by JR Bancroft
Into the Mountains
The archway looked like a remnant of an ancient civilization. It was covered in years of erosion and dirt with the faint etchings of old symbolic script. It towered over the gap, hundreds of feet between the tops of the rocks. Jeplin was walking a few feet in front of her. The only noise was coming from their boots clapping against the stone ground. The empty sound echoed in circles around them.
At the end of the path, there was an enormous stone gate. It was about half the height of the archway and there were several more intricate carvings on the face of the door.
Each word was unreadable, save for the one large word in the center "Etireniel". Jeplin moved in closer and reached out his pale hand to grasp the handle. He yanked it very aggressively. He was successful and the door began to move slowly. It was very large and very heavy, it could've easily crushed someone in seconds if they stood in the wrong spot. The vibrations from the movement caused small rocks to tumble-down the walls. Kari jerked around, she gasped and drew Jeplin's attention to a shadow that passed oddly above them. It was the size and shape of a human body. She was on alert. Jeplin mentioned the possibility of people hunting or following them and that was unnerving. Jeplin had been to that door before and knew it was just one of the men on watch duty.
Behind the doors, there was a massive entryway carved into the mountain. . The ceiling seemed to sit miles above, supported by large pillars made of rare stone. They looked as though they were holding the mountain itself in place.
As far as she could see there were waves and waves of people. They were all people that had to flee their homes or those whose homes were destroyed. As they begin to go down the pathway, she could see they crafted their own city within the confines of the mountain. There were tents, gardens, and stands selling food plants and handcrafted toys. There were various sorts of temporary shelter, there were many types from canvas to wood. It looked like a celebration with all the people circling about, living their lives.
A stone pathway led them to a huge metal gate. Jeplin looked at the guards and without question, they bowed and opened the gate. They entered a castle that was built within the rocks. Kari expected to see more people living in the same manner as on the outside but the castle was only occupied with soldiers from what she could tell. The entry atrium was constructed of marble and other gorgeous forms of stone.
There were hundreds of torches mounted on either side of the room. Everything was glowing.
Hundreds of tables were placed about the room. It was like a great hall for dining. There were also several fire pits near the front door. The cold-looking stone walls were partially draped in thick fabrics, each of them had a colorful story woven into them.
The doors slowly made it back to their closed positions with a powerfully loud clang. The noise drew the attention of several soldiers, who after turning, realized who they were and ran to greet them. Kari enjoyed the positive attention, even though she wasn't quite sure why she drew their interest. "We are so relieved that you survived." One person said. Jeplin ignored them and spoke. "What have you heard?" "The only news was that the man sent ahead of you, Cathyrs, never showed up and the man we sent to tail you arrived here yesterday. We thought something horrible happened to you. Jeplin reached into his pocket and pulled out the pin he took from the body on the mountain. "I found Cathyrs."
He placed the pin in one of the soldier's hands. They all became very solemn. "How?" One asked, Knowing he would have checked the body. "Stabbed to death." He said factually. "Probably someone from Calcaria, given the location."
Calcaria, the word repeated in Kari's head. Remembering her past lessons, her eyes widened. Calcaria was known as the evilest of places according to her tutor. Corrupt and dark. She strained to remember the finite details. Helam, she remembered the name, he was a powerful soldier and usurped Calcaria. He started as a very reasonable ruler, a bit power-hungry but not bloodthirsty. Her tutor, Fawna, was very dramatic and descriptive, as though she had seen every event with her own eyes. After a few years of creating trust and allies, then Helam betrayed everyone. He seized power and took over one town after another. He used his vast army to bully villagers and take whatever he wanted. Fawna spoke of the events in a disgusted tone. Kari could not believe that the historical lessons were not just memories or stories of days long gone. The things she learned involved the present and the land around her. She racked her brain trying to remember everything but she was quickly drawn back to the conversation between Jeplin and the soldiers. "The word circling about is that you are dead." Said, one woman. "Good." Jeplin replied, "That's the best news I have heard recently." Kari looked at him a bit confused. "Why is that good?" One of the men began to answer, "He is a ..." Jeplin cut him off. "It's because I am a target and they are tired of me helping the defense against them, rescuing you for example." Kari nodded thinking that she knew what he meant. "We are obviously at the beginning of the resurrection of a war. I created this place for people who want protection.
"Kari shivered. She was still cold and wet from the walk. "Go sit over by one of the fires." He said. She gladly left them and wandered over to a table near a fire pit. "Good choice." said a voice. She looked over to see a boy covered in snow sitting down across from her. She smiled, "You must be freezing, I have been traveling for days in the snow and even, I did not get that acquainted with it." He laughed, "No it's okay, I was not traveling, I was doing training drills outside, that's why I am wearing the armor." He wiped off the snow revealing it. "So, what is your name?" the boy very curiously asked "Kari," she said, "You?" He shook all of the snow off of himself and pulled off his armor. "Therrin. Will you be staying here for a while?" Kari looked over at Jeplin. "Honestly I do not know." The boy followed her gaze. " Oh, amazing! You got to travel with Jeplin!" She smiled "Yeah he's in charge of protecting me I guess. You know him?" The boy laughing "Of course, everyone does." Feeling confused and a bit foolish she laughed.
Her conversation was interrupted by Jeplin, he excused himself taking Kari with him. The boy looked at Jeplin like he was a legend. Kari thought it was odd but was distracted by Jeplin pulling her to another table. Therrin immediately ran to a group of boys and whispered to them what Kari had said. "Hope to see you again!" He shouted happily at her. She waved back.
Jeplin led her to a table where they both sat down and ate. While they were seated, they were continuously approached by various people. Jeplin held a long conversation with a large man with an enormous beard. Despite her interest in the new people she was meeting, the exhaustion was too overwhelming. She stood up to try to wake herself up. "Hold on," Jeplin said, half occupied. She stopped "Getaf would you please show Kari to her room?" "Which one sir?" Jeplin paused for a moment. "Never mind I'll take her, wait here." Relieved that he was taking her, Kari picked up her bags and followed him.
Exiting the main hall was disappointing, the hallway was icy cold, and dreary. The walls and floors were gray and the air seemed vacuous. There were not any windows, just door after door. They eventually made their way to their destination, room number twenty-five. She mulled the number around her tongue mindlessly. At first, she did not see the numbers on the doors and she wondered how the rooms were determined since all the doors looked the same. She realized that the numbers were etched very lightly into the wall beside each door. Jeplin pulled out the key and opened the door. Kari was glad there was a key, she felt weird about having a door that didn't lock.
The room was smaller than the one she lived in at home but bigger than the last one she stayed in and much nicer. The most noticeable difference was that the floor was made of wood and not dirt. On the wall across from the door, there was a fireplace, and opposing it was an enormous bed and several thick blankets. Jeplin walked in and started a fire for her. "You should get some sleep." "I would gladly sleep anywhere as long as it does not involve being covered in snow again. "You are safe here for now. If someone knocks on the door only answer if it is that of five." She looked at him a bit confused. "The person must knock five times in a row. It's to let you know the person is safe and I sent them your way." "That makes sense." She responded. "I have some people I need to talk to. I will come to see you later. Lock the door after me." She followed him to the door and closed it behind him, locking herself inside. She grabbed several of the blankets and placed them next to the fire. Like an animal, she wiggled her body cementing an imprint for her to melt into. She lied quietly. Her eyes closed partially allowing hints of flickering orange and yellow to dance through. The tribal dance soothed her.
Outside the snow swirled gently through the air. The sun glared down on the peaks trying to make headway against the ice unsuccessfully. There were always people navigating the mountain somewhere. The range canvased more land than anyone could truly fathom. There were many tunnels and passageways for refugees and soldiers to sneak through to the haven there. There were thousands of people there living while they prepared for the flames of war.
A banging noise woke Kari up from a warm cocoon of sleep. Someone was repeatedly tapping their knuckles on the outside of her door. Not aware of how long she had been unconscious she looked for a window subconsciously forgetting where she was. She was still floating in a post-slumber fog when she heard the knock again. She opened her eyes up completely and walked to the door. A boy stood on the other side. He was of average height and size. His dress was a dark brown, draped in a vest made of leather. He greeted Kari by bowing to her and then held out a stack of clothing. Kari accepted. He began to speak quietly. "I was told to give these to you ...they ..." He trailed off looking at the ground shyly.
Kari stood there silently not knowing what to say. "Were there any instructions with them?" She inquired deducing by his previous sentence. The boy looked up and nodded. There are some more elaborate clothing items there, for the special events held here. "Special events?" "Yes, um, there are balls and fancy celebrations here." Kari looked surprised. The boy stuttered a bit, "No, no, it's not what you think ... it's to keep up morale for the people hiding here, it can get depressing." Kari smiled and thanked the boy again then returned to the room. Jeplin knocked on the door only a few moments later. He entered and walked straight to the bed without a word and collapsed face down on top of it. She stood silently from the other side of the bed watching him. She felt he was being uncharacteristically human. "There are so many people who want to talk to me. I miss when no one knew me." He said. Kari was a bit shocked and amused by his first real mention of anything personal. "If I had to talk to everyone after a long journey I do not think I would make it without passing out. " She said, validating his frustration. "Did you get any sleep?" He asked, still lying on the bed as still as the bed itself. "Yes, and a boy brought me some fancier clothes." "Oh good, you will need a dress for the dance." "Does everyone partake?" She asked. Jeplin slowly pulled his body into a sitting position. "If they are invited they attend." "Does that mean I was invited?" Jeplin laughed "Of course." She was confused. Before she could say anything else Jeplin continued "Because of the enormous amount of people there are different events with different groups at different times. Sometimes there are common events that anyone can attend and some are only elite, royals, or those staying in the castle. It varies. "You are obviously invited and since you are in charge of me, So I must be invited by association." Jeplin amused by her assumption, "No, you are invited because ..." He trailed off then continued, almost silently. "... because you're, you" He stood up. "I am sorry, I am very tired. I am going to go to my room. It is right across here." Pointing in the direction of the door. "Why do you have to talk to all of those people?" She asked. "It's my duty." She looked at him, " Your duty?" Jeplin reluctantly answered her while opening the door. " I'm their leader." Kari was surprised, "You are the leader of all of these people?" "I don't like people who are outside of this territory to know that... you happened to be near me while exhausted and honestly I cannot help myself from speaking when that is the case." He paused regaining his grasp in a sobering tone. "This war is tricky. It's hard to find people to trust since anyone can betray anyone at any time." She couldn't believe it. He seemed very casual, as though he never abided by rules or hierarchy.
Jeplin left and entered the room across the hall. She stood in her doorway and watched him disappear then closed her door and locked it again.
She ate the tray of food that was sitting on a trunk at the foot of the bed. She was not as exhausted as she was before and decided to explore the area. She opened the door quietly, then turned and locked it behind her.
Carefully, so no one would hear her, she slipped further into the shadow of the hallway and walked further and further away. She reached the staircase that led back to the main hall.
She took each step very slowly admiring every aspect of the enormous architecture, from the floor to the ceiling. With each step, her boots clomped on the stone stairs. A satisfying sound that she was eager to repeat.
Several woven tapestries were covering the floor. She looked down to admire them and while doing so she almost ran into several people. There were many people walking through the halls going about their business, which allowed Kari to wander unnoticed. She reached a hallway and to her surprise, there were enormous windows that lined the wall. Bright shining, glistening windows truly confused her because she was literally inside the confines of a mountain.
The only thing visible from the window was the rock that formed an air pocket about a foot away from the glass. She stood with her head close to it in order to see the tiny sliver of sky. She couldn't figure out how they allowed in so much light for being almost completely encased by the mountain. She stood facing the window for a moment. The next thing of interest that she found was a large expanse of hall with several doors that were much different looking than the ones she had already seen there.
They were a lighter wood and were hinged and supported by copper rather than iron. Little wooden plaques were labeling the rooms. The first one she read was "Indoor Garden." She was immediately intrigued and opened the door. Bright light flooded her sight. Another odd marvel within the castle. She stepped through the threshold. There were masses of green and brown foliage intertwining and engulfing the room, a surprising sight. Several trees arched above her with delicate dark leaves fluttering while clinging to the sturdy limbs. She walked further into the jungle.
The greenery was so dense that nothing could be seen past what was immediately around her. She reached a large clump of moss hanging like a partition blocking the rest of the path she parted it delicately with the backs of her hands and revealed an opening. She reached the middle and could see the stone walls of the castle jet up on all the sides of the microcosm. She could see that the trees and plants were only dense around the perimeter and thinned out in the center.
She looked down and saw that past a few trees to the left was a large pond. She ran over and knelt at the edge. The water was dark It mystically fluttered reacting to the silverfish below the surface. They glistened, reflecting bits of light. She smiled at the whimsical combination and gently dipped her hand in, allowing the cool water to dance across her skin. After exploring she returned to her room.
Despite her courage to wander out alone, she was still cautious and felt guilty for sneaking out against Jeplin's instructions.
Her room was losing its warmth. She walked to the hearth and stoked the fire, bringing it back to life. Its enticing warm glow pulled her in, she lovingly obeyed by grabbing blankets and curling up next to the hearth. Her mind wandered to the indoor garden. Her thoughts were filled with fresh bright green imagery. She suddenly remembered the other doors in the hall, having forgotten that they existed while swept up in the curiosity of the garden. She did not bother to look at what the signs said by the other doors. She was tempted to return to the corridor but she resisted. She felt odd spending time without any real job or plan. She considered unpacking her items and organizing them but her suspicion that they would not be there that long stopped her. The sound of someone knocking on her door interrupted her thought. She waited to hear the five knocks.
She opened the door quickly and without hesitation knowing it was safe. She was much more confident than she should have been, which reflected her age. Jeplin stood at the door with food. She invited him in and they ate together in front of the fire.
Kari was wrapped up in a blanket and her long brown hair cascaded down her shoulders, though unkempt, it was still remarkably beautiful. Jeplin sat in a contrasting manner, his legs were crossed and he was sitting with his torso completely erect. His billowy shirt exposed large chunks of pale sickly skin. His hair was much different looking from when she first met him. It was very short then.
"Are we going to be moving on soon?" She said, breaking the silence. Jeplin looked up. "What do you mean?" He asked while several translations swirled in his head. "I mean, are we going to be staying here long or going off to travel more." She gestured towards the door unnecessarily. "Ah." He nodded. "No, we are going to be staying for a while ... Unless something comes up, I plan for us to be here for several months." Kari's face displayed surprise. She had not expected him to answer that way. Her excitement was visible. There were tons of places and things she wanted to explore and she was very glad at the prospect of her adventures becoming reality. Though glad, she was curious about the decision. "Why are we staying that long, wait!" She exclaimed. " Was this our destination all along?" "Simply put yes," Jeplin answered. She smiled. Jeplin stood up and brushed the debris off his legs. She looked up at him. She desperately wanted to know what he was thinking.
As Jeplin made his way to the door he turned to her, "I will be back in a bit, do not leave the room." She looked at him almost pleading with her eyes to let her go out. He turned around. "Kari," he said, taking her hands in his. "I know this is difficult, I know you feel like I'm keeping you as a prisoner but there are very dangerous people out there. I have not been to this location for quite a while and I must make sure everything is secure before I can feel safe about you walking around. Your father gave me one job, you, I must keep you safe." She put her head down. He squeezed her hands letting her know he was there for her. "When I am finished, I will take you on a tour of everything, and we can look at whatever you want." She looked up and smiled. "That sounds lovely," she said. He smiled at her acceptance and understanding. He turned around and left.