We continue with a preview of the feature story in my new collection of short stories, which will be out probably the beginning of next week. Enjoy.
Eleanor spent the next several years as a celebrity in Zymont. While father Webber Machard and great-uncle Drake did what they could to make money by doing odd jobs, Webb’s passion for invention continued, and slowly drew the attention of some of the wealthy merchants in town.
As Eleanor grew older, she also grew more beautiful and intelligent every day. Webb and Drake lived in the poorer part of town, which also was the most international part of Zymont, and it wasn’t long before Eleanor became fluent in several different languages.
The biggest challenge for Webb—and secretly his biggest joy—was Eleanor’s insatiable curiosity. She never stopped asking questions. At age five, she had already read through Webb’s small library of books on physics and mathematics, had borrowed others on navigation from Drake and when she made friends with neighbors, would inevitable borrow theirs as well.
And then the day came when Ingo Behall, a friend and international merchant, invited Webb to visit with the Sinti traders who were camped outside the gates of Zymont. Webb agreed, and on a whim, invited Eleanor to come with them. She jumped at the chance. Ingo smiled and tried to answer all of Eleanor’s questions, but eventually got tired of answering them. For the sake of courtesy, Webb had to order her to be quiet.
Webb didn’t know what to expect, having lived with a variety of other races and migrant peoples in his part of town. But he was still surprised when he came into the Sinti camp. They were met at the edge of the camp by a young man who wore crossed blades stuck into his belt, and a bow over his shoulder. Webb also noticed that his right earlobe was missing. A small boy stood next to him, trying very hard to copy his father in every action.
“I am Sani, son of Rovati,” the man said, then gestured to the boy. “This is my son Veijo. I will be your translator.” He led the men into a circle of other Sinti traders. Webb followed Sani and Ingo into the center of the ring. Ingo bowed to the men, then rolled out a blanket with a variety of devices and implements to share with the Sinti. Not to be outdone, Webb opened a bag with a few of his inventions for the Sinti to look at. The older men were not interested in Webb’s devices, but Sani picked up a metal object and began turning it over in his hand. Webb watched silently as Sani inspected it.
“What is it?” he finally asked.
“It makes toast from bread,” Webb said. “See you sit it on your stove and put bread in it. After a minute or two, the bread becomes toast.”
“The Sinti do not eat bread,” Sani said finally, handing the metal box back to Webb. “Is this what you do? You make things that people don’t need?”
Webb shrugged. “I’m an inventor, yes. But usually people want what I invent. I would wager that if I stayed with your race and learned how you live, I could make things that you would need.”
Sani shrugged in return. “Perhaps, but you would miss your people.”
Webb looked back toward town. “Not as much as you might think.” He looked over his wire-rimmed glasses at Eleanor and Veijo. “It appears your daughter and my son have become friends. Of course, that’s to be expected when my daughter is involved.”
Sani looked at the two children, who stood a distance away, apparently talking and gesturing. “I do not understand. Veijo does not speak your language.”
Webb smiled. “That never stopped Eleanor before.”
Sani watched them carrying on their conversation at length. Finally he turned and looked at Webb.
“If you are willing, I will talk to the tribal council about the two of you joining us. It would be an honor for us to learn more about your ‘inventions’ and the daughter you call ‘Eleanor.’”
Webb grinned. “The honor would be all mine.”
The Sinti remained camped outside the gates of Zymont for another two weeks, which gave Webb the opportunity to make arrangement for his and Eleanor’s departure. The Zymont council agreed that his accompanying the Sinti would not only be a great opportunity for Eleanor to learn and grow, but that it would serve as a bridge between two races who for many years had distrusted each other.
Sani told Webb that eventually they would be traveling to the great hidden city of Vashiri, which lay in the depths of the Kesali Forest to the south. But before that, they would be visiting the Crae in their holdfast in the north among the Craeia Mountains. In order to do both of those, Webb would need to be officially accepted as a member of the tribe. When Webb asked Sani what that entailed, he received no answer, so he didn’t pursue it. And yet he wondered to himself if he would be up to the challenge.
When the day came to leave, Webb and Eleanor took their two small ponies and their mule to the camp to join the Sinti. Sani and Veijo walked along the road to the north as Webb and Eleanor rode beside them.
“Can I ask a question?” Webb said to Sani.
“It is usually your daughter who is asking the questions, but go ahead and ask.”
“Why is it that I see very few Sinti riding horses?”
“They don’t want to insult the animals,” Eleanor said from the other side. Webb started to laugh, but Sani spoke up.
“It is true,” he said. “We are one with the earth. We are brothers with the birds and the beasts. Why must we force them to work for us?”
“Well, don’t you feed them?” Webb asked. “Where I come from, if you want to eat, you have to work.”
“And our friends do work with us. They help to plow our fields. The dogs help guard our camps. But we do not force them.” He gestured ahead to the few horses that followed the trail ahead of them. “Those horses who carry people do it because it is their own idea. They have bonded with their riders. There are no servants, no masters here. Only friends.”
Webb looked at Sani, then at Eleanor.
“I hope to learn soon to talk to the animals like the Sinti do,” Eleanor said.
“I have not doubt that she will learn to do so, and quickly,” said Sani.
Webb raised an eyebrow. “It seems I have a lot to learn as well.”
* * *
It was a long way to travel by foot and by pony to the Craeia Mountains, and that gave Webb and Eleanor lots of time to learn about the Sinti, and about the Crae as well. In addition Sani, and others of the tribe, were curious about Webb and why he was traveling with a daughter that was obviously not an Aeryan. Webb sat around the campfire a few weeks into their trip and told the story of the balloon and the baby that fell from the sky. The Sinti had a harder time believing that a device could make it possible for a man to fly than the story of a baby falling from a city in the clouds.
“They live up there, you know,” Webb said. “That’s where Eleanor is from, and someday that’s where I will take her back.”
“Why didn’t you take her back when she fell?” one old woman asked.
“It was too high. Not only does it take a special gas to lift the balloon high enough to reach the city, we needed a way to breathe up there. And I need a more reliable source of energy to power the engines of my airship.”
Sani nodded. “We have traded with the Esperians. It doesn’t happen often, but once every few years, they ask for something they cannot create themselves. That is the benefit of being Sinti. No one respects us, but no one fears us either. Because of that, we can meet and trade with just about anyone.” His face became thoughtful and he looked around the circle at the older men there.
“Gone are the days when we were considered mighty warriors.” He looked at Webb and the lips grew tight around his mouth. “But very soon we will visit those days, and you will get your chance to become one of us.”
Webb looked closely at his friend, and then the others, who had consistently refused to tell him what his challenge would be, and a growing sense of dread filled him.
“I hope I am up to the challenge,” he said quietly.
Sani looked at the older traders around him, who spoke to each other in their language before Sani turned back to Webb.
“When the challenge is over, and you are one of us, we will help you,” Sani said. “The Crae have many magical objects and abilities. So do the Sireni, those who live beneath the waves. Perhaps there is hidden somewhere the ability to make your dream happen.”
* * *
They traveled through the late summer months and through the fall, ever northward toward the Craeia Mountains. One morning Webb sat on his pony and could see their faint outlines on the distant horizon, with the Winding River shimmering like a silver ribbon traveling across the plain and stretching toward their destination.
It was just a few days later that the small party of merchants arrived at a camp on the shores of the Winding River. It was the greatest number of Sinti that Webb had ever seen in one place. Their tents stretched as far as the eye could see toward the north along both sides of the river. Small canoe-like boats lined the riverbank, and a rickety wooden bridge crossed at a chokepoint in the river.
Webb also saw something else. Sani paused at a clearing not too far from the river, and Webb caught himself standing before a dozen tall posts that rose twenty feet in the air. His sense of foreboding returned, and he looked at Sani expectantly. Sani grinned and nodded at Webb.
“This is the place of your challenge,” he said. “It will happen tomorrow. Tonight you must rest.”
Webb tried to sleep that night in the tent that he had brought for Eleanor and him, but sleep was slow in coming. Instead he heard the sound of singing and dancing all night. He wondered if it would be his last night to celebrate anything.
When dawn arrived, Sani came to him, throwing back the flap of his tent.
“It is morning, and the greatest day of your life,” he said, smiling. “With your mighty brain and your great courage, I have no doubt that you will prevail today.”
Webb sighed as he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Behind him, Eleanor was already dressed.
“It’s good you have such confidence in me,” Webb said. “That makes one of us.”
“Because you are an outsider and have never seen the ritual, I have been given permission to tell you what will happen.” Webb pulled his trousers on, buttoned his shirt and followed Eleanor and Sani out of the tent. Sani gestured to the tall poles that towered above them.
“Today you will be required to climb the poles and sit or stand on the top,” Sani said.
“I’m not a real climber, but it sounds doable,” Webb said.
“Only one challenger will become a true warrior during each challenge,” Sani said. “And this year, only one challenge will be held.”
“All right, so I have to be better than the other guys,” Webb said. “I climb the pole and then what?”
“Simple. You remain on top longer than anyone else.”
Sani went on to explain that the participants were allowed to take anything they wanted up with them. Webb noticed the others preparing makeshift backpacks and he started to do the same. But then he paused and furrowed his brow, thinking. What does one take to the top of a pole? The others were beginning to line up for the official start, but he found himself still thinking. Those who had seen this done before had months, if not years, to consider what they would take with them. He had only a few minutes.
Finally, he chose four things: a wide straw hat that he had taken to wearing in the hot sun of the plains, a wide leather belt and buckle that had belonged to his Uncle Drake and which was way too big for him, a thin rope and a small metal contraption that had been a plaything for Eleanor and the other children. And then he joined the others in the line.
The elder in charge raised his voice in supplication and then bowed to each of the participants in turn. When the old man got to Webb, he paused and a disapproving frown came to his face, but Webb ignored him.
“Spoda,” he heard the old man say finally, and the others ran for their poles. Webb took his time, studying the one pole that had been left for him. It had been shunned by the others, and now he saw why. Where the others had chosen poles that had knots and small branches sticking out, and were smaller so that one could wrap their arms and legs around, his was smooth all the way to the top and was thick around as he was.
As the others scurried to the top, some of them falling off part way and beginning again, Webb wiped his sweaty hands on his shirt, ran his fingers through his thin mustache one last time, then pulled out the wide belt that he had with him. He had not taken the time to put his shoes on, and he threw them over his shoulder. Then barefoot, he threw the belt around the back of the pole and caught it with his other hand. He pulled against the pole and the belt grew tight. Then he braced his bare feet against the pole and steadied himself. When his feet were braced, he shifted the belt higher on the pole and wormed his way up the pole.
It took him a good 20 minutes to reach the top, and when he did, he realized that he was about the fifth person to climb that far. An hour later, all of the poles had participants at the top.
He had never had very good balance, and that was his first concern—falling. He sat on top of his pole, which was about a foot across at the top. He knew that there were tricks to surviving this event, and so he determined to watch the others and learn.
Several of the Sindi had brought water and dried fruit and meat to eat while they sat up there, and Webb chided himself for not thinking of that, but then realized that he didn’t have any dried food to take up there to begin with.
Another big Sindi youth opened his backpack, which Webb learned was full of rocks. He soon got to work throwing rocks at the other participants, trying to get them to fall off. Two of them did fall off, and Webb cringed as they fell the 20 feet to the ground. A third almost fell, but caught himself just in time.
Then the youth with the rocks started throwing rocks in Webb’s direction. The trouble was, Webb was quite a ways away. On the fourth try, his rock hit just below Webb’s foot, but Webb saw that with each throw, the youth’s pole had begun to sway.
“Eleanor,” Webb said to the girl standing far below him. “Taunt him. Tell him to throw it harder.”
Eleanor looked up at Webb and nodded, then shouted in Sindi, something that made many of those watching laugh. The youth frowned at the little girl, then threw the rock as hard as he could. When he did that, his pole swayed tremendously, and the youth lost his balance and fell. Those watching laughed, and Webb joined them.
“I told him I could throw harder than him,” Eleanor told Webb.
“Perhaps you could,” Webb said. “But I am more interested in your brains than the strength of your arm. Don’t go too far, little Eleanor.”
“You know I won’t, Daddy,” she said. Webb was stunned, because that was the first time he had heard her call him that.
Webb had sensed that those who were serious competitors were prepared for an event that would take many days. The competitor two poles over appeared to be the smartest, most prepared one. While others had brought food and water, he simply brought a rope. When he got thirsty or hungry, he shouted for his brother below him to tie a bottle of water or a bag of food to the bottom, which he then hauled up to the top.
Webb had the same idea, but realized that there were inherent dangers in doing that, such as losing your balance if the item you are bringing up was too heavy. And he learned there were other dangers as well.
Because of this, Webb unveiled his metal contraption and anchored it to the top of the pole.
“What are you doing with that toy?” Sani asked him.
“It’s not a toy,” Webb said. “It’s called a pulley. And it means that the person on the ground can lift food and water up to me in larger quantities.”
After Webb attached the thin rope to it, Eleanor helped him demonstrate it by attaching a bottle of water to one end and pulling on the other, delivering water to him without him losing his balance.
Webb had learned that the Sinti were big on gambling, and such a competition was a good opportunity for people to bet on who would win. In addition, a lottery was drawn up to determine how long each participant would remain on their pole. Webb learned that most didn’t think he would make it past the second day, while his competition, the smart one they called Flett, was expected to remain up there two weeks.
“Two weeks,” Webb muttered to himself by the second day. “I can’t sit up here for two days.” He had worried about falling off the first night, which one youth had done, and so he lashed himself to the top of the pole with the belt. But he knew that the elements, especially the harsh sun, would make it impossible for him to stay up that long.
But he need not have worried. Those on the ground got tired of the marathon sessions on top of the poles and began throwing things and shaking the poles. Webb’s was the stoutest pole, so even though he was worried about his balance, and many tried to shake it, Webb was secure. By the time it grew dark the second night, he and Flett were the only ones still on their poles.
When Webb grew tired, he again lashed himself to the top of the pole, but knew in his heart that the next day would be his last. Eleanor and even his friend Sani sent food and water up to him, but the heat and the effort it took to balance on a pole was taking its toll on him. He struggled to find sleep that night, but somehow closed his eyes for a few hours.
He awoke to the sound of cheering the next morning. He opened his eyes and saw that his pole was surrounded by people.
“Come down,” Sani said. “You’ve won.”
“What?” Webb said. “How?”
“Flett fell this morning when he was trying to haul up his breakfast. Someone must have pulled on the rope,” Sani said, then looked over at Eleanor. “Which is surprising, because he always had such good balance.”
Eleanor, just turned six, held her hand over her mouth, then giggled. “Well, I might have helped a little.”
“How do I get down?” Webb said, relieved that it was over. “I don’t think I have the strength to climb down.”
Sani smiled up at him. “We have a tradition for that as well.” Webb watched as a dozen women unfurled a large blanket beneath him. They then beckoned him to jump down into it. The women didn’t look very strong, but with Sani’s encouragement, Webb leaped forward and into the blanket, and the crowd cheered.
An hour later, Webb stood before the elder’s council. He had shed his Aeryan clothing and wore the buckskins of the Sinti. Even Eleanor was dressed as a Sinti. Sani stood close by and translated as the elders spoke. Finally the chief stepped forward with a knife and quickly cut the earlobe from Webb’s right ear. Before he had a chance to yelp or even feel it, two women stepped forward and pressed ice to the cut ear, which dulled the pain and stopped the blood flow.
Sani slapped Webb on the shoulder. “Now you are truly my brother!” Others stepped forward to congratulate Webb. Webb accepted their congratulations, but watched Eleanor, who stood nearby, smiling broadly.
* * *