A Voice in the Dark
SHHHH... IT’S D’VID,” A voice he had not heard in months. He had awakened, sensing he wasn’t alone. Lying still in his bed, the Berat Chlor Malin d’ere Lihter had let his eyes move slowly around the dark, shadow-filled room. Still seeing and hearing nothing, his hand had slid slowly up and under the pillow for his knife.
The hand over his mouth, and the feel of a knife blade at his throat, were there to stop him from calling out. “Can I let you go?” D’vid asked softly next to his ear. The Berat Chlor nodded his head.
A taper was lit, throwing a small pool of light on the bed and the man lounging back into a chair. D’vid had grown a beard, and he no longer wore the familiar dark clothing marked by red ribbons. His dark hair was longer and tied back, and his eyes were alert but cautious and strained. “I gather you wanted to see us?”
“Us?” From the balcony, the Berat Chlor saw the form of a woman move. H’nor, he thought, and a grunt by the door made him jump ...G’lid. Laughing at his own discomfort, “I really must be getting old.”
“Or we’re just that good.” G’lid came and sat down on the bottom of the bed.
“I sent that message out six months ago,” the Berat Chlor said.
“It has taken almost two months for us to get here.” Tension was in D’vid’s voice, “Has something happened? Is she...” he paused, “Have you heard anything?” He leaned forward anxiously into the light.
“No, I have heard nothing. I was hoping that you might have...” and the Berat Chlor let the sentence trail off into a deep sigh. “But that is not why I called you here.” He felt the bed shift again, as H’nor sat across from G’lid. “You’ve been traveling hard, let me call for food,” he offered.
They all three stood as one. D’vid sliced the bell pull and let the rope fall onto the bed.
“You do not trust me.” There was sadness in the Berat Chlor’s voice.
“We are here, aren’t we?” G’lid’s voice rumbled.
“Forgive me...” the Berat Chlor shook his head, “these months of searching have been the most difficult of my life.” Looking at each of them in turn, he felt their quiet resolve. Ahhhh, he thought, to have friends like that. How had she accomplished so much in such a short amount of time?
D’vid sat back down. “We don’t have much time.”
“Of course, may I go to my study?” The Berat Chlor pointed to the doors opposite his bed.
H’nor answered D’vid’s look, “The room is clear, and the door to the hallway blocked. The knife in the top drawer will be returned when we leave.”
Taking the taper with him, the Berat Chlor lit several candles on his desk. Seeing their concern, “Don’t be alarmed, my servants are used to seeing me at my desk at all hours. I will not be disturbed.”
H’nor closed the door to the bedroom, placed a chair in front of it and sat down. G’lid leaned against the chest that had been moved in front of the hall door.
Smile and trust no one, the Berat Chlor thought, haven’t I been doing the same thing for far too long? He took the chain from around his neck, using the key to... the desk drawer was already open! Looking across the room at H’nor, she smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s what I do.”
Stifling momentary anger, the Berat Chlor asked quietly, “Is there anything else?”
“That would be bragging,” H’nor smiled.
“Then please do,” the Berat Chlor smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
Looking to D’vid and G’lid, whose very stillness left it to her judgment, H’nor looked around the room. “There is the safe behind the lady’s portrait which looks like Button but isn’t, the panel on the far wall where several journals are hidden, all in code, and the loose floorboard under the small table in the corner.”
D’vid had never taken his eyes from the Berat Chlor’s face and watched the effort it took him to keep the smile. Secrets, he thought, and wished he had time to decipher the journals. Maybe another time.
“Is there anything else?” the Berat Chlor asked, as he sat down at his desk.
“I didn’t have much time. There could be more, but I doubt it,” H’nor finished, as she stretched and crossed her legs out in front of her.
G’lid’s voice came from the darkness by the door, “You’re thinking about changing your hidey holes?” This time the Berat Chlor did smile because that was exactly what he’d been thinking. “Won’t do you any good. H’nor would just ferret them out again.”
Shaking his head, the Berat Chlor sat down at his desk, and pulled out a book wrapped in leather. Laying it on his desk, his hand moved slowly over the leather and pulled back the folded edges, revealing a worn and faded journal.
“Button’s desert journal?” D’vid said, his eyes full of hope.
Looking at each of them in turn, “No, not Button’s, but similar. I believe this holds the answer to where she has gone.”
“We’ve always known where she was going,” G’lid said, shifting his position by the chest. “It’s the needle we’d be looking for, and that’s the problem.”
The Berat Chlor relaxed back in his chair. “What if it holds a map?
“How can you be sure?” D’vid asked.
“I’m not,” the Berat Chlor said, looking pointedly at D’vid. “Over the last year, I’ve eliminated many of the intricate trails Button laid down. Too many.” Pausing, he looked at each one of them in turn. “Then I realized she was being helped.”
Neither by a blink or muscle movement did any of the three agree or disagree. Laughing wearily, “Oh be damned, keep your secrets. I would, if I were you.” Reaching behind him, the Berat Chlor pulled open a cabinet and took out four glasses and a bottle of wine, pouring for each of them.
No one moved. “Did you know, when Button returned from the desert, she did not trust me?” Taking a glass, the Berat Chlor downed the wine and poured another. D’vid rose and took one to G’lid and H’nor and returned to his chair, leaving his glass untouched.
Studying the glass in his hand, the Berat Chlor’s voice hardened, “This has to end.” Putting his glass down firmly, the wine sloshed from side-to-side. “Ruric has... is more crazed by the day. He walks the hallways talking to no one, and sees enemies at every turn.” He pulled out a letter and opened it, pushing it across the desk to D’vid. “You will note the seal is from the Berat Qoram, Button’s grandfather. He has ordered me to do whatever I deem necessary to right things here.”
D’vid read the letter and put it back on the desk. “And what do you... or will you deem necessary?” D’vid asked.
“In all the history of the Fortress, there have only been two or three people, at any given time, imprisoned in the cells below,” the Berat Chlor stated, “But today, right now, the cells are full to overflowing, and Ruric has started executions on a limited scale.”
“So why have you not done anything to stop him?” D’vid asked, as G’lid grumped his agreement.
“This,” holding the letter up in his hand, “has come too late.” The Berat Chlor leaned in toward his desk, and put the edge of the letter over the candle flame. Once it had caught fire, he dropped it in a glass bowl that held the ashes of other missives.
Noting D’vid’s questioning look, the Berat Chlor smiled ruefully, “I am, at the moment, not one of Ruric’s guests in the cells below but my activities have been limited, ‘for my own protection’ is the way Ruric put it.” Tugging at his mustache, he sighed, “So you can now understand why I am glad to see you.”
“Do you want us to get you out of here?” G’lid asked, “We can, you know.”
“I have no doubt,” he smiled at the offer, “but I am not without resources. Like you, I do not share everything I know.”
“The time...” D’vid reminded the Berat Chlor.
“Yes, quite right. Time.”
“You said there’s a map?” D’vid asked.
“Yes, pinholes. I didn’t recognize it for what it was, but...” the Berat Chlor paused, then cleared his throat, “but young f’lor Destwin, Foley, told me.”
“Stars,” came H’nor’s quiet voice.
“Yes, stars. The key to its working is knowing where it starts,” the Berat Chlor continued, “For that, we can thank Foley again.” He pushed over another map of the river marking the bandit hole with no name.
“So we go there?” G’lid said, coming to stand beside D’vid.
“We need to be there at the same time of year Button and Foley came out of the desert,” D’vid said, “or it’s useless.”
“Exactly,” the Berat Chlor agreed. “By my calculations, you have two weeks to that point on the river.” He pushed over a heavy leather pouch. “Bring her home, please.”
H’nor laid the Berat Chlor’s knife on the desk and went to wait with G’lid by the balcony. D’vid hesitated, looking at the pouch.
“This is not a bribe... or payment. I recognize your faithfulness to my Great Niece. Please recognize mine as well.”
D’vid held the Berat Chlor’s gaze, nodded, and picked up the pouch and the journal. Quietly, D’vid followed G’lid and H’nor over the balcony.
The Berat Chlor leaned forward and blew out the candles. Sitting in the dark, he thought about Button and Ruric. Sighing, he knew Ruric had gone beyond saving, nor would he try. Once Button was home, it would be just a matter of time.
He heard the quiet swoosh of the secret door as it opened behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck raised in response. It was an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling to not know if he could trust the man standing behind him.
“You heard?” the Berat Chlor finally asked.
“I did,” an emotionless voice responded.
“Will they succeed?” the Berat Chlor asked.
His only answer was the sound of the secret passage closing.
They had not stopped to camp until they were well north of the Fortress. H’nor had sold her horse to a group of traveling players on the road to the Capitol. Then two days later, D’vid let his horse be stolen by three youngsters out on a lark. G’lid’s horse was more a workhorse so he left it at the first farm where the animals in the field were well cared for. Then they turned east and finally south knowing that the marks they had carefully filed into their mounts’ horseshoes would lead anyone tracking them astray.
All these false trails took time. They had scouted several barge landings along the river and found two with people waiting who just didn’t belong. They were wearing the right clothes, but they did not have the slight stoop of a man who has spent his life with his back to the sun planting and pulling weeds and harvesting. Three landings down, G’lid came back grinning. Now it was just a matter of waiting to catch a barge going south.
There were two kinds of barges on the river. The larger and more profitable plied their trade between cities, while the others stayed close to the shore, stopping at isolated farming communities that barely had a wharf large enough for a skiff, let alone a barge to tie up. Barges going south would not return anytime soon, and news would be old and worthless by the time it did.
The next morning, D’vid, G’lid and H’nor made their way with people gathering to meet the barge. The evening before, the bargemen, as all the bargemen had before them, added a glob of tar to the signal pot. The blackened smoke signaled the people downriver that they were coming.
Once on the river and heading south, D’vid looked at H’nor, holding out his hand. “Give it over.” H’nor tried to look innocent but all D’vid did was wait. “We all know that you can’t help...” and here D’vid had to pause, “borrowing.”
“I am too damn predictable,” H’nor complained as she pulled out two slim volumes from her pack.
Giving her a quick hug in passing, G’lid laughed, “And I’m so glad you are. Besides, I doubt the Berat Chlor will even know they are gone.”
“Why these two?” asked D’vid as he examined the two books.
Shrugging, H’nor said, almost apologetically, “I honestly don’t know.”
“That’s not like you,” G’lid said.
She looked up at him, “I know, but once I had them in my hand, it just seemed right.”
When G’lid raised his eyebrows, H’nor punched G’lid’s beefy arm. “Not another word... I feel stupid enough already.”
D’vid spoke softly, holding up a volume covered in bright red leather with beautiful designs and dyed with even more brilliant colors. “I have seen nothing like this.” Touching it almost reverently, “This is old... no, that’s not quite right... this is ancient. Look at the glyphs.”
“What does it say?” G’lid asked.
“I don’t know,” D’vid said. He pulled out the faded book the Berat Chlor had given them and opened it. “Look, the glyphs are similar to the book that holds the star map. Both books come from the same place.”
“Does it have a star map too?” H’nor asked.
D’vid flipped through pages and back again. “No, it doesn’t.”
“What about the other one?” G’lid asked.
“H’nor is right, it is written in code. If we can’t work it out, I know someone who can,” D’vid said, running his fingers across the page. “It’s a shame we had to leave Tremois so quickly, we could have enlisted Dorithit’s skill.”
G’lid whistled softly, “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Are you sure she’s still alive? She was older than dirt when I was a turnip.”
“Whatever is in this will have to wait until we find Button,” D’vid said, wrapping the book of ancients in his spare shirt and putting it between the star map book and the coded diary and his own journal.