Mikkel stared at him. "That's impossible. You can't have been here, ever."
Peregrin pushed away from Mikkel and took a few steps toward the bookcase. He spread his arms upward, as if he could embrace the giant structure. "This room is 185 yards long and 112 yards wide in the center. It forms an oval proportionate to the table in the council room and other smaller meeting rooms in this building. It was built not as a laboratory, but as a secret library, even before O'Keefe. It was designed to house scientific information from the invention of fire to the creation of the Sheens."
He waved a hand toward the beginning of the bookcase. "The outer shelving unit follows the arc of the wall. But the inside is arranged as an intellectual maze to keep intruders from discovering the greatest secrets. You can find your way to the middle, but you won't find what you're looking for unless you know how the puzzle works. It had been abandoned just after the Sheen War began. O'Keefe ... O'Keefe had worked here for many years. I don't know why, but he learned its secrets. He returned here and labored for nearly a decade before the Great Destruction to add as much knowledge as he could obtain. He wanted to preserve not only science but literature, poetry, and the arts."
'The Archivist' by David Prenatt
Mikkel shook his head. "How can you know this? You are a younger man than I. You have never been here in my lifetime, nor has any Archivist before me written of you. Peregrin, who are you?"
"I do not know yet," Peregrin said. "The information is just pouring into me. Wait! I remember something. I was a volunteer for an experiment. O'Keefe was trying to save ... oh no, he was trying to find a way so he could return. But we would not let him experiment on himself. I worked with him here. I was his friend. We drew straws. It was kind of funny actually, all of these smart, science people drawing straws and letting fate decide." He looked at Mikkel. "I pulled the short straw. Things were getting bad then. O'Keefe and two others traveled with me to the lab, far from here. It was a small lab, built beneath a hillside, the place where I woke up. It was very experimental. There was a good chance it would kill me. Apparently it worked, however. I'm here."
Mikkel gaped at him. "I cannot believe this. What could keep you alive for a century?"
Editor's Note: This is the seventh chapter of the novel "The Archivist" by our own correspondent, David Prenatt. A new chapter will be printed each week. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.
"The Archivist" by David Prenatt can be purchased online from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, eBay or any major bookseller. It can also be purchased direct from Tate Publishing and Enterprises, Mustang, Okla. Also, watch for book signing opportunities by the author in the area.
Peregrin shook his head. "I don't know. It all goes fuzzy when I try to remember."
Mikkel took a step back. "I do not understand this. But it does fit. Mara said you would 'return.' And you have."
"Yes," said Peregrin, "I have returned. Now I know why the river and the ruins felt so familiar to me."
"What else can you remember?"
"Very little. Seeing this vault again brought out a storm of memory, but now it has just stopped. I have glimpses of other people, a woman who may have been Mara, but I cannot complete the picture. I remember a lot of people being killed and cities in complete chaos. There was fire and fear and ... and madness." He rubbed his forehead. "It's all very dark, just bits and pieces."
"Do you remember anything about the ruins?"
Peregrin looked up. "Yes. There is another room, another room like this one. Only it's not books there. It's, it's ... things - machines, engines, tools ... and weapons."
Mikkel nodded. "Yes, much of what is here in knowledge is there in actuality. I think Dextor may have guessed this as well. That's why he is watching the ruins, and that's why I could not tell the council what is there."
Peregrin sighed. "You may not have a choice. They will come to know, one way or another."
Mikkel was silent. Then he raised his head. "You don't understand. These are the secrets of Archiva. They comprise its hidden core. It was O'Keefe's command that no one except the Archivist know of them. If the entire Circle of Guardians comes to know what lies beneath Archiva and what lies beneath the ruins," he shook his head, "it would change our entire structure of existence."
"You're right. I don't understand," Peregrin said. The Guardians comprise the inner Circle, don't they? They should know about this."
"Dextor was a Guardian too, remember? This was the way O'Keefe said it should be. Only the Archivist should know Archiva's true treasure."
"But now it's the Archivist and the Wanderer. You brought me here because you felt that was the right thing to do, not because O'Keefe or Mara left instructions. In the end, it was still your choice, your decision. Don't you think that changes his original plan? What if I did work for Dextor? You just shared Archiva's deepest secret with someone you have known for a day and kept if from people you have loved for a lifetime. What if you were wrong?"
Mikkel gazed at him. In the soft glow of the sconces, his eyes seemed as darkened corridors leading deep into the recesses of a fortress where a single fierce candle burned. His hand clenched then loosened, fingers flexing as he had done in the ruins. "Am I wrong, Peregrin?" he said, his voice like the rustle of the leaves.
Peregrin stared back a moment and found he could not match the depth of those eyes. He lowered his glance. "No, you are not wrong."
Mikkel sighed and turned toward the door. "Good. Now let us return to the daylight." Peregrin sighed and followed him.
It was a long, quiet trudge up the staircase. When they had traversed the corridor behind the council room and reached its secret door, Mikkel paused. Beside the door was a small, open box that protruded at eye level from the wall. Mikkel looked into it for a long moment, said "Hmmm," and withdrew.
"It's a tiny tunnel set with mirrors," he said. "It comes out in the council room near the ceiling. The mirrors allow me to see if someone is there."
"Ingenious," said Peregrin. He did not mention that not only did he know how it worked, but he had also suddenly realized that he had helped build it.
They passed through the council room, across the lobby, and into the bright sunshine of midday. It was an exceptionally fine day for this time of year, Peregrin thought. Birdsong saturated the air; spring lilies and daffodils were in bloom; radishes, spring onions, carrots, and lettuce were near to their harvest time. It's a perfect day, he thought.
Mikkel gripped his arm. "Peregrin, look there!" he said, pointing.
Some three hundred yards away, near the water pump, a large group of people had formed. Even from this distance, he could see they looked agitated. A young boy came running toward them. It was Cornel. "This can't be good," Peregrin murmured.
"Father! Father!" Cornel shouted as he ran. "Father! Come quick!" He ran up to them, and Mikkel caught him by the arms.
"Slow down, Cornel. What's going on?"
"It's Rimmon. A couple of Rangers found him near the northeast trail. He's been hurt bad! Come on!"
Mikkel took off running toward the group. Peregrin followed. As they came up, the people made room for them to pass through. A man lay on a stretcher made from poles lashed together. His green and tan clothes were torn and bloodstained. His red hair was matted with blood as well. Even through the swelling and the purple bruises on his face, Peregrin could see he had been handsome. Merida and a younger man were kneeling beside him, daubing the blood and mud away with cloths that they dipped into a bowl of a strange-smelling liquid.
Mikkel dropped to his knees beside him. "Rimmon, can you hear me? It's Mikkel. What happened? Where is Gabrielle?"
"Easy, Mikkel," said Merida. "We do not know the extent of his wounds."
Rimmon turned his head slightly toward Mikkel and groaned as he did so. His left eye was nearly swollen shut. His lips were split, and they bled as he spoke. "Mikkel ... " Peregrin crouched beside Mikkel to hear him better.
Mikkel bent his head closer. "It's all right, Rimmon. You're in Archiva. You'll be all right."
"Mikkel ... " Rimmon breathed again. "He sent me to tell ... " He began to cough violently, his body shaking. The man beside Merida put an arm under his back to support him. Rimmon gasped a few times and then settled. "He sent me ... give you a message ... " He gasped and lay back.
"Mikkel, he is in no shape to speak. We must tend to him first," Merida said. "Come later to the healing house."
"No!" Rimmon gasped. "Must speak now ... must tell Mikkel, he said ... must tell ... "
"Rimmon," Mikkel said. "Where is Gabrielle?"
"Dead. He ... killed her ... front of me ... warning, he said. Tell Mikkel ... " He choked and coughed again.
"Who did? Rimmon, who killed Gabrielle?"
"Dextor." Behind them Peregrin could hear whispers and gasps as the name passed throughout the crowd.
"Dextor killed Gabrielle?" Mikkel's face whitened.
"Killed her ... cut her throat ... said ... tell ... Mikkel ... " Rimmon closed his eyes.
"Mikkel!" Merida said sharply. "He's losing ground. We must take him to the house now!"
Mikkel held up his hand. "I know, I know. Rimmon, what did he tell you to tell me?"
Rimmon opened his eyes again. They had a glazed look.?"Sent me as a warning. 'Tell Mikkel ... I am coming ... remember ... remember my last words.'" He slumped back.
"That's it," Merida said. "Come, you there, and you," she said, pointing to two men nearby. "Take him to the healing house now. We may be able to save him." The two men lifted the stretcher and followed Merida and her assistant.
Mikkel and Peregrin stood up. The inhabitants of Archiva who had gathered stood gaping at them. "Friends," Mikkel said, "do not give in to fear. When Rimmon has healed, we can learn more about what happened."
"He said 'Dextor,'" said a stocky man. "Mikkel, he said 'Dextor.'"
Mikkel raised his hands. "I know, Jerrald. I know. We have reason to believe that Dextor may have returned."
"May have returned?" exclaimed a woman with long blond hair. "Mikkel, did you see what he did to Rimmon? He didn't get that way by falling down a trail! He said it was Dextor! What more proof do you need?"
Mikkel sighed. "Karlah, we have had no warning of this. Yesterday was the first time I have heard the name of Dextor in many years. The council couldn't be sure -"
"The council?" Karlah broke in. "The council knew he had returned? When were you planning to tell the rest of us, Mikkel? How many of us go outside of these walls every day thinking that the Rangers guard us? And now, here is Rimmon beaten nearly to death and the council talking about Dextor! When were you going to tell us?" There were murmurs around her and nods of assent.
"Calm down, Karlah," Mikkel said firmly. "There has not even been time to learn the facts. You would have been told when we were sure."
"Rimmon looked pretty sure," Karlah answered. "So what now, Mikkel? Do we just go about our business like there's nothing to fear? Shall we just go to our work not knowing if we will be attacked?"
"Enough, Karlah! That is enough!" Mikkel's brow was narrowed over his eyes, and his chin was hard. "No, you should not just go about your business, but it won't do to spread unreasonable panic either. We will call a general assembly tonight. Our best Rangers have gone out to learn what they can, and we will have little more to share with you until they return."
"If they return," said a voice from the back of the group.
"When they return," Mikkel continued, punctuating each word, "we will decide how best to respond to this threat. Now if you want to be of any help at all, spread the word. General assembly tonight when you hear the calling bell." The people drifted away in different directions, many talking in low tones. Karlah paused as if she were going to say something more and then scowled at Mikkel and walked away stiffly.
They watched her go. Peregrin stood silent for a long moment as the events of the day echoed around his mind. Finally, he spoke. "Without even setting foot in Archiva, Dextor has thrown it into chaos."
"How quickly we discard all we have worked for," Mikkel answered.
Peregrin looked at him. "I don't follow you."
"I see fear, confusion, anger, and betrayal in their eyes. How quick they are to believe their leaders have deceived them. How easily frightened they are, how ready to panic. We have pursued peace for a century. Dextor has destroyed it in one day."
Peregrin sighed. "It doesn't mean he has won yet. What did you make of that message? 'Remember my last words.' Did you understand it?"
"Unfortunately, yes. I was among those who escorted Dextor down the river to be exiled."
"I know. Waterman told me."
"But could he tell you that I tried one last time to get Dextor to repent even though the council had already decided his fate? Could he tell you how Dextor answered me when I said he could never return, that we could never meet again?"
"It was as if it were yesterday to me. Dextor looked at me, and his eyes had the look of one who has already accomplished his revenge. He said, 'I think we will meet again, Mikkel. And I think one of us will die then.'"
"Now he says he is coming ... "
"To fulfill his last words to me."
Some hours later, Peregrin retired to his little room. He had walked about Archiva in the company of Cabel and Janiss, the brother and sister pair of his Companions. They were artists. Cabel was a sculptor in wood, and Janiss worked in clay. They showed him their work, delighted at his interest. For his part, it was a good diversion to keep his mind off the day's events. It was inescapable, however. The name of Dextor saturated the valley. Fear and confusion hung in the air like a humid day, a gray storm threatening to lash this small island of peace in a torrent of violence.
When he did see their work, however, he was surprised. Cabel sculpted trees, water, people, and animals with such vivid motion and joyful expressions that he felt peace simply looking upon them. The pots, urns, and goblets that Janiss crafted were graceful and well proportioned, painted in bright colors. Their work spoke of hope, happiness, and love with such fervor that Peregrin broke into a grin and then outright laughed.
Cabel's eyes twinkled. "That is not the usual reaction we get from people."
"This ... " Peregrin said, "this is wonderful." He turned to look at the siblings. "It is like standing in a symphony of joy. With such artists as you, this world always has hope."
Janiss blushed. "Why, Cabel," she said, "we have brought a poet to our workshop." They all laughed, and for a brief while, Peregrin felt free of the clouds that hung over Archiva.
Now he had returned to his room and to the very real threat of Dextor. But it wasn't Dextor that troubled him the most. It was himself. His revelations in the archive had only raised more questions. How well did he know O'Keefe? What kind of experiment had allowed him to survive for a century? How much more about the archive did he know but could not remember? Every time he tried to pursue a question, it was as if a haze would drift through his consciousness, allowing him to glimpse shadows but no real answers. If he persisted in trying to focus on a question, a dull ache swelled in his brain, further clouding his thoughts.
He was lying back on his bed, eyes closed, pondering all that had happened since he had arrived at the ruins, when someone tapped gently on the door to the outer room.
"Come in, please," he said.
The door opened, and Bliss stood there. She smiled. "Peregrin, I hope I did not wake you."
"No, Bliss. I do not sleep much. Please come in." He sat up and motioned her to a wooden chair near the bed.
"Thank you," she said and sat down. "Peregrin, the general assembly will begin soon."
"Yes, at the sound of the bell. Did you come to tell me that?"
"No. I came to talk. I have been to see Rimmon." She suddenly choked and put her face in her hands. Her body shook.
Peregrin was taken aback and at a loss. "Bliss. Bliss, it's all right! Talk to me."
Bliss put up a hand. She shook a few more times, breathed deeply, and finally regained her composure.
"I am sorry, Peregrin. I came to talk to you about Dextor. But the weight has been so heavy. There comes a point where I cannot carry it any longer without some release."
Peregrin nodded. "It's all right. How is Rimmon?"
"Merida believes he will live. He was abused terribly. He and Gabrielle have worked together in the ruins for two years now, and to see her killed in front of him ... " Tears welled up in her eyes, and she paused. "I can feel it, Peregrin. I can feel the violence of Dextor through Rimmon. It's as if I was there with him. I experience his pain, his despair, and his terror. All about Archiva there is fear, confusion, and anger. Some people want to go after Dextor, to kill him. Some think we should flee. And some think we should join him."
Bliss looked at him. "The path to peace is a hard one, Peregrin. It's easier to walk another road in order to keep your way of life. Some people are saying we should deal with Dextor, change our ways, and bring him and his men into Archiva."
"That would be the greatest mistake of their lives."
"Yes, but they do not see it. They can only see their comfortable lives being threatened, and their leaders don't seem to know what to do." She sighed. "I experience it all, Peregrin. I share the emotions of each person I encounter. Such has always been my gift and curse. I feel it all."
"It's hard enough for one to carry one's own emotions, but to carry the burdens of others ... it's too much, Bliss."
"Yes. The emotions of them all." She paused. "Everyone except you, that is."
"Since I have met you, I have known you to be a man of peace and honor. That much was clear. But I cannot read your emotions outside of exterior signals. It has puzzled me. You are the first person I have met whom I could not ... experience. It is as Bernhadette said in council. You are an enigma."
Peregrin sighed. "More than you know, Bliss. Remind me to tell you of a discussion Mikkel and I had this morning."
She looked puzzled. "Why not now?"
"The time is not right. I have to figure out a few more things first."
"Hmm. Well, I came to speak to you, to ask you - and this is strange to hear me say - how you feel about Dextor. I mean, what can we do? Dextor used to share our vision, our values, and now to see what he has done to Rimmon. It's inconceivable that he could lose so much of his humanity."
"Bliss, you have to realize that this is not the Dextor you remember. He chose a different path, and he has walked it for all these years now. I do not know him, but from what I've seen of his men and what he did to Rimmon and Gabrielle, I would say there is nothing left of the Dextor you knew. This man wants revenge, and he wants power. He knows the power he seeks is here at Archiva, and he will do anything to get it."
"So what can we do?"
"We can abandon Archiva to him, or we can submit to him; or we can do something Waterman told me that every child in Archiva learns to do."
"What is that?"
"Then he will have won even if we stop him. We will have been driven from the path of peace."
"No. Sometimes the shepherds have to fight off the wolves. It doesn't mean they are evil or violent. If we want O'Keefe's dream to survive, we must stop Dextor. And he will only be stopped by force."
Bliss opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, they heard the deep, resonant bong of a bell being slowly struck. "The general assembly is being called," Bliss said. "We had better go."
"All right. Have courage, Bliss. I'm beginning to think that the strength of Archiva runs as deep as its secrets."
They went outside. The sun was low to the western horizon. Peregrin automatically turned toward the council building. "No, it's this way," Bliss said, beckoning to him. "The general assembly is held at the south end of Archiva."
"Strange town," muttered Peregrin. He caught up with Bliss, and they walked, side by side, through the valley. People were coming from all around, speaking in low voices. After a while, it was as if they were two drops in a stream flowing south.
As they drew near to the southern hills, Peregrin saw why they held general assemblies here. The valley widened out, and the land was flat and grassy. The south hillside was not as steep as its northern counterpart, and a wide ledge had been cut into it some ten feet from the floor of the basin. This ledge was reinforced with wood, making a platform from which the assembled crowd could be addressed. Mikkel, Morgan, Carlin, and Merida were already upon it. It was growing dark, and several torches had been lit around the area.
Carlin spotted them. "Bliss, Peregrin, up here!"
They made their way around the side of the platform, where steps had been cut into the hill. Once on the platform, Carlin came over to them. He looked worried.
"It doesn't look good," he said. "Someone is going around stirring up the crowd, saying that Mikkel and the rest of us have been closing our eyes to this danger for some time. There's a lot of doubt and anger."
"Then we must face it," Bliss said. "But who would deliberately incite such emotions."
"I can think of two names," Peregrin said. "Karlah and Jorge."
Carlin looked up sharply. "I tell you, Peregrin, Jorge is not your man."
"Really? Look there then." Peregrin pointed toward the eastern side of the crowd about twenty-five feet away. Jorge stood in the center of a group of people. They could not hear his words, but he was gesturing emphatically and forcefully. Carlin's eyes narrowed as he looked at Jorge, but he made no reply.
The Waterman trotted up onto the platform, grinning. "Sorry, I'm late. There seem to be a lot more people out tonight than usual." He scanned their somber faces. "Wow, tough crowd."
"Tougher than you realize," Carlin said.
The bell sounded five times in succession. "That's the cue for silence," Bliss whispered.
The noise from the crowd diminished but did not cease. Mikkel looked over at Morgan, who turned and nodded to a young man at the edge of the platform beside a large iron bell hung from a pole. The man rang the bell five times in succession again. The crowd quieted.
Mikkel stepped forward and spread his arms as if in embrace. "Friends of Archiva, children of O'Keefe, hear me now. By now you have heard rumor after rumor about the return of Dextor. We have called this general assembly to share with you what we know and to choose a course of action to protect us all."
"It's too late for Rimmon!" called a voice from the back, and angry voices murmured around it. "How long have you known, Mikkel?"
"Please," Mikkel shouted. "Listen to me! Accusations will only serve to help destroy us. Listen, and I will speak. Only yesterday did any of us hear the name of Dextor. And this came to us only because my own children slipped away from their Companions and went to the ruins where they were attacked by Terists." He pointed at Peregrin. "This man here beside me fought them and rescued my children. In the course of the fight, one of the men spoke the name Dextor. His account of this before the council was the first we were made aware that Dextor may have returned."
"And who is this man?" another voice called. "Why should we trust him? Is it a coincidence that he shows up just when Dextor returns?" The murmurings among the crowd grew louder.
"I trust him," Mikkel cried. "He rescued my children, he has proven himself a man of peace, and the Council of Guardians has affirmed him!"
"Why should we trust the Guardians?" someone cried out from another location. "Where was your protection for Rimmon and Gabrielle? Dextor did not just appear yesterday! Why did you not know of his return?" The crowd stirred and heaved like a wakening snake. It drew closer to the platform.
Mikkel was shouting for calm, but the angry buzz of the crowd had swelled. People were shouting out all at once. Carlin and Morgan were on their feet, trying to quell what was becoming a riot. The Waterman was standing near the edge, pointing at individuals in the crowd, calling them by name, urging them to calm down. Bliss was standing still, as if she were trying to absorb the anger from the crowd to lessen it.
Just as it seemed the crowd would rush the platform, there was a whoosh, and a light appeared above them. Turning, Peregrin saw a great fire burning on the top of the hill. He could make out the figure of a man standing near it.
The crowd quieted and stood staring at the fire. The man beside it remained silent, watching them. Then he spread his arms.
"People of Archiva, be still!" he cried. "You must not blame your Guardians for their failure to protect you. For one hundred years they have kept you safe, but now this task is beyond their power. It is time for you to decide! Only you can choose your future!"
"Who are you? Identify yourself!" Mikkel called out.
"You know me well, Mikkel. I am Dextor, whom you fear," the man called back. The name was repeated in hushed tones throughout the crowd.
"You are not welcome here, Dextor," Mikkel cried. "You have turned from the path of peace. Go from us, and do not return."
"That is not for you to decide, Mikkel," came the answer. "Is this not a general assembly? Let the people of Archiva decide. Hear me, people of Archiva! I have returned with nearly two hundred men at my command. These are no wild Terists; they are trained, fighting men. Yet your leaders, your Guardians, knew nothing of my return until yesterday! Will you rely on them to protect you? I stand upon this hill. Where are your Rangers? They are gone, taken captive by me. I control the hills around Archiva! At any moment I could sweep down upon you and destroy your village."
"Then why do you not do so?" Carlin cried out. "Why do you stand there and talk?"
"Ah, Carlin, my brother," Dextor called. "I long for the day when you and I meet face to face once more. Why do I not destroy you? Because Archiva was my home and my love. I only wish to help it grow, to survive in this harsh world, and to become the leader of humanity that O'Keefe envisioned it would become."
"O'Keefe envisioned a community of peace," Morgan said. "You sow the seeds of violence."
"And you sow the seeds of helplessness and empty promises, Morgan," Dextor called back. "I say it again. Let the people decide. Children of O'Keefe, will you take your place in history as the community that restored order to the world, or will you hide among these hills, reciting pledges of peace while the knowledge of the world lies moldering beneath your feet?"
Peregrin noted that there seemed to be a lot of head nodding among the crowd. He decided it was time to step in. "Dextor," he called, "I have met your so-called fighting men. They were as crude and sloppy as any Terist. You promise much, but I have my doubts as to your abilities. Where are these two hundred men? Let the best of them come down, and I will fight them!"
Dextor was silent a long moment. Finally, he said, "You must be the traveler that Crop spoke of. How strange - you do not look fearsome. No matter, he and his men were reprimanded for their failure. But who are you? Where do you come from?"
"I rose from the earth," Peregrin called back. "I, too, have returned, and I challenge you! Prove that you are the leader you say and fight me. Fight me for the future of Archiva!"
"What is this?" Dextor cried. "A challenge to battle from within Archiva? I did not expect to find cats among the mice! But no, Traveler, I will not fight you. Rather, I would parley with you. Perhaps there does not need to be any bloodshed. Will you meet with me then, you and Mikkel? I will meet you tomorrow morning upon the hilltop above the council building in the ruins when the sun is one fist above the horizon. Will you come to speak with me?"
"Just to talk? What guarantee do we have that we will not be attacked?"
"My word," Dextor said. "As I was once a Guardian and lived by the creed of Archiva, you will come and go freely. After all, it remains in my interest as well to avoid as much violence as possible."
"And what of your last words, Dextor?" Mikkel said. "What do you intend to do with them?"
Dextor laughed. "You will pardon me, Mikkel. It was an impulsive flair on my part. I intended to release Rimmon so that you would know I had returned. The so-called message was more for dramatic effect. They need not be fulfilled. Now then, will you meet me tomorrow?"
Peregrin glanced at Mikkel. After a moment, he nodded. "We'll be there," Peregrin called.
"Splendid! I shall not sleep in anticipation of our reunion, Mikkel. People of Archiva, I bid you good night!" There was a rushing, crushing noise, and the fire disappeared. Darkness descended once more.
"That was a neat trick," Waterman said. "How did he do that?"
"It sounded like he dumped a load of earth on it somehow," Carlin said.
Mikkel turned to the crowd. "Friends, we were on the verge of chaos tonight. We must not allow panic to guide us. Tomorrow, Peregrin and I will meet with Dextor and learn more about his plans. Until we return, hold fast to the creed, and believe in peace."
"The creed?" someone called out. "How will that protect us from Dextor?"
"Dextor doesn't believe in peace," someone else cried out. "Let's get him now, before he gets away."
"Dextor is already gone!" Carlin shouted back. "Believe me, I know this man's abilities. By the time you reached the top of the hill, you would find no trace of him."
"Carlin is right," Waterman said. "Dextor is in his element, and we are in ours. Listen to Mikkel."
"That's why we're in such a fix, now!" Karlah shouted. The people around her nodded their heads and murmured assent. "Why should we listen to you anymore, Mikkel?"
"Because if I'm right, I can settle things with Dextor tomorrow," Mikkel answered. And if I'm wrong, you won't have to listen me again. One thing is for certain. If we fall to arguing with each other, then Dextor has already won. Tomorrow I will speak with him."
"You're crazy for going, Mikkel," said someone. "He'll kill you both."
"Maybe," Mikkel answered. "But I think he will find us harder to kill than he thinks. Go to your homes now, and tomorrow, be prepared for anything." The crowd slowly dispersed, grumbling audibly, leaving Peregrin and the Guardians on the platform.
"Will you really go, Mikkel?" asked Carlin.
"Yes, I will go. But I won't go like a trusting kitten."
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that Peregrin and I will go out tomorrow after the sun rises. But before the sun rises, we will send out a volunteer team of Rangers to the area. They will go silently and unseen and position themselves among the rocks. If Dextor tries to pull anything, a quick whistle will bring them to our aid."
"What if Dextor has his own men stationed among the rocks?" Merida asked. "You still may be outnumbered."
Mikkel looked down. "I'll have to chance it. I don't want to put more people in danger than I have to. I still know a few secrets of the ruins that Dextor does not. If we can fight our way clear, there's a good chance we can escape."
The Guardians fell silent. Peregrin realized after a moment that they were communing. A long period passed before everyone relaxed. "So be it," Morgan said. "Go carefully, Mikkel and Peregrin. May the wisdom of O'Keefe guide you." They all embraced and parted.
Peregrin did not sleep that night other than occasional dozing. He pondered how strange it was that two days ago he was a homeless, lonely wanderer, while tomorrow he might die for the sake of more than eight hundred people. That's a fair reason to risk death, he thought.
He thought of Dextor, standing upon the hill, illuminated by fire. He did have, as he had said, a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps he would forego his last words to Mikkel. Peregrin doubted it, however. Dextor also lusted for the power beneath Archiva, and he knew that Mikkel would never allow him to have it while he had life in his body.
Dextor did not seem insane. In fact, his proposal to the people of Archiva was quite rational. Peregrin even had to admit that it had merit. In a century, Archiva had made little impact upon restoring the world to civilization. Rather, it seemed to hoard its knowledge and way of life for a select few. Perhaps it should be more aggressive in its approach.
Dextor was not the one to lead Archiva in this, however. Peregrin remembered Rimmon and how Dextor had killed Gabrielle in front of him just to make a point. He was ruthless. His desire was not to restore the world but to rule it.
He wondered why they had agreed to meet Dextor at all. The odds were heavy that this was a trap. Did Mikkel think that Dextor would be satisfied with his blood and leave Archiva alone? Probably not. More likely was the idea that Dextor needed Mikkel alive to unlock the secrets of Archiva. What were the secrets of the ruins that Mikkel had up his sleeve? He would find out soon enough!
For that matter, though, he wondered at his own reasons for agreeing to the meeting. Sure, he could claim the noble path and convince himself he wanted to save Archiva. That was all true enough. But underneath it was the desire to meet this man, to come to close grips with him. It might end in compromise, or it might end in conflict; but he had to come face to face with Dextor. He remembered Mara's words: "As titans they shall grapple on the heights. Maybe so ... "
He was still pondering these things when he heard a rapping on the door. "Come in please," he said. The outer door opened, and Mikkel stepped in. He, too, looked as if he had not slept.
"Peregrin," he said. "It is nearly time. Come with me."
Peregrin got up and followed Mikkel. They walked across the basin to the eastern side where a group of four men and two women were standing. "Peregrin, these are Brand, Allin, Raven, Tristan, Corval, and Lindah. They are Rangers, the best we have." Peregrin nodded to each, and they nodded back. Mikkel led the group into a small storage room near the kitchens. At the back of the room, he grasped the handle of an old tattered broom in the corner and pulled on it like a lever. A panel in the wall slid aside, revealing a tunnel into the hill.
Mikkel grinned. "Dextor does not know of this tunnel. It is a closely guarded secret among only a few of the Guardians. You see, Peregrin, sometimes there are Circles even within Circles in Archiva."
"Yes, I am beginning to see."
Mikkel embraced each of the Rangers. "The tunnel is quite long and exits about a half mile from the ruins. When you emerge, fan out in pairs. Glide silent and sure and find good hiding places from which you can see the hilltop. Peace be to your hearts."
"And to yours," they answered and disappeared up the tunnel. Mikkel pushed the panel back into place.
"Well, those are all the reinforcements we will have. Perhaps Dextor will just want to talk. I doubt it. Well, come then. Let us have a meal together before we depart."
They walked to the kitchens. A few of the cooks were already busy, bustling over ovens and mixing bowls. When they saw Mikkel and Peregrin, they welcomed them, seated them, and cooked up a breakfast of eggs and ham for them.
"A fine last meal, if that's what it turns out to be," Mikkel said when they had finished.
"It will not be our last meal," Peregrin said. "But still, it was the best breakfast I have had in many a month."
"It's a long walk to the ruins, and we might as well be highly visible. If Dextor's men are watching us, they will be less likely to spot our Rangers," Mikkel said.
"It is time for us to go then?"
"Yes, the sun is just breaking the horizon. We should be off."
They departed by the same tunnel and route that Peregrin had originally come into Archiva, on the western side. Then it was downstream to the river and two more miles or so along it to the ruins. They walked along, chatting freely about the birds and the crops and how nice the weather had been. They could have been two men out for a stroll without a care in the world.
When they reached the ruins, Mikkel took Peregrin along a trail that led upward along the ridge under which Peregrin had spent the night on the rock ledge. The trail edged along the rock face and then cut inland away from the edge. It was not a difficult climb, but it was strenuous. When they reached the top, they were sweating and slightly winded.
Mikkel made a fist and held his arm out toward the horizon. "Right on time," he said. The sun is almost a fist above the horizon."
They kept on until the trail cut back toward the edge, moving through a grove of trees. The trees suddenly thinned out, revealing a large, flat rock, almost like a tabletop, which comprised the edge of the hill. Dextor stood on it.
He was not a tall fellow. In fact, he was shorter than most people Peregrin had seen in Archiva. He was extremely well muscled, however. His hair was gray streaked with brown, resembling weathered stone, and cut short just above his shoulders. His high forehead sloped to a blunt nose, sharp cheek bones, and a pointed chin tipped with a well-trimmed tuft of white hair. His copper skin betrayed lines from wind and sun, and his eyes were the color of twilight. He wore black pants and a tan shirt.
"Well now," Dextor said. "Face to face again, Mikkel. You see that it is truly me."
"I see you, Dextor."
"And you see that I have truly returned, as I always knew I would."
"I see you have returned, Dextor. Let us talk now. What is it you want?"
Dextor laughed. "You are smarter than that, Mikkel," he said. "I want it all." He turned toward the ledge and spread his arms. "I want it all! All the knowledge that lies here. All the secrets that you know."
"Impossible. We are not ready to use that knowledge."
"I am ready, Mikkel. And unlike you and the rest of the sniveling Guardians, I am not afraid. It is the survival of Archiva I have at heart, Mikkel. We must use our knowledge or die."
"If that is all you have to say, then I have spent my energy climbing this hill for no reason. Good day, Dextor." He turned to leave.
Dextor snapped his fingers, and ten men stepped out from behind trees to block their way. "Mikkel, you would not be so rude as to refuse my hospitality."
"Our conversation is done here, Dextor. Let us depart as you said."
"Oh yes, I did say you could come and go freely. I'm sorry to inform you that I lied. I have no intentions of letting you leave, unless, of course, I grow tired of you and have you tossed off of the cliff."
Mikkel sighed, drew back his head, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled.
Dextor smiled. "Why, Mikkel, are you hoping someone will come to your rescue? You are not thinking your Rangers can save you, are you?"
He snapped his fingers twice. From behind two large boulders nearby came several men, dragging six bound and gagged people with them. They cast their captives at Dextor's feet. They were Brand, Allin, Raven, Tristan, Corval, and Lindah.
Peregrin's heart sank. "Your Rangers are not as stealthy as you think, Mikkel," Dextor said. "But it was not their fault. We were waiting for them at the exit to the tunnel."
Mikkel stared at them and then at Dextor. "How did you know? You knew nothing of that tunnel when you lived in Archiva. Even if you did, how could you know they would be using that tunnel?"
"Because I told them," said a familiar voice behind them.
Mikkel and Peregrin spun around. Before them, grinning, stood a man - a tall, thin man with close-cropped dark hair. "Hello, Mikkel. Hello, Peregrin," he said.
"Hello, Carlin," Mikkel answered.