Goranth struggled up the cracked and crumbling stairs of the ancient tunnel. His squat build, typical of the Dunn, rendered him ill-suited for climbing. His short legs trembled, his tail stump ached, and his labored breaths created little puffs of fog before his face. But Goranth was undaunted by the precipitous climb. Bracing himself with one hand against the fractured wall, he gripped a clay lamp in the other and doggedly persisted, hefting himself, step by step closer to the surface.
The tunnel, hewn through layers of solid rock, rose steeply to a narrow landing before continuing on to the surface. Freezing gusts, swirling down from the entrance, caused the open flame of his lamp to sputter, almost extinguishing it.
When he reached the landing, Goranth reeled, nearly losing his balance before steadying himself against the ledge of a shallow niche on his left. There he set the lamp, knocking it gently against others that rested on the small, uneven surface. His hand trembling, he reached over the lamp and snuffed the wick between a gloved finger and thumb. Darkness closed around him.
Gripping the ledge with both hands, he looked up from beneath the hood of his anorak. From there, he could see the entrance of the tunnel and beyond to the stars that glittered in the blackness.
As he watched, a piece of ice dislodged from the top edge of the opening and fell onto the stairs. Bursting as it struck, the white missile sent glittering fragments cascading onto the lower steps.
Goranth took a few deep breaths, his eyes adjusting to the faint light, and resumed the climb—a bit too soon, a bit too fast. Get control of yourself before you slip. He steadied himself again against the wall. Don’t fall—not now.
Nearing the entrance of the tunnel, his boots crunched on the ice that coated the last few steps. It made his ascent even more precarious as he rose, one step at a time, into the ghostly landscape. Glacial walls, nearby, blocked the heavens except for a stretch of black sky overhead, and cold, bitter breezes brushed his face and ruffled the fur of his hood.
But as he emerged from the tunnel he heard a shuffling from the frozen surface around him, dark figures rising to their feet, his fellow Dunn waiting for him.
How did they know?
Goranth looked from one to the other of the figures and made a calming gesture with his hands. “I realize what it looks like, but I’ve…”
The first chunk of ice thudded against his chest. Spent from the climb, his brain addled from exhaustion, he stared without comprehending. A few more jagged missiles struck, and the Dunn charged. Only then did he raise his stubby arms to protect his face.
More confused than frightened, Goranth withdrew his head into his hood. Surrounded, he heard the curses but did not see the gloved fists that pummeled him, except for the blow that burst between his hands and struck his nose. Pain flashed like light before his eyes, and he grabbed the fist, clinging to it desperately to steady himself.
“You’ll bring Kaalen’s wrath down on us all!” cried his former friend Zundin, who tried to pull away. But Goranth held on to his arm, and finally, Zundin jerked his hand back, leaving Goranth holding the thick, padded glove.
Other fists struck, and bodies swiveled, lending force to short, unbending arms.
“No.” Goranth doubled over.
“Kill him,” cried one of his tormentors.
“Do not kill him,” said a low but resonant voice.
Goranth looked up frantically, hearing the second voice. “Help me!” he cried, spotting the figure who strode out of the darkness. But a sudden shove toppled him backward onto the ice. Pain shot up from his tail stump, and he rolled onto his side in a crouch.
Then the kicking began, heavy boots, painful blows, and Goranth gasped for air.
“Enough,” commanded the low voice. “We still need workers—even him.”
The kicking ceased, but labored breaths still hissed above him. Someone, he assumed Zundin, snatched the empty glove from his hands and followed with a final kick.
“I said ‘enough.’” It was the voice of Oxuppo, the Hierarch.
In the silence that followed, Goranth heard the wind moaning off the glacier and, at last, the crunch of departing footsteps on the ice. Still, he did not move, his heart pounding, his nose trickling blood. He could not see, his head withdrawn deep into his hood, but he sensed that he was not alone. Finally, he rolled onto his stomach, pulled his arms beneath him and painfully levered himself to his hands and knees.
“This is your doing.” Goranth’s voice trembled, and he did not look up. A drop of blood fell from his nose, splattering the white snow between his hands.
No response, and for a moment he thought Oxuppo had left with the others after all and that his words carried only into the frigid air. But then the calm voice spoke again, nearer than he thought. “You disobeyed a direct order from the Council. Did you expect no consequences?”
Goranth lifted his head. “Not from a mob.” Blood trickled from his nose to his mouth.
“My friend,” said Oxuppo in an even voice, “they are frightened by your experiments, and with good reason. I came along to keep them from killing you.”
“They don’t understand. But you…”
“Goranth,” he said with some force, “everyone labors day and night in preparation for Winterspan: finishing the hatchery, preparing the learning tunnels, shoring up buildings for the long freeze. Your profane excavation angers Kaalen at the very time we should be the most obedient. It endangers the very cycle we live by. Do you want the sun never to return to this place?”
“The Ovards used machines to live through Winterspan. I’m sure of it.”
“Ptha! And where are the Ovards, now? It would appear their machines didn’t help much, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“But they did survive, for hundreds of cycles. It’s just that… “
“Even if you managed to build an Ovard machine,” said Oxuppo, his voice rising, “it’s too late. We’re running out of food.”
“But the next generation…”
Oxuppo laughed bitterly and advanced a step. “There won’t be a next generation if this one ends in chaos. Do you have any idea how hard it is to maintain order with death staring everyone in the face? How do you keep your friends from hysteria? How do you keep your neighbors from throwing away perfectly nutritious bodies by dying in the wilderness or fainting in a ditch somewhere? This is not the time for absurd promises based on Ovard machinery. It’s a time for obedience. I’m responsible for the continuity of the Dunn, and by Kaalen there will be a next generation.” He advanced another step, and for a moment Goranth, still on his hands and knees, thought Oxuppo would kick him in the face. But he stopped. “I ask you one more time, and think very carefully about your answer, for there will be consequences—serious consequences. Will you give up pursuit of this subversive Ovard machinery?”
Goranth stared down onto the bloodstained ice. “I cannot.”
With blood freezing on his face and his tail stub throbbing, Goranth labored across the icy landscape trembling with anger, his mind churning. What does it matter that I don’t help shore up the walls of the meeting house or that I don’t make any more toys for our hatchlings? It won’t make that much difference come Winterspan. But my work—my work could one day lift the Dunn from this prison of darkness and ice. Yet Oxuppo would kill it, stop it all because… He stumbled. His arms flailed, and he barely keeping himself from falling. Thinking made him dizzy. Maybe it was the blow to his head.
The path from the Ovard tunnel was long and little-used, but at last Goranth came to the deep, parallel trenches that surrounded the village. The giant furrows at one time shielded the Dunn’s crops from blustering winds that blew even during the long summer, but now they lay like miniature valleys, barren in the starlight and collecting snow—snow that would accumulate for the next seventy-five years. At least that was the official estimate. It might be longer. No one had ever survived Winterspan, nor had anyone devised a way to number the years that passed, years of bitter cold.
Goranth’s hut appeared in the dimness, a squat, round building of stone that had survived for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. Quickening his pace before fatigue overtook him, he stepped onto the stone porch, slick with hoarfrost, only to find the slide bar frozen shut. Shivering with cold and exhaustion, he banged on the bar with a gloved hand, jerked it back, and pushed open the door. Cold gusts swirled into the room.
“Close the door,” cried Shuhu, sleepily from the bed pit. “I’ll fetch a taper.” Her feet made little plopping sounds on the stone floor.
When she raised the lid of the tiny hearth, gleaming embers revealed her rough gray hand holding a candle and a round face above, wrinkled with concern. “You’re bleeding,” she said.
“I slipped on the ice.” He reached for a cleaning rag and daubed his nose. “It’s nothing.”
“Goranth.” She did not believe him.
The tightness in his chest stopped his breath. Tears of frustration welled in his eyes, and he reached for her before she could light the candle, taking her into his arms. Her round body was soft beneath the fibers of her robe, and her musky odor enveloped him, calming him, as it always did.
“I don’t understand.” he said, looking up to the ceiling and blinking. “I just don’t understand.”
“Sit down. No need to talk now. I’ll heat some food. We can spare enough for a late-night snack.”
Gradually he let his arms fall and, turning, shed his anorak—hanging it on a peg next to the heavy, wooden door. With a sigh he eased himself onto a bench at the table, careful not to bump his short tail stump, already tender from his earlier fall.
Within these walls, he felt safe, as if the stone and mortar shielded him from the village as surely as they held off the bitter cold. Cabinets, storage bins, even the familiar clutter added to his feeling of security. In the center of the floor a covered hearth and chimney radiated heat. To one side of the hearth rested the table at which he sat and on the other side lay the bed pit. They balanced one another, Goranth thought, the table and the bed. Looking about the room, lit only by the single candle, he saw a place of cheerful twilight.
Shuhu shuffled in the pantry taking down a block of gruel. “We sealed up the hatchery today. All the eggs were placed. It was very grand.”
“Oh, I forgot that was today.”
“I told them you were too weak to come, but…” she paused and frowned, “Zundin said you had gone back into the tunnels.”
“They’re all frightened, afraid that you’ll bring down the wrath of Kaalen, not only on us but on the next generation, as well.”
“The next generation is what I’m working for.”
Shuhu’s mouth softened. “It went well enough. They put my last toy, the one that said “hello,” at the beginning of the tunnel. It’ll be one of the first they find.”
He knew the one she meant, an intricate mechanism in a box engraved with the rune for its sound. When a notched stick was pushed through the box and across the edge of the tympanum inside, the sound that resulted mimicked the word.
As a hatchling, Shuhu had been among the first to learn speech from the toys that awaited them in the tunnel of learning, as had Goranth and, of course, Oxuppo. Once they realized what the sounds meant and connected them with the runes on the toys, learning became a game, as if the words were already in their minds, waiting to be spoken, waiting to be written. They taught one another and then the rest of the Dunn as more hatched daily.
During their learning the three became inseparable, but that ended at the pairing ceremony when Shuhu chose Goranth for a mate—even over Oxuppo who was the Hierarch.
“Hold still.” Shuhu took the cleaning rag and began to wipe his face.
“So where did they put my sparking toy?”
Shuhu hesitated before answering. “I’m sorry, Goranth. I know you loved that machine. You doted on it enough.”
“Oxuppo said it was an Ovard device and that nothing useful would come of making sparks.”
“I could have guessed that. Where is it, now?”
“Damn him!” He leaned forward on the table, gripping his hands. “If only I had been there. I could have explained it—to some of them, at least.”
“My dear,” she shook the rag at him with which she cleaned his face. “Your explanations are not always effective.”
“I could have shown them.”
“Zundin ranted on about a big, rusted machine you told him about, and how you planned to fix it up. It was hard, standing there, listening to him working everyone into a frenzy.”
“Poor Shuhu,” Goranth drew his lips into a thin line. “You’ve suffered too much for me. Your friends barely speak to you, and no one comes anymore to help you grind or pound husks.”
“We hardly need for that, now.” Shuhu wiped the last of the blood from his face. “Oxuppo was very upset. He said the Ovard machines were in direct violation of Kaalen’s word. That’s why they—went to meet you.”
Goranth closed his eyes. “So you knew.”
“But I made Oxuppo promise that he would stop them. He said he would.”
“So that’s why he didn’t let them kick me to death.”
“He said he wouldn’t have you killed by a lawless mob.”
“Yes, it’s not his style. Much too messy.”
She waived her hands in frustration. “I would have stopped them myself, if I could.” Goranth heard the tears in her voice.
“I’m sorry. I know you would.”
“Oh, Goranth, your machine can’t possibly make any difference now. Everyone just wants reassurance. Your work is causing doubt and confusion.”
“So you’re choosing Oxuppo over me?”
“Goranth.” She reproached him with her look. “This is not about Oxuppo. Even if you did find an Ovard machine it couldn’t work after all these years—could it?”
Thudding at the door startled them. Shuhu dropped the rag. Goranth went to the portal, pulled the bar and swung back the heavy door.
“You are summoned before the council at sun’s height.” The messenger spoke quickly, as if embarrassed, before turning and disappearing into the night. Goranth recognized him. He had been one of Goranth’s best students long ago in the tunnel of learning.
Goranth did not sleep well and only near morning fell into a fitful unconsciousness. In his dreams, he and Oxuppo argued while rivulets of melting water ate into the crumbling edge of a glacier. The runoff created a raging torrent that swept Shuhu downstream. She called to him, but if he ran to save her he would lose the argument with Oxuppo. Waking, he found himself deeply depressed and appalled at the decision he had made in his dream.
Pulling himself from the bed pit, he pulled on his robe and saw that Shuhu was already heating their meager breakfast, half a handful of mush each, all that their rations allowed.
“Sorry dear. I should be doing some of this.”
“You thrashed around all night. I’m surprised you’re even coherent this morning.” She placed two stone bowls on the table, steam curling from the small amount of mush in each.
“I had an awful dream last night.”
Shuhu looked up. “What about?”
“The situation.” He nodded in the direction of the judgement hall where he would face Oxuppo.
He did not continue, and after a while, Shuhu, finishing breakfast first, said, “I’ve been looking at these, again.” She traced with one stubby finger the scars in the wooden table.
“The names carved onto the table. It’s a comfort, all of us facing death, to see proof that others managed before us. How many generations must have carried their eggs to the hatchery just like we did and stretched their food as long as possible like we’re doing now? And when it was all was gone, they went together, orderly into the pit, before they were too weak to walk—just like we’ll do.”
Goranth knew her words were meant to comfort him, but the thought of the pit terrified him—even now. He had discovered the huge crater on his first venture into the out-of-doors. It was to one side of the village, not far from the hatchery. Trudging down the ramp, he had shivered in the cold as he followed the trail around the edges of the pit to the wide, flat bottom. There he had wandered the corridors of ice until he found the bodies, many bodies. He stared, incredulous, at the strange adults lying side by side, some embracing, dimly visible through the ice. They seemed to have lain down, peacefully, and frozen. What had happened to them? Why were they there? Heart thumping and breathless he had run back to the hatchery to tell the others.
But Oxupppo grabbed his arm and pulled him into a side corridor, slamming him against the wall. “Don’t talk about the pit,” he said is a low voice. “Let everyone get a little farther in their learning. They’re very impressionable, now. We’re going to need butchers, and no one will want to do it if they’re scared early on.”
“Butchers? Do you mean…”
“There’s not enough food to last until the first harvest. There never is. If you’d read far enough ahead instead of wandering all over the placed you’d know that.”
Goranth stared at him, his eyes wide.
“They’re the ones who came before. They’ve left themselves for us. If they didn’t, we’d starve when our yolk sacks shriveled.”
He felt sick and tried to turn away, but Oxuppo would not let him go. “It’s there, on the learning walls, the last panel.”
Goranth shoved aside the memory and set down his spoon. “The circular foundations under the glacier were domes, perhaps beautiful at one time, arching into the sky.”
“You always speak so kindly of the Ovards,” Shuhu said, “but they enslaved us. According to Oxuppo….”
“Oxuppo doesn’t know everything.”
“I agree.” Shuhu straightened her back. “But in matters of faith he is the Hierarch. He hatched first, and he found the sacred scrolls. There are things revealed there that no one else may know.”
Goranth slammed his hand onto the table harder than he intended. “He’s jealous that you chose me,” Goranth said. “He’s always been jealous.”
“Funny, he thinks you’re jealous of him.”
“Why do you take up for him? You chose me at the pairing ceremony, not him.”
“And I chose you because I wanted a husband, not an official, and certainly not a Hierarch.”
Goranth leaned forward, his forearms on the table. “Sorry. I haven’t been much of a husband, lately.”
She sighed. “Don’t persist in this, Goranth. Oh, I don’t care about the blasphemy, but for all your efforts you have only the scorn of our neighbors and the censure of the council. The Ovards, you said yourself, were much smarter than we, yet they died out in the end, but the Dunn kept on living, coming back cycle after cycle. We must be doing something right.”
“There may have been other reasons the Ovards didn’t survive. They were tall and thin, very unsuited for the cold. And we didn’t always have Winterspan. Something happened to make the sun go away. As best I can tell in the writings, it was a time of earthquakes and strange moons in the sky.” Goranth slid his hand away and looked down. “But what you say is true. Eventually, they died out, and we plod on.”
“Then shouldn’t you just resign yourself to Winterspan, like these who’ve gone before us?” Shuhu opened her hand, indicating the names scored upon the rough surface of the table.
Goranth ran a finger along one of the narrow groves of a name. “Not everyone who went before us accepted their fate. There were some who turned to the Ovard machines. We just don’t hear about them.”
“How can you know that?”
“On the walls of the tunnels. I found drawings, one was a sketch of an Ovard machine, but whoever began the drawing never finished it.”
“Oh, Goranth, none of that matters, now. Even if your machine works, it’s too late. Don’t you see what this is all about? For a while, you gave us hope that we might live longer, and yet Winterspan has come. You can’t stop it, and the hope you gave us has turned to fear.”
“You have heard the charges brought against you, what have you to say?” Oxuppo sat at a long, stone table flanked by the other members of the council. Of the eleven smooth, grey heads only his wore the black, triangular hat of judgment.
Goranth rose to his feet and, after squeezing Shuhu’s hand, made his way to the circle in the center of the round room. Stamping feet from the rows of spectator benches behind him expressed his fellow Dunn’s contempt, but perhaps more so, he thought, to deny that they had ever believed his claims. Shuhu was right. He had promised too much.
He faced the council. “Hierarch and members of the council, after consulting with my mate, I have decided that it would be best…” He swallowed and grimaced. “I have decided to recant. I am sorry for the discord that I have caused, and for that I beg forgiveness of the council.”
Mumbling from the spectators followed and whispering among the council.
“That’s very convenient now that you face judgment. How do we know you’re sincere and not simply attempting to evade the consequences of your heresy?” Oxuppo spread his hands. “Being sorry will not replace work lost while you lurked in the Ovard ruins or erase the discontent sewn by your heretical ideas.”
“Truly, I wish I could have labored beside you.”
“And do you now profess that the Ovards were punished by Kaalan?”
“The glacier passed over their city.”
“And the remains of their devices are an anathema and should never be touched by the Dunn.”
Goranth hesitated, his forehead wrinkled. “Because they enslaved us does not make their technology evil.” He glanced at Shuhu to see a look of alarm on her face.
Oxuppo leaned forward and quoted from the scriptures: “And the Dunn were enslaved by the Ovards, but Kaalen saw that it was wicked and smote their machines and pushed the sun from the heavens to destroy them.”
“I am not questioning scriptures.” But he felt his resolve slipping away.
“It would seem you wish to bring back the Ovards, at least their machines.”
Goranth made a hushing gesture with his palms. “I’m only saying that perhaps our descendants can benefit from the technology.”
“And risk the anger of Kaalen? It’s only by the Great Promise that our eggs do not freeze, and that Dunn survive Winterspan.”
“And it’s also by the Great Promise that we starve to death, perpetually condemned to begin each cycle anew, whereas if we had heating machines…”
“Machines cannot make heat!”
“Of course they can!”
“But not in sufficient quantity to grow crops or keep us alive.”
Goranth’s back stiffened. Raising both hands, he said “I don’t know why the Ovards died. Yet somehow, those machines enabled them to live through many, many cycles of Winterspan. I have seen the diagrams of their protective domes and their heating machines.” Goranth heard his own voice echoing within the room, and it gave him courage. “One day the Dunn can do that. And if we can live through Winterspan our civilization can progress…”
“Do you deny that these machines are heresy?” Oxuppo rose from his chair.
“How can a machine be heresy?”
“Those who put their faith in machines will not go willingly into the pit, and without all of our bodies to nourish them, the next generation will not survive. Our own hatchlings, still in their shells, cry out to us to abide by the teachings of Kaalen and the Great Promise.”
“You’re twisting my words. Of course, we have to leave our bodies for the next generation.”
Oxuppo slumped forward, his forearms on the table edge, and glanced at the other council members, first one side and then the other. They nodded. “Goranth Galilil, we do not believe your equivocating renunciation. Clearly you intend to pursue this heresy. No other choice remains to the council than for you to be sealed alive in the tunnel of the Ovards so as to give no further offense to Kaalen the God.”
Cries and murmurs of agreement came from the spectators, and some of the Dunn stood in the benches.
“Give me a day,” Goranth pleaded, raising his hands, “one day to put my affairs in order and to be with Shuhu.”
“I don’t think so,” said Oxuppo. “You’ve labored tirelessly for the Ovards, and now it’s appropriate that you die in the dust of their failed machines.”
Spectators surged forward. Goranth panicked in the sudden violence, trying to twist away from hands that gripped him, searching for Shuhu. But she was gone. Roughly, he was dragged to a small room and locked inside. Events blurred in his mind, and he heard shouting as if from far off.
They turned the final corner onto the trail that led to the tunnel. Shoved ahead by his two guards, Goranth barely felt the wind, frigid off the glacier. He had imagined, many times, leading a procession to the tunnel, to the dilapidated entrance near the glacier’s edge, but always it had been a victory march, not a somber progress to his execution.
Killing me is pointless, no more than a gesture, he reasoned, trudging forward on the trampled ice. How long will they survive after I’m gone? They hardly have more time left, themselves. His escort and those who followed—which constituted most of the village—had a starved look as did he, thin arms and spindly necks.
The Ovard tunnel, which they approached at last, rose from steep steps below and opened onto a stretch of flat ground. Ordinarily the entrance would have been filled with ice and snow, but Goranth had worked long hours to keep it passable. Perhaps at one time a door, or doors, covered its surface, but now, it lay gaping like a dark mouth surrounded on three sides by high, frozen mounds, the result of Goranth’s constant clearing of the stairs.
When they arrived, the council and villagers clustered at the edge of the opening and gazed solemnly into the tunnel as if into the greater pit for which they were all destined. Goranth glanced up into the grim faces around him, but the guards shoved him to the threshold.
“Don’t make us throw you down there.” Oxuppo’s voice was strained.
Goranth turned to him. “Would you come with me, for old time’s sake? Just to the first landing?”
“Careful,” warned Zundin who stood among the others in front.
“I’m not afraid of him.” Oxuppo looked into Goranth’ face, focusing first on one eye and then the other. “Very well, I’ll go with you to the first landing.”
The steps were wide, and they preceded side-by-side into the earth. When their heads passed the level of the ground, Oxuppo spoke softly. “You know why this has to happen.”
“I know why you think it does—and I don’t agree.”
“If you’re to be punished, it has to be proper, an orderly affair, not the actions of a mob run wild. Control is the key to our survival.”
“Seems to me, some creativity would help.”
“You don’t see things the way you’re supposed to. It was always a failing of yours,” said Oxuppo. “Now, what is it you have to say?”
They reached the landing, and Goranth turned to face Oxuppo. “I wanted to tell you that I’m going to win.”
Oxuppo barked out a laugh. “Why? Are you afraid I won’t notice if you do?”
“Actually, yes. Oh, you may go to the pit thinking that you’ve won, but change has already begun. Maybe not this cycle, or the next, but we will have machines that make heat, and there will be domes over our crop pits.” He had taken out his flints and struck them once, then twice, expertly lighting the wick of one of the lamps. The meager light illuminated their grim faces. “One day we will live through Winterspan, and we won’t have to start civilization over again with every generation.”
“Do you think you’re the only one who’s tried to circumvent the Great Promise? That’s what the sacred scrolls are about, managing society when the end comes. It would be easy for things to get out of control, and that would devastate the next generation. The scrolls tell stories of some Dunn who tried to survive by eating the bodies already in the pit and others who tried to grow enough food to freeze for Winterspan. All these efforts resulted in the same thing: less food for the next generation. No, I must keep a firm grip. Everyone will go into the pit—except you, of course. Neither your body nor your ideas will feed future Dunn. And now, I believe that ends our conversation.”
“What will happen to Shuhu?” Goranth said.
Oxuppo glared at Goranth for a moment, the shadows giving his eyes a hollow, vacant look. “That’s no longer any concern of yours.” He tuned and started back up the stairs.
“Don’t force her to leave our hut. She won’t like that.”
Oxuppo quickened his step and said, without turning back, “Well, she won’t have much choice, will she?”
Goranth felt the blood rush to his head and the breath leave his body. Leaning back, he flung the lamp. The tiny comet soared. Oil sprayed in an arc, and the lamp landed near the top of the tunnel, shattering and bursting into flames. Oxuppo hurried through the fire, careful not to step in the oil.
Firelight silhouetted the many faces that looked down on Goranth. Oxuppo, wearing the triangular hat of judgment, stood in their midst.
Zundin handed him something. Oxuppo leaned forward and tossed a small piece of ice into the pit. It clicked on the stone of the stairway and bounced in ever smaller arcs until it came to rest at Goranth’s feet.
Goranth felt the impact of the shard as if it were he, himself, broken on the stones. The other council members each tossed a piece of ice. The chunks fell to the stairs, shattering and skidding. Large pieces, small pieces, the stairway soon glittered with their fragments. After the council had cast their shards, a barrage followed, bright missiles arching like a meteor shower into the tunnel. Someone pushed snow over the top edge, creating a sparkling waterfall.
The edges of the stairs began to disappear under the ice and snow. The world was being sealed off. He stood stiffly, wanting to throw himself onto the stairs as well, to break like the glittering fragments that now came crashing down before him.
Goranth blinked. The whispered command came from the darkness behind him.
“You’ll get covered in ice if you keep standing there.”
Chills swept his spine.
“Don’t turn around. Back down as if you’re afraid. Don’t give me away.”
He stood, motionless, one hand on the wall, while fresh chunks of ice cascaded into the opening, bursting and bouncing on the stairs.
“Back down. Please.”
Goranth felt behind him with his foot for the next stair. First one step, then another, and when he had descended into darkness he whispered, still facing the entrance. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see what my mate was dying for,” said the shadowy form on the steps below him.
“But I thought…”
In the darkness, out of sight of the entrance, he reached out his hands, and Shuhu rose into his arms. He could barely see her face, but he felt her body, and her smell enveloped him.
“No.” He broke off their embrace. “You must get out. You don’t want your life shortened even more. There’s no food here.”
“I packed the last of our food. It’ll keep us a while. I only hope there’s oil enough for the lamps. I would prefer not to die in the dark.”
Goranth’s throat tightened, and for a moment he could not speak. “There’s more oil below, but even if there weren’t, it would not be we who die in the dark.”
“Well said, my dear.”
“But you cannot be punished for my crimes. You should spend your last days comfortable, in our hut.”
“No.” She smiled and cocked her head as if to scold him. “That would only be reasonable, and some things transcend reason.”
“You know that I’m grateful—grateful beyond all reason.”
“My only regret is that now our bodies will not feed our hatchlings. It doesn’t seem right.”
“Ah, my dear, there’s more than one way to nourish the next generation.”
The rain of ice was constant now, the fire at the entrance extinguished, and the stairs beginning to mound over.
“Wait here. I’ll retrieve a few lamps before the landing is impassable.”
“Whatever did you see in this place?” Shuhu said. They had picked their way through debris, clambered over fallen sections of the ceiling and squeezed around immense, rusted lumps that threatened to block the tunnel completely. Sometimes Shuhu had to pass the bag of food she carried across to Goranth in order to climb through difficult stretches of the passage.
“You can’t expect things to look as if they were abandoned yesterday. But here, look.”
He held his lamp to the wall where a crude drawing in charcoal showed meshed gears, couplings, and shafts.
“Is this the one you told me about?”
“Yes, and over here are pictures of Ovards and Dunns building a dome. It’s almost disappeared, but you can make it out.”
“Are you sure? Those can’t be Dunn. Their tail stubs are much too long.”
“Evidently, my dear, we had longer tails back then—things change.”
When they rounded the final corner, a pristine hallway lay before them, swept free of debris. Writing covered the walls, engraved into the stone, and in the middle of the floor on a table rested a machine.
“It’s much bigger than the one you made for the learning tunnel,” said Shuhu, placing the bag of food on the floor and approaching the table.
“Yes, you turn the handle and the sparks run along here to the heating coils. The original was huge and completely rotted away. It took me a long time to figure out how it worked. This is my second try.”
Shuhu raised her gaze to the wall and lifted her lamp. “And the instructions? You did this, too?”
“It’s what I’ve left for our hatchlings, a kind of food, really.”
“This is incredible, Goranth, but—no one will ever see it.”
“That’s why I’m glad you’re here to help me.”
“One of the things I found was a map, carved on a wall. It was a map of these tunnels.”
“We can find our way out?”
“The hatching tunnel was originally one of theirs, too. I found where it joined with this tunnel before it was blocked off.”
Shuhu walked to the crude stone and masonry barrier that abruptly ended the passageway.
“Beyond that wall,” continued Goranth, “lies the tunnel of learning directly off the hatchery. This tunnel enters at the place where the account of the Great Promise begins. When the next generation of hatchlings reaches that point, now there will be a choice.”
“Oh my, Goranth. You are stirring things up.” Shuhu reached out and touched the rough wall where it blocked the passage. “But I don’t think the choices of the next generation will be so simple. The one tunnel doesn’t necessarily exclude the other.”
Goranth shrugged. “You understand such matters better than I. But the important thing is that we’ve provided an alternative to blind faith. When the next generation comes to this room, they’ll understand. And on that understanding they can build and pass on knowledge to the next generation so that with each cycle the Dunn can advance further. They’ll no longer be placated by promises. Oh, Shuhu, I can see no end to it. If each generation builds on the last, then who knows, perhaps one day the hand of Dunn may hold back Winterspan, itself.”
Shuhu laughed. “A fine speech, but that’s much too far in the future for me.” Then she turned to face the end of the tunnel. “For the present, it looks like we have a wall to bring down.”