Spring arrived early in Pine Valley, the natural terminus of the Appalachian Mountains and the southernmost region of the Echota realm. Welcomed warmth appeared with lengthening sunlight, challenging the short, dreary winter days of cold rain and sparse snow. By early March warm days dominated, but the price to pay was long squall lines driving damaging winds and fierce lightning before them as winter took its last gasp. The three men riding the narrow road slicing through the bare white oaks into the Cavern Hills were very familiar with the season’s capriciousness; they had lived in the Valley all their lives. They knew the broad grey line of clouds streaking above them were harbingers of violent weather.
The eldest of the three swayed atop a red mule with drooping ears. A smattering of grey hair spread across his pale head; his face long, his eyes red and gaunt. He looked back at his younger companions and forced a smile on his face. The Yamasee tribesman was not used to guiding interlopers onto sacred land. But these days money was more important than tradition and these men offered a fortune. Marcus Pellan, the young Dinke on the roan mare, smiled back, dimpling his chubby coffee hued face. The other man managed a slight grin barely visible under the shadow of his hood. For Samaat Savaad, it was an expression of joy. It was he who paid generously for this expedition. The old farmer could be leading him to what might be a significant clue to his quest to find items of untold importance.
A skinny path branched from the road then snaked up the steep hill which held their destination. The three dismounted and led the animals up the wooded slope. The summit was as bare as the guide’s head, the white oaks, long-leaf pines, and dogwoods that once graced it harvested long ago. The farmer directed the others across the clearing to a jagged hole rimmed with fescue and wiregrass.
“This is it,” the old man croaked.
Samaat peered down into the abyss but saw nothing. Caves were common in this land where a thin layer of soil covered porous limestone. He stepped away from the opening, folding his thick arms across his massive chest. Standing six foot five with the body of a bull, his physical appearance was formidable enough. Add his mastery of spells and he was a man to be feared.
“Are you sure this is the right cave?” he asked.
“I’m positive, mansari,” the farmer replied. “I will never forget this place. I pulled my son’s body from that cursed hole. This is the one.”
“I’m sorry. I had to be sure.” Samaat reached into his cloak and extracted a leather bag. He tossed it to the farmer.
“Ten silvers as promised.” The farmer’s eyes glistened.
“Thank you, mansari! Thank you! Sol’s blessings be upon you!”
The farmer touched his head to the ground, scrambled onto his mule and careened down the hillside. Marcus Pellan took the farmer’s place beside Samaat.
“You just made that man wealthy, at least for a Maracan,” he said.
“If what I’m looking for lies in this cave I didn’t pay him enough. Get the rope.”
Marcus strode to his mare and returned with the rope. He tied one end around a thick white oak standing at the summit’s edge then let it out as he returned to the hole.
“You believe the Scrolls are down there?”
Samaat took the rope and dropped the loose end into the hole.
“The Lantus maps show this area as the grounds of an ancient university. It is said the Nayamka Scrolls were kept in an underground chamber below the university. Only high garanke were allowed access to the vaults. They could only take what they remembered for the caretakers would not allow the Scrolls to be removed, nor would they permit copies to be written.”
The rope hung tight. Samaat grimaced and pulled the rope back up.
“It’s deeper that the farmer said.”
Marcus looked skeptical. “Could the old man be lying? I would for that much money.”
Samaat shrugged. “It’s possible, but the evidence points to this general area. We need more rope.”
By the time Marcus trotted back to the horses and returned with the rope Samaat had retrieved the end of the first rope. He tied the sections together and threw the rope back into the hole. This time the line showed slack. Samaat smiled and picked up a torch. He lit it and dropped it into the hole.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Marcus held up his hand. ‘I’ll go first, mansari.”
“That’s not necessary, Marcus. You know I don’t enforce protocol.”
“You don’t, but Naheem does. If anything happens to you while you’re under my protection I might as well jump into this hole without the rope. The sudden stop would be more merciful than Naheem.”
Marcus grinned before grasping the rope and plunging into the cave. Once he reached the bottom he tugged on the rope and Samaat followed. The air grew colder as he descended, the surface light fading the further down he progressed. Torchlight usurped sunlight as he neared the bottom. He was relieved when his feet touched the ground. Marcus stood by with the torch.
Samaat took a torch from his pack and lit it with Marcus’s flame. He immediately walked about the cave, illuminating it as best he could.
“This is no natural hollow,” he concluded.
He inched his way to his left, counting his steps until his outstretched hand touched the wall. The torchlight revealed a featureless smooth brown surface. He brushed the surface and the dust gave way, revealing the image of a regal bare-chested brown man dressed in a brilliant kente kilt, his hand adorned with golden rings, his wrists wrapped in gold bracelets, a gold band encircling his head. Samaat swept his hand wider, uncovering more of the mural, the joy growing with every moment.
“This is it, Marcus!” he exclaimed. “We’re in the atrium of the Archives!”
Marcus ran to his side. “By the ancestors!”
“Come,” Samaat urged “The Scrolls should be nearby.”
They followed the wall, the roof sinking until it loomed a few feet above them over a brick rimmed passageway. They entered and were greeted by terra cotta warrior statues lined against the walls, grim-faced men holding leaf shields and broad-bladed spears. Samaat longed to stop and examine each one, but there was no time. Their presence in Marac was illegal; if they were discovered a conflict could result. He was here for evidence and nothing more.
The passageway ended, opening into another room. Samaat stepped inside then raised his torch. Shelves of scrolls appeared before him, climbing the walls and extending into the darkness.
“The Nayamka Scrolls!” he gasped.
He rushed into the crypt like a boy, running his hands across the countless scroll handles extending from the shelves. The tattoos along his arms began to glow, a sign that he was near what he sought. The light became almost unbearable as he stopped before one particular scroll resting on a shelf at eye level. Samaat pulled the scroll free and the light receded.
“This is the one,” he whispered.
Marcus grabbed Samaat ’s arm and pulled him away from the entrance, dousing his torch as he did so.
“Mansari, listen!” he whispered.
Samaat heard angry voices drifting from the passageway.
“Why must I lead you? I showed you the entrance.”
It was the voice of the old Yamasee.
“Shut up, old man! They’ll hear us!”
Samaat closed his eyes and concentrated on the approaching foot falls. He braced himself, his legs coiled like snakes, his fingers flexing.
The footsteps ceased.
“I’m not going in there!”
“Get on, damn it!”
There was a thud and the farmer lurched past them and collided into the shelves. Samaat sprang into the entrance. He slammed his hand into the culprit’s throat, lifting the startled man off his feet then smashed his head into the ceiling. Samaat pitched the unconscious man aside as the other man reached for his sword. Samaat pinned his hand to his hilt and rammed his elbow into the man’s face. The third ran into the darkness, yelling at the top of his lungs. Samaat could not catch him; he snatched up a torch and ran back into the archives. He knelt by the farmer; the man was dead, his neck broken by the impact into the shelves. Marcus grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet.
“Mansari, more are coming!”
Samaat hesitated. He was a Savaad and not prone to run from a fight. But this was a fight that could possibly start a war. Samaat and Marcus fled through the archives not knowing where they led. They passed through a series of passageways and rooms, their pursuers relentless. They entered a corridor that extended farther than the others, climbing upward. The angry voices behind them gave way to chanting voices before them. The passageway revealed its surprise suddenly, a solid wall where an opening should be. Samaat yelled and lowered his shoulder. The wall exploded upon impact and Samaat tumbled into the midst of a Maracan temple ceremony. Scantily clad dancers scattered and bare chested priests backed away from the huge, plaster covered interloper and his stunned companion. The duo kept running, finally finding their way out of the temple and into harsh sun-light.
Samaat saw the mounted Maracan temple guards before they saw him. He bounded down the temple steps and leapt into the air, knocking the closest rider from his mount with his bulk. The other guardsman was so startled he never noticed Marcus working his way around. The man was flying from his horse and striking the ground before he realized he was being attacked.
“Where are we?” Samaat barked.
“Tusin, a village near the border,” Marcus replied. “Follow me!”
They fled out of the village and into the safety of the surrounding pines. A true smile emerged on Samaat's face. He’d found what he was looking for. The Nayamka Scrolls were his.