Carlin and the Waterman went ahead to make sure the way was clear. Mikkel led the rest along the river for a few miles. The hills continued to roll out in pleasant, fertile waves, tending downward into a broad valley. They came to a wide stream, almost a river in itself. Here, Mikkel turned inland and followed the stream.
It was as if they stood at the peak edge of a great fan. The land rippled upward gently from the river until it once more began to rise in steeper hills that angled in from both directions. These hills converged to a point about three miles distant where the hills reared up into a curving ridge. As they made their way inland, Peregrin could see signs that the land had been farmed, although care had been taken to make the fields blend in with the natural vegetation.
They kept to the stream for nearly two miles, until the hills had begun to rise again around them. The land became heavily wooded, although Peregrin occasionally caught sight of clearings, which may have been used for farming. A hill rose up sharply beside them into a sheer cliff face of granite, shale, and slate. Small trees and scrubby vegetation grew outward from its side above them. Mikkel abruptly turned away from the stream and the clearly well-trod path and began to pick his way up a rockslide at the base of the cliff.
“The Archivist” by David Prenatt
Bliss must have seen Peregrin's puzzled look. "The path continues along the stream for some ways and leads nowhere," she said. "We keep it well cleared to lead any..." here she smiled, "wanderers away from Archiva."
"No one would ever accidentally come this way," Peregrin answered as he scrambled to follow Mikkel up the shifting rockslide.
"That is our hope," Bliss answered.
Editor's Note: This is the third chapter of the novel "The Archivist" by our own correspondent, David Prenatt. A new chapter will be printed every few weeks. 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 followed Mikkel over the top of the rockslide and down the other side to where it met the base of the cliff. A single tree grew there, a stately maple about twenty feet high. Mikkel went past it to a spot where the cliff jutted outward at its base and disappeared. Rounding the tree and the outcrop, Peregrin saw an opening in the rock face-thin, but tall enough to pass through easily.
He paused as Bliss and the children caught up. "This is the path to Archiva," Bliss said. "We'll wait until Mikkel returns."
"And so the obvious path leads away from the entrance," Peregrin said. "But still, what if someone stumbles onto this?"
"They would find only a rock wall if they did," Bliss answered. "The way would be closed before they saw it."
"How would you know in time?" Peregrin asked.
In answer, Bliss pointed above them to the top of the cliff and gave a whistling call three times. Peregrin saw the silhouette of a woman's head and shoulders briefly appear. The woman answered the call in the same way and disappeared again.
"Rangers," Bliss said. "We've been watched since we turned up from the river."
Mikkel came back through the opening and handed Peregrin a lantern. Peregrin looked at it, information about it flowing into his mind.
"It uses animal fat for fuel," Mikkel said. "Follow me and don't worry. The tunnel is reinforced." He disappeared again into the darkness. Peregrin turned to Bliss to offer her the lantern.
Bliss smiled. "Those who live here do not need a light," she said. "We know the tunnel well." Peregrin shrugged and passed through the opening.
The tunnel was well reinforced, as Mikkel had said, with steel girders. The floor was smooth and tended downward. After many twists and turns and, Peregrin noted, some offshoot passages, he made a right turn and came out into the daylight onto a stone platform. There he had his first view of Archiva.
Archiva, it seemed, was hidden in plain sight. Steep but not impassable hills rose on all sides, forming a large oval basin area about one mile long and nearly as wide in the center. Peregrin was standing on a large flat boulder that came directly out of the hillside about twenty-five feet above the floor of this hidden valley. Large, flat stones had been embedded in the hillside below him, forming a stairway. He could see what looked to be two or three other similar "stairways" at points along the hillsides.
But what struck Peregrin was that he could not see a town. There were people there, busy about various tasks, and numerous livestock, mostly sheep and cows. There were large and spreading trees, rock piles and mounds of earth, but he could see no houses, no barns, no public buildings.
Bliss came out beside him. "So, there you have it, Traveler. Have you ever seen anything such as Archiva?"
Peregrin shook his head. "I don't see it now. Where's the town?"
Janel giggled. "You'll see!" she said, and she skipped down the hillside, followed by Cornel.
Bliss turned to him, smiling. "Indeed, you will see. In time, you will see all things. But look carefully now at the base of the hills. Do you notice anything irregular?"
Peregrin studied the steep hillsides as they met the floor of the valley. "Yes," he said, "they jut outward in places." He chuckled. "They almost look like toes on a giant foot."
"Then you see Archiva," Bliss said. "Those 'toes' are our homes, built to look like part of the hillside." She looked at him intently. "It is imperative that Archiva remain hidden from anyone who would harm it."
"Then you took a big chance deciding to bring me here." He paused. "I will not betray your trust."
"I believe you," Bliss answered, "else I would not have approved bringing you here. Come now. It looks like Mikkel is already spreading word of your arrival." Below them, they could see Mikkel conversing with a small group of men and women. Peregrin followed Bliss down the stone stairs.
When they reached the bottom, Mikkel met them with five others. "Peregrin," Mikkel said, "these are Shari, Cabel, Jorge, Saree, and Janiss." Each nodded at the mention of their name. "They are to be your Companions."
All five, Peregrin noted, were young adults. Shari had wheaten hair that fell to her shoulders and bright eyes. Jorge's dark eyes were deeply recessed beneath his brow ridge and seemed to study Peregrin from an impenetrable depth. Saree was tall with hair to her waist. She smiled graciously. Cabel and Janiss were obviously brother and sister. They both had slender builds, well-structured faces with high cheekbones, and short brown hair.
"I am pleased to meet you," Peregrin said, nodding in turn to each. "Now what exactly does a Companion do?"
Shari stepped forward. "We are here to welcome you to Archiva, to show you around, and to see that your needs are taken care of," she said.
"And to make sure you don't go anywhere you're not supposed to," said Jorge.
"Jorge!" Shari exclaimed.
"What of it, Shari?" Jorge answered. "Should we welcome him to Archiva with deception? He has a right to know." He looked back to Peregrin and scowled. "If he has any right to be here at all, he should know our rules."
"What Jorge is saying," Mikkel broke in, "is that there is a structure here in Archiva. Not everyone has access to everything. And someone new, such as yourself-"
"Should have access to nothing, of course," Peregrin said. He was beginning to wonder if coming here was such a good idea.
"You don't know what a risk it is to bring someone here," Mikkel said. "You have done us a great service, but please understand, we don't know how much we can trust you. I must ask you to remain in the company of one or more of your Companions at all times and to follow their instructions. Will you promise this?"
Peregrin sighed. "Very well," he said. "I am your guest."
"Thank you," Mikkel said. "The council meets in three nights. Till then, please accept what hospitality we can afford." He bowed.
Peregrin bowed in return. If nothing else, the people were polite in this strange place. Quite the opposite of what he had found elsewhere. He wondered what happened when the council met. Probably they decided if he could stay. But what if he did not want to stay? Having seen Archiva, would he be required to stay or be killed? Somehow he doubted that. They just weren't the killing type.
Mikkel walked quickly away. Bliss laid a hand on Peregrin's shoulder and smiled. "Is he always this brusque?" Peregrin asked her.
"Mikkel is the archivist, the leader of Archiva," she answered. "As such he feels the responsibility for each life here. He is skilled and resourceful, but he allows the burden to weigh on him. Still, he is deeply grateful to you. The children you rescued, Cornel and Janel, they are his own."
Peregrin looked at her. "Really? I took him to be nearly fifty. How is it he has such young children?"
"Mikkel married late in life, having steadfastly dedicated himself to his work, until he fell hopelessly in love with a woman whose grace he could not withstand. She died some years ago, leaving him with Cornel and Janel to be his reason for living. And until we picked up the Terists' tracks following them, I have never seen such fear in his eyes. He knows if you had not been there, he would have lost them. He will not forget that." She turned toward him. "I have duties to attend to now, Peregrin. I must leave you in the capable hands of your companions." She bowed. "Peace to your heart."
Peregrin bowed. "And to yours." She left, and Peregrin turned to his five escorts. "So now, which of you has first watch?"
Shari stepped up. "That would be me," she said. "Would you care to have a look around?"
Peregrin raised his hands. "Lead the way."
Archiva, Peregrin noted, was quite the flourishing town. At the ground level, he could see that the "toes" of the hillsides did indeed hide homes, workplaces, and meeting areas. Each structure had been built against the hillside and then had a framework built around it. This framework was then overlaid with wood, slate, and sod to make it look, from above, simply like a part of the hill. In some instances this overlay covered several homes or buildings in a row, looking for all purposes like a foothill.
"They don't seem very deep, these houses," Peregrin said.
Shari smiled. "We mostly stay outside, so we do not need much room. And some of them are built back into the hillside, so they are larger than they appear."
Peregrin also noted that Archiva was far and away more advanced than anything he had yet seen. There was a large kitchen area with brick-laid ovens and crockery. There were storerooms of food preserved in stone crocks and a large dining area. "All of our food is communal," Shari explained. "Those gifted with cooking abilities prepare it, and we gather once a day for a meal."
There was also a smokehouse for meat, a pottery center, and even a forge and blacksmith area. There were advanced tools for working-hammers, hoes, shovels, rakes, mattocks, and more. There was a weaving center with looms and spindles for making thread. This explains the good quality of the clothes they wear, he thought.
But he was truly taken aback when they came to a hand pump near the kitchen. The pump rose about three feet from the ground and was operated by a wheel with a handle attached to its side. When spun, the wheel operated a piston, which created the pump action. Peregrin ran his hand along the wheel. "Ingenious," he said.
"That is the creation of Waterman," Shari said. "He is something of a genius."
"And this gives him his name?"
"This and other things," Shari answered. "Hardly anyone uses this anymore since he designed our water system." Peregrin looked at her. "We have running water," she said. "It is pressured by a catch basin on that hill." She pointed to the western horizon. "Waterman built a pump house at the river to bring water to it, and from there it goes throughout Archiva."
"Incredible," Peregrin said. "He is well named."
"And well honored as well," Shari said. "He has entered the Circle of the Guardians."
"The Circle of the Guardians?" said Peregrin. "Tell me about that."
Shari smiled. "As much as I can. Do you remember Mikkel saying that we have a structure that our town is based on?" Peregrin nodded. "Good. This structure is made up of layers of responsibility. We call them Circles. When a person makes a 'passage' to the next circle, he is bound to a greater task and duty in Archiva. Are you with me so far?"
"Okay. When one is a child or has come to Archiva from the outside, such as yourself, he is in the first Circle-the Circle of Beginning. In this Circle, they grow and are introduced to all the different tasks and occupations here. The children are apprenticed, you might say, for a time, to all the trades, until they show a disposition to one or more. They are given Companions, who act as mentors in those areas and who guard them as they grow.
"And keep them away from places they should not be?"
"I'd say Cornel and Janel gave their Companions the slip then," he said wryly.
Shari gave a half snort. "Those two could give a Ranger the slip, as indeed they did."
"All right, then," said Peregrin. "What comes next?"
"When the child or newcomer is deemed ready, he enters the Circle of Belonging. In this 'passage,' the person swears an oath of faithfulness to Archiva and its creed."
"It's creed?" Peregrin said. "What is that?"
Shari paused. "I do not think I am the one to share that with you."
"I see," Peregrin said. "Well, go on then."
"The next passage is into the Circle of Trades. Here, the person chooses and is chosen for his role and function in Archiva. These are such paths as farming, cooking, weaving, forging, building, and forestry."
"No," Shari answered. "That is the next level. The first three Circles are required of all who dwell here. And, if one chooses, he need not go further. All of the other Circles are seen as deeper levels of commitment and responsibility in addition to one's trade. The Circle of Companions is next. It is for those who not only have acquired their trade but show a propensity to teach it."
"What is your trade?"
"I am a farmer," Shari answered. "Working the land gives me joy. Here is my badge of office." She held out her hands. Peregrin could see they were rough and weathered.
"And Mikkel?" he asked. "Does he still have a trade?"
"Mikkel is a potter, and an exceptionally good one. He has little time for it now, though."
"What comes after Companions?"
"The Circle of Watchers," Shari said. "These are the ones who engage the outside world. There are the Rangers. It is usually the foresters who choose this path. They move invisibly in the woods and guard Archiva against Terists. They roam the ridges above us and give warning if danger comes. Then there are the Foragers. They search out materials that can be used here, such as ore, oil, or coal, or any sort of metal they can find in the ruins."
"The ruins are dangerous places," Peregrin said.
"Yes. But they go in groups of five or six. The hardest part for them is transporting the materials without leading anyone back here. Similar to them are the Librists, who seek..." she paused.
"I do not think I'm the one to share that with you," Shari said. She looked around and sighed. "Knowledge," she said. "And that's all I can say about it."
"All right, are there others in this Circle?"
"Yes, there are the Seekers. They travel in pairs, appearing to be homeless wanderers, looking for people who may be attuned to our way of life. They make contact, stay with the person for a while, and if they assess them worthy, they reveal themselves and invite the person to return with them."
"That is a dangerous job," Peregrin said. "I know. I've been out there."
"Yes," Shari said. "They are gone for long periods, and sometimes they do not return. And it is dangerous for Archiva as well. If the Seekers misjudge a person, they can endanger the whole community."
"Then why do it? You have a thriving community here. Why bring in outsiders?"
Shari looked at him. "I do not think I am the one to share this with you. I will say only that it is part of our mission to bring others to Archiva. But the Seekers are not likely to misjudge a person. That is why they travel in pairs. And they must have shown some empathic ability to be able to read a person's character."
Peregrin looked up. "Bliss," he said. "Bliss is a seeker, isn't she?"
"Yes," Shari answered. "But now she has passed on to the Circle of Guardians."
"That is the next Circle?"
"Yes. The Guardians form the council that watches over all of Archiva. They know all its secrets, and they assume full responsibility for the welfare of its inhabitants. There are twenty-five of them. When one dies or is unable to carry out his duties, the council chooses and invites someone to replace him."
"So they are your leaders."
"Yes, and our servants."
Peregrin looked at her quizzically, so she continued. "As I said, each Circle carries greater responsibility. At each passage, one surrenders more of his own ambitions and becomes more at the service of others. Consider Mikkel, for instance. He misses the art of pottery greatly, but he sacrifices that desire in order to serve Archiva."
"This is an unusual town," Peregrin said.
Shari smiled at him. "Well, humanity was nearly destroyed by greed, power, and ambition. We're trying to get it right this time."
"Tell me about that," Peregrin said. "What happened to our world?"
"I do not think-"
"I know," Peregrin said. "You are not the one to share that with me." He sighed.
Shari continued to show Peregrin around Archiva, and Peregrin continued to marvel at the level of civilization they had been able to preserve. The community seemed to maintain a well-practiced, finely tuned rhythm, producing a harmonious atmosphere free of ambition, greed, or violence. The people he met were polite, helpful, and most welcoming. It was much like a book he had read once where...
There was a stabbing pain in his head. He winced and rubbed his forehead.
"Are you all right?" Shari asked.
"Yes," he said. "Just a quick pain there. It is passed. It's nothing." Shari cocked her head to one side and studied him for a moment but said nothing more.
But it wasn't nothing, Peregrin thought. He had been on the verge of a memory about a book. Suddenly the pain had flared, as if to block it. Now he couldn't even remember what had spurred the memory.
Shari was showing him the stables where the horses were kept when Jorge hailed them. He approached them with a steady, matter-of-fact gait.
"Shari," he said. "Mikkel has sent me to bring Peregrin to him. He and some of the other Guardians wish to have a word with him." He spoke the words stiffly. In fact, Peregrin noted, Jorge's whole posture was rigid, as if the affair insulted him.
"Well, here is where I leave you then," Shari said. "I hope our time together has been pleasant for you."
"Most pleasant," Peregrin answered. Then, remembering Bliss, he bowed and said, "Peace to your heart, Shari."
Shari beamed and bowed in return. "And to yours."
"Come this way," Jorge said. "Don't fall behind." He spun on one heel and strode off, not looking to see if Peregrin followed.
They walked toward the north end of the basin where the surrounding hills rose sharply. Jorge said nothing. After about ten minutes, Peregrin had had enough.
"You don't like me much, do you, Jorge?" he said.
Jorge stopped and turned. "I don't even know you, Peregrin," he answered. "Only a fool bestows dislike or affection on one he has just met." He turned and strode on.
Only a fool can't spot a bitter apple, Peregrin thought as he followed.
They walked on till the sides of the basin curved inward. At the apex of the curve, there was a large stone structure built into the hillside. Peregrin stopped at the sight of it. It was the same architectural style and material as the building he had examined in the ruins. Stone columns adorned its entrance, bearing up a peaked roof over the porch area, above which was built its hillside cover. Its two levels were lined with stately windows, and its magnificent double doorway, built of oak, was open, welcoming them.
Jorge looked back at him. "Yes, I know it's impressive. Come on now."
More impressive than you know, Jorge, thought Peregrin as he followed. Some pieces of this puzzle were beginning to combine. Here was the first clear connection between Archiva and its "sacred" ruins.
They walked through the doors into a large, round lobby. The center of this lobby was open to both floors in a great circle rising to the ceiling. On the second floor, an iron railing circled the open area. The first floor extended past the open area on all sides. A set of oaken double doors stood directly across from the entrance. Peregrin could see at least four doors at even intervals on either side around the walls.
Jorge took him to the center of the lobby, facing the oaken doors. "And here I leave you, as instructed." He bowed and said punctiliously. "Peace to your heart, Peregrin."
Peregrin bowed in return and tried to be sincere. "And to yours." Jorge turned quickly and walked out. He paused at the doorway. "Also, as instructed..." he said, and he grasped the iron handles of each door and closed them, leaving Peregrin alone in the center of the, now rather dark, lobby.
Archiva, thought Peregrin, for all its marvels, is downright spooky. Nothing stirred in the building. Peregrin waited.
The second door down from the center opened, and a figure stepped out, carrying a lantern. "Peregrin," a voice said, "come this way." It was Mikkel.
Mikkel led him through the door and down a corridor, passing several doors. He said nothing. Their steps echoed as they walked. Suddenly Peregrin realized the floor of this corridor was marble tile, and the walls were finished with inlaid maple panels. Though clean, Peregrin could tell the wood was very old. The whole building was old.
The corridor ended in a doorway. Mikkel paused in front of it and rapped three times. Then he spoke. "I stand at the door of knowledge. May none enter but those who would give life."
A voice answered. "Enter then, for the sake of life." The door swung open. Carlin stood beside it and beckoned to them.
Mikkel led Peregrin into an oval room. They must have never heard of corners in this place, Peregrin thought. Eight chairs were arranged around an oval table in the center. Bliss and the Waterman were there, and three others whom Peregrin did not know.
A tall, sallow man with weary eyes stepped up to him. His short, straight hair was dark, without a hint of gray, but his face was rugged and lined, betraying the presence of many years. "Peregrin, welcome," he said. "I am Morgan, the speaker of the council. This is Merida," he said, indicating a large-framed woman with gray hair pulled back from her forehead. "And this is Janette," he said, and a small, stout woman with waves of copper hair streaked with silver nodded to him. "We are Guardians of Archiva."
"I never would have guessed," Peregrin said. Then, regretting this, he lowered his eyes and said. "Please forgive my sarcasm. Frankly, this atmosphere of secrecy and Circles is beginning to grate on me. I was invited to come to Archiva after rescuing two of your children. But since then I have found more questions than answers."
"Of course," Morgan said. "We will try to satisfy your questions. But there is a more pressing issue in which we need your help. Please, let us sit."
Peregrin followed as they all sat at the table. Morgan folded his hands on the table. "Mikkel has told us of how you saved Cornel and Janel in the ruins. We are grateful. But your presence there and that of the Terists alarms us greatly. The entire council meets in three nights, but we must know more about what occurred."
"What is there to tell?" Peregrin asked. "I came upon the ruins; they were deserted, so I stayed the night. The next day, I planned to investigate them further. Then the children came. The Terists followed; I drove them off, and Mikkel, Bliss, Carlin, and the Waterman arrived. That's about it."
"You spent the night in the ruins and saw absolutely nothing or no one the entire time?" Morgan asked.
"Nothing," Peregrin said. "Janel said the ruins were haunted, but I saw nothing unusual."
"The ruins are haunted," Bliss said. "By us. Two Rangers roam the area near the ruins and watch over them. They are skilled in certain 'haunting tricks' if they find anyone. This is how we have kept the ruins unspoiled for decades. They should have seen you."
"I have had some experience with ruins myself," Peregrin said. "I came in stealthily along the river. I spent the night on the outcrop you found us on. It was well protected."
Merida shook her head. "Even if you could have escaped their attention, which is unlikely, there were three Terists in the area, seemingly waiting for someone to come from Archiva." Her voice reminded Peregrin of distant thunder. "They would have raised the alarm to us. Something has happened to them."
"Yet Rimmon is one of our best Rangers," Carlin said. "What could have happened to him?"
"Terists," said Janette.
"No," answered Carlin. "Rimmon has run circles around the Terists before. So has Gabrielle. That's why they were chosen for the ruins."
"But think about what we heard from the Seekers Carole and Brick less than two weeks ago," Morgan said. "How they came upon a camp of more than a dozen Terists less than twenty miles away that was so well hidden; they nearly walked right into it. Only good providence and a spooked bird prevented them from meeting disaster. When have you heard of such a large band? Or how have Terists become such crafty woodsmen?"
"Someone is leading them," the Waterman said. They all looked at him. "You know I have had dealings with Terists. I know their ways. You could not get more than five to remain together a week without fighting. They have no discipline, they live in caves, and they give themselves over to basic animal instincts. They are not woodsmen by any means. Someone has united them and trains them."
Morgan turned to Peregrin. "This is why we have called you here before the council meets. What more can you tell us about your experience in the ruins that may help us understand these matters?"
An idea occurred to Peregrin. "Who is Dextor?" he said.
The effect was startling. Morgan rose halfway from his seat. Janette gripped the table, her knuckles whitening. Bliss gasped and said, "Dextor," in a low voice. Merida's mouth dropped open. The Waterman bowed his head as though he had been afraid this was what Peregrin would ask. Carlin glanced around quickly, as if making sure no one else was hiding in the room to hear the name. Only Mikkel showed no reaction, but he sat expressionless. In fact, Peregrin realized, Mikkel had not said anything since bringing him to the room.
Morgan sat back down. "Peregrin," he said, "how do you know this name?"
"One of the Terists said it. When I drove them off, he said, 'You don't know what you're doing. We work for Dextor.' I think he expected me to react as you all have. You also seem to know the name. So tell me then, who is Dextor?"
"Dextor," Mikkel said slowly, "was a Guardian of Archiva."