"Daryl, come inside." Parlon's insistent call came from the dark hole he and Nado stood before. She spoke quietly with no sign of detectable distress.
"What is it?" Nado breathed across to Daryl from one side of the opening, his head swiveling around to take in the unnatural arch with Tagawan perched atop its center. The strange symmetrical opening Parlon's call radiated out of yawned darkly before them.
"I don't know," Daryl answered, even though he could tell from Nado's tone that he wasn't really in search of any explanation, at least not from him. Unconsciously, he lowered his throwing stick, leaning it against one side of the arch base, then placing the special stone next to it, mentally filing a thought not to forget the remainder of the tube he'd left back near the pedestal when they'd rushed off in near panic. Whatever was inside the opening in front of them gave no indication of being a threat.
Both boys began gingerly stepping down, from solid stone step to solid stone step, the darkness below and ahead too deep to fully penetrate although they shielded their eyes in order to see as far as they could.
"Look at these stones, " Nado whispered, his voice lowered automatically, as they entered the dim still space. The steps were made from single slabs of some hard stone. Daryl knelt and rubbed his right hand across the surface of one. It was as smooth and unnatural as the huge monolithic stones forming the laid walls crossing the plateau at both ends of the ruins.
"Parlon?" he called, keeping his voice as low and quiet as possible.
"Here," came back clearly from just ahead, from through a slot in the stone as wide as Daryl's shoulder, not much taller than he stood in height.
Daryl and Nado stood on a flat stone surface just before the slot, after making their way down the steps. Daryl saw Parlon first, as a hazy shadow through the opening. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the near darkness. After of few breaths of time he saw her unmoving in slight relief, next to a wall made of a lighter material.
Looking down he could just make out the impressions of her footsteps in the deep dust. Carefully, trying not to disturb the fine powder already adding to the gloom, he placed one foot after the other and slowly made his way through the slot and directly toward her. He could hear Tagawan's occasional squawks behind him, growing ever weaker as he moved through the slot and deeper into the room with Nado right behind.
"What is this?" Nado's reverential whisper was filled with awe, as the unnatural flatness of the walls, floor and ceiling became evident, even in the near darkness surrounding them.
"In here," Parlon whispered, her voice subdued to little more than a hush. Her back was to them as they approached. With one hand she stroked the lighter surface of the wall before her, the vague whiteness of the rock a faint contrast to the gloom and dust all around them. Daryl peered closer, leaning to follow Parlon's slowly sweeping hand. Ornate carvings suddenly stood out from the wall, and he reflexively leaned back from their alien feel. Small and large holes, broken by short straight lines connected by curves ran across the full width of the wall in rows, filling its entirety. Almost unconsciously, Daryl's hand reached out to hover over the carvings, not touching the wall but running close to its surface.
The three stood together, enthralled.
"This has some kind of meaning," Daryl said, his hand finally pressing against the cold strange surface, his mind so numbed he didn't even notice Parlon's upper arm touching his own.
"Yes, there's meaning," she responded, their arms still touching.
"I've seen something like this before," Daryl remembered aloud, no longer speaking in a whisper. "I know I have." He moved his hand to his right temple. He rubbed his head gently as he thought, and then extended it out again to again feel the alien carvings.
"You've seen carvings in stone like this before? When? Where?" Parlon asked.
"More light. We need more light. A fire. We need a fire to see more," Daryl breathed, excitedly.
Nado held his arms in the air and began exploring the low ceiling with both hands. He then brought them down close to his face and smelled the tips of his fingers.
"What are you doing?" Parlon asked.
"No smoke," Nado replied, sniffing his fingers noisily again.
"Smoke? What smoke?" Parlon inquired, turning her head to face him directly.
"There's no smoke stains on the ceiling of this cave. How else can one make light inside a cave?" He pointed at the wall. "If light is needed to see the symbols then how did it get here if it wasn't brought in by fire? There's no smoke collected so they didn't use fire to make light."
"There had to be another way to see in the dark. Other than fire, I mean. There had to be." Nado said the words as if no other explanation was possible. "But there's no other way to make light."
Parlon didn't answer as she observed that Nado was no longer really talking to her, but to himself.
Daryl retreated back to the strange steps they'd come down to enter the underground room. He stood at the bottom step, just outside of the slot.
"Nado, come here," he called, squatting down to feel about near the sides of the narrower opening. Tagawan cooed happily, able to see Daryl from his position atop the arch running up and over the very top of the entrance to the opening. Nado joined Daryl and they examined the huge rocks together.
"These are two single stones, big cut slabs, one on each side." Daryl spoke as he struggled to lift or move one of the imposing rocks. Nado leaned down to help, but even together they couldn't budge either slab from where it lay.
The three of them climbed the steps to sit on one of the facing edges almost under the arch that crossed from one side of the opening before to the other several man-heights above their heads. Daryl examined the base of the structure where the arch intersected it. His eyes moved from one side to the other, amazed by the fact that the arch stood at all. The whole thing was made of hewn rocks arched through the air itself. Only the center blocks, cut in such a fashion as to hold the pressure of the others, which could not then fall directly downward, kept the arch up. The base of each side extended outward and split down into two prongs of stacked stones near the ground. Each stone was cut almost exactly like the rest.
"Nado," Daryl said, pointing, "those are the other ends of the stones. "See? Sticking out below the split bases on both sides." Nado looked from one side to the other, as did Parlon. Once in full view, it was obvious that the slabs were far too heavy for them to move, even if they all worked together. It was also obvious that the slot could be opened by pulling the slabs away from each other to expand the size of the slot.
Tagawan plopped down from the arch to walk atop the step near where Parlon sat. Absently, she poked the bird in its soft belly plumage with one finger. Daryl saw the move and was about to warn her off when he noted that the bird didn't react at all. He frowned, knowing full well that his own hand would have been bleeding by now if he'd made such a bold move.
"Strange bird," Parlon intoned, scratching deep into the animal's tummy feathers.
"Strange bird, indeed," Daryl whispered, but only to himself.
"We need a pole," Nado said, his brow knitted with his good elbow leaning to support his chin, which was cradled in his one good hand. He examined the slabs intently, from his seated position.
"A pole? What kind of a pole? And for what?" Daryl asked.
"Come on," Nado exclaimed, jumping up from his place on the step and trotting off. With a squawk Tagawan took to the air and flew behind him with Daryl and Parlon getting up to follow. Daryl recovered his throwing stick and special stone as he went. They ran, only stopping to pick up their leather tubes filled with throwing stones at the pedestal before running on. Soon they were back among the great pines near the edge of the clearing where they'd topped to view the ruins. Nado worked his way among the older fallen trunks until he found the one he was seeking. Borrowing Daryl's flint knife, he began to work away at its branches.
Taking turns, the three worked into early afternoon, hacking and scraping away to create a long pole near three man-heights in length. It took all of their efforts, and some considerable consumption of their water supply, to first smooth and then haul the rough pole back to the arch structure.
After one last rest at the top of the steps, they shooed Tagawan from the pole, inserted it between the two opposing slabs and eased the slot slowly further apart, hauling down small stones to insert as wedges between the slabs and end of the pole. Working one side against the other, using several discarded blocks from nearby structures for more leverage, they got the opening nearly as wide as the room itself. Daryl called a halt to their work and entered the room. He turned to smile at his friends.
The room was lit by the afternoon sun to such an extent that the symbols emerged magically from all sides. Each of the three walls was filled with the carvings.
"I don't know what we've found," Daryl observed, as all three examined the many markings, "but we sure have found something." He ran his hand over a single curved cut cascading dust down to the floor where it billowed a bit before settling.
"We've got to clean the place out to see properly," Parlon concluded.
The climb, the discovery of the artificial cave and the work to uncover the carvings had quietly melded the three of them into a different group than the one that had met at Tagawan's perch earlier in the morning. Gone were any awkward pauses or unfilled uncomfortable silences among them.
Nado worked at building small stacks of stones near the outer ends of the slabs so the pole could be used to lever the slabs back together, while Parlon and Daryl cleaned inside the cave. It was Nado's idea that the slabs should be forced to close, thereby sealing the room and preventing more dust and dirt from collecting.
He stood in the slot as Daryl and Parlon gently brushed dust and dirt from the symbol lines, one at a time.
"Do you see it?" Daryl asked, quietly. They stopped their work to look up at his backlit silhouette.
"See what?" Parlon asked, shielding her eyes against the sun coming from behind him.
"Up here. The symbol. Just like on the arch, but I didn't notice." Without saying anything further Daryl turned and walked out of the cave and back up the steps. Parlon followed, frowning as she went with Nado joining as they passed him. Daryl stood at the top of the steps, facing the opening under the arch that swelled above it.
"The symbol," he said, matter-of-factly, leaning back and staring up to view the front of the arch at its highest apex.
"Yes," Parlon breathed. "I see it." Deeply carved into the very top of the apex of the arch was a symbol. They stared at it for many breaths.
"It's the cave," Nado said. "He pointed up at the arch. Tagawan returned to his perch only a handbreadth from the symbol. He was obviously pleased with the focus of attention, as he billed, cooed and cleaned himself.
"It's a small cutting that looks like the front of the cave," Parlon agreed, while Daryl nodded his head in silence. The symbol was a curved arch with cross lines running down beneath it. Under that was a rectangular shape. It was a very small representation of the arch, the stairs and room at the bottom. None of the three had ever seen a visual representation of such a thing before. They could only stare at the symbol, take in the things it represented, and then return their eyes to the small carving, again and again.
"We've got to see more," Parlon said, after a while.
Mid-afternoon arrived while they worked at clearing the debris from the walls and floor of the room. Finally, Daryl called it quits.
"We have to get back to the village. There's much work to be done there. We're warriors now and Parlon is a claimed woman. We'll be missed. It's not like before."
"Okay," Nado replied, brushing a last pile of dirt onto the bottom step for Parlon to carry up and discard. He peered up toward the direction of the waning sun. "We need as much light as possible anyway, for your first descent." He turned to face Parlon as he talked. "It's easier to go back down in the afternoon because the light shines full on the wall. There won't be confusing shadows like what we had to deal with this morning, and the rock will be warmer."
Parlon frowned back at him, a skeptical look coming across her facial features.
"It's not easier to go back down, is it? She asked, in her very direct way. Her stare was unblinking as she waited. Nado looked guiltily over at Daryl who made himself busy propping the pole against the outside corner of the one of the slabs. Nado shook his head, not meeting her eyes.
"You can't see footholds or cracks below you on the way back down. That's the problem." Nado went on, "It's okay though because I know the way, even in full dark, and I'll be right below guiding your every move."
Unexpectedly, Parlon beamed a genuine smile back at him. "I wasn't really worried," Parlon responded before going back to her final clearing chore.
Nado looked over and met Daryl's eyes. Without changing expression they silently acknowledged their mutual inability to understand the girl from one moment to the next. Nado's idea to bring the slabs together proved to be less difficult a chore than he'd originally thought. Levering the slabs slowly back and forth made them easier to move. Once the dirt and dust was removed they saw that there was a narrow slot in the rock running under the length of each huge piece. The pole could be inserted and the stone moved a hand's length at a time instead of having to lever using inserted rocks. It was slow but easy work.
"If we found this, then somebody else might," Nado had argued, trying to convince Daryl to protect the special place. Daryl remained skeptical, as the entire ruins gave no sign any animal, other than birds, had visited in many solstices, as guano was everywhere. Eventually, and grudgingly, Daryl gave in to Nado's persistent but illogical argument. Parlon worked away, never having commented one way or another, while Tagawan complained about everything they did.
They stood at the top of the steps to admire their handiwork, having closed the stones to the point that there was only a single hand width between them. There was just enough room for the pole to be inserted for reopening.
"If the slabs had not been partially open I would never have noticed," Parlon revealed, "we'd never know what was there."
Daryl nodded, and then shook his head. "We still don't know what's there." He looked up at the twittering bird sitting atop the exact center of the arch, right over the small carved symbol. "What does it really mean?" he asked, shading his eyes with one hand as the sun shone directly behind the carefully fitted stones.
"Maybe it's like the one on the island..." Nado started, but did not get a chance to finish before Daryl broke in.
"Yes," Daryl responded, "it's similar, but that one was entirely different."
"What one on the island?" Parlon asked with a frown.
"Daryl found a huge rock carved with symbols like we saw in the cave when he was trapped on the island with the baby Mur," Nado answered.
"That means the island's linked with this ruins," Parlon said, more to herself than either of the boys. "But how? Why? What about the others?" she went on.
"Others?" Nado asked, his mouth hanging open. "What others?"
"If there are symbols carved into stones here and on the island then there are probably other places where they exist too," Parlon answered in a flat matter-of-fact tone.
Daryl and Nado stood looking at her for several breaths.
"There's more. Right here," Daryl said.
Nado sighed deeply, looking away.
"More symbols?" Parlon asked.
"No, something different. Come on," Daryl replied.
Silently, they trotted together until they reached the pedestal. After they arrived Daryl gestured toward it. "This is the different thing."
Parlon examined the pedestal for a moment, before using one hand to remove a thin layer of deep green moss from the top of its flat round surface.
"What is this?" she asked, quizzically, turning her head to view the small marks that ran around most of the edge of the circle. Daryl and Nado looked at one another, unsure just how many of their secrets they should reveal.
"We don't know," Nado said, hesitantly, as Daryl reached behind the pedestal base and retrieved the hidden cylinder of shiny metal. He inserted it into the hole in the pedestal top's center and moved Parlon gently back.
"Nado thinks it has something to do with the movement of the sun. See where the shadow crosses the edge of the circle?" Daryl pointed at a thin dark line. "The shadow moves that way as the sun goes that way if you wait long enough." His finger waved first down at the line and then up to where the sun shone brightly above the horizon.
"Maybe it shows where the sun is during the day?" Nado said, his voice filled with enthusiasm. "See, the sun is right there," he pointed at the dark think line on the pedestal top's surface, "where it is right now. Every day you could look at the pedestal and the line would be in the same place at the same part of the day." He looked up at Parlon's face to see if she understood.
"But you can look up at the sun and see where it is. Why would you need the pedestal, if you have the sun to look at?" Her logic was unassailable, as Daryl's had been in making the same observation previously. Nado's face fell.
"Yeah, I know. I'm thinking about it." He moved to pull the metal cylinder from the stone.
"What is that?" Parlon asked, entranced by the object's shiny yellow reflection.
"We don't know. We think it's some kind of metal, but it's not like anything we've seen before. The warriors have a few metal pieces, but we've only heard them described, and we've never heard of any metal like this. They keep metals hidden for ceremonial purposes." He dropped the object into Parlon's outstretched hand.
Parlon's fingers closed over it and her hand dropped noticeably toward the ground. "It's so heavy," she exclaimed, hefting the small cylinder up and down. "I like it." Both boys smiled at her obvious enjoyment. Nado carefully took the metal from her and replaced it behind and under the back of the pedestal base.
"You're a council member now. Can't you get to see the secret metal things the warriors have?" Parlon asked, bending down to examine the cylinder's hiding place.
"I never thought about it, but yes, I guess you're right." Nado paced back and forth for a bit, before going on. "Yes, yes indeed. That's a great idea. Why didn't I think of that?" he said, his voice becoming more and more excited. "Why didn't you think of having me ask?" he said to Daryl, but then went right back to pacing.
Daryl rolled up his eyes in exasperation. "Come on let's get back to the cliff." He led them along the winding path through the pines. Tagawan flew out ahead, swooping and cutting back, as if hurrying them along. They didn't run, instead moving at a brisk walk. The run through the blowing pines on the way to the ruins had become a one-way ritual. They always walked back when leaving the ruins. The climb down was challenging under any conditions and demanded all available strength and endurance.
They sat down on the great pines main jutting root, side by side, eating the remainder of dried meat strips and pounded root Nado carried in his leather supply pouch. The last of the water supply was consumed with the small meal, shedding any extra unbalanced weight for the climb ahead. The view from their position, high above the falls, was breathtakingly panoramic. The village was further upriver and tucked into one of its many curves. From their height individuals would not have been visible even if they had been able to view the structure. Only a faint plume of brown smoke could be seen to mark its location, as most family fires were never extinguished, even in summer.
Tagawan played in the drafts rising up just beyond the lip of the escarpment, flying first up with the warm rising air and then along into the gentle wind that flowed across the top of the plateau. The scene brought a near inability to speak, as they looked out to take it all in, silently passing the remainder of food and drink among them.
"Thank you," Parlon said, looking out toward the far cliff across the valley. "Thank you," she repeated, and then went on very softly, "for the best day of my life."