder, onyx, hematite,and blackband. Next to it were three each of the six major colors until three white rested on the left shoulder; pearl, moonstone, and opal. “Some long-dead wizard’s offering to his god,” she murmured. But no magic-user would part with such an artifact. Another mystery. What had happened here 800 years ago? And could it happen again, further west?
“This looks like what you’re wanting,” Corry called after using her mine-trained eyes to hunt among the piles of gems. In her hand she held forth a black diamond of such purity and clarity that Honeysuckle gasped and nearly lost her breath. That was just the stone needed to make a staff of elemental water power. If she fashioned it correctly, it would allow her to control the weather, change tides, and stop a river’s flow.
“Surya’s waking,” Perie Ann called. Heide sat on the ground beside her playing with a few gems that were big as her head.
Honeysuckle jumped up and trotted to the wounded girl’s side. “Lie still. Don’t try to move yet. What’s your name?”
“Surya,” she replied crossly. “What’s your name?”
“Do you remember it?” Honey asked, looking into otherwhere to see that all of Surya’s vital lines were connected and functioning. “Do you remember what happened?”
“Yes. I was . . . and then Jenora . . .”
But then the pain had stopped as suddenly as it had started. She remembered quite clearly how Radharani had lifted her and borne her away from Jenora, away from the roar of the crumbling altar. How She had enfolde her in Her sweet spiritual love and whispered, like a mother who holds its tiny baby close, that, “A great destiny awaits My dear devotee Surya.” She shivered remebering the sweet spiritual sound of that voice, like a silver stream of liquid bells.
“Jenora was killed in the crash,” Honey said, snapping Surya back into the present.
Surya regarded her as if she’d gone dumb. “Of course she was! She entered the Deity room with shoes on and didn’t offer obeisances!” Then Surya’s face clouded. “And then . . . then she shed blood . . . attempted a killing on the altar. How horrible!”
“So,” Honeysuckle blinked and deliberated a moment. “Underneath the altar, was the treasure.” She held up her necklace. “Is it all right for us to take some of it?”
“Surely,” Surya nodded. Then seeing Honeysuckle’s uncertainty she explained what was self-evident to her, “The Deities left. They don’t want it anymore. Take it all. But I want Krishna’s flute and staff. Did they survive the crash?”
Corry brought the brilliantly effulgent flute from the back of one of the mules. “I’ll see if I can find the staff among the ruins,” she said.
“You did great with that, Corry,” Surya said as she took the flute. “And so quickly.”
Corry turned away, without replying that she’d only rinsed it in water and that it had been shining as though new when she’d drawn it from Jenora’s bloody breast.
Surya considered the flute. “It’s His remnants, you know.” She looked at Honeysuckle. “It’s all Their remnants.” She raised her voice to address all the conpanions, “So, don’t let any of it touch your feet.”
“Oh no,” Arlin assured her with a laugh. “We won’t let any of it touch our feet.” So saying, she tucked a clear emerald big as her thumbnail into her pouch.


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