|Rowan of Rin|
"Seven hearts the journey make. Seven ways the hearts will break ..."
The witch Sheba's prophecy is like a riddle. A riddle Rowan must solve if he is to find out the secret of the Mountain and save his home. To the sturdy villagers of Rin, the boy Rowan is a timid weakling. The most disappointing child ever.
Yet, incredibly, it is his help they need when the stream that flows from the top of the Mountain dries up. Without its water, their precious bukshah herds will die, and Rin will be doomed.
The six strongest villagers must brave the unknown terrors of the Mountain to discover the answer to the riddle. And Rowan, the unwanted seventh member of the group, must go with them.
Rowan of Rin is considered a weakling and a coward by most in Rin, only good for tending to his beloved bukshah herd. His mother worries for him constantly, for he is very frail and so different from others in her family and even the entire village; his younger sister Annad on the other hand is bold and courageous, and everything that is expected of a child of Rin.
One day, the stream that runs from the Mountain through the village dries up. The stream is a major part of Rin's survival and growth as it provides water for the bukshah, which in turn give the people hide to make cloth out of, and milk to create butter and cheese as well as to drink. As the people of Rin know fully well, if the stream dries out their village will die out with it, for they will have nothing to live on. At a meeting, after considering many options, they agree that they must brave the Mountain, one way or another, to find the source of the problem and eliminate it. In an attempt to gain advice, two of the adults, Marlie the Weaver and Jonn of the Orchard, visit the spiteful and ill-tempered witch Sheba's hut, gifting her with wheels of cheese brought to her from the store-house by the terrified Rowan. Despite accepting their gift, she seemingly refuses to answer any of Marlie or Jonn's questions, instead speaking a strange rhyme to them and throwing a stick at Rowan's head.
It is decided that Marlie, Jonn, Bronden the Furniture-Maker, Val and Ellis of the Mill and Allun the Baker will venture into the Mountain. To Rowan's surprise, as he lays in bed that night he discovers that the stick Sheba threw at him us really a map of the Mountain, which would be very useful to the six heroes, except that when Rowan and Jiller show it to them the next morning, they discover that it can only be read when Rowan is holding it. As a result, despite arguments of Rowan's frailty and age and the dangers of the Mountain, he becomes a seventh member of the Mountain party and the one to guide them towards their goal.
After leaving the village, the group walks beside the dry bed of the stream until they reach the point where the stream water gushes from the Mountain. At Allun's suggestion, Rowan brings the map out so that they can read it. Using it they see where they must go next-- up a steep track toward the Mountain. Then they walk through a forest ('a flat walk, due west'). Where the forest trees end, they walk north-west, along lower ground, until they reach the top. It seems easy, for they have three compasses, as well as landmarks to follow. However, Marlie points out that if it were so easy, they would not have needed a map to guide them.
Attached together by a rope, the group makes the steep climb to the top of the cliff. After rousing Rowan, who has fainted from exhaustion, they look at the map again, and are surprised to find a rhyme written in the space beside the beginning of the forest path:
Let arms be still and voices low,
A million eyes watch as you go.
The silken door your pathway ends,
There fire and light will be your friends.
Then see yourself as others may,
And catch noon's eye to clear your way.
They theorise that the map is telling them to be silent, and hints that noon is an important time. They set off again into the forest, with Allun leading. As they go deeper into the forest, they begin to hear a 'twittering sound' which grows louder. Allun, intrigued, walks faster, and then halts suddenly, causing the others to cannon into him. They soon see what he has seen-- that the sides of the path before them are filled with thousands of spiders, which Rowan realises are the 'million eyes' the rhyme spoke of.
At seeing the spiders, Ellis panics, to everyone's astonishment. Val reveals that he is deathly afraid of spiders, and states that he cannot go on. Despite Jonn's encouraging words to him, the man cannot take it and flees, out of the forest the way he came. Realising that he will not return, the group moves on, until they reach the door the verse speaks of. It is a 'huge gleaming white web' surrounded by spiders. As they debate the best way to get past it, a ray of sun touches the forest floor, causing the spiders to withdraw slightly, and Rowan realises that they do not like the light and that this is the 'fire and light' the rhyme was referring to.
Bronden suggests throwing a torch at the web, but unfortunately they realise that all the torches were being carried by Ellis. Allun then comes up with an alternative, and uses his tinderbox and Marlie's handkerchief to create a flame, which he throws at the web. However, this only temporarily drives away the spiders, as they quickly return to mend the hole after the flames die down. After recalling the final lines of the verse, they realise what they must do next, and use Marlie's mirror to catch the sun's rays to repel the spiders while they hurry through the hole in the web.
They continue due west, along the path, before resting and consulting the map. They find another riddle:
Nothing here is as it seems;
Dreams are truths and truths are dreams.
Close your ears to loved ones' cries,
Die if you believe your eyes.
Bind with ropes your flesh and blood,
And let your guide be made of wood.
This verse, as Allun puts it, is more confusing than the last, but as Marlie says it must be important, as the last one was. They quickly decide that it means that they are going into danger, and must be lead by one of their party who is 'like wood'-- hard, unfeeling, strong, incapable of pain. The least emotional of their party. They must also bind themselves together with rope.
Bronden offers to lead them, stating that she has no family or loved ones, and believes only in what she sees with her own eyes. The others agree, and they walk again. Soon they come to a swamp filled with mist. As they continue on Rowan sees a panicking Star trapped in the mud and being sucked down by it. Without thinking he runs into the mud himself in an attempt to rescue her, and is almost killed if not for Jonn, Bronden and Val, who pull him out. An angry Bronden snaps at him for his behaviour, while Jonn tries to convince him that the Star he saw was not real. Marlie realises that the map warned them of this, and says that there are spirits in the swamp that do not wish them well. Though the others listen to her, Bronden is skeptical, and claims that Marlie has been spending too much time with Allun and should not believe his tales.
The group moves on. Marlie begins to complain of someone touching her. While Allun tries to claim that it is only the mist, he sees an illusion of his mother, and quickly runs to save her. Somewhere ahead, Bronden sees something which makes her cry out. Jonn stops Allun from running into the mud and holds him back while he turns angrily on him. Close to where Bronden is, Val cries out for help, for something is happening to Bronden, and Val cannot hold her. Marlie and Rowan come to her aid, and see that Bronden is stuck in the mud, fighting to get to something she sees, while Val tries to pull her back. With Rowan holding her ankles, Marlie crawls into the mud beside Val and loops rope around Bronden's waist to help pull her in. However Rowan cannot hold Marlie's heavy weight for long and begins to lose his grip. He calls for help from Jonn, but it is Allun who comes to their aid, pulling Marlie safely onto the path again.
They pull Bronden back, and Rowan discovers the reason for her breakdown, and her animosity towards him. She had seen her friend Minna in the mist, a sweet and quiet keeper of the bukshah who was like Rowan himself, who had been killed in a storm as a child while searching for a missing bukshah calf. Terrified and broken by what she has seen, Bronden refuses to go on, and runs back the way they came. Val goes with her, for she cannot stand being away from her brother. The rest of the remaining four go on, tying themselves together with rope as the rhyme says they should. When the path fails they use cut branches to guide their way across by feeling for a firm stepping ground.
After leaving the swamp they sleep for a time, and later consult the map again:
Look for the hand that points the way,
And take the path where children play.
Then, where the face with breath that sighs,
Bends to admire its gleaming eyes,
Your way is marked by lines of light,
That mean escape from endless night.
It seems like the second line suggests that there will be people somewhere ahead, but Marlie warns that the people would just as likely be antagonistic as friendly. They decide to rest for the night before continuing on.
They eventually come to a cave in which are the children and the hand the rhyme spoke of. They walk deeper into the cave, until they reach a stretch of water that blocks the pathway ahead of them, so deep that they will have to swim across it. It is the face the rhyme mentioned, and it is breathing. It is here that Allun reveals that he cannot swim, and thus cannot continue on their quest any longer. Allun admits that because he spent his early childhood with the Travellers, he did not learn to swim at the age most Rin children do, and when he came to Rin and found himself mercilessly bullied he could not bear to reveal this 'weakness' of his and be bullied even more because of it. Rowan, Jonn and Marlie are shocked, Marlie especially so. Allun apologises for not being able to come with them any longer because of his mistake, and the group make their farewells.
Rowan, Jonn and Marlie swim to the other shore, leaving Allun behind them. After resting, they look at the map again:
Left or right, which will you take?
For both of them your heart will break.
One is cruel, one is fair,
One a passage, one a snare.
Choose the one that hides the light,
And you will know your path is right.
They see two entrances in the stone face before them--one must be cruel and the other fair. They cannot tell which is which. First they try the right-hand passage, which they find turns into a low tunnel, barely large enough to crawl through. At Marlie's insistence, they try the left-hand passage, but they find that it ends in a terrible drop which could have killed them all if they had not noticed it in time. All of them shaken, they take the right-hand passage again. Marlie is visibly affected by it, though when pointed out by Jonn she says she can go on. However, soon she is forced to admit that she cannot, for it is true what Jonn guessed that she is terrified of small spaces. Jonn tries to have Rowan return with Marlie, to keep him safe as he had told Jiller he would, but Rowan refuses to go, knowing that he is still needed with Jonn to hold the map and guide him. Unable to argue with him, Jonn agrees to let Rowan continue with him.
The two of them crawl in the tunnel for a night and a day, and emerge at the top of the Mountain, above the cloud. The air is freezing cold. Rowan and Jonn read together the next rhyme on the map:
Fire, water, earth and air
All meet in the Dragon's lair.
Six brave hearts have failed the test,
One continues in the quest.
Remember well the words you know,
When on to find your fate you go.
Rowan is confused at the mention of one continuing in the quest, for both he and Strong Jonn are still there. But then he sees Jonn weakened and giving up hope and realises that the Mountain has defeated him like it did the rest of the adults. Rowan begs Jonn not to sleep, for if he does he will freeze to death, but Jonn cannot stop himself. Refusing to give up hope as Jonn has done, Rowan then lets Jonn sleep but tries to makes Jonn as warm as possible by shielding him from the wind, lighting a small fire and warming him with his body. Later, after Jonn wakes up, he is warm, and Rowan insists that they go together into the Dragon's cave.
Rowan and Jonn come face to face with the Dragon in its lair. The Dragon is in a frenzy, and Rowan soon realises that it is injured-- a bone is stuck in its throat, causing it a lot of pain. It is the reason the stream has dried up, for the Dragon has been unable to hunt and breathe fire, causing the stream source to be frozen. Using his skills as a bukshah herder Rowan calms the Dragon and gently pulls the bone out. However, after it is free and able to hunt, it is so hungry that it attacks Jonn and breaks his leg. Desperate to save Jonn, Rowan shields him from the worst of the attack, and consults Sheba's map for the last time:
Seven hearts the journey make.
Seven ways the hearts will break.
Bravest heart will carry on
When sleep is death, and hope is gone.
Look in the fiery jaws of fear
And see the answer white and clear,
Then throw away all thoughts of home
For only then your quest is done.
Doing as the rhyme implies, Rowan throws Jonn's compass at the Dragon's exposed neck, causing it to let go of Jonn. As they run away, he also throws the rolled map at it. The Dragon roars fire, melting the ice that covers the stream source. Jonn and Rowan are swept away by it, toward Rin.
Back in Rin, Marlie and Allun have joined Val and Ellis in their house after returning from the Mountain. After hearing that Jonn and Rowan are up there alone, Val and Ellis consider the quest lost, but Marlie and Allun refuse to think so. The four adults go to Jiller, to tell her what has happened. They meet her at the dried up pool, where she is with Annad, and that is when the roaring from the Mountain starts.
The entire village arrives after hearing the roaring. Star suddenly moves away from the bukshah pool, and upstream along the dried stream bed, to where a torrent of water gushes, and along with it Rowan and Jonn. Rowan has a happy reunion with Star, and his mother, whose love for him he finally understands. The injured Jonn tells of what Rowan had done for him (and all of them) on the Mountain, and how Rin owes him a great debt. The villagers then cheer for Rowan, even the ones who jeered at him so much before, and Rowan is surprised and happy.
- On page 105, at the beginning of chapter 11 "The Snare", Jonn's name is written as John. This is an error.