The next morning, Peregrin continued his circumvention of the ruins. Most of the buildings, he found, had been constructed with wood, which had long since decayed, leaving a hopeless collapse of rubble. If he stayed here long, he might try to unearth some of them. At first, however, he would examine those which needed less labor to investigate.
One of these buildings was fairly close to his camping spot on the hillside. It was by far the largest of the remaining structures, perhaps three floors high and built of stone. The stately, even-spaced windows, most of which appeared filled with debris, and hunks of moss-covered columns strewn near the wreck of its entrance indicated it was a building of some importance. It had been built near the hillside, which had encroached upon it over the years so that much of the building was obscured by soil, growth and trees.
The main entrance to the structure was hopelessly blocked by rubble from the collapse of its porch and by vegetation. The back and the side closest to his camp had been buried in a landslide, so he made his way around to the far side. He found two entrances. One was obstructed by large boulders and assorted debris. The other had suffered an interior collapse and was blocked from within.
“The Archivist” by David Prenatt
Peregrin stepped back and considered the scene. Something did not add up. A mostly intact building in unspoiled ruins, yet each entrance was fully blocked. He looked at the land around him and at the cliff face looming above him. There were rocks about, embedded in decades of soil and moss. The hillside above had some rock formations, like the one he had stayed the night on, but they were stable, in little danger of falling. Nowhere else about him showed such a concentration of boulders and rocks as those which blocked the entrance.
"Someone put these here," he pondered. "Many years ago, someone blocked this entrance on purpose. Then there is no reason to believe that the other entrances were accidentally blocked either." He looked up at the window sockets. "No," he thought, "most of them are not choked with debris. ALL of them are choked with debris."
"A ruin which somebody does not want to be explored," he mused. "A cover-up after the collapse of human society. What could have been so important to hide that someone would go to this length after the sky had fallen?"
Editor's Note: This is the second chapter of the novel "The Archivist" by our own correspondent, David Prenatt. A new chapter will be printed every few weeks. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.
"The Archivist" by David Prenatt can be purchased online from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, eBay or any major bookseller. It can also be purchased direct from Tate Publishing and Enterprises, Mustang, Okla. Also, watch for book signing opportunities by the author in the area.
He picked his way around the collapsed entrance. The porch of this building must have been magnificent. The fallen columns were real stone and the roof, which had come down directly in front of the main entrance was constructed of steel girders, many of which had fallen against the entrance. "Naturally," Peregrin thought.
He looked closer at the twisted metal beams and rubble which appeared to have fallen haphazardly and which so effectively blocked the entrance. Here was a girder whose rust had been scratched by something. Here was a spot on a boulder where the moss had been scraped off, as if a foot had caught it.
He moved back and surveyed the scene as a whole. Most of the rubble was well overgrown by vines and vegetation. Even that which he was sure had been put there on purpose showed decades of undisturbed growth. Yet here were recent signs of human passage. The building had been blocked off long ago, yet someone still came here.
"And so," he said aloud, "there has to be a secret entrance."
Just then, he heard noises coming from near the river where the ruins tapered out. Something large was moving clumsily through the undergrowth up towards his position. He quickly hid himself amidst the rubble in such a way that he could see toward the noises. Then he heard a voice, a child's voice, whispered and urgent.
"Cornel! Be quiet! There might be Terists about!"
Another voice answered. "I'm sorry Janel, I slipped. But don't worry. There haven't been any Terists around for a long time."
"Not around Archiva. But you know they hide in the hills. Bliss said so. We're not supposed to be here."
"Bliss just says those things to keep us at home. There hasn't been anybody in the ruins as long as I've been alive. Now come on. Who knows what we'll find?"
"But Cornel," replied the first voice with an edge of fright in it, "this was a Sheen town. It's forbidden. We might find bad stuff."
"Oh by fire!" came the exasperated reply. "You sound like the Waterman. What kind of guardians do you think we'll become if we're afraid of finding anything? There's got to be knowledge here, Janel, I know it. Just think, we'll be like O'Keefe himself. Maybe we'll even find books!"
The other voice was silent, obviously not convinced. Peregrin could hear them digging around the ruins. He quietly made his way up toward them, away from the river. It pleased him to hear seemingly sane voices.
He eased sideways from his position and kept low from tree to tree. About a hundred yards out and down, he came to a structure knotted and twisted with vines and tree roots. It had probably been a small home, as it had nearly disappeared beneath the vegetation. A stately maple grew directly out of its center, with smaller saplings springing out in strange angles around it.
Peering through a tangle of roots, Peregrin saw a boy and a girl, perhaps about 12 or 13 years old. They looked similar enough to be brother and sister and close enough in size to maybe even be twins. They both had shoulder-length sandy hair, stocky build, and were dressed in green trousers and brown shirts that buttoned up the front. The girl was slightly taller, and wore a small round cap with a front brim that jutted out like a duck's bill.
"Well, let's hurry Cornel," said the girl. "I don't like it here at all."
"You're such a mouse, Janel," he answered, yet there was a nervous edge in his voice as well. They disappeared from view around a large mound of earth and moss, which Peregrin guessed had been another small house. He could hear them rooting around the debris.
"Janel, look here!" came Cornel's excited voice. "Here's an opening!"
"Oh Cornel, you can't go in there! That whole thing could fall in on you," came her answer.
"Shut up and give me your stick. I'll prop it against the beam here." She must have hesitated because Cornel's voice came again with some exasperation. "Janel, it's been like this for at least 50 years, it's not going to just fall in now."
"Maybe it's been waiting for somebody dumb enough to climb into it first," came the reply.
Peregrin smiled. "Perhaps," he thought, "I should make myself known before there is an accident." He began to come out from his hiding, but stopped. He heard another sound, a stealthy sound, coming from the direction the children had come. The children were distracted by their exploration and did not hear it.
Peregrin remained still and watched. After a while he saw brush move in one spot and then another. Then he saw a lean figure peer cautiously around a tree, signal to someone, and then disappear again. Then off to the right, a shorter figure broke cover and dashed to the nearest collapsed structure. After a few moments, he stepped out into the open and waved back toward the first person.
Two men stepped out into the open and came up to join him. As they reached his position, he pointed toward the place where the children had gone.
"Little explorers are too intent on finding treasure to look behind them," he said in a low voice that Peregrin did not like at all. He was a squat fellow with and a thick neck and arms that seemed too bulky to hang straight from his shoulders. The intent of his voice made Peregrin remember Crown and his companions.
"Bah," growled the lean one. "They won't lead us to anything. They're too young. Still, no use passing up good meat. All right, let's get 'em then. Ought to make Dextor happy." He wore a brown sash around his waist and a brown cap with two stripes. He had a scar running down his left cheek and a bony face with prominent brow ridges. The third man just grunted. He too was stocky and he hunched over in a way that made him seem misshapen. All three of the men wore green shirts, and Peregrin guessed the sash and cap gave the lean man some authority. They moved toward the place where the children had gone, making no effort to conceal themselves anymore.
Peregrin felt a tightness in his chest that spread out through his limbs like the tightening of a wire. Anger flushed through him like a stab of flame. He checked the leather belt that held Crown's knife and tightened his grip on his staff.
The men passed from sight behind the same house that the children had entered. Peregrin rose from his hiding spot and walked quickly to the backside of the ruin. Even as he reached it, he heard an exclamation of surprise from inside, a scream (probably Janel), a short scuffle, and then heard the children being dragged outside.
"Well, hello darlins," he heard the lean man say. "What brings you to these old ruins? Don't you know there's dangerous beasts about?"
"These ruins belong to Archiva," he heard Janel shout. "Let us go or Mikkel will make you pay."
There was a low chuckle and then a growly voice: "She's an uppity one, Crop. Let me thrash some of that sass outta her."
The lean man spoke again. "No Daggert, no. Dextor will want these ones in one piece. I reckon he can get a good price for the pair of them."
"Get a good price for this," came Cornel's voice. There was another scuffle, a "fwump," a roar of rage and pain and the sound of someone being struck. Cornel cried out and Peregrin could hear him falling to the ground.
That was enough for Peregrin. He came around the ruin. Cornel was on the ground, stunned. The hunched man, Daggert, was standing over him, grasping his crotch with a look of pain and vengeance on his face. Crop, the lean man, was standing about five feet from him, grinning. The third man was behind Janel, holding both of her arms immobile in his meaty hands.
Peregrin did not wait. The staff whirled around and cracked Crop on the side of the head, felling him. Before Daggert could even turn, Peregrin had used the staff as a vaulting pole and launched himself, both feet first, into his side, bowling him over.
The beefy man thrust Janel aside and charged, but found only air. Peregrin had again used the staff to vault above him, kicking his head as he came down behind him. The man grunted and smashed into the ruin. He did not fall, however, but turned and approached Peregrin slowly, arms out wide. Peregrin backed up until he was against a large boulder. The man, thinking he was trapped, rushed again. A quick spin and the man went by him into the rock with Peregrin's staff hitting him from behind. He fell heavily.
Peregrin turned. Crop was still down, but Daggert had recovered, pulled Cornel to his feet and stood facing Peregrin with Cornel between them, a knife at his throat.
"Drop the stick," he growled. "Drop it or the boy dies."
Peregrin's eyes felt white-hot. So this was what was left of humanity. He spat and threw the staff from him. "I don't need the stick," he said between clenched teeth. "Come out and die yourself."
Daggert shoved Cornel aside and rushed at Peregrin with his knife. Although he was nearly in a rage, Peregrin knew just how to face him. He grasped the man's wrist, swiveled his hips into him and, using Daggert's momentum, threw him over his shoulder. Daggert hit the ground hard and Peregrin, still gripping his wrist, flipped him onto his stomach, twisted his arm behind him and applied pressure. Daggert screamed as the arm broke.
Peregrin straightened up and looked about. Crop was stirring, trying to rise. Peregrin took him by the shirt, pulled him up and then pushed him back hard against a tree. Crop stared at him.
"You don't know what you're dealing with," he said. "We work for Dextor."
"I don't know this Dextor," Peregrin snarled. "But you give him a message for me. You pick up that trash you brought with you and run. Run and tell your Dextor that the Traveler has come. And he claims these ruins for his own. Do you hear? These ruins belong to me!" He threw Crop toward the beefy man, who had gotten to his hands and knees.
Crop got him up and the two of them managed to get Daggert on his feet. Crop turned to Peregrin as if to say something threatening, but as he did so, Peregrin raised one arm and pointed. "No more," he said. "You go now and tell him - the Traveler has come!" The men staggered off the way they came.
When he was sure they had gone, Peregrin turned toward the children. Janel had helped Cornel to his feet and they stood staring at him.
"Are you all right, Cornel?" he asked.
Cornel's mouth dropped open. Then he closed it firmly clenching his teeth. "I won't tell you anything," he growled.
"That's not a nice way to thank someone," Peregrin said. "Are there no manners left in the world?"
Janel stepped forward. "Who are you? Where did you come from? I've never seen anyone fight like that. Are you a Guardian?"
"Janel, shut up!" Cornel said sharply. "He could be one of them."
Peregrin laughed. "I hardly think they enjoyed my company. I broke that Daggert fellow's arm, you know. And the others will have headaches for some days to come. So now tell me, where have you come from searching for knowledge?"
"We're from Archiva," Janel said. "We're not supposed to come to the ruins, but Cornel thought..."
"Janel! Stop your blabbering!"
"Oh, look who's talking," Janel said whirling on Cornel. "This was your fault. 'Let's go to the ruins, let's see what all the mystery is about.' None of this would have happened if we had stayed home like we're supposed to."
"You came along willing enough," Cornel shot back at her. "You wanted to see just as much as I did."
"I take it you two are related," Peregrin said, grinning. "Listen, I'll take you back to your home, this Archiva of yours. Just show me the way and..."
"No!" Cornel said. "I mean, it's not allowed."
"Neither is going to the ruins," Peregrin said. "But that did not stop you. And if you go back on your own, you're likely to run into those three again. I don't think they'll be as nice this time."
The children looked at each other and then down at the ground. Peregrin decided to try another tack.
"Well at any rate, we have to stay here for a while to make sure those fellows don't come back with friends. Are you hungry?"
Lunch was a radish and a piece of jerked beef for each of them. They ate quietly upon the outcrop where Peregrin had made camp. After a while, Janel spoke.
"Who are you, mister? I heard you say to that man you were 'the Traveler.' What does that mean?"
Peregrin smiled. "I'm not really sure, I just made it up at the moment to scare them. My name is Peregrin, which means 'wanderer.' I guess I prefer 'traveler.' It sounded good, anyway."
"So where are you traveling to?" Cornel asked.
"Nowhere, and anywhere. I don't know," Peregrin said.
"You must have come from somewhere," Janel said.
"Somewhere, yes. But I don't know where it was. It's a long story. But you tell me of yourselves. Where is this Archiva? How many people live there?"
Janel and Cornel exchanged glances. "It's a town," Cornel said. "It's hidden, so the Terists can't find it. We can't say anything more about it."
"I see," Peregrin said. "And who are the Terists? Those fellows that attacked you?"
"Yeah, I guess," said Cornel. "They live in the hills. They rob and hurt people who they catch. Father says the Terists used to be really powerful and it was them who caused the war. But that was long ago. No one knows how many there are."
"But you didn't think you would run into any in the ruins. Why is that?"
Cornel put his head down. After a moment, it was Janel who spoke. "Terists are afraid of these ruins. At least we thought they were."
"Why should they be afraid?"
"Cause these ruins are haunted."
"Uh huh. Bad things happen here. This was a Sheen town. No Terist that came here ever came back again."
"But you were not afraid."
"I said no 'Terist.' The Guardians are safe here. We figured it would be okay in daylight."
"You're losing me," Peregrin said. "Terists, Guardians, Sheens...what is all this?"
As Janel began to answer, Peregrin heard a sound from below. He pulled the children down flat onto the rock. Cautiously they peered over the edge.
"I don't see anything," Cornel said.
"Shhh!" said Peregrin. "Use your ears to see. The noise of the woods has stopped. Something is here that doesn't belong." He listened for a long moment. "There," he said pointing to a thicket near the water. "It's behind there."
From the thicket came a warbling whistle, long and low. Another answered from further down.
Cornel jumped to his feet and before Peregrin could move made three short "thweets." Janel started to get up also. Peregrin grabbed her.
"What are you doing? Get down!"
"It's all right, Peregrin," she said. "It's Bliss." She, too, made three short "thweets."
Peregrin sighed and stood up. Below him a woman stepped out from behind the thicket. Seeing them upon the rock, she whistled twice. About a hundred yards to her right, a man stepped out of cover from behind a tree. Off to her left, two more men came into view.
Cornel and Janel were already climbing down the hillside to meet them. Peregrin sighed again, collected his pack and followed. By the time all three had reached the base of the hill, the four adults had converged upon them.
"Bliss!" cried Janel, and she ran to her and embraced her. Cornel followed but with less enthusiasm. Bliss was slender, about 5'6", and had dark hair pulled back and tied into a tail that fell halfway down her back. Her cheekbones were high, her jaw angled sharply down to the chin, but her brown eyes were rounded and reminded Peregrin of freshly turned earth, rich and full of hope for the harvest. "Bliss," Janel said again. "We were attacked by Terists. There were three Terists here. And Peregrin came from nowhere and drove them off."
"Peace, Janel," Bliss said softly. "There will be time for the telling. Are you unhurt?"
"We're fine," Janel said. "Cornel tried to fight and one of the Terists hit him. But he's okay. If Peregrin hadn't come, they would have taken us, Bliss."
"Is this true, Cornel?" Bliss asked.
Cornel looked at the ground. "Yes," he said. "I suppose we're in trouble."
"You have come to the ruins alone before your passage," said one of the men stepping forward. He was slightly taller than Bliss, muscular, and square-jawed. His dusty, graying hair was also pulled back in a tail. His eyes were like the sky on a summer noon, intense and difficult to look at. "You were followed by Terists and could have endangered all of Archiva. Yes, I'd say you were in trouble."
"Enough of that for now, Mikkel," Bliss said. "Who is this man before us? We saw the Terists below. They were sorely battered. Did you truly take on all three of them to save these children?"
"Yes," said Peregrin.
"We are grateful," said Mikkel. "And what is your name?"
"I call myself 'Peregrin.'"
"Wanderer," Mikkel said,
Peregrin was surprised. "Not many would know what that word means," he said.
"But he prefers 'traveler,'" Cornel piped in. Mikkel glanced at him and he fell silent.
Peregrin chuckled. "He speaks true. I prefer 'traveler.'"
"This would imply a purpose in your journey. And so, 'traveler,' where have you come from? And where do you go? What is your purpose?"
Peregrin sensed suspicion in Mikkel's questions and it annoyed him. "I do not know my purpose yet. Only that I have one. But when I learn it, it shall be my business. You might be glad my traveling brought me here this day."
Mikkel stiffened, but Bliss laughed, a free, honest laugh like water flowing over pebbles. "Well said!" she exclaimed. "Mikkel, leave off your interrogation. Peregrin, forgive us. We owe you much. These two," she indicated Janel and Cornel with a sweep of her hand, "although inclined to cause worry and grief among all of Archiva, are precious to us. We thank you." With that, she bowed gracefully and Peregrin could not help but smile and bow in return.
"Your apology is accepted, Bliss," he said.
Mikkel stepped forward and extended his hand. "I also apologize if my questions were offensive. You have my gratitude as well." Peregrin took his hand. "However," Mikkel continued, "it is imperative that you tell us of your immediate intentions. As you have seen, we have much to fear from outsiders."
Peregrin looked into Mikkel's azure eyes and found no hint of anger, resentment or suspicion, only concern. "I have no plans," he said. "I came to these ruins yesterday afternoon and I must confess, I found them attractive to me. I guess I was inclined to stay and explore them."
Mikkel and Bliss exchanged glances. "I'm sorry," Mikkel said. "We cannot allow you to do that. These ruins are..." he searched for a word.
"Haunted?" Peregrin said wryly.
"Sacred," said Bliss. "They are sacred to us and we have sworn to guard them from intrusion and defilement."
"Which explains what a Guardian is," Peregrin said.
Mikkel drew in his breath. "How did you..." he began, then the looked at Janel and Cornel, who cringed.
"Do not blame the children," Peregrin said. "I was probing them for information just as you were probing me. They told me nothing other than the words: Archiva, Guardian and Sheen. In fact, they were decidedly tight-lipped."
"Yes, then," said Bliss. "We are Guardians of these ruins. Mikkel and myself you have met. These quiet ones behind us are Carlin," she indicated a tall, thin man with close-cropped dark hair who nodded, "and the Waterman," she said, extending her hand toward a short, slightly built fellow with tousled, curly washed-out red hair who grinned.
"And you live in a place called Archiva, which you can't show me."
"Well, there's the problem," Mikkel said. "We cannot let you stay here, and we must not risk endangering Archiva. Yet, we owe you for rescuing the children and do not wish to force you to continue your journey into the hills where there are Terists, among whom you have already made enemies."
"I can take care of myself," Peregrin said.
"That is evident," Bliss said. "Yet I can see you are not given to violence, as the Terists are. And it would be the greatest ingratitude to set you forth on your own."
Peregrin was enjoying this debate. "And soooo?" he said.
The four looked at one another. Carlin cocked his head to one side in a questioning manner. The Waterman's grin grew broader and Bliss smiled. Mikkel turned back to Peregrin.
"Would you honor us by coming to Archiva?"