The Alarna Affair – Chapter Ten – A Marvelous Secret Revealed
Jon was having trouble sleeping again. There was a lantern lit in the sitting room, where Hellin’s shadow was visible as she sat waiting up for Doctor Blackfeather to return. Jon could see her silhouette clearly though his tent wall as she picked up a book, set it down again, poured a cup of tea and then let it sit, ignored. She was worried. That worried Jon, too.
The children had spent all afternoon getting into Anna’s way as she tried to get the dark room set up and the photographs developed. The pictures were drying now in a little line, carefully left alone to work their magic now that Anna had done with them. The children had spent another part of the evening in a fruitless search for the missing pick pocket girl. When the Professor had come back in the late afternoon they had all told him breathlessly about their day. And then Doctor Blackfeather had not returned, and continued not to return. Hellin had insisted they all get some sleep, and now she waited alone in the sitting room, sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing. Jon watched her, sleepless. The whinny of a horse came from outside, and Jon saw Hellin’s face turn to the tent’s entrance. She put a hand to her lips as a strangely shaped shadow lurched into view. The shadowy mass unfolded into several more unrecognizable silhouettes before falling into her outstretched arms, in more recognizable dimensions. Jon held his breath. He could just barely hear their whispers.
“You’re hurt. Darling, sit down.”
“I’ll be all right, I’m healing, it’s just taking time.”
“You don’t look all right. You’re dripping obsidian on the carpet, love.”
“I’ll fix it.”
“Let’s fix you first. Sit.” Hellin’s shadow helped a mostly human-shaped shadow into an armchair. Jon stared, trying to guess at forms he could not make out.
“What happened?” Hellin asked. “You didn’t send word.”
“Because I didn’t want to be overheard,” the Doctor said. “It is an old enemy, but not Pratcherd, or Chauncellor, or Ash. It’s older. Much, much older. Somehow it’s him.”
“You don’t mean–”
“I don’t know how it’s possible, but I felt him out there in the darkness. I felt his mind, though I did not see his true shape. And he recognized me.”
“But he can’t even move, he’s bound in Corestemar. Wouldn’t we know if things had changed? The Seal would tell you.”
“The Seal! I’ll send word, see if he’s well,” the Doctor’s strange shadow shuddered.
“Wait. Healing first. You need to use your full mind for that, dear. Let’s get you in one piece before making inquiries.” Hellin’s shadow reached for and grasped the shivering silhouette of a hand.
“Something with that creature’s evil mind and presence was out there and it could see me. Too many people are suddenly able to see.”
“Hush love, focus on healing. That looks nasty. Can’t I help?”
“I should have remembered to armor. I’ve been careless.”
“I’m taking you to the infirmary tent. Can you walk?”
“Walk, yes, but I was lucky to find a horse to return here on.”
“Watch those near the lantern.” Huge shadows like torn wings blocked out the light, and in a moment more there was nothing else to see, as Hellin took the lantern and led the Doctor outside.
Jon lay breathless on his cot, a million thoughts swirling through his head. Doctor Blackfeather is not an archeologist. Doctor Blackfeather isn’t even human. What is Doctor Blackfeather? A Guardian? Something else? There were Shandorian legends of a time when creatures of an earlier world walked the land. Ancients had built great cities, and Winged Ones had formed and leveled mountains with their power.
Jon fell asleep at last and had dreams of an Ancient warrior in liquid silver armor, who looked a little like Professor Sheridan, fighting a big monster with black wings in some golden limestone city very like the ruins they were excavating. The warrior lifted a hand with a silver object that Jon’s sleeping mind told him was a pocket watch, and the monster made terrible hissing sounds. He woke up trying to remember what was memory and what was dream. Somewhere a tea kettle was whistling, and the reassuring smells of bacon and porridge told him he was awake and safe.
He told no one about what he had seen. He wondered briefly, seeing Doctor Blackfeather at breakfast, if he had dreamt everything. Doctor Blackfeather moved a little stiffly but looked altogether ordinary that morning, human and wingless. He explained that he’d been obliged to stay later with his inquiries than he’d meant to, and had just returned this morning. Only the Doctor’s careful movements, and the way Hellin looked at him concernedly and touched his hand, told Jon that last night had not been all dream. Jon let the others tell about the adventure of the pick pocket.
“Well, you will have to content yourselves with causing your trouble in camp today,” Hellin told them. “Corin and I have business in town.”
“Again?” Djaren asked. “What about? Can we help?”
“You may help by staying here and deciphering those photographs,” Doctor Blackfeather said gently. “If we cannot retrieve the stone, we will have no other clues to unlocking this place, or the Sharnish inscriptions. It will be all in your hands to save what has been lost.”
Djaren beamed. “We won’t let you down.”
Hellin smiled. “That’s settled then. I must put together a few things. I can trust you all to stay put here, can’t I? I don’t want you going wandering over the desert trying to track pick pockets. Not today, and I want a promise on that.”
“We’ll stick to the inscription today, I promise,” Djaren said.
“We’ll be right by the door all day,” Anna agreed.
Jon nodded. “I’m very eager to interpret the Sharnish.”
“And I’ll guard them, don’t you worry, Ma’am,” Tam said.
“Thank you,” Hellin said, picking up some things and packing them away in a bag. Jon noted some of the items as being rather suspect. When Djaren’s attention was elsewhere, he saw Hellin slip a pistol case from the weapons collection into one large pocket, and into another she added a handful of what looked like copper bullets. She smiled at Jon warmly and touched his shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing, dear.”
Jon blinked, and watched her and the Doctor carefully as they got ready to depart. When the Doctor passed the weapon rack, stopping for just a moment to rest leaning against it, it seemed that the old black great sword disappeared as he passed. The Doctor held only a cane, which Jon could not remember if he’d had earlier.
“Watch over them, Eabrey,” Doctor Blackfeather told the Professor, quietly. “I leave them in your care.”
The Professor looked worried. “Come back soon, “he urged, “and safe.”
“Don’t you doubt it.” Hellin smiled at him, and patted her pocket.
They went off in the carriage, leaving the children waving after them.
“They aren’t saying something. It’s so thick you can nearly hear it,” Ellea said, after they had gone.
“They’ll be fine. Together they’re invincible,” Djaren told his sister. “No worrying.”
Jon watched Djaren and Ellea. How much did they know about their remarkable father?
The other children went on ahead, down to the dig, but Jon lingered near the slower-moving Professor. All the questions in his head clamored for answers, even if they were awkward to ask.
“Sir? Where are they going? The Doctor and his wife, I mean.” Jon asked.
“They are out looking for the stolen tablet. They will try to get it back.”
“The way the Doctor got your satchel back?” Jon asked, watching the Professor’s face for his reaction. The Professor looked at Jon, with an equally careful expression. “Something like. Did you see something at the train station?”
Jon nodded. “I think I did. The thief took your bag, and then a man with wings flew down from the rafters after him. And they disappeared.”
“Hmm,” the Professor said noncommittally.
“I didn’t say anything,” Jon said. “I don’t want people to think I’m crazy or tell stories.”
“Is this the first time you’ve seen things that were, um, unexpected?”
“Other things you’ve noticed, did they take place in Shandor?”
“Yes, sir.” Jon was surprised to meet an adult who didn’t give him a strange look about this. Jon had been practicing keeping quiet about his observations and hunches as long as he could remember. The Professor just smiled a little, in an encouraging way, and Jon went on.
“I saw a carving move once. Tam didn’t. And on a tour of the castle I saw a hallway Tam didn’t, and later, a person no one else saw, who walked through a wall.”
“I know the hallway,” the Professor said. “What else?”
“I have hunches about things. Old things. Sometimes it’s like they talk to me.”
“And what sort of hunch do you have about Corin Blackfeather?”
Jon frowned. “Well he’s not a thing, and he’s not so old.”
“You might be surprised at his age.” The Professor smiled. “I mean what do your instincts and your gift say about him?”
“I want to like him, sir, but I keep seeing him as . . . odd.”
The Professor sighed, and spoke softly. “I do not have the gift to see him when he shapes. I saw nothing at the train station, but I saw the token he left,”
“You saw that too? Yes, the feather, and I guessed he would take care of things. Corin has taken care of me for a long time. His family took me in long ago, when I was in great need of help.”
“There are more like him?”
“No,” the Professor said. “Corin Blackfeather is the only one of his kind.” The Professor frowned, with some dark memory or pain. “The only good one. There were others, but not any longer. Not in our time.”
Jon frowned, confused.
“It’s not important,” the Professor assured him. “What matters is that Corin Blackfeather can be trusted. He is as dear as a brother to me. I owe him my life. He knows, I believe, that you can see him, and it would seem he trusts you to keep his secret.”
“I will, sir.”
“Good.” The Professor smiled.
“Do Djaren and Ellea know about him?”
“Much of it, yes,” the Professor said.
“What is he a Doctor of? What is his degree in?”
The Professor grinned. “Being Corin Blackfeather. He never went to a university. His talents are a little too, ah, arcane, to merit a doctorate. But it sounds better on applications for dig site permits.”
“But is he an archeologist?”
“Hellin is an archeologist. Corin–” The Professor paused. “Corin is a living piece of a more ancient world. He is not searching the past for pot shards. His specialization is in dealing with other things that have survived the centuries.”
They had nearly caught up to the others now. Anna was pulling pictures carefully from her bag, and Djaren was trying to look at them all at once. Ellea stared at the door with her head tilted to one side, and Tam stood beside her in a similar posture. It looked funny. Jon smiled. The Professor looked, and smiled back.
“Let’s see about the photographs,” the Professor suggested. “If you see something, anything unusual, you can tell me. What you have is a gift, one I could wish I shared.” The Professor smiled ruefully.
Together they set up a base in the corridor, under a sun shade. Anna pinned up all the pictures she had taken onto a large board. With the aid of a magnifying glass, a number of notebooks, and the Professor’s expertise with languages, they were soon all hard at work trying to decipher the carvings.
First, Jon and Djaren set to work on translating the Alendi version of the text from the missing tablet, from the photographs. They worked at it, each taking a line at a time until they had a full translation written out in a notebook.
Djaren read it aloud. “Here lies the god-warrior, called stranger, called hero. Here with his armaments lies the one who slew the god Elush-bel-azzer. Sent from the heavens, from the far west, deliverer of Sharvor, came the god warrior, servant of the One. Here he died, slayer of gods, slayer of terrors–”
“Rather long winded, weren’t they?” Anna asked.
“Shh,” said Ellea.
Djaren continued. “–liberator of peace, he who felled the unworthy. Let none dare disturb his rest but his kin. Terrors await the unworthy. The abyss will swallow all his enemies. As the god warrior slew Elush-bel-azzer so shall those who enter here be felled. A plague will fall upon them, and stones will crush their heads.”
“Well isn’t that pleasant?” said Anna. “Makes you all excited to get in.”
“Doesn’t it?” said Djaren, missing her sarcasm.
The Professor looked equally starry-eyed. “We found the warrior’s tomb. This is magnificent!”
“And think of all the words we now know of Sharnish, from the Alendi,” Jon grinned.
“Plague and stones, yes. Very useful,” Tam said.
Anna grinned at him. “Who’s for something cool to drink?”
“I’ll help you with the trays. I need to stretch my legs out,” Tam said.
“Good luck with the languages. Don’t translate anything exciting without us.” Anna waved.
Several pitchers of water and plates of sandwiches had come and gone before any of the Sharnish had been translated. Djaren found another useful set of doubled lines around the newly cleared door frame that gave them three dozen new words. The sounds of workmen in other passages stopped, signaling the rest time, but the linguists kept working. Ellea played a little game with threads on her fingers, and Tam went to go look at the horses. Anna began another sketch of some interesting figures along the middle of the door. The workmen started up their hammering and digging again, and Tam joined them for a while, to have something useful to do.
“Do you know,” Anna said after some time, setting down her sketch, “these figures might actually be words too.”
“They’re a bit too detailed to be hieroglyphs,” Djaren said, mopping his brow with an ink-stained handkerchief.
“I didn’t say they were hieroglyphs, at least not an ordinary type. But see, all the little people are oriented toward the inset in the center. Two of them are pointing right at it, but there’s nothing on it at all but a kind of star shape.”
“I have something!” Jon exclaimed, standing up triumphantly with his notebook. “I’ve translated some Sharnish!”
“Let’s see,” the Professor said. Jon gave him the book, and the Professor read over it. “May the pilgrim/traveler of the west seek the sacred sign, and walk vigilant into the night. The moon’s (horns?) will guide your way,” he paused, and considered the door.
“There isn’t any moon, not in the carvings,” Ellea said.
The Professor looked at the door carefully. “That star, Anna, point it out to me.”
Tam came back then, with another flask of water. “This lot is flavored with lime, Mama Darvin says. Anything new?”
“Yes,” Jon said. “Shh.”
“The star is right by your hand, see.” Anna pointed.
The Professor dropped down to his knees and examined the spot closely.
“For such an ornate door, that bit looks a little empty,” Ellea said, coming to stand nearer.
“It looks like a Shandorian Star to me,” Tam said. “Four points, only this one is sideways, like an X.”
“Professor,” said Jon.
“About the star. I have a hunch, sir.”
“So do I.” the Professor smiled. “Do you know, the Shandorian star is actually a symbol used often by the Ancients? It was sacred to them.” The Professor put his hand out and touched the star with his fingers. Jon felt a shiver run down his spine. The star spun under the Professor’s hand. The Professor stared, startled. The children jumped. The little figures along the middle of the door all changed. Where they had been was now an elegant flowing script in the language of the Ancients, interspersed with lovely, strange carvings.
The Professor read over them quickly, entranced, his lips moving. “This is amazing,” he said at last, breathless. “They were here. This is their work. I believe the ‘god-warrior’ was in fact an Ancient, and died here, but others of his people helped to bury him.” He looked up at Jon. “The original of that crudely wrought text above is right here. This is something. Something important. I must tell Corin at once.”
Jon and the Professor exchanged glances. The Professor’s eyes were shining. “This is an amazing find,” he told them all. “I must send word to Corin and Hellin immediately. I will be right back. Stay here.” He dashed off toward the camp, leaving the children staring at one another.
Tam pointed at the new carvings. “That’s not normal, is it?”
“No,” said Anna, looking perplexedly from her sketch to the new carvings.
“They say some of the carvings under the Castle of Shandor move,” Jon offered, a little uneasily.
“That’s true,” Djaren agreed, with a friendly smile at Jon.
“And some of them are invisible.” Ellea nodded sagely.
“Right,” said Tam.
“This is amazing,” Djaren said, brushing the new lines with his fingers. “Jon, help me translate these. Ancient is harder than Kardu even. So many subtleties.”
“I think this mark means ‘Ascended’,” Jon said.
“This one is ‘Warrior’,” Djaren added.
“And there,” said Ellea, pointing to one new carving on the far left, “is the missing moon.”
Text and illustrations by Ruth Lampi. Originally serialized on World of Shandor.