Igthorus moved a stubby finger along the upper section of the wall map, tracing the earliest part of the journey through the forest land, which the two shipwrecked sailors had made to come home. He again shuffled through the several pages of report which he held, tucked under one arm. Interrupted by clicking sounds from the staircase, he stopped, listened for a few seconds, sighed deeply, and returned to tracing an invisible line across the thick inkmarks of the hand-scribed navigational map.
...... Thrusting the heavy brown doorcurtain aside in a swirl of displaced fabric, Merc stomped through the stone-arched doorway. He trotted across the uneven floor stones, stopped in front of the document table, and rummaged through the neat piles of papers.
...... "I simply cannot understand the stupidity of all these fools," he complained, as he strew the neat piles across the table. "Look here!" he demanded, waving a sheaf of documents. "There is not one single note of any sighting of Lady Tallpinin, much less a notice of her capture. She's got to be somewhere. Why can't these idiots locate her?"
...... Igthorus turned from the map to poke with a hand-fashioned iron at the small fire at one end of the large fireplace. The wood crackled, as sparks danced out on the hearth. "Perhaps not everyone is purchased by a half-bar of silver," he mused into the small flames. "Lady Misty will allow herself to be seen in her own good time. Might I counsel patience?"
...... Merc waved a hand in a wide sweep. "You sound as much of an imbecile as that doddering Advisor." He tossed a dozen documents onto the single large disordered pile which now stood in the middle of the table and marched to the window to push aside the curtain and stare out over the harbor and lake. "And added to this, the Squadron had that miserable pirate almost cornered . . . and they lost him. Can you believe that! They lost him." He waved a clenched fist at the window. "That miserable man vanishes like the wind. You'd think he had the power to make his ship invisible." He momentarily turned away from the window. "I just cannot understand why he hasn't yet been captured . . . or killed!"
...... A cool gust of air rushed along the floor. Igthorus shivered slightly, pulled his long coat tighter, and turned his back to the warmth of the fire. "That miserable man, as you persist in describing him, obviously is a competent sailor and a clever tactician. Not attributes that we seem to have in quantity any more." A knot burst with a loud crack and tossed a whip of flame out of the fireplace.
...... "He won't be very clever after I get through with him," Merc retorted. He let go of the window curtain and turned to pace a few steps. "Be ready to assemble the Squadron at a moment's notice," he ordered. "I think I know where to find the Grand Bazaar. And if I do, I'll eliminate that problem permanently!" He strode across the room to stop at the door curtain. "And keep after that girl!" He brushed past the fabric, leaving only the echo of clicking boots.
...... "Now that is certainly very interesting," Igthorus murmured, sauntering back to the wall map. "And we certainly shall have to see about that."
"Ease it down slowly!" Willi shouted from the aft end of the deck. Gripping the intricately carved railing with one hand, he leaned over the side of the hull and gestured wildly to the handling crew, who stolidly walked along the thick stone walls of the ancient canal. Overhead, swirls of light rain dropped from the cloudy gray sky and spattered on the moss-covered stonework. The uppermost foliage of the surrounding forest gently waved in the bursts of wind which presaged a thunderstorm.
...... "We are!" Xyly yelled back after a moment's pause, her tone harshly sharp.
...... Balanced on a partly ruined, retaining wall, she motioned her commands to the crewmen who stood by the paired teams of horses on either side. A yard away, a small stone, loosened by weathering and shaken by the hooves of the horses, tilted and fell to bounce across the walkway and roll into the stagnant water a meter down.
...... Pulled along by thick, braided vine ropes attached to the teams' harnesses, the large ship inched forward -- and as it did, it slowly sank between the cut-off tree branches which lined the heights above the wind-rippled water of the canal. All of the sails on both its masts had been tightly furled against possible damage, but tree limbs still brushed the black tarred, standing rigging to crack and sometimes to fall on the walkway and into the water. Loose leaves floated down to be crushed beneath the horse hooves. The scent of fresh sap was carried by the breeze.
...... A two-yard long limb shattered against a backstay, bounced off the rigging, and landed with a leaf-scattering crash on the stern rail. "Every one of these trees needs to be trimmed again," Willi complained loudly, as he backed away from the damaged railing. Kicking aside twigs and railing splinters, four sailors hurried by to readjust one of the tow ropes. He pushed up the broken branch and heaved it over the stern to land with a loud splash ten meters below.
...... "But not now!" Xyly retorted as a shout. Whistling sharply, she motioned to the farthest teamster on the opposite side of the canal to speed up slightly, as the ship reacted to the rising wind and threatened to turn at an angle to the canal's brickwork. Another loud crack was followed by the slow fall of a half-broken branch, sheared off by the thick bowsprit.
...... Held in alignment by the heavy tow cables, and moving just perceptibly, the dark ship settled lower. Finally, falling through a short drop, it landed in the canal squarely between the masonry walls. Displaced by the hull, a massive wave splashed over the low stone curbing and trickled off into the forest beyond, leaving behind it the odor of rotting water weed. The ship rocked with its own settling motions and bumped its bow against the nearside brickwork, knocking a deep bright scar into the worn surface.
...... The horse handlers readjusted the ropes, then urged their teams forward, and the ship began a slow journey down the canal, bobbing slightly in its own reflected wake. Within moments, the hull had moved far enough forward to be completely hidden by the thick unclipped foliage which arched over the waterway.
...... "I still congratulate myself on finding this refuge," Willi announced. Back beside the aft rail, he leaned over the side, one hand tightly gripping a thick backstay. A sailor moved behind him, stretching a safety line across the broken gap.
...... "You would," Xyly called back in sour agreement. She jumped from her perch on the wall to slowly walk beside the aft timbers of the ship, staying far enough away to avoid being splashed by the tiny ripples tossing in the gap. "It was a convenient accident, this canal, being right at the edge of the working distance of the Repeller Stones." She dodged around a shallow puddle of dirty water in the middle of the walkway. "A mile either way, and the repeller force would be too strong or too weak to let the ship down this way."
...... "And now we simply tow the ship for two miles to the end of the canal. There's no chance anyone will ever find us here." His collar flicked up against his chin, and he paused to brush it back down. "No one else would ever consider taking a vessel out this far. They'll all turn back as soon as they see the repeller force is weakening."
...... "Doesn't it seem odd to you that there is an edge to the area of the floating forcing?" She motioned in a wide sweep. "Why doesn't it work everywhere?"
...... "Why should it?" He glanced at the crew at the bow as they reset a tow cable. "Most everything has an end somewhere."
...... "And the Everlast Candles are weak here," she continued. "And the messages are faint. Even when the sender is only a few score miles away."
...... Willi jumped to land sitting on the polished railing. Creaking, it bent under his weight. "All of what you've said is unimportant," he declared, waving to brush it away. "We're beyond the reach of Merc's ships, and we still can receive the pen messages, weak or not. The Everlast Candles are still brighter than oil wicks. And that's good enough for me."
...... "It's not for me," Xyly retorted tartly. She motioned forward along the waterway. "And why was the city here abandoned? And when was it abandoned? In its day this town was bigger than Center is now." She kicked a fallen branch into the water. "Why does this canal start from the bottom of that town? Why does one of our ships fit it perfectly. And where did it go to, back then? Now, it just seems to end in the middle of trackless forest."
...... Willi glared upward at the overhead foliage and shrugged. "Who cares! This ship is a copy of an early ship, which itself was a copy of an earlier ship. So what? Most likely, the ancient people, who lived here, found some place better and moved there. You can leave it to the WindWalkers to have mystics who decry the ships and anything else those savages can't understand. Them and those mysterious DawnWriters. What happened a thousand years ago, doesn't interest me. I'll take things the way they are now. How somebody years ago earned their living isn't going to help me earn mine. I'm more interested in having these trees trimmed another time."
...... She stopped her march long enough to wave a dismissing hand at him. "Perhaps the DawnWriters are right. There's something strange about these ships. And about this endless abandoned forestland. Not even the Outlaws will set up housekeeping here. There aren't many people in our world, considering all the land that's available, free for the taking." After a moment, she added: "Whenever we're here, I have this feeling of foreboding."
...... He flicked one hand in dismissal and had to grab for a backstay to keep his balance. "If you didn't spend so much time prowling around all those deserted wrecked buildings every time we're here, you wouldn't feel that way!" He hunched his shoulders at a sprinkling of water, glanced upward for a moment, then shrugged again. "Our own village here may be tiny, but it has everything we need. Food, shelter, water, heat, even some amusements." He paused for a long sigh and readjusted his grip on the backstay. "Why do you have to go looking around at a place which ended hundreds of years ago? Those people, whoever they were, are long gone!"
...... "I look through those buildings to see what's there," she explained in a very hard tone. "Because the builders of this canal lived there. Don't you have any curiosity?" Without breaking stride she stamped an ornately decorated boot on the flagstone walkway. "Look at this paving. Think of how much work this must have taken. Look at this completely artificial waterway. Why did they build this canal? Where was it supposed to go?" She hurried slightly to stay beside the aft of the ship. "And what caused them to die out? Or did they die out? Or did they just leave for somewhere else? If so, why did they leave? Did they leave of their own accord, or did someone or something force them to leave?" Gesturing upward, she added: "And what's happening in our own world? Is there something going on, we don't know about or can't see or something?"
...... "What's happening in this world tonight is a good hot dinner and good night's sleep," Willi declared, again glancing forward for a moment at the work party. He frowned, then looked down at her again. "And that is all I'm interested in at this minute!"
...... Arms folded, she paused long enough glare at him, then had to hurry to catch up again. "You told me you would come with me to look at what I found last week. Just before we sailed on your wild goose chase. Now we're back. So you will!"
...... "Tonight?" His sigh could be heard across the canal.
...... He tossed both hands up, then once more had to grab hurriedly at the backstay to catch his balance. "All right! But it'd better not take too long. I'm hungry, and I'm tired. And most of all I'm tired of cold shipboard rations. I want a hot dinner! Sometimes, I think it's worth the risk of an oven on the ship, just for something warm to drink during the rain storms."
...... She shook her head. "Then I'd never sail with you! I don't want to be burned alive just because you want a hot sandwich. No one's managed to safely have a flame on a ship. If it weren't for the Candles, we couldn't even have deck lights. Even I'm perfectly willing to admit you're a better Captain than you are an inventor."
...... He paused to roll his eyes at the shreds of gray and darkening sky, visible between the overhead branches. "You can skip that part. Just what is this rubble inspection tour all about?"
...... Xyly looked upward as a faint echo of thunder rolled across the forest. "I think the storm'll be here within the next hour." She quickly gestured. "It'll be easier to show you than to try to tell you . . . which is next to impossible anyway," she coolly added. "About anything at all!"
...... Slowly, meter by meter, the heavy ship was pulled along the waterway to finally be moored against thick timber bumpers, crudely constructed at waterline at the end of the canal. Overhead, the tree branches had been reinforced with twisted-vine ropes and coarsely woven lengths of dark fabric to form a taut rain-shedding canopy. The lathered horses were unhitched by their tired handlers and led to the wood-walled stables, while the sailing crew rushed down the ramp and hurried home to their families, who lived in the ancient stone buildings which surrounded the head of the canal. Immediately following them, the home-based maintenance crew quickly came aboard the ship to began repairing the damages and wear accumulated during the voyage. A second group of men and women on the canal wall began maneuvering a small crane to start the unloading of the holds.
...... In an hour, somewhat dampened by the short but heavy squall, Xyly was pounding on the timber door of Willi's small house, up the hill from the sailors' quarters. In the middle of the tiny paved square, a hot spring splashed over the carved edge of its stone coping and dribbled down the street. Small gusts of wind brought the feel of warm humidity and the slightly sour smell of the mineral water.
...... Willi stepped outside and slammed the ill-fitted wood door, a thick reused ship's hatch. His clothes were wrinkled but freshly laundered, and he carried a large piece of yellow cheese in one hand. With a series of heavy sighs, he followed Xyly across the wet flagstones of the square and up the neat cobbled path which meandered between the tree trucks and the stark stone ruins of other small buildings. The overhead foliage slowly dripped on the ground below.
...... "I still don't see what all this is all about," Willi growled, munching on his cheese meal. "I mean, why right now? It could have waited until tomorrow. There's nothing that important." He paused in his chewing to jump over a low stone wall, then started again on his snack. From a small bush which grew from a crack in the stonework, a small animal peered out, sniffing for the fragrant dropped crumbs.
...... "Just keep quiet. You'll see very shortly," Xyly replied in an irritated tone. Ducking under a low branch which slowly dripped rainwater, she waved upward at the tree foliage. "Men! All they're interested in, is filling their egos, their bellies, and their beds." Kicking a pile of wet leaves from the path, she slowed to turn left, motioning forward. "Half a mile more, hero. Tough it out!"
...... She halted in front of a moderate sized, two story stone house, its only side wing a lichen-covered jumble of fallen stone blocks. Standing in front of the empty doorway, she stroked the side of the Everlast Candle she carried. The Candle glowed into halfhearted illumination, and its red-yellow light sparkled along tiny mica facets in the stonework. A large insect circled, then buzzed away. Far in the distance, the rattle of the ship's work crew echoed on the humid air.
...... "This far up the mountain, the Candles barely work," Willi complained, finishing the last of the cheese. "No one ever comes up here. I can't understand why you do, either. There's nothing here!" He brushed his hands together and straightened his vest, adding an extra pull at his leather belt.
...... "It's good enough for our needs," she brusquely answered, stepping through the open doorway into the darkness of the building. Holding the Candle above her head, she motioned him inside, impatience in the gesture, as she walked across the bare tiled floor toward a second dark doorway.
...... Sauntering through the first room, he glanced into another empty doorway, then suddenly halted at the sight of a few wavering reflections. "Scrap metal!" He hurried to the opening to peer through the darkness at the mass of rusted metal, piled halfway up the wall. "Xyly! Over here. Bring the Candle this way." He glanced over his shoulder, while rubbing his hands together again. "Now, this is what I call a real find. Our blacksmith can work the rust out. There's enough here to keep us in tradegoods for weeks." He gestured wildly, quickly glancing once more over his shoulder. "It's a good thing I decided to come up here," he absently added to himself.
...... Xyly stopped at the other door to motion brusquely to him. "Leave that alone. That's minor. You come over here, and look at what's in this room." She stepped forward two paces and held the Candle high.
...... The high-ceiling room took up the back half of the building. Part of its vaulted roof had collapsed and lay jumbled against the farthest wall. Among large chunks of broken pottery, four ceramic tubs full of oily liquid lined a section of solid stonework.
...... "Soap scum," Willi remarked from behind her. "So what?"
...... She reached into the dark liquid in one of the tubs and pulled out a handful of iron nails, rust free. "There's some sort of coating on them too," she explained. "Somehow, the people, who once lived here, knew how to stop them from rusting. They're still sharp." Droplets of dark fluid ran down her hand and landed in circular ripples in the tub, shimmering in the dim Candle light.
...... Gingerly, Willi took several of the large nails and looked at them, rolling them over in his hand. "There's maybe a year's supplies here, if those tubs are all full," he estimated in a low voice. "Maybe a year and a half, if we're careful with them. They look well made, too."
...... "All of them are full," she advised, dropping her handful back with a small splash. "I've checked already." She pulled a fragment of cloth from her belt and wiped her hand. "But I did know you'd never believe me about this, unless I actually brought you here and rubbed your nose in it." Holding the Candle up, she inspected the blank walls and damaged ceiling of the room. "This building must've been their idea of a blacksmith's shop. But I don't see any smoke holes. How did those people learn to stop rust like this?"
...... "Who knows?" Willi returned. "It's a good find for us, anyway. Nails are getting hard to come by these days."
...... Xyly tapped her boot against one of the thick-walled containers. "How did they make these bins? These things are better workmanship than any our people can do. No one can bake ceramic this size now. The DawnWriters are right about another thing. The ancient people had lost arts we can't even begin to appreciate."
...... "Who cares about lost arts," he snapped. "Arts don't hold ships together. Nails do! Some ancient tribe's mystic symbols and religious ideas don't interest me at all. And that's all the DawnWriters seem to know about those ancient people. From that, they want everyone to quit using ships and Candles and so on, and return to some happy state of nature. I'm not interested in eating nuts and berries. I'm interested in earning enough to have my own little house and some nice things to put in it! When the DawnWriters come up with a solution to that, I'll listen. And not before!" He tossed the half-dozen nails back into one of the tubs.
...... Handing him the Candle, she stepped to the doorway. "I'm going home. I'm just as tired and hungry as you are. And most of all, I want a bath!" She added, as she walked away: "You can lead some crew members up here, at your convenience, to collect this loot. See you tomorrow morning. Late tomorrow morning!"
"I heard that the pirate escaped the Squadron again," the foreman remarked casually. He pulled at his patched jacket to straighten it, as the wind tossed against its hem.
...... Absently, Igthorus nodded, then turned away from the unloading operation. Heavy, cut, stone blocks were being hoisted from the hold of a ship and deposited on sledges which waited on the dock. "The captain has estimated one last load of salvageable blocks from that ruin. Do you agree?"
...... "I'd estimate half a cargo, no more," the foreman allowed with one hand held out. "That captain is a bit optimistic." He motioned at the net loaded with rectangular stones which was swinging on the crane hook. "Why can't anyone cut stone like that now?"
...... They paused to watch a team of horses drag an empty sledge into place. The handler changed the harness to a full sledge and flicked the reins, calling encouragement to the animals. They slowly moved off, the sledge scrapping along behind them.
...... "All the local quarry does, is chisel out raw slabs with broken edges," the foreman continued in his aggrieved tone. "If it weren't for these loads of properly faced block, it'd be impossible for me to build that new section of the fort. No matter how loud Merc screamed." The man turned to look up the hill, beyond the harbor watchtower.
...... "And it does have to be built," Igthorus acknowledged with a tiny laugh. "But not necessarily well." He adjusted the thin belt around his large waist. "Perhaps, in time, the situation will improve."
...... "I have trouble enough getting people who can use a plumb-bob and line," the foreman added in the same harsh tone. Again, he pulled his jacket closer, then crossed his arms over his chest. "Not only that, all the saws need sharpening already. The metal's been reused so many times, there's practically nothing left. And I've got to have lumber for scaffolding before I can put these blocks into place."
...... His hands loosely clasped behind his back, Igthorus nodded agreement. "Sometimes, it does seem as though we live entirely off of the detritus of another civilization. Trading our rock and metal scraps for other Estates' slightly different rock and metal scraps. Then scrounging the forest for a few ancient buildings for stone with which to build our own buildings. With the ruins themselves being hard to find."
...... "I think we need to begin trading with the Outlaws." The foreman shifted his weight, scrapping one boot on the dock. "It's the SeaLords who profit by keeping up the hostility. Not us working class."
...... "That sounds like DawnWriter ideas," Igthorus chuckled. "Be very careful where you mention that opinion. If you value your job."
...... "Oh, I'm very careful who I talk to," the foreman allowed with a smile. "There are those I can trust. And there are others we all know."
...... "Replacing the aristocrats with people of our own heritage is a slow process," Igthorus warned. "I work for our grandchildren's well being. The future has to come slowly."
...... "That future may come faster than anyone plans on," the foreman argued. "The Outlaws are growing in strength, the tenant farmers are becoming desperate, and now these DawnWriters with their warnings and ideas. The pressure is building." He waved a hand in a wide gesture. "Perhaps some near future day," he quietly added in a hard tone.
...... Igthorus shrugged again, then unclasped his hands and rubbed them. Adding a fast motion of farewell, he turned to start his long hike along the dock and back to his office in the stone watchtower.
|chapter two||CHAPTER THREE||chapter four|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)