An old man carefully picked his way along a path coated by snow and rock. The first blizzard of the year had come several days ago, though winter was still nearly a month away. Several inches of white, powdery snow still remained on the trail, which wound between high mountains capped by peaks of never-melting ice. In the distance, the sound of hammers striking metal could be heard echoing along the walls of the valley.
From time to time, the old man glanced up nervously, watching for loose stones and chunks of ice that were known to break free of the towering slopes and plummet to the ground with deadly force.
Finally, he reached the source of the noise: a large building with three chimneys, each billowed forth great clouds of black smoke. The door was open, and the air coming from inside simmered with heat.
The old man paused, gasping for breath. He leaned heavily against the door frame and upon the wooden staff gripped tightly in his hand. Inside, a dozen men were laboring over glowing coals and white-hot metal.
The journey through the valley had been far more taxing than he remembered from past excursions. The last time the old man ventured beneath the shadows of the great mountains was during the spring, and he wasn’t alone then. A sad smile lit the wrinkled face at the memory of that happier time.
Slowly, he adjusted the object he was carrying. It was a cumbersome burden to him, weighing close to twenty pounds. In his younger years, he could have borne it all day without complaint, but time had laid waste to the once-sturdy frame. He would never have attempted such a treacherous journey now if he had not felt it absolutely necessary.
“Are you all right?” a deep voice asked. It belonged to a broad-shouldered man who stood just inside the doorway. He held a hammer in one hand, and appeared to be in the middle of beating something into shape on one of the anvils.
There was another man beside him holding a pair of tongs. The second man wore a rag tied across his forehead, keeping the sweat from running down into his eyes. He peered out from under it suspiciously at the newcomer.
“I will be fine in a moment,” the old man wheezed. “I must speak to the both of you.” He nodded back the way he had come, away from the building.
The two men exchanged a glance. The deep-voiced man set his hammer down and approached. He was far taller and broader than his companion, with close-cropped black hair and warm, honey-colored eyes.
The man wearing the rag snatched the metal from the anvil with his tongs, and thrust it into a bucket of water, producing a hiss. He had a slim build, and his beady, black eyes shifted constantly as he followed the others.
Each step was slower than the last as the pair escorted the old man along the trail that had brought him there. They didn’t stop until the forge and the sound of hammers were far behind them. Only the thick smoke could still be seen, hanging in the air like a low cloud from the sky above.
“What’s happened?” the man with the rag asked. He pulled the cloth loose and wiped the back of his neck, revealing a large bald patch in the middle of his head, ringed by short, light brown hair.
“My younger daughter is missing,” the old man answered hesitantly. “I fear the worst.”
The other two men exchanged another glance, but the old man didn’t notice. His mind was far from that cold, lonely valley.
“Why have you come to us?” The man replaced the rag on his head as he spoke. “I assure you, we have no knowledge of—”
“I know that,” the old man interrupted, coming back to the present. “That is not why I have come. This is.” He parted his white cloak to reveal the burden he had carried so far.
“What is that?” the deep-voiced man gasped.
“It is something I intend to leave with you,” the old man informed them. “I fear it is no longer safe with me.”
The deep-voiced man took the object. It was a polished stone box covered by inlaid golden writing.
“What does it say?” the balding man demanded, peering at what his companion now held.
“You mean you can’t read it?” The old man’s lips twisted with amusement.
“Learning the ‘high language’ isn’t very high on my priority list right now,” the balding man snapped. “We’ve got plenty of work to do here, and not enough help. Hopefully, we’ll get a few more Keepers soon and won’t have to spend every day working like dogs in this pit.” The man spat contemptuously into the snow.
“Yes, you do seem quite busy today,” mused the old man.
“It’s a ploy to keep us out of the way,” the man replied rapidly. He reached and rubbed his forehead just under the rag.
The deep-voiced man wasn’t listening to the conversation anymore. All his attention was given to studying the box in his hands. He tried to lift the lid but was unsuccessful.
“We can’t open it, and we can’t read it. What are we supposed to do with it?” he asked in a mystified voice.
“It’s not for you to do anything with,” the old man told them. “It’s not for you or your children or your children’s children but for those that come after. They will find it and, I pray, know what they are meant to do with it.”