At the time I left Hudson's Landing, it was just a little port town in a backwater county of Angland. Every hamlet, village, town, port, harbour, outpost, fort, and city was governed by the Lords. Their domains spread from the Hard Coast across the Great Mountains, as far north as Cana, and south to Georgia.
The Lords of the Big Ten cities formed the Lord's Council, which met two or three times a year to vote on this and that, and elect one of their numbers to the post of High Lord of Angland. The High Lord adds the title Rex to the end of his name and wears a fancy belt. This belt has a big gold buckle on it that's studded with worbear teeth. I tried to put it on once, when I was sneaking around one of their meetings, and boy was Papa sore!
Each Lord has numerous vassals who govern all the small towns and villages, like Papa, who was Governor of Hudson's Landing from the sea all the way up to Hartsbend. I recall Papa saying that in total there were two hundred governors like him. They were all responsible for governing the land first, which meant settling disputes and passing judgement for minor crimes; and second, they were responsible for finding and destroying any and all Technology.
Tech can be, of course, a cuss word in Angland, used when someone wants to utter the foulest of curses or strike the most heretical of blasphemies. Any old Technology is called ancients or artifacts, and new Tech is inventions, and so on and so on. But no matter what it's called, old or new, Technology is completely forbidden and the most forbidden of all are guns. Only a Governor or a Lord had the privilege of carrying a firearm. Their guns had to be kept in working order and they had to be worn at all times. Papa tried to explain how this came about, but I was never good at keeping history straight.
He said that hundreds of years ago everyone owned ball and powder guns and they used them in warfare and hunting alike, but at some point guns fell out of popularity and were relegated to collectors and museums. When The Bright happened, and the copperheads attacked, all of Man's Technology was destroyed, and since they relied on Technology for everything, most people starved. Billions of them. The one's that survived lived in savagery for hundreds of years until men with ancient guns took power and founded Angland. It started out as just a single town, Overtop. The First Lord, Stalwart had one rule; the sempronia: everyone works. He didn't care if you worked for yourself or for someone else because it all benefitted the group in some way or another. If you committed a crime that took away another's work, you were punished. The harshest punishment was, and still is, exile. Hanging is also a punishment, but a quick death from the rope is better than interdictum plenum, naked exile. The worst offence in Angland is making Tech; it's considered consorting with copperheads. Papa talked very little of copperheads or Tech or anything; it's considered bad luck to do so. When I asked him, he always said he would explain these things when I was older. All he would say was that officially, his job was playing judge and rooting out heresy. Then Papa would roll his eyes, but only to me and only when no one else was around.
At any rate, the Lords were very powerful men. The Lord for my county was Roger Ember. I met him once when I went with Papa to the capitol of Angland, a city called Westphalia. I don’t recall the history of the city as I was only a girl at the time, and I was much too interested in looking around at the immense stone buildings. Westphalia was built on the ruins of one of the old cities, so it was hilly and there were things there that didn’t exist in Hudson’s Landing. While we rode through that ancient city, Papa would point out some building or other and lean over so only I could hear him. “See how that hill crests and then breaks away? A great tower fell there.” Or, “See those pieces of metal sticking out of that wall, like rusty snakes? They’re called re-bar.” Oh, I learned a thousand things a day that trip, but much of it has since been replaced.
Roger Ember met us that first day and rode his fine paint-mare alongside us to the Lord's House. He was an alright man; I remember Papa saying he was one of the good Lords so I was pleasant. When I met him I recall how he shook hands with Papa and how he swung an enormous rifle off his shoulder and casually slid it into a skin behind his saddle. He was a very slight man, but he handled the rifle like it was an old friend. What I liked about Roger Ember was the little jokes he would make about the men around him while holding a most serious expression. He would then lean his head towards me and wink, which would make his moustache twitch. It made me laugh, though I believe that most of his jokes went straight over my head.
We were in Westphalia for a meeting of all four Lords of Lower Angland. Papa made me memorize their names. Roger Ember, who I already spoke about, was Lord of Westphalia. Theodore Naples, or Big Naples, was Lord of Downcastle until he was killed by a worbear on a hunting trip. His son, Ernest Naples, the Little, was the new Lord around the time I left home. His daddy was known as a fair minded, honest Lord who gave everything to his people. He lived in a small manor house that often housed the poor and the sick of his county, but when Big Naples died Little Naples took over and expelled all the indigents from the house. Needless to say, he was not as popular as his father.
The true monsters of the group were Edward Fairchild, Lord of Coal-sea, and his inbred cousin Jules Fairchild, Lord of Billings. The Fairchild’s spoke loudly and carried a big stick, so Papa said. At his word, I did not like either of them, but it was their general demeanour that was so pompous and so aristocratic that I could hardly stand to greet them. I curtsied, as Papa had taught me, but it was half-hearted. They were both weak-jawed, angry looking men with dark beards and shifty eyes. Each carried a revolver on his hip and a rifle on his back. Jules was the more stupid of the two and did not do anything without his cousin’s say. Edward was forever bossing Jules around and Papa said, since they voted in two's at all times, they were able to muscle most of their proposals through.
I spent most of the trip glued to Papa so I could learn the ways of government, but when he was tied up in meetings I was given over to a slow and guileless woman of at least a hundred years. She was absolutely scandalized that I did not know how to sew. I explained that Mama did all the sewing and that I did not need to learn.
“And what will happen when your poor Mother is older, dear? Or when you marry?” She crowed at me.
“Mama will never get old and I shall never marry!” I stood defiant with my chest puffed out, suddenly feeling my oats. I got a cuff across the backside with her knitting needle, which I did not appreciate. The first chance I got I stole out of there and ran. I was much faster than she was and she waddled after me. I couldn’t help but giggle; I found the kitchen and made off with a wedge of cheese as the cook barked something at me before I ran out the back door and was free.
I began with my usual routine when I’m in a new place. I wandered around, staring and running into things. Turns out the first place I ran into was the most interesting. They billeted troops in the city and had a fully functional garrison. There was a minuteman building in Hudson’s Landing, but it did triple duty as a Post Office and an Ale House, so it was not the same thing. This building looked like a proper castle with four high stone walls and little turrets at each corner. I tried to get in through the front gate and was chased off by a burly guard who smelt like the armpit of Hell.
Now was the time to break-in; my speciality, and it turned out that it was not difficult to do. There was a tremendous oak tree growing next to one of the walls. I could see a little wooden platform with steps set-up near the base of the oak that was the perfect height, so I could boost myself to the lowest branch. I spat on my hands and began to climb. When I reached a thick branch that stuck out over the platform, I saw that the bark had worn away, as if it had been rubbed down by something. At first I couldn’t figure it. Was it from birds grasping the branch or maybe other climbers sitting on it? I looked down at the little platform and felt a sudden drop in my guts. This was the gallows. The rubbed away bark was from the twisting rope as men kicked away on the other end. I gulped hard and kept climbing.
I finally reached a place where I could see into the garrison, and though the branch would not permit me to get over onto the ramparts, I was happy to sit and watch the soldiers drill. There were around fifty of them in various areas of training. Some with swords or bows, but most had long spears called lances. The lances looked awfully heavy and more than a few boys jabbed them awkwardly toward their targets; straw dummies lashed to upright poles. One boy in particular, with dark hair, who couldn’t have been more than my own age, was perfectly swimming in his uniform. He repeatedly tried to strike his target and kept jabbing the end of the spear into the dirt at the dummies' feet.
A large bald man was screaming at him, “Charles, you maggot! You’ll be the death of this whole teching company! I'll fetch my black snake and see what we can teach you then!” He went on and on and in detail about Charles’ parentage, threatening to get his whip, and cussing deeper than Mama with a burnt dinner. “Put your feet like this! Like mine, you pig!” he thundered on. “No! Don’t cross over like that! You’ll take a step and trip yourself up, and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground!”
Charles couldn’t get it right. I laughed and laughed, forgetting that they could probably hear me, which they did. Fifty heads turned to my little hiding spot in the tree. I stared and realized I best try a hasty retreat, but when I turned to go the first branch I grabbed broke clean away and I fell straight to the earth. Well, more or less straight in that my fall was broken by about a thousand branches on the way down. I didn't recall there being so many branches on the way up, and that was the only thought I could muster before I slammed into the ground and my vision faded to black.
When I came to I was looking at Papa and laying in a bed back at the manor house. The old crone I had ran off from was there too, glaring down at me with a look on her face that said, “You don’t knock yourself out sewing!” Papa looked very concerned and his brow was lined and his eyebrows cocked.
I realized then that I was only looking out of one eye and I thought there was a bandage over the other one. I reached up to remove it and found nothing there.
“Papa, I can’t see out of my eye!” I got scared and almost started to cry.
“It’ll be okay, Sam. You had quite the fall, but your vision should return soon.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Sammy, I’m sure. I know everything, remember?” He winked at me and I smiled. He used to tell me that joke just to make me smile. He meant it as a joke anyway, but the truth was he did know everything. He was a genius.
I slept the rest of the day and the next morning I woke up to find that my vision was good as new and that the old crone had been replaced by someone more familiar and much younger. Charles, the poor soldier from the day before, was standing guard outside my door. He wore a look of grim duty, but he was clearly bored. He was dressed as a soldier-recruit in a long, red overcoat of the Westphalia Guards Infantry, with white strips of cloth adorning his shoulders to show his lack of rank. His spear had no iron tip on it, thank the Gods, as he would have stabbed me with it, and the wooden sword at his waist did not look overly dangerous. He looked handsome in his uniform, though it was much too big for him.
Charlie, as he preferred to be called, was my new guard for the duration of our stay. He said, “I’m to keep you out of the larders, trees, and trouble,” he spoke as if he were made to memorize it. It’s something Papa would have said.
Charlie and I were fast friends, as it always is when you're young. He liked most of everything that I did, and even though he was a little older he never showed any arrogance on account of it. He walked me around town and jabbered on about soldiering and growing up in Westphalia under a proper Lord. His daddy was Minister of Forests, which was a very high post indeed. He oversaw regular things like hunting permits, animal counts, and all of the big events, like the annual boar hunt and such.
Charlie was big on hunting and he knew all of the different spear heads and what they were used to kill. He told me about the last boar hunt, when he was the spear bearer. A party of fifty men and several dozen wolfhounds were on the trail of a monster boar that had gored three people in the next town. The boar was a gray-backed beast with a row of spikes on his back and tusks six inches long. They were right on his trail, going up a little rise toward a thick wood, and just before that boar could disappear into the trees the forest opened up and a tremendous worbear snatched the boar and swallowed him whole. They tried to take on the worbear, but the horses and the dogs, and most of the men, would have none of it. I had a hard time picturing a beast so big that it could swallow a boar in one gulp. Those hogs can run faster than a man, so said Charlie, and they could toss you ass over ears with just a flick of their head, so the worbear had to be a true monster.
I'd seen a worbear once at the zoo in Springhill. Okay, so it was just a skeleton, killed by some Lord who is long dead. It was over a century old and big as all creation. They had it displayed in a little made-up patch of forest that had painted trees and fake grass, so the skeleton would look more natural or some such. It was up on its hind legs and it was so tall that it stooped forward to avoid touching the ceiling. Its huge paws, the size of wagon wheels, reached out for you, and its mighty jaws hung open, displaying dagger sharp tusks four hands high. This beast was the terror of all of Angland. Only a handful had been killed and it usually took an army to do it.
I liked listening to Charlie talk, especially because while he talked I was getting up to my usual mischief. On our third day, we came up to a long barbed wire fence that was marked all over with white skulled danger signs. Beyond it I could see the half fallen ruins of the Old City's towers. They built everything so tall, no wonder they fell over.
The area was overgrown with trees and bushes, but the eerie majesty of the ruined towers in the distance made me so curious I just had to see them up close. There were ten of them in various sizes, but not one smaller than the tallest building in Westphalia. Many were covered with vines and creeper plants that grew up the sides and in and out of the dozens of window holes. Black birds circled around the uppermost points of the towers, calling to each other before settling quietly on the window sills and broken walls. The deep squawking cries were unsettling and almost gave me pause. Almost.
“Let’s go up that one.” I said and pointed at the nearest spire.
“Not a chance will you get me up there.”
“You’re not scared, are you?” I said, trying to needle him.
“There’s a reason this whole area is fenced off. These buildings could collapse at any time. No one goes in there.”
I knew all of that, of course.
“I know all of that,” I said, “but isn’t that the point of exploring? There could be relics in there or treasures.” Now, I don’t know what I meant by treasures. I guess I thought there could be a cache of diamonds or coins or some forbidden Tech inside one of the towers. For all his reluctance, poor Charlie never had a chance. I was young, but I was still a girl and I knew that batting my eyelashes got me pretty much whatever I liked. I know, it's shameful, but boys use their strength, so a girl's got to use what she’s got to use.
“We can’t go in there Lady Stanton. It’s..." he started and I was already over the fence. I grabbed his hand, which made him stutter like a broken cartwheel, and he flushed a fine shade of red. Before he could think, he was up and over the fence. He ripped his coat on the way down and cussed bitterly.
“Now I’ve done it.” He said as he held the two pieces of his tunic together, like they would somehow mend by willpower.
“Well, now nothing else can go wrong, right?” I said with my best charming smile.
“I guess so,” he said, downcast.
I felt bad and he needed cheering up, so I gave him a swift kiss on the cheek and then darted off into the bush.
“Wait up!” he called, but I was gone, laughing and running like only a kid can. Charlie had a hard time keeping up. I had to stop and wait for him a dozen times as the brush was so thick his spear kept getting caught on every branch and vine and trunk, and it spun backwards and out of his hands.
I descended a little hill, ducking under a heavy branch, and I came upon a dug-out made of concrete; at least, that's what Papa called it. It's a kind of shaped rock that the Old Ones used all over the place for towers and roads. The Lord's Highway still has visible patches of this rock in some parts. Papa said the Old Ones used so much of the rock that they called their cities concrete jungles. Now it was more jungle than concrete, and this pleased me. I have always been in awe of the accomplishments of nature.
This dug-out was deep, maybe ten yards, with a very pretty span-elm growing out of the center, surrounded by brush and rubble. There was an old iron railing around the dug-out with a sign on it that was more or less intact, but the writing was too faded to read. Charlie claimed it was a warning that there was spirits in the ruins ahead, but he was just making that up to put me off. I scolded him as we made our way around the other side of the dug-out. I tossed a few rocks down into the bottom, which bounced off the broken stones and splashed into a scummy pool below, but we found no evidence of what the dug-out was used for.
“I’ll bet,” I volunteered, “that prisoners fought each other to death in there. They would come in through that gate and the high walls were meant to keep them from escaping and killing the spectators!”
Charlie laughed and said it was a good suggestion. He was such an amiable fellow and I liked having him around. Not many people laughed at what I had to say and it was a nice sound. Why, a boy like Charlie could really get to a girl’s head!
We kept wandering and found three more dug-outs like the first; two with moats and one collapsed, and all were overgrown with enormous old span-elm trees that were so ripe for climbing that I just had to get up there to see what I could find.
Despite Charlie’s protests, I found a nice, tall span-elm to climb. I noticed that the farther into the woods we travelled, the more Charlie went from adventurous to annoying. He was good enough to hold my coat and my white shirt though, which I did not want to dirty up during my climb. He was instantly scandalized that I would climb a tree in just trousers and an undershirt. So much so that he refused to look up to see how high I had gotten, even though I promised to come down there and smack him if he didn’t.
From the top of that tree I could make out the nearest tower that I wanted to climb. I yelled for Charlie to lay his spear on the ground in the direction of that tower so that when I climbed down we knew which way to go. I thought it was clever and it meant that Charlie wouldn’t have to look up, which he absolutely refused to do anyway.
I hollered at him for a good five minutes until I had it just right, but the whole time Mr. Stick-in-the-mud kept his eyes cast downwards at his spear. In retrospect, he was likely pointing more than one spear around the woods that day.
Once the spear was placed, I climbed down and got a good eye for our direction. We set off after I dressed, to make Charlie stop blushing, and I was quickly in the lead, barking out commands like I was on the deck of a warship and Charlie was my ship mate. I made him call me Captain and told him to reply “Aye, aye, Captain,” which means yes in navy speak.
We clamoured up and over huge fallen logs and I ripped my new pants on a rusty piece of iron as we hopped a fence. I tried to hide it from Charlie, but he saw and gave me a satisfied smirk while pointing at his ripped coat. After a few loops, we made it to the base of the first great tower. I had never been so close to one and my guts got caught up in themselves. Charlie looked at me, puzzled.
“Aren’t you going in, Captain?” he said with a half a smile. He was calling me cowardly without saying it.
“I ain’t scared.” I said.
“Then by all means my lady, after you.”
“Scared ain’t a good thing to call a girl who will one day inherit a firearm.” I said, but he just smiled.
The base of the tower was a big square that ascended straight in the air for what seemed like forever, but it was probably fifty yards up before ending in a jagged and vine covered point. It was hard to imagine, but that tower was probably built twice as tall as it was now. There were lots of boulders around, large and small, which made for hard walking to the wall of the tower.
Charlie used his spear to poke around for loose rocks, and it was a good thing he did since there were lots of holes in the piles of rubble just wide enough for a foot to slip through. We carefully made our way to the wall of the tower and found a square window hole in the side, just big enough for me to wiggle through, but I hesitated, just not for a lack of guts.
“I ain’t scared.” I said again before Charlie could say anything.
“Shall I take your shirt again?” he asked, laughing. Huh, I thought, now he is both adventurous and annoying.
“I shall be fine!” I barked with a scowl. Either my charms were wearing off on the boy or he had recovered some measure of his manhood on the trip to the tower. I thought it would be best to test him later to see which was true.
I will say that I did not think overmuch about things as a young girl, but I recall being scared of what I might find in that place; by trespassing into a forbidden area and even getting Charlie into some trouble, but I did not think, at the time, of how much danger we were really in. Help, and by help I mean Papa, if he were needed, was far away. A thousand terrible things could have happened to us. Either one of us could have fallen, stepped through a hole and broke a leg, had a rock break off from the tower and land full on us. We could have been attacked by worbears, wulfs, or carried off by one of the gray hawks of Papa's stories. Being an adult really makes you wonder how you survived childhood. Well, at least, my childhood.
I managed to wriggle into the window of this tower with hardly any light, except from the little sunlight that streaked in through the cracks above. The window led to a room, maybe three yards to a side, and it was all over dusty. The floor was even and was made of the same stone as the walls. I stepped away from the window, to make room for Charlie, and I tried to let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
"You alright?" called Charlie.
"Yeah, come on in, it's solid."
Charlie needed no encouragement and braced his spear across the face of the opening before swinging his body, feet first, in a neat acrobat move. He fished his spear through the opening and we surveyed the little room. There was a doorway across from us and a bed against one wall, covered in sandy dust and dirt. "What is it?" Charlie immediately asked, like a boy would, talking when he should have been looking and listening.
"A bedroom," I said.
"In a war tower?" he said, astonished. "You're not supposed to sleep on duty."
I was too busy creeping around to respond to Charlie. I had found a low chest of drawers next to the bed and I tried to pull open the drawers by their little brass knobs. They were ancient and cracked, like they had taken water and swelled and eventually dried up and split. I hauled on the top drawer, but it was stuck fast. I tugged on the second drawer and the little knob came clean out of the wood. To my surprise the bottom drawer slid open easy and inside I spied a little sphere of plastick. This I pocketed, on account that no one else was using it. Plastick was not considered Tech unless it did something and it was quite valuable to the right people. Hopefully, I thought, I could show it to Papa and he could tell me what it was. After all, he was a genius.
Charlie had busied himself by trying to pry open the bedroom door, which, like all the other wood, had swelled and cracked and dried too big to budge. After fiddling with the chest of drawers, I looked at the bed and noticed a heap of filthy blankets on top of it. There were cobwebs everywhere, but I don’t pay any mind to spiders that build webs, since everyone knows that the dangerous ones don't build webs.
Charlie was prying at the door with his spear and the shaft was bending terribly. I offered to help, but he would have none of it. I didn't mind watching him try though, he seemed manly, straining at that door, and I thought that maybe I had been too hard on him earlier. Eventually he took a break, stating that he needed to recover his energy before trying again.
I asked him nicely to use his spear to clear the cobwebs from the bed just so I could see if anything lay under the blankets. This he did, and when he came close he sort of brushed his shoulder against mine and then excused himself for his clumsiness.
"It was nothing." I said and he blushed and I probably did too, just from the heat of the little room and nothing more.
He swept the cobwebs away and did a nice job of it too. He didn’t ask if I was afraid of spiders or anything, and when he was done he stood next to me and was still breathing a little heavy from his exertion at the door. He had a bead or two of sweat on his brow and the veins on the back of his hands were standing out as he gripped the shaft of the spear. We stood there, with our shoulders touching, and him not wanting to move and me not really wanting to move either. I had a queer feeling in my chest and guts, like when you kick a horse up from a walk and he busts into a gallop when you’re not expecting it.
I looked over at Charlie and he looked over at me, and he smiled shyly and I thought him cute then, a charming boy that I should have been nicer to. I had a thought that I should kiss him right there in that little bedroom in that forbidden place. As I leaned towards his face he closed his eyes and someone kicked that horse in my guts again, making him truly fly.
Unfortunately, I’m notorious for ruining nice moments, and it should have been a nice moment. Had I not ruined it, I bet it would have been a nice kiss; soft and just the littlest tickle from the tiny moustache he was trying to grow. However, I didn't find out the kind of kisser he was that day. I happened to place my hand on the bed, in order to turn my body to give the boy a proper shot at my face, but I did not rest my hand on blankets or cobwebs. I rested it on something cold and hard with a jagged ridge that made me jump and pull my hand away. I looked down and I realized I had just laid my hands on a bone that protruded from under the blankets.
Well I yelped like a little puppy, most shamefully, and I startled Charlie, who flashed his eyes open and looked at me sore and red in the face, like I had done it on purpose. I looked from his face and pointed at the bed.
"What is it?" I cried. Charlie grasped the edge of the blanket and thrust it away, blasting a cloud of ancient dust into our faces. I coughed and so did he, but he manfully jabbed his headless spear toward the bed in ready defence of our young lives.
It took a moment for the dust to clear, and when it did we both stood quiet and still for a minute or more in curiosity more than fear. It was a human skeleton; a little one, seeming smaller by its lack of flesh. The bones had decayed fiercely and it had little structure left. The skull was mostly whole and stared at us with those deep black sockets. Despite its age it had remarkably straight teeth, though they were brown and little. The ribs had given way and lay in a crumbling mass at the chest, disturbed, no doubt, from Charlie's sudden removal of its protective blanket. The arms were partially whole, but the pelvic bone was half dust and the legs were a patchwork of brown and white crumbles. One knee was sticking out toward us and this was where I had chosen to rest my hand before this rude stranger had interrupted my first kiss.
"We should leave, Sam." Charlie said. "It's awful bad to disturb the dead. We'll have some spirit follow us home and haunt us."
He spoke the truth. The stories of ghosts and spirits haunting people after death were legendary. There were whole cities called Downs where only spirits lived and no man dared walk. Preachers would sometimes come and try to scare the demons off and retake the land for the living, but they were met with little success.
Charlie tugged on me, but I was transfixed on the sight of that little skeleton. It had to be a thousand years old, but it was still so whole. I had seen many animal carcasses when me and Ginny would go tromping through the woods, but I had never seen a real human skeleton. Just under the arm nearest me, I spied a little glint of metal. Before I realized it, I scooped up the bony arm and grabbed the metal object from underneath. It was a flat square piece of glassy metal with a brown piece of leather coming out one side. I touched the leather and it broke away and fell to the bed in a little poof of dust. I flipped the object over and it was metal on the other side too, but not glassy. I held it glass side up in my palm and I was about to pass it to Charlie when a most peculiar thing happened. The little glass front lit up in bright blue and a tiny voice, fainter than a baby mouse said, "Salvay! Salvay!"
That was enough adventuring for me, thank you very much! Charlie smacked the thing out of my hand and I shouted, more surprised than hurt, while he stamped and stomped on the thing, but it still shone blue and the little voice kept saying, "Salvay! Salvay!" Finally, with a huge sweep of his leg, Charlie crashed his heel down onto the floor and the next thing I knew the floor wasn't there and I was falling; falling into blackness.
I came to my senses amidst a cloud of foul dust that choked me and made me cough. My wind was unsteady and it took me half of forever before I caught my breath. I swam my hands through the dust in front of my face to buy some clean air, but it was useless. The whole world was dirt and all around me was blackness and boulders but for a single stream of dusty light from above. I checked my bottom with my hands and found no blood, though it hurt like any one of the Ten Hells. I sat in the middle of a wide stream of light and I looked up to see Charlie poking his head out from what was recently the floor under my feet. Charlie was scared; he was breathing faster and faster and screamed my name a half dozen times or more before asking if I was okay.
"I'm fine! Fetch me down a ladder or a rope!" I called.
"Thanks the Gods! I thought you were dead. Let me find you something," he said and I heard him clatter around for a minute or more before his head popped back into view. "There's nothing up here long enough." He looked mighty sorry. Not as sorry as he was going to be if he didn't find something quick.
"What about your coat?"
"That won’t reach you."
"Well, you could try!"
"It's not long enough, Lady Sam."
"Don't you Lady Sam me, Mister! You're supposed to be my protector and now I’m in a hole!"
He looked hurt and I would have felt sorry for barking at him, but my hind end hurt and I wanted him to feel at least a little responsible.
"Is there something down there we can use?"
I got up and dusted off my trousers and began to creep outside of the strip of light into the greater dark beyond. I was in a room larger than the one above. This one had a smooth stone floor that had grayish black tiger stripes swirling about it. It was so dark I could not make out the walls. With my hands out in front of me I stepped out of the light and I tried to swing my arms around at something. What I would have done if I had found something, I do not know. Instead, I found only the quiet and the echoes of my footfalls coming back to me from the darkness. I eventually managed to bump into a stone wall, rough and cracked. I felt along it, but I realized that I was straying far from my light and I didn't want to go farther. It was cold down there and all the darkness had me thinking that there was something out there besides it. I ran back to the light and yelled up at Charlie, "There's nothing down here! Find something to get me up!"
"You sure? You were gone just a minute."
"Okay, sorry. What are we going to do? Should I go get help?"
"No! Absolutely not!" I snapped at him. The last thing I wanted was Papa to come rescue me with half the city guard and those stupid Lords and Gods know who else! It was better to stay there and be eaten by whatever was lurking in the darkness, or so I thought. I still had my courage, being that it was still daylight out and Charlie was still there. I heard him rumble around and cuss twice or thrice before a musty brown length of cloth tumbled down the hole and into the room. It was long enough to touch the floor and I could have kissed that boy for his genius.
"Hold on! It ain't tied off good enough." He said through the hole. He was all smiles and he probably thought he was going to get that kiss he had missed out on earlier. And if this worked he was right, I'd kiss a goat if it got me out of this mess.
"There ya go!" he yelled and I wrapped my hand around the skeleton's blanket and hoisted myself up. With only the faintest tearing sound the blanket positively burst open, sending a shower of filthy old crud on me. The cloth was so old it could not support me in the least. The rip was right at the halfway point and it was now too short to be tied off. Charlie looked upset with himself, but no more than I felt with myself. This was all my dumb idea and now I would have to spend my life in a hole! Perhaps Charlie would like to come down to make it less scary. I was prepared to ask him when he popped his head in and said, "I'm going for help."
"No you don’t, Mister!" I screamed, but he was gone.
"Charlie! Charlie, you get back here this moment!"
But he did not answer and I heard him squeeze out the window. I listened to his footfalls as he ran down and away; he left me. He left me alone in the little shrinking circle of light, in the basement of a dying tower that was left behind by a race of people who had disappeared.
So I sat down and cried. Well, I was not really crying, it was more on account of my butt being hurt and all the dust in the air that was stinging my eyes. I thought about how angry I was at Charlie for abandoning me, and I wished he would have fallen in a hole on his way back to town.
I suppose I could have gone exploring, but it was awfully dark and stumbling around could have gotten me in worse shape if I was not careful. It was better to sit in the light and wait for rescue. I did not like the idea of being rescued, as it was a womanly thing to get into a situation in which I needed to be rescued at all!
I began to fidget and I wanted to pace around, but my little pool of light was rapidly diminishing. It was getting dark outside, and what would happen when the light disappeared and the darkness took over? What kind of evil spirit walked at night in such a place as this? It got me wondering and I decided to wonder while I held my little dagger in my hand. I gave it a few good swipes in the air; with that tiny knife in my hand I was about as deadly as a feather pillow.
"Salvay!" chirped a happy voice.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. That little devil must have fallen down here with me!
"Salvay!" it said again. This time followed by, "Kwee es."
I found the little thing buried in the dirt under my boot and, with curiosity getting the better of my judgement, I picked it up. For all I knew this little thing had killed the person that was upstairs. This was Tech, some device of the warlike Old Ones and their armies of copperheads. Turning the little thing over and over in my hand to keep my mind off the fact that I was in a hole, I must have been talking to myself as the little thing lit up in green and said, in a happy voice, "O! You speak Inglish!" Well, I startled like a spring colt and threw that little thing into the blackness as an icy chill spread down my back. I hugged my knees and pointed my knife at the little Tech to defend myself.
"Hello!" chirped the darkness.
I ignored it, or tried to. Tech was the work of the old devils.
"Hello! Do you speak Inglish?" chirped the voice. It pronounced Anglish wrong and had the strangest accent I had ever heard.
"Go away!" I cried.
"I want to be your friend!" squealed the voice.
"I do not wish to be yours."
"Because you are Tech! Now go away!"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"You are a devil! Understand that!"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
I decided to ignore it and instead I stared up imploringly at the hole, willing Papa to appear. Even Charlie, that traitorous snake, would be a welcome sight. The Tech voice became quiet, but my head kept wondering about it. How did the Old Ones get such a voice into the little box? The Old Ones were a warlike society who believed in wrong gods and consorted with copperheads, why did that thing want to be my friend?
An hour or more later it was clear I would not be rescued before nightfall. I knew, as well as anyone, that the ruins were too dangerous to walk in while it was dark. Papa would probably come anyway, but what if he was hurt or injured on my account? What if he fell into a hole of his own and I never got out, and he never got out, and then we would both die in a hole?
That little voice chirped again, "It's getting dark, would you like a flashlight?"
"A what?" I asked.
At once the little thing lit up with a greenish light that illuminated the dark room. It was so bright I had to squint until my sight came back. Well, that made a world of difference! I could see the walls of the room and I saw one long hallway where a pile of boulders lay so thick that no one could get through. At least there was nothing coming to get me. It was amazing how a little light restored my courage.
Now that I could see, I got the grand idea to start bailing boulders from the hallway over to my hole and maybe, I thought, I could make a pile big enough to climb up and get out of there. I put my little knife away and started piling them up while wondering where Charlie had gotten to and whether I was right about Charlie or Papa being in a hole.
"My bad tree is dying," chirped the voice so suddenly I nearly dropped a boulder on my foot.
"Your what is what?" I asked.
"My bad tree is dying." It replied, it sounded sad.
"I do not understand." I was getting frustrated, but that light was the only thing that kept me from panicking. The light flickered once and came back paler, cooler.
"Flashlight!" I yelled at the thing.
"Flashlight not available. Sorry, my bad tree is dying."
I reckoned it was either try to fix the little monster or sit in the dark waiting for rescue. I sighed, as I do when I'm concentrating, and I picked the little thing up out of the dirt and saw that its face was still bright enough that I couldn't look into it. I flipped it over, not seeing anything at all; no buttons or switches or wires—nothing. I held the light up in my palm and said, "What is a bad tree?"
"My bad tree is charging." It flicked from pale to bright again, brighter than before, it seemed. "What is your name?" it said and I opened my mouth, but instead of my voice something above me answered.
I whispered the command at the little light and it flicked off instantly. Better safe than sorry; I did not want to be caught Tech-handed, as it were.
Now in utter darkness, with not so much as the moon above me, I held my breath, hoping to see a friendly face, but somehow knowing that whatever made the sound was no friend. I heard huffing. Like someone breathing in hard, short gasps.
I backed away from the hole and bumped into a wall, trying to disappear into the darkness. Whatever was up there, it was getting close.
My body wanted me to shut my eyes, but I forced them open, though there was nothing to see but a faint glow from above. The huffing grew louder, and was accompanied now with scratching sounds, so I grasped for my tiny knife and I silently willed whatever it was to leave me alone. I heard the roof above my head creak and watched bits of dust float down, barely visible against the glow afore me.
Huffing and silence. Then huffing again. Was that me? I thought. Is that my own breath? I'm hearing my fear? I forced myself to gulp in a quick breath and waited, heart pounding. Staring up, my eyes adjusted to the thin rays of moonlight. I could just make out the hole and the window above, its edges bordered in pale light. A shadow crossed the window and all at once my body became a thing of opposites. My feet were stone, my legs were mud, my mouth was dry, and my hands were wet. The only thing that seemed to work was my brain, which was working too well. It was already being very helpful by imagining that I was about to have things torn from me in a deliberate and slobbery manner.
The shadow moved again and again, sniffing and panting, like a very large dog. Or a wulf. I had never seen a wulf up close. They were hunted and chased from towns and farms because of their enormous size and their unending appetite for horse, cow, sheep, and man. And running was not possible, fighting less so, but dying seemed like the worst of the three.
"Would you like a flashlight?" Came the green voice and I startled near out of my skin.
Then above me a snarl came, a deep awful snarl, the kind that you feel more than hear. It was now or never. I raised the little Tech toward the beast and yelled, "Flashlight!"
In a moment, still perfect in my mind's eye, the room lit up pale green and every stone piled up, every puff of dust, every broken beam above, and even the ragged end of the old blanket Charlie tied—all of it was perfectly preserved in my mind. In the center of it all was a black mass of fur and teeth springing towards me with its paws extended, mouth open, and eyes wild. Suddenly my wind was knocked from my chest by a violent collision, like hitting the ground from off a tall horse, and then blackness.
"Sam!" I heard and it didn't sound like Papa, but what the hell, it was somebody!
"Down here!" I shouted or thought I did. I doubt it was louder than a cricket's chirp.
There was a flurry of shouting and men clanking around in armour, swearing and cussing. I finally heard Charlie shout and then warnings shouted back and forth with several indistinct grunts.
"Has she got a torch?" The voices got closer.
"What is that light?" I overheard.
My arm was stuck down against my body, but I commanded the Tech to turn off and gratefully it did, just as the first flicker of torchlight found its way to me. I wanted to cry out again, but I was having such a hard time breathing that I thought I might pass out. That was my last thought before I actually did, for I dreamt then and did not wake for two days on account of a smack to the back of my head from the savage beast I had slain.
As I slept I had a curious dream that I was clapped in iron chains for using that little light, though I argued that it saved my life. The judge was Lord Ember and he yelled and banged his rifle butt on the floor, screaming for my hanging as a radical sympathizer and a lover of Tech, complicit with the copperheads. I pleaded with him to see reason; how could Tech be evil if it saved me from the wulf, but he thundered about heresy and treason and levelled his rifle. I found myself suddenly holding the little light in my hand again and thrusting it towards him yelling, "Flashlight!" as the rifle’s mouth aimed at my eye. Then I gasped for breath and awoke to find myself in the castle once more, safe in my bed.
Charlie was there when I awoke. He looked older by several years. When he tried to apologize I ignored him and he looked as though I had stepped on his dog. I would forgive him before I left Westphalia and we became friends again, I just made him work for it.
Later on, Charlie did me a favour that helped him make amends for abandoning me. A guard asked about the green light they had seen emanating from the room and I must have been redder than a spring beet, but Charlie jumped in and said that it must have been a helpful spirit keeping guard on an unfortunate young woman. I agreed that yes, that must have been it, and the guard seemed satisfied, saying only that I was lucky that a good spirit had found me before a bad one.
When I finally let him speak to me, Charlie told me that the wulf had driven himself right onto my knife, which pierced his throat and killed him. His body lay upon me, suffocating me when I was found. It took three guards to pull him off, but only one to bear me up a ladder to safety. The same ladder then acted as a litter and I was borne to the castle. Of course, there was hell to pay with Papa; he was just quiet, as he always was when he was truly angry. I tried every explanation I could think of and eventually I just settled with the truth: I had basically threatened Charlie into going with me on an adventure into the forbidden place.
When we were alone, near the end of our visit, we finally had it out.
"Sam," he said, "you killed a hell of a big wulf."
I smiled, thinking he was proud of me, which maybe he was.
"But," he continued, "you should have never gone into the ruins like that. You endangered yourself, you endangered Charlie, and you endangered all the good people who came after you. Those old towers are deadly traps. They are so old it’s a wonder they stand up, yet you still went climbing around inside despite the warnings, despite Charlie telling you to stay out. But exploring was not enough, was it? You disturbed someone's death bed and you stole this." He produced the little Tech from his jacket pocket. It was dull, lifeless, and I was certain he had tinkered with it to turn it off. I just looked at the wall and whispered some apology while he continued. "This little thing. Do you know what it is?"
"This is an excuse for them to hang you. To hang us both. I don’t mean to trouble you with my problems, but I have friends and enemies alike on the council. If you were caught with Tech like this it would mean serious trouble for the both of us; trouble that I may not be able to resist. Now, do you know what this is?"
"It's a time watch. It goes here; face up on your wrist. It used to have a strap on both sides that came around and buckled together to keep it in place. I have found many, but they never function. This one has a dead battery."
I could tell he was fascinated by the thing. In fact, he was so fascinated he forgot how angry he was with me. He shoved it in his pocket and said, "You're safe and that's all that matters in the end. We only have three days left before we return to the Landing and if you want to live to see it, I suggest you spend them right here in your room." With a threat like that I decided to do as he said... mostly. That is to say that I waited a whole two hours before I got the itch to explore again, but this time I didn’t get caught.