Many others came before him. Many other came after. This history begins with him because it must begin, and it must begin somewhere.
He came to the Brothers' island on a boat he hired from the fisherwoman Malavin, a widow of forty summers with forearms as hard as varnished oak, who lived off the silver-green tench of the inner lake. He told her his name was Pyotr, and that he had also made a living from the water. This was a half-truth. He had been a river pirate, once. Sailing up and down the mighty waters of the steppe lands in a longboat, sleek, quick and deadly, with his greedy crew. Preying on fat merchant boats gorged on treasure like an otter catching roe-filled salmon swimming upstream to breed.
His work, as he called it, had eventually taken him south to distant Trapzon, where he fought in the pay of the Kastrioti, raiding the ports of the Circassian coast. He read of the Ring Lakes on a scroll in the library of a monastery in Epidamnos as he sat recuperating from a dagger-thrust to the ribs, given to him by a whore in the throes of love-making in a bungled attempt to kill and rob him. Strong again, he left the warm south, where he no longer felt the people could be trusted, and made the long journey to the damp and misty north. He wanted to see what fortune he could find in the caves which the unknown author of that scroll had described.
Malavin delivered him to the muddy, pebbled shore of the Brothers' island and did not herself get off her boat. They nodded to each other as she slowly rowed her way back through the drizzling mist towards the other shore. He had given her two gold coins embossed with the image of the Autokrat of the Kastrioti. They would be spent in Arinagour on mead and goat meat, and examined with great curiosity and suspicion by Malavin's friends and acquaintances there.
The island in the middle of the inner lake is as the scroll had described it: a small hillock, with twelve rowan trees around its skirts and a chunk of granite as big as a house on its top. The rock loomed above him in the dank morning light, implacable like the haunch of an ox hunched against the wind and rain. The scroll had said there was a mighty crack in that lump of stone, wide and tall enough for a horse to enter if it could, and that it could be found on boulder's north face in winter, east face in spring, south face in summer, and west face in autumn. Now it was autumn. And Pyotr, sure enough, found the crack facing west.
He slipped into the blackness inside, out of the rain. Underfoot the soil was soggy from the weather, but within two paces it became dry. The ground thereafter rapidly inclined downwards, creating a steeply descending tunnel, a yard or so wide; the weak gleam of grey light from outside did not illuminate it. Pyotr crouched to the ground and listened for a while, breathed in the stale scent, put his attention to the skin of his face to feel if there was any movement in the air. There was nothing: stillness, silence, emptiness.
He had with him flint, a little kindling, a torch and some oil. In seconds he had a flame. Light and warmth filled the space around him. Below his feet, the tunnel floor: rocks and stone. On either side and overhead, rough granite. Beyond the glow - blackness.
He was still for a long time before he started to edge his way downwards. Eventually he crept forward, his torch in his right hand, the fingertips of his left touching the wall of the tunnel as if to comfort himself with its solidity. The incline was steep. He trod carefully. Step by step. For ten, then twenty, then thirty yards. As he descended, the air grew warmer - the heat of the torch held close by the blanket of rock around him. Every short while, he would pause, and listen. There was no sound except for his own breath and the faint crackle and snap of the flame. Eventually, he would continue.
Finally, the ground beneath his feet levelled off and the tunnel ended, and seemed to open up into a wider space before him - a room, a cavern, or a wider tunnel - just visible in the faint glow of the furthest reaches of the light of his torch. He stood still and listened for long minutes. And then, achingly slowly, he began to edge forward. The fingers of his left hand no longer touched the wall of the tunnel. They went to his side, where he kept a knife.
It was not long before the light of the torch revealed that what lay at the end of the tunnel was no cavern. The floor was, quite clearly, tiled. Black and white squares, each about a square foot, were slowly and delicately revealed by the torch's glow. He gently slid his knife from its sheath and held it like a dagger, its blade close to his wrist.
When finally he reached the end of the tunnel, he could see out into a square chamber, illuminated flickeringly and dully copper-orange by the torch light.
He was standing in an entrance in the middle of one wall. In the middle of each of the other three walls was, likewise, a doorway - a black gulf, a hole, big enough for a man to enter. On each of the walls were smaller tiles, arranged in detailed mosaics. And above, the ceiling was low, and black. It alone was not tiled.
He did not yet step into the room. He counted the floor tiles and measured the chamber as 6 yards square. Then, he looked up at the ceiling. It was a single slab of stone, painted in the deepest, darkest and purest black, but flecked all over with tiny specks of white that seemed to shimmer iridescently even in the dim torchlight. The firmament.
Then, he studied the wall to the left. The entire wall was a single mosaic, the only gap being the entranceway itself, a block of absolute darkness. The image was of the sun, an orange globe covering the left hand side of the wall, with rays of orange spreading from it from left to right. The dawn.
In the wall to the centre, the image was of the sun, but this time in the middle of the wall, and yellow, with yellow rays spreading out in all directions. Noon.
In the wall to the right, the image was again of the sun, but now to the right hand side, and red, with red rays spreading from right to left. Dusk.
Pyotr stepped into it, and turned round to regard the wall from which he had just emerged. It was grey, unadorned, solid rock. He leaned his back against it and looked at the other three entranceways before him.