“Father’s gone on business for the moment,” Djaren said, opening the carriage door for his mother.
“He’ll be home quite soon, I imagine.” Hellin Blackfeather picked her small daughter up nimbly and set her in the carriage. Ellea bore this with dignity and chose a window seat for herself. Hellin took the hand Tam offered and climbed up into the carriage, revealing in that motion that her full skirts were in fact voluminous trousers. The Professor followed her in. Jon wavered a moment, finding his choices were to sit between Hellin Blackfeather and the Professor, or next to Ellea, who was regarding him steadily with some unreadable expression. She edged over an inch. Jon took the motion as an invitation and sat down carefully. The Professor smiled across at him. Tam and Djaren took the remaining seats. Djaren wiped dust from his spectacles with an equally dusty handkerchief and settled them back on his nose with a smile. “Off to the dig. Wait till you see it!”
They traveled over an arid landscape on bumpy roads while Djaren described the dig and what had already been uncovered. Ellea interrupted him halfway through a description of some jeweled daggers. “The thieves took those.”
Djaren looked embarrassed. “We didn’t want to tell you right off,” he explained, looking from Tam, to Jon, to the Professor. “No sense in alarming you, but yes, you’re not the only ones to have run-ins with thieves lately.”
“What else did they take?” The Professor sounded worried.
“The usual things,” Djaren said.
“Everything shiny and small,” Ellea answered at the same time.
“And the household silver,” Hellin smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid one of the maidservants has a dangerous taste in suitors. She alone had access to the household, and she disappeared with the lot. I only hope the girl was plucky enough to get her fair share. The thieves of Alarna are not very egalitarian in their divisions.”
“Mama Darvin told you not to hire her,” Ellea said.
“I know, I know,” Hellin Blackfeather sighed, “but I felt that girl had spirit, and could make good use of some opportunity.”
“Well, she did that.” Djaren grinned.
“As Mama Darvin has been continually reminding me.” Hellin wrinkled her freckled nose at her son. Jon decided that Lady Blackfeather was a great deal younger than he and Tam’s mother. She was extraordinarily lovely. Jon had expected something quite different. Hellin Blackfeather’s name appeared as a co-author on all of Doctor Blackfeather’s writings. Jon had thought she would be older, or sterner, or maybe even more like his own round, dimpled mother, whom he was trying manfully not to miss.
“Haven’t you called in the authorities about the theft?” Tam asked.
“Of course,” Djaren answered. “But Alarna is a small province. Thieves and authorities are close cousins here. Though up till now we’ve been on good terms with the lot of them.”
“We’ve been fortunate,” Hellin explained. “We Shandorians are allowed to dig where others–”
“Like the Arienish,” Djaren put in.
“–are not,” Hellin finished.
“They take things home with them,” Ellea explained. “Big things.”
“One noble took home a whole temple, it’s true,” Djaren said. “We, on the other hand, are here for the history. Father’s discoveries have founded two museums and four libraries.” Djaren looked proud. “We work with governments to find and preserve treasures.”
“Yes,” Hellin remarked dryly. “We dig up antiquities and document them. Then the governments sell them to foreign nobles. Priceless artifacts for a quick penny.”
“But isn’t it dreadful to them to lose their history?” Jon asked, appalled.
“It would seem common sense to treasure the past, but not everyone does. Men see money for old rubbish, not a loss of valuable history.”
“They forget,” Ellea said gravely. “And what you forget about will come and bite you.”
The carriage rumbled to a stop at last and the party tumbled out to find themselves amid a small city of bright tents, red and green and dusty yellow as well as plain canvas. It was a little like the festivals that happened back at home when the clans came down at harvest time. Except here it was hot, and oddly quiet.
“It’s the time of the midday rest,” Djaren explained. “The people of Alarna know there’s no point working in this heat, and they know their land, so we take on Alarnan customs while we work here. Later as the air cools work will begin again and continue until the sun sets. Come see the house!”
The “house,” as it turned out, was a great jumbled maze of tents, stuck one onto another in rooms and passages. Jon had once built a similar structure on a much smaller scale using sheets and his mother’s kitchen chairs. The tent with the main entrance was crimson, and Djaren drew back the curtain-like doors to reveal reed mats and colorful rugs inside. A row of sandals sat in a row just inside, and the Blackfeathers began to remove their shoes.
“We guessed at sizes,” Djaren explained. “I think, Tam, you’ll want to wear Harl Darvin’s spare set, there. He won’t mind.”
Tam set down the too small pair of slippers he had been considering, and smiled in some relief. “Aye, those look righter.”
Jon found a pair of blue slippers that seemed to be his size exactly, and set his shoes carefully beside Tam’s boots, before straightening up and looking round. Tam was already staring at their hosts exotic looking home. There were paper lanterns and brass ones. There were low tables, high chests of drawers, and colorful pillows everywhere. Even more exciting, there were lots of bookshelves. Books and scrolls were open on almost every available surface. With a nod of encouragement from Hellin, Jon and Tam began to explore. Djaren followed after, grinning. “Ask me anything. I’ve read nearly everything in here. Mother says I’m a walking encyclopedia.”
Ellea yawned. “You shouldn’t brag about that.”
“I wasn’t,” Djaren made a face at her.
She made one back.
Hellin Blackfeather clapped her hands. “Ellea dear. Do help me find Ma Darvin, won’t you?”
Ellea nodded, with a sudden little smile. “I bet she has biscuits waiting.” She skipped out a doorway through a beaded curtain into a green walled corridor.
Djaren went over to a very large old steamer trunk thickly papered with stamps and labels from all over the world, and opened it with a casual little kick. It was three quarters of the way full with copper pieces, an odd and inconvenient sort of treasure chest. Djaren tossed the new copper coins in, and let the lid back down with a thump. Tam had stopped before a glass case full of weapons. He passed over a jeweled scimitar and some graceful blades with carved ivory hilts to admire a big black Shandorian great-sword. It looked very old indeed, pitted and chipped with age and most likely famous old battles. “You can tell that old sword has seen some days,” Tam said, impressed.
Jon’s attention however was drawn to the bookshelves. He lingered over the bindings, finding several scripts and languages he didn’t recognize.
“That’s in Kardu,” Djaren said, noting the book Jon was looking at. “I’m just learning. I could teach you what I know.”
Jon grinned. Despite the dust and heat, this place was beginning to look like paradise.
A short, kindly-faced woman bustled in from the green tent passage with a big copper tray. Ellea trailed her, carrying a tray of biscuits.
“I heard the carriage, Hellin dear,” the woman said. “You all must be parched. Come have a drink at once. Are these the boys?”
The boys turned to be introduced to Mama Darvin. She was clearly Shandorian too, with the look of the northern clans, only rounder. She had warm brown skin, merry almond eyes, and a long black braid that wrapped around her head twice. She insisted everyone sit down amid cushions and drink sweet water with ginger before exploring any further.
Ellea solemnly deposited a biscuit in everyone’s hands and then sat as well, both hands full, to nibble first one biscuit and then the other in turn, working her way in concentric circles to the center of each.
Djaren ate his biscuit normally, so Jon did too.
“Anna won’t leave off with that contraption,” Ma Darvin was saying. “She’d be here to greet you but just before the midday the men moved the last debris from the north passage. There are some carvings she’s bound and determined to record before they go on.”
“Anna does the sketching,” Djaren explained. “Whenever we find anything, she draws it. She’s very clever at it too.”
“And she should be content with that, but no!” Mama Darvin threw her hands skyward. “Now she must drag out all the equipment and photograph it too.”
“You have a camera?” Jon was impressed.
“I figured out how to work it first,” Djaren said, “but Anna laid claim to it. And she does take better pictures. Here’s one she took of us.” Djaren brought down a framed photograph from an overloaded armoire dripping antiquities with labels. Jon examined the picture with interest. There were the Blackfeathers just like in the newest kind of papers, black and white and in their best clothes. Hellin was smiling and had a fine frock. The children stood, Ellea looking a little sullen in a starched dress with ribbons, Djaren very stiff and upright and wearing a tie. Behind them stood a tall dark figure who must be Doctor Blackfeather. There was something a little odd about his eyes. Jon frowned and closed his own eyes a moment, trying to fix in his mind what the man looked like. He opened his eyes and studied Doctor Blackfeather’s face again, but couldn’t seem to hold the image in his head. The man looked striking somehow, but also just as one would expect Djaren and Ellea’s father to look. Black hair, long like Djaren’s, a serious face like Ellea’s, and odd eyes. In another moment Jon had forgotten what the man looked like again, and had to study the picture all over. Tam, waiting impatiently for a turn, finally took it from his hands.
Next Djaren showed them their room, half green tent, half faded blue, with a cot on either side piled high with blankets and quilts. “Don’t let the heat fool you,” Mama Darvin said, plumping down pillows and setting thick blankets on the beds. “It can get harsh and cold here at night.”
There was a writing desk, oil lamps, plenty of pens and ink and some good paper in neat stacks. Best of all, there was a bookshelf just for Jon. He carefully unpacked his own books from home onto it and felt at once more comfortable.
“And now that you’re settled,” Djaren said, “you must come and see the dig! If there are new carvings we have to see them. Right away!”
Back by the line of shoes, they found Professor Sheridan already waiting. “There’s so much I have still to see here.” He smiled. “You’ve uncovered so much in the last months. I’ve quite missed the excitement. Let’s go see the new discoveries.”
“I’ll wait here for Corin,” Hellin said. “I expect he’ll be arriving shortly. You go on.”
The children were back in their shoes in a matter of moments and then out into the blinding sun, Djaren carrying a jar of ginger water for Anna at Mama Darvin’s insistence.
Djaren navigated the maze of tents with ease, pointing out landmarks of interest as they went. “There’s the well, and the bath tents, and that’s where the foreman Harl Darvin lives, with Mama Darvin and Anna. And here is the dig! Careful down the steps.”
The dig opened out before them, a vast honeycomb of excavated rooms and passages, emerging roofless from the earth. It was a little like standing on a plateau and looking down into a network of canyons. Yellow sand and grey crumbling soil gave way to pale limestone and chipping red plaster. The Gardner boys duly admired the ruins.
“That must have taken a bit of work to clear,” Tam said, looking at the wheelbarrows and stacks of shovels.
“Look at the drainage channels.” Jon pointed. “How clever. Bronze weapons, but they were rather advanced in other ways, weren’t they?”
Djaren detailed the layout of the city under excavation, and related the order of finds, of buildings, and what was in them as he guided them down into the dig itself. They descended a rope ladder and a set of wooden stairs and walked though a maze of ancient houses until they came to a thin corridor, still partially blocked with dirt. In the middle were a large sun umbrella and a curious hooded apparatus on a tripod, under which someone in skirts was humming.
“Anna! The Professor is here, and we’ve brought the guests too,” Djaren announced.
The apparatus and occupant jumped, with a muffled word that Jon didn’t know, but which raised the Professor’s eyebrows.
The tousled head of a pretty girl appeared from under the hood. “You startled me. I was taking the last exposure, but you’ve made me jostle it. I shall have to try again. No interrupting!” She dived back under the hood again while adjusting the apparatus. After an uncomfortable minute or two, there was a bright little explosion from a dish extending from the contraption, and the girl emerged again, looking pleased. “Done. Now introduce me at once.”
“This is Anna Darvin,” Djaren obeyed, “our artist and photographer.”
Anna bore only a passing resemblance to her mother. She was about Tam’s age, but shorter, with fine northern features and a shape more like Lady Blackfeather’s than like Mama Darvin’s. She had dark curly hair, tanned brown skin and startlingly blue eyes. She wore a simple and dusty blue dress with a leather apron full of pockets, paint and pencils.
Jon introduced himself, unsure of whether to shake her hand or bow. He settled on a polite nod. Tam dropped his hat when Anna turned to him. He picked it up, turned it round in his hands and nearly dropped it again. “Tam,” he said, with a reddening face.
Anna smiled at him. “I’m pleased to meet you, Tam Gardner.”
Tam mumbled something unintelligible, and the Professor suggested they clear the way to the carving.
Anna and Djaren disassembled the apparatus and packed it away quickly, in spite of Tam’s oddly clumsy efforts to assist. Anna folded down the sun umbrella and used it to wave at the revealed carvings with a flourish. “Isn’t it fine? I have a good sketch of the winged fellows.”
Jon peeked around the older children’s backs to see the fascinating carvings. He was excited to find several different scripts and languages, and carved figures. On either side of a block of script were two figures, winged men with beards.
“Guardians,” Djaren said. “That’s a good sign, do you see? They are only found guarding royal chambers, tombs, or treasures. There’s more to be found nearby, with them here. That is, if robbers haven’t already looted what they are guarding.”
“I find the multiple scripts most encouraging,” the Professor said, sounding breathless. “And this one, this is Sharnish. No one has ever been able to translate it. It’s a dead language. No one speaks it or remembers it.”
“Until now.” Djaren’s eyes shone. “See, there is script in four languages. Translate one and we can begin to understand all the Sharnish inscriptions in these ruins. With study–”
“–we could be the first to find out the secrets this place has been trying to show us,” Anna finished, looking triumphant. “Or at least you two linguists can, and then tell us in plain trade common.”
Jon pushed his way carefully to the front and examined the whole panel of carvings. He knew something suddenly, looking at it, something that had nothing to do with the languages. The edges of the panel were all obscured with chips of stone and dirt, but he knew what they would reveal. “This is a door,” he said.