The mouth of the mine swallowed us.
Our horses clip-clopped on through darkness. Every step echoed like the tick and tock of some ancient stone clock marking time deep under the mountains. The slowness of our passage was as suffocating as the surrounding gloom. Only the dim glimmer of Shinvar’s armour and the second beat of hooves reminded me I had company. The best of company. In this lonely tunnel her silent presence was possessed of substance and comfort.
“Will we not lose valuable time by taking this route?”
To be sure, I did not know the way. Few did. And the Elves preferred to keep it that way. All knew they lived in these mountains. That was as simple as knowing them to be named Mountain Elves. But as to where within the sprawling Ursine range, that was a well-guarded secret. Guarded by geography and, I had heard tell, guarded by more than a few blades in the past. Even whispered rumours and guesses had been silenced, so it was said. The readiness with which Shinvar had led us on our mission, the surety of her direction, hinted of yet another facet to her special qualities. Another string to her bow.
There were so many mysteries to this young woman riding, invisible, beside me.
“Fearless, I can do when the need arises,” she said. “Or at least I can make a good show of it.” Her voice sang out, bold and good-humoured, not allowing the mine to set the mood. “Reckless, no. Our pace is the price of passage here. We go galloping through these tunnels and we’ll have lame horses and a long walk ahead of us. But we’ll save many miles on distance at this speed. It’ll pay in the long run.”
“Saved distance is saved time. Saved time will be saved lives,” I said.
“This should cut our journey by a third of a day. Maybe half if we can make up a lot of ground on the other side. As to lives saved, yes. But maybe not the ones you have in mind.”
A bulky shadow loomed to our right. A dark steel monster straddling the tracks. My eyes strained a while, striving to describe its outline. We closed on a machine of pistons and wheels, a fat cylinder of a belly and a funnel like a tree-stump. One of the ugly engines, a product of the factories we had left behind. Attached to its tail was a chain of carts, iron buckets on wheels, trailing away into darker darkness. Most were lumpy on top, piled full with ore. The raw riches of the mountain, now left abandoned by miners and workers evacuated from town and surrounds fated to become a battlefield.
Would this region ever be restored to something more? I wondered. Would the miners return to their hard-won rocks?
The things for which men and women slaved, the prizes over which they fought, were often crude, were they not? Sometimes not even as substantial as unprocessed rock, sometimes empty of riches altogether.
Shinvar’s words floated back to haunt the tunnel, preying on my thoughts in the shadows. “You do not believe we will return in time to win the battle?” I asked. “But – if we cannot save those lives, for what do we ride?”
“War,” she declared. “We ride for the war. To win peace. Three days’ ride, a little more. Think on it. Do you see those brave defenders holding out for so long?”
“I – hoped. As I believed you did.”
“We all hope. Hope helps us see farther, even in darkest times. But we cannot ignore what’s in front of us. Knight-Captain Meister must have seen that. He will hold out as long as he can and we will hold to our hope. But if we return with Elven aid to find the town lost, then we must understand there will be more to be won. The country. The lands beyond. The enemy will need to be overcome and driven back. For that, we will need allies. We will need the Elves. That is what we ride for.”
What philosophers and wiser men than I referred to as the bigger picture. There was more at stake than I had believed. Much more. Would the greater scale, the heavier weight, daunt me or would it act as a sharper spur?
Time and my courage would tell, I supposed. The tunnel’s gloom could feed off my doubts, but I could draw strength from Shinvar. Her company, her resolve. She did not, could not, falter.
We passed the tail end of the train of carts and the tunnel branched. The main passage carried on downward, the track sloping into ever-dimmer depths. The branch appeared to climb at a patient gradient.
Shinvar steered her mount towards this side passage. She halted at the junction. Her shadowy figure raised an arm, calling me to a stop.
The main passage spoke. The depths mumbled. Brutish, hacking words, as though the speakers worked their tongues like picks, striking at the coal-face of their dark language.
“The enemy,” I gasped. “What are they doing here?”
Shinvar shushed me. I winced, knowing it was too late. My words had been whispers, but they flew to those unfriendly ears.
The Orkan mumbles erupted into roars.
We were found.
[To Be Continued…]