Spirits in the Salt
At nightfall, and from distance, the salt mine settlement looked to me like a battlefield:  small fires everywhere, men with blackened faces in ragged clothes, the tang of scorched meat barely disguising the strong odor of sulfur from the surface salt deposits. The setting sun behind the working village only aided this end-of-the-world image by turning objects into dark silhouettes.
But as I rode into the midst of it all, the cheerful chattering of the wives, the well-fed cries of the children and the healthily bulging muscles of the working men reminded me that these were not slaves but well-paid and respected citizens.
I dismounted at the huge wooden elevator tower. The pulley man came to greet me, kneeling in easy deference when he saw the gold 'R' on my cloak.
"Mage Delyth," he said, "we are honoured by your presence."
Surprised not to detect the hint of a question in his statement, I nearly snapped my response. "I require entry to the mine and a guide, if you please."
"Horgon is waiting at the first level for you, ma'am."
"You were expecting me?"
He shrugged with the casual insolence of a relatively free man. "We were told you would probably arrive some time today."
I didn't need to ask who had told them. When I nodded by way of reply, he led me into a stone chamber beneath the tower. The dark grey walls flickered in the light of several oil lamps hanging from the ceiling; light that shone perhaps a little brighter than it naturally should.
The pulley man guided me into a well-battered wooden cage then bolted the door and shouted to whoever worked the horses. A deafening creak of rope accompanied the shuddering of the cage as I descended into salt-cradled darkness.
My brief study of the mine had told me I faced a descent of about one hundred and forty feet, through solid salt-rock, hewn away by nothing more than human strength. Or so the records stated.
A sister creaking loomed up at me and about halfway down the shaft a cage passed on its way up, bearing a block of precious salt. I didn't need to guess its weight:  the principle of counter-balance which propelled men and materials up and down the shaft meant it would equal mine.
The cage clattered to a halt and I stepped out, on to black salt stone, streamed by rivulets of water. What looked like a pile of grey canvas rags topped by a gash of white teeth greeted me with an awkward curtsey.
"Horgon at your service, ma'am," he said. "Where do you wish to go?"
Where indeed?
I could have just asked him to take me to Ambrose the ex-court wizard, but that would display a lack of magical knowledge on my part, possibly an unwise move before such independent souls.
"Take me to the oldest and deepest chamber," I said, figuring that would at least mean we'd pass most of Ambrose's possible hiding places.
"Yes, ma'am," Horgan said with a twinkle that suggested I'd somehow guessed right. He stamped off at a pace I couldn't possibly match on such a treacherous surface. Fortunately, he stopped frequently to describe our surroundings, so I was able to more or less keep up with him.
The passage reeked of sulfur, like a constant fart, which the greasy fumes from the oil lamps did little to dispel. The heat also threatened to overpower my lungs.
After about twenty yards, Horgon stopped for the first time, pointing to his right. I joined him to see a huge cavern stretching down perhaps another hundred feet. Shallow grey steps, slick with water curled perilously close to the walls and, incredibly, men ran up and down them, with huge blocks of salt balanced on their shoulders.
"You must suffer many casualties here," I said.
"Not so many as in the slave-worked gold mines up north. Our men are fit and willing, with families that love them; that be the truth, ma'am."
"They're clearly very skilled."
"Aye," he said, "but they need to be better yet."
I frowned a question at him but he'd already turned back into the corridor
Now, I didn't doubt my guide's simple desire to show me how our nation's riches came into being only through man's constant battle with various dangers. And yet at times I felt I was being given a lesson or two that someone clearly believed I needed. This thought made me smile briefly before fixing my expression with the appropriate degree of close attentiveness that Horgon--or the someone--would expect.
And so it went on. We passed underground stables, storage yards, canteens, several small chapels, all the while heading further down into the salt. At one point, Horgon explained that we had now entered the most ancient part of the mine, where both the lower and higher levels had been exhausted of workable deposits. The lower we went, the thicker and hotter the air that scorched my lungs. The earlier, constant clatter of pickaxes on rock and the barking of the trolley 'dogs' carrying the heavy blocks had given way to a brooding silence.
We took another pulley elevator, dropping a further hundred feet or so, then walked down a long flight of treacherous, ancient steps to yet another corridor.
"What's at the end of this one, Horgon?"
He turned his head away. "Some say it used to be the Spirit Ring, ma'am."
I did not reply, quelling my reflex to shout that there was no such thing, that the Spirit Ring was just a Legwinian myth designed to imbue the natural wasting away of their archaic magic system with some kind of romance it simply didn't deserve.
Legend said that the last remaining Legwin mages had gathered somewhere deep underground and formed a ring. Their spirits had joined in one roaring mass, finally settling in the body of the one wizard who most desired to live. The rest had died.
Such a waste of knowledge, power and wisdom was abhorrent to a Roelingist like myself, of course. And yet, this, as much as anything, explained why Ambrose would be here.
When a flicker of light appeared in the distance, I stopped and said, "Thank you, Horgon, you may leave me here. Please wait back by the pulley elevator."
He must have sensed the mage's resolve in my tone, for he didn't argue.
"As you wish, ma'am," he said, and turned back.
About twenty yards from the end of the corridor, I thought I heard a low muttering, echoing slightly as if it came from inside a vast space.
Then I reached the end and had to stifle a gasp of wonder.
A huge, circular chamber spread out below me. Its dark grey salt-rock walls shone dully in the light of dozens of oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. The walls contained several carvings of historic scenes but in a modern style, indicating this place had recently been re-furbished, despite lying in the longest-disused part of the mine.
To be more precise, just the first half of the chamber looked newly updated. The long flight of stairs leading down to it shone in fresh, pale yellow wood. Clearly, it had been intended as a visitors' gallery, displaying the best of Nerwen's history. But given what the other half looked like, I suspected few would actually want to spend much time here. A band of black water, fifteen or so yards wide, separated the pristine chapel-like chamber from a scene of what could only be described as unrefined madness.
No lights hung in that half, but sufficient illumination crossed the water to show a circle of fifteen crumbling pillars, each a few feet in height. No attempt had been made to tidy up the broken pieces around their bases. In the center of the circle was a rough canvas awning, under it what might have been a sleeping pallet and nearby a gently smoking fire.
All this I noted fleetingly, however, since the figure standing beside one of the nearest pillars commanded most of my attention.
Even from some distance, the contours of Ambrose's mane of grey beard and hair, spilling over his tattered black Legwninian trousers, shirt and cloak, unsettled me. But the fact he seemed to converse animatedly with the pillar before him--or more precisely, the space above it--had me seriously consider that I would be justified in returning to my King, Doghmart, and reclaiming the post of court wizard on the grounds of my rival's clear insanity.
But then my thoughts shattered at the voice which rang out clearly across the stone and water.
"Ah, Delyth!" Ambrose shouted, turning my way and looking up, eyes sparkling with what unfortunately might be some method within a madness, after all. "Do come and join me."
Trying to appear as if I'd already decided to do just that, I descended the stairs, arranging my features to appear self-contained and in control.
"Looks as if you could do with more prune juice in your diet," he said. "Or is it just that old Roeling need to appear magical and mysterious that's clenching your buttocks?"
I stopped at the water's edge. "At least I'm not talking to myself."
His heavily lined face creased in mirth. "Who said I was talking to myself?" He waggled his eyebrows in pantomime fashion but I nevertheless felt a shudder along my spine. "Salt preserves more than bacon, you know."
I glanced around for a way to cross the glassy black water.
"Sorry," he said, "no boats down this deep."
"Then, how--" I cut off the question too late, showing him I had no answer to his apparent riddle.
But he made no comment, instead just folded his arms and said, "We knew Doghmart would send you eventually."
"Oh, okay--I knew he'd run out of hope that a Roelingist court wizard would ever find a solution to the nation's real problems."
"And what exactly do you see our real problems to be?"
"Oh, no, you don't, Delyth. That would be very stupid of me. You wouldn't be here if you actually knew what the problem was."
Roelingists are taught to recognise when they're defeated and quickly negotiate a favorable settlement. So it was I said, "Perhaps you're right," and proceeded to tell him some but certainly not all of what had prompted me to seek him out.
The King had called me to his roof garden three days ago. He'd waved away the servants and poured two glasses of lemonade himself. We sat in the shade of a row of pine bushes, high above the teeming city.
"I have two problems," he said, "and cannot see the means to their solution. The first is to do with the fact my wife does not love me."
I put down my glass. "My lord, while I understand your desire to experience ordinary human relationships, it has never been a requirement of royal marriages that--"
"Did you know that I won her in a battle to the death?"
"I have heard the stories and the songs, my lord."
"They tell of how I triumphed over Prince Jestin, but what they don't mention is the sacrifice his wizard made during the contest."
"Ambrose? The Legwinist wizard who was my predecessor?"
I prevented myself from adding that he was also the last of the now redundant Legwin system.
"Ambrose killed my magician. My Roelingist magician."
"But that's impossible! Forgive me, my lord, but Legwinists do not believe in taking such extreme action."
"It was my illegally poisoned sword but it was Ambrose who directed it, by magic, to fly from my hand and fatally nick my magician's flesh. But while Ambrose did indeed bring about a death, I decided such an act was justified if the rules of Roeling had allowed my own magician to actively seek murder by poisoning my weapon without my permission."
I forced my lips shut, wanting to scream at him that the causes of kings often justified murder, and that a Roelingist magician forced to take a life always deeply regretted it.
"The point is," he continued, "that the bravery of my foe, who was not a fighting man but willing to die for love, placed a heavy but not unwelcome responsibility upon me to love Temaline fully and faithfully. And this I have done. Unfortunately, her many affairs have finally convinced me that my commitment is merely a thing of contempt for her."
My lack of any long-lasting relationship with a male left me at a loss to know what to say to the king. Fortunately--or perhaps not--he changed the subject.
"My second problem," he said, "is the kingdom."
"I don't understand, your majesty. Nerwan is thriving: we enjoy the highest standard of living in the world. Our nobles are able to fund more than one hundred universities. Even our slaves eat well."
"I note your restraint in not attributing our economic success to Roelingist principles. But it's true that your ability to deploy magical assistance to our chosen fiscal policies has played a large part in Nerwan's rapid growth. But the truth is, salt is the main source of our wealth."
It had always rankled with me, that while the long-neglected Nerwan salt mine's sudden explosive success had occurred almost simultaneously with my arrival, it was not through my actions. Now, the mine produced daily around fifteen tons of the most valuable substance in the world, outside the less pragmatic precious metals and minerals. Each ton could buy an entire village of forty houses, humans and cattle included.
The king smiled strangely at me. "It all happened so swiftly after you were appointed," he said, "as if by magic."
Now wishing to change the subject myself, I said, "But I still don't understand how all this wealth can be a problem, my lord." I risked sweeping my arm around to include the gold-plated towers of the palace, the freshly white-washed town houses, the manicured parks and the shops over-flowing with goods for all classes and tastes.
"The first problem is directly related to the second, I believe," he said.
"I don't see how, my lord."
He sighed. "Which is unfortunate. At least for you."
My innards froze and not because of the lemonade I'd just finished.
He stood and I scrambled to my feet, too.
"You must find Ambrose," he said.
"I thought he was dead."
"Only in myth. I let him down, is the truth of it, whatever my over-paid minstrels may warble to the contrary."
Seeing no other solution, I said, "I shall seek him out, your majesty."
He nodded by way of dismissal, and, with heavy heart, I walked back to the conference room, the last sun still warm upon my back.
"Oh, and Delyth . . . "
I stopped, turned. "My lord?"
"Only one may return here: the Roelingist or the Legwinist."
"I see," said Ambrose, after I'd finished. "So, while you don't really consider there's a problem to be solved, you think Doghmart believes there is, and that I may just have his answer."
"Yes; what do you want in exchange for it?"
He made a music hall gesture of patting his ears, mouth, belly and testicles. "Well, all I really want is present and accounted for," he said. "The men throw me food at regular intervals so I'm okay for rations. Good nosh too, since they're so grateful to me."
Despite myself, I said, "Grateful for what?"
He clutched at his heart, fell on to his back and kicked out his feet, pretending to expire. I was about to sarcastically applaud but stopped when a sudden volley of shattering creaks issued from the stone above us. For a few awful seconds, thick salt dust fell in large, choking clouds and the oil lamps swayed wildly. Then ominous quiet reasserted itself.
Ambrose raised an arm to gesture that he still in fact lived. He climbed to his feet, spread his arms and cried, "Hazzah!"
My spine crawled with uncertainty. Surely he couldn't claim to be holding this massive mine together by sheer force of his magic? But then I remembered the unnatural brightness of the oil lamps and Horgon's comment that the miners needed to be better still.
No doubt seeing my discomfort, Ambrose walked to the very water's edge and smiled, not unkindly.
"Tell you what," he said, "I'll meet you halfway."
"Thank you for agreeing to negotiate," I said.
"No, I mean literally halfway." He nodded at the deep-looking water between us.
"But you said there's no boat."
"Oh, come on, Delyth, we're magicians; we can walk."
I could, I supposed, have fashioned small barges for my feet out of the air but I still did not trust this atmosphere, nor too my skills at hull design.
"Look," he said, "the water here is fully saturated with salt. It's even more supportive than the Blighted Sea, and any landlubber can lie in that with no fear of drowning. So, in theory, we should be able to walk across this little puddle."
"'In theory'? I can't swim, Ambrose."
He kicked off his boots, turned up his trouser legs. "I've probably forgotten how to, so come on--let's both just go for it."
And with that, he stepped on to the water. I winced, expecting him to immediately sink. But in fact, his right foot rippled the surface just a little, then his left ahead of it, and he remained somehow moving on the surface. He strode to the centre and stopped, calling me on with his hand.
The air down here felt hotter on my skin than the sun at height of summer. Perhaps the thought of cold water on my feet had me kick off my own boots too and step on to the surface, lifting my skirts as I did so.
I concentrated all my will on not sinking. Freezing water lapped at my soles...then held my weight. Amazed, I placed one foot in front of the other and strode towards Ambrose. The sensation matched dreams I'd often had of flying. But then, just two paces from him, I reminded myself that the simple science of liqued and salt kept me afloat, not magic, and I promptly sank beneath the icy waters.
So suddenly cold and so shattered by sheer panic, I passed out, assuming I had died.
A crackle of burning wood, sharp heat against my face, and the odours of charcoal, sulphur and cooking food brought me round. Some kind of rough canvas blanket covered my skin--my bare skin.
"You stripped me?"
I sat up to see Ambrose leaning against a pillar, on the other side of a fire over which a stewing pot hung.
"You'd have frozen to death if I hadn't."
My clothes hung before another fire, over by his sleeping den.
"I grabbed your arm before you completely submerged," he said.
He got to his feet, clutching his back as he did so, reminding me of his age. He ladled stew from the pot into a bowl then handed it to me, along with a spoon.
At the first strong smell of meat and vegetables, I realised how famished I was. He said nothing as I ate, although I knew he studied me.
When I'd finished eating, I put down the bowl and said, "So, what do you conclude from your observations of me?"
"Oh, hell, Delyth. I could go on about your many wizardly qualities, but the main thing I notice at my age is that you're a beautiful woman and, well, I wish I was younger."
I shook my head, smiled and leaned back against the pillar behind me. "Why did you abandon your court position, Ambrose?"
"I thought Doghmart could learn to be something more than an acquisitionist king. But in the event, he couldn't shake his need to make Temaline happy. And the only thing that made her happy was getting more. In the end, I figured he might stand a chance if I could give her all the more she needed." He shrugged. "So, I came here and turned this mine into a cash machine."
"Why are you laughing?"
"Because I knew it would never work. That she'd always want even more."
"So you stopped advising him and stayed here."
"Which gave him the chance to ask for real help. And it looks like he finally did."
The stew was delicious, unmoderated by any frugal care for tomorrow. "Doghmart said that only one of us can return."
"No problem. I'm not planning to leave anyway. You can go back."
"I can't before I have the answer to his problems."
He slapped his knee. "Oh, that. No worries: I'll tell you the answer."
"But I haven't fully told you what the problems are."
"The problem is the price, Delyth, it always is."
I glanced around: fifteen crumbled pillars. The legend said there'd been that number of them in the Ring.
"Your colleagues paid the price," I said. "For you."
He shook his head. "Not quite: they died so that the price could be paid. The salt preserves their memory, if you want to call it that. But in reality, it's their attitude which remains."
I thought I heard the rumbling again. I opened my mouth to protest then closed it, but he'd seen my fear.
"I'll stop it as soon as you work out what the price is," he said.
The walls creaked and cracked further; dust and flecks of stone fell around us.
"You're asking too much, Ambrose." That I believed his magic--archaic and discredited--could actually keep this massive maze of stone from falling in on itself. Worse still, that it had something to do with Doghmart's problems.
A huge chunk of salt rock splashed into the water he'd pulled me from, spray hitting the dust around us in powdery blows.
"Please, Ambrose--make it stop!"
Under genuine fear of being crushed to death, my mind rushed to find solutions. I quickly discounted the possibility of me stopping the mine imploding. Roeling magic could fashion life from the very air but even a herd of angry dragons would not be enough to keep all these corridors and caverns clear.
The Spirit Ring where the last of Ambrose's fellow wizards died...
Temaline's affairs...
Nerwan's great wealth built on salt...
The oil lamps on the other side of the water swung crazily, throwing jagged shadows across the space between us. More shattering cracks battered my senses. I gagged on acrid sulphur, no doubt released by the new faults.
"Go on, girl," said Ambrose. "You're nearly there."
I don't know why but I recalled a moment I'd buried deep in my abandoned memories, yet perfectly preserved.
I was six years old. For three days I'd played alone in the garden of my parents' house. They had just decided to send me to a school of accountancy, because I was bright with numbers and this would provide a good family income. But I did not want to go. I wanted to be different, special--magical.
The family cat, Erskine, lay contentedly in the summer grass. The air between us seemed to vibrate with possibilities. I knew I had the gift but until now had lacked the courage to try it.
I put out my hands and felt the air. I pushed my mind into it and its potential thickened around my fingers. I decided to make something but it would need energy to animate it.
I weaved huge golden gossamer wings around a tiny female body. Her eyes remained closed until I stole what I needed to open them.
"Mother, father!" I shouted. "Look what I made!"
My parents came into the garden, eyes wide in wonder at the flickering fairy standing on my outstretched arm.
My father frowned and walked to Erskine, picked him up and carried his lifeless body to me.
"Oh, Delyth," he said, "what have you done?"
Tears swelled from my eyes as I whispered to Ambrose over the growing cacophony of shattering rock, knowing he could hear.
"The price we've paid for wealth aided by my magic," I said, "is to lose the birthright of our souls, which is to earn what we have. Temaline doesn't love her husband because she isn't strong enough to prevent the price from claiming her deeper values, in order to balance this loss. Doghmart still loves her, so he has not yet fully succumbed."
The thunder and the cracking abruptly stopped.
"The solution to the king's problems," I continued, "is that his nation, and his wife, must now work to earn what they already own."
Ambrose laughed heartily. "Are you kidding?" he said. "You really think they'll want to work for what they already have?"
I felt all my sureties fold into themselves, crumbling to dust.
"I see that whenever we try to answer the big questions about life," I said, "we start from where we are now, but that's the wrong place. 'Now' is based on our own beliefs and expectations, on a life that hasn't paid the price."
Ambrose said nothing. I climbed unsteadily to my feet. He stood too, walked to me. He held out his hands and I took them.
"I'm staying here," he said. "With what's left of my friends."
I nodded. "Thank you."
The king poured lemonade again, at the crystal table under the pine bushes. Although the terrace once more flared with late sunlight, it was still cool in the shadows.
"I didn't expect the Roelingist to return," he said.
"Actually, my lord, I have a new teacher."
"We Nerwans have a lot of work to do, sire."
"And is that your answer to my problems?"
I made myself hold his gaze and smile.
"There will still be magic, my lord."
"To make Temaline love me again?"
"Perhaps at least to make her want to try."
I thought of salt and how it can stay the essence of life long after its owner's desire for it has gone.
"I will go under the salt again," I said, "to learn from his memory until the price is paid, by both of us."