Despite Heraclief’s relatively stable position, Tuan is not satisfied by Thorlak’s suggestion that the sorcerer remain in the church for much needed rest and recuperation.
‘I cannot allow that to happen,’ commands the baritone Tuan. ‘We could be attacked again at any time and should this come to pass, many innocent lives will be lost.’
Thorlak is clearly perplexed by this turn of events but like Manzio, appears to sense the power emanating from Tuan. ‘Where will you go? In fact, why is it that you have come to our shores?’
Manzio is surprised to hear Tuan reveal the exact nature of their mission without dissemble but disappointed to see Thorlak shaking his head.
‘I am sorry to disappoint you but I was not aware that the Dagda’s cauldron was ever located, here in Iceland.’
For a few moments the three sit uncomfortably in silence, each deep in thought until Thorlak has an idea.
‘I cannot help you but I know somebody who maybe, just maybe can.’ Tuan and Manzio look on expectantly, a glimmer of hope offered to them. ‘Sæmundr fróði is part legend, part madman and is said to live high on the volcanic glacier of Hvannadalshnúkur. It a hazardous journey to the south east of our island and I cannot say for sure if this hermit is still alive. It is many years since I last heard any sighting of the old man but many claim that he had great powers, although this may simply be local legend.’
Manzio can sense that Tuan is happy to grasp this lifeline, regardless of the odds. He quickly takes his leave thanking Thorlak for all he has done for the trio and gathers the still comatose body of Heraclief, which still looks unnaturally pale. Despite Thorlak’s protestations for the sorcerer to remain with him, it is not long before both Tuan and Manzio have left the small town, heading east along the coastal road. They pass through several villages before Tuan begins to move off the road.
‘Get some provisions from the village, Manzio. Food and water for the two of you. Your sorcerer friend will need some sustenance if he is to make a quick recovery. We will be in need of his fire before long.’
Manzio is quickly able to complete his task, almost certainly paying considerably over the odds by using one of his small gemstones, an opal, to barter for food and water skins. He attempts to buy horses as part of the deal but is offered only some lame beasts of burden and thinks better of this when considering the terrain that the trio are likely to encounter once arriving at Hvannadalshnúkur.
For the next day the two take the less well trodden paths which wind their way cross country whilst keeping the sea always in view to their right. The vast blue skies and long days provide some much needed respite from the cold of Britain but they are unable to make swift progress as even Tuan seems to have been seriously hurt in the encounter with the construct and appears to convalescing within his armour.
Heraclief finally wakes on the second morning but is too weak to either stand or say much. He is able to eat a few slices of cheese and fruit and drinks much of their water supply, which is easily replenished by the many streams and rivers passed en route to the volcano.
On the second day the volcano becomes clearly evident in the distance and by nightfall the three companions have reached the foot of the climb. The glacier has retreated a little in the warmer weather but the chill of the permafrost can be felt even as the group traverses the lower foothills of Hvannadalshnúkur.
The third day, Heraclief has recovered sufficiently to begin the ascent albeit slowly and with support from the big knight. However, it is not long before they have ascended into the snows, with low hanging cloud quickly providing increased chill and a shroud of mist not unlike that encountered upon Iona. Manzio is quickly once again cold and disorientated in the freezing mist and glad the responsibility of leadership is Tuan’s to shoulder.
‘I sense vast power. We are certainly not alone. Be vigilant.’
Tuan’s words do little to arrest the chill Manzio is already feeling although on the fringes of his senses, the Vesuvian also feels a strange familiarity or affiliation with the power resident on the mountain, although he is unable to explain this sensation.
The day seems to stretch into eternity as night barely falls and the trio march higher onto the heights of the volcano. The wind speed has intensified but the cloud cover begins to clear as they reach the summit. Glacial ice has covered even the crater but Manzio has eyes only for the remarkable light show above in the light, night sky. There is an otherworldly feel to the volcano as though magic operates above in the skies and below within the volcanic earth.
Heraclief has no such focus and is satisfied to rest whilst Tuan scans the summit. Manzio begins to fish in his pack for food when Tuan stays his hand, pointing toward the eastern side of the summit.
Walking toward the group a bald headed man wearing only a billowing fur skin like an elaborate scarf, approaches. In his left hand he carries a twisted magnolia staff, which is splintered into four arthritic fingers. As he closes the gap, Manzio is reminded of his friend, Hakan and feels a pang of loss, given that the figure is covered in vibrant ocean blue tattoos. The tall, muscular man stops a few feet from the trio, appraising them with vibrant blue eyes.
‘I am Sæmundr fróði, guardian of the many pathways. I sense the power in you,’ he nods toward Tuan ‘and emerging power in your two companions. You have been given safe passage thus far so as to avoid confrontation but I cannot permit you to go further. Yet. Why have you come to Hvannadalshnúkur?’
Tuan, gestures toward Sæmundr. ‘We came to see you.’
‘Then speak. What do you seek?’
‘We seek the Dagda’s cauldron. I was told you may know where we can find it?’
At first, Sæmundr’s eyes widen but as the four strangers appraise one another, his ashen face begins to grin and then chuckle.
‘No problem,’ he responds. ‘We have a tavern full of such artifacts.’ Sæmundr wipes his eyes, the tears streaming down his cheeks as his heaving barrel chest laughs, a joyous booming mirth. Gradually he controls his laughter and looks once more upon the trio.
Tuan continues, as though ignoring the response of Sæmundr.
‘I seek the cauldron in order to rid Hibernia of the tyrant and murderer Morrigan the Black. 3 of the Tuatha de Dannan artifacts have been gathered and this is the last. Can you help us?’
Sæmundr’s eyes narrow as though unsure how to respond. He is just about to answer when a rending crack splinters the ice below their feet. The crack quickly develops into a chasm, like a mini earthquake occurring within the frozen crater. As all four of the figures sprint for safety, avoiding the gap, a huge claw appears, planting iron like talons into the ice, a second giant claw following with both talons gripping tight into the glacier before the gargantuan head and then wings of Ice surface, the dragon leaping the gap in one surge of awe inspiring power.
‘Enough of this,’ he bellows. The dragon’s injured face, wounds still apparent from Hadrian’s Wall towers over the four, Sæmundr prostrate on the glacier, his face resting on the cold surface.
‘‘Tuan Mac Cairill, I sense you though you have once again shifted your shape, like the chameleon parasite, I know you to be.’ The dragon spits these last two words, like an attack, shards of icy spittle showering the vicinity. ‘And you two…ah yes, the Vesuvian and an efreet. You are lucky boy, he says eyeing Heraclief with his face only yards from the sorcerer, ’there was a time I would not have tolerated your kind but times have changed and strange alliances forged. Is that not so, hermit, turncoat…coward?’ Ice once again turns his full attention to Tuan. ‘Have you finally stopped running then?’
Manzio can sense the rage emanating from Tuan and the gleeful almost cruel gaze of the dragon exulting in the power of his words.
‘You are a fine one to talk about running Ice dreki? The war is fought in Britain not here in Iceland.’
‘The war is fought everywhere’ and now it is time for Ice to exhibit rage. ‘You see but part of the big picture, hermit as was ever the case.’
Tuan, defiant against the vast size of the dragon above stands his ground despite the precarious proximity of the fissure to his right.
‘Will you help us?’
The simplicity of the knight’s question seems to surprise the dragon, his vast reptilian head statuesque for a moment whilst considering the request.
’I could. Yes, indeed I could help but my council comes at a price.’
Tuan does not respond initially, the wind whipping the fresh, powdery snow from the summit, as though at the whim of the great dragon, its reptilian gaze nurturing the slightest hint of a smile. Manzio is suddenly aware that Ice is enjoying the negotiations.
‘Name your price.’
The dragon sits, curling its body theatrically into a comfortable position, as though settling into sleep for the night. ‘I require your ability to change my form. A dragon is many things but the ability to blend into a crowd is not possible for me. I need you to change my form into that of a human. Then I will help you.’
‘What you ask of me will take time. The power of the Tuatha can be used on others but the ritual is far more complex. I presume you have a vessel in mind?’
The dragon nods, nonchalantly in the direction of his priest. ‘There are those willing to make the sacrifice required.’
‘Very well,’ responds Tuan, ‘but it will take me several days to prepare.’
‘My apostles will see to your needs.’
With that, the great dragon throws himself head first into the chasm and is gone from sight, plummeting into unseen, inky black subterranean caverns below.
Sæmundr leads the group from the dangers now evident upon the summit and decends quickly, heading further east. It is not long before he seemingly disappears into the snow, as though falling through an unseen gap. Tuan, Heraclief and finally Manzio follows. The three find themselves inside an icy cavern, stood on a narrow ledge just beneath the surface of snow above their heads. Remarkably the snow above remains intact.
‘An illusion,’ states Tuan. ‘This is a world of gateways. The entire volcano is probably a myriad of gates, like mirror reflections of the domains converging within this location. Beware…nothing is as it seems.’
Manzio is reminded of the extraordinary journey to Morrigan’s fortress and shudders both from the cold of the gigantic caverns through which he is traversing whilst also remembering the dangers faced in the Black Queen’s layer.
Guessing Manzio’s thoughts, Heraclief walks alongside his friend.
‘Another sub-dimensional space. We are touching upon both a volcano and a realm of perpetual frost. Perhaps this is the source of Ice’s power.’
Descending into the darker depths below, Manzio and Heraclief find themselves in a labyrinth of twisting ice and stone, the floor solid and the cylindrical walls of frozen archways. Eventually they are shown into a sparsely furnished room containing two beds and a table made from solid ice. Fur skins have been left hanging from the icy walls.
‘You will be safe here,’ says Sæmundr. ‘Stay here. This is a deceptive place. Priests will find you for meals. Otherwise, relax and convalesce whilst you have the chance.
Tuan, follow me and I will do my best to gather whatever is required for the ritual.’
True to his word, acolytes of the dragon cult living within the pseudo realms bordering the volcano bring a light meal for supper. Both Heraclief and Manzio feel a great weariness from the climb earlier in the day, particularly the sorcerer and after eating, fall into a deep sleep.