Drewin worked through the afternoon, but seemed to be getting no nearer to the summit. Occasionally, when the climber stopped to think, Urbelin would move as if to climb up after him or to shout some advice, but would restrain himself. Towards the end of the afternoon Drewin stopped and sat down on a step. He looked exhausted and dispirited, and he was bent over with his head in his hands. A sigh, a quiet groan, went up from the watchers on the cavern floor, for it seemed that, after all, Drewin had been defeated by the problem of the stairway. Disappointment showed on all their faces and they turned away: some of them seemed about to leave.

Only Urbelin stood still and fixed his eyes on Drewin. Only Urbelin saw Drewin stand up slowly, tiredly, and start to climb again. At each step Drewin paused, thought, then moved. The people became silent again, and watched as Drewin moved remorselessly to the top of the stairway. When he reached the top, he looked up and stared for a long while, then he turned and called to Urbelin.  ‘No light! No light, Urbelin. Where is the light we are seeking?’

Urbelin smiled sadly and replied.  ‘Do not fear, Drewin, it is there. We have not reached high enough yet, when we get higher we will begin to see it.’

But Drewin was angry.  ‘No! You are wrong, Urbelin: this is not the way. There is not even a glow, a glimmer, here; there is more light down there on the cavern floor. It is dark here, darker than the demon’s chamber that I escaped from: but I will not come down from here, I will go on.’

Drewin looked up from the top of the stairway, and saw blackness. He stepped forward, beyond the top stair, and fell into dark empty nothingness.



The little girl who had spoken to him on his first day in the cavern often sat with him to eat. Her name was Elara and while they ate she questioned him about his researches and gave him guidance with the intensity of a concerned mother.

‘I think you have some idea of language and thought, but what about number?’ she said to him one day.

Drewin frowned.  ‘I’ve only just started number, and I find it very hard. I have been talking and thinking all my life, and so I know something about language and thought, but number is very strange. I don’t really understand what it is for.’

He took two biscuits from his plate. ‘I know that these are two, but what I need to know is whether they are enough to satisfy my hunger, and I find that out by eating them and seeing if I am still hungry. So what use is number?’

Elara thought for a moment, her face fixed in an expression of deep seriousness.  ‘That is a hard question; good, but hard. I think that you can only see how good number is after you have used it. Then it is like a kind of magic.’

‘But I don’t know what it can be used for, so how can I use it?’

‘Yes, I understand your problem: but it’s not really a problem. It’s like the connection between thought and language: you can’t have one without the other, but they are not the same thing. Only, with number, it’s form: numbers make patterns, and things make patterns. Do you see?’

It was Drewin’s turn to sit and think with a blank look.  Eventually, he came to himself and smiled at Elara.  ‘No, I don’t see. I think I must be too stupid.’



‘May I climb the stairs as far as they go?’ he asked.

His companions laughed. ‘You may climb the stairs as high as you can go,’ they said, ‘but few people can find the way to the top. It is not like an ordinary staircase where the hard work is done by the mason so that others might have an easy passage.’

‘And once you get to the top,’ said a little girl, ‘you have to build the next step yourself.’

As Drewin was finishing his meal, Urbelin came to him.  ‘Come with me and I will show you the stairway.’

He took Drewin to the base of the massive structure, and Drewin looked up to its top, high above the cavern floor. It was not like an ordinary staircase: the steps were irregular, some very small and some twice as tall as Drewin, some little more than the width of a foot, and some reaching across the whole construction. The whole stairway was very wide at the bottom and narrow at the top.

‘It is so confusing, like a maze, or a mountain. How can anyone reach the top?’

Urbelin did not answer immediately, but gazed at the stairway as though on a work of art. His eyes flicked from place to place taking in the details, and a look of pride came over him.

‘Few can find their way to the top, and even though it has been built by others it can take years to master. I am one who has climbed more than any other, and sometimes even I get lost at the higher levels.’

Aril the scribe


‘The runes were the beginning. From the runes came knowledge, and from knowledge came more knowledge, and from more knowledge came even more knowledge, and so on until we knew there was a light to be found. And once we knew there was a light, we knew we were bound to seek it. To seek it we learnt number and we calculated, and our calculations told us how to build, and the form our labours should take. From language came thought; from thought came number; from number came form; and from these four, language, thought, number, and form together came being. And so we build according to the dictates of the runes.’

Drewin looked at Urbelin, at the dusty book, at all the shelves and cabinets that surrounded them.  ‘So all the knowledge you have discovered is collected here and you use it to build your stairway?’

‘Precisely! You have a quick mind, Drewin. You will be a great help to us. A fresh mind, a quick mind, is just the thing. Of great value to the work. Just what we need! Come, eat with us, and work with us.’



Urbelin turned and walked quickly away, not towards the stairway where the work was most intense, but to a quiet part of the chamber where there were few people. Drewin followed him. They passed between rows of shelves and cabinets that were full of books and elaborate artefacts until they came to a dark corner where there was an old table covered in dust. Urbelin stopped and waited for Drewin to approach.

‘This is where it all started, many years ago. Many years ago.’

Drewin looked at the table and saw a thin book lying at its centre, under the layers of dust. He brushed the worst of the dust away, and opened the book. He turned over a few of the dry brittle pages, examining each one carefully.

‘These are the runes of Iranor!’ he exclaimed.

‘You know of them? Few people do, outside this cavern. In this book is the list of all fourteen runes and the rules for their use.’

‘Fourteen! But there are only thirteen! What is this new one?’ Drewin looked intently at the page.

The old runes antiqued


Drewin fell back, turning away, closing his eyes, and covering his ears with his hands. But he could not keep out the sound of a multitude of hammers crashing in chaotic rhythms. He turned once more to the door and, keeping his eyes half closed, cautiously he edged forward. The noise got louder and the light became brighter as he left his dark prison and entered a vast cavern.

He could make out hundreds of people scattered around as far as the eye could see. They were all working with hammers and chisels on pieces of stone: some of them worked alone while others were in groups of two or three. At first none took any notice of Drewin, so intent were they on their tasks, but as he advanced further into the cavern a few of the stonemasons stopped their work and looked curiously at him. Gradually more of them put down their tools and a group started to gather. There were all sorts: male and female, tall and short, fat and thin. Drewin looked at them and they looked at him. Nobody said a word.

Beneath the mountains


He went straight ahead into the darkest shadow and came to a large doorway. The door was open and through it was a flight of rough stone steps leading downwards. Drewin leaned forwards and peered down the opening. The darkness was complete, like a dry well.
Drewin felt his way down the stairs, reaching his foot down at each step, and touching the coarse stone wall with his hands. He descended slowly, step by step. He stopped at the bottom and waited until he could see where he was. He could make out the flat stone walls: an empty room about half the size of the chamber now far above.
‘It cannot end here. There must be a way forward.’ His voice echoed off the hard walls. He examined the walls tapping and feeling them with his hands. Then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled all over the floor. He quickly found what he was looking for; a flagstone in the floor with a large iron ring embedded in it. He stood up, pulled at the ring, and, with some effort, lifted the stone.




Saranna, when Carr had left her, sat down in the sunshine, near to the hedge that surrounded the garden and orchard, and began to brush out her wet hair.   She recalled the words of a sad old song of Esmil, and softly she began to sing;


Deep rushing sea,

Cold waters of my distant home,

Why did you spare me

Only for sorrow?

Deep rushing sea,

Cold waves upon the eternal sand,

Why did you take him

Who loved me true?

Deep rushing sea,

Cruel tides of bitter parting,

Why did you sunder us

Who breathed as one?’


As she stopped singing, all was still around her.  The heat   of   noon-tide   had stilled the breeze in the apple-boughs; Raðenn ’s bright voice had died away in the distance.   Saranna sighed heavily, and reached for the hairbrush she had dropped upon the grass.

‘Sweetheart, why so sorrowful?’

She gasped, and sprang to her feet.  A strange man was standing looking at her across the hedge, not five feet away.

‘Oh,’ she said.   ‘You startled me.  What are you doing there?   I shall call the servants, what right have you here?  Who are you?’

‘You need not fear me, pretty one.   Nor summon any protectors.   My name is Kor-Sen, and I will not harm you. ‘

Travelling 1


At first Drenn sat for hours with Saranna, trying to cheer her, but there was much to do on the farm during the summer months, and Drenn was by nature an outdoor, active man.   Soon  he  began  to  stay  away from the sick-room  except for one or two brief visits each day, and  at  night  he slept in a separate room, since Essk had  told  him  this  would  be  better  for  Saranna’s health.   Saranna  felt  desolate,  and  began  to look forward  to Carr’s appearance two or three times a day, to  administer  Essk’s prescribed medicines and set the room  to  rights.   Saranna took the medicine eagerly, for it dulled her mind and stopped some of the pain of thinking.   She welcomed the night-time, when Essk’s sleeping draught brought her complete oblivion, free even of dreams.   She began to fear that she would never be well.  But when winter came again, Drenn spent more time with Saranna, and she felt cheered by his company.   Sometimes he told Essk to bring the child into Saranna’s room too.  Raðenn  was now a big strong baby, and Saranna could hardly hold him.  Drenn would sit  beside  her  on  the bed with his son in his arms, and  they  would  sing  and  play  games for the baby’s delight.  These times were all too short for Saranna; soon there would be the sound of Essk’s knock on the door.

‘Excuse me, master, but it is time for the little one’s bath now.’



Saranna heard Essk say,

‘There, my dear young master, your boy, your son.’

She  turned  her  head  on  the  pillow  and  saw Drenn holding  a  fair,  fat  baby, a small image of himself, and  she  tried  to  reach  out  but  Essk  was  there, soothing, pushing her back into the bed.

‘There, there, poor thing, rest you now, leave it all to Essk, all is over now, rest you, sleep, and here, drink this, Essk is here, you sleep now.’

And the dark came back, and Saranna slipped into it heavily, until there was no more sound or pain or light.