The Caverns of Thule
September 30th, 2024
In the distant north, in frigid seas and blistering wind, where the rare sun is hidden most days by clouds, there is a land unmarked on any map, untraveled by any since time immemorial, a place lost forever in the mists of legend. In the ancient days of Greece and Rome, it was known as Ultima Thule, the unreachable North, but to the people of that land, it was simply known as Thule.
Thule was not a grand island; it was a small rocky place that existed on the fertile slopes of a tall conical volcano. The people there were not the scions of some great lost Hyperborean civilization, but they were very much like their relatives in Orkney, Norway, and Iceland. They were strong and hearty people who lived humble lives in small towns that dotted the perimeter of the island. They lived on the grains and the millet and the roots that heavy rain and rare sunshine could provide. It was a life and an existence unchanged for thousands of years, forgotten in time.
But times were changing and places that were lost to myth were being drawn forcibly back onto the map. For the people of Thule, this meant that for the first time they could see the shape of distant isles against the fog and grey seas, and the volcanic heart of the isle of Thule growled and groaned as it had not done since mythic times. But the legends had persisted through this community down through the eons, and they knew what to do. One of their own must venture into the mountain and parley with the spirit within. Though they had lived comfortably in their solitude on a quiet island, Thule was coming to life again.
All the town had come together. At the edge of town, a congregation had gathered, all of them focused around two people. They were town Jarl and ruler of Thule, Hod Tule, and his daughter Jana. Jana, approaching seventeen, had been chosen as an envoy to the great spirit within the heart of Thule, but Jana was like her father, strong-willed and always one to stand with her head held high. She did not stand at the edge of the town, face towards the mountain like a virgin sacrifice, but as a woman to speak on Thule’s behalf.
“Be wary, Jana,” Jarl Hod said. “For we Thulians have always lived by the grace of the volcano and the spirit at its heart. I have told you what my title means, yes? The title that will pass to you someday as well. I am a Jarl, commander of men and second only to the king. And here on Thule there is but one king, the king beneath the mountain.”
Jana smiled. “I remember all the stories you told me. Don’t worry, I’m a big girl now.”
She took her father’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek. “I won’t let you or anyone on Thule down. After I’m done speaking to this spirit, we’ll have peace and prosperity we haven’t known since ancient times.”
“I can only hope you’re right.” Jarl Hod sighed but managed a brave smile for her. “You’re as strong as your mother.”
“And stubborn as my father,” Jana grinned. “I’ll be back, don’t worry.”
And so, with nervous cheers from the crowd Jana set off alone towards the great mountain, the red and black banners of Thule fluttering in the morning breeze. The sky over head was an almost slate grey that was reflected in the distant churning seas. The fields at the base of the volcanoes slopes were green, the soil rich with water and ancient ash. Since she was born, the mountain had only rumbled or quaked once or twice, but a month ago it had started to belch smoke from the vast caldera, and on some nights fire could be seen at its peak. The signs were clear, and the laws of Thule were carved in the ancient lodestones that stood like sentries on the isle’s rocky shores.
Jana strode with confidence through the fields of her childhood, and before long the farmland gave way to wild grass and scattered brush. There were few trees, and most of them were close to the shore, so the great rocky slopes of the volcano were clear, the soil dark and scattered with green grasses. There was an ancient trail, the way marked by standing stones carefully kept by Thule’s ancient priesthood. There were no gods on Thule; they were far from the Norse pantheon of their cousins in Norway and Orkney. There were only two forces that the people of Thule worshipped. They worshipped the faceless sea and storms that kept them locked upon their island; but even more they worshipped the spirit of the mountain, which gave them the rich soil to live, the heat of the earth to keep the soil warm, and the riches of the mountain that made Thule rich in gold and metals that they had worked and stored for centuries. For the people of Thule, their only god was the King beneath the Mountain. And today Jana would be his audience.
The path led her up the steep slopes, to a place where the black and grey stone of the mountain jut upwards in a steep cliff. Here a passage had been carved, a great doorless gate leading into the mountain’s interior. Jana carried a torch with her, and she lit it as she stepped into the dark passage and into the mountain’s volcanic interior. The passage was smooth with an arched ceiling, the walls hewn form solid igneous rock. Though it was largely straight, Jana could feel the gentle slope downwards as the passage struck deeper. More than that, she could feel the heat and stale air become more apparent with each step she took away from the entrance.
Eventually the tunnel opened into a large domed chamber with a stairwell in the center leading straight down. The walls of the chamber had been carved into a series of reliefs depicting the many legendary rulers of Thule, those great explorer heroes who had first come to try and conquer this land, an age of war and strife three thousand years before that ended when Lord Tule became the first Jarl of the island after striking a deal with the King beneath the Mountain, thus taking control of its people and proclaiming the land “Thule”. Jana paused to marvel at the portraits of each of them, somewhat abstract in their style with deep dark eyes, stout jaws, and powerful frames. Until the mountain had gone silent, each of these rulers had sent their sons or their daughters to meet the spirit to ensure the continued prosperity of Thule. Now Jana would follow in their footsteps.
Jana began to walk down the spiral stairs, one hand on the warm stone wall to steady herself as her small pocket of light traveled downwards one step at a time. The deeper she went, minute by minute, the stairs seemed to grow hotter. It didn’t help that the air here was utterly dead, with no feeling of wind or breeze as she took in one long hot breath after the other. Soon she could feel sweat beading on her brow and on the back of her neck, wondering how hot it would be before she reached her destination.
She descended the stairs for what seemed about ten minutes, all the while trying to ignore the growing heat and pressure as she descended ever deeper into the earth. When the stairs finally led her out, she found herself in what must have been a vast chamber as she lost sight of the walls and ceilings. Raising her torch high and reaching it around her only served to reveal more darkness. Unsure of where else to go, Jana simply stepped forward, away from where the stairs had let out. The stone beneath her feet had gone from smooth tile, to carved step, to roughly hewn rock that was slightly uneven under her feet. As she walked, she saw a glimmering light reflect the light of her torch, and she paused to look around.
Walking in a circle, finding the edges of her rough stone path, she found she was surrounded by piles of gold. Coins, ingots, candlesticks, vessels and more were piled high around her on either side, the work of a thousand years of Thulian mining, smelting, and plunder. Amidst the piles of gold were other rare metals and stones as well. Gem-encrusted swords, sapphire-eyed statues, and piles of silver were scattered among the almost overwhelming gold.
Jana marveled as the piles of riches glimmered and shone, reflecting the light of her torch. But soon she set off again. What use was a pile of gold to Thule? Its people were separated from the world at large, and a mountain of gold for each man and woman of Thule was at that point no more valuable than a pile of cow manure. Less in fact, as you couldn’t fertilize a field with gold. Jana buried that glimmer of goldlust and kept walking, set on her task.
Even this vast chamber of wealth, Jana realized, was sloping gently downwards, and the floor under her feet was growing warm with the heat of the magma that stirred in the volcano’s heart. Eventually the trail led her to the other end of the vast treasure chamber. Here she found another gate, but this one was so huge it took a moment to realize that there was a wall for the gate to separate at all. It rose so high she could not see the top of it. And spread at least twenty meters across. There was a limit to monumental architecture, Jana thought wryly to herself, but with a stroke of sobering realization, she gulped it down.
The other gates and passages were sized for humans, this one was not.
Taking another deep breath of hot air, Jana entered the colossal passage. The time for fear or hesitation was long behind her, outside of the mountain, here she would have to press forward.
The passageway, as near as she could tell, led into another enormous chamber. This one she knew had to be near the very heart of the volcano. The air was intensely hot and stale, the very walls seeming to pulse with heat, reflecting the light of her torch on black stone with a dull orange-red glow. As she entered, massive bulbous crystals of garnet, deep amber and red in color, caught the light of her torch and seemed to expand the glow until it filled the massive cavern with a dim red light. Just as in the treasure cave, this chamber was hewn crudely from solid igneous stone, rising in a great dome over her head until it met its apex somewhere in the darkness above her. Jana nervously took a few more steps forward, torch raised to get a better look, until the light from her torch caught something before her, what seemed to be the edge of a great hunk of iron.
As she paused her footsteps, the air shifted. What she had though was iron withdrew into the darkness, and something enormous began to move before her. Jana raised her torch, trying her best to see, and as she did the massive garnets embedded in the wall began to shine more brightly, spurred on by some supernatural force as the cavern was filled with reddish light.
As the light grew, the silhouette of the great shape rising before Jana took on a more defined shape. She heard the rumbling of stretching muscle, the sharp sound of metal like swords grinding on stone, and what sounded like the flapping of a cloak in the wind but much deeper and louder. Hot air rushed around her as the massive shape rose before her, growing more visible by the second.
“Who are you,” The massive spirit spoke, its voice as deep as thunder as it resonated off the walls. “To enter my domain beneath the mountain?”
“I-“ Jana found herself stuttering, but took a deep breath to steady her voice. “I am Jana Tule, daughter of Jarl Hod Tule, lord of the men of Thule. Come to speak to the King beneath the Mountain.”
The light grew until Jana could finally get a good look at the spirit, and as she did her eyes went wide as the realization struck her. She had always assumed that the King beneath the Mountain, the Lord of Thule, was a great volcano spirit, a being of basalt and magma and fiery temper, but the creature standing before her now was much more defined. It was serpentine, with long neck and sinewy tail, standing on four great lion-like legs of claws and steely muscle. From its back sprouted the undeniable shape of vast bat-like wings and its face was a triangular jaw of sharp teeth topped by a crown of long horns. Its entire body was covered in scales like polished iron.
It was colossal, unparalleled in size by anything Jana could imagine let alone what she had seen, easily fifty meters in length with no doubt a greater wingspan, and the shape of it was undeniable. The ‘spirit’ she had been sent to see was a dragon.
“I am Calroch of the Iron Scales,” The dragon bellowed, voice echoing a hundredfold off the stone walls. “The King beneath the Mountain.”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa