A Ruby for Dyree, A Dodrazeb Short Story by S.D. McPhail
After weeks of walking, only a few stale crusts of bread remained. Rel yawned and crawled out from the rocky overhang. He slung the nearly empty sack over his shoulder and headed toward bushes near the river looking for anything edible. Dyree had stuffed as much food as she could into the sack, almost more than the village could spare. They both thought it would be enough for Rel until he found a caravan willing to take him on. But the terrain he crossed had been too barren for foraging, and his stomach complained day and night. His love for Dyree was the nourishment that pushed him on.
This morning he was lucky. He frightened away a few birds and hastily stripped berries from the bushes where they had feasted. For each greedy handful he stuffed into his mouth, he poured another handful into his sack. He licked his lips, savoring the sweet tangy juice that dribbled down his chin. His hunger sated, he turned toward the narrow river for a drink.
On his knees, Rel plunged his head under the cold water, relishing its crisp, refreshing taste. He sat up and was about to shake the wet hair out of his face when he heard voices. He was in the open, no hiding place near enough to disappear into. Rel reached into the pouch belted around his waist and brought out the short knife that was his only weapon. He backed slowly away from the river, listening.
Three children carrying small baskets meandered into view, sprinting forward when they spotted the berry bushes. The oldest, a girl, saw right away that the bushes had been picked over. Shading her eyes with one hand, she looked around, searching. She found Rel.
The sight of a knife-wielding, ragged, berry-stained trespasser was so frightening, the girl dropped her basket and snatched the hands of the two little boys who were eating the few berries Rel hadn’t touched. She screamed, pulled them away from the bushes, and dragged them back the way they had come.
Rel assessed his chances and stowed the knife back in his pouch. He ran to the bushes and gathered up the children’s baskets. He chased after them, all the way to a thriving settlement.
A small crowd gathered around the children near a public well in the center of the village. The frantic girl pleaded while the two boys cried. A woman’s shrill scream drowned out all other chatter and drew everyone’s attention. She pointed to a skinny, ragged, barefoot youth standing at the edge of the village.
Rel immediately placed his bag of berries and the baskets on the ground in front of him, fell to his knees, and scuttled a few feet backward. He kept his forehead in the dirt, placed his palms flat on the ground, and waited. There was stunned silence until some men decided to approach the berry thief.
He explained why he was so far from home and how he was looking for employment. The people responded kindly. They gave him clean clothes, less ragged than the ones he had worn on his long trek. Rel continued to thank his hosts as he downed a second helping of meaty stew and another big piece of flatbread.
Rel had only been away from home once before. When he was little, he went with his father and brother and some other village men to a city frequented by caravans taking trading goods to the four corners of the earth. Long lines of camels, horses, and men approached while others left. A huge labyrinth of exotic sights and smells called a market- place fascinated him. He remembered music that played all day and all night, and all kinds of people wearing all sorts of outlandish clothing.
His father and the other village men wanted to trade for tools and seed, but they had nothing that any of the merchants wanted. Nothing, it turned out, except for Rel and his brother. Lots of merchants offered to buy one or both of the boys. Some even promised to treat them with kindness and feed them well. His father threatened to beat one merchant who was particularly anxious to acquire Rel.
That was when his father and the others had decided to draw lots. Two of them would hire out to a caravan, agree to work for a year, then return home. Their village would get new tools and enough supplies to see them through two winters. One of the men chosen in the draw was young and had brothers at home to take care of his mother and sisters. The other, Bezrit, had a wife and four small children. The rest of the men all pledged to take care of his wife and children until he returned.
More than a year later, Bezrit came home from the caravan to his family. He said the younger man had married the daughter of a merchant and lived in luxury in a big house made of stone somewhere far away. Every night Bezrit told tales around the communal fire of his caravan adventures, the strange places he had been, and the unusual people he had met. At times Rel envied him, wondering what adventures he would boast about if given a chance to work for a merchant’s caravan. Other times, Bezrit spoke in frightened whispers, making Rel’s blood run cold.
For a time, Rel’s village was a happy place. Families lived in snug huts, tilled the soil, herded a few sheep and goats, and kept mostly to themselves. Everyone learned to work from the time they could walk, but life was pleasant and peaceful.
Until the wars, when everything changed. One fall, an army marching to confront its enemy discovered several villages along the direct route to their next battle. They stripped each little community of all the food they could find and stole some livestock as they swept through. Stunned villagers faced a cold, hungry winter, but counted themselves lucky to have survived. They felt luckier still when an abundant harvest the next year promised a better winter. But their luck ran out when the enemy’s army marched back along the same route to counterattack. It went that way for years, armies from distant kingdoms surging back and forth, leaving sorrow and starvation in their wake.
Rel and Dyree’s village was luckier than most. Their elders organized a way to hide much of the harvest and some of the livestock. Dyree and other girls joined Rel and the shepherd boys as lookouts, always vigilant for signs of an approaching hungry horde. The tactic worked well for a time, but the soldiers became more ruthless as their numbers grew smaller. Not content to steal food and livestock, they kidnapped men to augment their thinning ranks. Rel’s father was one of them, and Rel knew that when the strong, healthy men were all gone, they would snatch older boys. Left to eke out a meager, miserable existence, the village would consist mostly of starving, helpless old men, women, and children. He became obsessed with finding a solution when he watched his older brother marched away at swordpoint.
Rel remembered Bezrit and had an idea. He shared his idea with Dyree, but she only thought of the young man who had married a rich woman and never came back. Dyree sobbed, begged him to stay, tried to convince him the village couldn’t survive without him. When that didn’t work, she demanded that he take her with him, but nothing she said or did could sway Rel from his plan.
Now, the first part of Rel’s plan was a success. He only had to wait for a trading caravan to arrive. Then he would work for a year and save every scrap of his wages so he could return to Dyree and save his village. He fell asleep on a comfortable bed of straw that night thinking of her.
Dyree had been a model of bravery, as much a leader as Rel. She learned to herd the livestock in the hills while staying alert for early signs of intruders. She toiled in the fields, helping plant, nurture, and harvest the crops that meant their survival. She drilled the younger children until they could disappear into hidden cellars and caverns with only a moment’s warning. She did it all with optimism, convinced that she and Rel would share a long, happy life together.
On the eve of his departure, Dyree pleaded once more. “Please take me with you,” she said. Dyree’s tears flowed faster than she could scrub them away. “I can work, too. It won’t take as long with both of us.”
Rel shook his head, tired of the same old argument. “You know it has to be just me.” He embraced Dyree again, kissed her. “I’ll come back for you, for everyone.” He pulled a scrap of worn cloth from his leather pouch. Rel unwrapped an object nestled inside the cloth and handed it to Dyree. “A gift... for you.”
She sucked in a sharp breath and smiled. “It’s beautiful!”
Dyree turned the round, smooth stone over and over in her hands. Rel had worked many hours, shaping and polishing the large piece of flat reddish quartz. When he was done, he knotted a long leather cord around it.
Rel slipped the cord over Dyree’s head so the stone rested on her bosom. “One day, I’ll replace it with a ruby.”
“No, Rel, I don’t want jewels. I just want you.”
The settlement’s elders assured Rel that a caravan would pass through soon, but weeks passed and none appeared. He spent his days working, performing any task that anyone asked of him. He slept in the stables alongside the horses, dreaming of Dyree. The people fed him well and a healthy, muscular young man took the place of the gaunt, berry-stealing stranger they had taken in.
After a hot morning spent gathering and stacking firewood, Rel was ready for a drink of water. He grabbed a small bucket and headed for the village well. The line of house- wives and girls waiting their turn to draw water stepped back to allow him to go first. He filled his bucket and drank deeply, then emptied its cool contents over his head. He heaved a sigh and wiped the water out of his eyes. When he started to refill the bucket, he saw a stranger dressed in expensive dark robes and a black silk turban ambling into the village on horseback.
Rel watched the man while the women scattered, running back to their homes, leaving him alone at the well. Thinking that perhaps the rich man might have ridden ahead of a caravan, he stepped forward, hoping to meet a potential employer.
Two village elders rushed out and intercepted the stranger as he dismounted. They bowed and smiled, welcomed him with enthusiastic gestures. One ordered Rel to water the horse while they both escorted the rich man into the largest house in the village.
Rel watered the horse and waited for the stranger to emerge. He sat by the well and waited some more. No one came outside, not even a woman to draw water. An hour passed.
At last, one of the elders came out. Rel jumped to his feet. The elder motioned for him to come inside. “Who is he? Is he with a caravan? Where is he from? Will he hire me?” The questions tumbled out, but the elder shushed him and pulled him into a cool, darkened room.
The rich man sat by himself cross-legged on a thick cushion. The elder disappeared, leaving Rel alone with him.
“Please, sit.” The rich man indicated another thick cushion across from him with an imperious wave of his hand.
Rel sat cross-legged like the stranger. Before he could speak, a woman brought in a steaming pot of tea and two small cups on a tray. She placed the tray between Rel and the stranger, filled each cup, then backed out of the room, keeping her head down.
“Do you like tea?” The stranger took one of the cups and sipped.
Rel wondered if the tea tasted anything like the bitter herbal remedies he had been made to drink as a child. He picked up the cup and sniffed its contents, inhaling a pleasant aroma. He took a cautious sip, letting the hot liquid slide down his throat. “It’s good.” Rel drained the cup and placed it back on the tray.
The stranger smiled and set down his tea. He picked up the teapot and refilled Rel’s cup. “Please, have some more.”
Rel watched as the stranger savored his tea in small sips and decided to do the same. Feeling like he was involved in some elaborate ceremony that was taking far too long, Rel fidgeted on his cushion.
“I am told you seek employment, you wish to make money.”“Yes! Do you have a caravan —”
Frowning, the stranger interrupted. “No, and you do not want to waste your time waiting for one. I need a clever young man who is not afraid to work hard and who wishes to become rich.” He watched Rel over the rim of his cup.
“I will work hard, but I need to make a fortune quickly.” Rel raised his chin. “I’m not interested in becoming an apprentice, toiling away for years, waiting until I’m old to see the fruits of my labor.”
“In that case,” the stranger smiled and narrowed his eyes, “I have the perfect job for you.”
Ignoring a tenuous twinge of fear racing up his spine, Rel leaned forward.
“My name is Lang. Your job is to help me search an ancient, abandoned fortress for riches that were left behind.”
Rel straightened. “Abandoned? Why? Who would leave anything valuable behind?”
“Clever and suspicious. Yes, you are perfect.” Lang’s compliment resurrected a larger twinge of fear. Ready to thank him for the tea and leave, Rel hesitated when Lang pulled a small box from inside his robe and held it out in his palm.
Rel took the box and opened it. He gasped when he saw it contained a dozen small diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires.
“The valuables waiting there were not deliberately left behind. Long ago, the fortress was filled with furnishings made of jewel-encrusted gold and silver.” Lang’s eyes flashed as he described it. “Room after room dazzled with brilliant color, a fortune beyond imagining. The man who built it wanted nothing to do with the outside world, but others learned of his wealth. They attacked the fortress, destroyed it, carried away as much gold, silver, and jewels as they could.”
Rel listened, mesmerized, but unconvinced. Lang leaned toward Rel and lowered his voice. “There is still a fortune waiting to be harvested from the ruins. Enough to make a man a king many times over. You hold the proof in your hand.” He extended long, slender fingers toward the box. Rel returned it to him. “You can keep half of everything you find for yourself.” Lang hid the box inside his robe again.
“Why share? Why don’t you keep it all?” Rel asked. Lang sighed. “It took many years to find the fortress. I’m not young anymore. I need someone with strength and stamina to hasten the search.” He waved his hand dismissively at Rel. “If you are not interested, then go. I came here to find someone willing to earn his fortune through hard work. If that isn’t you...” Lang shrugged and gazed at the doorway. “Wait! I didn’t say I’m not interested.” Rel took a deep breath. “I just don’t know...”
“Trust? Is that all?” Lang pulled out the box again. “Here. Take this. It’s nothing compared to what’s waiting to be rescued from the ruins.”
Willing his hand to stop shaking, Rel took the box. He stared at the gems for a moment, envisioning Dyree wearing them. Maybe I’ll find an even larger ruby for her. He would work diligently and quickly, finding so many jewels that his share would let him return home in triumph in a short time. He closed the box.
“When do we leave?” Rel asked, thinking of Dyree to combat the ice-cold tendrils of unease creeping through his limbs.
Early the next morning, Rel traded the smallest of his jewels for a pair of sandals, a horse, a saddle, and some provisions. He said goodbye to the villagers, and headed with Lang toward a distant ridge with a single towering peak. The old men smiled and wished him well, but the women and children avoided Rel’s gaze. None of them said anything to Lang, as though they were relieved to be rid of him. Or afraid of him.
New thoughts fluttered at the edges of Rel’s curiosity. Why didn’t the village elders suggest one of their own young men should work for Lang? he wondered. What kind of backbreaking labor does it take to find lost treasure in an abandoned fortress? He doubled his resolve to do whatever it took to save Dyree and his village.
Rel and Lang fell into a monotonous routine. They rose before dawn, downed a small meal, rode for several hours at a pace that wouldn’t wear out the horses, and stopped at midday to rest. Then they rode again until near sunset when they looked for a spot to camp overnight, ate again, and slept under the stars.
Soon they passed through foothills and neared the base of a soaring mountain. Lang pointed out a rock formation protruding from its side. “That’s our destination. The sorcerer's nest.”
“Why is it called that?” Rel asked. Lang laughed, a cold, mirthless sound that melted away on the warm breeze. “Why do you think, boy?”
Icy fear raced from the pit of Rel’s stomach to the tips of his fingers and toes. He remembered one of Bezrit’s more
nightmarish stories. One night, with an audience gathered around an open fire, Bezrit told of the time his caravan made a point of avoiding a large village near a meandering river.
“I asked why,” Bezrit said. “An old man who had been with the caravan for many years told me that long ago, two sorcerers had fought a great battle near that place. A few say one was good, the other evil. Others say they were both wicked.”
Rel’s father asked, “What did they fight about?” “The old man said no one really knows.” Bezrit shrugged. “Some say it was a magic staff, or a ring, or a scroll inscribed with powerful spells they both wanted. Others think one sorcerer just wanted revenge on the other.”
The listening villagers leaned forward, frightened but unwilling to miss a single word.
“In the distant past, two sorcerers riding in birds made of metal and wood with silken wings chased each other through the clouds,” Bezrit said. “They threw blue lightning at each other until one of the birds burst into flames and fell, crashing into a river. The river’s water steamed and boiled where it surged around the bird. The other sorcerer’s bird descended slowly and hovered above the wreckage for a few moments. It drifted to a clearing at the river’s edge and came to rest on dry land. A sorcerer dressed in dazzling white emerged from the intact vehicle and approached the wreck in the river. The sorcerer in the crashed bird pulled himself out, injured and bleeding. Dressed in red, the injured sorcerer dragged himself across the broken remnants of his bird, trying to escape into the river.”
Rel had been ready to laugh at the idea of anyone riding through the sky in something shaped like a bird until he saw the look in the adults’ eyes.
“The white sorcerer splashed into the shallow water. He pointed a long, black stick with a glowing blue gem on its end at the red sorcerer. The injured red sorcerer went limp and the other one dragged him through the water to dry land where he sat looking at him for a long time. The red sorcerer finally stirred. His head was hairless, his face hideous and covered with scars. He had large, unblinking green eyes, but no nose. A giant round red stone filled the space where a mouth would be.”
The hair on the back of Rel’s neck prickled. He shivered, though the evening was pleasantly warm. Someone whispered, “What... what kind of being was he?”
“His hideous, scarred face was actually a jeweled metal mask,” Bezrit replied. “The mask was like a helmet that covered his head. Without it, he looked like a normal man.”
A low murmur ran through the spellbound villagers. Goosebumps peppered Rel’s flesh.
“The white sorcerer wrenched the mask from the bleeding man’s head. He turned his back on him and started toward his metal bird. The red sorcerer called out. As the white sorcerer was turning around, the red one pointed his hands at him. A blue bolt of lightning flew from his fingers into the white sorcerer’s chest, making him stagger and drop the helmet mask. He tried to point the blue gem on the end of his black stick at the man on the ground, but before he could, the red sorcerer got to his feet and struck the white one with another bolt of blue lightning.”
Bezrit paused and drew a deep breath. “He pointed both hands at the white sorcerer and limped toward him. The white sorcerer began to writhe and shriek, transforming into something not human.
“The red sorcerer picked up the black stick and the helmet mask and climbed inside the metal bird. It rose into the air and circled the crashed one in the river. The part of it sticking above the water burst into flames, sending a thick curtain of steam into the air. The white sorcerer became a screeching hawk. It flapped powerful wings and launched into the sky, chasing the metal bird as it zoomed away.”
Rel tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. His forehead puckered as he considered the tale. His father said what everyone was thinking. “It’s just a story. No one can prove it.”
Bezrit nodded. “I said the same thing. But the old man explained that the bizarre event was witnessed by a frightened shepherd. In the distance beyond his village was a mountain. The villagers were afraid of the mountain because sometimes they saw a shining giant bird flying around it, and it was often obscured by a black mist that carried strange blue lightning.” Bezrit looked around at the circle of listeners. “The story has been told in that village and carried to distant lands for generations. The old man came from that very village. He told me that sorcerers are still drawn there today, searching for something.”
Rel realized with a sick, dizzying feeling that he had been welcomed, fed, and cared for in the same village that feared the mountain. Its people were also afraid of Lang. Instead of being taken away by soldiers, Rel had let himself be taken by a wizard. Doesn’t matter, he thought. Man, sorcerer, or strange metal being, I already have a box of jewels and the chance to find more. For Dyree.
Resolved to make the best of his predicament, Rel followed Lang into the shadows beneath the sorcerer’s nest.
Lang dismounted. Rel did the same, wondering how they would scale the jagged cliffs to reach the fortress and half expecting Lang to turn into a bird. He followed Lang as they navigated around large boulders, leading the horses. Rel turned a corner and hesitated when Lang disappeared inside the mouth of a cave that looked like a giant maw ready to swallow them.
“Come on, boy!” Lang’s voice rang out, startling Rel into action. He entered the cave and saw Lang adding dry sticks to a flaming firepit in its center. Lang showed him where to find torches and told him where to place them in deep slots carved into the walls. Their light cast eerie dancing shapes on the rocky surfaces while Lang showed him a stash of hid- den supplies. Rel unsaddled the horses and settled them in a crude corral by the entrance where fresh water constantly trickled into a shallow pool.
“Follow me,” Lang ordered after he loaded Rel’s arms with food. Lang plucked a torch from the wall and held it up to light the way as he headed toward the back of the cave. A rough staircase carved into solid rock became visible in the dim light. Rel scurried after him.
Long after Rel thought they should have reached the summit on the stone stairway stretching endlessly upward, Lang continued climbing. At last he led Rel into a magnificent, round, high-ceilinged chamber. Sunlight streamed in through holes in the mountainside high above their heads like windows. Numerous smooth, polished plates of tin were positioned to reflect light throughout the space.
Lang smiled, looked around, and murmured, “Home. At last.”The chamber was furnished with silk tapestries, ebony tables, gilded chairs, thick rugs, and a large soft bed. Dumbfounded, Rel gaped at the luxury.
“Put the supplies in here. “ Lang led Rel through a narrow doorway to a small dark room, his torch illuminating some stone shelves carved into a niche in the wall. “And... this is where you will sleep.” A pile of straw in the corner was covered by a thin blanket. Lang lit a small oil lamp, the only source of light in the space.
Rel stacked the supplies on the stone shelves. He turn to his employer. “Where do we search for jewels?”
He showed Rel a small doorway behind one of the tapestries. They both had to stoop to go through it. “This is the access to the tunnels that lead to other chambers.”
“When can I start?” A slow smile crossed Lang’s face. “Excellent! Such dedication to a goal is admirable. Tomorrow.”
* * *
Rel settled into a new routine. He rose before dawn, ate a small meal, and spent all day, every day, roaming through the twisting tunnels and dank caverns that riddled the mountain's core. He carried an empty sack looped on his belt in hopes of finding a hoard of jewels. Each day, Lang showed him where to search and then went away, saying he would check on the horses or bring up fresh supplies. He greeted Rel every evening with the same question: “What did you find?” Lang never sent Rel to the same area twice. Some days he followed the twisting passageways down, other days up to higher levels. Some days Rel discovered a sliver of gold or silver, more often nothing. Twice he returned to Lang’s chamber with a tiny diamond. Lang remained unimpressed, tossing each new find into a silver bowl resting atop one of the polished ebony tables in his chamber. But Rel was thrilled, convinced he would soon be reunited with Dyree.
Rel paid attention to where he had been, keeping a map of the mountain maze in his mind. It occurred to him that Lang might be going back to the more promising areas, conducting a methodical, thorough search of the places where Rel found a little success, but he didn’t mind. He still had the box of jewels from Lang tucked safely in the leather pouch he wore at his waist. Lang never mentioned it, giving Rel confidence that his employer would keep his word and share half of all the riches they recovered.
Weeks passed. The tiny pile of treasure in the silver bowl grew slowly as more bits of precious metal and a few small gemstones were added. Lang sent Rel deeper and deeper into the mountain.
One day, Rel made his way through a cramped passage. He held his torch high, trying to spot anything shining in the shadows. He thought he heard a distant rumble of thunder and looked up to see a fine haze of grit falling from the caverns ceiling. He realized what was happening and ran back the way he had come. With the next loud rumble, the earth shifted, throwing him to his knees. Rel scrambled to his feet and bolted in terror. The tunnel behind him collapsed, spewing rocks and dirt toward him.
Rel ran upward toward Lang’s chamber, terrified that the mountain would crush him. Gasping for breath, he finally reached the threshold.
His back to the doorway, Lang slammed the lid on an iron box when he heard Rel. He whipped around and shouted, “What are you doing here?” Lang took a step toward Rel. Shaking and out of breath, Rel fell to his knees, happy to be alive. “Tunnel caved in... barely escaped...”
Lang stopped, regained his composure, and studied Rel for a moment. “How terrible. Here, sit.” He indicated a golden chair fitted with a soft cushion. Rel dragged himself to the chair and dropped into it. Lang hastily stowed the iron box under his bed while Rel wasn’t looking.
“I’ll make you some tea.” Lang fetched water and put the teapot on the fire while Rel sat with his head in his hands, trying to stop shaking.
Lang served a steaming cup to Rel, then sat across from him in a throne-like chair of solid gold while he sipped from his own. Lang finally broke the silence. “Did you... find anything?”
“No.” Disappointment flashed across Lang’s face. “Perhaps we should go down and check on the horses. Make sure they’re unharmed.”
“Good idea.” Rel gulped the tea. “And we need more oil for the lamps.” He stood and strode toward the stone staircase that led to the world outside. Lang followed him.
They found the horses unharmed, the supplies undisturbed. Rel silently gathered more lamp oil and torches while Lang watched. They made the long climb back up in silence, Lang holding up a lamp to light the way. They ate their evening meal and retired to their beds without speaking.
Rel knew that if he died, Lang would be annoyed at having to replace him. He wondered how much treasure Lang expected to find, and if Lang would kill him when it was discovered.
The next morning, Rel took a lamp as well as a torch with
him. He double checked for the flint and steel in his pouch, made sure they were next to the small box of jewels along with his knife. The empty sack hung limply at his side. Lang preceded him through the low doorway as usual, winding downward through a labyrinth of tunnels until he got to the place he wanted Rel to search.
“This area should be stable,” Lang said. He left Rel to his lonely work.
While he searched, Rel stayed alert to any sound that might signal another earthquake. He was having no luck spotting anything valuable, but noticed that the cavern widened as he continued along it. The rough walls became smoother, the ceiling higher. Rel’s heartbeat quickened. He thought this area might lead to other ancient living chambers. He lifted his lamp higher and scoured the floor and walls.
He found a crack in the smooth wall. It was straight as an arrow, not jagged, and ran upward from the floor. He ran his fingers along it, discovered that the crack turned and ran at a right angle across the wall just above his head.
Rel took out his small knife. The short blade slipped easily into the crack. He was careful not to break it off as he ran it up and down. He also used it to test the crack running across the wall above his head. “A doorway!” Rel’s voice echoed in the empty cavern.
He pressed his shoulder against the stone and pushed. He took a deep breath and pushed harder. The slab moved a little. Muscles straining, sweat gathering on his brow, Rel kept pushing. The massive slab groaned and scraped, swinging inward on a hidden pivot.
Rel kept working, pushing as hard as he could until the thick stone door opened just wide enough for him slip in- side. Darkness swallowed most of the light, but he could see some irregular shapes scattered around the walls of a large room. He set the oil lamp on the floor and held the torch over his head as he investigated.
Small, scattered piles of crumbling bits of wood were all that remained of what might have been furnishings. A waist-high stone ledge was carved from the solid rock walls. Rel approached the nearest ledge and saw a stack of ancient scrolls. Curious, he reached to pick one up. It dissolved into dust when he touched it. His foot grazed something against the wall, sending an object rolling away. Bending down to inspect it with torchlight, he recognized a human skull dislodged from a heap of bones. It looked like the bones were loosely held together by a tattered scrap of ancient fabric as transparent as a spider web.
Rel pictured a man sitting cross-legged on the floor under the ledge, dead, his body wasting away to nothing but a skeleton inside his rotting clothing. He reached for the skull and respectfully placed it back on the pile. The bones shifted, revealing a square box that he imagined would have been in the man’s lap.
Rel squatted next to the bones and picked up the dirt-encrusted cube. It was heavy and barely fit in the palm of his hand. When he turned it over to examine all sides, something inside rattled. He rubbed off some dirt and his heart skipped a beat. Smiling, Rel recognized the glint of gold. He scraped off more dirt and saw more gold. “Dyree, this must be it!” he whispered. He stuffed the box into the sack tied onto his belt. The skull shifted and fell again, clacking onto the stone floor. When Rel started to put it back, he saw a large pouch made from crumbling leather.
He pondered how to pick it up, afraid that it might disintegrate like the scroll when he touched it. He placed the
torch on the ledge and stretched out both hands to gently lift the pouch. A distant rumble of shifting stone vibrated through the walls and floor around him. Dust fell from the ceiling.
Rel knew he might have only seconds to act. He scooped up the pouch, felt the leather breaking apart, and dumped it into his sack. Abandoning the lamp, he jumped up and grabbed the torch. The cavern shook violently with a booming roar, sending him crashing to the floor. The skull rolled to a stop facing him, mocking him with its bony grin. The torch and the lamp both went out, plunging the room into absolute blackness.
The quaking seemed to last forever. Rel coughed, choking on plumes of dirt filling the air. He crawled on the floor, groping blindly, trying to find the doorway. Convinced he was about to be crushed under tons of rock and earth, Rel drew his knees up, lowered his chin to his chest, and placed his hands over head. He thought of Dyree and how much he loved her.
Eventually the noise and shaking subsided. Rel could see nothing, could hear only his ragged breaths. He slowly started crawling across the floor, feeling for the torch or the lamp. When his fingers made contact with the torch, he sobbed with relief. He pulled out his flint and steel and, after several tries with shaking hands, lit it.
Ready to bolt through the doorway and into the cavern that would take him back to Lang’s sunlit chamber, Rel sank to his knees instead. Rocks piled against the stone door, some spilling into the room where he was now trapped. He tore at the rocks until his hands bled. When he dislodged a large one, more rained down, making him scramble away, back toward the pile of bones.
Numb, he resigned himself to his awful fate. Rel sat cross- legged and leaned back against the wall next to the skull, wondering how long it would be until someone found his bones. When the horrible rumbling noise started again, he closed his eyes and wept, resolved to keep an image of Dyree in his mind until his last breath.
The ground shook, tossing Rel about like a pebble while the mountain of stone over his head growled and roared. He tasted the dust and dirt flying through the air, threatening to suffocate him. Solid rock beneath him heaved and rolled as waves of energy jolted through it. With one last mighty blast, all the noise and movement ceased. Rel coughed and sputtered, trying to catch his breath. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but was blinded once more by utter blackness.
Rel thought of Dyree and how he would never see her again, of the jewels he wished he could have given her. Longing for relief from overwhelming despair, he found the torch and relit it. The entrance was still blocked by tons of jagged rocks and the skull still grinned silently at him.
Rel stared at the torch’s flame. He watched it dance and waver, wondering how long it would last before he was plunged into eternal darkness. The fire swayed and fell, then rose again, as if caught in a gentle breeze. Rel rubbed his eyes, thinking his mind was playing tricks. He stared at the torch and saw the flame die down again, then spring back to life. He stood, holding the torch high.
The wall opposite the stone slab door had crumbled, leaving a pile of rocks and loose dirt with an open space at its top. Rel felt air flowing in, telling him there were passages beyond. He scrambled up the rocks and squeezed through the top, holding the precious torch in front of him. But he lost his footing and plunged down the other side into a shal-
low underground stream. Bruised and bleeding from a dozen scrapes and cuts, the freezing water energized him. He made his way through the twisting, upward-sloping caverns as quickly as he could, twice running into dead ends where he had to backtrack to return to the original path.
The tunnel opened into a small chamber just before Rel’s torch sputtered and died. But he could make out shapes of rocks and boulders, see the rough walls in a kind of dank, gloomy light. Trying to catch his breath, he smelled fresh, sweet air and knew he was about to escape the sorcerer’s nest. Rel could taste freedom. He headed for the spot where the dim light was brightest and slithered over a boulder. He turned one more corner and stumbled into the back of the cavern where Lang had stashed their supplies.
He blinked in the dim light, adjusting his eyes to what felt like brilliant sunshine, and marveled at his good fortune. About to dash up the stone staircase to Lang’s nest high above, he remembered that he would need a fresh torch. Before he could grab one, the horses started pawing the ground and rolling their eyes. He felt the earth shake again. The horses reared and whinnied.
Rel sprinted to the corral and opened it just as the crack of an avalanche rent the air high above. He grabbed a handful of mane and swung onto his horse, barely clinging on while the animal galloped.
Miles later, Rel finally gained control of the horse. He looked back toward the mountain and stared in disbelief. Rel squinted and rubbed his eyes, fearing that his sight was damaged. The crumbling old fortress wasn’t there. Neither was the mountain. It had collapsed, an avalanche of boulders, trees, and debris piled behind a hazy, dissipating curtain of dust.
Rel nudged the horse into a slow walk back. No matter how hard or long he stared, the pile of rubble was all that remained. He wanted to search for Lang, but knew there was no way anyone could have survived such a cataclysm.
He turned the horse around and thought about where to go. It would be an arduous journey with no supplies, no water, not even a saddle for his horse, no matter what direction he took. He was reluctant to head for the settlement where he had met Lang. According to Bezrit’s story, caravans avoided it. He would avoid it as well.
At sunset, Rel was camped next to a stream, finishing off the wild roots and grasses he had foraged. The small bit of nourishment was worse than bland, but at least he wasn’t hungry. He pulled the small box out of his pouch and examined the tiny jewels again. Relieved that they hadn’t been lost in his mad scramble to escape, he turned his attention to the objects in his treasure sack.
Rel pulled out the dirty cube and set it aside. He reached into the sack and pulled out what felt like hard stones. Sparkling in the last rays of the setting sun, he saw they were gemstones. Large ones. Trembling, he emptied the sack and brushed aside bits of rotten leather. A double handful of jewels made a sparkling rainbow, the smallest easily worth triple what had been collected in Lang’s silver bowl.
He laughed as he sifted through his treasure, searching for the largest ruby. When he found it, a blood-red stone as big as a quail’s egg, he cried out, “Dyree, my love, this one is yours!”
Rel carefully poured his fortune back into the treasure sack and picked up the square gold box. About to stuff it back into the sack on top of the jewels, he heard the rattling noise again. He turned it over and over in his hands, but could see no way to open it in the dusky twilight. He considered bashing it with a rock, but didn’t want to risk damaging it. He decided to wait until daylight when he could see clearly. Whatever was inside had been trapped there for several lifetimes. It could wait one more night.
Rel rode slowly into his home village. He dismounted and looked around at the small dwellings, the sad desolation where happy families had once lived.
“Dyree!” he shouted. He made a funnel of his hands around his mouth and yelled louder, “Dyree!” His voice was carried away by the breeze into the hills where he used to herd goats. His leather boots kicked up dust as he walked to one of the larger huts. He flung aside the flap that covered the doorway and stooped to look inside. “Dyree?”
Rel backed away and pulled the silk turban off his head. He threw it on the ground and called out, “Dyree, it’s me! Rel! I’ve come back for you!”
“Rel?” A frightened whisper drew him back toward the hut. “Is it really you?” A hand clutched the flap and pulled it back. Dyree peered around it, staring at Rel as though she’d never seen him before.
“Dyree!” Rel rushed toward her, pulled her into an embrace. Dyree wept as she took his face in her hands. He kissed her tears away, picked her up and swept her around in circles until she gasped with laughter.
Others ventured out of their hiding places by twos and threes until Rel was surrounded by a crush of villagers welcoming him back. Children shouted with joy and adults cackled with laughter. They all marveled at Rel’s expensive clothing and admired his horse and fine saddle. Rel stood in their midst, Dyree by his side, and announced that he had brought servants with enough horses and wagons to move everyone away from the village. He offered to take them to a small city where they would be safe and never go hungry.
Incredulous, Dyree asked, “How Rel? You’ve been gone less than a year!”
Before he could answer, a small procession of horses and wagons laden with food rumbled into sight. New shouts of excitement rang out as Rel ordered his servants to prepare a feast. While the villagers celebrated, Rel took Dyree aside and explained how Lang took him to the mountain fortress where he searched for treasure, how an avalanche destroyed both the fortress and Lang. He told her about his escape with a fortune in jewels, how he found a caravan of merchants, and traveled with them to a bustling city. There he had sold some of the jewels, hired servants, bought horses, wagons, and food, and headed immediately back to her.
“That’s not all! Do you still have the necklace I gave you?” Rel asked. He reached into his robe and pulled out some- thing tied up in a piece of red silk.
Dyree nodded. Smiling, she untucked the polished stone on its leather cord from inside her tattered dress. “I wear it always.”
Rel slipped the square of silk from the golden cube and placed it in her hand. “This is for you!”
Stunned, Dyree looked at the shining box, turned it over, and heard something rattle inside. She ran a finger along the complicated designs etched on each side. “There’s no way to open it.” She turned curious eyes to Rel.
He showed her how to press a certain place in the design on three different sides in precise order. A hinged lid sprang open. Eyes widening, Dyree gasped and raised her empty hand to her mouth.
Inside the box was a giant ruby on a heavy gold chain. “I told you one day I would give you a ruby.” Rel took it out and held it up so she could see it flash and sparkle. Light pulsed from deep within the stone like a rhythmic heartbeat. Dyree took the gem from his hand. “It’s beautiful! But I told you I only want you, not jewels.” She put the ruby and its chain back inside the box and closed the lid. “And I meant it.” She handed it back to him, but he shook his head sternly. “You can do anything you want with it, it’s yours,” he told her. “Wear it or don’t, keep it or sell it or give it away, just remember — my love for you is eternal.”
“Maybe I’ll wear it once a year to remember today. The day you came home to me.”
The villagers lived happily in the city. Rel became a successful merchant, operating his own caravan, buying and selling rare and exotic goods. He was popular and respected, with a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. He and Dyree lived in a fine, large, stone house on the edge of the city with many servants. Dyree was loved and respected as much as Rel. She wanted for nothing, but preferred to live modestly, spending her days caring for the less fortunate. Their joy was boundless when she gave birth to a son they named Nameer. When he was little, Nameer never tired of hearing his father tell the story of his great adventure. “How many berries did you eat? How did you escape from the mountain?” Rel laughed when his son begged him to tell it, over and over. Then Nameer would ask to see Dyree’s ruby.
Dyree always finished the story by showing Nameer the smooth reddish rock on its leather cord. “Your father brought back jewels, but this is the only ruby that means anything to me, the one he gave me when he had nothing else to give.”
A handsome boy, Nameer was doted on by his parents but never spoiled. He learned the virtues of honesty and loyalty, learned not to depend on servants, learned to respect and value physical labor. As Nameer grew older, Rel revealed more sinister details about his adventure, cautioning his son against trusting strangers, warning him about evil sorcerers. “Lang was motivated by greed, and he paid with his life.”
Dyree still wore the polished rock, never removing it, with one exception. Each year, on the anniversary of the day Rel came home to save their village, she took the giant ruby from its golden prison and wore it around her neck. Each year, on that day, Rel hosted a feast for everyone from the old village and their families. It had begun as a celebration for dozens and had grown into an event for hundreds, a remembrance of shared hardship and a thanksgiving for new prosperity.
Each year, Rel and Dyree’s guests marveled at the magnificent red jewel on its golden chain. They remarked how unusual it was, glowing as if with a powerful, radiant fire. Dyree always told them the ruby had no power, that it was merely a reflection of her love for Rel.
On the day of their annual celebration, Rel kissed Dyree and promised to return home as soon as he concluded some business in the marketplace. On his way there, he passed a beggar with a crutch sitting near the gutter. Rel stopped and plucked some coins from his moneybag. He gave them to the beggar.
The beggar lowered his head and rasped, “Thank you, kind master.” When Rel was out of sight, the beggar smirked and threw the coins away. He climbed to his feet, tucked an iron box under his arm, and limped toward the edge of the city on his crutch.
Rel walked through the marketplace, greeting friends and smiling at acquaintances. He never noticed the hooded man watching him. The man pulled his cowl lower over his face and melted away into the shadows.
An hour later, Rel concluded his business. He threaded his way through the stalls and vendors noisily peddling their goods, headed for his home on the outskirts of the city.
A disturbance rippled through the crowd, following someone running and shouting. One of Rel’s servants spotted him, tore toward him, shrieking. The servant screamed that his master must come home. Rel shook the man. “What’s happened? Dyree? Nameer —” The hysterical servant collapsed, moaning and crying.
Ominous thoughts flashed through Rel’s mind, each new one more horrible than the last, as he ran. Fearing what he would find, Rel shoved through the crowd gathered in the street outside his home. Inside, he pushed past a knot of servants in the main room. Some stared in shocked silence, others wept, still others tried to stifle their screams. A nightmare unfolded in front of him.
Blood splotched the stone floor, spattered the walls. Furniture was overturned. Rugs, cushions, and tapestries were scorched as if in a fire. Mauled by a big animal, a man lay dead, his throat torn out, entrails spilling across the floor. A broken crutch lay near him and his face was mangled beyond recognition. Rel saw the carnage but could not comprehend what his eyes told him.
“DYREE! NAMEER!” Rel screamed their names over and over, racing wildly through every room. He ended up in Dyree’s garden, a tranquil oasis of soothing colors and aromatic blossoms. Nothing was disturbed here, nothing was disturbed anywhere in the house except for the main room. Numb, Rel dragged himself back there. This time he spotted something protruding from the corner of a bloodstained rug. It was Dyree’s polished stone necklace, the only ruby she had ever wanted.
Servants reported that a limping beggar came to the house, probably because he had heard of Dyree’s kindness and generosity. It must be him, they said, dead on the floor. Other servants swore they saw a pair of white tigers, one large and the other not fully grown, chasing a strange man away from the house. Where the tigers came from, no one could say.
Dyree, Nameer, the giant ruby, and its square gold box were all missing.
A caravan arrived two days later with another strange report. As they neared the city, some of their men had seen a pair of white tigers running toward a strange beast. But it was a giant bird, not a beast, because when the tigers got close to it, it unfurled great wings and rose into the air. The tigers snarled and snapped as it circled above them. The bird creature flapped its wings just out of their reach, then zoomed away. They said the tigers chased after it and disappeared into the distance.
Years later, Rel’s friends still spoke to him kindly whenever they saw him. He wandered the streets, barefoot, dressed in rags, his long gray hair matted with dirt. He often showed them a flat, reddish, polished stone on a leather cord and asked,
“Have you seen my Dyree? I have a ruby for her. This is the ruby she wanted.”
Sometimes his friends imagined they saw a pair of white tigers in the shadows, following Rel, watching him.
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S.D. McPhail spent years writing technical documentation and developing marketing materials for high-tech engineering firms. Even though she enjoyed working with genius engineers, she always suspected that writing fiction would be more fun, and she was right. Susan is now a fantasy/science fiction author living in Huntsville, Alabama (aka the Rocket City) with her husband. S.D. McPhail’s Treasures of Dodrazeb series has been called “the best third century Persian historical sword and science series you’ll ever read.”